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Session 2000-01
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Standing Committee Debates
Homes Bill

Homes Bill

Standing Committee D

Thursday 1 February 2001


[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Homes Bill

9.45 am

The Chairman: I remind the Committee, particularly those hon. Members who intend to speak, that we shall rise this morning at 11.25, not 11.30. It may benefit the Committee to know that my co-Chairman will be in the Chair this afternoon, so, to avoid a rush at 11.25, I thank all hon. Members now for the courtesy with which they have conducted proceedings to date. I am confident that proceedings will continue in that vein.

Clause 27

allocation schemes

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Robert Ainsworth): I beg to move amendment No. 105, in page 17, line 3, after `are' insert `to be'.

The Committee may have noticed that there has been a change in tactics on the Government Front Bench. I am now the man who moves the crowd back before the Lord Mayor's show.

This is a technical amendment to correct the Bill's grammar. I am sure that hon. Members will see the sense in it and I commend it to them.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I beg to move amendment No. 94, in page 17, line 21, at end insert

    `but the scheme will not give priority to people being released from prisons at the end of a custodial sentence following criminal conviction.'.

I fear that this amendment is a little more technical than the two words of the previous one. It deals with a subject that is not addressed in the Bill, but which we want the Bill to address as regards allocation schemes and the classification of priority groups. We want to address the subject of preference being given to ex-prisoners. Although it is not in the Bill, Ministers have floated the idea quite strongly and it is likely to feature in forthcoming regulations on allocations.

This is a difficult issue. Of course, people who come from institutionalised backgrounds such as ex-prisoners may find themselves homeless. Figures from some charity organisations, particularly Shelter, show that those people are more vulnerable than others and that the chances of recidivism are greater if they are left in that condition. I will not take issue with some of the work, although it gives a mixed picture.

The Association of London Government has expressed concern that extending the priority need categories to include ex-offenders and others will significantly increase the number of households placed in temporary accommodation and therefore increase further the net costs of temporary accommodation.

At the previous sitting, we dealt with the subject of asylum seekers and people who were not permitted to stay in the country for longer than a certain period. I gave figures for the costs of temporary accommodation in London as surveyed by Westminster city council and for the sharp rise in the cost of temporary accommodation for homeless households, which had risen between 1997 and 1998 alone by some 20 per cent. That trend has continued. The ALG has estimated that extending the priority groups to include the ex-offender classification could increase homeless acceptances by about 10 per cent.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is precisely because of the particular problems often faced by ex-offenders released from prison that so many of them find halfway house accommodation of the sort provided by the Stonham housing association useful? I happened to be a trustee of one such hostel some years ago, when I was a councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham.

Mr. Loughton: My hon. Friend is right. I shall argue that there are other means and agencies for dealing with ex-offenders, starting with the institutions from which they have come. There is a duty of care on those institutions when releasing offenders, particularly if releasing them early and on parole, to have regard to the circumstances and surroundings into which those people are being released. If they simply open the door and turf them out on to the street without any regard to what will happen to them and what educational benefits and so on they have had in prison, surely the chances that they will reoffend and end up back where they started are that much greater. My hon. Friend mentioned the halfway houses, which have some expertise and a good record in dealing with some of this category of potentially homeless people.

Various institutions are worried that all housing will go to the homeless, with less for those who wait patiently on the register. More responsibility for the homeless is being passed to local authorities, with little extra money to meet the cost. Soundings have been taken from various councils. One says:

    ``We will have fewer choices on the way we run our register and allocate the Council's housing...This is further evidence of centralisation.''

Another says:

    ``If the groups of people''

that we

    ``must assist are extended then the choice available to existing priorities will decrease. We will be obliged to assist more people and this will be at the expense of the Council. Clearly more people will be placed in B&B accommodation. There are no new resources promised to help councils meet the extended obligation. This has clear council tax implications.''

