Homes Bill

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The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments:

No. 79, in page 11, line 45, after `organisations', insert

    `local people, including those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness'.

No. 95, in page 11, line 45, after `organisations', insert

    `people living within the authority's area including those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.'.

No. 90, in page 11, line 46, at end insert

    `to include organisations recognised by the Secretary of State as specialist in representing people with physical and mental disabilities.'.

No. 70, in page 11, line 46, at end insert—

    `( ) Before adopting or modifying a homelessness strategy the authority shall consult any guidance given by the Secretary of State in relation to best practice with regards to housing and persons with mental health needs.'.

Mr. Foster: We move back to familiar territory. Subsection (8) states that

    ``Before adopting or modifying a homelessness strategy the authority shall consult such public or local authorities, voluntary organisations or other persons as they consider appropriate.''

That raises the question of who the Government believe are the right organisations and persons to be covered by that provision. The amendments, which are similar to those moved by the Conservatives, propose that three categories of people should be considered: the first is our now familiar friend, the registered social landlord; the second is local people, including those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness; and the third is people with mental health needs. The Conservatives' amendment No. 90 adds an additional category, which I welcome, of people with physical disabilities.

We have dealt in some detail with the argument in respect of incorporating registered social landlords. The Committee acknowledges the growing importance of RSLs as the holders of an increasingly large stock of affordable or social housing. As we know, by 2004 they are likely to be the majority owners of such accommodation and they therefore merit specific reference in any consultation agreements. Another category, with which amendment No. 69 deals but which we have not discussed in detail, is that of tenants groups. I hope that the Minister will at least acknowledge the importance of consultation with such groups.

I am delighted that the Minister's draft guidance has picked up the category of local people, in particular those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. A paragraph in the section entitled ``Duty to formulate homelessness strategies'' states:

    ``Before adopting or modifying a strategy, the authority must consult any local or public authorities, or voluntary organisations, as they consider appropriate.''

However, a paragraph in a later section states

    ``Before adopting or modifying a strategy, the authority must consult any relevant organisations. This should involve those who are participating in the strategy and those affected by its provisions. Where possible, homeless people, people who have experienced homelessness, and those at risk of homelessness should also be consulted.''

I am delighted that, since the tabling of the amendment, the Minister has given us a clear assurance that that category of people will be consulted. However, it would be helpful to place on record today—or, if he does not have the information to hand, later—examples of good practice of how that could be done.

I have talked to representatives of a number of local organisations who, while they acknowledge that it is important, sometimes have difficulty finding appropriate people to assist them. Shelter carried out a consultation exercise with such people, who were pleased to be consulted and provided valuable advice. I hope that that experience and that of other successful local authorities can be passed on so that all local authorities can benefit from it.

The final category, which comes in amendment No. 70 and is touched on in Conservative amendment No. 90, is people with mental health needs. This is a particularly important area that is not mentioned in the guidance notes. I hope that the Under-Secretary can respond to it positively. We are all well aware that people with mental health needs sometimes get themselves into difficulties with their landlords, be it the local authority, a registered social landlord, a housing association or other landlord. Some of them may simply have a phobia about opening documents and consequently do not respond in due time to their landlord's requests.

People with mental health needs can sometimes, to use the vernacular, go walkabout, without informing their landlord that they will be away from the property for some time. There are many examples—I am sure that many members of the Committee experienced it in their surgeries—of people who have fallen foul of their landlord in that way. I hope that the Under-Secretary can acknowledge the importance of consulting such people and the organisations that represent them such as Mind and many others. I hope that he will look favourably, if not on the words, at least on the spirit in which the amendment is moved.

Mr. Loughton: This group of amendments includes two tabled by Conservative Members to which the hon. Member for Bath has already referred. Amendment No. 95 is similar to Liberal Democrat amendment No. 79. I will not repeat many of the comments that the hon. Gentleman made in support of that. It just seems common sense and obvious that homeless people should be added to the list of important bodies involved in the consultation exercise. The hon. Member for Bath is right; Shelter carried out an interesting study entitled ``Closing the Gap'', which provided a lot of interesting information taken from people who are at the sharp end of the problems dealt with in the Bill. I cannot see how bringing such people into the net could damage arguments A, Z, Q or whatever the Under-Secretary might like to throw back at us.

Amendment No. 90 is important. As the hon. Member for Bath mentioned, it goes further than Liberal Democrat amendment No. 70, which does not take into account the need to consult strategic partners with expertise in mental health and physical disabilities. I speak as the chairman of the Conservative disability group and my constituency includes Worthing, which contains the highest number of elderly people in the country, if not in the universe—and I am delighted that it does. Long may it continue.

Of course, physical and mental disabilities especially affect older people. Statistics show that more than 40 per cent. of homeless people, including those who sleep rough, are over the age of 50, and there is evidence that older people are more vulnerable to the mental and physical ill effects of rough sleeping and unsatisfactory home conditions.

Elderly people and those with disabilities tend to lack access to mainstream services and accommodation because they are easily overlooked, although not as much as they were. Since 1995, welcome legislation on people with disabilities has, rightly, raised their profile. However, there is still some inflexibility between funding streams and a failure of collaboration between specialist teams in social services and voluntary groups and so on.

Suitable accommodation for physically disabled people must take into account their use of wheelchairs, for example, and the fact that they may be able to walk only a short distance. Doors must be accessible and easily opened and there must be ramps and rails to allow people to get into and around their homes. People with disabilities should not be housed on the third or fourth floor of tower blocks because of difficulties if the lifts are out of order and the type of flooring used must be considered when housing frail people who are not steady on their feet. Those are clear, physical conditions to be considered when housing a homeless disabled person.

There are social considerations, too, especially when the person involved has mental health problems. It is not enough merely to adapt a house or to have houses suitable for people with physical disabilities without considering their surroundings. We must ask questions such as, ``Who are they living next to? Is there someone who can keep an eye on an elderly, disabled person? What companionship can be offered to people? Are sheltered warden schemes available?'' The community around them matters a great deal to disabled people. It is no good putting people with mental disabilities next door to young families, for example, who may have a lower understanding of their difficulties and who may not appreciate the circumstances of a person's mental disability and its effects. That will make life more difficult for the family living next door and for the vulnerable disabled person who needs a bit of a leg up. The social and geographical aspects of appropriate housing for people with physical and mental disabilities must be considered.

I support the proposals made in the Local Government Association report ``No Place Like Home'' for dealing with people with disabilities. They include the following recommendations:

    ``Social services and, where relevant, health authorities, should be involved in the allocation plan for households deemed to be in particular need of settled accommodation on medical grounds or welfare grounds in order to ensure that the need for support is assessed and provided as part of the allocation process.

    Housing, social services and health authorities should jointly agree hospital discharge planning arrangements.''—

we discussed the problems of bed blocking—

    ``Local housing authorities should maintain a register of wheelchair-adapted properties in the council and housing association stock and, when feasible, in the private sector.''

As a key part of its housing strategy, a local authority in my constituency in Worthing, has transferred to Worthing Homes—a registered social landlord—some well-adapted bungalows for disabled people that are especially suitable for those in wheelchairs. My constituency has more than the average number of people who are not as mobile as others.

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