Homes Bill

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Mr. Brake: The hon. Gentleman uses the term ``law-abiding''. Does he think that a consequence of accepting his amendment would be an increase or a reduction in crime?

Mr. Waterson: As we know, the Liberal Democrats are limp on matters of law and order and have an incredibly simplistic attitude to crime.

I want to deal with two issues. I think that we must all accept that, as a matter of principle, those who have been tried and convicted and served their sentence have paid their debt to society. However, 23,000 or more prisoners have been released early under the Government's early release scheme and a significant number have gone on to commit further crimes. I remind the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) that that scheme had the full-hearted support of his party's Home Office spokesperson.

My second point is one that I made in an intervention, which is that many ex-offenders released from prison bring with them problems, some of which have been acquired while in prison. It could be a problem with drugs or a simple inability to manage their lives, having been locked in a cell for 23 hours out of 24 and having their entire life regulated. The drugs problem is very significant.

I do not know whether the Minister remembers, but in the late 1960s and early 1970s I was a trustee of the Stonham home in Hammersmith. It was an effective halfway house, principally for ex-offenders, and many of these problems were manifesting at that time. If anything, I am sure that the drugs problem in prison is worse now than it was then. That is an example of why the housing of ex-offenders must be handled sensitively in some situations. I am not suggesting that all ex-offenders have those problems. Many ex-offenders have no problems at all. Having served their sentence, they breathe a sigh of relief, get on with a normal life and never re-offend. We are talking about a minority, but a significant minority.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the large number of people from institutional backgrounds who find themselves on the street when released from their institutions. If we were to pass the amendment that he is suggesting, would that not consign those people to further time on the streets, where they will have to be picked up by the particular initiatives that we are now undertaking?

Mr. Waterson: I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. Our amendment does not suggest that ex-offenders should be treated worse than other people—simply that they should not be given any preference over other people. That is perfectly sensible and acceptable. As so often happens with this Government, I suspect that they have floated an idea, more than once, found that it did not float and are now saying that they did not think of it in the first place. Last April, in a statement on the housing Green Paper, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions commented on media leaks and said:

    ``If I had leaked the statement I would hardly have said that I would give priority to prisoners. That would not be the leak that I should have wanted to give to the press''.—[Official Report, 4 April 2000; Vol.347, c. 817.]

We all know from recent events that even the Prime Minister has difficulties ensuring that his press spokesman says what he is supposed to say. Indeed, the press spokesman seems to have thought that it was his mission in life to rubbish the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when his job was to say what a wonderful asset he had been to the Government and to the country. So little mistakes can happen of course. [Interruption.] The Minister for Housing and Planning is getting terribly excited—it is very early in the morning for that sort of thing. I hope that he gets through the Committee stage without harm. If he can contain himself, I will conclude by saying that if the Government have genuinely had second thoughts about the issue, we will happily withdraw the amendment. We cannot support a proposal to give priority to ex-offenders—we are saying not that they should be put at a disadvantage, but that they should not be given advantages over other deserving people.

Mr. Robert Ainsworth: This is a nasty, malicious little amendment; there are no other words to describe it. We made it clear on Second Reading that the Government have never said and are not saying now that convicted criminals should be given priority in housing. When the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said that our proposals send out a message, he exposed what is happening: the Opposition's deliberate distortion of the Bill—for the most disgraceful reasons—sends out a transparent message. I repeat what my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning said on Second Reading: there is no intention to give priority to released prisoners. Local authorities are already under a duty to give priority to vulnerable groups and all that is being proposed is that some people from institutional backgrounds who fall within the category of vulnerable people should be given consideration. Those are the facts. There is no justification for the Opposition's attempts at distortion.

The hon. Gentleman said that was another problem: because there is a finite amount of money, giving some people priority inevitably affects everyone else. What kind of a point is that from a supporter of the previous Government, with their record on housing capital investment? It is the current Government who are putting significant extra resources into housing investment—an extra £1.8 billion over the next three years. The Conservatives are responsible for the current dire straits of housing provision, so it is rich for the hon. Gentleman to suggest that our provisions will adversely affect housing provision for families.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) suggested that we are lumping released prisoners into the same category as families—and then cleverly slipped in at the end of his contribution the acknowledgement that that will be left to the discretion of local authorities. The whole tenor of the hon. Gentleman's remarks on the Local Government Bill and this Bill was that Conservatives were trying to act as the friend of local authorities, but his arguments today imply that the authorities are now totally incapable of taking sensible decisions about people in need and about who should get priority.

The strategy behind the Bill is to implement a multi-agency approach to provide people with accommodation that is appropriate to their circumstances and to give them choice wherever possible. Halfway house facilities of the sort to which the hon. Gentleman referred are examples of the facilities that we are discussing and they will be provided through the sort of approach that our proposals will introduce. There is nothing more to say about the amendment, other than that it exposes itself. It is a deliberate and malicious distortion, designed to create an impression that what is being proposed is something other than it is.

It is noticeable that no answer has come from the Member for Eastbourne to the question he was asked about his perception of the amendment's effects on crime levels. Before he replies, I remind him that that he was a supporter of the Government that presided over a doubling of crime in this country. The effect of his amendment will be to take out ex-offenders, put them in a category below and, even when they are most vulnerable, prevent local authorities from looking at their housing needs separately. That is what he says he is trying to achieve, and is presenting to the British people. If he believes that that is any sort of strategy for dealing with crime in this country, which is far too prevalent, he should answer the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington and explain what on earth he thinks the amendment's effect on crime would be.

I ask the Committee to reject the amendment. It is clear to everyone concerned that it is a nasty, malicious amendment that is deliberately designed to distort the intent of the Bill.

Mr. Loughton: We have really touched a raw nerve. Neither the debate nor the amendment would have been necessary had the Government made absolutely crystal clear when replying to what they are now calling ``distorted'' or ``malicious rumours'' their real intentions for changing the regulation in relation to dealing with institutionalised ex-offenders. They failed to do that. The Minister for Housing and Planning did not make that clear on Second Reading, despite the claim that he did. It was patently unclear.

There was no follow-up to the stories in the press, which is why it was necessary to table the amendment to get to the bottom of the truth. Let us deal with the extraordinary claims coming—not unusually—from the Liberal Democrats. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington raised two points. First, he asked would the amendment lead to an increase or decrease in crime? The amendment would have no effect on that. What we are not doing, as he again put it, is excluding people. The amendment would not exclude anyone. The people to whom it refers are already not included, so the amendment does not exclude them. That comment completely misreads the amendment. We are not saying that those people should be treated differently, separately or prejudicially. We are asking purely for a level playing field and for that to be clearly stated. A change in ex-prisoners' position would be the result of the Government's changing the regulation.

The Under-Secretary of State is out of touch with reality if he believes that people on homeless waiting lists up and down the country—there are many of them, but we shall not debate the exact figures again—think that everything is fine and dandy and that they are being treated fairly. He and I both know that many of those homeless people, some of whom come to our constituency surgeries, do not think that they are being treated fairly; they give examples of other people who seem to get their house faster, or who get a better flat or house. There is already a great feeling of inequity amongst many people in desperate circumstances. There is a view out there—put in the press before we ever tabled the amendment—that yet another class of people would be added to the priority classifications above them on their waiting list, that would add to that feeling of unfairness. That feeling exists, whatever Ministers say, or whatever we do in Committee. Unless the proposals on the regulations—which, we are delighted to learn, will not now be proposed—are scotched once and for all, that feeling of inequity will increase.

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