New Clause 1 — Rough sleepers

Orders of the Day — Homelessness Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:36 pm on 22 October 2001.

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'The Rough Sleepers Unit shall cease to operate with effect from April 2002, and its powers and responsibilities shall be devolved to local housing authorities.'.—[Mr. Clifton-Brown.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 2—Limitation of main homelessness duty for prisoners

'In subsection (1) of section 193 of the 1996 Act (duty to persons with priority need who are not homeless intentionally), after the word "assistance", there is inserted—

", has not been sentenced to imprisonment in respect of a conviction and been released from imprisonment within a period of six months prior to his application not having been resident in the authority's area at the time of sentence,".'.

New clause 3—Limitation of main homelessness duty to residents

'In subsection (1) of section 193 of the 1996 Act (duty to persons with priority need who are not homeless intentionally), after the word "assistance", there is inserted—

", was continually resident in the authority's area for a period of twelve months prior to his application,".'.

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

This is my maiden performance from the Front Bench, and I am honoured to be here.

The Homelessness Bill has a rather long-drawn-out history. Hon. Members will recall that the Bill's contents were essentially part II of the Homes Bill, which fell in the previous Session because of the general election. Had the Government accepted the Opposition's recommendation that Ministers drop the controversial aspect of the Homes Bill—on the seller's pack—the provisions of the Homelessness Bill would already be enacted and we would not have to spend time today debating the Bill and the proposed amendments to it.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath

I share many of the hon. Gentleman's feelings on that issue. Nevertheless, does he not accept that the Government's opportunity for reflection during the Dissolution occasioned by the general election has enabled Ministers to table amendments that are welcomed not only by Liberal Democrat Members but by Conservative Members?

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

The hon. Gentleman is right, and Conservative Members welcome greater reflection on any legislation. Indeed, the Opposition have been so critical of the Government's timetabling of various legislation because that timetabling does not allow sufficient reflection on legislation. Moreover, as we shall see today, although Ministers had time to reflect further on this legislation, they have not reflected long enough on some matters. We shall see what Ministers propose now after reflecting on the Opposition's amendments.

As I said, the House has long awaited the genesis and gestation of the Homelessness Bill. The provisions of new clause 1 itself, on ending the rough sleepers unit, were debated in Committee during passage of both the Homes Bill and the Homelessness Bill. On 25 January 2001, in debate in Committee on the Homes Bill and the provision on rough sleepers, the then Minister, Mr. Mullin, said:

"it is not intended that the unit should become a permanent fixture. Work is already under way to develop an exit strategy . . . It is envisaged that eventually the unit will be wound up and responsibility will be passed back to local authorities."—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 25 January 2001; c. 310.]

The Opposition have tabled new clause 1 to probe the Government's intention on this matter. The Under–Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Ms Keeble—whom I welcome to the debate—said:

"The rough sleepers unit has begun consulting on a future strategy."

I believe that that consultation will conclude on 1 April 2002. The Minister continued:

"The rough sleepers unit consultation process will take into account what role local authorities should play after 2002."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 10 July 2001; c. 44.]

Therefore, the first question for the Minister is what role she envisages for the rough sleepers unit. The purpose of new clause 1 is not to criticise the RSU's performance, as that has been rather good. From June 1998 to June 2000, the number of rough sleepers has decreased by 62 per cent., from 1,850 to 700, which is a commendable improvement. The reason why Opposition Members object to the RSU is that it is too bureaucratic and too expensive. Moreover, local authorities have the major role in dealing with rough sleepers. We believe that, as local authorities know most about what is happening in relation to rough sleeping in their area, they should be the leading partner in dealing with the problem.

What is the current nature of the problem of rough sleeping? As we know, 700 people are still sleeping rough on the streets. No hon. Member on either side of the House wants to see anyone sleeping rough at any stage, and we all accept that most of those who are sleeping rough are transient and can be helped in one way or another. We know also, however, that hard-drug use is a major factor in the reasons why people sleep rough. Some 75 per cent. of the rough sleepers in Soho are involved with hard or soft drugs. Perhaps we need to tackle the underlying problems in this area.

Another reason that the Government may cite for keeping the rough sleepers unit is that a large number of rough sleepers come from our armed forces. That is an utter disgrace. If we cannot provide proper counselling for members of our armed forces to ensure that when they leave they have a proper place to sleep and bring up their families, something is very wrong with the organisation.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South 4:45, 22 October 2001

If the new clause were successful, is the hon. Gentleman confident that local authorities will have the ability to perform similar roles to the rough sleepers unit? Will they be objective in carrying out that responsibility? Will they be able to cope with the pressure that will be put on them by charities and organisations that will constantly press them to look closely at the problem of rough sleepers? I do not believe that local authorities will be able to deal with that responsibility objectively. I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman could tell me whether he thinks they could.

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

We are not saying that local authorities should have the sole role in this matter; indeed, they will be one of the partners, along with the voluntary sector and charities. Local authorities know best what is going on in their area and they are the correct people to play the leading role. The hon. Gentleman asked whether local authorities would be objective. The vast bulk of local authorities—which do a tremendously good job—will take a responsible role and will be effective.

It must be said that the authorities that are most likely to be effective in this area are Conservative-controlled. In terms of turning around empty houses, Conservative authorities are successful, while Labour authorities take many months, or more, to turn them round. The local authority in Westminster has come up with innovative schemes to house rough sleepers, and such schemes should be replicated across the country. Best practice should be disseminated by the internet and other forms of information technology. By doing that, local authorities, with other partners, will be able to tackle the problem of the remaining rough sleepers.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

I have news for the hon. Gentleman. Many Labour-controlled local authorities have the same initiatives as the council he has just mentioned. My authority, Bolton, has a very good rough sleepers initiative. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the proposals implied by his new clause could be built into the requirements of the homelessness strategy that the Government will ask local authorities to produce?

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

I entirely agree. The two aspirations—the new clause and the hon. Gentleman's comments—are not mutually exclusive. One would expect the Government to build into the Bill some form of duty for local authorities. This problem is too important to be left hanging in the air and that is not the intention of my new clause. The intention is to probe the Government in view of previous statements by Ministers on the realistic role of the rough sleepers unit.

The unit is somewhat bureaucratic and expensive. We know, for example, that it has a budget of £198 million over three years, which could go directly to local authorities. That is a huge sum that, to use a rather crude phrase, could be recycled into the problem. I do not mean that uncaringly, but it is a simple fact of life that the money could go towards solving the problem, especially as local authorities already have housing staff in place, so there is some duplication between local authorities and the unit. We want to eliminate that duplication, not in any way to reduce the effectiveness of the effort being made to deal with the problem, which we regard, as the hon. Gentleman does, as very important.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Opposition Whip (Commons)

There is indeed a great deal of duplication. Will my hon. Friend speculate on how many homeless people that size of budget could help if it were channelled directly into the problem?

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

My hon. Friend reinforces my comments about duplication. Anyone can do the maths: 700 people divided into £198 million produces a very large sum for each rough sleeper. I am not saying that I would expect all the money to go towards the rough sleeping problem. It could be well directed towards some of the other problems that I have outlined, and others that we will refer to in our subsequent discussions.

The unit's administration budget is £3.6 million, and the chief executive is paid between £70,000 and £75,000. I do not begrudge her that in the slightest—she has done an amazingly good job—but she could be using her skills elsewhere, and the money that she and her staff are paid could be going towards dealing with this and other problems.

My hon. Friend Mr. Turner tabled new clause 2 to try to ensure that those who are released from prison do not get undue priority in a local authority's provision for the unintentionally homeless. This is a sensitive area. The problem with one group being given priority is that other groups are de facto disadvantaged. We have all heard from perfectly ordinary, decent constituents who, for one reason or another, despite being highly deserving, have not accumulated quite enough points—if the local authority is using a points system—to be housed. If we are to give criminals—that is what they are, or they would not have been in prison in the first place—priority over some of those people, it will make it even harder for them to get off the bottom of the pile.

I do not want to be too harsh. Of course, the rehabilitation of offenders must be an important part of our work. Again, we should give local authorities more discretion. Every case is different, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as you will know from your surgeries. You will have had heart-rending cases of people who have not been able to get priority for housing. In some circumstances, people coming out of prison might deserve priority, but it should not be written into the Bill that all such people should get it automatically. The more inclusive lists become in legislation, the more exclusive they are of those people who are not on the list. I wholly support new clause 2, and I hope that the Government will take it into account.

