I am very glad to have had parliamentary time allocated to me for this important debate. My concern to secure the debate derived from the ever more disturbing evidence of homelessness among young people in Manchester; from my work as a trustee of the Disabilities Study Unit which, under the leadership of Duncan Guthrie, has worked so hard to focus attention on this grave and growing problem; from my knowledge of its consequences for some of the most vulnerable young people as a trustee of Crisis at Christmas; and from the powerful submissions to right hon. and hon. Members of this House from such widely respected organisations as Shelter, CHAR and MIND.
As the House rises for the Whitsun recess — and families unite for a holiday weekend together—it is not inappropriate that we should be debating this major social problem here today. The Government stand accused of giving the problem of the young homeless—or, as they are known in other countries, "street children" and "street youth" — scant attention and of showing little understanding of the human suffering involved. As the House knows, the Government have not entirely overlooked the problem. They recently introduced new rules for board and lodging payments, which are expressly designed to make it more difficult, not to say impossible, for young people to move into areas where they believe that employment may be available to them. First, they were advised to get on their bikes and look for work. Now they are punished for doing so.
SHADES, an excellent youth advisory project deeply involved in seeking to assist homeless young people in Manchester, see and work to help young people from my own constituency. With an increasing number of other youngsters they end up in the inner city, homeless because there is simply no suitable housing provision for them in their own localities. Some make their way to London and. when the lure of the bright lights fades and they have to face the harsh realities of the London streets, the lucky ones make their way to Centrepoint, which works, with all too limited resources, in the centre of Soho, providing emergency night shelter facilities as well as hostel accommodation and a small number of flats. The less lucky ones arrive at the accepted meeting places of the young homeless; in cafes and bars and at street corners where, in the company of other young people in the same predicament, they often take the first steps to drug dependency, crime of all sorts, including prostitution, both male and female, as rent boys and rent girls, and the general despair of homelessness.
The plight of the youngsters is now made worse by having to move from area to area to retain benefit. Unable to return to any particular area for six months, they are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) has said, almost driven into crime and prostitution. In this International Year of Youth, they become even more vulnerable to abuse. Young people who are handicapped, either physically or mentally, are the most vulnerable of all.
If anyone sees this as alarmist, they should reflect on the trial of Dennis Nilsen with its grim revelation of multiple murder. Even when the problem was less serious than it is today, Nilsen admitted he had no difficulty in picking up 22 young men where street youth congregate in London. They were lured to his flat and he murdered 15 of them. His young victims were unemployed, mostly homeless or at best living in squats and only too pleased at the prospect of a bed for the night. Recollection of the horror of that case, among others, must inform our judgment of the Government's decision to make it more difficult, not easier, for the young homeless to obtain safe lodgings.
Turning again to my own city, I am very strongly advised from Manchester—this is the view of the city's officers most directly concerned with their implementation — that the new regulations on board and lodging ceilings must be urgently reversed. One consequence of the regulations is that they will make young people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation homeless, and will therefore put them in the highest priority group on the rehousing list. This will put extra pressure on the local authority and have knock-on effects for other applicants.
Let me quote from the advice I have received from
The impact in some places will be horrific. Young single homeless people may well be competing with other priority groups, for example, the elderly and medical priority cases, for a limited supply of small-sized dwellings…An ironic consequence of Manchester's humane and positive attitude could be to make the situation worse by making the city a centre to which young people will flock. At the same time, there is the danger of a backlash from other people on the rehousing list against the young people who are victims of the Government's new regulations.
All informed opinion believes that the Government are contributing further to the housing crisis and, because of the vulnerable age group on which they are picking, they could rapidly create major social tensions as well. The whole proposal is badly thought out. The levels of benefit are inadequate. They provide £55 for full board or £70 for hostels in Manchester, yet research carried out as long ago as June 1983 showed that £80 was a realistic figure for Greater Manchester. The Social Security Advisory Committee has admitted that the charges now payable are likely to create
a class of rootless young people unable to find accommodation in one place, unable to find a job, and obliged by benefit rules to move around the country constantly.
This is a case where the Government are returning to pre-Victorian values. The proposals are a re-enactment of the old poor law which allowed parishes to send "sturdy beggars" on their way. It is not the way that any Government should treat our young people.
Last October, in reply to a parliamentary question that I put to the Secretary of State for the Environment, he informed me that there was no information available on the numbers of homeless adolescents and young people in London and the other major conurbations. I was given a similar reply by the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. Figures are still unavailable, and I must now press the Government to obtain them. It must be a very mistaken sense of economy that leaves the statutory and voluntary sectors with no figures from which to work. Of course, all who work in the area know—as I was told by Shelter yesterday—that the numbers are increasing, especially among youngsters, boys and girls alike, under 16 years of age. More and more of them sleep rough in the streets.
In a further parliamentary question, I asked whether the DHSS would support a study being mounted jointly by the
Disabilities Study Unit and European Research on Consumer Affairs to collect information on the voluntary organisations concerned with "street children" and "street youth" in the countries of the European Economic Community. The aim was to learn more about their objectives, their modus operandi and their sources of funding. In reply, I was told that an application would be considered on its merits. But when Duncan Guthrie, as director of the Disabilities Study Unit, submitted a proposal to the DHSS he was told:
This Department's responsibilities in the area of homelessness are concerned with special care and support needs rather than homelessness per se".
