Homelessness Reduction Bill

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27 January 2017.

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[Relevant documents: Fifth Report of the Communities and Local Government Committee, The draft Homelessness Reduction Bill, HC 635, and Third Report of the Communities and Local Government Committee, Homelessness, HC 40.]

Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee

New Clause 1

Duty to undertake a review of the Act

The Secretary of State must undertake a review of this Act, including its impact on reducing homelessness and on local authority finances. Such review must start no earlier than the first anniversary of the commencement of the Act and no later than the second anniversary. It must consider, in particular, whether the funding for the provisions in this Act is adequate and whether additional monies should be provided.”—(Andy Slaughter.)

This new clause requires the Secretary of State to undertake a review of this Act, in terms of its impact and its funding, no earlier than the first anniversary of the commencement of the Act and no later than the second anniversary.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means), First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 2—Restriction on the termination of assured shorthold tenancies—

‘(1) After section 19A of the Housing Act 1988 (Assured shorthold tenancies: post-Housing Act 1996 tenancies) insert—

“Section 19B longer term tenancies

Any assured shorthold tenancy (other than one where the landlord is a private registered provider of social housing) granted on or after April 1, 2018 cannot be terminated by the landlord within thirty six months of being granted other than for the breach of a an express or implied term of the tenancy if the termination would result in the tenant becoming homeless. It is an implied term of such a tenancy that the tenant may terminate the tenancy by giving two months’ written notice to the landlord.”

(2) In Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 (Recovery of possession on expiry or termination of assured shorthold tenancy) insert—

“(4ZAA) In the case of a dwelling-house in England no notice under subsection (4) may be given for thirty six months after the beginning of the tenancy.””

This new clause is an amendment to section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 which would prevent landlords from using the “notice only” grounds for possession for the first three years of the tenancy by private sector landlords where the tenant would become homeless.

New clause 3—Controls on rent increases within a tenancy—

‘(1) After section 23 of the Housing Act 1988 insert—

“Section 23A: rent increase

(1) This section applies to any assured shorthold tenancy granted on or after 1 April 2018 in respect of any property in England other than one granted by a private registered provider of social housing.

(2) It is an implied term of all such tenancies that the rent may only be increased in any year on the anniversary of the commencement of the tenancy and that the rent may increase by no more than the percentage specified by the Office for National Statistics as the Consumer Prices Index figure for the month immediately preceding the proposed increase if there is a significant risk that that tenant would become homeless.

(3) Any term of the tenancy (or any other agreement, whether between the landlord and tenant or any third party) which is inconsistent with subsection (2) is of no effect.

(4) The landlord must serve written notice of the new rent on the tenant and any other party who is responsible for the payment of the rent.

(5) The notice must be in a prescribed form (or substantially to the same effect) and must specify—

(a) the present rent;

(b) the percentage increase proposed; and

(c) the proposed new rent, together with any other matters or information which may be prescribed.

(6) A person served with such a notice may, within 28 days of being so served, refer it to the appropriate tribunal for a determination as to the validity of the notice and, if necessary, to examine the risk of the tenant becoming homeless.

(7) Should a court or tribunal in any proceedings find that the landlord has received rent in excess of that permitted by this section, it must either—

(a) order that the excess rent be repaid to the tenant (including to any former tenant if the tenancy has come to an end),

(b) order that it stands to the credit of the tenant in respect of future rent which will fall due; or,

(c) set it off against other sums which the tenant owes to the landlord under the tenancy.

(8) The Secretary of State has power to prescribe a form for the purposes of this section and may make different provision for Greater London and the rest of England. The power must be exercised within a reasonable period and, in relation to Greater London if the Mayor of London makes a written request that it be exercised and provides a draft form, must be in the form proposed by the Mayor.

(9) The Secretary of State has power to modify subsection (2) by order and may make different provision for Greater London and the rest of England. Any modification is limited to substituting an increase which is lower than the Consumer Prices Index. That power must be exercised within a reasonable period and, in relation to Greater London if the Mayor of London makes a written request that it be exercised and specifies a particular substitution, must be the substitution specified by the Mayor.

(10) In this section—

“Greater London” shall have the same meaning as in the London Government Act 1963 (c.33)

“Mayor of London” shall have the same meaning as in the Greater London Authority Act 1999 (s.29).””

This new clause concerns rent increases. It provides that it is an implied term of all assured shorthold tenancies granted on or after 1 April 2018, that the rent can only go up once a year and by no more than CPI if there is a significant risk of the tenant as a result of the increase becoming homeless. It requires a notice to be given to the tenant, giving them details of the increase and for a right to appeal that notice to the First Tier Tribunal (Property Chamber). The Secretary of State has a power to prescribe a lower increase and must do so in respect of London if the Mayor of London requests it.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Housing)

It is a pleasure to open today’s proceedings on this important Bill that, if passed, will mark a sea change in the way in which homelessness is treated in this country. This is a rare creature—a private Member’s Bill with a hope of success. I should not tempt fate this early in proceedings, but I cannot see the usual suspects sitting behind Bob Blackman, the promoter of the Bill, so I am already encouraged.

I think that the Bill has support from all parties. Importantly it has the support of the Government; otherwise, I suspect that we would not have got this far. We should not forget the good work that the Communities and Local Government Committee and its Chair have done in support of the Bill. I also pay tribute to the promoter of the Bill, who now knows more about the intricacies of homelessness law than he perhaps ever wanted to.

There are matters still to be resolved but—and I say this advisedly—I hope that, as far as this House is concerned, they can all be resolved this morning. For my part, I do not intend to go on at length. Although certain important matters need to be covered, I hope that in the time we have available today, the Bill will be able to complete all its stages.

Let me be clear from the outset that I do not intend to press new clauses 2 and 3 to a Division. I am hopeful that when the Minister speaks, I will hear words that will encourage me not to press new clause 1. One interesting feature of the Bill has been that we have had constructive discussions about it—outside the Committee, of course; not in it, as that would not be at all appropriate. My last email to the Minister was sent at about 11 pm last night. I appreciate that that might have been past his bedtime and he has not had time to respond, but we are getting where we want to go.

New clause 1 deals with perhaps the central unresolved issue, which relates not to the content of the Bill— we will come to that we consider the Government’s amendments—but to its implementation and, in particular, whether the resources that the Government have set aside are sufficient. New clauses 2 and 3 are also important because they address what stands behind the Bill—the fact that legislation of itself will not tackle the homelessness crisis. To be fair to the promoter of the Bill, he has at all stages said that that that is the case, and he repeated it in his article that has been published on PoliticsHome.com this morning. I appreciate that, but we cannot look at the Bill in a vacuum; we have to look at the surrounding circumstances. Nothing illustrates that better than the figures on rough sleeping that were released two days ago, which revealed a shocking 16% increase year on year. More than 4,000 people are now sleeping rough on the streets of the UK. One rough sleeper is one too many, and what should alarm the House in particular is the fact this is a crisis that does not need to exist.

Under the previous Labour Government, rough sleeping fell by three quarters, because of direct Government intervention and co-ordination with not only local authorities, but the many fine homelessness charities, which also stand behind the Bill. This crisis is solvable, but the fact that street homelessness has gone up by more than 130% since 2010—under the coalition Government and now under this Government—really should shame the Government. We are here to pass an important Bill, but that does not get them off the hook.

