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Jeremy Corbyn: I agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's comments on housing benefit and the need to bring it in-house to enable a multi-agency approach. Will he therefore contact Liberal Democrat-controlled Islington council and advise it to discontinue the contract with ITNET that it wrongly signed rather than extend it for another four years?

Mr. Foster: I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am already in discussions on that very point with various authorities of all political parties that have taken that route and are increasingly encountering difficulties with the contracts that they have signed. I shall continue that dialogue.

Glenda Jackson: May I strongly recommend that the hon. Gentleman recommend that those local authorities contact the London borough of Camden, which has received two citizens charter awards for the efficiency of its housing benefits system?

Mr. Foster: I shall certainly bear that point in mind.

We must ask whether the Bill properly addresses the difficult issue of the conflict between ensuring help for the maximum number of people with homelessness needs and trying to ensure that local authorities have some discretion about who they help. Ministers plan to address the issue primarily in guidance, but I do not believe that guidance alone will work. Perhaps the less-emotive issue of the suspension of people with rent arrears can best illustrate why I believe that.

The guidance says that the exception of such people should be the exception rather than the rule. Nevertheless, the Government's own research has demonstrated that 29 per cent. of authorities that disqualify housing register

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or transfer list applicants because of arrears have absolutely no documented rules specifying the circumstances or debt level that should trigger exclusion or suspension. Moreover, 63 per cent. of authorities that have such policies regard any debt level as sufficient grounds for exclusion or suspension, so, although such a policy is not within the spirit of the Government's own Green Paper or guidance, one is being operated. If Ministers wish to persist in using guidance as the only tool to tackle the problem, that guidance will have to be considerably strengthened.

I should like, finally, to mention three or four small matters where I believe that further change is necessary.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): Is the hon. Gentleman saying that people with arrears should be eligible for transfer? As he said, local authorities tend to try to persuade people to balance their books.

Mr. Foster: I have some difficulty with that intervention. I think that the hon. Gentleman and I would agree that an authority should be able to decide not to provide support to some tenants, such as in some cases of anti-social behaviour or persistent rent arrears, but such a decision should be taken only in extreme cases. The Government's own research has shown that, in many cases, some local authorities have used any rent arrears, even a single instance of rent arrears, as a justification not to house. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees with the Secretary of State that other means of providing support to such individuals or households should come first and that the prime concern should be to meet the housing need of that family, not least for the sake of any children.

There have been welcome changes in the review process for those who are concerned about a local authority's allocation decision, but as a result of the various changes that have been introduced there is an inconsistency in the process. A review may be based on two aspects of the process: the determination on eligibility for support, and the priority given to individuals who are deemed to be eligible.

The procedure at the eligibility stage—dealt with in clause 13 in proposed subsections (9) to (11) of new section 160A—places the onus on the local authority to notify the applicant of his or her right to a review. Rather bizarrely, however, clause 15(4), which deals with the priority point, turns the process on its head by placing responsibility on the applicant to request information from the authority on his or her review. Given the nature of those whom we are seeking to assist, it seems sensible that the same procedure should apply to both parts of the review process by placing the onus on the local authority to notify the applicant.

Mr. Hancock: Is there not another aspect of the review process? Although a property may have been allocated, a local authority will not have discharged its responsibilities until the applicant has been informed of his or her right to a review of the suitability of accommodation. That is a new provision. Does my hon. Friend believe that local authorities will be able to cope if the right of suitability is exercised in all cases?

Mr. Foster: As the Secretary of State admitted earlier, given the shortage of high-quality temporary

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accommodation, that is clearly going to be very difficult. Currently, 75,000 people are in temporary accommodation. I would love the legislation to include provisions on the suitability of temporary accommodation and requiring local authorities to continue to provide accommodation in the review period. If a person does not have access to accommodation, it would be very difficult for him to exercise fully his right to ensure that the review had been conducted appropriately.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne rightly raised the issue of the minimum period allowed when a final offer is made. In the previous Parliament, when the Committee was considering the Homes Bill, I gave various examples of local authorities that had given people less than 24 hours to accept a final offer. Although all the Committee members accepted that that was unacceptable, the Government were unwilling to accept an amendment proposing to allow applicants a minimum of three days to reflect on whether to accept a final offer. I very much hope that the Government are prepared to think again on that issue.

I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will wish to discuss particular aspects of the Bill, but the most important point is that the Bill has the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House, all organisations working in the homelessness sector and the local government associations. It is therefore incumbent on us to give the Bill a speedy passage, to ensure that it can begin to provide the additional help that homeless people desperately deserve.

