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Water is a precious commodity. It is essential to life, health and hygiene. We all want high standards of drinking water quality, clean beaches, safe bathing waters and effective systems of sewage disposal. Continuously raising such water standards involves continuing investment of further money.
At the privatisation of the water industry we invested £1,572 million in a green dowry for water services. Since privatisation, the water companies have invested a further £3 billion, on average, each year in improving water quality and striving to meet tough environmental targets. Such investment is massive. It works out at approximately £8 million each day, £5,000 every minute and £960 per household in the five years to 1995.
North West Water alone, which supplies water to the constituency of the right hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme), the promoter of the Bill, invested almost £500 million in improvements last year and, on average, £189 was spent on each customer's property. It is planning to spend £150 million on the Fleetwood Marsh waste water treatment plant, which will clean up the Blackpool and Fylde coasts, and £400 million on improving the bathing waters of the north-west, again including Blackpool. Those are substantial sums of money. That essential investment in improving water standards is unparalleled in our history, and what a contrast it is with the previous Labour Government, who cut their spending on the water industry generally by 30 per cent. and specifically cut their capital investment on sewage treatment by 50 per cent.
Such investment must be paid for and it is fair and reasonable that water customers overall should meet such costs. We have ensured that a regulator, the Director General of Water Services--Ofwat--is in place to help ensure a proper balance between continued and further environmental improvement, and manageable bills.
It is important to get water bills into perspective. Those who seek to be alarmist tend to quote percentage increases without referring to actual costs. That happened this morning when the right hon. Member for Salford, East referred to percentage increases without mentioning the actual cost of water. It is important to make that clear. The average cost of water to the average household in England is about 51p a day--less than the cost of a bottle of fizzy water. That is a reasonable sum to enable the water companies to ensure high standards.
Mr. Baldry : The hon. Gentleman has obviously not been listening. I made it clear that the water companies have been investing substantial sums in water infrastructure. It would be impossible for them to make that investment if they were losing money. We all know what happened to the water industry when it was a nationalised industry and at the behest of Treasury external financing limits. In 1976, all investment in capital spending in the water industry was cut overnight.
Whatever the level of water charges to customers, some people will have difficulty in meeting the bill and some simply will not pay. The Bill deals with the treatment of
Column 622such customers. We consider it right that customers should be expected to pay their bills. That is not a new concept. To hear some hon. Members speak today, one would think that the concept was either new or had been introduced since privatisation.
The framework for regulating the water industry in terms of disconnections is exactly the same as it has been since the Water Act 1945, which came into effect under a Labour Government. Under that legislation, water undertakers in England and Wales had access to provisions to disconnect a water supply for non-payment. As there seems to be some misunderstanding about that, I quote from the relevant legislation. It states :
"where a person fails to pay within seven days after a demand therefor any instalment of a water rate payable by him in respect of any premises, the undertaker may cut off the supply of water to the premises and recover the expenses reasonably incurred by them in so doing".
So the provisions for the disconnection of water are not new. They go back almost half a century. Such a power is still necessary as an ultimate sanction against those who can but will not pay. Equally, those who have difficulty in paying should be given every assistance to enable them to do so.
To hear Opposition Members speak, one would think that disconnection was instant upon non-payment following receipt of a bill. That is far from the truth. The procedures involved are quite protracted, involving written communication with the customer and lasting, on avergae, some six months. Typically, customers receive a bill with details of what to do if they cannot pay. They then receive a reminder that the bill has not been paid and, subsequently, a notice of the company's intention to issue a summons and warning of the additional costs that the customer will thus incur. That is followed by a visit and/or a solicitor's letter, an attempt to negotiate payment arrangments and, where no arrangement is entered into, the subsequent issue of a summons.
