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Wages Councils

12.15 am

Ms. Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East) : I wish to present a petition on behalf of about 8,000 people in Gateshead and other parts of the county of Tyne and Wear who wish to protest against the proposal to abolish the wages councils. The petitioners are concerned at the large number of people in the north-east who have to live on very low wages, below the Council of Europe decency threshold, and who have fewer employment rights than people in virtually every other country of the Community.

The petition reads :

Wherefore your petitioners pray that your Honourable House urges the Secretary of State for Employment to withdraw the proposals on the abolition of the wages councils and work towards the introduction of a basic minimum wage and an extension of current Employment Protection in line with TUC agreed policies.

To lie upon the Table.

Broadcasting (Deaf People)

12.16 am

Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston) : I seek to present a petition signed by 650 people, not all of whom are my constituents, but all the signatures were collected by my constituents. The petitions asks for more access to television for deaf people through the use of teletext. The part of the petition to which I draw particular attention is :

Wherefore your petitioners pray that your Honourable House will ensure that legislation be passed placing an obligation on television channel operators to make their programmes more accessible to deaf people by using teletext, subtitles, sign language or other means, and to reach complete coverage by a fixed date.

And your petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray.

To lie upon the Table.

12.18 am

Mr. Iain Mills (Meriden) : I should be most grateful to be allowed to present not one but two petitions, both on behalf of those who would like better access to the entertainment and interest of television but who are deaf.

The first petition has been presented to me by Mr. Austin Reeves of Balsall Common who, despite the handicap of deafness, is secretary to the Deaf Broadcasting Association and a tireless worker on behalf of those who try to achieve better facilities for deaf people. I have supported his work for many years.

The second petition is from Mrs. Lister of Knowle in my constituency, whose son Jonathan prompted her to take tireless trouble to ensure that there are so many signatures that I hold two huge bundles of thousands of them. The petition reads :

Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your Honourable House will ensure that legislation be passed placing an obligation on the television channel operators to make their programmes more accessible to deaf people by using teletext, subtitles, sign language or other means and to reach complete coverage by a fixed date.

Adding a final thought about the coverage of this House on television, I beg leave to present the petitions.

To lie upon the Table.

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12.19 am

Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood) : I am pleased to present a petition, which is signed by my constituents and others, on behalf of the deaf and the hard of hearing. It bears more than 500 signatures, and urges that the 4 million of our fellow citizens who have little or no hearing should be able to enjoy television programmes through the far greater provision of teletext subtitling and sign language to accompany programmes. The advent of television in the House emphasises the need for such facilities, and the forthcoming broadcasting Bill provides an opportunity to oblige the BBC and television companies to provide it.

The petition reads :

Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your Honourable House will ensure legislation be passed placing an obligation on television channel operators to make their programmes more accessible to deaf people by using teletext subtitles, sign language or other means, and to reach complete coverage by a fixed date.

And your petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray etc. To lie upon the Table.

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Homelessness (West Yorkshire)

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

12.20 am

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) : I wish to highlight the lack of awareness shown by the Government of homelessness outside London and the south-east. I do not begrudge a penny that is used to alleviate homelessness wherever it occurs.

I draw the Minister's attention to the excellent report that has been produced by Shelter in Yorkshire and Humberside, which is entitled "Housing Myths--Northern Version". By using Government and local authority statistics, Shelter firmly exposes the myth that there is no homelessness in the north. In 1988, almost 9,500 households were accepted as homeless by local authorities in the Yorkshire and Humberside region. In west Yorkshire alone, there were 4,551, and more than 12,000 presented themselves as homeless. These figures relate only to households eligible for housing under the Housing Act 1985, which places a responsibility on councils to house those who are homeless and in priority need. I believe that the definition set out in the Act is inadequate and needs redefining. In the local authority of Calderdale, which comes within my constituency, 271 households were accepted as homeless in 1988, yet 1,158 presented themselves as homeless. The director of housing, Mr. Brian Fairclough, said :

"For every homeless person known to the authority, there are at least twice as many who we do not know about. Most young single homeless do not show up on the statistics, and nobody knows exactly how many there are."