I must strike one small note of discord: we do not want this to become a battle about who is more in favour of the Bill. The promoter’s article mentioned the danger of the Bill being delayed because of our new clauses. There must be a lot of confused pots and kettles out there, given that the Government have tabled 21 complicated amendments that no one would wish to consider on Report—they should have been taken in Committee. I am hopeful that we can deal with them, but the point is that it is not unreasonable or irrational for the Opposition to take a little time to debate important principles.

In Committee, Government Members spoke for two and a half times as long as Opposition Members. I realise that there were one or two more of them, unfortunately—

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Housing)

In a moment.

We all—even I—must sometimes curb our prolixity, and we were very disciplined in Committee. We withdrew many new clauses and amendments before the Christmas break to speed the passage of the Bill. Even though my colleagues in Committee had huge expertise and a lot to say, we were very disciplined. I wish that I could say the same for the Minister and Government Back Benchers, including Michael Tomlinson.

Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson Conservative, Mid Dorset and North Poole

It was a great pleasure to serve in Committee with the hon. Gentleman. I am delighted to hear that he is still in favour of the Bill and that it still attracts cross-party support. Today he can rely on my discipline and, I am sure, that of all colleagues to ensure that the Bill goes through.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Housing)

Excellent. I am sure that those rousing words will be followed by action. That might even be the last we hear from the hon. Gentleman today.

I do not want to labour the point, but we should have been able to get through the Bill in less time, notwithstanding the fact that it is an important and, for a private Member’s Bill, quite long Bill. It is considerably longer than the Bill that we will debate next week, although I suspect our consideration of that one will take rather longer.

It is regrettable that this Bill spent so long in Committee, but we know why it did: the Government were filibustering in order to keep the parliamentary boundaries Bill, which is promoted by my hon. Friend Pat Glass, out of Committee. I am not saying that we do not all play these tricks from time to time; I am just saying that we should not start pointing the finger over who is to blame for delaying the Bill, and instead get on with this now.

I want to deal with the point about money. Right at the beginning of our Committee stage, the Minister said, “I hope to tell you before the end of Committee how much money there will be.” The Government gave a welcome commitment to fund the additional costs fully—there will be substantial additional costs on local authorities, and under the new burdens doctrine, the money has to come from central Government—but we waited week after week with bated breath to find out what money there would be. He kept his promise—just—and at the last moment, some money came forward. It was not a negligible sum: about £48 million over two years. However, that amount must be compared with the sensible estimates from individual local authorities and their collective bodies, such as the Local Government Association and London Councils. For example, while £37 million or £38 million has been set aside for the first year of the Bill’s implementation, London Councils estimates that the cost will be about £160 million. There is therefore a massive disparity in the figures.

The Bill takes us into new territory, and no one really knows what the full cost will be, so the solution alighted upon is to have an early review of whether the amounts allocated for those two years are sufficient and—perhaps more controversially—of the truth of the Government’s assertion that no additional funding will be necessary after two years because the Bill will be self-financing. There is huge scepticism about that.

I disagree with another thing the promoter said in his article. He said that there was no support for our new clauses, but there is total support for them. There is, however, an issue about timing and ensuring that the Bill completes its stages here and in the other place. The scepticism about the financing of the Bill is shared not just by local government, but by the charities that support the Bill.

It is only fair, reasonable and right that local government is properly funded, as the new burdens doctrine says, but the crucial point is that if there is not enough money, the Bill will not work—it will simply be words on a piece of paper. If that is the case, we will not see the necessary sea change in how we address homelessness or, in particular, the extension of duties around prevention and cure, which apply to those in priority need, to single homeless people and everybody else who presents as homeless. If we are sincere about the Bill, that is what we should all want.

New clause 1 would simply set out in the Bill that the review must be held. It provides that, following the Bill’s implementation, we must judge whether there is sufficient money—the Government say there is; everybody else says there is not—for the purposes set out in it. The Minister has raised one or two procedural points about when the Bill’s provisions will take effect and the appropriate time for an review. I am open to debating those matters but, on the principle of the review, I hope to hear him say that it must take place in a reasonable time while money is still available to local authorities, and, in particular, that it will cover not just whether the Bill is succeeding, but whether the money available is sufficient to cover the full costs. I suspect that all Members on both sides of the House would want that, because they will not want their local authorities to be the ones that fail. Against a background of local authorities experiencing cuts to their budgets of 40% or 50% over the past few years, it would not just be unfair to expect local authorities to cover those substantial costs; it would be impossible for them to do so.

The Minister says that, apart from clause 13, the substantive clauses in the Bill will not take effect until regulations have passed—I appreciate that. Indeed, that is entirely reasonable, given that local authorities will need a substantial period in which to gear up to their new responsibilities, as they will need to recruit and train staff, and to put procedures in place. As is often the case, however, the devil will be in the detail of the guidance. The Minister can speak for himself, but I think that his view is that full implementation could take up to a year.

Clearly, until it is implemented, we do not know what the costs are likely to be. It is a question of what is a reasonable period, and new clause 1 suggests that a reasonable period is between one and two years. I propose that we should go to the end of the two-year period, but that we should also ensure that we are then in a position to establish whether the money has been sufficient, because that is when the money will run out.

There is a slight disconnect between the funding announcement in last week’s written statement, which dealt with the financial years 2017-18 and 2018-19, and what the Minister is now saying, which is that the Bill is unlikely to be implemented until 2018. Either the Government are giving local authorities money upfront, which would be slightly unusual in my experience, or that needs to be corrected. In any event, it is clear that there is only two years’ worth of money, that the money may be insufficient, and that at the end of that two-year period it will run out.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing) 9:45, 27 January 2017

Newham Council has looked into the cost of implementation, and thinks that it will be £2.5 million in the first year alone. I am delighted that the Bill has been introduced, but does my hon. Friend honestly believe that the Government will fully compensate councils for the money that they will need to spend?

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Housing)

I am one of nature’s optimists. The Minister is such a reasonable fellow, and so kind-hearted, that I am sure that if he says he wishes to provide the full amount, he means it. Unfortunately, however, the record of the Government as a whole is not one of being particularly kind-hearted, particularly to local government. They have a habit of passing the buck by cutting the budget of the Department for Communities and Local Government, as is clear from the fact that local government cuts have been the biggest of all.

My hon. Friend Lyn Brown is absolutely right to be sceptical. That is indeed what we want to hear. There are many figures floating around, but Newham Council knows what it is talking about, because it has one of the most pressing housing needs in the country, some of the poorest communities in the country, and, I am afraid, some of the worst housing in the country, especially in the private rented sector.

These are matters of real concern. All we are asking for is a commitment from the Minister not just to a review, but to a review that will be undertaken at the right time and will be all-encompassing. As I said earlier, the Select Committee has played a key role—its Chair, my hon. Friend Mr Betts, is an acknowledged expert, and he has also benefited from the able assistance of Members on both sides—and it, as well as local authorities themselves, should be involved in any review process.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

Enfield, like Newham, contains some of the poorest people in the country with the greatest housing need, and obviously we want the Bill to be implemented, but good councils throughout the country are already embarking on the prevention measures specified in the Bill under the current funding settlement, and will welcome the provision of more money to enable them to continue those measures.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Housing)

I think the best thing to say is that there is a mixed economy among local authorities. Some do very well—some have to do very well because of the pressures on them—and others do less well. Part of the Bill’s purpose is to bring them all up to the same standard. However, the hon. Gentleman’s point cuts both ways. If it is true that Camden Council, for example, is already preventing 80% of those who present themselves from becoming homeless, the savings that are likely to be made—most of which, I understand, will result from an increase in prevention work, which will avoid the need to find alternative accommodation or fund the costs of homelessness in other ways—will be less. The Government rather piously hope that after two years there will be no need for funding, but I do not think anyone believes that, including the Government.

Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

This is not just a problem in London. In 2015-16, there were more than 1,000 homelessness prevention and relief cases in Wirral as a result of the council’s actions. Does my hon. Friend agree that any new duties that councils will have to take on should be fully funded, both now and in the future?

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Housing)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. However, the problem is clearly greater in some areas than in others. The precedent for the Bill is legislation passed by the Labour-run Government of Wales, which has already been successful: there have been substantial falls in homelessness. Of course there are parts of Wales where there is a real crisis, as there are in the rest of the United Kingdom, but there are also hotspots, and the big cities, particularly London, are hotspots.

We cannot rely on the example of Wales. It is still possible in many Welsh authorities for accommodation to be made available to people including those who are not in priority need. In London boroughs—and, I suspect, in my hon. Friend’s constituency and many others—that opportunity disappeared years ago, and the reverse is now the case. We spent some time in Committee talking about the disgraceful attitude of Westminster Council, which is sending its homeless people quite literally to Coventry, and I fear that other boroughs are doing exactly the same. That is the difficulty with which we are grappling.

I am not going to labour the point. We want assurances, which we believe new clause 1 would deliver, that the full funding of the Bill’s implementation by local authorities for which my hon. Friend Margaret Greenwood has rightly asked will be provided. Yes, the Government have made a start, and, yes, I think that we shall hear more about money today, given that some of the Government amendments will involve additional costs. We are pleased with what has been done so far, but we must have that funding, because otherwise the Bill will fail, and local authorities will be in an even more parlous state.

Let me now deal briefly with new clauses 2 and 3. We could have tabled a great many more new clauses illustrating the same point, which is that the Bill’s provisions cannot be seen in a vacuum. We all welcome the greater concentration on prevention to which Mr Burrowes referred, and we also welcome the new relief duties requiring local authorities to assist homeless people who are not in priority need. However, the pattern of homelessness is utterly bleak, and that is a perfect storm which, I am afraid, derives from the Government’s own actions or inactions.

The first problem, as the new clauses make clear, is the crisis in the private rented sector. The huge inflation in rents over the past few years has meant that many private landlords take advantage of the “no fault” eviction process for which the Housing Act 1988 provides. They say to people, “You are on benefit, and I can get a higher rent from someone else”, or they simply say, “I want a different tenant and I do not have to give any reason, so off you go.” Provided that the payments are in order, the consequence of that swift process, with no argument to the contrary, is that many thousands of people present themselves to local authorities as homeless. I believe that more than 40% of homelessness cases are caused by private sector evictions, with all the misery that they bring.

Again, however, the problem is not insoluble. The inclusion of new clauses 2 and 3 would make a significant difference. This is a modest proposal. I am suggesting that if there were longer tenancies—three-year tenancies—and if, within the period of those tenancies, there were controls over the levels of rent increases, we would end the present chaotic market in evictions in which landlords bid against each other.

Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson Conservative, Mid Dorset and North Poole

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting this point. I will pass over the typo in line four of his new clause 2 and simply ask: does he remember from the Bill Committee that the average length of tenancies was in fact four years, yet in his new clause 2 he refers merely to three years? Does he not accept that there also needs to be a balance, to encourage sufficient landlords?

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Housing) 10:00, 27 January 2017

I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman does when he is not passing over typos, but I am afraid his argument works both ways. If, as the Residential Landlords Association says—this is, I think, the point the hon. Gentleman is making—tenancies are already on average longer than three years, what is the problem with ensuring that that is the case? Good practice suggests that a good landlord wants to keep a tenant for a period of time; that gives stability and continuity, and there are no breaks in tenancy and no additional fees involved. But not all landlords are good landlords, and some are playing this lottery game where they think they can get more money. Unfortunately, we have even had the spectacle of local authorities outbidding each other for tenancies, so desperate are they in this regard. All the hon. Gentleman’s intervention illustrates is how modest and reasonable this proposal is. When the Minister replies, he might want to say what the Government’s thinking on this matter is at the moment.

This is an issue in itself. It is not just an issue about homelessness, but these specific new clauses relate to the risk of homelessness and state that we would achieve the purposes of this Bill—put less pressure on local authorities, and have less need to prevent homelessness—if some landlords were not acting in the manner that they are. That is the purpose of the new clauses. I think they are quite reasonable. I appreciate that, given the time constraints, unless the Government suddenly decide to accept them this morning, it is unlikely that we are going to make progress on them in the course of this Bill, but we will return to this subject time and again until it is resolved.

Photo of Rosena Allin-Khan Rosena Allin-Khan Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport)

There is an extremely high rate of homelessness in Tooting among those aged over 60. I know that Wandsworth Council battles with this greatly day in, day out. Do you agree that it is absolutely unacceptable that we are failing the older members of our society, and that people over 60 need to be taken into account?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means), First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. Just for good order, would the hon. Lady mind asking the hon. Gentleman to agree, rather than asking the Chair? She should ask whether he agrees, because she does not care whether I agree or not.

Photo of Rosena Allin-Khan Rosena Allin-Khan Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely outrageous that residents aged 60 and over have to suffer in this way and that he must do all he can to ensure the Government address this issue?

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Housing)

Absolutely, and I know that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, also care about homelessness in Tooting. What my hon. Friend illustrates is that we are in new territory. Even though there were big problems, particularly in the private rented sector, 20 or 30 years ago, I doubt that we would then have been talking about homelessness among people of pensionable age. It illustrates how deep this goes in society now that we are worried not just about groups that were at risk in the days of “Cathy Come Home”, but about people who are at a time in their life when they deserve, and should have, stability and security.

I am not keeping to my promise, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I will conclude now, but let me just say this. Yes, new clauses 2 and 3 illustrate a clear point, but this is only part of the problem. Alongside that is the issue of housing supply and the terrible record, I am afraid to say, that this Government have on genuinely affordable housing, on allowing councils to build and ensuring that there is specialist housing.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Housing)

Can the Minister not make the point in his own comments? [Interruption.] Very well, I will give way if he wants to intervene.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his forbearance in taking my intervention. Does he not welcome the record amount of £3.15 billion that this Government are providing to the Greater London Authority to provide affordable housing in London, which has been welcomed by the London Mayor?

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Housing)

As the shadow London Minister, I welcome everything the London Mayor welcomes. I do not want us to go off on a tangent, but I will just say that we were beginning to make progress; we were beginning to make progress towards the end of the last Labour Government, and the best illustration of that is that under the coalition Government eight out of 10 council homes completed were started under the previous Labour Government. I do not mind the Minister taking credit and talking about the building of additional affordable and social homes, but his Government need to have their own record, not leach off ours.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

I am extremely grateful. While we are on this topic, is my hon. Friend also aware that the Chartered Institute of Housing estimates that 250,000 social homes will be lost as a result of right to buy and other measures between now and 2020, so whatever assurances the Government are giving us about the construction of new affordable housing, they are the equivalent of turning on the taps while leaving the plug out?

