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Dr. Lynne Jones: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Thomason: I shall give way once more--and only once more.

Dr. Jones: Local authorities are at present free to house homeless families in temporary accommodation--as they often do, especially outside London--when they need to make further inquiries about the circumstances of the family concerned. However, at present, local authorities have the discretion to take into account homelessness as a factor in their housing policies. That discretion will be tempered by the proposals. If so, why do we need these provisions? Should we not leave local authorities to decide their housing allocation policies? We need more homes--

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. This is the second time that the hon. Lady has started to make a speech rather than a short intervention.

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Mr. Thomason: Local authorities will have that freedom within the broad framework of the allocation policies proposed in the consultation document, and it is up to them to rise to the challenge offered.

May I make a couple of observations to my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration on the consultation paper on allocation?It is important that the accommodation that local authorities seek to make available to homeless families through recommendation rather than direct housing provision is seen to be affordable and of reasonable size and condition for the homeless occupants. Local authorities must not simply hand over a list of names and addresses of property that is available; they must give proper guidance to those who need it and follow up that guidance. They must also ensure that rejections by private sector landlords to whom reference has been made by the housing authority are not simply taken as the end of the story but lead to homeless families being given continuing and further support by the housing authority.

I hope that this initiative will lead to the final disposal of bed-and-breakfast accommodation as a housing alternative. The Government have made great strides in that area, and should be congratulated on what they have done. I hope that we see more moves in that direction as local housing authorities use references within the private sector or other social housing landlords to provide temporary accommodation.

I am conscious that many other hon. Members wish to speak in this debate and it would not be fair for me to say more, except to underline that this thoroughly good Bill needs to be implemented as soon as possible.

5.41 pm

Mrs. Diana Maddock (Christchurch): Some parts of the Bill are to be welcomed, but the overwhelming view of people involved in housing provision, whether in the local government or voluntary sector, is that the Bill does nothing to tackle the root cause of long waiting lists, rising homelessness and increased insecurity in housing. The root cause is the lack of product to meet the ever-increasing demand, which hon. Members on both sides of the House have discussed. Once again, the Government are abdicating their responsibility. The Secretary of State spent much of his speech discussing everything but what the Government would do about the problem.

Part II of the Bill gives local authorities the power to set up compulsory registration schemes for houses in multiple occupancy. Those are long overdue but none the less welcome. Liberal Democrats would like the Government to go much further and place on councils a legal duty to enforce minimum standards on housing in multiple occupancy. We shall discuss that matter in Committee. Despite the fact that the Government enable councils to charge for setting up such registration schemes, we are, as usual, concerned about how local authorities will find the finance to do that.

The Secretary of State discussed leaseholds. He criticised other parties for not coming forward with their policies. He has proposed a Bill that he will amend and we still do not know what will happen to leasehold properties. We all agree that something must be done because we have been heavily lobbied by people experiencing problems and the Minister discussed those this afternoon.

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We are concerned about chapter I of part III, which proposes to reduce the amount of time that private tenants can be in arrears before their landlords can evict them.It is another blow to private tenants, many of whom are already reeling from the Government's housing benefit changes. If we look closer, we see that the Government's proposals do not add up. They encourage private landlords by making it easier for them to evict tenants, yet they cut housing benefit from every direction. Landlords are being sent conflicting messages. Tenants are being hit on every side, and insecurity will be the order of the day. Tenants on housing benefit can easily run up eight weeks' arrears with no delay on their part.

I should be interested to know whether the Minister or anyone else in the Department of the Environment has ever sat through a housing benefit review board case.If they had, they would realise how difficult it will be to make the Government's proposal work. Many housing benefit departments are already struggling to cope with the changes and are way behind with payments. Moreover, tenants trying to obtain housing benefit must often acquire information and pieces of paper from a wide area, including the Benefits Agency and the Department of Social Security. The Bill will make the private rented sector extremely difficult for all tenants, yet the Government are to inflict that measure on homeless families.

I also welcome the requirement for local authorities to advise people about housing and homelessness. I hope that, during the passage of the Bill, we shall receive clearer information on how the Government expect that to happen. Many of us are concerned that people should have independent advice.

I also welcome most of part V. Local authorities need additional powers to deal with anti-social tenants on their estates. Liberal Democrats make three proposals: first, we need better resource, prevention and conciliation measures; secondly, we need tougher tenancy contracts to ensure that tenants are aware of what their contracts mean in practice and how they will be enforced; and, thirdly, the law needs to be changed to make it easier for local authorities to pursue anti-social tenants. The Association of District Councils has been requesting that for some time.I hope that chapters II and III of part V will fit the bill.

