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Homeless Young People (London)

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

3.48 am

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East) : Fifteen years ago, in my formative years as a young Socialist, one of the books that had a major effect on me was George Orwell's "Down and Out in Paris and London". In it Orwell describes the "spike", the place of last refuge for the homeless in the 1930s.

Today, in 1989--50 years after Orwell, after 10 years of Maggie's Britain and in the sixth or seventh consecutive year of successful economic growth, according to the Chancellor--the "spike" has been replaced by the "cardboard city" at Waterloo. There and elsewhere in the capital, surveys suggest that more than 3,000 people--a figure that has doubled in the past 18 months--are sleeping rough. Abject poverty among Rolls-Royces and five- star hotels makes a mockery of the words of the Secretary of State for Social Security on 11 May this year :

"It is clear that people at all income levels now have substantially more money to spend in real terms than they did in the 1970s not only are those with lower incomes not getting poorer, they are substantially better off than they have ever been before". It is true that one section of society has benefited massively recently. Boardroom directors have received an average pay rise of 27 per cent.--faster than at any time this century. Among a dozen examples of the "I'm all right, Sir Jack" society is Sir David Scholey of the firm S. G. Warburg, who has just had a rise of take- home pay of 328 per cent.

In contrast, child benefit has been frozen and benefits for 16 and 17-year- olds axed completely, while the benefit rate for 18 to 24-year-olds is even less than the YTS rate, and at £27.50 is £7.50 less than the benefit received by those aged 25 and over. That impoverishes young people trying to live independently who, out of a pittance in benefit, have to pay water rates and 20 per cent. of general rates.

Those changes and others arrived in April 1988 and hammered millions of working-class people. They are the main contributing factors to the rise in young homeless people. Many families in Coventry lost £20 or more in housing benefit.

Under the old supplementary benefit system, young people were paid benefit in advance and therefore were able to pay for

board-and-lodging accommodation immediately. In April 1988, that was changed to benefit paid fortnightly in arrears. It is impossible for many young people to get together the hundreds of pounds of advance rent and bond or surety required by many landlords. Their homelessness is directly Government-inspired.

Ten months ago, in September 1988, all 16 and 17-year-olds not on a YTS scheme lost all entitlement to income support. In the first three months of withdrawal of benefits--to conscript youngsters to the slave labour YTS scheme--only 1,269 discretionary severe hardship payments were accepted throughout the country, 215 of them in the London area. Thousands received nothing. A typical case was a 17-year-old Coventry lad, Terry Flowers, whom I mentioned in the House on December 5 last year, who, two months before his 18th birthday at Christmas 1988, was refused all benefit, although he had no chance of a

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YTS place in competition with 16-year-olds who had two full years to give. He had no money for eight weeks and was advised by the DSS to try the Salvation Army.

In desperation, many youngsters come to London, hoping for work. After a few weeks they have little option other than begging, prostitution or both. They get little help from the harassed DSS officials. In 1979 there was an average of 50 cases per DSS worker ; now, the figure is more than 80. In some London offices, it is no wonder that the annual staff turnover is more than 100 per cent. Last Tuesday, the National Children's Home released a major piece of research by the NCH-run "young runaways" project. The director of social work at the NCH is Tom White, the former director of Coventry's social services. That report showed, in measured words, that

"there is remarkably little accommodation and support made available to vulnerable young homeless people by Housing Authorities in Great Britain today The safety net for young vulnerable people, embodied in the homelessness legislation is, apparently, no longer intact."

Eighty-five per cent. of housing authorities responded to that survey, which was conducted in the summer of 1987.

Young people at risk of sexual or financial exploitation, like hundreds now being prosecuted throughout London for vagrancy, are specified in homelessness legislation guidelines as eligible for housing. Yet one in five housing authorities said that a girl under 18 open to sexual and financial exploitation was not vulnerable, and half the authorities would not deem as vulnerable a young homeless care leaver, a young homeless person with no parents and no support, or a young homeless person under a probation order. Many of them explained that the shortage of council housing for homeless families meant that, no matter what the risk, young, single homeless people did not get a look in.

The NCH report concludes that 10 years ago, most young single people in housing need had a range of options, but today there is almost a complete absence of permanent and decent low-cost accommodation. Recent laws, such as the Housing Act 1988 and the Local Government Housing Bill, coupled with the draconian effects of the poll tax, will exacerbate that position. The report castigates the Government's social security cuts, especially as they affect young people. In that it backs up last year's Barnardo's report and more recent reports such as "Farewell to Welfare" by the West Midlands Welfare Rights Agency.

