Homes Bill

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Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Bill is about homelessness? Does he accept that a fair percentage of street homeless are ex-prisoners and that many convicted prisoners have already given up a council house or a registered social landlord home because their sentence was too long and they did not have enough money to maintain their home?

10.15 am

Mr. Loughton: Absolutely right, but whether and how soon they have their council houses back should be judged on the same basis as the cases of others on the waiting list in different circumstances; that is all that we are saying. The amendment is designed to make it clear that people coming out of an institution should not gain priority over others. There is no question of excluding people—the ludicrous allegation of the Liberal Democrats, who patently fail to understand the amendment. It is about including everybody on the same basis.

Mr. Waterson: Does my hon. Friend agree that although our amendment would not deny housing to ex-offenders, the Liberal Democrat interventions and the Minister's speech demonstrate that the Liberal Democrats and the Government are stuck in a 1960s timewarp in which criminality is explained in terms of poor housing? Many people living in poor housing do not engage in criminal behaviour.

Mr. Loughton: My hon. Friend is absolutely right again. That is the liberal elite establishment talking.

Mr. Robert Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman is right about one thing. My constituency surgery probably reveals more than his the high number of people in housing need. Many of them feel that they are treated more unfairly than others, so the hon. Gentleman is trading on a feeling that is already there. The best way to deal with those feelings is to invest in lifting the quality and supply of housing and then to offer people as much choice as possible within the system. That is exactly what the Bill is designed to do. The amendment would simply exclude ex-offenders from consideration, even though they are vulnerable people.

Mr. Loughton: Of course the second part of the Minister's statement is right. As was clear from the quotes that I read out, the only way to solve the problem for everyone—people who have lost their own home, people coming out of prison, rough sleepers and so forth—is to increase the supply of suitable, affordable, properly placed housing. We all know that. However, that does not apply now.

Mr. Phil Hope (Corby): Why did you halve it?

Mr. Loughton: Let me remind the Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary of the figures. In the last four years of the previous Conservative Government, 95,000 social houses were built, compared with 59,000 in the first four years of the present Government.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): I ask my hon. Friend not to subscribe too enthusiastically to the notion that if enough houses are provided, the problem of homelessness is solved. That is not the case because problems of competence come to the fore. As John Bird, the founder of The Big Issue, said, the last thing that homeless people need is a home. He was referring to the process of training to help people to cope with life: the house comes at the end of the process. Providing many houses does not necessarily solve all the problems associated with homelessness.

Mr. Loughton: My right hon. Friend is right and provides an appropriate balance to my comments. It is not just a question of bricks and mortar; it has everything to do with conditions for people, having come from a homeless background, to have a sustainable home. I think we are agreed on that. The Minister has a nerve to try to trot out the figures on crime going back to 1979, for which there are a host of additional reasons on which we could talk and go completely out of order—

The Chairman: No we could not.

Mr. Loughton: We shall avoid doing so, because I know that you would very quickly haul me back into order, Mr. Gale.

Entirely missing from the Under-Secretary's comments was any reference to the fact that violent crime has risen sharply. Last year, the crime figures went up for the first time in six years, with 191,000 additional crimes. Many of these crimes are being committed by people who are out on early release. Who is contributing to the problem? Who is exacerbating the problem of people coming out early and perhaps less prepared for a stable housing situation? The answer is, the Government.

The Under-Secretary has a nerve to talk about who is the ``friend of local authorities'', because we are the ones who are saying that choice and discretion over local circumstances and local priorities should be given to local authorities. The amendment merely takes away an extra prescription. In clause 27 the Government are prescribing more categories of people who should be treated as a priority, regardless of whether the local authority likes it, has that problem locally or even has the local circumstances to deal suitably with those priorities. Central prescription is what the present Government are about, but it is not within the terms of what we are saying. If the Government really trusted local government, there would be less prescription of who local authorities should deal with, how and on what terms.

Mr. Robert Ainsworth: If the issue is prescription, will the hon. Gentleman tell me where in the Bill it says that local authorities must house convicted prisoners, and can he explain why his amendment says clearly that they will not? Who is being prescriptive here?

Mr. Loughton: The argument is circular and the Government are creating it. The intention underlying the Government's changes to regulations was to impose yet another list of priority people. We are purely saying that there should not be another list in the form of ex-offenders. We are not adding to that prescription. Two minuses make a plus. The Government are engaging in an awful lot of semantics.

