Schedule 1 — Minor and Consequential Amendments

Orders of the Day — Homelessness Bill – in the House of Commons at 9:00 pm on 22 October 2001.

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Amendments made: No. 24, in page 13, line 15, at end insert—

'(2) This paragraph comes into force on the day on which this Act is passed.'.

No. 25, in page 13, line 33, at end insert—

'(2) This paragraph comes into force on the day on which this Act is passed.'.—[Mr. Ainger.]

Order for Third Reading read.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions 9:10, 22 October 2001

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Homelessness Bill is a vital strand of the Government's wider housing strategy to ensure that everybody has the opportunity and choice of a decent home. It will empower local housing authorities to provide greater protection to vulnerable families and to individuals who find themselves homeless. It will provide for more effective strategies and services both to tackle cases of homelessness and to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. Most important, however, it will give homeless people more rights and, through regulation on which we are currently holding consultations, it will extend those rights to more vulnerable people.

The Bill has struck a chord with Members on both sides of the House. Whatever our disagreements on some of the detail, it is clear from the speeches made on both sides of the House that there is real concern about the homeless and real support for these proposals, which will really transform the life chances for many of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Our proposals will strengthen the homelessness safety net. They will promote a more strategic approach by housing authorities so that they can manage homelessness more effectively and prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. The Bill will encourage housing authorities to offer more choice to all people applying for social housing. Our proposals are designed to protect the most vulnerable people in our society, to promote housing choice, to help create sustainable communities and to confront some of the problems of social exclusion.

One of the most important changes that we want to bring about through the Homelessness Bill is to channel much greater effort into the prevention of homelessness. As I said earlier, our proposals will require housing authorities to adopt a more strategic approach to tackling the causes of all forms of homelessness and preventing its recurrence.

The Bill also strengthens the existing homelessness safety net by making several amendments and repeals to provisions in the Housing Act 1996. In doing so, it will remove some of the restrictions that have damaged the cause of some of the most vulnerable people in our society. The Bill will ensure that all applicants who are unintentionally homeless and have a priority need must be secured suitable accommodation for as long as necessary, until a settled home becomes available. The current two-year limit on the main homelessness duty to secure suitable accommodation will be removed.

The Bill will make several important changes to current legislation to strengthen the protection available to homeless people. One of the most important of such groups includes people who are homeless due to violence, especially domestic violence. The measure makes it clear that applicants who would be at risk of any form of violence if they remained in their current home must be treated as homeless. It will prevent authorities from referring such people back to an area where there would be a risk of further violence.

In Standing Committee, I undertook to consider with my colleagues at the Department of Health and report to hon. Members on issues arising from the operation of the Children Act 1989 in relation to homeless families. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Ms Buck for drawing that important matter to my attention. I share her concerns that social legislation should provide the vital safety net that it is intended to give.

The issue relates to the workings of the Children Act 1989 and was prompted by concern about two recent court cases. In both cases, the courts considered the nature of the obligation of a social services authority under the Children Act 1989 to provide accommodation and financial support for children in need, particularly when parents are unable to secure accommodation and a local housing authority is not obliged to help under the Housing Act 1996. I have discussed the issue with colleagues at the Department of Health; it is a complicated matter and we are giving it serious consideration, especially in the light of further information that has recently been received from Shelter. We shall therefore need to return to it once the Bill has been considered in another place.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath

May I press the Minister on that point? Can she give the House an assurance on the case of a homeless family seeking support from a local authority which, because of the behaviour of one family member, decides that the whole family is ineligible? Will the work that she will do with her colleagues to review the Children Act lead to support being provided under that Act, as it will not be provided under homelessness legislation?

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions

The exact interrelationship between homelessness legislation and the Children Act is under dispute. Assurances have been given that the recent court cases do not change the obligation. However, we want to look more closely at cases that have arisen and we shall return with detailed advice which, I hope, will cover the points made by the hon. Gentleman.

