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Social Housing

3.31 pm

The Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction (Sir George Young) : With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the Government's proposals for reform of the homeless legislation in England and Wales.

On 20 January, we issued a consultation paper with proposals to reform the homeless legislation so that, in future, there would be a single route for everyone seeking a secure or assured tenancy in local authority or housing association accommodation. My right hon Friend the Secretary of State for Wales issued a similar consultation paper at the same time.

Our main objectives in bringing forward the proposals were to enable local authorities to operate fairer allocation policies, while maintaining an effective safety net for families and vulnerable people who become homeless through no fault of their own. Nothing in the responses to the consultation paper challenges the logic of those objectives.

The present notion that households accepted by local authorities as homeless must be given "permanent accommodation" was not envisaged when the present statutory duty was created in 1977. It has grown up through case law, requiring long-term, settled accommodation. There is no reason why a household in suitable accommodation should be given a secure or assured tenancy for life merely because at some stage it has been accepted as statutorily homeless. That approach is not fair to people on the housing waiting list.

Our consultation paper attracted some 10,000 responses. I am arranging for a list of respondents to be placed in the Library of the House and copies of the responses themselves will be available for public inspection in my Department's library. A summary of what we intend to do in the light of the consultation, and a copy of my statement, have been placed in the Library and the Vote Office. Many of the responses did not address the actual proposals, but responded to misleading claims by lobby organisations. Others wrote in about hypothetical effects of our policy. As I made clear to the House on 26 January, it is not and never has been our intention that families and other vulnerable people should be left to live on the streets or in unsatisfactory accommodation--as some of the more alarmist propaganda from our opponents has suggested.

The consultation paper set out 10 main proposals, many of which were welcomed by those who commented on them. A number of local authorities said that their present practice in relation to homelessness was not far from what the Government were proposing. Indeed, while there was much pleading for the status quo from vested interests, they offered no real answer to the main flaw in the current legislation--that those who apply for assistance as homeless gain priority in the queue for local authority tenancies at the expense of others who have comparable underlying housing needs. We have taken careful account of those responses to the consultation paper that made substantive comments on our proposals. Part of our intention had been to give greater discretion to local authorities in the accommodation of homeless households, but many respondents asserted that that would place too great a responsibility on individual

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authorities. Accordingly, we concluded that we should modify the proposals in the consultation paper to reinforce the safety net for vulnerable homeless people.

We therefore decided that a local housing authority's new duty towards a household in need of assistance should start, as it does now, when an authority has reason to believe that someone may be homeless and in priority need, prior to assessment of the household's circumstances.

The consultation paper invited views about how long the duty to secure accommodation should last. We have concluded that local authorities' new duty should be to secure accommodation for a minimum period of a year for applicants and their households in priority need who have no suitable accommodation available to occupy, provided that the situation has arisen unintentionally.

Some households may be able to remain in the accommodation indefinitely-- for instance, if they obtain an assured shorthold tenancy that is renewed. Others may find themselves accommodation on their own initiative ; and it is right that people should be encouraged to take responsibility for their own housing where they can.

Also, in most parts of the country a 12-month period on the housing waiting list will be long enough for someone with real housing needs to obtain a local authority or housing association tenancy. However, if the household continues to need assistance, the duty will recur, subject to a review of the applicant's circumstances. Such a review would be needed within two years.

The consultation paper proposed that a local authority would not have a duty to provide assistance to a person who has any form of accommodation available. The Government recognise the good work of women's refuges and other short-stay, direct-access, hostel-type accommodation. We do not want that type of accommodation to silt up through lack of move-on accommodation. Accordingly, we have concluded that local authorities' duty to secure accommodation should extend to people in refuges, direct-access hostels and other short-stay places such as bed-and-breakfast hotels.