In September 1987, the Children's Society estimated the number of young people who go missing each year. It wrote in a report : "Young people on the streets with nowhere to sleep, especially in the West End of London or other inner city areas, are clearly vulnerable and at risk. Many have left home because of family tensions aggravated by overcrowded housing, poverty, unemployment, or physical or sexual abuse. They are usually lonely, frightened, cold and penniless and often exposed to sexual exploitation, petty crimes and drug misuse. In 1986, the Children's Society contacted all the chief police officers in the United Kingdom to try to estimate the size of the problem of missing and runaway children and young people. The nearest estimate, based on responses from half the police forces, was that 75,000-85,000 young people go missing every year Many will survive by sleeping rough in alleyways, doorways or abandoned cars". As if that was not enough, we learn from leaks in The Times today of further financial harassment of the young

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homeless by a Government plan to restrict the payment of housing benefit to people living in their home area. The Department of Environment plan will discourage people from flocking to the big cities and is already causing difficulties and differences within the Cabinet, we hear. The Treasury is keen on the move, as it would reduce the rising bed-and-breakfast costs faced by councils putting up homeless families. Not surprisingly, it has the backing of the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Prime Minister, who see it as a way of reducing the growing number of the homeless in London itself.

Added to that financial harassment, there is the existing physical harassment against homeless young people through sections 3 and 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824. It is one of the most archaic and arcane pieces of legislation still on the statute book. It speaks of the "idle and disorderly", of "rogues and vagabonds" and of "incorrigible rogues". According to Lionel Rose's book, section 4 was aimed at "the suspect characters the law could not pin specific crimes on but who were apparently up to no good".

He gives as examples :

" Every suspected person or reputed thief' frequenting dock areas or public highways with intent to commit a felony' ; and those who wandered abroad' (that is, slept out) without visible means of subsistence and unable to give a good account of themselves." Rose goes on to explain :

"The Act continued the principle from earlier statutes of presuming the guilt of Section 4 defendants from their conduct, and the onus was on them to explain themselves ; this runs counter to the general presumption of innocence in British criminal prosecution." The Act has since been variously described as

"simply a measure of repression"

and "purely coercive." That is certainly its role today. thousands of youngsters attracted to the big cities like London in a desperate search for work, or forced to leave home because of the breakdown of relationships with parents, are now found homeless. Estimates were given today in the Lords of 150,000 homeless teenagers in this so-called modern, affluent country, with one third of that number--a staggering 50,000--in London itself, without decent, clean, permanent and cheap accommodation--without, in fact, a home.

One example of that was a girl of 17 interviewed on the BBC television programme "On the Record" on 19 February 1989. Her name was Ris Williams. She spoke of leaving home a year and a half ago when she was coming up for 16, how she had been in care for about a year and how she had tried to go back to her mother's, stayed for two or three weeks, but left again having been abused by her father. She had been on the street ever since, begging because her benefit was stopped in December ; and, because it was illegal, she had been nicked for it loads of times and got a £10 fine. She had to beg the money to pay off the fine and then got nicked begging the money to pay off the fine. She said :

"it's just catch 22--a vicious circle."

The available statistics on prosecutions under sections 3 and 4 of the 1824 Act seem very low. The latest figures relate to 1987, despite my parliamentary questions in the past three months seeking more recent statistics. The figures show that, in 1987, 466 people in England and Wales were prosecuted for begging, of which 416--that is, 89 per cent.--were in London alone. The figure for those prosecuted for sleeping out in England and Wales was 14.

I believe that the closest magistrates court to the House of Commons is at Horseferry road, a few hundred yards

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away. In 1987, 55 people were prosecuted for there begging and 53 were found guilty. That was in the year before the social security changes. The figure for Horseferry road magistrates court was about one conviction a week. When I spoke as recently as five or six hours ago to barristers and solicitors who have worked recently at Horseferry road, they talked about an explosion of that offence from one a week to it not being unusual for four or five youngsters to be seen in a single morning, and to be fined £10 or a day in custody--which, in many cases, they are deemed to have served overnight in the police cells.

Their hunger has led to begging, but their crime is not begging ; it is poverty. The escalating problem of young people wanting work and ending up sleeping rough and of the mentally ill or alcoholic being hounded by 19th- century coercive and repressive legislation is a disgrace.