We know, however, that in the past five years homelessness has doubled in Calderdale, while in the country as a whole it has taken 10 years to double. That is a worrying trend by any yardstick. In the past 12 months there has been a increase of over 20 per cent. Even more worrying is the fact that, during July, August and September, 281 single-parent or parent- with-children households were recognised as homeless. That is an increase of 17 per cent. on the previous quarter.

These figures expose the myth that homelessness is only a big city problem. Most housing experts recognise that that is so. In its briefing on the Autumn Statement, the Institute of Housing stressed that areas other than London and the south-east needed resources. I contend that that means areas such as west Yorkshire.

There is a growing national problem and local councils find it increasingly difficult to deal with it. At the beginning of 1988, 43 per cent. of homeless households, as accepted by councils, were living outside the inner cities. In Calderdale, as I am sure that the Minister is aware, there is 75 per cent. owner-occupation. That is a higher than average percentage, because there is much low-cost terrace housing in the area. Also, we are faced with the same problem as many other authorities in that we have been badly hit by the right to buy and by Government restrictions on council building. That has led to a shrinking of housing stock at an affordable rent. As a result, people on low incomes are stretching themselves to the limit in order to buy. Those are the very people who can least deal with the current high interest rates, and will end up as part of the homeless statistics.

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Until now, many people have sold up before repossession because they have seen a way out and tried to find rented accommodation or some other alternative. Also, building societies have been tolerant and have acted responsibly. However, time is running out. Building societies are answerable to shareholders and accountants and there is a time bomb ticking away of which we are not yet aware. The Government are betraying the very people they say they want to help. With the high number of home owners in my constituency and the high incidence of low pay, I am sure that the Minister will understand why I am worried about the problem.

Young homeless people are totally ignored by the Housing Act 1985 and by the Government's review of homelessness. When that group become homeless, they are not eligible for rehousing. No matter how caring a local authority is, they are not a priority under the 1985 Act. Recent research carried out for the Government showed that, on average, single people under 26 represent only 7 per cent. of acceptances by local authorities.

Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield) : Is my hon. Friend aware of the direct consequence in terms of homelessness for young people in West Yorkshire of the provisions of the Social Security Act 1988? Is she aware of the growing concern among social workers and probation officers in West Yorkshire about the increasing number of young people--male and female--who become involved in prostitution because they have no other means of survival?

Mrs. Mahon : I also attended a briefing at which social workers told us about that problem. I know that my hon. Friend has had to deal with such cases in his surgery. It is a tragedy.

In 1988, my local authority, in partnership with Stonham housing association, put forward an imaginative scheme for the provision of furnished flats--Hebble court in Mixenden--for 16 to 25-year-olds. Some of them were ex-offenders and the scheme had the support of the Home Office. That scheme has now collapsed because of Government cuts in benefit. That confirms the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe).

The targeted age groups could not afford to meet their outgoings from income support and housing benefit. It is a disgrace to have in Halifax a problem of homelessness of the young coupled with empty but usable buildings and no mechanism to bring them together. The costs of the project were economical and effective, especially when compared with the high cost of institutional care. The cost in human terms is immeasurable.

In Halifax last year the housing department estimated that there were over 1,000 young people with nowhere to live. Those are the people we know about. Many do not bother to apply to the council because they know that they do not stand a chance. It is a fallacy and it is cruel to suggest, as did the previous Secretary of State for the Environment, that they have a roof over their head and that they demand a free home. We are often talking about youngsters who have had little chance in life, who have lived in care and who do not have the support of a loving family. We may also be talking about youngsters who have been abused at home or who left the family because of some form of breakdown. It is disgraceful for a Secretary of State, who is supposedly responsible for the more vulnerable in society, to make such a remark. I should love

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to recommend the Minister to read the report of case studies that I have received from Shelter in West Yorkshire. It links poverty and homelessness among 18-year-olds to the Government's benefit cuts in 1988.