The consultation paper proposed that someone who was asked to leave by family or friends should no longer be automatically entitled to assistance. We have considered a number of ways of implementing that proposal, and have concluded that the best approach may be to modify current provisions on intentionality so that they can take proper account of why accommodation is being withdrawn. That should minimise the scope for abuse. We shall also tighten the code of guidance to urge authorities to investigate such applications more thoroughly than many have done in the past.

A number of respondents expressed concern that the consultation paper made little reference to care in the community or Children Act responsibilities. That was because our proposals are fully consistent with authorities' responsibilities under community care legislation and the Children Act. We remain committed to ensuring that suitable housing continues to be available for vulnerable people who cannot be expected to make their own arrangements.

I confirm the proposition in the consultation paper that people who are granted entry to the United Kingdom on the understanding that they will have no recourse to public funds should not be entitled to assistance under the new legislation. We also intend to implement the proposal that local authorities should be required to have their own

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appeals mechanisms for handling disputes. As the consultation paper says, we do not propose to disturb the current principles for deciding which local authority is responsible for someone seeking accommodation.

The Government intend to proceed with their principal proposal that, for new applicants, local authorities should only allocate secure tenancies in their own stock and the nominations that they make to housing association assured tenancies through a waiting list. Local authorities will have discretion over the allocation policies that they use to determine people's position on the list within the bounds set out in legislation. I emphasise that the proposed new system would allocate tenancies to those people in housing need more fairly than the present arrangements.

However, it has never been our intention that the Government should be involved in the details of allocation policy. Regulations would prescribe only minimum provisions--for example, to outlaw discriminatory practices, such as requiring a five-year minimum residence qualification.

We shall be inviting the Housing Corporation to take account of the new duties on local authorities in the statutory guidance that it issues to housing associations, so that it can continue to work in an effective partnership with local authorities.

The proposal to encourage local authorities and housing associations to establish joint waiting lists was largely welcomed, although housing associations especially were keen that that should be voluntary, and the Government are happy to give reassurance on that matter.

Many of the Government's proposals will require primary legislation, and we intend to introduce that when parliamentary time permits ; as is currently the case, the legislation will extend to both England and Wales. In the meantime, we are considering what administrative action might be taken to further our objectives.

We intend to proceed with our plans to improve the fairness of local authorities' allocation policies, while at the same time maintaining a safety net for families and vulnerable people who become homeless. I commend our reforms to the House.

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West) : Does the Minister not understand that that is an unworthy, mean-spirited statement, whose intention is still to change primary statutory homeless legislation, "as soon as parliamentary time admits" ? The statement represents an attack on the basic rights to housing provision that not even Mrs. Thatcher, as Prime Minister, was prepared to contemplate. Does the Minister not understand that the policy will further scapegoat the homeless, that it will not provide a single new home for anyone, and that it will waste millions of pounds of public money ?

Will the Minister now confirm--contrary to his claims about the lack of flexibility of the current provisions--that, as his Department made clear in 1989, the homeless with children have no automatic right to housing at present ?

Does not the Minister understand that, under the current legislation, a council's task is to assess people's needs and then, if satisfied that they genuinely need accommodation, to help them secure it, and that under the present regulations, that can be in council, housing association or private rented stock ?

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Does the Minister also recall that a thorough review of homelessness legislation was held between 1988 and late 1989, under Mrs. Thatcher as Prime Minister, and Nicholas Ridley and Chris Patten as Secretaries of State ? Was not Chris Patten correct to conclude that the present Act remains important and strikes

"a reasonable balance between the interests of the genuinely homeless and others in housing need" ?

He said :

"We do not intend therefore to change the law".--[ Official Report , 15 November 1989 ; Vol. 160, c. 243 .]

Is the Minister aware that, throughout the months of the new review, he was unable to produce a shred of evidence to show what has changed since that Ridley and Patten review ? Where is the detailed evidence to back up the logic of his objectives, which he claims remain unchallenged ? Which council or voluntary organisation ever called for that review, apart from Westminster and Wandsworth--and we know about their strategic housing objectives ? Which organisation fully supports the consultative document ? How many of those 10,000 respondents were in favour of, and welcomed, all his consultative proposals ?