The third of our new clauses deals with priority for local people. This, too, is a difficult area; I have had several recent constituency cases involving the same kind of people—those who have not notched up enough points to be given priority housing, who find that people come in from outside the area and take priority over them.

If we want to maintain communities we should give local people some sort of priority. People moving back to live near their families are a classic case; communities would be strengthened by giving them priority over somebody coming in from outside—for example, a criminal. A criminal coming in from outside could be made a priority over people who were originally local and wanted to move back and live near their family. The problem when such people lose a house is more acute in rural areas, because in some places, a village house owned by a registered social landlord comes up only once every few years, and if a local person loses that one opportunity it may not come again for a long time.

My hon. Friend is right to want to put on the statute book the idea that those who have a local connection should be one of the groups considered to have a priority need for housing.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

The hon. Gentleman seems to be concentrating on areas of high demand, but he knows that houses are available in areas of low demand. If the Government accepted new clause 3, would it not rule out a person moving from an area of high demand to an area of low demand?

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

The hon. Gentleman is right. The Opposition believe that, by and large, people should be housed in the area from which they come. If people come—from London, for example—to seek priority housing in an area of low demand such as his, if there is no priority housing available, it would be better for them to be sent back to their own local authority, if that is convenient and possible for them, and that authority should then consider the problem.

I accept that the problems for an authority such as the hon. Gentleman's are totally different from those in my area. Legislation, however, always deals with the most difficult cases, and in an authority such as mine, where there are probably five potential applicants for every house that becomes available, it is disheartening for local people with a reasonably high priority need for housing to find that people coming in from the outside make sure that they never reach the point of being offered a house. I accept part of what the hon. Gentleman says, but I believe that he would also recognise the severe difficulties that face an authority such as mine.

Priorities are difficult, but the Opposition think that local authorities should be given discretion. Hon. Members will see that later amendments attempt to give local authorities more duties and obligations—yet the more duties and obligations we give local authorities, the less easy it is for them to make their own decisions and the less effective they will become.

For example, a huge number of directives and regulations have been issued concerning housing benefit, and in some authorities the administration of that benefit has descended into chaos. The Opposition do not want to see that. We want an effective homelessness policy; we want local authorities' housing policies to become ever more effective, with rapid turnround of empty houses in both the private and the public sector, so that we can deal with some of the problems.

New clause 1 deals with rough sleepers—a problem that we acknowledge, and want to reduce further. We also want to ensure that correct discretion is given to local authorities over which groups should have priority on the housing list, and new clauses 2 and 3 were tabled with that objective in mind. I ask the Government to answer the questions that I have posed.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions 5:00, 22 October 2001

I welcome Mr. Clifton-Brown to his new position and to the deliberations on the Bill. The new clauses and the other amendments tabled all seek to alter the homelessness responsibilities of local housing authorities.

New clause 1 would cease the operation of the rough sleepers unit and give housing authorities the primary responsibility for addressing problems of rough sleeping. I hope that all hon. Members share the Government's concern for the plight of people sleeping rough. The RSU was established in 1999. It has been set the specific objective of reducing the number of people sleeping rough in England to as near zero as possible, and by at least two-thirds, by April 2002.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the unit has already made excellent progress towards that demanding target. It has taken a partnership approach, delivered through a national strategy. Housing authorities and voluntary sector agencies play a key role in delivering the strategy at local level. One of the successes of the unit has been its ability to draw together different programmes from across government, including programmes to help people suffering mental ill health or problems of drug and alcohol addiction. It takes a joined-up approach in looking at why people sleep rough in the first place, and offering them an alternative to a life on the streets.

By working across government, the unit makes sure that all organisations with a stake in the problem—like local authorities, the Prison Service, the Benefits Agency and the armed forces—are doing their bit to tackle it. The hon. Gentleman acknowledged that the results had been good, but that is not only because the unit has been able to reduce the numbers—the head count—sleeping rough. It has also been successful in changing thinking in the approach to dealing with rough sleepers and introducing more permanent solutions.

The unit has been consulting authorities, voluntary sector homelessness agencies and others, including people sleeping rough, former rough sleepers and those at risk of rough sleeping, on a future strategy. The unit is currently examining responses to the consultation and is evaluating the impact of its strategy to identify how work to tackle rough sleeping, and prevent people from hitting the streets in the first place, should continue beyond April 2002. The hon. Gentleman recognised the impact of that date. An announcement on the future arrangements will be made in the coming months.

The role of housing authorities will, of course, be a factor in the analysis. They will need to build on their present successes in working in partnership with voluntary sector agencies and other statutory organisations to reduce the number of people sleeping rough, to ensure that numbers are sustained at a low level. That will be a substantial challenge. The hon. Member for Cotswold identified the role of the Ministry of Defence and, in doing so, he recognised the complexity of the issue and the importance of ensuring a smooth transition from the present arrangements to whatever comes after April 2002. The new ways of working that have been introduced must be continued, so that we do not see a rise in the head count of people sleeping rough after that date.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

Is the Minister satisfied that the RSU and her Department have accurate figures for the number of rough sleepers? A survey was done in my constituency—the city of Portsmouth has around 140,000 adults—and only one rough sleeper was found. When that result was questioned, it was suggested that the count was inaccurate because the likely places to find rough sleepers were too dangerous for the people carrying out the surveys to enter to ascertain the true figure. I know that on one evening at least a dozen people were sleeping in a derelict building but who had not formed part of the count.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. The head counts are snapshots taken at a particular point in time. The work of the rough sleepers unit has shown that there is often a perceptible difference between the number of people who sleep rough and the number out on the streets during the day. If the hon. Gentleman has clear evidence of a substantial mistake, I would be happy to take it up.

The numbers reflect the circumstances of the nights on which head counts are taken. They are taken repeatedly and all the evidence points to a substantial and sustained decrease in the number of people sleeping rough which, I am sure, is down to the innovative and sometimes challenging way in which the rough sleepers unit has gone about its task. In the context of that work, I ask the hon. Member for Cotswold to withdraw the new clause.

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

Does the Minister accept that the success of the rough sleepers unit has been largely superseded and that the purpose of this consultation is to see what should follow it? We should use the resources that it consumes in a better way and, in particular, ensure that the best practice for which it is responsible is disseminated and used by local authorities.

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

I take issue with what the hon. Gentleman says. First, I would not underestimate the real value of the rough sleepers unit in challenging some of the conventions, including some voluntary sector assumptions, about rough sleepers. That has been extremely important and could have been done only by a very strong, centrally based unit.

It is also extremely important to recognise that the rough sleepers unit has not succeeded simply because it has got numbers down in one or two head counts. It has identified some of the structural causes of people sleeping rough and has considered structural solutions to the problem. Whatever the transition that takes place, those arrangements must be maintained so that there is no damage to some of the working practices which I suspect are still in their infancy, comparatively speaking. We do not want a return to the kind of problems which were well known in London when the hon. Gentleman's party was in government. That is why it is particularly important that we conduct the consultation carefully and do not precipitate a decision, one way or another, simply for the convenience of this legislation.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

Does my hon. Friend accept the point that I made to the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton- Brown) about local authorities building in to their strategy reports how they will deal with rough sleepers in the future?

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

That matter will covered in guidance; I am sure that people will find it of interest.

Photo of Charles Hendry Charles Hendry Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does the hon. Lady agree in principle with the comments of her predecessor, Mr. Mullin, as quoted by my hon. Friend Mr. Clifton-Brown, that the rough sleepers unit has a finite lifetime? If so, when we will have an exit strategy? When does the hon. Lady envisage that the current programme is due to reach its target, if not next year?

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

I have already given the time scales for the consultation, for when we expect to have a strategy and when, therefore, we expect to move on. It is more important to have the right solution than one that is time limited. I would prefer to have in place arrangements that not only deal with people currently sleeping rough but ensure that those who are at risk of being on the streets—people who have been in care, in the army or have come out of prison—do not end up sleeping rough. I would prefer a good solution to one that suits a particular bureaucratic time scale.

To turn to new clauses 2 and 3, the essence of the Homelessness Bill, and our proposed draft order extending the priority need categories, is to offer greater protection to those who are genuinely homeless through no fault of their own. It is about achieving more equitable systems for the allocation of social housing, and ensuring that authorities think strategically about the needs of all groups in their area and plan appropriate provision of accommodation and support accordingly. In short, the Bill mixes pragmatism with compassion, both of which the Opposition are clearly short on when it comes to the issue of ex-offenders.

