I support the clause. I think that every hon. Member has had somebody come into their surgery who has returned from one of the world’s conflict areas having fought bravely for this country and that person is surprised to find themselves at the bottom of the housing ladder. In many cases, they are worse off than somebody who has been permanently within the area. Two different problems occur.
First, when somebody is in the armed forces they are probably not much thinking about the need to gather and gain points within a local authority to rise up the housing need scale. Secondly, often the nature of going away and fighting in the armed forces means that you come back and your life is not as it was when you left. In particular, the area that you call home is ill defined to the extent that there is not a home authority for that member of the armed forces. There is a case that I can think of in my constituency and, speaking to hon. Members, I know that cases are found elsewhere. It becomes unclear which authority they should be applying to and I have come across instances where no authority is initially prepared even to add that individual to its list of people in housing need. That is unsatisfactory for a group of people who have risked their lives on behalf of this country, as is the secondary point that even when they are recognised by an authority because there is a link to the area, they find themselves at the bottom of the list and starting from scratch. The amendment addresses that issue. In areas with significant housing need—in the south and elsewhere—points need to accumulate, sometimes to over 100 points, in a local authority area, before there is any chance of being housed at all. It is not a coincidence that the people that I have met working in homelessness and rough sleeping have so often had experience in the armed forces before becoming homeless. I think that one in five people who sleep in the streets, for example, have been in the armed forces.
Has the hon. Gentleman read the social exclusion unit report regarding rough sleeping produced by the Government some years ago? It is clear that the issues around armed forces personnel finding themselves on the street are myriad, and include mental health, losing the camaraderie and the institutionalisation of being in the armed forces. Does he accept that those, and not the issues that thankfully are being rectified by the clause—which I wholeheartedly support—are the predominant issues?
I am grateful for hon. Lady’s intervention. She is right that the issues that contribute towards homelessness, including among former members of the armed forces, are incredibly complex. Any attempt to pretend that there is one silver bullet—an individual thing that one can do—or one single cause is hugely misguided. Of course, one factor is the amount of social housing provision. It remains a fact that in every year of the past 10 years less social housing has been built than in every year of the previous 18. That means that the amount of housing available for people coming back from conflicts has diminished. It affects people across the picture, particularly those returning from conflict.
The hon. Gentleman has a habit of throwing in statistics as soundbites. Does he accept that on social housing, the rot set in with the decline in council house building? There is a very useful table in the Unison briefing, showing that, in 1979, some 75,000 council houses were being built. Now, belatedly perhaps, the Government are addressing the issue, so will he give them some credit, rather than just point scoring?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue, because I know that the Government Front-Benchers, and now it turns out the Back-Benchers, do not like to hear the facts, which are that far fewer social houses have been built.
May I answer the first point before giving way again? It is a fact. It is hard to escape it and it may be inconvenient, but if the hon. Gentleman says that more social housing should have been built, he may be right. This Government have had not 10 but almost 11 years during which they could have built that housing.
Thank you, Mr. Gale. I apologise for allowing myself to be goaded off the subject.
The overall supply of social housing has a big impact on our returning armed forces, and perhaps at another time we can continue the debate about how best to supply it. All parts of the House, however, will agree that when people have served this nation, they should have a right to reconnect with society. The local authority must not only accept them on to its list, but go a little further than the clause by acknowledging that their need is greater than merely to be accepted by an area, and that they need points to have a realistic chance of getting into a property without having to join the back of the queue.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the clause is about ensuring that access to council accommodation or social housing should be available on the basis of need rather than local connection? We are remedying a change made by a Conservative Government in 1996, which imposed a residence test that is unhelpful to members of the armed forces. It was not in the original Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, which sought to meet people’s needs without that consideration. We are now remedying a mistake that the previous Conservative Government made.
I am grateful for the intervention, but I shall leave it to others who were around at the time to discuss previous Acts. I am very pleased, however, to see the provision in the Bill. The big difference is that, in the past decade, our armed forces have been sent to war far more than in any recent period. Those wars have continued for a long time, and service has been distant from this country, so the issue has been brought into much sharper focus. I certainly support the clause, but I urge the Minister to go further and not only create a connection with the local authority, but prioritise the housing needs of those returning from armed conflict.
I, too, welcome the provisions in the clause and the way in which it alters the provisions of the 1996 Act. Like the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield, I understand that, under current housing legislation, it is often difficult for members of the armed forces who are nearing the end of service or returning to the UK to show that they have a local connection with the district council area where they have been serving, living or are returning to. Since becoming a Member, I have had a small number of such cases in my constituency casework. The problem means that they become a low priority for council housing because they have relatively low point allocations. If they go on through the homeless register instead of the council allocation and if they are accepted as being homeless, they are often removed to another local authority area where they have a previous connection rather than being considered for homeless accommodation in the district in which they have applied for housing.
