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9.40 pm

The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration (Mr. David Curry): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) for indicating his support for a large part of the Bill.

My right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) said in his very sane speech that the measures should be put into some form of strategic context. It might help the House if I outline that context.

We have to face a background in which new social patterns are emerging. It does not matter whether we like it or not, it is a fact and policy must address itself to it. The multiplication of households and the changes in families are matters that we must note. There is pressure everywhere, in all advanced industrial states--[Interruption.] It is no good Opposition Members cackling--their Treasury spokesman has recognised that pressure.

There is pressure on public expenditure and pressure in all industrial societies to redefine the frontiers between a legitimate demand on public expenditure and what people

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ought to assume as their own responsibilities. That is inescapable and it is the broad context in which the Bill must be seen.

For example, we want--I want it in particular, given my responsibilities--housing to be seen much more in the context of regeneration. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), who is Chairman of the Select Committee on the Environment, touched on that theme in what I thought were perfectly sensible remarks.

We want diversification of tenure, for example. That is why the right to buy will enable housing association tenants to buy their existing homes and to anchor home ownership and diversity in the same neighbourhood. My right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South and the House will be interested to know that more than 120 housing associations, from the very large to the very small, have already shown an interest in taking up the voluntary conditions that we will offer when the Bill becomes law.

Mr. Turner: Is not the Minister being hypocritical? Why is there no proper provision in the Bill for housing co-operatives? Why have the Government given them such a terrible deal in the past four years? How can he stand at the Dispatch Box and say that he is interested in diversity of tenure, when he has a report before him telling him that housing co-operatives have the best added value and security of tenure that one could ask for? He has a report from Price Waterhouse telling him that. Why does he not act on it?

Mr. Curry: For someone who has only just arrived in the Chamber, that was a marathon performance--and irrelevant to the Bill. The hon. Gentleman should have been here for longer.

Secondly, we want to develop the idea of estate renewal for the same purpose of helping some of the worst estates. Thirdly, we want to establish housing companies to open the way for private investment in housing. That is part of the process of diversification.

We want to achieve a better balance in the housing market. I have constantly said that I do not believe that a sort of apartheid division of the housing market between owner-occupation and social housing is satisfactory. There must be a more vigorous private rented sector. That is why there are measures in this Bill and in the Finance Bill to deliver it.

We also need sustainable home ownership, because there are young people who want to start their lives, when they are getting established, in a property with a flexible form of tenure. That is important as part of a sustainable agenda. We want communities to be more able to sustain themselves. That is why we are going to take action against tenants who behave badly--the victims are always their neighbours who live on the estate. We must deal with houses in multiple occupation so that people have security without a mammoth amount of regulation such as the hon. Member for Greenwich promises.

Mr. Robert Ainsworth: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Curry: I have given way once and it was a mistake that I am not going to repeat.

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Mr. Turner: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I wish that the Minister would answer my question.

Madam Speaker: That is not a point of order.

Mr. Curry: We have to tackle abuses by freeholders exercised against leaseholders. That is the framework in which we are bringing the Bill forward.

Finally, and importantly--although it is by no means the dominant part of the Bill--there is the fair allocation of resources, which brings us to the duty to the homeless. Bringing new players, expertise and resources into a sector that, until now, has depended heavily on public expenditure and must seek new sources of supply, is the strategic purpose of the Bill. It is worth setting that out.

I realise that many hon. Members are concerned about the homelessness provisions, though, to judge by their remarks, I doubt whether many of them understand the provisions, which have to be read alongside the proposals on allocations that we issued at the end of last week for consultation. The present legal situation is that, under the House of Lords ruling on the Awua case, there is no safety net and the duty to the homeless can be discharged in as little as 28 days. It does not matter what most authorities do; that is the obligation on them.

We intend to create a fair system of allocation while preserving the safety net so that people are treated equally. We intend to spell out the effect of the provisions in guidance, a draft of which we published for consultation last week. When a homeless family presents itself for housing, it will be placed in temporary accommodation that must be appropriate to its needs and affordable. That could be in local authority housing, housing association property or the private rented sector. If the family meets the criteria set out in the guidance--the allocations have been framed to take special account of the needs of children--it will be able to receive permanent accommodation as a priority through the housing register criteria.

