Homes Bill

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Mr. Waterson: The hon. Member for Regents Park and Kensington, North was careful to describe the measure as a probing amendment—a comment that might have followed an in-depth exchange of views with the Whip. We do not know whether Ministers will accept the amendment, but I can state provisionally—because we must first listen to the rest of the debate—that we are quite taken with it and that, subject to the observations offered by other members of the Committee and the Minister, we are minded to support it. I hope that the four Labour Back Benchers in whose names the amendment stands will have the courage of their convictions in the event of a Division.

In the housing Green Paper, the Government promised councils an enhanced advisory role. It proposed to extend local authorities' duty to provide advice and support requiring them

    ``to take a multi-agency strategic approach to preventing and responding to homelessness''.

Conservatives in local government warmly welcomed that proposal. However, the Bill falls well short of the Green Paper's modest suggestions in two respects: first, there is no clear mention of the multi-agency approach to homelessness advice—strategic partners are needed in that equation. Secondly, crucially, the requirement to advise people is too narrow, referring only to those seeking allocation of housing.

If the proposals are to have the profound effect on homelessness that we and the hon. Lady want, the scope of the advisory role, especially its preventive value, should be much wider and help people to secure or maintain housing under any form of tenure, including owner occupation. The Minister will agree—they may be famous last words—that many people who fall into homelessness are owner-occupiers who get into difficulties. Many owner-occupiers have problems paying their mortgage and repairing and maintaining the property, or simply coping with the responsibilities of owner occupation.

It is telling that Labour Back Benchers felt it necessary to table amendment No. 80 to encourage the Govt to consider a wider role than that is proposed in the Bill as drafted. The amendment builds upon the existing provisions of the Housing Act 1996 to enable persons to gain assistance from their council while attempting to secure accommodation themselves, rather than simply getting advice as part of the allocations process, important though that is.

That is not a new theme; it was pursued by the Local Government Association, which is very much in favour of a properly enhanced duty of advice to prevent homelessness before it reaches crisis point. I do not apologise for quoting again from the document ``No Place Like Home'', produced by the LGA's allocations and homelessness task group, which states:

    ``The current duty to provide housing advice is only in relation to homelessness and the prevention of homelessness. The LGA Home Ownership Task Group has recommended a broader duty for local authorities to ensure the availability of housing advice on a range of issues in order to better empower and enable applicants to help themselves.''

The LGA regards the advisory role as a corporate responsibility and not solely a matter for the housing department or a particular section. I hesitate to use the word ``holistic'', which is one of the most overused words in current jargon, but there should be debt counselling, help with access to welfare benefits, grants and so on, and a range of sources of advice. The LGA feels that other departments, such as social services and environmental health, can also play a key role.

The association mentions the importance of education in teaching life skills and ensuring that young people have realistic expectations of the local housing market. The document ''No Place Like Home'' states:

    ``There is a considerable lack of understanding amongst young people about housing availability''—

the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North touched on that point—

    ``and the potential consequences of homelessness. Schools and colleges could play a role in local authority prevention strategies by helping to ensure young people are more aware of the issues and by helping them to develop life skills and self esteem.

The report concludes:

    ``Local authorities should be given a broader duty and the resources to enable them to carry out that duty effectively to ensure the provision of housing advice on a range of issues, including home ownership and the private rented sector, in their districts.''

A local Conservative politician, Councillor Paul Bettison, who is chairman of the LGA's housing executive and leader of Conservative-controlled Bracknell Forest borough council, spoke about the problems that face hon. Members and councillors of all parties in all constituencies in a recent speech to the annual conference of Crisis. He said:

    ``By `quality', we aren 't just talking about the quality of housing on offer to prevent homelessness, important though that is. We need to ensure quality across the full service and that, for example, is why so much thought has been given by housing experts to the range and depth of the advisory role that should form part of any homelessness strategy.

    We can have high numbers of houses available; we can have a good choice of housing available; we can have good quality homes available. All this will count for little if those people most vulnerable to homelessness do not know about it, or do not know how to access it.''

Councillor Bettison spoke in warm terms of Shelter's homeless-to-home scheme and its effect. He said:

    ``Shelter has been at the forefront in getting across this message''.