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Housing)

Absolutely, and when I mentioned the quality of members on the Committee from my side, I was of course particularly thinking of my hon. Friend—as well as the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East, and my other hon. Friends on the Committee. I am afraid that they put my feeble efforts to shame, but there it is.

My hon. Friend Ms Buck is absolutely right. We have a crisis in housing supply, we have a crisis in the private rented sector, and we also have—which the Government are directly responsible for through the benefit caps, the freezing of local housing allowance, and the cuts in Supporting People—a manufactured homelessness crisis which we are now seeing reflected in the figures I quoted earlier.

I pay tribute to the Minister for the work he has done on this Bill, as well as to the sponsor, Bob Blackman, and the sincere comments made by Conservative Back Benchers during the course of this Bill, but they cannot put their heads in the sand and look at this Bill in isolation from everything else that is happening—and when they have looked at that, they have to change their policy. I am sure we are going to get the housing White Paper, possibly even this year, but when it comes, we will be looking for those matters to be dealt with, and that is the purpose of these new clauses. Their purpose is to make sure that this Bill functions and that Government policy as a whole functions in relation to homelessness. That is why I would like to hear from the Minister, if not warm support and acceptance of the new clauses, at least what he intends to do in relation to them.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, as always, Madam Deputy Speaker, and it is also a pleasure to follow Andy Slaughter. Before I start, may I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the register of Members’ interests?

We should get back to the fact that this Bill is about reducing homelessness and is entitled the Homelessness Reduction Bill. At some stages during the hon. Gentleman’s rather lengthy speech, I began to wonder whether we were moving off on to the whole policy of housing. I think we should confine ourselves to this Bill, rather than broadening out to the wider aspects. I accept absolutely that one person sleeping rough on our streets at any one time is a disgrace; I have regularly gone on record to say that that is a national disgrace, as, equally, is the fact that we do not know the exact level of homelessness in this country. I start from that principle.

It is of course fair to say that the level of rough sleeping has increased. It is also fair to say that the level of homelessness has increased. However, as the hon. Gentleman will know well, the level of homelessness in this country peaked in 2002-03, when I suspect another party was in government. There was a reduction, which took place as a result of both Government intervention and local authorities taking appropriate action, but, actually, no change in legislation; we should remember that, effectively, legislation on this subject has not changed for 40 years. So we must get back to that particular issue.

Hopefully, we will have more details about the Bill by the time we get to Third Reading, but I will just gently mention that we spent some 15 hours in Committee debating the 13 clauses in this Bill. There were opportunities for amendments. The hon. Gentleman did table amendments, but then withdrew them before we could even debate them. The difference between the amendments that my hon. Friend the Minister will move later and the proposals from the hon. Gentleman is that the Government amendments are a direct consequence of the discussions that we had in Committee. They are designed to improve the Bill and to achieve the outcomes of discussions with housing charities, local government representative bodies, local government generally and the landlords associations. There is therefore a marked difference between those amendments—I accept that there are 21 of them—and the hon. Gentleman’s proposals.

I commend my hon. Friends across the House who served on the Bill Committee for their service. They will be aware that, at the last sitting, the Government made a firm commitment to reviewing the Bill at an appropriate point after implementation. I suggest to the Minister that it would be helpful if he were to repeat that commitment today and to clarify it further, so that no one can be in any doubt of the Government’s willingness to accept the fact that, as we have funding of £48 million over two years—I thank the Minister for that—we hope that that will lead to the provision of all the funding that local authorities will need to carry out their duties under the Bill, which we hope will become an Act in the not too distant future.

As I have said, however, we do not know what level of demand local authorities will experience as a result of the new burdens they will face. We do know that many local authorities are already accepting a prevention duty, and the funding will clearly be welcome to those authorities that are acting in a good and positive way. We could look at the stats from every local authority to see how many people are turning up for help, but we also know that the vast majority of single homeless people will be turned away by their local authority without any help or advice. Now, because of the massive change in the law and in the culture of local authorities, the numbers of people are likely to increase, especially during the first year.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

We also know that the Government are wholeheartedly committed to fulfilling the responsibilities outlined in the Bill, including the financial responsibility to provide funding of £48 million. If, beyond the current spending round, additional finances were needed in order to fulfil the duties in the Bill, having taken account of savings, does my hon. Friend agree that that wholehearted commitment should continue and that we would expect the money to be available for that?

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I think the whole House would expect the Government to recognise that there will be extra cost pressures on local authorities and, given the commitment that they have made, to continue to fund these measures in the years to come.

One of the problems with new clause 1 is that it proposes a review after a fixed period of time, and then that would be it. That is not an acceptable way forward. I want the Government to keep this matter continually under review, and I am sure that the Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee and the rest of its members, who are joint sponsors of the Bill, will ensure that the Minister—or whoever is the Minister at the time—continues to have their feet held to the fire.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

Indeed, but this Minister cannot commit his successor to maintaining a particular position. However, we on the Select Committee will keep this matter under review. We will scrutinise the level of activity and the funding that follows.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith pointed out that a whole range of activities will be carried out by local authorities, many of which will result in additional funds being raised and costs being reduced. One of the stats from London Councils shows that, in 2014-15, the total expenditure on temporary accommodation was £611 million. Reducing that figure by just 5% would pay for the cost of the Bill. One problem is that, because local authorities are not yet implementing their prevention duties early enough, families and other people in crisis end up in temporary accommodation at the last minute, which is very expensive. If we can reduce that expenditure just marginally—5% is not a huge amount—it would pay for the cost of the Bill. If councils across the country can achieve their prevention duty, that would prevent anyone from becoming homeless at all, and the cost reduction to local authorities would be enormous. I accept that there will be a peak in the first year; we should all understand that.

The Bill Committee and, prior to that, the Select Committee spent some considerable time discussing how long it would take for councils to prepare for the extra duties that the Bill will require of them. Obviously, they will need to recruit and train staff. They will also need to completely change the culture that exists within housing departments. Because of that, the Bill has been drafted to allow the substantive clauses to be commenced only when those preparations have been completed. New clause 1, as drafted, would provide a commitment to review the Act before we had the necessary data and before some of its provisions had even commenced. I am sure that that is not what the hon. Member for Hammersmith intended, and on that basis, I urge him to reconsider his new clause. I trust that we are going to get a commitment from the Minister on reviews, and we will hold him to account if that is not the case. However, I am sure that we will get such a commitment later this morning.

Turning to new clauses 2 and 3, I commend the hon. Member for Hammersmith for his ingenuity in getting them into the scope of the Bill. They relate to the operation of the private rented sector, rather than to the homelessness duty of local housing authorities, and the Minister will no doubt respond to them in detail. I would point out, however, that we intervene in markets at our peril, often with unintended consequences. I want to draw the House’s attention to some of the problems in the market right now. I am a great supporter of longer tenancies, and the Communities and Local Government Committee has regularly campaigned for such tenancies. One problem in the market is that mortgage lenders are very reluctant indeed to offer mortgages to landlords who offer tenancies of longer than six months. I understand that some mortgage lenders have recently relaxed their rules on that, to allow for 12-month tenancies. That is a welcome move, and I hope that the Committee will look at that with a view to encouraging the process. However, to have such a provision in the Bill would run the risk of reducing the supply of private rented sector accommodation and of putting up the rents of the people we are trying to help. These proposals would therefore be completely counterproductive.