If payment is still not received, an application is made to the court for a judgment order. The customer is then notified that the company has received an order and that payment must be made to avoid disconnection. Finally, if all else has failed, a disconnection notice is delivered by hand and, after further attempts to seek agreement over payment arrangements, a visit is made to disconnect the water supply. Even at this late stage, the company will still negotiate a payment arrangement if the customer is willing. All of that takes a very considerable period--on average, about six months. The Water Act 1989 built on the statutory framework of the 1945 Act and strengthened safeguards for customers. A number of the provisions introduced then were specifically designed to meet the concerns voiced at the time by consumer representative bodies. The result was a much more demanding legislative regime on disconnection for non-payment and a more comprehensive code of practice, enforceable by the Director General of Water Services, as part of water companies' licences. That was far more demanding than anything previously experienced or enjoyed by the water consumer or required--
It being half past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can you confirm that if the Minister had terminated his remarks after seven and a half minutes and then sat down, there being no other hon.
Column 623Members wishing to contribute to the debate and rising in their places, we could have proceeded to a decision on Second Reading?
Debate to be resumed on Friday 4 March.
Order for Second Reading read.
Debate further adjourned till Friday 25 March.
Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Second Reading [18 February].
Hon. Members : Object.
Debate further adjourned till Friday 4 March.
Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Second Reading [4 February].
Debate further adjourned till Friday 4 March.
That, notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted business), the Speaker shall--
(1) at the sitting on Monday 28th February--
(i) put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motions in the name of Mr. Secretary Hurd relating to European Communities not later than one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the first such Motion ;
(ii) put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motions in the names of Mr. Secretary Howard relating to Representation of the People and of Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew relating to Representation of the People and Northern Ireland not later than one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the first such Motion ; and
(iii) put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motions in the name of Mr. Secretary Lang relating to Local Government (Scotland) not later than half-past Eleven o'clock ; and (2) at the sitting on Monday 7th March, put the Question necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motion in the name of Mr. Anthony Nelson relating to Building Societies not later than one and a half hours after their commencement ;
and the said Motions may be proceeded with, though opposed, after the expiry of time for opposed business.-- [Mr. Arbuthnot.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Arbuthnot.]
Mr. Jim Dowd (Lewisham, West) : I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about this important facility for young homeless people which is located in Lewisham, West, although its importance stretches far wider. I am not sure what mystical processes allocate Adjournment debates, but I am grateful for having been granted this opportunity, at relatively short notice. I shall try to remain temperate in my language, although I come here today feeling a mixture of anger and sorrow at the prospect that the Lawrie Park road hostel for young homeless will close. It is to close because of the deliberate actions of the Department of the Environment.
I have raised the matter in the House on previous occasions, including the Consolidated Fund debate in July 1992. I have met the Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction on a number of occasions and I have written on far more occasions. I am pessimistic, to put it mildly, about what is likely to emerge from today's debate, given the fact that the Minister with whom I have been dealing all this time is not here today. Doubtless his precious time is occupied elsewhere. This does not bode well for the response that I am likely to get. I rise with a heavy heart because the attitude of the Department to date has been one of simple-minded repetition of current Government policy without any recognition of the project's value, not just to the young people whom it serves, but a far wider community in London.
I am extremely angry and sorry that what is likely to emerge from the business is the irrecoverable loss of an extremely valuable asset. The circumstances, efforts and commitment that produced the hostel are unlikely to be replicated, so my speech is probably, to that extent, a swan song. I am determined that the valuable asset of the Lawrie Park hostel should not
"go gentle into that good night"
if it is to be consigned to the dustbin by the Government. The hostel is designed for 16 to 25-year-old single, homeless people off the streets, predominantly in central London. It suffers the misfortune of being located on the borders of my constituency in the London borough of Lewisham and Bromley. It is an extremely desirable location, with a few trees and grass around it, unlike the normal surroundings associated with short-term direct access hostels for the homeless in London.
The hostel is purpose-built accommodation, not a draughty church hall. It was originally a management training centre and is still owned by the National Westminster bank. The accommodation is of a remarkably high standard compared with what young, single homeless people in London normally have to put up with. To some degree, those high standards have proved its downfall. It offers experiences and opportunities denied to many of London's homeless young people, but it is likely to close for good.
