New clause 10 - Amendment of section 17 of the

Part of Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 17 January 2002.

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Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 10:45, 17 January 2002

I support the thrust of the new clauses, and I apologise that, due to a prior engagement, I have to leave before the end of this sitting. That is a shame, because I hoped to be able to discuss the new clauses tabled by the hon. Member for Luton, South about contact arrangements, with which I have a great deal of sympathy.

The hon. Lady says that she is something of a baby in terms of experience of social services. However, I know that she has a good deal of experience in housing matters—in the past year we have both been on Committees that dealt with such issues, such as the one considering the Homelessness Bill. That experience is relevant to this Bill because it concerns the break-up of families, which is sometimes due largely to women fleeing domestic violence. On that score, I must declare an interest as patron of The Women's Refuge Project, Brighton, which has given me a great deal of briefing about the matters that we are discussing.

We must do everything we can to prevent families from being split up. The hon. Lady mentioned cases in which the lack of availability of accommodation results in children being put on the child protection register and separated from their mother, father or guardian. That can be the start of a slippery slope for the welfare of the child—he gets into trouble and the whole family in difficult circumstances fragments very quickly.

When we were considering the Homelessness Bill we heard of cases—we have all experienced them—in which people were deemed to have intentionally made themselves homeless, simply because they were fleeing domestic violence within their family unit, or the violence of neighbours committed for any of a host of reasons. The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) gave examples of people who were escaping from racial violence, or who feared the prospect of it if they stayed in their homes. Had they remained in their homes, their lives would have been at risk, so they preferred to sleep on the floors and sofas of people who gave them refuge. However, they fell foul of the legislation because they were deemed not to be homeless unintentionally, and consequently were not given the support they so desperately needed from local authorities.

Such circumstances have a great impact on the welfare of children who are caught up through no fault of their own or, in most cases, of their parents. Given that the paramount consideration in the Bill is the welfare of the child, the new clauses tabled by the hon. Member for Luton, South are highly pertinent. Conservative Members have a good deal of

sympathy with her and I shall be interested in the Minister's response.

The overriding problem is the shortage of housing. However good the provisions of the Homelessness Bill, which we supported, and however good the intentions behind the new clauses, if they are adopted, little will be achieved if the goods are not delivered to the local authorities charged with providing accommodation and the support that goes with it. Last year the fewest new social houses since the 1920s were built, and the number of people in temporary accommodation and bed-and-breakfast has risen substantially. The problem is not being solved, despite the assurances received from the Prime Minister downwards.

I wholly agree with the hon. Member for Luton, South that the sort of cases that she advocates should have priority, but one family's promotion is another's demotion. Because finite resources and a finite amount of accommodation are available, it is a case of shifting priorities. Some hon. Members might take issue with my views on this matter, but the Government, through the Homelessness Bill, have raised the priority in the housing ladder stakes of people who are coming out of prison and have criminal records. The result is a reduction in the amount of accommodation available for many other deserving cases, including homeless families.

We sympathise greatly with the hon. Lady's intentions. There is a loophole that needs closing. We need to do more to support families who find themselves in circumstances that have desperate implications for their children. In giving our support, we shall be interested to hear from the Minister what practical steps she can take, given that we are talking about finite resources being available from her Government for housing.