Will the Minister confirm that even the Secretary of State for the Environment's local Tory council, Suffolk Coastal, says that his January proposals were totally unworkable ? Will the Minister now say a little bit more to the House about the costs and consequences of the new policy ? When can we expect to see the primary legislation which he claims many of his proposals need ? When will it be brought before the House ? When will he confirm to the House that housing the homeless in private rented accommodation is often twice as costly to public funds as council or housing association

accommodation--sometimes four times as costly ?

How can the right hon. Gentleman square the idea of a six-month private assured shorthold tenancy with the new minimum period of one year that he has announced this afternoon ? Will landlords now be forced to give extensions after the six-month period ? Was not the whole point of the Housing Act 1988 to introduce a six-month assured shorthold tenancy that people would not have the right to extend ? What will happen to people at the end of the one-year period that he has announced ?

Why is the right hon. Gentleman placing blind ideological dogma above practical common sense and value for money ? Does he not understand that, if councils were simply able to lease empty homes, many more on the housing waiting lists throughout the country could be housed and at a lower cost to the Exchequer than at present ? How much more could be done if councils were allowed to spend their capital receipts--a policy that this Minister used to espouse from the Dispatch Box ? Why does not he have the guts to admit that this whole tawdry exercise has nothing to do with housing need and everything to do with the "back to basics" fiasco of last October's Tory party conference ?

After all these months, what are we left with but a ragbag of proposals with legislative details yet to come ? Does not the right hon. Gentleman understand that even his fellow Ministers have been appalled by his approach ? Does he not remember the words of his hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic, who said that he had not yet met a single mother who had deliberately become pregnant to gain housing or financial advantage ?

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When Chris Patten explicitly rejected the Minister's approach, was he not right to tell the House that the real and long-term remedies for the levels of homelessness

"are to be found in an effective housing strategy, based on the contributions of the private and public sectors".--[ Official Report , 15 November 1989 ; Vol. 160, c. 244 .]

Does not the Minister realise that it is his abject failure to secure such a strategy that lies behind the worst housing crisis this country has seen for decades, with the numbers of homeless having doubled since 1979, 850 families thrown on to the streets each week through repossessions, half a million building workers on the dole and a complete collapse in the council house building programme ? The policies announced today will only add to human misery and make that crisis worse. Instead of manipulating waiting lists, would it not be more positive to get back to building homes to rent for people who so desperately need them ?

Sir George Young : On what the hon. Gentleman calls the "blind ideological dogma" behind my announcement, I remind him of what the chairman of the Labour party said on that very subject :

"We need to transform the housing service so we have more appropriate housing readily available and a housing waiting list structure that positively rewards those who have tried their best to take responsibility and have some order in their lives."

Referring to people in his constituency, he said :

"People there are not fools. If you cannot get a house by waiting on the list, you present the maximum number of reasons why you should receive priority. That is not encouraging people to accept responsibility in their own lives and society."

That was the chairman of the Labour party, and I endorse those proposals.

On the fundamental logic behind our proposals, I also remind the hon. Gentleman what was said in a leader in The Guardian : "Who should have priority : a registered' homeless family in temporary but comfortable accommodation--or an unregistered' homeless family stuck in two cramped rooms in the home of a relative ? Under present procedures the first has priority even when the second has more urgent housing needs ... the housing minister believes the criteria should be changed so that the individual needs of all families on the two separate routes to a rented home ... are weighed against each other. In principle he is right."

As for those supporting the proposals, many London boroughs--the London Boroughs Association at the time--supported our proposals. The costs were set out in the consultation document. We estimated that they would be broadly neutral, though of course it will depend on when legislation is introduced and how it is interpreted. On primary legislation, the House will understand that I cannot anticipate what would be in the Queen's Speech.