Hon. Members have Shelter's briefing papers on amendment No. 80; they are quite long and I shall not quote from them extensively unless the Minister presses me to do so. They refer, for example, to the experience in their housing advice centres. Evidence from Shelter's research and the document ``Singles Barred'', to which the hon. Lady referred, is that many local authorities fail to provide a decent service. People are turned away without being given an interview receiving any advice; assessments of vulnerability are inconsistently applied and in some cases contravene statutory guidance. Many applicants do not receive a written notice of the authority's decision and they are told nothing about their right to a review—a matter that we shall discuss in more detail later.

Shelter states that the new power is clause 20 is most welcome and makes an important point that is the ghost at the feast in many of our debates, stating:

    ``In areas where demand for social housing is high, authorities are unlikely to have any available accommodation to offer non-priority homeless people, as most of it will go to households in priority need.

    The reality is that in London , most of the south of England and many other parts of the country this power is unlikely to make much difference.''

The Minister should reflect carefully on what Shelter says and ask whether the power is merely theoretical, given that in many parts of the country, especially in London and the south of England, it will have no effect. Shelter also mentions other categories of people at risk, of which the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North gave some examples. It says that

    ``there are many other circumstances where people can lose their homes but will not be deemed a priority: in cases of extreme poverty, unemployment, sexual and physical abuse, family disputes and relationship breakdown.''

Shelter gives useful examples, but I shall mention one statistic first. As a result of reports from its housing aid centres, Shelter concludes that the level of homelessness services is extremely variable—to put it mildly—particularly for people not in priority need. It says:

    ``In 1999/2000 over 50,000 non-priority homeless people approached local authorities for assistance.''

I am not sure where Shelter got that figure, but it is quite a lot of people. If even a minority of them did not receive any help or useful assistance, that is a serious matter.

Shelter quotes several examples, but I shall give only one, because I do not want to detain the Committee. One of four volunteers involved in the research posed as a 30-year-old woman fleeing domestic violence. Shelter says:

    ``At one London authority Homeless Persons Unit, the applicant was told by the receptionist that a passport was essential, before he could pass on her details . . . The applicant was also informed that the local authority required a police or doctor's report to prove that it was unsafe for her to remain in her present accommodation. She was told that she was non-priority because she was single, without children and not pregnant. The applicant was left with no choice other than to return home.''

That was a piece of research, but had the applicant been a real person in those circumstances, she would have been forced to return to the place where she had suffered the problem of domestic violence in the first place. The unit did not give her any information. The one thing that it did manage to do was to give her a customer satisfaction survey to fill out as she left the premises—obviously, one box was ticked on that occasion.

The applicant went to another London authority and presented the same set of facts. Shelter says that

    ``the applicant was asked by the receptionist whether it was her first time there, and if she had somewhere to stay that night. She was then told that she would have to go to one of their Housing and Council Tax Customer Service centres first, where her needs . . . could be assessed. They would then refer her back to the Homeless Persons Unit.''

That is a significant number of hurdles for any of us to overcome, let alone someone who, in the real world, would be very distressed.

When the applicant presented at a metropolitan authority, a proper assessment of her needs was made. Shelter says:

    ``She was given a choice of emergency accommodation...and told that if the direct access unit was unable to find her a place in a hostel that day (nothing was available at the time), she would be offered a sofa there.''

Finally, the applicant went to a rural authority, where she was

    ``given a housing application form to fill in. She was told by the housing officer that, she could only assist and advise. The applicant was given contact numbers for a local women's centre and a list of . . . homeless accommodation . . . She was told that she was not a priority because she did not have children.''

She was given advice about not putting up with domestic violence, but at the end of the day she was still left with nowhere to go.

There are examples of other categories and types of cases in the document, to which I am sure most hon. Members have access. Again, Shelter has done useful research and produced some fairly hair-raising results, which show the enormous variability of the service offered.

On amendment No. 80. the Association of London Government says:

    ``While we support best practice guidance on advice and assistance to households not in priority need, we have reservations about the Secretary of State having the power to direct local authorities on the form such support should take.''

I certainly see the force of that argument. It is another of the ``damned if you do, damned if you don't'' arguments, which seem to crop up with alarming regularity, certainly in this Committee. How prescriptive should we be to deal with a practical, real-world problem? The ALG goes on to say:

    ``London boroughs will face significant additional costs relating to the extension of duties to households in priority need, and, in those authorities under the most severe pressure, resources are not available to meet additional costs to support non-priority households.''

That echoes Shelter on the simple fact that in large parts of the south of England and London, the new power may make no difference whatever. We sympathise with the points made by the hon. Lady and her hon. Friends and I hope that the Minister will deal with them sympathetically and constructively.

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