This could only have meant that the DHSS was not prepared to take steps to cure the disease, only to treat some of the symptoms. I am glad to say that the Disabilities Study Unit has now been able to raise funds, partly from voluntary grant-making bodies and partly from the EC, and that this important study can now be put in hand. Sadly, however, a great deal of time has been spent in seeking financial support which could otherwise have gone into constructive research.
I must ask the Minister whether he agrees that the present piecemeal approach to the problem of homelessness among young people is hampering other valuable work in this sector? The DHSS, the Department of Education and Science, the Department of the Environment, the Home Office and local authorities are all involved in different, but not very clearly differentiated, aspects of the problem.
The voluntary organisations are often at a loss to know which Government Department they should contact. They are often at a loss, too, to understand what the Government are expecting of the voluntary sector and in what areas Government, both central and local, are likely to provide a grant-in-aid.
Again, there are reports of important differences of opinion between the DHSS and the Department of the Environment. What exactly are the differences, and to what extent do they concern the new regulations? As the Minister must know, the Minister responsible for home affairs and the environment in the Scottish Office, speaking to the Shelter conference on young people's housing needs in Edinburgh on 26 October 1984, made a statement on homelessness in Scotland which many in the voluntary sector would like to see endorsed by the Department of the Environment Minister. Will the Minister, in replying to the debate, endorse his Scottish colleague's statement?
There are some other specific questions that I must put to the Minister. First, can he tell me what evidence, if any, has been given to adjudication officers on how to determine whether someone under 26 claiming a board and lodging allowance is so disabled that it is unreasonable to expect him to be in accommodation other than as a boarder? Secondly, will he look very urgently at the effect of the new board and lodging regulations on disabled claimants?
In Shelter's experience, much difficulty has been caused by the way that DHSS offices have sent out notices to claimants informing them that their benefit will be reduced unless they can show that they fit into an exceptional category, without the Department having any adequate information to make such an assessment. To put the onus on, for example, people who are mentally, ill to show that they fit into an exceptional category is clearly highly unsatisfactory. I am sure that the Minister will agree with me on that.
Such people may not understand that they fall into the category of "mentally ill or disordered persons". Even if they do understand, they are likely to be reluctant to provide the DHSS with detailed evidence to prove the case. The implementation of the regulations raises important questions of privacy of information which I should like the Minister to address himself to when he replies.
MIND and CHAR have said in a joint statement:
Government policies on hoard and lodging charges are creating even worse homelessness among single people, including those with mental health problems.
They also state—and I hope that the Minister will share my concern about their findings:
Many people are forced to live in appallingly overcrowded conditions, often with poor sanitation, and certainly with little support or help if they have additional disabilities.
In other words, handicap piles on handicap for the young disabled people concerned.
A third specific question concerns the initiative of the Children's Society to make contact with the parents of the children of youngsters who have left home and to whom the society gives temporary shelter. The Minister will be familiar with this and will know that there are legal difficulties. The initiative puts the Children's Society in what has been called
a grey area of the law
and I shall be grateful if the Minister will both comment on the initiative and say whether the Government have any plans to change the law to protect the society which, as he knows, wants to be helpful to both child and parent. How does he react to what has been achieved, and is there any possibility of state funding for this and other initiatives? I regard it as a bold and innovative action by a well-respected and responsible voluntary organisation.
The House is, of course, aware of the United Nations projected convention on the rights of the child. Since 1979, a working party has, at the request of the United Nations General Assembly, been drafting a text for the convention. The United Kingdom's contribution has been minimal and this country is not among those which have submitted either amendments or addenda for the working party's final meetings. The answer may be that the Departments concerned are already fully satisfied with the text as drafted. Is that so?
The Government's attitude to the convention contrasts sharply with that of the voluntary sector concerned with homeless youth. In Strasbourg recently, voluntary workers from this country drafted with members of the European Parliament a motion which, in less than 24 hours, had been accepted for tabling in the European Parliament and was subsequently debated there.
It is now 10 years since the DHSS published the report of the working party on homeless young people set up in the wake of that frightening television documentary, "Johnnie, Go Home!" What has happened in those 10 years? The number of homeless children and young people has increased dramatically and is still increasing. The Government should now set up an independent working party to look again at the position of homeless youth in our large cities. I hope that they will be pressed to do so from both sides of the House. Even the briefest look at Times square in New York shows what can happen when too little is done too late.
The time has come to call together in a working party all the voluntary organisations with an interest in the young homeless, and that working party should be enabled to use the best tools of scientific research to look at the problem, its causes and ways in which it can be solved.
The problem can be solved. To govern is to choose and the problem is basically one of priorities and resources. If nothing is done and if the DHSS continues to penalise young people for growing up — for that is what it amounts to when they are forced on to the streets because they are young, out of work and looking for independence—we could soon find ourselves in deeper crisis.
As I have said, this is the International Year of Youth and 1987 is the International Year of the Homeless. What preparations are the Government making for 1987? What plans are there to reduce the cruelty of homelessness among young people? This debate gives the Government an opportunity to show that they appreciate the increasingly widespread concern about the young homeless. I implore the Minister at least to give them some hope. What hope can he offer to the "street children" and "street youth" in Britain today?