Will the Minister confirm my reading of the clause—that it will ensure that armed services personnel will be considered to have a local connection with an area in which they are stationed or living, in order to equalise their status with the local civilian population? If so, it will enable them realistically to be considered for council housing in their local areas as they move from military life back to civilian life. I would welcome that.
I, too, welcome the clause, but does it extend to the families of military personnel? The explanatory notes say that the effect of the clause is that
“a person in the armed forces will now be able to establish a local connection with a district...in the same way as a civilian.”
However, a common scenario is when a family is in married quarters and the couple’s relationship breaks down or the one who is on active service, usually the husband, leaves the armed services, leaving the family in those quarters. At that point, the MOD says, quite reasonably, that it needs the married quarters and serves a notice on the family to quit. Does the help in clause 270 extend to the family of the personnel member and enable them to establish a local connection in the same way?
I am pleased that both sides of the Committee agree that the clause is important. I welcome the words of the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield on the clause and am more than happy to help him draft a press release to the effect, “Shapps praises Government on Housing and Regeneration Bill”. Perhaps we can do that some time this evening. Somehow, though, I suspect that will not be the case.
Regardless of which areas we represent, we all know from our constituency work that former services personnel have had a battle to obtain social housing, because they are not treated as having a local connection with the areas in which they have been serving. Let me put on record that it is absolutely unacceptable that they should be put at a complete disadvantage because of their service to the country. On the contrary, we must provide our servicemen and women with the best possible support as they move back to civilian life. I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish regarding his concerns. His reading of the Bill is exactly my understanding of it. I hope that provides some reassurance.
That is why the clause will amend the Housing Act 1996 to enable service personnel to establish a local connection with the district in which they are serving or have served for the purposes of allocating social housing under part 6 of the Act and providing homelessness assistance under part 7. Broadly speaking, a person has a local connection with a district if he is or was normally resident there by choice. Additionally, someone may have a local connection with a district because he or she is employed there, has family associations there or because of special circumstances.
Whether someone has a local connection with a district can be relevant when they seek social housing, because the 1996 Act allows local authorities to take local connections into account when deciding who gets priority for social housing. Local connections are also relevant in respect of homelessness, because people who are accepted as being unintentionally homeless and in priority need who do not have a local connection with the district in which they have applied for help may be referred to another authority in which they do have a local connection.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich eloquently pointed out, and I would like to put it on record as well, under the current legislation, service personnel and their families are specifically excluded and are treated as not having established a local connection with a district because of employment or residence while serving in the forces. I think that the whole Committee will agree that that is simply unacceptable. Clause 270 will remove the provisions that prevent service personnel from establishing a local connection in those circumstances. That will mean that residence and employment of serving members of the armed forces will be taken into account in the same way that it is for civilians who live and work in a district.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire mentioned a specific point about families and particularly wives trying to establish a local connection when a marriage breaks up and a wife and family are left living in married quarters. I reassure him that his reading of that situation is correct. However, the question of whether a wife will establish a local connection because of residence in these or any other circumstances will depend on the usual factors that apply to everyone: namely, whether she was normally resident there and whether it was a residence of her own choice.
I am slightly worried about the term “residence of her own choice”. By definition, this is not a residence of her own choice, but a condition of her husband’s employment. Will the Minister assure me that that will not debar her from access to local authority housing?
I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman for not making myself clear. Wives will be able to establish a local connection under the clause. I hope that that provides the reassurance that he needs.
I thank my hon. Friend for taking up the point that is agreed across the Chamber of the importance of providing ex-service personnel with accommodation. He has given reassurance in relation to the district where they have been based, but that district is often not where they would wish to remain because bases are outside urban areas or because they want to return to the town in which they were born. They can often find themselves in those difficulties and will not be able to establish a local connection, even though they might have lived there for a considerable period. Will the Minister reassure the House that the concerns for personnel who do not want to remain in their district will be taken into account?
I hope that I can provide that reassurance. In the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman outlined, a local connection would remain. If a wife wanted to move back to where she was brought up, she would have a local connection there already. I am pleased that the whole House supports the clause. I think that clauses 269 to 272 are, in their different ways, extremely important parts of the Bill and of housing policy. It is important that we ensure that servicemen and women are put on an equal footing when applying for housing.