More people are moving off waiting lists now than when the present Administration came in.

Homeless acceptances, contrary to what the hon. Gentleman said, have fallen year on year for each of the past eight quarters. There have been some 41 per cent. fewer people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation over the past year. So I entirely reject what the hon. Gentleman said about the Government's housing record and urge him to reconsider his rather hasty condemnation of the principles behind what the Government propose.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Speaker : Order. I want us now to proceed with brisk questions and answers. A number of hon. Members are seeking to be called. If hon. Members continue to make

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statements instead of asking questions, and if they do not receive direct answers, many hon. Members will be disappointed.

Mr. Charles Hendry (High Peak) : I congratulate my right hon. Friend on listening to many of the more reasonable responses that came forward to the consultation document. Does he agree that nobody will benefit more from the statement than those single parents who are currently staying in rooms in cramped conditions

Hon. Members : Question.

Madam Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman is asking a question, if the House would listen.

Mr. Hendry : Does my right hon. Friend agree that nobody will benefit more than those single parents who are currently living in cramped conditions in their parents' home, but find that they cannot make progress up the waiting list, because people are always jumping to the top of the queue ? Will not his statement today give them a fairer crack at getting a house of their own ?

Sir George Young : My hon. Friend is entirely right. Going through the representations that were made on the consultation paper, I was struck by the lack of priority that many people gave to those who are on the waiting list, living in difficult conditions--often in worse conditions than those who had been accepted as homeless and placed in temporary accommodation. It certainly is the case that the people to whom my hon. Friend referred stand to gain from the changes that we now propose.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury) : Does the Minister agree that the basic lack of affordable rented accommodation, which his proposals do nothing to address, means that putting people into short-term rented accommodation is simply introducing a new form of homelessness that we have not seen before- -recycled homelessness ?

Sir George Young : Let me remind the hon. Gentleman what his hon. Friend the Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said when the subject was raised during a debate organised by Roof magazine :

"It is an unacceptable position that a first-time tenant, whether a conventional two-children married family, a single mum with three children, or single person with mental illness, goes necessarily and obviously into what may in many cases be brand new housing stock, when over the other side of the road are people who have been overcrowded for 30 years, paid their rent on time and cannot be moved."

I support what the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey said. Our proposals will put that injustice right.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton) : Will my right hon. Friend accept that one thing that his statement will do is ensure that my constituents in east Devon, who support his policy--it has nothing to do with London--will see that young couples who have been waiting to get on to a housing list, who will not get married or have children until they are housed, will now be able to have their housing need taken into account and not be permanently pushed down by people coming into my constituency, which is very popular because it is a seaside constituency, and all the local people are suffering ?

Sir George Young : My right hon. Friend speaks for many people who wait patiently on the waiting lists and are

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exasperated by the way in which the present position is abused in the way that he described. There will be much broad support for the principles behind the new legislation.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney) : Is the Minister not aware that his proposals, so far as they affect the housing stress areas in the inner cities, will be greeted almost with incredulity ? In boroughs that already have thousands of families who are homeless, and thousands of families who are living in disgusting, overcrowded conditions, what those families want is not a shift in priorities between one category of need and another, but more rented housing at rents that they can afford. Will the Minister tell the House what he will do about those wretched families when their one year of temporary accommodation comes to an end ?

Sir George Young : The right hon. Gentleman's local authority was one of those which supported the Government's proposals. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman's local authority supported the proposals, and it was elected by local people. [Interruption.] There is no point in the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) shouting at me like that. A democratically elected local authority, speaking on behalf of people in Tower Hamlets, supported the proposals.

As for the increase in new accommodation, we made a commitment at the most recent general election to provide 153,000 new homes through housing associations. We are exceeding that by 25,000, producing 178, 000 new homes over that period.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) : Does my right hon. Friend accept that I warmly welcome the proposals, particularly those about women's refuges, which will mean that the women there will not have to occupy them permanently, but will be assisted in finding somewhere else to live ? Does he further accept that it is extremely unkind to young mothers to put them in a home of their own with no support, and not knowing how to look after a baby or a house ? It is far better to put them in other sorts of accommodation and not in council housing.