In addition to dealing with immediate problems of homelessness, the Bill deals with wider issues in social housing. It includes measures to give improved rights to new applicants for local authority housing by setting standards for consistency both in the treatment of their applications and information. It also provides for more choice for new and existing tenants in the social housing sector who are seeking a transfer, which is an important, but often overlooked, aspect of the Bill. It opens the way for choice-based lettings schemes, which give new applicants and existing tenants who wish to transfer to another property more say in choosing where they live from the properties available to let that are appropriate to their needs. That is the best means of meeting the long-term housing requirements of those who need social housing in a way that is sustainable both for individuals and the community; it will create more solid and lasting communities. The Government's vision for the future of social housing is to increase choice and customer-centred approaches while continuing to meet housing need. The challenge for pilot schemes in choice-based letting is to examine how choice and need can be better integrated.

Our proposals for strengthening the protection available to homeless people go beyond the measures in the Bill. We have recently consulted on a priority needs order under the 1996 Housing Act, about which Mr. Clifton-Brown asked, to extend the categories of homeless households with a priority need for suitable temporary accommodation. The order will ensure that, where necessary, local authorities must secure suitable accommodation for 16 and 17-year-olds. Wherever possible, we hope that efforts are made to reconcile those young people with their families and allow them to return home; but where there is real estrangement and 16 or 17-year-olds cannot return home, there can be no question that they will be at risk if they have nowhere to live and are forced out on the streets. It is right that housing authorities should provide a safety net in such cases and arrange appropriate accommodation and support.

The order will also give priority need to people who are vulnerable as a result of fleeing their home because of violence. Evidence demonstrates that a high proportion of people who end up sleeping rough come from institutional backgrounds, including people who have been in care, prisons, long-stay hospitals or the Army. Discussions earlier this evening demonstrated the concern of many Members about those people. The order will extend priority need to young people aged 18 to 21 who have previously been in care and the other groups which I mentioned. The key test in all cases will be whether the applicants are vulnerable. I hope that the House will agree that a proper statutory safety net for vulnerable people is essential to protect them from the damage that homelessness and rough sleeping can inflict on them and to help them rebuild their lives.

The Bill represents a big step along the road to achieving the Government's goal of ensuring that everyone has a decent home. It will help all social tenants by promoting choice and encouraging local authorities to adopt customer-centred letting schemes that give people more say in where they live. Most of all, it will deliver on the Government's commitment to social justice by giving extra protection to the most vulnerable people, making sure that they have a roof over their heads. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions 9:20, 22 October 2001

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in favour of the Bill, which, as Ministers know, has received support from the official Opposition throughout its passage. However, I am a little disappointed that although he was to have opened the debate on Third Reading, the Secretary of State is unfortunately not with us this evening. I dare say that he is preparing for tomorrow's debate, and well might he do so.

I said that we support the Bill, although as has been clear throughout its passage and through the detailed and very good debate on Report, that does not mean that we have not had questions about its operation, or that we do not continue to have reservations about its impact. Those issues were ably raised by my hon. Friend Mr. Clifton-Brown on Report.

As my hon. Friend pointed out early in his remarks, the measures that we are supporting tonight first appeared in a somewhat different guise as part of the Homes Bill, which was introduced prior to the election. It is worth recording again that had the Government not chosen to introduce in that Bill their ill-thought-out and unpopular measures relating to sellers' packs, the measures contained in the Homelessness Bill could have been on the statute book somewhat earlier.

As Mr. Foster observed, that delay gave Ministers time for reflection. From the comments made on Report, I hope that Ministers will accept that despite their time for reflection, there are still grave concerns about the full implications of some aspects of the Bill when they come into force. Despite the Minister's remarks on Third Reading, we must say that although we support measures in the Bill, it will not transform overnight the problem of homelessness in Britain.

I hope that Ministers have had time over the summer to reflect on the Government's record on homelessness. Before coming into government, the Labour party made a number of promises about the way in which it would tackle the problems of homelessness and empty homes. Back in 1996, the Prime Minister told a Labour housing conference that Labour would

"do everything in our power to end the scandal of homelessness, to tackle the spectacle of people sleeping rough on the streets and to end the waste of families sleeping in bed and breakfast accommodation."