Mr. Betts: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Curry: No. That could include housing in the same local authority or housing association property used for temporary accommodation. Very few families will still in be in temporary accommodation after two years.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Curry: I shall not give way because I have important ground to cover. I am interested in one thing only: setting out a fair system of allocating housing to those in need according to their need. I am not in the business of doing down the homeless or of persecuting or rescuing fallen women or anyone else. My concern is to meet need and not to pass judgment on people's life styles. I want those with needs to know that they have a fair chance to get housing. I want to ensure that the genuinely homeless family with long-term social needs is housed and that the family struggling to make do, to make ends meet and hang on, will also have its needs recognised.

Homelessness is not a single circumstance. Our basic allocation rules go back to the Housing Act 1935. That is when the criteria for insanitary and overcrowded housing,

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and large families in unsatisfactory housing, were set down. Those are physical conditions. We must now bring that legislation up to date and recognise the new social needs that have arisen from the changes in society to which I referred earlier, and the fragmentation which many of us may not like but which policy must address. That is what our allocation criteria and consultation try to do.

Some people become homeless because they have long-term social needs, and they will receive priority. Others become homeless because of shorter-term circumstances--perhaps economic circumstances that can be changed. It is not reasonable that everyone who is declared homeless, irrespective of whether it is short or long-term homelessness, should necessarily enjoy a route to permanent accommodation, with all the rights that that brings, including the right to buy and, in some circumstances, virtually the right of succession. That is at the heart of our argument on homelessness.

Our guidance recognises the needs of people with temporary or insecure tenure, families with dependent children or expecting a child, households with a special need for settled accommodation, and households with limited opportunities to secure accommodation. The Bill is about need, not morality; it is about fairness, not discrimination; and it is about openness in allocation, not fixing.

I respect the local government history of the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms) and the sincerity that he brings to this debate. He asked me a specific question to which I shall reply. The Government oppose one local authority being able to transfer to a second authority its homelessness duty to rehouse after 12 months. We shall consult local authorities on how long it is reasonable to maintain that responsibility and the housing benefit charge with the placing authority.

The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) was wrong to say that there would be exclusions from advice. It is a complicated measure in the Bill, so I shall write and give her chapter and verse to sustain the statement that I have just made.

As one or two hon. Members mentioned it towards the end of their speeches, it might be sensible if I discuss the rough sleepers initiative. It has been a successful programme. We have built new accommodation units and many people who are taken off the streets by the outreach agencies are then placed in permanent accommodation. Anyone who considers this matter for more than a second, however, will realise that it is wrong to say that people's problems, no matter what they are, can be solved by giving them a roof over their heads. We know that we face increasing problems of drink, drugs, mental illness and ordinary illness and we must find the means to help those people in a much more specialist way. That is why we are moving towards a new phase of the rough sleepers initiative. We have collected the replies to the consultation document and are studying them now. They follow the broad lines of the Government's ideas and I hope shortly to lay down the route that we intend to take to advance that important initiative.

Many hon. Members mentioned the housing association right to buy. Let me make it clear what we are doing. Rural areas will be exempt for the reasons that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave. Housing associations can opt in, in respect of their existing housing, but can withhold property built with charitable

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donations, property whose sale price will not meet the debt on the property, and a wide range of special needs housing. We have designed the measure as a practical response and it is fair to say that it has been welcomed by the National Federation of Housing Associations, and more than 120 housing associations have already shown an interest in taking it up. The hon. Member for Greenwich said that he supported the broad principle of the measure. We want to anchor different sorts of tenure in the local community so that we do not have ghettos of home ownership, social housing or any other sort of housing. We want to create communities that work because that is the essence of regeneration.

I recognise the urgency with which some of my hon. Friends want action on houses in multiple occupation. The work of my hon. Friends the Members for Scarborough (Mr. Sykes) and for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson) in mobilising opinion on that matter has been important. My hon. Friends with south coast constituencies have also experienced difficulties. I accept that the problems are considerable and that they must be addressed. The provision of hostel accommodation must be placed alongside the needs of the local community and the requirement to maintain a mixed community. There is no point having benefit hostels if the jobs that are sought migrate because of the damage done to the reputation of the towns by the establishment of the hostels.