Earlier this month, the Government announced a £250 million package to help the homeless in London and the south-east. We welcome any help for the problem wherever it is, but it is worth pointing out that Shelter and other reputable organisations have estimated that the £250 million is enough to repair 10,000 houses only. Not a penny is coming to the north. It goes to areas where the Government are embarrassed by the visible presence of the homeless or to constituencies in the south-east of Tory Back Benchers who have got on to them. We are entitled to ask about the 9,500 homeless households in Yorkshire and Humberside. Why are they invisible? Why cannot the Government recognise the problem in Bradford, Kirklees, Leeds or Wakefield? Why do the Government think that only one part matters? They have a nerve to say that they have no intention of subsidising inefficiency. They have deliberately starved councils of money for repairing and building housing.

This year, my authority is asking for £35 million for its housing investment programme. Last year, it was granted less than £2.5 million. The local authority estimates that it will cost about £8 million to bring the stock up to date. Government policy is inadequate and disastrous. The Government should give the local authorities the resources that they need to cope. Most of all, we need the Government to recognise that a home is a fundamental right. 12.31 am

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West) : I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) for allowing me to take part in this brief debate. It is inexcusable that so far the Government have not initiated a debate on the homeless crisis in Government time so that it can be given a proper airing and full consideration by Parliament. I shall highlight one feature where the interaction of social policy in the social fund is compounding the problem of homelessness because people in hostels cannot move from them.

It was encouraging that the Government's recently published homelessness review at last accepted that homelessness was caused by a shortage of homes to rent, especially for those on low incomes. The northern region has experienced a 10 per cent. rise in homelessness during 1988. It also has the highest proportion of poor quality housing. The money recently made available for the next two years will be divided between councils which will get £117 million and housing associations which will get £73 million. It will go to schemes in the London boroughsand the following districts : Essex, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Surrey, Oxfordshire, Hampshire, East and West Sussex, Kent and the Isle of Wight. It is difficult not to ask why none of those resources can go to West Yorkshire, which has the same needs.

In the current financial year, Leeds city council bid for permission to borrow £97.6 million for its housing investment programme. The Government approved an allocation of only £15.5 million. This year's bid document states :

"The regional office of the Department of the Environment are satisfied that last year's submission represented a comprehensive statement of needs across a

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whole range of housing problems of the city and do not require repetition in detail A further year, therefore, has started where it is not possible to make significant inroads into the range and scale of housing problems. If anything this lack of investment compounds the problem for the future."

It is that lack of investment, that short-termism, which is the real waste and the real test of inefficiency in the Government's policy.

The practical impact of reduced resources in Leeds has been an escalation of homelessness, to the extent that it is now estimated that 300 people are accepted as homeless each month, 150 of them young people. During the past few weeks, that number has increased as a result of relationship breakdowns and people finding themselves in difficulty with mortgage repayments because of high interest rates. Meanwhile, there has been a decrease of more than 2,000 in the number of local authority properties during the past two years. Because the housing stock is diminishing as a result of discount sales under the right to buy, there is little permanent accommodation on offer. As a result, more people have to go into the hostels in Leeds such as Brett Gardens, Richmond Court or Mount Cross.

The problem is that the pressure on temporary accommodation is such that two or three families have to share units. They even have to sleep on the floor or be put up in the play room. There are 70 families in units for 31- -and that is temporary accommodation. There is one barrier to which I want to draw the Minister's attention. It is the working of the cash-limited social fund which, in 1988, replaced single payments. The cash-limited arrangements for social fund loans and community care grants means that the local Department of Social Security office cannot make an offer of assistance, sometimes for up to six weeks, because it has spent that month's allowance. More than half the 70 families in the units for 31 have had offers of a transfer to permanent accommodation lined up by the council, but they cannot move because the grants and loans designed to help them set up a new home are not available. In other words, the DSS social fund arrangements are trapping people into temporary hostel accommodation when they could be in their own homes.