The hostel originally opened in December 1991 under the Government's former cold weather shelter scheme. It was funded until March 1992. The funding was, unsurprisingly, extended to the end of May 1992 and then for a couple of weeks into June. It does not take a genius to realise that a general election took place between March
Column 626and June 1992. The last outstanding demand of the chartists is that there should be annual elections. If the net effect of that would mean that the Government's generosity and largesse was displayed every year, I would support that demand. I have no doubt that the election was a fundamental factor in keeping the project open. The hostel obtained funding by various means through the summer of 1992--principally through the efforts of the South London Housing Family Association, which strove commendably to maintain that important resource until it qualified for cold weather payments in the winter of 1992-93. I met the Minister on various occasions during 1992 to ensure that that valuable resource was not lost. In the middle of last year, a revised rough sleepers initiative strategy document was published. I have no doubt that the Lawrie Park hostel not only meets every criteria in that document, but exceeds by a wide margin the minimum requirements.
The hostel's greatest failing is that it is not located in central London. Even though it draws the overwhelming majority of its residents from central London, the fact that it is located in south-east London means that it does not qualify. I have no doubt that the hostel meets those funding criteria as well as those of the Housing Corporation. It met every criterion, but, because the Government were seeking to reduce the amount of money available for the rough sleepers initiative as another post-election cut, the hostel's funding for the winter of 1993-94 was eliminated. The young people, particularly those of south London, have to pay for the Government's cut through the closure of the hostel. I shall demonstrate how the elimination of the hostel's funding has been crucial to the sad and deeply hurtful decision to close the project. The hostel was funded in part by close co-operation with the London borough of Lewisham. The South London Family Housing Association has invested about £250,000 in the two years that it has existed. Unfortunately, that is a burden that it can no longer carry. Revenue funding is crucial to the project. Approaches to the Housing Corporation seem to show that capital funding for the acquisition of the building and its institution as a permanent project is likely. I have already mentioned the determination that the South London Family Housing Association has shown, with its energy and drive. It has devised a comprehensive project, utilising many agencies, groups and energies to provide an opportunity for some of the most vulnerable young people in our society, save for the support of the Department of the Environment and the critical revenue funding that has not been forthcoming. I believe that all that will be wasted in future. As I mentioned, it will be impossible to recreate and will all have been for nothing.
Although many will have benefited in the past two years, those who come after them will be left to fight for a place somewhere on the streets of London. I can do no better than quote from a couple of letters from the managing director of the South London Family Housing Association. When I was first notified of the impending closure of the hostel, he said :
"With several other direct access hostels and short term provision also closing this Spring, I can foresee single homelessness reappearing in the street in a significant way. The Government must provide some better sources of revenue support."
In the few moments that I have left, I can read only part of a further letter in which he said :
Column 627"In total we estimate that up to 500 people have passed through the hostel. Recently the hostel has come under increasing pressure from homeless young people and has been absolutely full --55 young people--since early January."--
There are equal numbers of young men and women. While all young people who are forced to live on the streets of London are vulnerable, young women must be the most vulnerable group of all. That hostel has provided equally for young men and women.
"We have secured a lot of local support for our volunteers and a number of local schools, among them Dulwich College, are preparing to make links and raise some funds for us. We had also made plans for linking the hostel (as far as Lewisham people are concerned) with a Foyer' in Sydenham Road, opposite the library, which would provide a place residents could have moved on to and take a suitable training course, probably at Lewisham College on a Training for Work scheme." The most important features of the project have been : "half of all the single homeless in London are from London itself and the best way to provide for them is with direct access hostels near to where they have some connections rather than forcing them into the West End because there is no local provision we were able to show that local boroughs will join together to tackle this problem despite tight budgets : Lewisham (and to an extent Bromley) were especially supportive. Given more time and some more matching funds, Southwark, Lambeth and Croydon might have joined in. The problem with running direct access hostels is that there is simply no one source of funding to turn to. For Lawrie Park, SLFHA and Centrepoint secured funds from London Boroughs Grants Unit, the London Housing Foundation, Tudor Trust, LB Lewisham, LB Lambeth, LB Southwark and potentially from the Housing Corporation. All of these took time and effort to secure--and we remain £120,000 short of the annual sum we need to staff the hostel with 2 staff on duty at all times ... Meanwhile SLFHA itself has put in £250,000 to keep the hostel open. The Government must provide some simpler route for revenue funding for direct access hostels of this kind, outside central London, otherwise it is simply impossible to make them happen."