Another issue is that mortgage lenders are now insisting on deposits of between 25% and 40% from landlords, and then insisting that the rent level is at least 1.4 times the amount of the mortgage repayment. The reality is that lenders are forcing up the rents of private sector landlords. That does not make sense and Government policy must intervene. Rent controls have been tried, but they have failed. If rent controls are imposed, rents are artificially forced up to start with, the market becomes overburdened with red tape and the supply of rented housing goes down. The consequence of that is more homelessness, not a reduction.

The new clauses would lead to more homelessness, not a solution. I urge the hon. Member for Hammersmith to withdraw the motion—although the new clauses clearly relate to a policy matter that should be debated. I have been plain from the beginning that my Bill will not actually increase the supply of housing—the number of units—in this country, but that is a matter for the Government and something that needs to be achieved. However, my Bill will ensure that homeless people, particularly those who are homeless for the first time, get help and advice. I am worried that the hon. Gentleman’s new clauses would reduce the supply of housing and penalise the very people whom we aim to help. I look forward to the Minister’s response and invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his new clause.

Photo of Andy Burnham Andy Burnham Labour, Leigh 10:15, 27 January 2017

I rise to support new clause 1. This is my first speech on this important Bill, so I congratulate Bob Blackman on introducing it. He has done so with great persuasion and has performed an important service for us all. I also congratulate both Front-Bench teams on working constructively to bring the Bill to this point.

I support the Bill but, as good as it goes, we will be kidding ourselves today if we leave this House, pat ourselves on the back and believe that the House has done everything that it could to tackle an emergency that is unfolding before our eyes. I chose to speak in today’s debate to reflect the rising concern among my constituents in Leigh—a concern that is shared widely in Greater Manchester—that an increasing number of people can be seen huddling in doorways across the region. People will not just walk on by; they do not accept that things have to be like this. Homelessness and rough sleeping are not inevitable facts of life in 2017. Our society is wealthy enough to ensure that nobody should spend a night without a roof over their head. We need new urgency on both sides of the House to bring forward appropriate action to address the situation.

If there is a problem with the Bill, it is that it goes nowhere near far enough to tackle the scale of the problem. It does not address the wider cross-governmental work that is necessary to provide an appropriate response. Let us take a reality check. The Minister will be aware of the figures that came out this week showing a 16% rise in rough sleeping over the past year—my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter referenced that in his opening remarks. Since 2010, rough sleeping has doubled across England and is increasing at an alarming rate. The problem is even worse in Greater Manchester, with a 41% increase in the past year across the 10 boroughs. According to local officials, that figure does not reflect the full picture. They believe that at least 300 people across Greater Manchester will spend tonight out on the streets. That is simply unacceptable, and I have not heard from the Government what they are doing about that. What are they doing now to help people find warmth and shelter?

As I said, the number of people rough sleeping has doubled, but the Bill will not reverse that trend and our eyes need to be open to that. I support new clause 1, because urgency is crucial in this debate. We need a clear commitment to review what is happening. I take the point of the hon. Member for Harrow East, but we all know that timetables shift after a Minister at the Dispatch Box commits to review something. The civil service will say, “We will review it in the autumn,” and that becomes the winter and then the spring. That is what happens, but it is not good enough. The problem is bigger than that. We need clarity and certainty. There should be a commitment to review how the legislation is working—both whether it is reducing homelessness and whether the Government are giving councils adequate funding.

For the reasons outlined by my hon. Friend Lyn Brown a moment ago, I do not believe that the funding is adequate. I differ from my Front-Bench team here in that I think the review should take place within one year. We need more urgency. Although I expect the Bill to have a modest but welcome impact on homelessness, I believe that an annual review would reveal that it goes nowhere near addressing the scale of the problem and that Government funding for councils is inadequate. We must remember that most of the funding comes next year and then reduces sharply in the year after. In the third year, there is nothing at all. I do not want to wait until the third year to find out whether the legislation is working. The review should be conducted within 12 months.

We need to hear much more from the Government. If they want to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, there must be a cross-Government response. When Labour was in government, we established a rough sleepers unit, bringing together all the Departments with a role to play. I do not see that level of cross-Government working here. In addition to that commitment to work across Government, we need a clear ambition. What is the Government’s ambition on rough sleeping? I am not aware of one. Rough sleeping is increasing at an alarming rate, so what are they going to do about it? Will they reverse that trend? Will they make the same commitment that I have made in Greater Manchester that we should work to eradicate rough sleeping by 2020? [Interruption.] It is all very well the Minister looking the other way and talking to his colleagues, but what is he going to do about rough sleeping now and in the next few years? What is the Government’s ambition? Are they committed to reversing the increase? Will they go further and eliminate rough sleeping? We need to hear about that from the Minister today. I do not want to inject a partisan note into this debate, but we will be doing nobody any favours if we sit here today and think that the Bill, as good as it is, is enough. The Bill will not reverse the looming cuts to housing benefit.

Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson Conservative, Mid Dorset and North Poole

The right hon. Gentleman admits that he did not sit on the Bill Committee and that he did not contribute on Second Reading. Had he done so, he would have seen the cross-party nature of proceedings. While I am sure that his points are relevant to new clauses 1, 2 and 3, they will not attract the same cross-party support that has to date been the nature of the Bill.

Photo of Andy Burnham Andy Burnham Labour, Leigh

I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying. There is cross-party support. I support the Bill—the hon. Member for Harrow East and the Government have my support today—but I am entitled to speak for the people who will be on the streets of Greater Manchester and the hon. Gentleman’s constituency tonight. I am entitled to give them a voice in this House. The Bill will not change their situation or reduce rough sleeping anytime soon, so who is speaking for them? It is unacceptable for the House to debate homelessness in a cosy way without facing the reality that rough sleeping is rising at an alarming rate. What is the Minister doing about that? The House and, more importantly, the people out there on the cold streets deserve an answer.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

I urge my right hon. Friend to pay little regard to the comments of Michael Tomlinson because, although he is absolutely correct that there was and is cross-party consensus on the provisions and the culture underpinning the Bill, which we want to see implemented, in Committee and on Second Reading virtually all the comments from Opposition Members have been that the wider context in which homelessness and rough sleeping exist, from universal credit to housing benefit cuts and housing supply, is going in reverse. It is absolutely right that we should draw attention to that.

Photo of Andy Burnham Andy Burnham Labour, Leigh 10:30, 27 January 2017

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Bill focuses solely on the duties of local authorities, and we must remember that those local authorities are operating in the context of massive cuts to their budgets. We need to be honest with ourselves about whether they are going to be able to rise to the extra pressures that the Bill places on them.

As my hon. Friend says, the Bill will do nothing to reverse the cuts to housing benefits that are coming down the line, which many experts believe will make homelessness and rough sleeping worse. The Bill does nothing to reverse cuts to mental health services that are pushing more people out on to the street. The Bill does nothing to reverse the cuts to social care, which are having the same effect. The Bill does nothing to build more affordable housing.