During the various stages of the Bill's passage there has been debate on the figures for homelessness. It is worth putting on the record that the latest statistics from the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, which were issued in September, show that priority homelessness in England has risen from 102,650 in 1997–98 to 114,350 in 2000–01, and that the number of homeless in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has also risen from 4,500 households in the second quarter of 1997 to 11,340 in the second quarter of 2001.

Another statistic that is relevant to our debate on homelessness was mentioned on Report by Mr. Kidney, who raised the important matter of empty properties. I entirely agree with him that in tackling homelessness, the issue of empty properties must be a priority. Again, before coming into government, the Prime Minister said:

"We need an emergency programme to reduce the number of empty properties, including those held by government departments."

Yet, as the figures stated by the hon. Member for Stafford show, there are a significant number of empty properties in the United Kingdom. From April 1997 to April 2000—the last period for which departmental figures are available—the amount of empty council housing in England has risen by 7 per cent. Local authorities and the Government need to address the issue of empty properties as a matter of priority. We all know the frustrations that constituents feel when they are desperate for housing and they see empty properties down the road. They cannot understand why something cannot be done.

I shall refer to press reports from earlier this year. For example, in June, The Northern Echo referred to an estate in Bishop Auckland. It stated:

"The tidy, well-kept gardens have been replaced with rows of burnt-out, boarded-up homes and overgrown gardens."

The Western Daily Press referred to the Upper Horfield estate in Bristol. The article read:

"Gardens of the boarded-up homes have become dumping grounds".

The Observer referred to the Halton Moor estate in Leeds. It stated:

"There are few people about because large numbers of the houses are empty, boarded up and vandalised."

Earlier this evening the Minister said that the question of empty properties is often complex. I accept that there are issues that often go beyond the efficiency of a local authority in dealing with its properties. However, there are complex issues connected with behaviour on estates that need to be considered. Problems on estates caused by drugs, vandalism and antisocial behaviour may make other residents move out, which means that properties are left empty and derelict. If we are to tackle homelessness, we cannot allow a significant number of properties to lie empty. They are often derelict, and effectively they are going to waste. At the same time, there are people who are desperate for homes. They need to occupy those empty properties.

The Government cannot rest on the laurels of their performance so far in tackling homelessness. The Bill will not wave a magic wand over the problem. However, I hope that it will encourage local authorities to take a more wide-ranging approach, to make it easier for them to tailor allocations to local circumstances and needs and enable them to provide greater variety of choice for those who find themselves homeless and reliant on the local authority or other providers for support.

I welcome especially the objective of dealing with those who are at risk of violence other than domestic violence. It is sad that that problem needs to be incorporated within a homelessness policy, but it is necessary to do so. I welcome the fact that the Government will be dealing with it. I welcome also the proposals to deal especially with young people who are vulnerable and homeless. My hon. Friend Mr. Hendry specifically referred to the scandal of the treatment of many young people who have been in local authority care. I hope that the Bill will go some way to provide the badly needed support for such young people.

The transitional arrangements for the new system include the abolition of housing registers and increased flexibility for the increased priority categories. It is important that those who are on housing registers with local authorities have full information about the transition and the new arrangements that will come into place. I am sure that we all know from constituency cases that problems can occur when people are given insufficient or inaccurate information about housing that relates to their local authority and their local area. It is important that everybody is made aware of the new arrangements and understands why they have been brought into place.

I shall comment briefly on the national homelessness strategy and the consultation that the Government have launched on it. It might seem slightly odd that at a time before the Bill is to be enacted, when the Government have only just launched their consultation exercise, we hear about a strategy that will set out action by central Government and local government to tackle homelessness. Perhaps the Minister will explain how the strategies that local authorities develop in response to the Bill will fit in with the national homelessness strategy.

Many reasons exist for the increase in homelessness, not least the way in which the Government have made the housing benefit rules more difficult for local authorities to apply. The myriad regulatory changes—almost one a fortnight—that they have introduced in recent years make it difficult for those who administer the rules. That has caused genuine problems for people, as the better regulation taskforce and the local government ombudsman have recently shown. It often means that people lose their homes because of problems dealing with the regulations.

