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Ms Oona King: I take the hon. Gentleman's mention of remarkable U-turns as a declaration of his acceptance of compassionate conservatism. Does he agree, therefore, that the then Conservative Government's decision to remove the protections that we are now reintroducing was indeed as pernicious as it turned out to be?

Mr. Waterson: We believe in housing policy that actually works—whether it is called "compassionate" is neither here nor there.

I wonder whether the Secretary of State took the trouble to mention that the measure could have been put on the statute book before the general election when he was hobnobbing with Sister Ellen et al this morning. The reasons for not enacting it are clear. First, there was the Government's insistence on linking in the same Bill such measures and compulsory seller's packs—issues that had no natural connection at all. We made it clear in the previous Parliament that we opposed that measure and that we did not broadly oppose these provisions. Secondly, the Government did not allow enough time for the measure to be debated in the House of Lords before Dissolution.

Let us be clear that it is entirely the Government's fault if we have to re-run such debates in the Chamber and in Committee, and that it is also entirely their fault if people are being disadvantaged in housing terms by the fact that the measures are not already on the statute book because of the Government's arrogant insistence on continuing with the measures on compulsory seller's packs.

I should like the Under-Secretary to confirm in her reply whether the Government have now abandoned the policy of introducing compulsory seller's packs, and that we shall certainly hear no more about them in this Parliament.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I hate to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but in the last hour I have received a parliamentary answer in which I am assured that the Government appear to have every intention of pressing ahead with seller's packs. Does the hon. Gentleman share my dismay that it appears that the Government still intend to attach criminal sanctions to them, which would be disastrous?

Mr. Waterson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that extremely informative intervention. In that case,

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I have my answer, and it is very depressing not just for those who buy and sell houses, but for those involved in surveying and the legal aspects of buying and selling houses. However, it is certainly true, as the hon. Gentleman will remember, that we spent more time in Committee considering seller's packs under part I of the Homes Bill than we did discussing the issues in this Bill. No matter; I must move on, having made it abundantly clear that if the proposals on compulsory seller's packs reappear in any guise, we will continue to oppose them as ferociously as possible.

I join Shelter, the Local Government Association and several others in broadly welcoming the proposals in the present Bill. We welcome the emphasis on prevention, rather than cure, in housing problems; the wish to achieve greater flexibility and more strategic approaches by local authorities, which many of them welcome; and the move towards choice-based housing allocations where workable and appropriate. I think it fair to say that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock)—who is leaving the Chamber, but may be coming back—touched on a useful point. It is almost possible to draw a line across the country: in some areas there is an over-supply of social housing, and in others—my constituency is a good example—people still have to wait a long time, on average, for housing to be allocated. I am pleased to say that because of my oiling up to the Minister for Local Government, who then had responsibility for such issues, my constituency has been included in the pilot scheme for what the aficionados call the choice-based Delft system of housing allocation.

Mr. Foster: So has Bath.

Mr. Waterson: I understand that Bath was included, too. That was obviously a technical oversight. Unlike the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative party is not in coalition with the Government, but it is none the less nice to be included without having to give anything in return. We shall see how things turn out on the ground, and it is important that the proposal is considered on a pilot basis. I do not know whether Portsmouth has been included, and now we may never know, as the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South seems to have made his final exit from our proceedings.

Partly as a result of previous debates, there are some good measures in the Bill, including the provisions for the right of review of decisions on eligibility and priority for housing. The Bill also contains provision for the strengthening of the duty on local authorities to provide advice and assistance to non-priority homeless people. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee considering the previous Bill were concerned about that, and I am glad that it is being considered again. Perhaps it is a good illustration of why Bills should come round more than once. As the Secretary of State mentioned in his opening remarks, the Bill also provides for greater recognition of the special needs of those fleeing racial or other forms of violence.