Mr. Bennett: What will happen to tenants who are evicted?

Mrs. Maddock: If tenants are being extremely difficult to their neighbours, they must be housed elsewhere and helped to ensure that they keep their tenancy going. That will happen only in extreme cases, but people cannot be allowed to get away with making other people's lives a misery.

The Secretary of State presented no evidence that probationary tenancies will work. The pilot projects are still going on. I do not know whether we shall have the evidence from those before the Bill completes its passage. Introductory tenancies will lead to a two-tier system with no real advantages.

I am also concerned about the blanket granting to housing association tenants of the automatic right to buy their homes. Liberal Democrats do not oppose home ownership or allowing people in the social rented sector to buy their homes. Housing associations should allow

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their tenants to buy their homes if they can afford to do so, if the homes can easily be replaced and if it is in the local community's interest. We are not unsympathetic to the idea of providing them with grants to do so, and most of the councillors with whom I have discussed this matter share my view that the effects of the voluntary purchase grants scheme will benefit many individuals and many areas.

However, I believe that the Government's mania for a right to buy has led them to produce proposals which are badly flawed. We have heard this afternoon about the exemption for communities of fewer than 3,000 people but, like many other provisions, that is not on the face of the Bill. There is great concern that the Government are using criteria that are too crude. I hope that the matter will be considered in Committee and that other criteria will be brought to the fore.

This morning I received a communication from East Dorset district council in my area. It is very concerned that there will be little money left after the house sales. Although the councils may keep the money that is raised from the sales, by the time they have rearranged loans and so on, less than 50 per cent. of the money will be available to them to build replacement properties.

The Bill also introduces new and far-reaching changes for the Housing Corporation and they will need fairly detailed scrutiny in Committee. There is a strong case for reforming the corporation as it will be assuming extra powers. We welcome particularly the appointment of a housing ombudsman because, if housing companies are to be the new landlords--it appears that this time we shall not have landlords who simply want to make a profit--we must have decent regulation.

I turn now to the heart of the Bill: the changes in the allocation of social housing and the consequent changes in local authorities' duties to the homeless in parts VI and VII of the Bill. In the light of my experience as a member of a large housing authority for almost 10 years and as a Member of Parliament for a constituency with two different types of local authorities, I find it difficult to swallow the Minister's attitude that the Government's proposals are perfectly reasonable and perfectly sensible.

I have shared platforms with the Secretary of State and, to hear him speak about the proposals, one would think that they are uncontroversial. Sometimes one would think that there is no need for housing legislation. One gets the impression that all is sweetness and light and that there is nothing wrong in the housing sector that a little fine tuning will not solve. We heard that sentiment expressed again this afternoon.

That view runs completely contrary to the views of everyone who is involved in the housing world--be it professional organisations, the voluntary sector, local authorities or housing associations throughout the land. When the Government were first elected in 1979, they claimed housing to be a top priority. They promised council tenants the right to buy, more choice in the private rented sector and greater mobility through the property-owning democracy.

Some 17 years later, we are witnessing housing problems which affect individuals and communities as never before. No one is immune--as home owners who took out large mortgages in the 1980s and who are now facing employment difficulties will testify. Some 19 years ago, the late Stephen Ross, a Liberal Member of

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Parliament--for the benefit of the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason), I supported Mr. Ross then and I still support his actions at that time--introduced the Housing (Homeless Persons) Bill, which enjoyed all-party support. Perhaps the trigger for that legislation was the screening of the television documentary "Cathy Come Home", which alerted many people to the scandal of homelessness on our streets and the dreadful problems that people face when they are left without a home.

In introducing the legislation, Stephen Ross explained very eloquently why homeless families need secure tenancies rather than temporary accommodation, which forces people to move continually from place to place. He said:

I shall now cite some figures--I make no apologies for doing so, as the Government seem to turn a blind eye when it comes to statistics. In 1977, local authorities in England accepted that more than 3l,000 households were homeless. That was regarded as a scandal at the time. For the 12 months to the end of September last year, there were more than 124,000 acceptances. In 1977, slightly more than 4,500 properties were repossessed by mortgage lenders. In the year to June 1995, the comparable figure was almost 50,000.

The problems in housing are deeper now than at any time since the immediate post-war period--there is insecurity, disrepair and homelessness. Yet unlike in the 1940s and 1950s, this Government do not seem to have the political will to tackle the root problem: the simple lack of rented housing which people can afford. Since 1979, Government investment capital in housing has fallen from £6.4 billion to less than £3 billion.

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