6.20 pm

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech in such an important debate, and I add my congratulations to my right hon. and hon. Friends on their appointments.

It is a great honour to represent the people of Alyn and Deeside in this House and, equally, to follow such an excellent Member of Parliament as Barry Jones. Barry represented the seat for 31 years and was the very model of a good constituency Member of Parliament: dedicated, hard working and always available to the people of Alyn and Deeside.

During the election campaign, I was struck by the number of people whom Barry had helped personally. It was not just what Barry had done for Alyn and Deeside, but what Barry had done for them. I am sure that if it had not been for Labour's years in opposition, Barry would have achieved high office in this country. I am sure also that the House will join me in wishing Barry well as his service to the people of Wales and the rest of Britain continues in the other place. I have been told on many occasions that Barry will be a hard act to follow.

As a new Member of Parliament, I recognise that the political institutions of Wales have changed and that the Assembly now plays an important role, particularly in respect of education and health. I look forward to working with our AM, Tom Middlehurst, on these issues.

In preparation for this speech, I took the opportunity of using the resources of the Library and found out what my predecessors, Barry Jones and Eirene White, had said in their maiden speeches. I also found that Barry was

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followed in his maiden speech by another new Member—the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who has just left the Chamber, probably because he has other more important issues on his mind.

Both Barry and Eirene talked at length about a constituency dominated by the steel industry at Shotton, then our largest employer and with the whole community reliant upon it for its livelihood. It is with great sadness that I cannot talk in such terms today. Only last week, we had further job losses at Shotton and yet another part of this once great industry fell to the vagaries of the marketplace. For those who remain, we recognise that there is a long fight ahead. Above all else, we now have to ask the company to look to the long term and not to react to short-term market movements.

The industry's employees have shown their commitment with improved productivity and flexibility. We now need a similar commitment from Corus. However, I welcome the ISERBS package, which will help redundant steelworkers to train for the future. It is not just industry that suffers, but whole communities in Shotton and Connah's Quay: the shops and other businesses that are supported by the steel community. This is too often forgotten.

The debate today is about homelessness and housing need. We need adequate social housing but, equally, we need stable communities, jobs and security. In 1980, Alyn and Deeside suffered terrible job losses in steel production and there were few opportunities for the men and women who lost their jobs. Thankfully, we are no longer reliant on just one industry for our livelihoods.

The British Aerospace facility at Broughton is a shining example of what can be achieved, and is now recognised as a world leader in aircraft wing production. With the building of the new large aircraft, the A380, Broughton will employ more than 6,000 people. It is a matter of great credit and vision that it was this Government who supported the venture, which I am confident will go on to have great success. Airbus is competing in a difficult market, but Airbus is winning through. My predecessor campaigned long and hard for Airbus, as he did for Raytheon when it looked as if that company would shift production to America. I am pleased to say that that factory is now doing well and plays an important role in the community.

There are many other successful businesses in Alyn and Deeside, including Toyota, which has recently expanded production of engines at its plant. My constituency also contains a farming community, which, although spared foot and mouth, finds itself struggling, as does the industry as a whole.

The House may have noticed that my accent is not one of a native of north Wales. As a new candidate and Member of Parliament, however, I could not have asked for a warmer welcome for me and my family from the people of Alyn and Deeside. I must make special mention of Ivor Roberts MBE, who has worked tirelessly as a county councillor for Buckley and as agent for Barry Jones and me.

My confidence during the campaign was put to the test, surprisingly, after the result. On Friday, I bought a copy of The Chronicle election special and was somewhat alarmed by the headline "Tory triumph". Had it been a dream? Was this now the nightmare? Thankfully—although not for the people of Cheshire—the headline was

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referring to the Cheshire county council elections. Underneath, in much smaller writing, there was something about another Labour landslide. I breathed a sigh of relief.

While my constituency is doing well and continuing to increase its industry and employment, there are still areas of social deprivation and great need. It is often in constituencies such as mine that those problems go unnoticed, particularly by those outside the community.

I am always concerned when I see empty properties. They are not only wasteful, but they bring down an area, sap morale and deter people from moving into the community. It is important to note, however, that these properties are not necessarily council owned, and that shop properties in particular are owned in the private sector. We must get such properties back into the system as quickly as possible. If we do not, it will be very difficult to reverse the trend.

I believe that, in the main, if people have access to decent housing, they will respond accordingly, taking pride in their property and the community around them. Like all hon. Members, I receive many letters from constituents regarding housing issues, but that is a positive thing. It is when people cease to care that we have a problem. It is our task to ensure that councils and housing associations have the resources to meet the aspirations of the people.

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