|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Bercow: Notwithstanding the brickbat that I received from my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) for my tribute to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), I genuinely enjoy his advocacy of the argument. However, given the preponderance of cases in which local authorities choose not to provide accommodation pending the outcome of an appeal, what assessment has he made, in his constituency or more widely, of the financial and logistical burden that falls on others?
Mr. Foster: Thereby hangs an interesting tale. It is difficult to make such a calculation because current arrangements, whereby local authorities often do not even provide accommodation for the period of the review, let alone for the time required to develop an appeal, mean that many people cannot prepare for a review or an appeal because they have to worry about the more urgent matter of trying to get a roof over their heads.
Research shows that few appeals have taken place. It would be difficult in current circumstances to assess the increase in the number of appeals and thus in the cost. I regret that I cannot help the hon. Gentleman. However, he knows that there will be hundreds of appeals throughout the country. If accommodation is to be provided for a few weeks in each case, he can calculate the approximate magnitude of the figure. He has made an interesting point, which shows that a 21-day time limit can put people off.
The Minister was worried about over-prescription. He will note that new clause 7 shows much greater flexibility than a previous amendment that I tabled. Under current legislation, it is not possible to extend the period beyond 21 days even if both parties want to do that. At least new clause 7 provides for an extension with the agreement of both sides. It also deals more flexibly with providing accommodation during the appeal period.
As for new clauses 10 and 11, I suspect that the Minister has been honing his quotes to demonstrate how my hon. Friends and I frequently stress the importance of giving freedom to local government. No doubt he has a third quote up his sleeve. He will say that the problem with the new clauses is that Liberal Democrats want to impose things on local government, which is contrary to what we say on other occasions.
The new clauses would give the Secretary of State the power to issue directions to housing and social services departments to ensure that there is an adequate level of service, and consistency in key areas of practice. New clause 10 would apply to the allocation of social housing by an authority under part VI of the 1996 Act, and new clause 11 would apply to a local authority's homelessness functions under part VII.
During our deliberations in Committee, the Minister referred frequently to the crucial importance that he attached to the guidance that will be issued by the Department. Yet he will acknowledge that where the law is incredibly complex, as it is concerning homelessness and allocations, guidance is a vital instrument for implementing policy intentions. Unless there is direction on some of the specific issues contained in the Bill, there is a real danger that some authorities will ignore the guidance. In some authorities, therefore, the quality of provision would be well below a minimum acceptable standard.
Before the Minister tries to jump down my throat to tell me that it is wrong to issue directions and guidance to local authorities, I ask him to be careful. Were he to say such a thing, I would remind him of occasions when the Government have done just that, not least with social service departments. Were he to challenge me, I would say that often such directions are given to social service departments without any additional resources being provided to enable them to carry out the functions demanded of them.
Finally--the House will no doubt be pleased to know--I shall talk about new clause 12, which deals with the importance of setting out a basic minimum set of standards in regulations, to ensure that the provision of advice and guidance to certain groups of homeless people by a local authority is acceptable. That is a key issue.
In Committee, the Minister was more than willing to accept that the level and quality of advice and guidance offered by local authorities varies enormously. He acknowledged that the research findings in reports undertaken for the Department, and by organisations such as Shelter, have demonstrated that huge variability. I hope that, as it has been accepted that this should appear in the Bill as one of the duties of a local authority, he will also accept that it would be sensible specify minimum standards of service delivery.
I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the House, for having taken a fairly long time to introduce the new clauses. I am sure that you will be aware that there are many important issues involved. The House will be aware that there are more to come, and no doubt we shall be hearing about some of them from the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), should he catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Mr. Waterson: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) for dealing so fully--I might almost say exhaustively--with his various new clauses and amendments. I hope that he will forgive me if I do not express a view on every one of them--at least not in any detail.
I hope that the hon. Member for Bath has not been persuaded by any behind-the-scenes deal not to press new clause 4 to a vote. If he does press it, as I hope he will, we shall be supporting him. That is not because the new clause represents an earth-shattering change to the Bill. It is because, if we divide on it, my right hon. and hon. Friends and I will be able to register our support for those of our amendments that are included in this group. If we do not, they will fall, and will have to be voted on later under the programme motion, taking up time that might otherwise be used in debate.
Mr. Don Foster: I have always believed that our procedures mean that we listen to the debate before deciding whether to press a matter to a Division. However, having heard the Minister's response to similar amendments in Committee, I doubt whether I shall be persuaded to withdraw the new clause.
Mr. Waterson: It is a front-room deal. It could not be more open--though it has been said that the best way of keeping something secret is to make a speech on it in the House. I am sure that, even these days, that is untrue.
I will be speaking to amendments Nos 16, 17 and 20. Before doing so, I shall comment briefly on two of the more significant new clauses that the hon. Member for Bath has tabled. In Committee, when we debated the substance of new clause 4, I think everyone was horrified at the prospect that authorities were giving people 24 hours to make up their minds on a housing offer. The Minister took the view that that was unreasonable, and so did we. It is perhaps not untypical of the Liberal Democrats that they seem to be proposing two different periods, one of three days and one of five. We seem to be in period inflation. If the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) has the opportunity, I have no doubt that he will explain the merits of five days. I shall not trespass on that internal argument among Liberal Democrats.
Turning to new clause 5, people such as Chris Holmes, the director of Shelter, and the London Government Association have expressed their concerns about removing rights of review and rights of appeal. In Committee, we consistently supported the argument that these rights should be preserved in such circumstances.
It will be most useful if I touch on amendments Nos. 16, 17 and 20, which feature a range of concerns that we debated in Committee. It is right that we should return to those issues on Report because the Minister did not take them on board in Committee. I know that there are Members in the Chamber who were also members of the Committee and who may wish to speak on these matters.
Mr. Waterson: The Minister made that clear in Committee; that is why there is not an amendment that touches directly on the matter. We are taking the Minister's assurances at face value, as is only right. We are pleased that there has clearly been a rethink on the issue within the Department, and that the Government have backed off, no doubt having received much critical comment. This matter has featured in the media on at least two occasions. I am happy to accept the Minister's assurance that that was nothing to do with him but, as the Government think they are good at the art of spinning, somebody obviously thought that it was worth spinning.