I am sorry if that injects a note that the Minister does not quite like, but tough. I am here to say it because he needs a better response than the Bill. If he thinks this is it, it is simply not good enough. The Bill is a step in the right direction, but I am afraid that that is all it is. In Greater Manchester, working with my hon. Friend Mr Lewis and Councillor Beth Knowles from Manchester City Council, we are committing ourselves and our councils to trying to end rough sleeping. If we can do that at our level, the Government should at least do something at their level.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins Conservative, Louth and Horncastle

The briefing note from Crisis, the housing charity, says:

“Whilst we understand the intention behind these amendments we are very worried that, if pushed to a vote and passed, there would be further amendments in the Houses of Lords, leading to ‘Ping-pong’ between the two Houses. This could result in the Bill failing to receive Royal Assent before the end of the parliamentary session, thus killing the Bill.”

My reading of the briefing note is that Crisis would like the Bill to go through without these new clauses. Does the right hon. Gentleman have a view on that?

Photo of Andy Burnham Andy Burnham Labour, Leigh

I have also read the briefing note from Crisis, and the hon. Lady will have seen that Crisis does not believe that the funding allocated to the Bill is adequate to meet the obligations that are being placed on local authorities, nor does it believe that the Bill will do anything to address the wider issue of housing benefits.

However, I accept the hon. Lady’s point. I have not come here today to do anything to disrupt the passage of the Bill. It would help everybody if the Bill contained a commitment to a review so that we all know where we stand and so that there is a degree of urgency about how the House is addressing this issue.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

I hear what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. I am slightly disappointed by his approach and by the important time he is taking up. It is a shame that he did not come to make these points on Second Reading. That said, he asked me the very serious question about what the Government are doing to help address the important issue of rough sleeping in Manchester. We have already announced more than £600,000[This section has been corrected on 1 February 2017, column 3MC — read correction] for a social impact bond in Greater Manchester to support entrenched rough sleepers who have the most complex needs. Does he not welcome the work that will be done by the Government and the Greater Manchester combined authority?

Photo of Andy Burnham Andy Burnham Labour, Leigh

I will welcome every single thing the Minister does to address this problem and, yes, I welcome that funding. What I do not welcome is the alarming rise in rough sleeping on the streets of Greater Manchester. I am sorry if it is inconvenient for the Minister to hear this, but it is clearly right to put those concerns to him.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

I was not going to say another word because I want the Bill to go through, but I am amazed by the Minister’s chutzpah in moaning about an excellent speech that is relevant and pertinent to the Bill, given that Government Members, week after week after week, talk out excellent Bills. If the Minister does not mind, I would like to listen to what my right hon. Friend has to say because it is actually pertinent, unlike the drivel we normally hear from Government Members week after week after week.

Photo of Andy Burnham Andy Burnham Labour, Leigh

The Minister mentioned time. If the Government were making the Bill a priority, perhaps they would make time to debate these issues and to propose their own initiative. Instead, we have a debate on a Friday as a result of a private Member’s Bill. I will welcome anything the Minister does to address the issue, but I do not accept a cosy cross-party debate today when the number of people sleeping rough on our streets is increasing every single week. It is a bigger issue than just patting ourselves on the back. More needs to be done, and the Government need to set out today their ambition to cut rough sleeping in the next few years. That is why I am here today. I fully support the Bill, but let us be honest about what it is: a modest first step.

Photo of Pauline Latham Pauline Latham Conservative, Mid Derbyshire

It was interesting to listen to Andy Burnham. If I did not know that he represents Leigh, I might have thought that he was standing for some position in Manchester.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Bob Blackman on the effective way in which he has secured progress on such a sympathetic Bill on this compelling subject. One would hope that every debate in this place is worthwhile, but few issues are more significant than this Bill, which endeavours to ensure that no one has to endure sleeping rough on the streets of England, that no one has to face the frightening prospect of the lack of a roof over their head if nobody can put them up, and that no one has to be subject to the appalling mental and physical degradation that accompanies homelessness.

It is important to note that homelessness is not the same as rough sleeping, which the right hon. Member for Leigh perhaps misunderstands. We must not dismiss the plight of those who, although they might not be sleeping on the street, are plagued by anxiety and disquiet at that very real possibility. Britain is a developed nation with a strong economy, and I would be so bold as to say that I speak for everyone in this place when I say that it is shameful that so many people in our country are homeless. We must do all that we can to help them.

It is, of course, agonising to see somebody sleeping on the street, and it is even more concerning when we have freezing weather at this time of year, as we have faced in London this week, because a night out on the streets becomes even more unbearable than it is at the best of times. It is not possible to scrutinise the Bill effectively without understanding the complex nature of homelessness and just how extensive the problem is across the country. Quantifying homelessness is, in itself, an extremely difficult task. The way in which homelessness is recorded varies and, even if a unanimous method were both agreed and employed, the number might still be underestimated, as many people often sleep out of sight, moving from place to place.

Indeed, because of the appalling physical abuse to which rough sleepers, particularly women, are subjected, many actively try to leave places where they can be spotted. Despite that difficulty, Government statistics show that 4,134 people slept rough on any one night across England in 2016. Shockingly, that is more than double the number recorded in 2010. In London alone, local agencies report that 8,096 people slept rough in 2015-16, a 6% rise on the previous year.

Photo of Andy Burnham Andy Burnham Labour, Leigh

The figures showing the rise since 2010 are shocking. Does the hon. Lady think that her Government are doing enough to tackle rough sleeping?

Photo of Pauline Latham Pauline Latham Conservative, Mid Derbyshire

The Government are trying to tackle rough sleeping, which is not an easy subject to address. The fact that they are allowing the Bill to go through shows that they are taking it seriously.

Photo of David Mackintosh David Mackintosh Conservative, Northampton South

Members on both sides of the House need to be aware that many people who are sleeping rough, even if they present to a local authority, will find that local authorities do not currently have the power to help them—it is not a question of money. Does my hon. Friend agree that the powers in the Bill will give local authorities the ability to intervene?

Photo of Pauline Latham Pauline Latham Conservative, Mid Derbyshire

I am pleased that my hon. Friend made that point, which I can clearly illustrate with a case I dealt with over Christmas. I had to ring a helpline for a family whose rented house had burned down. They had four children. Derbyshire County Council was not interested in the fact that they were homeless and would have to come back from family to homelessness after Christmas, although the parents would have to continue with their jobs and get the children back into school. It was interested only in whether the children were vulnerable and were being abused. That is a clear example of a local authority not being interested in the fact of homelessness. Even when I phoned on Christmas day and several days after that, we could not get Derbyshire County Council to put anything in place for these people because its view was, “Well, they are not homeless. They are staying with friends in Bournemouth,”—or wherever it was—and not that the parents had to come back to Borrowash to get the children back into school and go back to their jobs. There are therefore problems at the moment.

The problem of homelessness is getting worse and the Bill could not be more necessary. Breaking the numbers down, certain groups are at particular risk. In England, women make up 26% of the clients of homelessness services, but as a group they are often much more vulnerable. There are high levels of vulnerability within the female homeless population. Mental ill health, drug and alcohol dependency, a childhood spent in care, experiences of sexual abuse and other traumatic life experiences are all commonplace.

Photo of Sheryll Murray Sheryll Murray Conservative, South East Cornwall

Does my hon. Friend agree that the fact that organisations such as Crisis back the Bill shows that the Government and my hon. Friend Bob Blackman have got this right?

Photo of Pauline Latham Pauline Latham Conservative, Mid Derbyshire

I agree with my hon. Friend. The Government are getting it right. They are acting for the benefit of homeless people in this country.