Sir George Young : I am impressed by the good work done by women's refuges. That is why we modified the proposals that were originally sent out. My hon. Friend is right. Some young mothers aged 17 or 18, who already have to cope with bringing up a child, would not respond readily to the responsibilities that go with a local authority tenancy. It is often in their interests to put them in a hostel with other people in a similar position, with access to mature support from other adults before they take on a tenancy of their own. There is a role for hostels in exactly the circumstances that my hon. Friend has outlined.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) : Is not the Minister's statement good news for the manufacturers of cardboard boxes ? Is it not a fact that the Government are setting up a conflict between those on waiting lists and those who are involuntarily homeless ? Is it not a fact that the Government are strengthening the opportunities for victimisation of the homeless by exploitative landlords, who are already becoming millionaires because of the Government's policies ? Is this not a policy of people who do not care about human beings, about need or about poverty ? Is it not a fact

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that the problem comes about because of the abolition of the local authority housing programme and the fact that the housing association programme is only a fraction of it ? The policy is typical of the attitude of the Government, and the sooner they get out the better.

Sir George Young : That is absolute nonsense. The right hon. Gentleman should know that many local authorities, many of them Labour- controlled, have a much more enlightened approach to the role of the private rented sector in their area. They are developing constructive partnerships to make sure that good-quality private rented accommodation is available to those who are homeless. They are developing rent deposit schemes and rent guarantee schemes and they are fast-tracking housing benefit.

I do not share the right hon. Gentleman's view that everything that is publicly owned is good and everything that is privately owned is bad. There is much good-quality privately owned accommodation of which we should make better use, and much publicly owned accommodation that is a disgrace.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that he has earned the congratulations and thanks of the British taxpayers, who are fed up with forking out for foreigners who come here and obtain free accommodation, particularly in our cities ? Many people who see the neighbours chucking out their teenagers so that they can get their children's accommodation paid for on the rates will think highly of the Government's proposals to make those teenagers think again and stay at home.

Will he explain that the legislation will strengthen the hands of councils, which can often find alternative accommodation outside their immediate area for people who seek accommodation, but cannot insist that people take the houses which are available ? In all those ways, he will bring down the artificially inflated numbers on the housing lists and please the great majority of the British public who have to fork out for these things.

Sir George Young : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The homeless persons legislation was never meant to provide permanent accommodation for those who visit this country temporarily. As for local authorities' scope to use accommodation outside their boroughs, I hope that the local authorities will try to rehouse people in the area in which they live rather than place them outside. I recognise that in some boroughs that may not always be possible, but wherever the surplus accommodation is, we must make better use of it. We must make better use of the half-million empty properties, many of which could be used for those in housing need.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) : Is the Minister aware that last week my local authority had a debate on housing, and that Liberal Democrat councillors tabled a resolution on homeless people in Blyth Valley ? In the past few years, homelessness there has trebled and the lack of housing has serious consequences for the borough.

The resolution asks me, as the Member of Parliament, to ask the Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction when he will release capital receipts so that Blyth Valley and other authorities can build council houses for single people, and so that those people do not have to run around under the Rachmanism and profiteering of landlords ?

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Sir George Young : As I explained, there has been a downward trend in homeless acceptances in the past eight quarters, and, by and large, acceptances are decreasing. I am surprised to hear that they have increased so sharply in Blyth Valley. Capital receipts are a familiar subject of debate between the Government and Opposition. In a nutshell, capital receipts do not always arise in areas of greatest housing need. Our policy allows us to recycle the receipts away from areas that often have them to those areas that do not, simply because that achieves the better use and targeting of available resources.