There is a broad consensus of support for the thrust of the Bill, which is to strengthen the safety net available for people who are homeless and have a priority need. That consensus of support has included Opposition Members, yet new clauses 2 and 3 would weaken the safety net.

The effect of new clause 2 would be that ex-prisoners who wanted to make a homelessness application within six months of their release from prison would have to apply to the local housing authority in whose district they were residing when they were sentenced. If they were to apply to any other local housing authority within that period, no duty whatever would be owed—regardless of whether they were unintentionally homeless and had a priority need for accommodation. Only after six months would they be able to make an application to other local housing authorities and have it properly considered in the normal way.

To an extent, I understand the intention behind the new clause, and sympathise with the constituency interests that it seeks to protect. I think that they apply to one constituency in particular. I sense that, behind the new clause, there is concern that the draft order that the Government propose to make under section 189 of the Housing Act 1996, to extend the categories of applicant who have a priority need for accommodation, may lead to a significant increase in the number of ex-prisoners who will be entitled to temporary accommodation under the homelessness legislation.

Let me make clear that there is no reason to expect that the order would have the result predicted. First, the order would provide that there was priority need only where the housing authority was satisfied that the individual was vulnerable. Secondly, authorities should already accept that applicants who are vulnerable for that reason—or any other—have a priority need by virtue of the current provisions in section 189 of the 1996 Act. These provide that a person has a priority need if he is vulnerable not only as a result of factors such as old age and mental illness, but as a result of another special reason.

There has been a lot of nonsense—some of it shameful—talked about the provisions in the draft order which bear on those who are vulnerable as a result of having served a custodial sentence. It has been suggested that the order would allow ex-prisoners to jump the housing queue ahead of families. This is nonsense, and it confuses priority need for short-term assistance under the homelessness legislation with priority for an allocation of long-term housing through the housing register. The order bears on applications for assistance under the homelessness legislation. It puts ex-prisoners who are homeless and genuinely vulnerable on the same footing as other vulnerable homeless people who need short-term assistance with accommodation until a settled housing solution can be found.

I understand the thinking behind the new clause, but the 1996 Act already contains adequate provisions to address the situation where a person applies for homelessness assistance to an authority in one area but has a local connection elsewhere. Under current provisions, where an authority has decided that an applicant is unintentionally homeless, in priority need and owed a main homelessness duty, and if the applicant does not have a local connection with that authority's district but has one somewhere else, the authority has a discretionary power to refer the applicant to the authority in the area where there is a connection. For that purpose, a local connection can be established because of residence—by the person's choice—employment or family associations in the area or because of special circumstances.

Under guidelines issued by the Local Government Association, to which all housing authorities operate, there must be normal residence in an area of at least six months before a local connection is established by way of residence for the purpose of meeting the statutory conditions for referral. However, there is specific provision in the 1996 Act which prevents a local connection being established as a result of the applicant becoming resident in an area because he is detained in prison. Thus, under current provisions and arrangements, it would be open to an authority dealing with an applicant who was unintentionally homeless and in priority need, and who met the additional criteria that new clause 2 would impose, to refer him or her to another authority.

New clause 3 seeks to tinker with existing provisions on local connection; I have already explained how those provisions work. Broadly speaking, under current arrangements, a person will not establish a local connection with an area by way of residence until he or she is normally resident there of their own choice—so not in prison—for at least six months. A local connection can also be established as a result of employment, family associations or special circumstances. The current arrangements therefore provide a pragmatic and flexible framework which, on the one hand, helps to provide a safety net for homeless people, allowing them to seek help wherever they are, regardless of whether they have a local connection. On the other hand, it allows local authorities to refer applicants to the appropriate authority in cases in which the local connection rests elsewhere.

New clause 3 would demolish that pragmatic framework. One effect would be that, regardless of whether homeless applicants had a local connection with an area because of employment, family associations or other reasons, they would be unable to obtain any homelessness assistance from the local authority in that area if they had not been resident there for at least 12 months. Such a proposition is unacceptable.

However, the effects of new clause 3 would go much wider. Many applicants will have lived somewhere in Great Britain for at least 12 months and would therefore be able to make an application to an authority somewhere, even if that involved making an application from a location at one end of the country to an authority at the other end. But what about the position of those applicants who had not lived anywhere in Great Britain for 12 months, which could include people from overseas who had been granted refugee status or given indefinite or exceptional leave to remain in the United Kingdom? It could also include European nationals with a right of residence in the UK. Those groups are eligible for assistance under the homelessness legislation, but could be denied access to such help under new clause 3. Quite apart from the practical implications, that could result in a breach of the UK's EU treaty obligations and other international obligations. The way in which those rules operate is obviously fairly complex, but they are designed to give the correct balance of rights for the homeless and flexibility for local authorities to make the best possible arrangements for people who present themselves as homelessness, so I strongly urge hon. Members not to press new clauses 2 and 3.

Photo of Adrian Sanders Adrian Sanders Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government) 5:15, 22 October 2001

Liberal Democrat Members welcomed the Bill first time round and we welcome even more its re-emergence in amended form. Clearly, some thought and reflection have taken place in the intervening period and it has been much improved; Liberal Democrat Members hope to improve it still further.

We do not support the three new clauses, and would probably not do so in any circumstances. I have been a critic of the rough sleepers unit, partly because rough sleepers come in all shapes and sizes, but the initial recommendations for removing the bulk of them from the streets basically increased the provision available for those who would otherwise have gone into hostels. My criticism of the policy is that many rough sleepers have particular needs, but they do not all have those needs met. For example, those who require drug rehabilitation cannot all find places on rehabilitation programmes. Indeed, it is often the case not that there are no resources for such programmes, but that there are not enough people to carry them out. The Government ought to look at that separately; I am sure that the rough sleepers unit will be aware of it.

There are other issues which some people might consider minor. For example, a rough sleeper who has a pet cannot take it into a hostel. More thought needs to be given to the first stage of helping people to rehabilitate themselves after rough sleeping, if the problem is simply that they cannot take a place in a hostel because they have a pet animal with them.

The bulk of the work of the rough sleepers unit has rightly been praised from all parts of the House. The unit has issued best practice guidelines which have been of great benefit to local authorities. The fact that the unit examines what is happening in various parts of the country, assesses the numbers, and issues guidelines has improved the services available throughout the country to local authorities trying to tackle the problem of rough sleepers. Given that the Government have promised a review of the rough sleepers unit, the new clause should be withdrawn and forgotten for the moment.

New clause 2 would reduce the duty to assist people released from prison. First, it would set a six-month period from release until authorities had a duty to assist with housing. Secondly, if the applicant was not resident in the area at the time of sentencing, the authority would have no duty.

The Liberal Democrat view is that housing is fundamental to the rehabilitation of ex-offenders. Evidence suggests that people with fixed accommodation are less likely to reoffend and are more committed to any assistance programme in which they may be involved. The clause would make it much harder for ex-offenders to find accommodation and to move away from areas where they have criminal connections.

Mr. Clifton-Brown seemed to suggest that once the sentence is served, the offender remains a criminal. That is not the view of our criminal justice system, and it is certainly not the view of those on the Liberal Democrat Benches.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to clarify what I said. Once a criminal has served his sentence, he can in no way still be considered a criminal. We are discussing the housing priority of various groups. It is our view that that matter is best left to the discretion of the local authority, especially in areas such as that of my hon. Friend Mr. Turner. His authority has a particular problem, as it has three prisons.

Photo of Adrian Sanders Adrian Sanders Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. He said in his opening remarks that ex-offenders were criminals, and that criminals would jump the queue. However, they are no longer criminals once they have served their sentence, and I am glad for that clarification. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that former criminals were one of the largest groups of rough sleepers. The clause would remove their right to receive assistance as a priority group and their right to be looked on kindly by local authorities.

New clause 3 would limit the main homelessness duty to residents. It seems to confuse the aims of the Bill. There is a distinction between offering support to various groups and the allocation of priorities. The hon. Member for Cotswold mentioned service people. They may not be able to provide a local address within the previous 12 months, which would automatically remove their right to be recognised under the Bill as a priority group. The effects of the clause on such groups have not been properly thought through.

