Homes Bill

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Mr. Waterson: I endorse some of the hon. Gentleman's comments about the document and its late appearance, but perhaps the Minister is beginning to agree with the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished.

Mr. Foster: Let me punish the Minister with one final sentence. I hope very much that in a later debate he will acknowledge that there is a difference between a homelessness strategy and a housing strategy on the one hand, and housing and homelessness strategy on the other.

For now, the more germane question is whether or not RSLs, with the exemptions that I have described, should have duty to provide assistance to the local authority. Within the invaluable document that the Minister has provided, I see that under the homelessness strategy 81, the requirement placed on local authorities includes

    securing that sufficient accommodation is available for people in their district who are homeless or are likely to become homeless.

Bath and North East Somerset council has no ability to secure any accommodation other than temporary accommodation, as it has transferred all of its affordable housing to an RSL, so it will be unable to meet that requirement unless it is given powers over the RSL.

The Minister may say that, during the process of stock transfer, agreement will be reached between the new landlord and the local authority housing association on the requirement to take on a number of people under the local authority's allocations, but experience shows that that is not that simple in practice. When the stock transfer took place prior to the 1996 legislation, the local authorities had difficulty persuading registered social landlords to accept its allocation procedures. There is evidence that some RSLs are less willing to take on people who have previously been responsible for making a noise, whereas local authorities tend to be slightly more forgiving.

3.45 pm

The charity Shelter has just completed its analysis of a survey of local authorities in England that have already transferred their housing stock—we were working on the final analysis over the now infamous lunchtime. Based 61 responses out of 99 large-scale and partial transfers, the initial findings were as follows: 26 per cent. of local authorities reported that it was less easy to house homeless households or people on the register since transferring stocks, whereas 10 per cent. said that it was easier; 60 per cent. said there was no change and 4 per cent. did not answer. Other figures from the survey show that, although by no means a majority, 30 per cent. of local authorities reported that in certain cases housing homeless people was less easy following stock transfer and 89 per cent. favoured greater statutory powers to access RSL lettings as part of their homelessness duties and strategic housing role. New clause 10 would give local authorities increased access, taking into account, as the Minister said, that not all RSLs are the same; they are a diverse breed and not all of them should have such a requirement placed upon them.

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman emphasises the figures, but an impartial person would note that in 70 per cent. of local authority areas either there was no change or the position was easier. To suggest that there is serious cause for concern is to misrepresent of the figures, although there is obvious anxiety in problem areas. How would the amendment make any difference to the position already spelt out in section 170 of the 1996 Act, which requires registered social landlords to co-operate to a reasonable extent in offering accommodation when requested to do so by local authorities?

Mr. Foster: We are returning to a debate that the Minister and I have had previously in this Committee and in others—the definition of what is reasonable and how to pursue it. The Minister shakes his head but I recall that on previous occasions he, not I, said that there is difficulty with the definition of what is reasonable. I merely use the Minister's own argument to justify my case.

You have generously allowed me to wander rather wide of the subject, Mr. Gale, but I hope that the Minister will see the import of new clause 10, if not the other amendments. Although the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Eastbourne, and by my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) and me are similar there is a difference between the two Opposition parties, in that my hon. Friend and I do not believe that responsibility for the strategy should lie with a multiplicity of bodies. It is vital that the local authority should be the body responsible for the strategy and for that reason, although we agree with much of what he said, we shall not vote for the hon. Gentleman's amendment.

The Chairman: I listened to the hon. Gentleman's compelling summary with interest, but what did not emerge from it was whether he wished to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Foster: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: No. 88 in clause 16, page 10, line 4, after `authority', insert

    `and its strategic partners, to include registered social landlords and housing co-operatives; landlords of houses in multiple occupation registered with the authority under the Housing Act 1996, members of landlords' forums, voluntary organisations and relevant bodies (``strategic partners'').'. —[Mr. Waterson.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 9.

Division No. 6]

Clifton-Brown, Mr. Geoffrey
Curry, Mr. David
Loughton, Mr. Tim
Waterson, Mr. Nigel

Ainsworth, Mr. Robert
Buck, Ms Karen
Foster, Mr. Don
Hope, Mr. Phil
Iddon, Dr. Brian
Love, Mr. Andrew
Mullin, Mr. Chris
Raynsford, Mr. Nick
Thomas, Mr. Gareth

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Foster: I beg to move amendment No. 78, in clause 16, page 10, line 8, at end insert `and—

    `(c) ensure that the strategy addresses the specific needs of vulnerable young people, or other vulnerable groups, who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.'.

I shall try not to stretch your patience any further, Mr. Gale. The intention of the clause is clear: that we include within the list of requirements the need to ensure that the strategy addresses the needs of vulnerable young people or other groups who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

The Minister will not disagree with that principle, because it is firmly written in the note that he provided for the Committee. I tabled the amendment, which will provide us with an opportunity to debate this important issue, long before the Minister produced his document an hour and 23 minutes ago.

Homelessness strategy is not just about dealing with those who are already homeless, important though that is; it is also about prevention and in particular considering groups of vulnerable people who are most likely to be at risk of homelessness.

As I said on Second Reading, I am delighted that later in the Bill we will discuss the additional groups who will be treated as a priority in this respect: 16 and 17-year-old care leavers and other people who are vulnerable because of their institutional background, and those fleeing domestic violence and harassment. The amendment also deals with that issue and considers the requirement to address preventive, as well as curative, strategies. I shall not go into detail about why young people, especially, and some older people are particularly vulnerable. The Minister will know the details all too well, given his background and experience. I look forward to hearing how he proposes to help and protect these groups.

Mr. Raynsford: I have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, who likes to claim parentage of legislative changes. He tabled the amendment before he received the document, which sets out our proposals and strategies. The original proposal was set out in our housing Green Paper, which was published nine months ago. On this occasion, I would not advise the hon. Gentleman to send a postcard home to his wife in Bath.

Mr. Foster: Does that mean that if the Minister now accepts my amendments, he will be doing the writing? That is most bizarre.

Mr. Raynsford: I shall have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman again by repeating that we do not intend to accept his amendment.

As we proposed in the housing Green Paper and reaffirmed in the housing policy statement last month, we shall introduce an order under section 189 of the 1996 Act to extend the categories of homeless applicant defined as having a priority need for accommodation. We shall consult widely before laying a draft before the House for debate. The significance of the order is that homeless applicants must be considered to be in priority need before there is a duty to accommodate them under homelessness legislation.

The order is largely intended to help young people who are homeless through no fault of their own. We issued guidance to local housing authorities in April last year, stating that the Government viewed all genuinely homeless 16 and 17-year-olds as potentially at risk, vulnerable and therefore in priority need. The guidance also made it clear that care leavers were likely to be vulnerable.

The draft order will strengthen the safety net for those homeless groups. It will extend the priority need categories to include all homeless 16 and 17-year-olds with the exception of those who are owed a duty to secure accommodation by a social services authority under the Children Act 1989 as amended by the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000. It will also extend the priority need categories to include 18 to 21-year-olds who were in the care of a local authority as a child and who meet the criteria of former relevant child as defined in the Children Act 1989, as amended by the 2000 Act.

This is an important step, which I hope will be welcomed by hon. Members. Categories other than vulnerable young homeless people are relevant, but as they are not relevant to this specific group of amendments, I shall not deal with them now.

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