Mr. Den Dover (Chorley) : Following the Minister's consultation paper, can we have common waiting lists, with local authority and housing association tenants joining the one list ?

Sir George Young : There was widespread support for the proposal that there should be common waiting lists, which would mean that people in housing need would not have to register with a local authority and all the housing associations in the area. We propose to make progress with that proposition, which has been widely welcomed.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith) : Why does not the Minister admit that the only reason for today's miserable statement is the collapse in affordable rented accommodation in both the public and private sectors ? Since 1979, the figure has dropped by 2 million properties, yet at that time the Government dismissed such talk as "alarmist"--a word that the right hon. Gentleman used again today. Will he tell us who the alarmists are this time by putting the names of organisations that support his proposals in the House of Commons Library ? Will he be judged by that, as his predecessors were, because in the past the alarmists have always been right ?

Sir George Young : On being alarmist, the hon. Gentleman has perhaps read some of the literature put out by Shelter which states that our proposals would result in

"families with small children huddled all night in shop doorways." No proposition has ever led to anything that remotely resembles that. Shelter also alleges that the policy

"would tear children apart from their parents."

Nothing in the proposals will have such an impact.

One of the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends, the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston) claimed in a recent debate that, as a result of the Government's policies,

"old lorries, caravans and tents"--[ Official Report , 29 June 1994 ; Vol. 245, c. 889.]

would be used. There has been much alarmist propaganda, which I hope people will now recognise as untrue.

Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that, despite Opposition Members' comments, which were clearly prepared before he spoke, his statement will be widely welcomed, not only by our many constituents who have been waiting patiently on waiting lists for many years, but by local authorities, which are particularly keen to tighten up the rules on intentionality ?

Sir George Young : I hope that local authorities will look at the details of my announcement. There has been a response to some of the concerns expressed by local authorities, and I hope that they will avoid the knee-jerk reaction that we have heard from many Opposition Members this afternoon.

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Ms Estelle Morris (Birmingham, Yardley) : Does not the Minister accept that there is something obscene about a Minister for housing who takes time to produce legislation that argues about who should have the house--the needy or the even more needy ? Will he not take on the proper responsibility of his role and ensure that next year he reverses the decline in resources that are made available to local authorities to build houses ? Does he not accept that that is the real issue, and that that is what the people of this country expect him to do ?

Sir George Young : The hon. Lady will have to await the statement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment later in the year about resources that are available to local authorities. I disagree with what she said at the beginning of her remarks. Whatever the level of supply for social housing, one needs to have a fair system of accessing. At the moment, we do not have such a system, which we are now proposing.

Sir Peter Hordern (Horsham) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the inescapable conclusion to be drawn from Labour Members' comments is that they believe not only that capital receipts should be released but that there should be a substantial increase in local government expenditure on public housing ? [Hon. Members : "Hear, hear."] My right hon. Friend has only to listen to the assent for that proposition to realise that that is so. Does he agree, therefore, that it is absurd to suppose that the Labour party is seriously concerned about controlling public expenditure and not increasing taxation ?

Sir George Young : At the end of this statement, a debate will be held on exactly those matters. I notice my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the Treasury Bench. I am sure that he will press the Labour party on the issue raised by my hon. Friend-- what are its proposals for public expenditure ?

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) : Will not these proposals inevitably mean that many homeless families will be forced from one short-term, sub- standard tenancy to another ? What effects does the Minister believe that that will have on the education and health of the children involved ?

Sir George Young : There is no reason why the scenario painted by the hon. Member should arise. We placed an obligation on local authorities to find people suitable accommodation for a year, and in many cases the owner of property-- the landlord-- is happy to renew it. Under the private sector leasing arrangement, many leases in London run for three years.

Many of my constituents in temporary accommodation ask whether they can continue to live in that accommodation rather than be rehoused in permanent accommodation owned by the local authority. It is a big mistake to assume that all temporary accommodation is bad and all permanent accommodation is good.

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