I shall comment later on the general deficiencies in the Government's homelessness policy, if I am lucky enough to catch the Deputy Speaker's eye. Meanwhile, in respect of all three new clauses, I hope that the motion will be withdrawn.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Highgate

I oppose the new clauses, which seem paradoxical in what they purport to achieve. Mr. Clifton-Brown, who speaks from the Opposition Front Bench on these issues, was rightly full of praise for the work that has been achieved by the rough sleepers unit, and its particular initiative in reducing the numbers of rough sleepers on our streets. However, new clauses 2 and 3, by what they would require of the Bill, would make the situation perfect for increasing the number of rough sleepers on our streets.

It is surely absurd to dub somebody an ex-offender, but perhaps I am paraphrasing what the hon. Member for Cotswold said. People can be in prison who are ex-members of the armed forces. They can be drug and alcohol-dependent and can be vulnerable. If they have nowhere to go after having served their prison sentence and no one is responsible for attempting to house them, their most natural recourse will be to rough sleeping back on the streets.

The hon. Gentleman is somewhat confused about the realities of the housing that is provided by local authorities for people for whom they must already accept a responsibility. He kept talking about houses. It would be rare in the borough in my constituency and in some of the most hard-pressed boroughs, if not all the boroughs in the Greater London area, if they were able to afford to offer a house to anyone for whom they had a specific housing responsibility. There are vast numbers of people in temporary housing. Families are in bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

The hon. Gentleman talked about locality and individuals' links with particular areas. In Greater London, local authorities accept housing responsibilities, but they may house a group, an individual or a family in a borough many miles from their own. It is especially a problem for the GLA because it is probably the most hard-pressed area for housing, and certainly for affordable housing, in the United Kingdom.

I say to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that I do not support the call for the rough sleepers unit to be wound up and for responsibility to be farmed out to local authorities. The idea of the hon. Member for Cotswold—that the problems of rough sleepers would be solved by divvying up £198 million between 700 people—leads me to believe that he is not as aware as he should be of the realities of rough sleepers.

Often, a rough sleeper's problems are not solved by bricks and mortar alone. Such people have many complex needs that cannot be met by an individual or one organisation. They require properly integrated support packages, which in my experience include a local authority and a voluntary or charitable organisation. The national health service will most certainly be included, not least in the area of improving mental health. There may be a requirement for advice from the Benefits Agency. Certainly there will be a need for retraining and reskilling. The needs of rough sleepers run through our national life, which is why I do not support the new clauses.

I return to the point that I was attempting to make to my hon. Friend the Minister. Once the proper exit strategy for the rough sleepers initiative has been achieved, there will still be a need for services to be provided for them. People will continue to come on to the streets, especially those of central London. Four London boroughs are carrying the heaviest burden, and perhaps she and other right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department could examine the possibility of transferring the responsibilities of the rough sleepers initiative to the Mayor and the GLA. Perhaps this is not a true belief, but there is anecdotal evidence of some of the more distant or outer boroughs of the GLA saying, "We have no rough sleeping problem." No, they do not, because their rough sleepers come to central London. The increase in young people sleeping rough on the streets of central London is almost invariably due to their coming from the outer London boroughs. They are there because of family breakdown and, in some instances, severe abuse in the family. The instability of an environment where severe overcrowding has an impact on the whole family is also a factor.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider my suggestion because, despite the RSU's excellent work, I believe that such an approach to preventing rough sleeping and keeping people off the streets will not remain a central and integral part of the work of the London boroughs and local authorities throughout the country.

New clauses 2 and 3 would increase the possibility of ever more rough sleepers on the streets.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight 5:30, 22 October 2001

I agree with Mr. Foster that the delay in introducing the Bill has been fortunate, especially for the two issues to do with prisoners and others. My constituency background led to my tabling new clauses 2 and 3, but I am sure that the experience is not limited to my constituency.

The Minister acknowledged the specific circumstances of the Isle of Wight in respect of prisoners, but the relevance of the point about other people moving into a constituency and seeking housing is not confined to the Isle of Wight. The island word "overner" is usually used jocularly to refer to someone who comes from the mainland. No one counts as an islander without being there longer than 30 years.

Prisoners do not choose to come to the island, but they may choose to remain. Many new Members must deal with the problem of who is responsible for prisoners. When prisoners write to me from Parkhurst, do they belong to me or the Member of Parliament for their home constituency? When prisoners' relatives who live on the island complain to me about conditions in a prison in another part of the country, is it my responsibility or that of another hon. Member?

Residents of the island believe that those leaving prison are the responsibility of where they came from. Mr. Sanders was wrong to suggest that new clause 2 would remove any duty to provide assistance for prisoners. It merely makes it clear that the duty should be exercised by the authority in which a prisoner lived at the time of sentencing. Provision for prisoners should be made, but not in the constituency where they happen to be imprisoned and released.

As the Minister acknowledged, there are three prisons on the island. That must be more per head than in most constituencies. One in particular has a good record of dealing with drug addiction and paedophiles. It is not surprising that paedophiles find it more difficult to move back to their home constituencies when they are released and are therefore more likely to seek housing on the island. That, however, is not the right solution because they need to be reintegrated.

There are examples of paedophiles who, on their release, have returned to Newport, in my constituency, to the house they lived in when they were convicted. They are known by the local community, which takes a tolerant, understanding and sensible attitude towards them and does not drum them out. Surely we would recommend that approach, not their transfer to a place with which they have no connection and where they are likely to be regarded with grave suspicion.

I do not demur from the assertion of the need to offer support to released prisoners, but that requirement should not be imposed on my constituents—or on the constituents of other hon. Members with prison establishments in their constituencies—disproportionately. There are also prisoners whose wives or girl friends come to live on the island during their sentence, because that makes it easier to visit. It is difficult for local people to see that those wives or girl friends deserve to be housed on the island at the time of release.

The Minister suggested that there was a lack of compassion in the amendments. There is no lack of compassion, but there is an understanding that if we give priority to one group, we reduce the priority of another. I would like to emphasise, particularly to Dr. Iddon, that there is no suggestion that prisoners should not be dealt with, merely a suggestion that they should be dealt with where they live, rather than where they are released.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath

Can the hon. Gentleman imagine a situation in which a prisoner might, as a result of the offence for which he or she was convicted, subsequently have a major family breakdown? That prisoner's main relatives might happen to live in the same constituency as the one the prison is in; it would therefore be more appropriate for that person to be housed in that area. I accept that that is fairly unlikely, but it is possible. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the amendment would prevent that from happening?

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I would not agree with that for a moment.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

Because the amendment makes certain provisions. It contains an awful lot of double negatives. Perhaps I should read it and put the pauses in. It provides for the insertion of the words

", has not been sentenced . . . in respect of a conviction"— pause—

"and been released from imprisonment within a period of six months prior to his application"— pause—

"not having been resident in the authority's area at the time of sentence,".

In other words, if he was resident there at the time of sentence, he would be a priority for that local authority.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath

We are dealing with a hypothetical example, but I was using it to illustrate the complexity of the situation and the problem that would be created by the hon. Gentleman's amendment. It would be perfectly possible for someone to have been sentenced in another local authority area and to have had a breakdown of family relationships as a result of the activity that led him to be sentenced. The remainder of his family might happen to live in the local authority area in which the prison was located. By the hon. Gentleman's own admission, that local authority would be unable to assist that person in those circumstances, even if it wished to do so.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I understand that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the remainder of the prisoner's family with whom he maintains good relations. I misunderstood; I thought that he meant those with whom he no longer had good relations. In those circumstances, I hope that the family would be able to support the person, and that he would not expect that support to be provided by the rest of the community.

I want to add a further point on the housing of former offenders. It is a matter of great concern to my constituents, and perhaps to many others, that housing associations do not have information on the records of ex-offenders when they come to allocate housing to them. They might, therefore, allocate housing to known paedophiles, who have finished their sentences, in the middle of housing estates or blocks of flats where young children live. That matter—although not the subject of the amendment—needs to be taken on board by the Government.

New clause 3 relates to the problem of the definition of "local connection" for the purposes of statutory homelessness. I thank the Minister, in passing, for confirming that local authorities will be allowed to take account of local connection in their allocation procedures. However, the new clause is about statutory homelessness. Many people on the south coast of England, and perhaps in many other parts of the country, come to coastal constituencies to work in the holiday trade or in fruit picking, and to live in holiday accommodation that is available for short lets during the winter months. At the end of, say, six or seven months, they present themselves as homeless to the local authority. If they are taken as homeless, they go up in priority and the normal, regular, long-standing residents of the constituency go down. We must understand that giving additional priority to one person means a lower priority for someone else. That is the point that has not been accepted by Liberal Democrat Members. Priority for one means less priority for another; frankly, islanders are fed up with being pushed to the end of the queue by people who come to work as fruit or tomato pickers.