The Government should not tell us about empty properties that are kept empty by councils when the social fund makes it impossible for people to move into their own homes. The Minister should ask his counterpart in the Department of Social Security to break that logjam, otherwise care in the community will unfortunately remain one of the Government's slogans but be beggared by the inefficient working of the social fund.

Today I received a report from Leeds citizens advice bureau entitled, "Homes and Money". The covering letter said :

"At Leeds CAB we are very concerned currently about the growth in our housing caseload, particularly in connection with homelessness and householders faced with possession proceedings. Our experience confirms that actual and threatened homelessness is an increasingly severe problem in Leeds."

My surgery experience and what my colleagues in Leeds tell me bear witness to the accuracy of that statement.

On Friday, the Yorkshire region's radio station is to have a phone-in programme on homelessness. I am informed that the Minister for Housing and Planning, the

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hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), has said that he cannot take part in the questioning session but that he will make a telephoned-in statement at the end. I invite the Minister to ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to reconsider that decision. The people of West Yorkshire are not convinced that housing can be provided by the market alone. They want their questions about the right to a home being a basic need to be answered. They want the right to rent at a price that they can afford. If the Minister is not prepared to take part properly in that programme, the only conclusion that the people of West Yorkshire can draw is that the Government's housing policy is calculated, callous and indefensible.

12.38 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Christopher Chope) : The hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon), who was lucky enough to secure the debate, has spoilt her case slightly through exaggeration and a rather negative attitude, which was perpetuated by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle). All hon. Members recognise that homelessness, wherever it occurs, is a problem that must be tackled, and that is true whether the homeless are in west Yorkshire, or anywhere else in the country. However, fair-minded hon. Members will accept that the scale and intensity of the problem varies greatly from one place to another. The Government have recently completed their review of homelessness and I was disappointed that there was only the most grudging acceptance on the part of the hon. Members for Halifax and for Leeds, West of the Government's conclusions in that review. It has been generally welcomed by people who do not have a party political axe to grind, and it will make a genuine contribution to solving the problems of homelessness.

One of the most striking features of that report is that it reveals that 50 per cent. of the homelessness acceptances are concentrated in 10 per cent. of the local authorities. Although statistics have to be treated with caution, it is clear that the hardest hit areas are in London and the south -east. That is why we have designated those as the pressure areas, and we shall be making an additional £250 million available over the next two years to reflect their special problems. I can understand that hon. Members from west Yorkshire and other parts of the country are disappointed that local authorities and housing associations in their areas will be unable to bid for the additional £250 million of resources. But I hope that hon. Members will accept that, if we are to tackle the problem sensibly, we should recognise the geographical incidence of the problem and target resources accordingly.

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton) : Will the Minister advise hon. Members from West Yorkshire and other parts of the country what level homelessness in their areas must reach before the Government will give assistance? Will the Government allow time to debate in the House the report to which he has referred and the issue of homelessness?

Mr. Chope : The Government help local authorities with problems of homelessness not just by this additional £250 million, but by the general housing investment programme

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and the credit approvals. The new system that we are introducing for next year is designed to target more resources to the sort of authorities represented by Opposition Members. It is nonsense to suggest that the only money provided by the Government is the £250 million. That is £250 million extra to go to the particularly hard-pressed areas of London and the south-east.