Another says:

    ``The city council has concerns regarding the intention to place the duty on local authorities to rehouse those from an institutionalised background such as prisons and the armed forces. Whilst fully recognising that a number of rough sleepers come from an institutionalised background, we are nevertheless concerned that a broadly drafted requirement to rehouse such applicants without sufficient regard to vulnerability and need will place an unreasonable and costly burden on inner London boroughs.''

That ties in with what my hon. Friend was saying about liaising with other agencies, which have a specific expertise in this area quite separate from placing a general duty on local authorities.

I believe that it is all summed up by one of my own local authorities, which made the stark point that:

    ``All the powers and duties in the world will not make any real difference to people's chances without an increase in the supply of housing available to them.''

I fully recognise that there are specific problems with ex-offenders. There are particular problems with housing sex offenders, which need to be dealt with very delicately, using a host of agencies from the police and social services and specialised organisations. That responsibility should not just be dumped on local authorities because—despite what the Minister said on Second Reading, the logic of which is badly flawed—given the finite amount of available accommodation, any addition to the list of priority homeless people, however small, however big, however wide, however narrow, must mean that those who are not covered in those priority allocations, particularly those people who become homeless through no fault of their own and do not fall into one of the priority groups, will find themselves lower down the list or will be given the choice of less amenable and less suitable accommodation than they would have been.

The proposed change to the regulation that has been flagged-up by the Government sends out the wrong message. It suggests that those who have been in jail should receive priority over homeless people with unblemished records. That is the message for thousands of people who have been waiting patiently on homeless housing lists. They might now find themselves pushed down that queue because of priority being given to people from an institutionalised background. I would be delighted if the Minister would explain how those circumstances would not arise when there is a finite amount of housing stock available to accommodate all those different types of people. We have tabled the amendment because if the Government take the route that they have flagged up, it will send out the wrong message to those who have to wait far too long and still end up with inadequate accommodation.

Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): I agree with only one point made by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) and that is the need for more social housing. I cannot possibly support this amendment. Hon. Members know that ex-offenders are heavily represented among homeless people, and key factors in ensuring that they do not re-offend include stability in housing and access to employment. To exclude them in the way suggested is a recipe for more crime. We will certainly oppose the amendment.

Mr. Waterson: Since you will not be here for the usual eulogies at the end of the Committee, Mr Gale, may I take this opportunity to thank you for your enlightened chairmanship?

It comes as no surprise to the Opposition that the Liberal Democrats are rowing-in behind the Government on this issue. The Government have clearly taken fright on this because, over a significant period, they have heavily leaked the fact that ex-offenders would be among those given priority when regulations were made. If, in the light of comments made, the Government have had a damascene conversion, I should be happy to give way to allow the Minister to confirm that and then to move on to the next group of amendments.

As the Bill stands, there is no differentiation between a family with dependent children and a convicted offender being released from prison. Both fall under the catch-all category of ``particular descriptions of people'', which will be left to the discretion of a local authority or be a matter for regulation. There is something sadly wrong here. If we are to pass legislation of this sort, it is up to us to say broadly how we think these matters should be approached. I make no apologies for again quoting the Local Government Association report, ``No Place Like Home''. It says:

    ``There are real problems for local authorities in reconciling the housing needs of an individual with the legitimate concerns of a community, when considering certain types of applicant, such as sex offenders, ex-offenders and those with a history of anti-social behaviour. ``

I believe that that issue was pursued by the LGA representative at a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on 15 January.

We have been concerned, as have others, at the floating of this idea in the press by unattributable spokespersons for the Department of the Environment, Transport and Regions, and no one will be happier than us if it turns out to be wholly untrue. I assume that, since the Minister has not taken the opportunity to intervene so far, there is some truth in the suggestion. The Opposition accept that everyone has the right to a decent home and we know that that can lead to genuine dilemmas for local authorities, among others. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has said, with great care, we do not support the suggestion that those leaving prison should get priority—nor should we encourage the perception that they could—over law-abiding people who have been waiting patiently for housing.

10 am


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