Photo of David Wright David Wright Labour, Telford

Would not the hon. Gentleman have been better served by tabling a new clause that specifically mentioned those groups, if he is particularly concerned about them? This is a blunderbuss new clause that covers a range of people.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I did not table a new clause dealing with specific groups because I do not want to remove any powers from the local authority. I merely want to remove the compulsion on it. It is better to leave local authorities with a range of powers, which they exercise at their discretion, rather than undertake detailed intervention by the Government or the House.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

Can the hon. Gentleman explain what would happen to a service man whose family or marriage broke up while he was at sea? On his return from the sea, he might leave the Navy. The family might have been based in my constituency in Portsmouth and his natural home would be Portsmouth, but perhaps for more than a year he would have had no recognition of that fact and no address in Portsmouth or anywhere else that was his.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

Nothing in the new clause would remove local authority discretion to give priority to specific groups. All I am saying is that many constituencies, which are perhaps not like Portsmouth, South, experience a regular, seasonal influx of workers who, at the end of their term, during which they might have been provided with accommodation while they picked tomatoes or garlic, present themselves as homeless. They jump the queue in which others have waited patiently.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Highgate

I am most interested in the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I do not understand why his local authority accepts people as homeless without considering other contingencies that would make them vulnerable. Surely we are discussing not the exercise of local authority discretion, but how most local authorities, which are seriously overstretched in respect of affordable social housing, attempt to deal with such problems. I have yet to encounter a local authority that does not have a strict listing of what constitutes vulnerability.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I am sure that that is true, but the point is that those who live in an area temporarily, having come for a specific short-term job, should not get priority above normal residents. That is the substance of my new clause.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Highgate

I am still not clear why the hon. Gentleman's local authority would for 30 seconds think itself responsible for those particular itinerant workers.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

Perhaps the hon. Lady should correspond with my local authority.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

Glenda Jackson has the problem, not me. That is the position as it is perceived by so many of my constituents.

Photo of Charles Hendry Charles Hendry Opposition Whip (Commons)

I rise to support new clause 1 and to make a few points about new clause 2.

I agree entirely with those who have spoken about the success of the rough sleepers unit over the past few years, but I was intrigued as I listened to Glenda Jackson as she suggested that all the changes and the joined-up thinking across government began when the unit was created.

The hon. Lady overlooked a lot of the good work done in preceding years by the rough sleepers initiative, which sought precisely to bring Departments together in such a way that they would realise that many of the homeless and people on the streets had significant problems not just with drugs or alcohol, but with welfare, education and a range of different issues. The great strength of the rough sleepers initiative was that it tried to tackle those problems. The RSU moved on from that by providing an actual presence. It is wrong to say that that approach was taken only when the unit was suggested.

At the outset, I should have declared an interest as vice-president of The Big Issue Foundation. I should be grateful if that could be put on the record.

My hon. Friend Mr. Clifton-Brown suggested that the £198 million that is spent each year by the RSU could be better spent by local authorities, and I agree with his assessment. What worried me about the Minister's response to my intervention was that ministerial minds seem to be moving from a unit set up specifically to tackle the current crisis to something that is part of the permanent structure of government. I sense that the proposals will contain not an exit strategy, but an explanation of why Ministers believe that the unit should continue for some years more and then be reviewed again.

Unless the Bill contains a requirement that the unit should be wound up by a specific time, the issue will gradually slip off the agenda. The Minister's predecessor, Mr. Mullin, was right to recognise that the unit should not have an enduring, permanent quality. When it has achieved its intentions, we should find other ways to carry out that work.

We should also recognise that the issues that affect different parts of the country reflect different needs. If money, instead of being handled entirely through the unit, were given to the local authorities affected, they would address their homelessness problems in different ways. It is possible that they would take a different approach in Hampstead and Highgate from that taken by Westminster, or Westminster would want to do it differently from Brighton or Manchester. Only by being given the funds, the ability and the discretion to deal with homelessness can local authorities make decisions in the interests of people living and sleeping rough in their areas.

Where appropriate, local authorities should be able to move towards prevention rather than cure. The numbers of rough sleepers are coming down—we all welcome that—so local authorities will want to become more proactive in addressing this problem. If they have the numbers firmly under control, they will want to prevent people from sleeping rough rather than take responsive action. That should not be done centrally: individual local authorities should be given the chance to do that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold spoke about people who leave the armed forces. Another dimension to the problem is the frightening proportion of rough sleepers who have come out of local authority care. Many of those people are still of an age at which the local authority has a legal duty of care towards them. One of the most scandalous failures of the public sector has been that it has let down young people in care. The public sector says that it will look after vulnerable people, but in no other example has it failed them so dismally with such disastrous consequences. That is not a criticism of the Government; it is a continuing criticism of the care system over many years. It would make sense for the money that is spent by the RSU to be passed back to local authorities so that they can put in place the strategies and structures that would enable them to fulfil their duty of care most effectively.

I listened with great care to the comments of my hon. Friend Mr. Turner on new clause 2. Clearly, he has a particular problem, but it is not unique to the Isle of Wight. Many of us have constituencies with prisons in them or adjacent to them. It is a matter of great concern to all those communities that people coming out of prison look to set up their new homes in those areas. There may be good reasons why they do not want to go back to the areas they came from—either because of marital breakdown or because the nature of the crimes that they committed was such that they do not feel they can fit back into that community. The communities in which prisons are, however, should not then bear the burden of finding housing for those people as well.

I was not sure what the Minister meant when she used the phrase "resident by a person's choice". I am not sure what that means. Many people leaving prison or any other form of institutional life would love to live in East Sussex, a beautiful area with wonderful scenery and great facilities. One can see why they would make that choice; one can also see why many people would want to live in an inner-city area with a vibrant community. I feel, however, that there should be a more tangible reason for wanting to live somewhere than the fact that it is an attractive location.

The Minister mentioned family connections. How tenuous could such a connection be? Are we talking about parents, or about brothers and sisters? Might a great-aunt happen to live in a place in which such people think it would be pleasant to live? That phrase, too, must be clarified.

Above all, when dealing with the resettlement of offenders, we must focus on what is best for them. Resettling them in the area in which they have just left prison may not be the best way of doing that. There will be places where they know more people, where they have a circle of friends, and which could have a positive influence on their rehabilitation.

What causes a number of people to return to the spiral of decline into criminality after their release is the nature of the circumstances and the community in which they happen to be living. Unless there is a support structure consisting of people who know and care about them, and who will tell them that there is a better way of leading their lives than a return to crime, it will be much more difficult to ensure that they do not slip back into criminality. If they come out of Parkhurst and live somewhere else on the Isle of Wight, or come out of Lewes and live in Lewes, they will not have access to the support system that would enable them to break away from a life of crime. That must be our first objective, and that is why I support new clause 2.

I have little to say about new clause 3, but I think it has a particular dimension relating to the Isle of Wight. In areas with peculiar local authority boundaries—such as that between Wealden and Mid-Sussex—a number of anomalies would arise. People living in a small village next to a large town where their children go to school might wish to move to the town but might find it more difficult than they would otherwise. I see that the new clause has significant advantages for the Isle of Wight, however.

I hope that the House will accept the new clause.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South 5:45, 22 October 2001

Like many who have already spoken, I think that the extra time available to both Ministers and the House has enabled the Bill to appear in much better shape than it did originally. This must be one of the few occasions when time has been used to good purpose and has fundamentally improved a Bill—so much so that there is now little for most Members to be able to criticise.

These three interesting new clauses have raised a number of basic points about the way we treat people in this country. The rough sleepers unit may have done a good job, but I am not altogether convinced that it has done the whole job, and I am far from sure that the job is complete to the extent that we can now say the unit should be wound up.

In an intervention, I mentioned a head count in my constituency. That has left a very bad taste in the mouths of many who have advocated the provision of proper facilities for homeless people. The suggestion that a head count of only one person sleeping rough was an accurate reflection of the situation in a city like Portsmouth was ludicrous and a manifest misrepresentation of the true position. As I said, those conducting the survey were unwilling to enter at least two buildings, simply because of their unsafe nature. The same must apply in many inner-city areas.