The cost of a solicitor from the Crown prosecution service is almost £15 per hour. Use of a private solicitor costs between £85 and £150 for half a day. Does the Minister think it a good use of taxpayers' money for the Metropolitan police to arrest, detain and process such youngsters and for the Crown prosecution service to prosecute them? How much a year is it costing? Would it not be better to use that money to provide decent accommodation and decent benefits?

At the beginning of the 1980s, the Labour Member of Parliament Jock Stallard tried to introduce a Bill to abolish the begging and sleeping-out provisions of the Vagrancy Act. With the increasing scandal of its escalating use, the time is right, perhaps in the next Session, for a further attempt to be made. I believe that to that should be added the abolition of the restrictions preventing young people from registering on local authority housing lists and, indeed, for priority to be given to 16 to 18-year-olds.

There should also be provision for the control of the bed-and-breakfast hotels that are used by DSS claimants in order to prevent the profiteering of multiple occupation ; for the immediate payment of board and lodging allowances, instead of payment in arrears as at present ; for decent benefits for young people, without the disparity between the under-25s and the over-25s ; for those benefits to be paid at two thirds of average earnings to allow people to live, not barely exist ; and for a crash building programme, which I believe should include the municipalisation of corporately owned property.

The scandal of homelessness should be one of the easiest problems to solve. It requires planning and, in my view, public ownership and the planning of the economy, not the Government's use of market forces. Market forces create the Nicholas Hoogstratens of this world, for whom rising property values, especially in London, of 16 per cent. per year in the past eight years, have meant that the capital value of property, when sold and investested, is far more valuable than rents, especially with the abysmally low social benefits on which countless people cannot afford to pay those rents.

Socialist planning could bring the 3 million unemployed, together with the building and construction industry, into public partnership, through public ownership. It could reverse the past 10 years of decline, which have left us with more than 1 million homes in Britain unfit for human habitation and a further 500,000 without basic amenities such as toilets or hot water. It

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could reverse the 70 per cent. rise in housing waiting lists, which now stand at over 1.25 million and it could reverse the three quarters fall in council house building.

It could also reverse the perverse slide of thousands of young people within a couple of miles of this Chamber, for whom the Catch 22 of no job means no home, and no permanent address means no job, who are drifting into crime, prostitution and drug abuse, who are being arrested, charged and sentenced under Dickensian poor laws, and who are building up a string of convictions which makes the chance of a prospective employer looking favourably upon them virtually impossible.

Those are the casualties of this Tory Government's slashing of benefits and of beneficial public spending. They are the victims of capitalism at its most obscene.

4.3 am

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean) : Does the hon. Gentleman have the agreement of the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) and of the Minister to intervene?

Mr. Corbyn : I do, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) for allowing me a few minutes of his debate, for succeeding in getting this debate and for putting on the record our concern about homelessness in London and about the way in which the Vagrancy Act 1824 is being used.

It is highly appropriate that we should be considering the Vagrancy Act 1824, because it was introduced in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars to criminalise homeless people--who were often thrown off land by illegal enclosures--who had moved to urban areas seeking work and a place to live. The Act gave the law enforcement authorities of the time enormous powers. That force and power is being used today against poor young people who, through no fault of their own, have nowhere to live. Anyone who travels around London or who lives in London--as I do--will believe that the situation is distressing and appalling.

Every day at Finsbury Park tube station, near where I live, there are many young people who busk and beg. They ask for the price of a cup of tea or for help to find bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I see many young people in those circumstances at my weekly constituency surgeries. They are very distressed that they cannot find anywhere to live in London. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East said that there are 50,000 homeless young people in London. I imagine that that figure is correct, if a little on the conservative side. A combination of factors have led to this appalling situation. For example, over the past 10 years, there has been a net loss of 31,000 council-owned properties in London. Secondly, the rent in the private sector for a one-bedroomed flat in London is on average £65 a week, although in many inner parts of London the rents are much higher. In my constituency, it is barely possible to find a shared bedsit for less than £50 a week. Those figures are correct and the prices are rising very quickly.