Mr. Ainsworth rose—

Mr. Loughton: The Minister wants to intervene again, although it is unlikely to help his case. However, we will not press these amendments, because we now have from the Government an undertaking that they should have given months ago. If they had done so, we would have avoided this debate. As the Minister has realised, the Opposition, far from playing on people's fears, are trying to allay those fears, so that people do not feel even more unfairly treated than many already do. On that basis, we have had an interesting discussion. We have teased out from the Government what I hope are categorical denials, which are long overdue. We hope that they do not slip in under the net when, in the far-flung future, these regulations are brought in, because if they do, a lot of people, especially many local authorities, will feel badly let down. We have aired the subject and I hope that the Government's colours are now well and truly nailed to the mast. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Brake: I beg to move amendment No. 76, in page 17, line 22, leave out

`may' and insert `shall'.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss amendment No. 93, in page 17,line 24, at end insert

    `to include particularly families with dependant children.'.

Mr. Brake: The purpose of amendment No. 76 is to require local authorities to frame their allocation scheme to give additional preference to people with the most urgent housing needs. As Members will be aware, clause 27 requires local authorities to frame their allocation schemes to give ``reasonable preference'' to people in housing need. A power is also included to enable an authority to give ``additional preference'' to households with ``urgent housing needs'', but there is no requirement or obligation for them to do so. It is our view that placing a duty on authorities to build urgent needs into their allocation scheme would still give local authorities the flexibility to define what is meant by urgent housing need. Therefore, we are not being prescriptive, but we are giving local authorities the ability to make their own decisions on what is urgent need. The amendment is entirely in keeping with the Government's intention and with the view that meeting housing need should remain the overriding priority in the allocation of social housing.

Mr. Curry: I fail to understand the intellectual logic. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that instead of ``may'' we will have ``must'' or ``shall'' but is then saying that it does not make any difference anyway because local authorities define what is meant by urgent need, what on earth is he wasting our time with?

Mr. Brake: The right hon. Gentleman was obviously not listening with sufficient attention. We want to place a duty on local authorities to take into account urgent needs in their allocation scheme so that the most vulnerable people are housed within the scheme, but it is entirely consistent to then say that local authorities should be able to establish what constitutes urgent need. I hope that the Government will respond positively to the proposal.

I will listen carefully to what the Minister has to say to Conservative amendment No. 93. We are inclined to support it unless, as may be the case, priority is already given to families with dependent children. If that is the position, the amendment would not be necessary. I hope that the Minister will clarify that point.

Mr. Waterson: I do not want to embark upon the great ``may'' versus ``shall'' debate, which rages just beneath the surface of this Committee. I wish to speak to amendment No. 93. I am delighted to hear that the Liberal Democrats are inclined to support it. I suppose on the grave of every dead Liberal Democrat is the motto ``on the one hand...and on the other hand''. Hopefully they will make up their minds by the end of the morning.

This amendment is about duty to families with dependent children. The Housing Act 1996 requires authorities to devise allocation schemes that give ``reasonable preference'' to numerous different categories including, specifically, ``families with dependent children''. I can see the force of the argument that will be deployed by the Minister, which is that clause 27 tries to simplify those criteria. We will no doubt get into the eternal argument about whether or not it is better to have things in the Bill. There is a real danger here of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We cannot agree that the inclusion for reasonable preference of families with dependent children, which is the existing situation, should cease to be an explicit criterion and becomes simply a matter for local interpretation. I take on board all the points made about being over-prescriptive, but I think that Parliament is entitled to send some messages about the sort of preferences we have in mind.

Some useful statistics have been prepared by Sarah Guy of the Catholic Housing Aid Society. They show that out of all local authority homelessness acceptances in priority need, in the fourth quarter of 1999, no less than 59 per cent. were households with dependent children. Judging from one's own surgeries and mailbag that sounds about right. The statistics also show that more than 2 million children live in households in which there is no paid adult in work and which, therefore, may be vulnerable to homelessness. It seems to us, not only on grounds of principle but on grounds of the reality as expressed in those statistics, that it is right to retain that sort of preference on the face of the relevant legislation. We are keen to hear what the Minister has to say.

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