Cities like Portsmouth will soon have no facilities for night shelters for genuine rough sleepers. That is being heavily criticised by Churches and by many of the charitable organisations that have worked for years to observe the rights of, and provide facilities for, young people who—as other Members have said—have been let down by local authorities, and not only those in which they now find themselves. I shall say something about members of the armed forces later, but there are a number of vulnerable people who will never be picked up in surveys and will continue to be a cause of concern to those who genuinely care about the issue.

I am not entirely sure that local authorities will rush to accept the responsibility proposed in new clause 1. I think there should be at least an arm's-length arrangement directing resources and priorities both to and from Government, and I think it would be lost if the RSU were wound up.

As for new clause 2, I congratulate Mr. Turner on his robust defence of his position. There are three prisons in his constituency, and no one should minimise the problems that that involves. Families do move near to prisons like those and like the one in my constituency, which cater predominantly for long-stay prisoners—very long-stay prisoners, in some instances—to make visiting easier. The Isle of Wight is notoriously unpopular with families because of the logistics of travelling to and from the island at all times of the year. I feel that the hon. Gentleman was right to flag up the issue, but I think he has failed to address a fundamental flaw in his proposal.

The hon. Gentleman said that we should not allow prisoners the flexibility to identify the Isle of Wight as a good place in which to live. He suggested, however, that the housing needs of a fruit picker who went to the Isle of Wight on a seasonal basis and then decided one year to stay would be readily recognised. He failed to deal with the many other criteria that would have to be met. The prisoner would probably have fallen into the category of those in the place in question and needing support.

As Glenda Jackson suggested in a forceful and well- thought-out contribution, this is not just about homelessness and providing a safe shelter. It is about the raft of resource support that, in some instances, will be needed over a protracted period to give people a real opportunity to return to the community and be useful citizens.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me at least some support on the question of prisoners. As has been pointed out, a female could well come to the constituency, work as a fruit picker for six months, become pregnant during that time and later present herself as vulnerable because she was pregnant—and later still, perhaps, because she had a young child. I do not deny her vulnerability, but I deny the responsibility.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

We could nitpick, but I think the hon. Gentleman failed to observe the fundamental flaw in the new clause allowing the Isle of Wight ultimately to decide to whom to give housing priority. It is no different for my local authority, but I believe that prisons present a particular issue.

There is a prison in my constituency. I do not believe that, in the 30-odd years for which I have represented Portsmouth in one way or another, too many prisoners have decided to come out of Kingston and settle in Portsmouth. It is not that type of prison; it is a lifers' prison. Many prisoners have decided to go back to wherever they lived before their conviction. Indeed, I cannot think of a single instance in which a prisoner has left Kingston and then sought housing from the local authority.

I have a problem with new clause 2. A constituent of mine was living in a Portsmouth city council property on an estate in another local authority area. He fire-bombed the property and was arrested and put into prison in Winchester. He was convicted after six months on remand and sent to prison from Winchester, yet his family links are in Portsmouth. One wonders where, under new clause 2, he would seek to be rehoused. My constituent has returned to Portsmouth to live with his mother, with whom he has the only stable relationship that he has had in his life. His return poses problems because of the crime for which he was sent to prison, and his neighbours are naturally concerned. However, the situation will hopefully be resolved soon. New clause 2 would cause problems in such cases.

New clause 3 entirely misses the point of what we are trying to achieve, and it would hinder the working of the Bill, which hon. Members feel goes some way towards addressing homelessness issues. It would cause more problems than Conservative Members hope it would resolve. It would create so many difficulties for those who will make judgments in these cases that in the end very little would happen.

All three new clauses would cause homelessness, or rough sleeping, to increase. They would put too many obstacles in the way of resolving cases, and I hope that Conservative Members realise that the part of the Bill that they are trying to amend has substantially changed for the better. People who are sleeping rough need three things: they need support, they need somewhere to live and they need to be got off the street. All three can, or at least should, be achieved pretty quickly if the Bill is passed. The new clauses would hinder that process.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Opposition Whip (Commons) 6:00, 22 October 2001

Before I entered the House, I worked with the homeless for three years, doing my utmost to run an appeal to finance the creation of a hostel for homeless women in London. Although I do not think that I need to declare that as an interest, it has certainly given me some experience of the subject and a general interest in it. I was very grateful then for the help of my hon. Friend Mr. Hendry, who at that time represented High Peak. In his speech, he displayed a great deal of knowledge about homelessness and showed how complicated the subject is.

My hon. Friend spoke about the rough sleepers initiative, as it was in those days, which I believe was set up in 1993 or 1994. The RSI was useful and provided a great deal of money for the project on which I was working. However, I agree with my Front-Bench colleagues that the time has come to consider whether the money spent on the rough sleepers unit could be better used. I want to touch on issues that have been mentioned already, without detaining the House too long.

My hon. Friend Mr. Clifton-Brown talked about two issues that particularly interest me. The first is the need to understand why people become homeless or, more particularly, why they might sleep on the streets, and the second is duplication. We have considered those matters in some detail, but they deserve further scrutiny.

Glenda Jackson spoke about the reasons for homelessness and correctly pointed out that the solution is not simply a matter of finding someone a house; in fact, that can add to the problem. We are familiar with the reasons for homelessness. Two of the most significant are family breakdown and violence in the home. My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden pointed out that young people may become homeless because they are not treated properly at home or in a local authority home. That is a tremendous problem, and homeless young people often lie about their age to get into hostels because some hostels will not take people below a certain age.

As well as everybody in the House understanding why people become homeless, it is essential that homeless people understand the reasons for their situation and what they have to do to change it. However, people have to work with them to get them to that point. When I was working with the homeless years ago, I heard some very stupid politicians on the television saying that people on the streets, if asked, would say that they did not want to go into a hostel or a home, and preferred to be on the streets. That is wrong, and it misses the point.

Of course, people who have escaped from a terrible family background, from violence or sexual abuse will find it a relief no longer to be in that situation. It frightens them to think about getting another home, where they will be faced with bills and huge responsibilities, and where they might end up in a situation as bad as the one from which they escaped. However, that does not mean that they prefer to sleep on the streets; it means that the challenges that they face are too much for them, and that can be misinterpreted as a desire to remain on the streets. Those people need help.

To provide that help, fully to resettle people and to continue to work with them once they have been resettled, takes a great deal of money and expertise. When I was working with the homeless, both those things were missing. We needed more resources to try to get people into hostels and then to get them into their own home. Above all, we needed more understanding of the problem and the expertise to deal with it. I want more resources to be devoted to finding people with that expertise who can help people move from the streets into temporary accommodation and then into their own place. Even then, they will still need help if the resettlement is to be a success and they are not to become homeless again.

I endorse the point about duplication made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold. When I was working with the homeless, there was duplication, but there were also gaps in provision. There was duplication in that there were many agencies involved in homelessness, including the Housing Corporation, local authorities, housing associations, the RSI and charities. Although they overlapped, however, huge gaps were evident in an understanding of the issue and in the will to help the homeless. If the Bill can fill in those gaps and avoid duplication, we will have achieved a great deal.

I worked in London for three years before I was elected in 1997, and when I went to Tewkesbury people gently reminded me that there was homelessness in Gloucestershire. It then struck me that the RSU, and the earlier initiative, had created a two-tier system. I readily acknowledge that the initiative was quite successful in London, but in other areas of the country it was not in place, or it was not successful, and it fell to the local authorities to do something about homelessness.

That brings me back to the central point made by my hon. Friend, which is that there must be a better way of making progress than by continuing with the present situation.

I shall not speak to new clauses 2 and 3 as they have already been dealt with competently and eloquently by my hon. Friends. They are not saying that people with the problems that have been described should not be helped or housed, but that there are many people who have not been caught up in problems with alcohol, crime and drugs, and whose families are intact, and that those people also have rights. I think that my hon. Friends were making those points when speaking to new clauses 2 and 3.

Photo of Mark Simmonds Mark Simmonds Conservative, Boston and Skegness

I should like to do the exact opposite of my hon. Friend Mr. Robertson by speaking only to new clauses 2 and 3.

The Bill's provisions are positive and generally acceptable, and I believe that the Government have introduced the Bill with the best of intentions. When meeting housing needs, it is definitely a step forward to increase the number of categories of those who have priority. It would be difficult for anyone to try to defend excluding from those categories someone who is suffering from domestic violence, and I very much support the inclusion of such people in the priority categories.