Very few London borough housing authorities can house single young people. They must give priority to the elderly, who are deemed to be extremely vulnerable--as indeed they are. They must also give priority to single

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parents who are also deemed to be vulnerable. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East referred to the problem with vulnerability which is a serious defect in the housing and homeless persons legislation. My hon. Friend referred to the research carried out by the National Children's Home, which has its head office in my constituency. We would all agree that the NCH is a reputable organisation which has done much work for the homeless.

The NCH research shows that over a fifth of the responding housing authorities said that a girl under 18 open to sexual and financial exploitation was not vulnerable. Half the responding housing authorities said that they would not deem as vulnerable a young person with no parents and no support. One in eight authorities said that they would. Over two fifths of responding authorities said that they would not consider as vulnerable a young person with serious family or relationship problems, while one fifth said that they would. There is a large area of discretion. From my experience as a councillor and now as a Member of Parliament in London for the past 15 years, the definitions in the homeless persons legislation have increasingly been drawn more narrowly, largely because of the inability of local authorities to build or buy on the open market. I deplore that.

Ten years ago, it was possible to get young people into hard-to-let accommodation. That is now impossible, and they are sleeping on the streets and are begging. In some parts of the country they are sad victims of the poll tax and of unemployment. They are also victims of broken homes and the lack of affordable housing in this capital city. Their tragedy is that they are criminalised through the use of the Vagrancy Act 1824 ; they are arrested, held in custody and subseqently fined. They are not criminals, they are victims. The Government should repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824, as they repealed the sus laws after a strong campaign. They must recognise that the lives of young people are often blighted by their initial experience of moving to London--that magnetic urban area where they think that they can find work and somewhere to live. Even if they can get a job, they cannot find anywhere to live. If they cannot find anywhere to live, they often cannot find a job because they cannot quote an address. All the agencies dealing with the young, single and vulnerable report that they are at breaking point. The staff and the doors are at breaking point. The whole system is collapsing. We need action to resolve this crisis.

4.9 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hogg) : The hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) has raised an important issue, and in reply I intend to concentrate primarily on those issues for which the Home Office has the lead responsibility--the provisions of the Vagrancy Act 1824. It would be helpful if I first set out what the Act seeks to achieve. Section 3 of the Act makes it an offence to be an unlicensed pedlar, a common prostitute behaving in a riotous or indecent manner or a beggar. The penalty on summary conviction is a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.

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Section 4 of the Act makes it an offence for a person to be fortune-telling with intent to deceive, sleeping rough, indecently exposing himself, gathering alms by exposing wounds or deformities, collecting for charity under false pretences, found on private property for an unlawful purpose, or violently resisting arrest for an offence under section 3. For these offences, the penalty on summary conviction is a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.

The whole Act has been subject to scrutiny in the recent past. In 1976, a Home Office working party examined the whole issue of vagrancy and street offences. It recommended the abolition of two offences--street trading without a licence and being a common prostitute behaving in a riotous or indecent manner--but it recommended the retention of a begging offence based on persistence, because beggars can be a nuisance--and, of course, some people may feel intimidated by them--and because they are not necessarily as destitute as they may claim, so that there may be an element of falsehood in their demands.

Similarly, the Select Committee on Home Affairs recommended in its third report in 1981 that the begging offence in the section of the Vagrancy Act to which I referred should be retained, at least for the time being. The Committee felt that the existence of the offence may well have helped to keep the problem of persistent begging within manageable proportions, but it expressed the hope that the wider availability of suitable accommodation would enable both the begging offence and the offence of sleeping rough under section 4 of the Act to be repealed within the foreseeable future.

Enforcing the Act is not an easy task for the police. The law itself is quite plain. It is an offence to sleep rough or to beg. It is also an offence to obstruct the highway, to be publicly drunk or to use illegal drugs, and the presence of any large group of people, some of whom are the worse for drink or drugs, may pose a threat to the peace. So the police cannot simply ignore these people and walk away.

Undoubtedly, the police apply the law sensibly. I am a little perplexed by the difference between the figures given by the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East and figures that I have in front of me. I shall look further at the matter, because the discrepancy is considerable and I have difficulty in reconciling the figures. The figures that I have are confined to the Metropolitan police area. I am told that, in 1988, the Metropolitan police arrested only 15 people for begging and none at all for sleeping rough. They may have dealt with many more who went unrecorded, but generally their policy is to arrest only when there is some element of threatening or intimidating behaviour. I accept that the figures that I have given are not compatible with those given by the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East. One of us must be wrong.