It is right but hardly surprising that the Bill has the strong support of the Local Government Association. In its excellent briefing, it points out that its report "No Place Like Home", which was published in December 1999,

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contained 37 recommendations. A number of them have surfaced in the Bill. The association is a strong supporter of the idea that authorities should have a

It is in favour of strengthening the safety net but, above all, the important issue for local authorities is to have flexibility in approaching such issues.

The Bill seeks to abolish the duty to maintain a housing register. Members of Parliament know the extent to which artificialities have crept in to the administration of housing registers. Well-informed applicants know how to build the right number of points to get towards the top of the list.

The Secretary of State touched on an issue to which we shall have to return in Committee. The problem of antisocial neighbours—the so-called neighbours from hell—united members of the Committee considering the Homes Bill. Antisocial neighbours cause intractable problems of the kind about which we learn from our mailbags and in our constituency advice surgeries. Wherever they are housed, some families and individuals will always create problems; whether by their simple failure to pay rent, by their behaviour towards neighbours or by their simple unwillingness to maintain their home and keep it in good order.

That issue has been flagged up by the Local Government Association, which says that

It points out that, during the Committee stage of the Homes Bill, the Government said that they were willing to amend that Bill to give authorities the right to refuse to allocate accommodation on the ground of unacceptable behaviour.

We all shared the concern about having the policy of blanket refusals that some authorities operate, but the Local Government Association adds:

The association refers to the matter of review, which was another matter of concern in Committee.

Different views are taken on the issue of neighbours from hell. In its most recent briefing, Shelter repeats a point that it made during the Committee stage of the previous Bill. It is concerned that

The Green Paper made it clear that that should occur only in exceptional circumstances, but there is a potential problem if local authorities operate a harsh or unbending policy in their areas. Shelter also commends the changes that have been made to this Bill on the issue of review, but it flags up its wish to return to some of the technical issues involved. I am sure that it will have the opportunity to do that.

A separate but important problem arose in Committee. It became clear that some authorities allow homeless applicants as little as 24 hours to make up their minds about a final offer of accommodation. I do not think that

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that happens in my area, but it strikes me as a rigorous policy to enforce. Shelter is flagging up the need for homeless people to have a minimum of three days to consider such an offer, and I shall table an amendment suggesting four. On a practical level, it is unreasonable to expect people to have so little time in which to make a decision that will affect their happiness and comfort for a long time.

I agree with the Secretary of State on one thing: the Bill should be seen not in isolation but against its proper background. The general election proved several things, including the fact that only one in four of the electorate thought it worth while to support the Government, who have rightly sought to play down any triumphalism about that victory. However, the Government have a second chance to deliver on their promises on a range of public services and social issues, not least, on housing and homelessness, on which they have a truly dismal record.

We do not draw any comfort from the appointment as Minister for Housing and Planning of Lord Falconer, fresh from his success with the dome, and whose only direct experience of the housing market was probably when he shared a flat with the Prime Minister. We look forward to his contributions to our debates on housing in the next few years. However, it was the Prime Minister who, in an interview with The Big Issue a few weeks ago on 3 June, said:

and that after four years of a Labour Government who did little, if anything, to tackle the issues. No wonder Shelter commented:

In 1996, the Prime Minister also promised that Labour would

However, the Government's figures show that homelessness in England soared by 8,000 in the past three years. The latest figures, contained in a Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions press release of 15 June, show that homelessness priority acceptances in England rose from 102,410 in 1997 to 110,790—nearly 111,000—by the end of 2000. In addition, the number of homeless in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has risen from just over 4,000 households in the first quarter of 1997 to nearly 11,000 in the first quarter of 2001.

The Secretary of State was fair and right to be defensive and embarrassed about those figures and to say that no one would defend them, but the Government have had four years to tackle those problems. As those statistics have risen inexorably, the gap between rich and poor has widened since 1997. Figures show that 100,000 more

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children and 700,000 more people are living in poverty than in 1997. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation had this to say:

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