I have some concerns about the issue raised by my hon. Friend Mr. Turner. I feel strongly that it is very difficult to defend allocating a house to a prisoner when, as in the previous examples, that house might be appropriate for a young family, perhaps living with parents, who have been waiting on the housing register. Although the Minister seemed to say that such concerns are, in a word, nonsense, many housing officers across the country are extremely nervous about how they can defend such a situation if the Bill is enacted.

The concern is particularly pertinent in London, where more than 75 per cent. of current vacancies are being allocated to those who are in one of the housing needs categories. Some people believe that, with the extension of the categories that the Bill is proposing, that figure could well increase to 100 per cent. and even beyond. How will local authorities deal with a situation in which they have more homeless people to house than they have houses to allocate?

New clause 3 is particularly pertinent to me as I represent Skegness, which as many hon. Members know is a holiday resort where many people—particularly those from the east midlands who have spent holidays there—wish to live eventually. Coming from the east midlands myself, I can understand that desire. However, as there is a definitive perception that the people of Skegness are being overridden by outsiders coming into the area, I fully support new clause 3, which establishes a 12-month residency as a very important element in dealing with housing needs. Those who live in Skegness or in other parts of the United Kingdom are not getting the housing that they need without such a qualification, and that situation is a terrible indictment of the current arrangements. I therefore support new clause 3, to change one small part of the Bill that I do not agree with.

What are the Minister's views on transferring responsibility for 16 and 17-year-olds who become homeless? As my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden said, one of the major deficiencies of our care system is that our public services do not pick up those who leave the system at 16. However, the Bill seems merely to propose transferring the problem, as a matter of compulsion, from local authority social services departments to local authority housing departments. I should think, as my hon. Friend Mr. Clifton-Brown said, that we have to allow each local authority to exercise discretion in this very sensitive area. There is absolutely no doubt that many of those 16 and 17-year-olds would be dealt with better by social services than they would by the perhaps less sensitive and less understanding housing departments.

I am concerned also that the Bill does not seem to distinguish between the able-bodied, the disabled and those who have mental health problems when people are thrown out of their home by their parents or by others with whom they are living. There seems to be a clear distinction between those two or three groups of people. Will housing authorities deal with all those groups in the same manner, or will they make special allocations to the disabled and those with mental health problems?

The Bill does not deal with the fundamental problems of homelessness. We have to strengthen housing advice centres and provide alternatives to social landlords.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South 6:15, 22 October 2001

I question the hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm for new clause 3. Perhaps he will consider the case of a young person who leaves Skegness to join the Royal Navy but leaves it after five years because it is not suitable for him. Although his last known address was one of Her Majesty's ships or a shore base in the Greater Portsmouth area, his home had been in Skegness. To whom should he look for housing, rather than sleeping rough somewhere?

Photo of Mark Simmonds Mark Simmonds Conservative, Boston and Skegness

I do not think that new clause 3 would preclude a solution to that problem.

Photo of Mark Simmonds Mark Simmonds Conservative, Boston and Skegness

As my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold said, the local authority should have discretion to address specific issues as they arise, such as the issue that the hon. Gentleman has just raised.

Photo of Mark Simmonds Mark Simmonds Conservative, Boston and Skegness

It should be the local authority that is responsible for housing in that particular geographical area; in Skegness, it would be East Lindsey district council.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

The hon. Gentleman says that the local authority is responsible, but who determines the responsible local authority? Does the young person in my example have the right to choose between the Portsmouth, Plymouth or Skegness local authority? Who decides?

Photo of Mark Simmonds Mark Simmonds Conservative, Boston and Skegness

I am not quite sure what point the hon. Gentleman is making. The responsible local authority would be the one in which the social housing is located.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

Does my hon. Friend accept that the local authority that must make the decision is the one to which the applicant applies? The notional applicant about whom Mr. Hancock has spoken is only 23. Unless he is most unfortunate, it is not likely that his family has disappeared entirely from the scene in Skegness.

Photo of Mark Simmonds Mark Simmonds Conservative, Boston and Skegness

I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful intervention, and agree with him that responsibility to decide must rest with the local authority to which the individual applies. The point made by Mr. Hancock certainly does not undermine my support of new clause 3.

Photo of Mark Simmonds Mark Simmonds Conservative, Boston and Skegness

No; I have given way many times already to the hon. Gentleman. I should like to speak to later groups of amendments.

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

Our consideration of the Bill is similar to "Groundhog Day", as many of the issues have been debated already, both in earlier debates on this Bill and in our debates on the Bill's earlier incarnation. I therefore do not plan to revisit all the detailed regulations and issues about which I spoke earlier.

I think that Mr. Turner will find that many of the issues that he raised, such as the right of temporary workers to accommodation, were addressed in my earlier speech and in current regulations; he will find the answers to his questions if he reads the regulations carefully. I also think that he will have realised from the comments that have been directed to him by various hon. Members that most of the issues that he raised about those groups were spurious.

Mr. Sanders said that rough sleepers come in all shapes and sizes. One of the unit's skills has been to gain a better understanding of who is likely to be at risk of ending up on the streets, which previously was not considered consistently.

The hon. Members for Wealden (Mr. Hendry) and for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) said that we have had similar schemes before, but we have not. We have not had such rigorous studies of those who sleep on our streets or live in a street culture. That will go a long way towards dealing with the problems of rough sleeping and homelessness.

My hon. Friend Glenda Jackson was right to say that new clauses 2 and 3 would aggravate the situation for some of those affected. We are consulting on the future role of the rough sleepers unit and its work. I do not wish to preclude anything in that consultation by commenting on her points about London.

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

We have had a long debate on the future of the rough sleepers unit, but the Minister has been unable to say anything about the Government's thinking on what might happen at the end of the consultation period. Will the unit linger on? Will the Mayor take responsibility, or will local authorities do so? The Minister has failed to give us any idea.

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

The hon. Gentleman keeps asking the same question. We are consulting and looking at the options. It is more sensible to find a solution that works rather than one that is time limited. We need an understanding of the valuable work of the unit in getting people off the streets and into accommodation. We must also continue to make sure that the problem does not arise in the first place. We expect to make a statement later this autumn. That provides the hon. Gentleman with as much information as there is about how we will move forward.

It has been recognised that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight has three prisons in his constituency and that he is concerned with particular issues. It would be quite wrong, however, to have a strategy for homelessness based on the experience of one constituency. He also referred to sex offenders. He will find that the arrangements for housing them, and the work with ex-sex offenders, are well catered for in regulations.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I am not asking for the whole homelessness policy to be based on the experiences of the Isle of Wight. I am merely asking that the Government take account of those experiences to the same extent as they have taken account of the experiences of the constituency of Glenda Jackson, for example. As my hon. Friend Mr. Robertson has pointed out, the policy appears to be based on metropolitan areas rather than rural and coastal areas.

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

I do not agree. The hon. Gentleman has extracted one category of people and talked about them, whereas the Bill and the regulations that will accompany it, which will be brought back to the House for further discussion, deal with a much wider range of people. I want to go through the priority list to show that the group about whom he has talked is one of a number.

Under the Bill, housing authorities have a duty to house unintentionally homeless people in priority need. Only certain specified groups have a priority need, so it is not a question of someone wanting to live in a particular area who does not have a place to live. Families that include dependent children or a pregnant woman, and people who are vulnerable because of old age, illness, disability or other special reason are included. If a main duty is owed, the authority must ensure that suitable accommodation is available for the applicant for at least two years.

The order, which has been discussed, extends protection to several new groups: 16 and 17-year-olds; 18 to 21-year-olds who were formerly in care; other vulnerable care leavers; those who are vulnerable as a result of institutionalisation, serving in the armed forces or being in custody; and those who are vulnerable as a result of fleeing harassment or domestic violence. That is a long list; it is not simply a question of ex-offenders.

The common strand of vulnerability—not whether someone has been in prison—is what local housing authorities need to consider when assessing whether someone is a priority need for accommodation. Not all ex-offenders will be vulnerable. The order will emphasise the importance of authorities assessing whether ex-offenders are vulnerable as a result of a period in prison.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

Is it not evident that I have not tried to amend the whole of the list, but have concentrated on one or two specific groups on it, who—in one case at least—do not have long-standing connections with the constituency? Prisoners can be dealt with under the new clause by their place of origin, not their place of release.

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

I have dealt with the issues of the period of residence and of qualification. However, the hon. Gentleman needs to consider the fact that housing is a key factor in the successful reintegration of ex-offenders and reducing the rates of reoffending. Work is continuing across Departments to make sure that we get better resettlement outcomes for all ex-offenders. They are just one group. In addition, the priority is short-term accommodation and not the allocation of a permanent home. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that a single ex-offender who is vulnerable will not be looking for the same type of accommodation as a family. The hon. Gentleman's attempt to play off one category of homeless person against another is not only divisive, but completely unfounded.