I briefly draw the Minister's attention to the early-day motion on the rough sleepers initiative, which indicates that it has been successful so far as it goes, but the problem of young homelessness is not restricted to central London ; it exists not only in outer London and the part of inner London that I represent, but in every city. If all that the Government can do is concentrate their efforts in the central London area, they will create a magnet that will drag young people from all around the country to the only place where they can get decent support.
A note was passed to me before I came into the Chamber to say that the South London Family Housing Association, in connection with Centrepoint, is organising a conference this September to discuss the problem of young homelessness in south London, which has been occasioned particularly by the impending closure of the Lawrie Park road hostel. I hope that the Minister will make a commitment--if not on his own behalf, on behalf of his Department--to attend the conference and discuss the problems that the closure of the hostel will leave in south London.
As you can see, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have papers sent by numerous organisations--by hostel residents, the Housing Corporation, the housing departments of Lewisham, Bromley, Southwark and Lambeth, the London Connection young homeless project, the Longstop project, Stopover Lewisham, Centrepoint Soho, Shelter, the Mental Health Team single homeless project, Letts house Croydon direct access hostel, Deptford centre, Shaftesbury homeless project and numerous others. They all describe the insurmountable difficulties that the closure of Lawrie Park road hostel would create for homeless young people in south London.
Column 628I appeal to the Minister. It is not too late to provide the kind of support that such a valuable project needs. It must not be allowed simply to wither on the vine. It has been said in another context that, if someone is given a fish, he can be fed for a day, but if he is taught to fish, he can be fed for life. That is what the hostel does : it not only gets young homeless people off the streets, but it makes it possible for them to stay off the streets. It has undertaken to perform that task perhaps too well, and it continues to do so. If I did not consider them to be totally incapable of shame, I would say that it was to the Government's eternal shame that that work is to be frittered away and wasted because of their short-sighted meanness. There will be victims of the closure of the hostel ; hon. Members may not be able to put names to them, but they will see them again on the streets of central London.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry) : I thank the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd)for raising the important question of the funding of local services for single homeless people outside central London and for giving me the opportunity to comment and to clarify a number of issues that are clearly being misunderstood.
It is clearly important to recognise the valuable work that projects such as the Lawrie Park road hostel in Sydenham can contribute to the relief of homelessness among single people, but it is also important to recognise that responsibility for all homelss people properly rests with local housing authorities. Local authorities are in the best position to assess local needs ; and each local authority is required, when drawing together its housing strategy, to consider the needs of all homeless people within its area, including the single homeless.
It is not for central Government to decide which local housing services should be funded and in what way : indeed, I think that local authorities would be rightly indignant if Ministers in Whitehall sought to tell them how they should deliver every detail of their housing programmes, what local housing should be funded and in what way it should be funded.
In central London, however, we recognised the particular problems of people sleeping rough, to which it was reasonable for the Government to direct extra help and resources. That we have done through the rough sleepers initiative. The initiative is working alongside the voluntary and statutory sectors, with the aim of proventing and relieving homelessness among single people. We committed £96 million to the first phase of the initiative, in 1990-93. As part of that, we funded the South London Family Housing Association to run 50 bed spaces at the Lawrie Park road hostel during the winters of 1991-92 and 1992-93. The funds were part of a programme to provide shelter for people who might otherwise have slept rough in central London during the winter months.