We have questioned several other aspects of the Bill, and we await the full implications of its operation and its impact on homeless people. However, we share the Government's hope that the measure will enable local authorities to produce wider-ranging, more innovative approaches to homelessness in their areas. We hope that they will consider tackling their local circumstances and needs more flexibly. The different issues that different parts of the country experience will thus be addressed. I trust that, consequently, we can all look forward to making better provision for the genuine needs of those who become unintentionally homeless.

Photo of David Wright David Wright Labour, Telford 9:31, 22 October 2001

I concur with Mrs. May about the quality of the debate on the amendments and on wider housing issues.

I am pleased that the Bill has been introduced early in the Parliament; that shows the importance of housing issues to Labour Members. However, there has been a welcome consensus about the need to drive the measure through.

Before I was elected to Parliament, I spent 13 years working in housing in the west midlands, dealing with the direct housing needs of local people and developing housing strategies for wider investment.

The Bill emanates from the housing Green Paper "Quality and Choice: A decent home for all", which was published in April 2000. It is to the Government's great credit that they produced the most comprehensive statement on housing for more than 20 years.

The Government have declared an ambitious programme of housing investment in the next 10 years to secure a decent home for all. That largely involves activity to improve housing conditions in a framework of renewed neighbourhoods. However, a key policy strand must be to assist those in greatest need: homeless people.

I want to cover several issues that relate to the Bill and consider the way in which it will fit into the wider housing agenda. It requires housing authorities to adopt a strategic approach to tackling and preventing homelessness. I especially welcome the emphasis on partnerships with social services departments, registered social landlords and the voluntary sector. However, it is essential for the homelessness strategy to integrate fully with each local authority's wider housing and development objectives. The strategies should contain specific proposals for securing more affordable housing in urban and rural areas.

Estimates by independent studies suggest that between 80,000 and 100,000 homes are needed annually to meet existing demand. I believe that many planning authorities do not use the powers that are available to them under planning policy guidance note 3 or section 106 agreements sufficiently aggressively to secure homes for rent, allied to new development. The Government could do much work on that to supplement the Bill.

More resources are also needed through the Housing Corporation's approved development programme to deliver new rented homes. If authorities are to create homelessness strategies, they need also to adopt specific targets in their development plans for rented homes. The Government need to think about providing a more specific definition of affordable housing for target setting. At the moment, affordable housing targets in development plans do not include specific proposals on rented homes. If they did, it would be a particular advantage in alliance with the Bill.

In delivering the homelessness strategy required by the Bill, authorities will need to give careful consideration to the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Targets are needed to reduce its usage, which currently costs the public purse more than £150 million. The private rented sector will also figure as a resource in most strategies to tackle homelessness. We have to acknowledge the massive scale of disrepair in the private rented sector, and we need a more effective national strategy to intervene in that area. Licensing for houses in multiple occupation will be important, but we also need to develop co-ordinated clearance and redevelopment strategies for areas beyond the reach of effective rehabilitation schemes.

The best local authority homelessness strategies required by the Bill will focus in great detail on the special needs of individuals presenting themselves as homeless. A range of specialist housing provision with tailored support will be needed, usually linked to employment and training opportunities. There are opportunities for local authorities to ensure that that will happen. When local authorities' housing investment programme submissions are considered, Ministers and officials will need to think, when ranking local authorities, how effective they have been in delivering the homelessness strategy in their area. That can be directly carried out, and authorities are currently graded in terms of their housing investment programme strategy. This element of work on homelessness should be a key component of that ranking and, therefore, a key mechanism through which resources can be distributed to the best local authorities.

In relation to the requirements on housing authorities, the abolition of the two-year time limit under clause 6 is particularly welcome. From experience, I can report that the current provisions are illogical and create great uncertainty in circumstances in which most local authorities act reasonably towards homeless applicants.