Interviews with homeless women that have been conducted by the fantastic homelessness alleviation charity Crisis, which was cited a few moments ago, show that more than 20% became homeless to escape violence from someone they knew, with 70% of them fleeing violence from a partner. That shows that the Government need the cross-party support that they are getting—or were getting; it seems that that is perhaps not as strong as it was. We need to move forward with the Bill so that it can go successfully to its next stage and become law.

Photo of Flick Drummond Flick Drummond Conservative, Portsmouth South

I am sure that new clauses 2 and 3, which were tabled by Andy Slaughter, are well intentioned. New clause 2 would give tenants assurances on their length of tenure and new clause 3 would give assurances on rent increases. However, I am concerned that, rather than helping vulnerable homeless people, they would hinder some of the best work in the Bill.

We know that private landlords are increasingly reluctant to accept benefit claimants—that is certainly the experience of Portsmouth City Council. The Bill represents an effort to change that situation, but new clauses 2 and 3 would frustrate it. Tenants are currently encouraged to remain in occupation until they are evicted by a court order so that they cannot be considered to be voluntarily homeless. That is a stressful and debilitating practice for the tenant, and a disincentive for landlords to take on cases from local authorities. That would be especially true under new clause 2 because it would lock landlords into an unbreakable three-year tenancy agreement if the result of giving notice would be to make the tenant homeless.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Conservative, Colchester

Does my hon. Friend agree that the reality is that only around 50% of mortgage lenders lend to buy-to-lets with tenancies of more than one year? The measures might restrict the market even further, so they could cause many more problems than they would fix.

Photo of Flick Drummond Flick Drummond Conservative, Portsmouth South

That point was discussed earlier. It would be good if mortgage lenders could extend their offer to three years or even beyond, because we do want long-term tenancies.

New clause 2 would make landlords reluctant to take on anyone who might need local authority help, most of whom would be vulnerable people in receipt of benefits or on low incomes. As Portsmouth and District Private Landlords Association has stressed to me, landlords do not usually evict good and responsible tenants, nor do they want to risk finding bad replacement tenants or to bear the costs of eviction and establishing a new tenancy. But nor do they want their hands to be tied. What if they wanted to sell the rental property or occupy it themselves? New clause 2 makes no provision for that. As a result, it would be a strong disincentive for landlords to take on any tenant who might call on the local authority’s duty to house, if they were given notice.

New clause 3, which would cap rent increases, would have a similar effect. Landlords do not want to give notice unnecessarily and this month’s National Audit Office report shows that private landlords are not profiteering. Since 2001-02, social housing rents have increased faster than earnings. By contrast, in all regions outside London, median full-time weekly earnings have risen by more than private rental prices, or are within 1% or 2% since 2006. New clause 3 would allow special provision to be made for London rents, but only by setting a lower cap. The motivation for that is presumably that, in London, rents have gone up by 32%—twice as much as earnings. That means that there would be even more of a disincentive for landlords in London to take tenants in receipt of housing benefit.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith would cap private rent increases at the consumer prices index level, yet CPI will almost always be lower than the retail prices index plus 0.5% cap that the previous Labour Government thought reasonable for housing associations. The combination of fixed three-year tenancies and the inability to determine their own rent would mean that landlords would either refuse to take on social tenants, or be obliged to give them notice to get reasonable rent increases by starting a new tenancy. As it stands, the Bill will work with landlords to ease the burdens on tenants and local authorities. New clauses 2 and 3, despite their best intentions, would undo that good work, so I hope that they will not be pressed.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee 10:45, 27 January 2017

I will be brief because I recognise that we want to get to the final stages of this excellent Bill by the end of the sitting.

In terms of wider reach, the Bill is of course only a partial solution. The report of the Communities and Local Government Committee on homelessness drew attention to wider issues that need to be addressed. We need to build more homes in this country, particularly more affordable homes, and we need to build more affordable homes to rent. The Committee recognised that housing needs vary in different parts of the country. Different housing markets need a different response, particularly in terms of tenure mix.

We look forward to the housing White Paper, which we understand is coming soon. We hope that it will be published before the end of February, when Ministers will be coming before our Committee to give evidence as part of our inquiry into the capacity of the housebuilding industry. We will be able to pursue further some of the points about the ability to provide the homes that are needed at that time. I hope that, as the Minister for Housing and Planning seems to be indicating, we will see a move away from the idea that starter homes and shared ownership are the total answer to the country’s housing needs.

A lot has been said about longer-term tenancies in the private rented sector. Bob Blackman is absolutely right. When the Select Committee looked at that in the previous Parliament, we supported longer-term tenancies. We want to encourage everyone to move towards them. Within those tenancies, people can get the certainty of an agreed annual rent increase, which is different from having an artificially imposed rent control from outside.

In the here and now, money is absolutely crucial to the Bill’s success. We are getting a little confused about the timings of reviews. From the Select Committee’s point of view, two years on from implementation seems to be a good time to review whether the legislation is working and whether the money available had enabled it to work over the previous two years. I hope that the Minister sees the commitment to a review as a helpful proposal. Alongside the Government, we will review the working of the legislation and the position regarding money. Although there is money in the first year to help local government with start-up costs, after the regulations have been put in place, the Act will probably not be implemented for about a year. We then have a second year with limited funding, and then no funding in the third year, which is probably the second year of operation. I have concerns about that.

I cannot see that there will not be costs to local councils, so I think there is a need for a more immediate review after the Bill is passed, with regard to that third year. If Ministers are looking at a quicker, more immediate review of the finances as soon as the Bill is passed, that would be helpful. The Select Committee would be ready to do an immediate review on that very limited basis, if it would assist the process.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

It is a pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Communities and Local Government Committee, Mr Betts.

Right hon. and hon. Members have spoken quite a lot about the whys and wherefores of process, and about who tabled which amendments where and when—which side is more sanctimonious than the other almost springs to mind. I am not going to get into that because the Bill is very much about outcomes for people who are at risk of homelessness and people who have unfortunately become homeless.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to the new clauses tabled by Andy Slaughter. New clause 1 would put on the face of the Bill a statutory requirement for the Secretary of State to review the legislation no earlier than one year and no later than two years after commencement, and would require the review to consider the funding of the provisions. The hon. Gentleman will recall that the question of reviewing the costs of the legislation was raised and discussed at length in Committee, but for the benefit of those who were not there I shall state my commitment very clearly.

I will review the implementation of the legislation, including its resourcing and how it is working in practice, concluding no later than two years after the commencement of its substantive clauses. I will also carry out, in the same timeframe, a post-implementation review of the new burdens to review the robustness of our assessment of the estimated cost to local authorities and the underlying assumptions. As part of both reviews, I would welcome the input and expertise of the Select Committee, and I am happy to discuss how it could be involved. The resources and funding requirements related to the duties I have outlined will also be considered alongside all the other responsibilities of local authorities as part of future spending reviews.