Local authorities must have clear and enforceable rules on safety. They must be able to say "enough is enough" when it comes to approving new establishments and closing those which are not managed effectively and responsibly. It is stated on the face of the Bill that the registration and control scheme can be refused if the owner is not a fit person to manage the establishment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait) mentioned the issue of self-contained flats. They are within the scope of the definition of houses in multiple occupation and they are excluded from the scope of the registration schemes.

Our measures on anti-social behaviour received an equally warm welcome. I recognise that nobody will formulate a perfect solution to that problem, but we have a duty to assist local authorities when they are determined to tackle it. I think that that determination is shared by most hon. Members. I am sure that we have all had the experience of visiting local housing estates and speaking with tenant groups, perhaps in the local church hall or at the local library. They tell us how a handful of people, and perhaps their children, have made life a misery and how they intimidate witnesses. It is very difficult to get prosecutions and there is a downward cycle of intimidation and fear on the estates.

We do not have a perfect answer any more than the hon. Member for Greenwich does, but I promise that we shall seek to collaborate in Committee to find measures that will address that problem. It is an urgent issue which is related to quality of life and to making communities work effectively. We are determined to deal with the intimidation and fear which many people--particularly the elderly--in those circumstances face.

I am grateful for the support shown for the measures dealing with leaseholders. Housing for private sector development is not in the Bill because we had to make room for the leaseholders issue, which is an extremely urgent matter. The Bill already contained more than 180

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clauses and, while I may have a number of unrealistic ambitions, the ambition to be in charge of the largest Bill ever to be introduced in this place is one that I can forgo without any great sense of self-sacrifice. A second housing Bill, which will contain the Latham proposals, will be introduced in the other place. We shall deal with the leasehold measures; it is an urgent matter and we are committed to bringing proposals forward.

The hon. Member for Christchurch mentioned her commitment to phase out mortgage interest relief coupled with mortgage benefit. As my right hon. Friend pointed out, she has no doubt read her party's submission to its Whips Office. Under the heading "Lib-Dem Weaknesses" it states:

    our policy on helping home owners suffering from negative equity is expensive and ill-thought out".

If the hon. Lady had read the document produced by someone who is described as "Political Warfare Officer", no doubt she would have been better informed for the debate.

As for the Labour party, the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) may have inadvertently picked up the speech that he intends to deliver on Wednesday in the revenue support grant debate. If I know him, I suspect that parts of his speech today will be largely interchangeable with that speech. However, the Labour party has not said what it intends to do. We know that old Labour wants to build council houses. Labour Members say continually that we must build more council houses, but they will not say how they would pay for them.

Labour Members recite the magic incantation, "We will release capital receipts"; that is the magic abracadabra of the Labour party's policy. However, Labour Members will not say how many or over what period. They will not reveal their mechanism for redistribution due to the inconvenient fact that the receipts are not where they are needed. In other words, all we have is a slogan which is devoid of any substance. As my right hon. Friend said, we have been promised a blinding revelation in that area for months, but it has not come.

I think that Labour is acting out a charade. Is it opposed to the creation of housing companies in the private sector? The answer is no. Is it opposed, in principle, to the housing association right to buy? The answer is no. Is it at odds with us over helping local authorities deal with anti-social behaviour? The answer is no. Is it disputing the need to develop the private rented sector to provide real choice in housing? Again, the answer is no. Is it contesting the need to help leaseholders who suffer exploitation by bad landlords? No. It is a matter of degree, not direction. Is it against the need to improve the quality of regulating HMOs? No. It is a question of degree. Even on homelessness, I suspect that Labour agrees that we need a single route towards housing.

It is all hypocrisy and humbug. The Opposition have no housing policy. It is constantly promised and never delivered. We have a surrogate opposition to our measure. They have no measures of their own and I commend ours to the House.

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Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:--

The House divided: Ayes 290, Noes 259.

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