During the early stage of the rough sleepers initiative, we were unable to confine all the cold weather projects that we funded to the centre of London. Therefore, the net was widened to fund several schemes in the outer London boroughs, one of which was the Lawrie Park road hostel. I understand --and the hon. Gentleman has confirmed--
Column 629that the South London Family Housing Association kept the hostel open, using other sources of funds, during the summer of 1992. The first phase of the rough sleepers initiative in central London has been very successful in helping people--especially young people- -to start a new life away from the streets. Independent research into the first phase of the initiative, undertaken by Geoffrey Randall, has shown that it has helped several thousand people to find accommodation and has prevented many more from becoming homeless in the first place. The strategy for the second phase of the rough sleepers initiative was published in June last year after wide consultation with the voluntary and local authority sectors. The strategy proposes an additional £86 million funding available for three years to 1996 to build on the success of the original rough sleepers initiative. It is to be targeted on central London, where many rough sleepers remain concentrated.
SLFHA was well aware, and has been aware for some time, that its winter shelter funding would end in March last year and that, being located in Lewisham, several miles from central London, there was scant prospect of further RSI funding being directed towards Lawrie Park road. I think that that had been made clear to it on many occasions. SLFHA has kept the hostel open since last March, when Government funding ended, using its own resources.
I understand that SLFHA has, rightly, approached five neighbouring London local authorities, Lewisham, Bromley, Lambeth, Southwark and Croydon-- because, as the hon. Member for Lewisham, West said, that hostel is located on the border of a number of London boroughs--with a view to working in partnership, with each borough contributing a share of the revenue costs needed to operate the Lawrie Park road hostel in future years. Unfortunately, only two authorities--Lewisham and Bromley--have agreed to that request. That is obviously most disappointing.
It is understandable that Lewisham borough council is unwilling to meet alone the full cost of the Lawrie Park road hostel if neighbouring authorities benefit freely from the services on offer by having that facility on their doorstep. It is to the mutual advantage of all the neighbouring boroughs that that facility exists to help people in their boroughs. They may have withheld funding in the hope that the Government might be persuaded to fund the hostel directly, but, for the reasons that I have set out, we do not see it as appropriate that we should do so and now, knowing that, those boroughs may review their previous decision.
Moreover, those five London boroughs' decisions not to fund the Lawrie Park road hostel should be put in the context that, in the financial year 1994- 95, those five local authorities between them have been allocated a total of more than £93 million in grants under the Department's housing investment programme. I am surprised that, between them, the local authorities could not put together a proper "rescue package"--a proper package for Lawrie Park road hostel to maintain and sustain its revenue costs.
Having failed to secure sufficient long-term funding from the local authorities or other charitable sources, SLFHA has decided that it has no option but to close
Column 630Lawrie Park road hostel. I am sure that such a decision has been taken reluctantly, but obviously that is a decision for the association and it alone.
The number of people sleeping rough in central London continues to decline. From voluntary sector estimates of more than 1,000 before the RSI began in 1990, it had declined from that peak to 287 in a count undertaken last November by Homeless Network--an umbrella group representing 20 voluntary organisations in central London. Of those 287 people, only three were aged under 18. Fewer than 40 others were aged between 18 and 25. The vast majority, therefore--about 240--were aged more than 25. Since that count was taken, we have opened up 350 bed spaces in seven cold weather shelters throughout central London. Those shelters are open from 1 December to 31 March and provide free, direct access and basic accommodation during the cold winter months. Up to 250 further places are available in the event of especially severe weather. Those emergency beds have been called into service on four occasions this winter, but no more than 55 places have ever been occupied on any one night.
Voluntary street-level agencies being funded under the rough sleepers initiative in central London have told us that they are able to make early contact with newly street homeless young people who are almost always willing to take up offers of accommodation. The rough sleepers initiative is continuing to make temporary hostel places available specifically for young people under the extended initivative. These people then have access to some 3,300 units of permanent new accommodation being developed under the initiative. The voluntary agencies who work to resettle people currently in RSI temporary accommodation are encouraged to look not merely to the RSI-funded permanent accommodation but to the public or private sectors and housing associations.