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

The Minister has been very generous in this long debate. She has given the House the interesting information that the various groups covered by the Bill will be determined according to their vulnerability. Ex-offenders could be particularly vulnerable. Will she say more about how that vulnerability will be determined, and by whom? Will it be determined by the prison authorities or the probation authorities? Will the local authority have a role? It seems critical that the local authority has a role—after all, it must provide the temporary accommodation.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The Minister must deal with one intervention at a time. The next one may not be on the same subject.

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

I apologise.

Decisions on allocation are made by local authorities. Guidance will be issued, in the light of which they will have to take their decisions.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

There are a number of issues concerning the long list that the Minister read out. Is there a time limit for local authorities to accept some of the groups? Will some of those she mentioned—ex-service men or persons coming out of care—be deemed to fall within such a time limit? Will guidance be issued to local authorities on the way in which they must choose, or not choose, to interpret the order?

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

The order will come back to the House and there will be guidance on how it is to be implemented. A number of those groups would not be looking for the same type of accommodation as others.

We have dealt with many of the detailed issues concerning who would qualify for housing under the new arrangements and how they would be dealt with. I regret some of the language that has been used in this debate. I recognise that the hon. Members for Wealden and for Tewkesbury have practical experience in the matter, and I pay tribute to them for that, but let me emphasise to the hon. Members for Isle of Wight and for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds) that women do not get pregnant just to get council properties. We need to move away from such language about women and about outsiders coming into a place looking for accommodation.

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

No, I want to carry on.

The legislation provides a good balance of compassion for people who need housing, and pragmatic rules that a council can apply. The regulations take into account the need to provide housing for vulnerable people, as well as issues of sustainable housing and communities. Many of the proposals in the Bill will be supplemented by other Government programmes. I am thinking in particular of the supporting people programme, which will further strengthen the provision for some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

I welcome the support given by Mr. Hancock. I urge Mr. Clifton–Brown to withdraw the motion. The new clauses are not helpful. They are divisive and could damage some of the very good work done in introducing the Bill.

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

This has been a very useful debate. It has brought out the fact that the fall in the number of rough sleepers is one of the very few bright lights in the current homelessness scene. It has also become apparent that there is a willingness among both Government and Opposition Members to see the rough sleepers unit move on.

I was especially interested in what Glenda Jackson said. She initially argued that the unit had done a good job—indeed, it has—and should be allowed to continue in its present role. She then suddenly realised that what she was saying was at odds with her party's policy and decided that perhaps it should go to the Mayor instead. In saying that, she implicitly acknowledged that the present policy is not perfect. She said that the main burden in London is shouldered by four boroughs. Surely, then, those four boroughs are the ones that really know what the problems are, and that exemplifies the fact that the ideal solution would be for local authorities to be given the responsibility.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Highgate

The hon. Gentleman has a very selective power of hearing and of retaining what he has heard. The point that I was trying to make was that at present in London—this could continue in the future—the main burden is being borne by four boroughs at the centre. I argue that the excellent work done by the rough sleepers unit should perhaps be handed on to the Mayor and the GLA because they are best placed to create a strategy that incorporates all the effective work that is being done in London. Outer-London boroughs, which are very happy to shunt their rough sleepers into the centre of the city, could no longer pretend that they do not have a rough sleeping problem.

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

With respect, the hon. Lady is trying to dance on the head of a pin. As my hon. Friend Mr. Hendry said, it was our party's initiative that spawned the rough sleepers unit and began to reduce the problem, but it has become apparent to Members that it needs to be tackled further. There is a serious problem of drugs that needs to be tackled by all the partners involved, among which the local authority is one of the most proactive, especially with local drug action teams.

We need to deal with problems associated with mental health, again involving all the relevant agencies. There is a particular need for short-stay acute beds, for example—day hospital beds are in short supply—and we all agree that it is unacceptable for people with mental health problems simply to be swept out on to the streets to become rough sleepers.

Photo of Charles Hendry Charles Hendry Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does my hon. Friend share my disappointment at our not having the result of the ministerial review of the RSU before we conclude our discussions on the Bill? Is it not likely that the report is already sitting on Ministers' desks, given that the Minister has said that it will be published in the autumn, which does not leave all that many days or weeks? Would not it have been rather more helpful for our deliberations on the Bill if we had been able to read and take account of it in advance?

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

Yes. I am going to be quite critical here. It is somewhat typical of this Government to ignore the democratic voice of Parliament and announce a policy some little while after we have had a debate here. It would have been helpful, even if she had not finally made up her mind, if the Minister had at least given us some parameters of her thinking. If she had said, "I'm fairly certain that the rough sleepers unit is going to continue", we would all have understood where the Government were coming from, and if she had said, "We're looking closely at whether it should be devolved to local authorities" or regional assemblies, or the Mayor—or whatever—we would have had some sympathy with that, but to respond to a serious proposal from the Opposition without giving us any pointers as to where the consultation is leading is somewhat unhelpful.

If the Minister would like to intervene and give us some pointers, I would be only too delighted to give way. The fact that she does not want to intervene tells me that she does not want to give us any information. That is why we have to be critical.

I took on board very carefully the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury. It is always interesting to find out something new about one's colleagues. I was especially interested to hear that he had run a hostel. This House benefits greatly from such specialist experience and knowledge gained outside. I noted in particular his comments about young people who are homeless as a result of violent or sexual abuse in the home. That is very important. Again, as with so many aspects of the problem of rough sleeping, it is the local authority that has the resources and the contacts to deal with the problems.

I sincerely believe that, in time, as the rough sleepers unit starts to deal with fewer people, we should move on and think of how best to deal with the problems.

Everyone would recognise that, as is often the case with amendments and new clauses tabled by individual hon. Members, the wording of new clauses 2 and 3 may not have been perfect, but the sentiment behind them has found accord throughout the House. No one could deny that the local authority of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight faces a significant problem because of the three prisons that it contains. Rather towards the end of the debate, the Government helpfully informed us that they are introducing secondary legislation to deal with institutionalised offenders requiring advice on homelessness and temporary housing.

I assume that today's announcement is what was trailed in the Green Paper, "The Way Forward for Housing", as long ago as December 2000. I see the Minister nodding. If that is not what was trailed in the document and more such regulations are to be introduced, perhaps she could intervene now and make that clear.

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

I assume that there will not be more regulation on that subject, then, apart from the order that has been announced today.

It is helpful that we have been told that people with an institutionalised background will be considered under the order, especially on the grounds of vulnerability, as will other groups named in the order. However, the Minister's inability to answer my question about how vulnerability will be determined is not helpful. That seems a key part of the order, and if the Minister cannot tell us how it will operate, that makes things difficult.

If the Government have not yet decided what will happen, may I suggest that a partnership approach should be taken? As I said in my intervention on the Minister, the prison authorities would have to be involved, because they would know about the detailed behaviour of the prisoner while he was in prison. The probation officer is also likely to be involved, because that person will have supervised the prisoner's early release. The local authority should be involved, too, because it is likely to have to give advice and provide temporary housing if the prisoner asks for it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight must speak for himself, but I suspect that if such a partnership approach were adopted, it would allay his fears considerably.

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

The hon. Member for Cotswold was a party to the previous discussions. In conjunction with the Bill, an order to extend the categories of homeless households is being introduced and is being consulted on now. That is not a new announcement; the order was discussed repeatedly while we were debating the Bill. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear that in mind.

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

That is indeed helpful, but, as I say, we would like to know a little more detail about how the order will operate. I do not wish to be churlish: the Minister has been helpful, my hon. Friend's amendment has been worth while, and I hope that the debate will reassure him and his local authority.

I do not pretend that the wording of new clause 3 is perfect. As I understand it, its import would be to ensure that people with a local connection or background should not always be bypassed in the queue by other groups that the Government deem to be a housing priority, especially under the order. I hope that the Minister will consider that subject carefully, because I am not sure that it is covered in the Bill. My hon. Friend was therefore right to table his new clause to probe and encourage the debate that we have had this evening.

We have not had any of the answers that we want about the rough sleepers unit, which will be the subject of a debate on another occasion, but we have probed the Government as far and as hard as we can today, and we have had some useful debates and answers on new clauses 2 and 3. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.