It is important that the Bill places the emphasis on the local authority to be proactive through the repeal of section 197 of the Housing Act 1996. Local authorities should be in a position to offer advice and assistance to people needing suitable accommodation. The current provisions, under which local authorities can largely sidestep the legislation and offer advice and assistance only when accommodation is available in their area, are not successful.

The element of the Bill that amends part V of the 1996 Act and prompts further choice is welcome in the context of creating sustainable communities. The Bill will support major progress being made on the neighbourhood renewal agenda. We need to generate a greater degree of tenure and income diversification on many estates, as identified by the social exclusion unit policy action team reports. Rented housing must be seen as a positive choice, rather than the tenure of last resort. For too long, we have allowed rented housing to be stigmatised, and have compounded that through inflexibility in the allocations process. The delivery of allocations needs to be transparent, but we also need to allow greater local letting activity, developed in partnership with local communities. In my experience, that can work very successfully if local people are given the opportunity to consider details in full. People are very flexible, and are willing to be accommodating to people who need to be housed.

It is important to consider the impact of the Bill on different housing markets across the country. It is clearly appropriate to set out a national position on homelessness, as the Bill does. However, it will be applied and used differently according to how local housing markets operate. There is massive pressure from homelessness in some areas, particularly in London and the south-east, where housing costs, land supply and economic migration create overwhelming demand. That is also the case in some other areas.

However, in many parts of the midlands and the north of England, there is a major problem of low demand and abandonment. Disrepair, antisocial behaviour, stigmatisation of rented housing and economic change have led to a spiral of decline in certain neighbourhoods. In areas of low demand, strategies developed under the auspices of the Bill will be radically different from those developed in, say, the London boroughs. The Government will need to consider regionally distinct approaches to those strategies and avoid a "one size fits all" response to housing market change. In many towns and cities, we shall need to consider the relatively new concept of housing market renewal areas, which will require significant co-ordination of Government resources. I hope that that will be a subject for further debate during this Parliament.

I note that housing, unlike many other matters that we debate in the House, touches all our lives. We all need and deserve good housing and this country has a long tradition of providing housing for those in greatest need. The Bill renews that commitment and is legislation with compassion at its heart. It is, however, only one component of a wider drive to give people quality and choice in the housing market, so I look forward to further Government proposals to transform people's living environment for the better.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath 9:40, 22 October 2001

I am delighted to follow David Wright, who made an interesting and thoughtful speech from which many of us could have learned had he been able to make it when we began our deliberations many months ago.

The Minister rightly said that hon. Members on both sides of the House want to find ways to deliver a long-term reduction in the incidence of homelessness and that the Bill is a big step along the road. However, as Mr. Kidney and other Members said, by itself it is insufficient. Much else needs to be done. The national homelessness strategy, which has been announced, will clearly play a key role in filling some gaps that cannot be filled by the Bill.

Important issues that must be addressed have been touched on—for example, the crucial issue of empty homes, which was referred to by the hon. Members for Stafford and for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). We might argue about the precise nature of the figures, but it is clear that the situation is obscene. There are about 750,000 empty properties and about 150,000 homeless households. We ought to be able to find far more effective ways of bringing those together.

Temporary accommodation is dealt with in the Bill, but much more needs to be done to reduce its use and to improve its quality and suitability. I am delighted to hear that the Minister is adamant that the work of the bed-and-breakfast unit and the new legislation on licensing houses in multiple occupation and other properties will target that issue.

We have debated how to help people who are already homeless, but we should not lose sight of the fact that the Bill refers to measures to prevent homelessness in the first instance. We have not dealt with that issue in detail, but I hope that the Minister will use every opportunity to draw attention to aspects of the strategies that local authorities must develop. We must make it a high priority. In that respect, she might be able to assist with a number of activities at national level, not least closer working relationships with mortgage lenders, to prevent some difficulties that people get into.

The Bill focuses on those in priority need, but it does not address the provision of support for non-priority homeless families and individuals. There is an urgent need to support those categories and to find more effective ways to deliver a service in all our local authorities, not only to priority categories but to non-priority categories of homeless people. I suggest to the Minister that the Government could quickly tackle one issue and thereby provide enormous benefit. They should take urgent action to sort out housing benefit administration, which is a mess in so many places.