Mr. Nellist : My figures came form the Home Office annual statistics and were for 1987. My notes have now gone to the Official Report, but from memory there were 416 arrests under section 3 in the Metropolitan police area. It seems incredible, especially in view of the social security cuts, for the figure to fall as low as the figure that the Minister has given for the London area in 1988.

Mr. Hogg : The hon. Gentleman has said that the figures that he gave were for 1987. I accept his point that it is difficult to reconcile my figures with those given by the

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hon. Gentleman. It is plain that I must look at the matter again, because we cannot both be right. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with my conclusions.

Whenever they can, the Metropolitan police put young people in touch with social services departments and voluntary agencies that may be able to help them, and they keep closely in touch with those agencies. They are also taking part in some projects that are being run by voluntary agencies to help homeless youngsters.

When we consider the broader question of young people and housing, we need to recognise that the youngsters who sleep rough in central London do so for a variety of reasons. No doubt many of them have missed their opportunities throughout life. Perhaps they have come from a broken family, have left school without the basic skills to equip themselves for work or perhaps they lack the self-discipline required to find and hold down a job. They may be unaware of the opportunities that exist for skills training and for financial support through the social security system. But if we are also honest with ourselves, we will recognise that there are others who are perfectly capable of finding work but who prefer for a variety of reasons to live rough.

The Government believe that, in general, the best place for young people to live is at home with their relatives--and 85 per cent. do so. At the same time, we accept that there are some 16 and 17-year-olds who, for a good reason, need to live independently and require extra help to do so. The range of benefits available means that those young people who genuinely cannot live at home have the wherewithal to find alternative accommodation, either as a private tenant or in board and lodging.

All 16 and 17-year-olds are guaranteed the offer of a place on the youth training scheme. Trainees are entitled both to the basic YTS allowance of £29.50 in the first year and £35 per week in the second, and housing benefit on top if they are living away.

From this month, those young people's entitlement to housing benefit is being increased so as to offset some of the everyday expenses, particularly travelling costs, associated with taking up a YTS place. Sixteen and 17- year-olds who are in work will also receive that extra help through housing benefit.

Also from this month, payments made by local authorities to help young people leaving care will be ignored when calculating income support and housing benefit. Young people who have no living parent or guardian, or who are in local housing authority care, or who are in danger of physical or sexual abuse at home receive income support, and associated housing benefit, during the period between leaving school and finding either a job or a YTS place. The Government have also decided that those eligible for that temporary income support entitlement will also include those youngsters whose relationship with their parents has irretrievably broken down.

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My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services has the power to direct that, in cases of unavoidably "severe hardship", income support will be made available to any young person who would not otherwise be eligible. All such claims are considered on their individual merits--between September 1988 and the end of March 1989, 65 per cent. of all such applications were accepted. Homeless young people who need to resort to night shelters will be automatically considered for a "severe hardship" direction.

Unsubstantiated estimates are that 2,000 young people sleep rough in London every night. Some of those youngsters could be accommodated in the hostel or resettlement unit places that the Government have provided in recent years. There are 4,000 emergency beds in London alone, but it is unfortunately the case that some of those who sleep rough are simply not prepared to use them as a step towards permanent accommodation.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has given a high priority to remedying the problem of homelessness in England and Wales. More than £38 million in additional resources has recently been made available to those London boroughs with the most severe difficulties over homelessness.

That is expected to lead to the creation of well over 400 new hostel places and the reinstatement of more than 2,000 local authority and housing association dwellings. Last year, the Housing Corporation committed some £120 million to homelessness schemes administered by housing associations in and around London. It is an unfortunate fact that some of those local authorities in London which are most critical of central Government are also the least competent to manage their own housing stock. At the last count--April 1988--there were about 23,000 empty council houses in London, 9,000 of them empty for more than a year.

Right-to-buy receipts are not being fully exploited to bring back empty property into use. Too much time is being wasted by town councils before re -letting vacant flats and houses. In its recent study of homelessness, the Audit Commission estimated that, if the average re-let period for a council house could be reduced by six weeks in London, and three weeks elsewhere, an average of 17,700 empty dwellings would be released.

I am afraid, too, that London's rent arrears are unacceptably high. Nine inner-London boroughs--all-Labour controlled--plus Liverpool city council account together for nearly 40 per cent. of the total municipal rent arrears--

The Motion having been made after Ten o'clock on Monday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker-- adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eighteen minutes past Four o'clock.

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