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Jeremy Corbyn: On the question of disruptive and antisocial tenants, it is a given that nobody wants antisocial, disruptive or racist tenants living next to them, but the problem is that by removing any option of housing from such people, their children end up with foster parents or in care. One could be creating a greater social problem in the future in order to deal with a more immediate problem. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a strategy of more intensive support and intervention might be more useful than his approach?

Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend is right to point out that we need an integrated approach, and we must always take into account the needs of children in particular. As on most issues, it is a question of striking the right balance. Most hon. Members will understand the need to protect a community from the disruptive and antisocial tenant, to keep communities together. I have seen in my own constituency communities being blown apart because of the actions of just one or two people. Communities that have lived together for years have been wrecked by the conduct of one or two people, and I am not prepared to put at risk those solid and sound communities by looking after the needs of one individual when the needs of the whole community should be taken into account. Early intervention may be able to assist an individual to reform and change the way in which they conduct themselves. I agree wholeheartedly that that should be the emphasis of many projects from my Department and across Government.

Mr. Hancock: The Secretary of State referred to giving greater choice to people in existing properties who wanted to transfer. I am fascinated by the concept of choice being offered by authorities such as mine, given that the options available for transfer in Portsmouth, a densely populated urban centre, are at present limited. How will such a choice be offered?

Mr. Byers: I hope that in a few years' time, if I am answering on housing matters from this Dispatch Box, we will have changed the situation, with more investment in housing resulting in such choice being available. I am the first to accept that in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, probably like mine, there is currently no such choice. However, in this area above all, the status quo will not be an option. Great problems are being created and we have to move change through.

The Bill is about looking forward, not looking back. It looks forward to the housing needs that require to be met, and to investment. I want people to have a real choice. I accept that it is not available at the moment—we have to build to ensure that it will be.

Most of us in the Chamber would not accept simply being told where to live. We will not provide all the choices that everyone will want, but providing a choice will make a real difference to the whole debate. We should not reduce our ambitions or our vision. The Government are taking actions that make a real difference.

When I was at the Passage this morning, I talked to people who had benefited from the work undertaken by the rough sleepers unit. The number of people sleeping

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rough has fallen by more than a third. In 1998, almost 2,000 people slept rough. Last year, that number had fallen to just over 1,000, and we are well on the way to meeting our target of only 620 people sleeping rough by 2002, which will be a real improvement.

One of the most disturbing things that I saw when I took over this brief was that the number of people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation had increased dramatically. The bed-and-breakfast unit was established by the Minister for Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), when he was responsible for housing. It came into being in May this year. Its remit is to reduce within two years the number of households in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, particularly those with families and young children.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): My right hon. Friend must be getting a bit weary of all these congratulations, but I should nevertheless like to congratulate him on his post. I also thank the Minister for Local Government, who answered the Adjournment debate that I secured on bed-and-breakfast accommodation when he was responsible for housing matters. Will the taskforce be looking at the introduction of targets and at reducing the numbers of young children who are living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation with people who have severe mental health problems and alcohol and drug dependency problems?

Mr. Byers: Congratulations are fine. I have learned that one can never have too many of them.

Mr. Bercow: Enjoy it while it lasts.

Mr. Byers: It does not last very long, as the hon. Gentleman says.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One way to judge genuine progress is by tangible improvements. It is probably right for the taskforce to come forward with targets once it has looked at the situation. I will draw its attention to my hon. Friend's points.

There is a real challenge to be addressed. Those of us who have seen at first hand the often appalling conditions in which young people in bed-and-breakfast provision are having to grow up regard that as simply not acceptable in the United Kingdom of 2001. We can do far better. Now that the unit is set up, we will be expecting it to do great things and give real dignity to mothers, fathers and children who live in frankly unacceptable accommodation.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Byers: Only if there are congratulations attached.

Mr. Waterson: I was saving those for later, but if the right hon. Gentleman is so desperate for congratulations, let me congratulate him. I shall not congratulate him, however, on the explosion of the number of people living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. He did not quote the figures, but they have gone up from 4,000 to nearly 11,000. Does he agree with Shelter, which says that the current crisis-driven approach to homelessness is

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not working? That sounds like coded language for setting up another unit, another taskforce, and crowning another tsar or tsarina.

Mr. Byers: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations on my appointment.

I am not a great one for tsars or tsarinas, but the hon. Gentleman makes a serious point. I do not regard the present situation as acceptable, as regards either the number of people who are homeless or the number who are in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. That situation has come about owing to a lack of investment for several years for which both parties carry responsibility, but we are beginning to see a difference.

I have outlined a twin-track approach: investment is going in, backed up by the provisions in the Bill. That will make a real difference. I accept the criticism; none of us can take pride in the current situation—we must move together. The Bill will be important in beginning to ensure that we can tackle the difficulties.

Before I conclude, I want to refer to one more important group: those former members of the armed forces who find themselves homeless at the end of their service. The Government have set up a veterans taskforce to tackle the issues facing those people, who include the most vulnerable—those who are homeless, sleeping rough or in ill health. In 1998, the social exclusion unit report on rough sleeping found that between a fifth and a quarter of all rough sleepers had served in the armed forces. In response, the rough sleepers unit has been working with the Ministry of Defence, the armed forces and the ex-service benevolent sector to ensure that the best advice, practical assistance and support are given to the people who leave our armed forces and end up sleeping rough.

The work of the taskforce will continue during coming months. We aim to report by the end of this year and we look to the taskforce to propose measures to complement the RSU's effective strategy to reduce rough sleeping to as near zero as possible. I hope that all Members will agree that people who have given service in our armed forces deserve that support, advice and assistance.

Taken together with the Government's sound economic policies, our substantial increases in capital investment in housing and the wider policies that we are pursuing following last year's housing Green Paper, we can make a real difference for the people of this country. The Bill will make a real difference to tackling homelessness. It will provide protection for the most vulnerable, dignity for the distressed and the security that comes from having somewhere that people can call home. For those reasons, I commend the Bill to the House.

5.12 pm

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): I begin properly by welcoming the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to his new position. I also welcome the new Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) and pay a passing tribute to the Minister for Local Government. The right hon. Gentleman has finally been unchained from the housing oar in the Government galley; I hope that he will enjoy his time in local government.

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Speaking for myself and, I hope, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), we shall try to make the Committee stage as little like the film "Groundhog Day" as possible and find some new things to say. The Opposition broadly welcome the Bill; indeed we did so in its previous incarnation as the second part of the Homes Bill during the previous Parliament. The measure will of course receive proper scrutiny in Committee—as is right—but we wish it a fair wind. We are not alone in wanting to discuss several detailed points in Committee; organisations such as Shelter and the Local Government Association have also flagged up some issues that will need debate.

It is a remarkable U-turn that this monumental—if we are to believe the Secretary of State—measure was not even mentioned in the Queen's Speech but is the first Bill of the Parliament. We welcome that. It must be a real testament to the right hon. Gentleman's power and influence in the higher echelons of the Government.

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