The Bill, important though it is, could be seen as rearranging the deckchairs. It is an important rearrangement that will provide great benefit, but unless we significantly increase the number of affordable houses we will not be able to provide the choice-based systems that we want local authorities to adopt. The House will be aware that the spending review is not far distant. Many of us will examine its outcomes to see what it contains on housing.

It is perhaps a strange occurrence that housing is the number one issue in the postbags of the vast majority of Members of Parliament and the number one issue raised in their advice surgeries, yet rarely have we debated housing. I am delighted that that is beginning to change, and that we have before us a Bill that, although not perfect, will provide great assistance to many of the least-well-off people in our society.

The Under-Secretary, Dr. Whitehead, told us that in Committee we had frequently referred to the film "Groundhog Day". I suggest that that is not the best metaphor for what has happened tonight. Hon. Members will recall that in "Groundhog Day" events that started rather differently all ended up exactly the same. Today, we have tackled some of the issues that we have addressed before in a slightly different way, and we have made progress. We have had assurances from Ministers on various matters, and promises to consider issues in further detail. We have had assurances in respect of meetings with the Housing Corporation. I genuinely do not believe that "Groundhog Day" is the best analogy.

In Committee, I noted with interest that the Under-Secretary told us that his preferred film was not "Groundhog Day" but "Three Amigos" by John Landis. For those who wish to check the record, it is at column 23 on 10 July.

It strikes me that, regardless of the many differences that separate the major parties in the House and notwithstanding some minor differences, we have shown clear unanimity in our desire to see the Bill get on to the statute book as quickly as possible.

Photo of David Lepper David Lepper Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Pavilion 9:47, 22 October 2001

I welcome the provisions in the Bill. In my area, Brighton and Hove council is already doing many of the things that will be required of all local authorities. Preventive work through our housing advice centre has been important in preventing many local people from becoming homeless. We have devised a homelessness strategy, led by the local authority but involving, as hon. Members have said it should, the other partners in the development of that strategy, including the private sector.

However, there are constraints on what my local authority can do, especially under the Bill. Those constraints are the availability of social housing—only 15 per cent. of our housing stock is social housing compared with a national average of 22 per cent.—and the availability of affordable housing—87 per cent. of the households in housing need in my local authority area cannot afford suitable accommodation at market rents. In my area, the average price of a one-bedroom flat is £90,000, and the average rent for a one-bedroom flat is £583 per month. Average earnings per week are about £20 below the national average.

I welcome these measures, especially those relating to victims of violence and vulnerable young people. I welcome the Minister's assurance that they are only part of the strategy to deal with the problem of providing the housing that people deserve. Irrespective of the Bill, market forces determine that in the area that I and my hon. Friends the Members for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) and for Hove (Mr. Caplin) represent this will be only part of the weaponry that we need to deal with the problem of homelessness and threatened homelessness.

I seek the Minister's assurance that the Government will consider other measures to help to provide more affordable housing.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold 9:50, 22 October 2001

I am delighted to have at least a short time in which to sum up the debate. It has probably been one of the longest debates that we have had on homelessness for a long time. I am grateful to the Government for producing a Bill which, hopefully, will improve the current position rather than doing the opposite. As I said earlier, over the last three years the number of priority homeless has increased from 102,000 to 114,000. That is an unwelcome trend, which I hope the Bill will address.

Our Prime Minister recently vowed:

"Our approach will be founded on the basic aim of ensuring that everyone has the chance to a decent home—both the majority who want to own their own homes and the minority who either cannot afford to buy or choose to rent."

We all say amen to that, and I hope that the Bill will help to achieve it. However, the record over the last four years is not over-promising.

Between 1993 and 1996, 150,600 new social dwellings were built by local authorities and registered social landlords, but, sadly, between 1997 and 2000, only 95,500 were constructed. The amount of new social housing has therefore fallen by 37 per cent. We must reverse that trend. Shelter has calculated—I think Mr. Lepper mentioned this—that we need 100,000 houses over the next 10 years, and I welcome the Government's funding which is aimed at achieving that. If we could achieve it, principally through registered social landlords but with capital levered in from the private sector—

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold

I have very little time, but I will give way just once.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that levering in private funds through "coerce transfer" of housing stock from good local authorities is a totally vacuous concept that does not bring in a single penny piece?