A brief examination of the relevant figures in the housing investment programme returns shows that the five local authorities in west Yorkshire recorded 4,900 homelessness acceptances in 1988-89, around 4 per cent. of the total in England. By comparison, the London boroughs of Southwark and Islington alone accounted for 4,900. The total for London and the south- east was more than 40,000. Some London boroughs are having to allocate 70 per cent. of their new lettings to homeless people, compared with a national average of 32 per cent. and an average for West Yorkshire authorities of 17 per cent. The hon. Member for Halifax quoted many statistics, but she declined to quote those. However, they show the relative scale of the problem and the ability of the respective local authorities to deal with it. In West Yorkshire, 17 per cent. of the lettings are going to families and to other individuals accepted as homeless. In some parts of London, the figure is as high as 80 per cent. and in many boroughs it is 70 per cent. I hope that hon. Members will agree that, in the light of such comparisons, it would have been irresponsible of the Government if they had not targeted the additional resources for the homeless on the pressure areas in London and the south-east. In the past three years, more than £139 million has been allocated to authorities in west Yorkshire for their general housing needs. Spending can also be supplemented by the ability of authorities to use capital receipts for housing purposes and additional allocations totalling nearly £19 million were made available for Estate Action to tackle problems of rundown estates and to bring vacant property back into use in the West Yorkshire area. A further £1.6 million has been allocated specifically for the homeless projects, enabling the provision of 148 units of accommodation, including 41 in hostels for the homeless.

We shall shortly be informing local authorities in West Yorkshire and elsewhere of their housing allocations for next year, in the form of their annual capital guidelines. The amounts calculated for individual authorities will, as always, take into account their responsibilities for the homeless. This year, the new capital control system will enable my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to distribute resources more accurately in accordance with housing needs, to take account of the authorities' ability to generate resources through receipts as well.

I emphasise that it is for each authority, within the guidelines and controls laid down by Government, to determine its own priorities. [Interruption.] If Labour Members are so concerned about the subject, I am surprised that they are spending so much time talking among themselves during my reply to the points that they have made.

Mr. Battle : Will the Minister give way?

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Mr. Chope : No, I will not give way now. The hon. Gentleman has not been taking any notice. I am just coming to what I understand will be a sensitive point--empty properties.

In Calderdale, where in 1988-89 there were 265 homeless acceptances, there had been 250 in 1986-87. That is hardly a massive increase. In 1988-89, there were 508 vacant properties in Calderdale--3.5 per cent. of the housing stock. That shows that Calderdale has considerable resources available to help the housing problems in the area, and has not been making sufficient use of them.

Mrs. Mahon : The Minister knows that 200 of those properties are tower blocks, and I have already explained that the Government prevented one of the blocks from being brought back into use. The council is waiting for the right to borrow to do something about the other tower block. It is cynical of the Minister to make that comment.

Mr. Chope : The Government have already allocated money to help to meet the cost of improving one of the tower blocks. Specific money was allocated for that purpose, but the local authority, which has the right to spend money as it wishes, chose to spend that money in a different way. The Government believe in giving local authorities discretion to spend their resources, but if the local authority chooses to spend its money in one way, it ill behoves it to do so and then to blame the Government for the consequences.

It is right that there are empty tower blocks in the hon. Lady's constituency, but they could be brought back into use if the local authority had the will to do so. Strong hints have been given to the local authority that an Estate Action submission on those blocks would be considered favourably by the Government, but no such application has been made. I can only assume from that that the local authority lacks the will to put its house in order.

Mr. Battle : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Chope : No, I shall not give way again ; because of the time taken by Labour Members, I have little left to conclude my remarks. The Government recognise that there is a need to ensure that help is available for people who have problems with their housing, and that includes young single people who leave home and come to London and other cities. We are currently examining the way in which various departmental policies interact, and how they might better work together and we shall make further announcements on that. I was asked about the social fund. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security has said that, if people between the ages of 16 and 18 are experiencing genuine hardship, their cases will be looked at by Ministers at the Department. Loans are available and there is little evidence to suggest that people who need and find accommodation are priced out of it. Housing benefit is widely available, and all that is needed is for proper advice to be given to people at local level--

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, M adam Deputy Speaker-- adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order. Adjourned at ten minutes to One o'clock.

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