It is important to bear it in mind that the Bill’s provisions will not be implemented on the day it receives Royal Assent, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith acknowledged. We were clear in Committee that the Bill’s successful implementation will depend on working with local government to ensure that resources, guidance and training are in place before its provisions are enacted. For that reason, each measure in the Bill can be commenced independently, once local authorities are ready. Given that fact, a statutory requirement to review, tied to the commencement date of the eventual Act, is unworkable, because the substantive clauses will be commenced at a later date. I also argue that such a statutory requirement is unnecessary given the commitments already in place and the long-standing new burdens assessment procedures.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Procedure Committee, Chair, Procedure Committee

First, will my hon. Friend make sure, as he always does, that his civil servants are completely aligned with his objectives? Secondly, I welcome his commitment to work with local authorities; I know that my local authority, Broxbourne, would welcome the chance to discuss these matters with him to ensure that the Bill is successful, as I know it will be. Finally, I thank my hon. Friend Bob Blackman for his excellent work over the past few months to make sure that today’s proceedings happened and that new legislation comes into effect.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

My hon. Friend makes an important point about working with local authorities, which we are absolutely determined to do during the Bill’s implementation. He knows that I have already met Broxbourne Borough Council to discuss these important issues, and I would certainly be keen to do that again. He also mentioned making sure that my civil servants’ intention is aligned with my own; I can tell him that the civil servants working on the Bill have done an absolutely excellent job in very testing circumstances. Although the Government wanted to introduce legislation, we must acknowledge the fact that the process for this Bill has been different, in that it is a private Member’s Bill that has also been worked on by the Select Committee, and then had input from local government, the Local Government Association and the housing charities. Our civil servants have done a magnificent job of helping us to bring all those groups together to come out with a product that has broad support.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

On the issue of working with local authorities, the Minister will know my concerns, which I raised in Committee, about Westminster City Council’s recent decision to discharge its duty to homeless people mainly outside the local authority, and in some cases as far away as the midlands. His colleague, the Minister for Housing and Planning, told me on “Sunday Politics” last week that Westminster City Council was wrong to do that and that, in the long run, it should be stopped. Will the Minister confirm that today and tell me what he thinks the long run actually means?

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

We discussed that issue in some detail in Committee, so I am not going to go into great detail today, but the law is clear on placements out of borough. The Government are absolutely certain that we want that law to be observed, particularly in relation to making sure that councils look at people’s circumstances—such as where children go to school and where people work—before they make any decisions that may affect a particular family.

Photo of Andy Burnham Andy Burnham Labour, Leigh

The Minister spoke a moment ago about successful implementation and a review to check that it has been achieved. Part of that success is about the bureaucracy—the successful implementation of the powers and provision of the money required so that local authorities can discharge their functions—but, as new clause 1 says, it is also about the effect the legislation has on actually reducing homelessness. Before he moves on, will he tell us what the Government’s objective is and what test they are setting themselves with respect to reducing both rough sleeping and homelessness by 2020? We can judge then whether they have been successful.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

We have set out a significant determination to reduce both rough sleeping and homelessness in general. Nobody should ever have to spend the night on the street, and it is regrettable that that is currently the case, but the Government are absolutely determined to ensure that nobody has to sleep rough. It is a complex matter, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is well aware. Some of the things we are doing will have a significant impact. For example, there is a challenge in getting people moved from hostel accommodation into an intermediate position, before they are able to go into accommodation of their own. We are bringing forward £100 million for move-on accommodation, for which a bidding process will open very shortly. I hope that, in the spirit of the Bill, the right hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that the Government are not resting on their laurels and do not see the Bill as the be all and end all to deal with homelessness and rough sleeping, which we take very seriously. We are doing a whole package of things to try to improve the situation for people.

If accepted, under new clause 2 private sector landlords would not be able to rely on the no fault ground for possession, known as section 21, within the first three years of a tenancy, if the termination of a tenancy would result in a tenant becoming homeless. Landlords, and in many cases tenants, welcome the flexibility of the current assured shorthold tenancy regime, which does not lock the parties into long-term commitments, and promotes mobility. Without the certainty that landlords can seek repossession of their property when required, perhaps for their own family to live in, many would be reluctant to let their properties. The unwanted outcome would be landlords withdrawing from the market, which would not help landlords or indeed tenants.

Before assured shorthold tenancies were introduced under the Housing Act 1988, the private rental market was in decline. Regulated rents made being a landlord simply not commercially viable for many property owners, but since 1988 the private rented sector has increased steadily, growing from just over 9% of the market in 1988 to 19% today. The current framework strikes the right balance between the rights of landlords and tenants, and our efforts should be focused on encouraging a voluntary approach to longer tenancies for those who want them.

With those points in mind, I hope that the hon. Member for Hammersmith will follow through on the comments that he made at the start of the debate and withdraw new clause 2.

Photo of Stewart Jackson Stewart Jackson Conservative, Peterborough 11:00, 27 January 2017

It is true that, recently, the liberalisation of permitted development rights has released many more properties for rent, which is a very good thing, but does my hon. Friend agree that changes in fiscal policy, buy-to-let, and, in my own area, selective licensing are encouraging more landlords to resist letting properties? This proposal from the Opposition will exacerbate that trend.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

I agree with my hon. Friend. Layering more regulation on to residential landlords will have the net effect of reducing supply. Many of our constituents rely on renting private properties, so we need to be very careful that the balance is right.

Finally, if new clause 3 is enacted, it will introduce rent controls in the private rented sector by compelling landlords to limit rent rises to no more than once a year and by no more than inflation in cases where there is a risk of the tenant becoming homeless as a result of a rent rise. Although I understand the spirit in which this amendment has been tabled, introducing rent controls is fundamentally the wrong approach and is not borne out by evidence. Experience from Britain and around the world shows that rent controls lead to fewer properties on the market and less choice for tenants. Returning to the situation in the 1980s when the private rented sector was in decline will not help landlords or tenants.

The key to improving affordability and choice for tenants is to build more homes rather than impose rent controls. Our build-to-rent fund has now contracted investment worth £630 million to deliver more than 5,600 high-quality homes specifically for private rent. Our £3.5 billion private rented sector housing guarantee scheme will increase the stream of investment in new private rented sector housing.

We have also established the private rented sector affordability and security working group to explore options to reduce the cost for tenants who access and move within the sector. This group is expected to submit its report to Ministers next month.

I therefore urge the House to agree that new clause 3 is not desirable, and, given the commitment I have made to Opposition Front Benchers, I hope that new clauses 1, 2 and 3 will now be withdrawn.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Housing)

I thank everyone who has spoken in this debate. I appreciate all the comments that have been made. I particularly thank my right hon. Friend Andy Burnham for speaking so passionately about the situation in Manchester and the issues of rough sleeping, reminding us that these problems go around the country.

I said in my opening remarks that I would not press new clauses 2 and 3 to a vote, and that is still the case. Their purpose was to try to elicit some positive comments from the Minister, but I think I have failed in that respect. We will return to those matters at an early date. Eviction by private sector landlords is the single greatest immediate cause of homelessness, and it does need to be tackled. We are living not in the world of 1988, but in a very different and less stable climate. I was disappointed by the Minister’s rather wholesale rejection of that issue today, but I hope that we will return to it on a future occasion.

On a more positive note, I said that I hoped not to press new clause 1 to a vote. I am greatly encouraged by what the Minister said, and I thank him both for entering into the spirit of the discussion and the specific words he used. He gave us the comfort that we were looking for in relation to a proper, timely and comprehensive review of the finances behind the Bill. I am particularly pleased that he said that the Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Betts, and the Select Committee itself will be engaged in that process as well as local government. That is extremely helpful, especially given the time pressures we are under to get these matters sorted out here rather than in the other place. I am sure that the other place will be watching and listening to what the Minister and I have said. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the new clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 4