Mr. Baldry : The thrust of the Government's message is that there is a duty on the borough of Lewisham and its neighbours to meet the needs of the homeless in those boroughs. They are given considerable funds to enable them to do so. It is no good the hon. Gentleman brandishing wodges of paper from various London boroughs, all of which--with the exception of the two that I mentioned--have refused to support the Lawrie Park road hostel. If the hostel is doing such good work--as the hon. Gentleman suggests--I should have thought that the directors of housing and the housing committees of the boroughs involved would have had no difficulty in making a contribution between them towards the revenue costs of the hostel.
All the substantial RSI funds are now fully committed. If we were to accede to further demands to fund additional hostel places, it could only be at the expense of some of the planned 3,300 permanent developments and the key element of the programme is to ensure that people can move on from sleeping rough on the streets and into permanent accommodation.
Furthermore, some 950 places in temporary hostel accommodation will have been phased out by the end of the initiative in March 1996. In most cases, the closure of
Column 631the temporary hostels is outside our control because the leases on the buildings are due to end or the sites are being redeveloped. As part of the extended initiative, some resources are being targeted on five zones in central London, such as the Strand/west end and the bull ring at Waterloo, where there are large remaining concentrations of people sleeping rough. In those zones, consortia have been set up with representatives of the voluntary sector, local authority housing and social services departments, the police, local health service providers and the local business community to co-operate in pursuing common aims and objectives to relieve street homelessness in a given geographical area.
In particular, I greatly welcome the active involvement in the consortia of four local authorities--Camden, Lambeth, Westminster and the City of London corporation. It is encouraging that the services offered by specialist care providers are being integrated with the street-level work being funded under the rough sleepers initiative. Partnerships between local authorities to meet a particular problem are not novel. They happen all over the country and there is no reason why there should not have been such a partnership to continue the work of Lawrie Park road hostel.
There are already encouraging signs that the co-ordinated approach of the rough sleepers initiative is producing real benefits. For instance, in several of the consortia the local authority housing department has offered some of its own housing stock or its nomination rights into housing association properties for the benefit of all rough sleepers in central London.
The key to the success of the consortia is the additional resources from member organisations. Central Government input is, therefore, just one element of the resources on offer. In addition, the voluntary agencies in central London are running a consortium in a sixth zone--in the Paddington/Marylebone area--without any targeted resources from us. It is a splendid example of how organisations can co-operate to maximise the impact of the resources available. I hope that agencies outside central London will use the rough sleepers initiative as a model of how to co-ordinate the input of all voluntary and statutory bodies and local authorities involved in helping single people who are
Column 632sleeping rough or who are in immediate danger of doing so. A consortium of south-east London agencies might have highlighted the issue of the Lawrie Park road hostel earlier and have been better able to focus attention on the need for local authorities to inject modest cash sums to keep the project afloat.
I trust that the South London Family Housing Association will manage the phasing out of the Lawrie Park road hostel
professionally--that is, unless the boroughs concerned are not prepared to come forward even at this last moment and work in partnership to protect and take the hostel forward. If they do not do that, I am sure that the South London Family Housing Association will want to assist those people still living there to find alternative accommodation before the hostel closes. Clearly, Lawrie Park road is not the only hostel catering specifically for young people in that part of the capital.
It is clear that the rough sleepers initiative is continuing to make a significant impact on the issue of people sleeping rough in central London. By March 1996, around 5,000 places will have been provided in a variety of permanent and temporary accommodation solutions and thousands of people who would otherwise have slept rough will have been helped to find a new home. The number of people sleeping rough in the very heart of our capital city continues to decline and we are funding considerable outreach and resettlement effort to assist those who remain to start a more settled life away from the streets.
I am confident that the consortia of voluntary and statutory agencies established under the rough sleepers initiative, along with local authorities, will provide the basis of a structure that will continue to direct help to single homeless people in central London for many years to come. I hope that local authorities in other parts of the country will look at what we have achieved by working together in central London and that voluntary and statutory agencies will work together in south-east London, as in other parts of the country, to meet the needs of all homeless people, whether they be young single people or--
The motion having been made after half-past Two o'clock 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 one minute past Three o'clock.
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