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold

I rather wish that I had not given way to the hon. Gentleman. I have always got on well with him in the House, but I could not disagree more strongly with what he has just said. Government funding is of course one method by which we will improve our total housing stock, but I feel that the private sector has a major role to play. I have seen some very innovative new housing schemes in my constituency in which registered social landlords have combined with the private sector. Some involve local authority allocation, some involve shared ownership and some are purely in the rented sector. If the hon. Gentleman does not approve of that he does his constituents a great disservice, because what he recommends would mean many fewer registered social housing units being built in this country.

As I have said, I welcome the Bill, but it is a pity that it is slightly in a vacuum in that it does not consider the Government's overall homelessness strategy. I look forward to the legislation that will follow the strategy, to the licensing of houses in multiple occupation, and to measures tackling private landlords who abuse their position in the registered housing sector. All that was announced recently in a press release from, I believe, the Minister of State. So we have more legislation to come, and it will be interesting to see how this Bill fits in with it. It would also be interesting to know when the Government will produce that further legislation.

It is all very well to come up with legislation, but those on the ground have to operate it, and the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Some of the Government's actions have not been at all helpful in dealing with homelessness. In her excellent speech, my hon. Friend Mrs. May referred to the excessive changes in housing benefit regulations. The amount that we pay out in housing benefit has soared, not entirely under this Government, but over the past 10 years. Moreover, local authorities are finding it very difficult to implement the regulations, partly because they keep changing so often. There are between 70 and 80 circulars a year—more than one a week. There are particular difficulties where local authorities have contracted out the management of their housing benefit.

Sadly, time does not permit me to deal with other aspects of the Bill. Suffice it to say that I welcome provisions to deal with antisocial neighbours and the priority needs orders dealing with vulnerable 16 and 17-year-olds and 18 to 21-year-olds.

I hope that the Bill will achieve what it is designed to achieve, but I have some doubts, and I wish that the Government had been prepared to accept some of our amendments.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions) 9:56, 22 October 2001

For once we have had a long, informed debate on housing with a solid result in the form of a Bill that has the support and approval of hon. Members on both sides of the House. There have been differences, which were aired and examined in Committee and in the Chamber, and there have been changes to the Bill as it has made its often tortuous way through the House. It must be a successful Bill because I know that success has many fathers, and there have been competing claims to the paternity of the changes. I am delighted that, overall, it has enjoyed solid support at all its parliamentary stages.

The hon. Members for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and for Bath (Mr. Foster) demonstrated, in different ways, their support for the Bill. We realise that homelessness will not be transformed overnight, but the Government have the target well within our sights and we are taking action in a number of ways, not least through the Bill. Other initiatives include action on rough sleepers, the bed-and-breakfast unit, the target of 100,000 new affordable homes—not by 2010 but by 2004—new, wide-ranging housing investment, and the homelessness strategy, which is intended to tackle the problem with central and local government and key stakeholders in the housing and voluntary sectors. The strategy will help to set the broad context within which housing authorities will prepare their homelessness reviews.

We must take a wider approach to homelessness and housing need. I was delighted to hear the contribution of my hon. Friend David Wright, who is new to the House but clearly demonstrated his great expertise. He will be a great asset to the House in housing matters. He is right to say that we must have a broad strategy, underpinned by the Government's actions. That approach was endorsed by my hon. Friend Mr. Lepper.

The Bill will strengthen the protection available to homeless people and will encourage local housing authorities to adopt customer-centred lettings schemes. Taken with the Government's sound economic policies, our substantial increases in capital investment in housing and the wider policies that we are pursuing following last year's housing policy statement, the Bill will help us to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to live in a decent home. The Bill reflects our decency towards each other in society, whatever our circumstances. The House can be proud to support it, and I trust that it will receive a Third Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.