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7.12 pm

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): I congratulate both the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Mr. Selous) and my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) on making their maiden speeches in this auspicious debate. I hope that their interest in housing will continue throughout their time as Members.

Labour Members who have an interest in housing waited a long time for housing Bills to appear on the agenda of the previous Parliament. When they finally did appear, one never escaped the other place and the other got shot down there. In his comments earlier in the debate, the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) blamed Labour Members for the demise of the Homes Bill, but if the Conservatives had wanted the Bill to come back from the House of Lords and the homelessness agenda to become law, they could have achieved that. I blame them for delaying the measure in the other place.

I was not called to speak on Second Reading on the Homes Bill so it is a great privilege to be called to speak in this debate. I have been in politics long enough to

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remember the impact of a television documentary that is frozen in the mind of people of my generation—"Cathy Come Home". That programme spurred on the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, mentioned by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). Those of us involved in housing at the time were extremely proud of that legislation, which for the first time placed a duty on local housing authorities to secure permanent accommodation for unintentionally homeless people in priority need.

After 18 years of successive Tory Governments, however, the provisions of the 1977 Act had been significantly watered down by various pieces of legislation. We have to remind Opposition Members that, during those years of Tory government and caused by their housing policies, the number of homeless people doubled to an astonishing 139,000 in 1992. Admittedly, even under the Tory Government, the number fell from that high figure, but even under the Labour Government, the current figure is more than 100,000. Ministers have accepted that that is still far too high.

I was a member of the housing committee in Bolton for 21 years and its chairman for 10 years—from 1986 to 1996. It was my passion for housing that made me seek election to this place at the last-but-one general election. When I became chairman of the housing committee, I made a commitment that we would put homelessness at the top of the housing agenda of the Labour group, and we did so.

At that time, there was little provision in Bolton. An ancient former children's home was used as a hostel for families and there was a newly built Salvation Army hostel. Women's refuges were becoming important: women suffering domestic violence could escape to Fort Alice. Since the early 1970s, Bolton has had an excellent housing advice centre—currently in a different, much improved location in the town centre. The staff work closely with everyone involved in housing, including the best of the private landlords in Bolton who have particularly helped to rehouse non-priority homeless people.

Hon. Members have already referred to a difficulty that deters private landlords from accepting homeless people who are in receipt of benefits—the significant delay in the payment of housing benefit. That is caused not only by such things as the implementation of the housing benefit verification framework, but by a collision of that policy with best-value policy.

The number of priority cases accepted as homeless in Bolton averaged about 1,000 during the 1970s and 1980s. The number has fallen to about 800 cases at present—although of course that remains too high.

There have been changes. More single people present as homeless in Bolton, although fortunately the number of families—especially those with children—presenting as homeless has fallen significantly. That is probably because Bolton is not short of accommodation; the problem we face is one of quality rather than quantity. Our need is for increased investment in regeneration, especially in the private sector.

Significantly, the complexity of the accepted cases has increased. That is an important point. It is not uncommon for officers to deal with cases that include issues not only of domestic violence but of drug or alcohol misuse and child protection. As a result, the amount of multi-agency work required at present is much greater than it was in

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the past. For example, Bolton has a borough-wide multi-agency strategy to deal with domestic violence. The council has produced an excellent directory of services, which is readily available throughout the borough.

The importance of dealing with the causes of homelessness as well as homelessness itself cannot be stressed too highly. Bolton has adopted a homelessness strategy that involves not only all the statutory agencies but all the voluntary sector agencies. The Catholic Children's Rescue Society and the Manchester Methodist housing association have set up mother and baby units in various parts of the town. Irwell Valley housing association runs a short-stay hostel for women—Fleet house.

In addition to the Salvation Army hostel, Manchester Methodist housing association runs a hostel for men. The Carr-Gomm Society provides accommodation in flats in a large house for vulnerable people with special problems. MIND manages a small number of flats for people who have experienced serious mental illness.

When I became chairman of Bolton's housing committee, I discovered that bed blocking had become a real problem in our short-stay hostels. Consequently, we established a special needs and resettlement team, which finds permanent accommodation for the homeless and supports vulnerable tenants in that accommodation. Many of the homeless have previously been in the armed forces or come from backgrounds in care of one sort or another—prisons or local authority placements.

Another problem faced by homeless people is the provision of furniture. Sad to say, the Benefits Agency is not always helpful to homeless people, so Bolton Community Transport picks up unwanted furniture, refurbishes it and makes it available, at modest cost, in a showroom in the town centre. The Salvation Army performs a complementary role.

Many private landlords require an up-front payment not only for the rent due but as a breakage deposit if the accommodation is furnished. One of my proudest achievements as chairman of the housing committee was setting up Bolton Bond Board, which helps homeless people into such accommodation. It will be 10 years old shortly, and I recommend those local authorities that have not implemented a bond board in their area to do so.

Bolton council has researched the provision of a French-style foyer scheme, but after consulting potential users it has decided to adopt the dispersed-foyer concept instead. The Bolton accommodation, support and education project—BASE—manages 22 properties for 43 people from a prominent location to the north of the town centre. It is an innovative partnership between the local authority, various voluntary sector organisations and the North British and Portico housing associations. As the name implies, it is a housing-plus scheme, offering advice across the board, as well as accommodation.

The Bolton young persons accommodation support scheme—BYPASS—also has a shop-frontage presence, but to the south of the town centre. That innovative scheme not only provides help and advice on accommodation and other issues at a drop-in centre, but offers a creche, a coffee bar, a clothing exchange scheme and laundry and bathing facilities for those without a permanent home of their own. For many years, it has also provided an advocacy service for scores of young people who have left the local authority's care.

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The most difficult group to deal with are the single young males, many of whom are often involved in alcohol or drug misuse, and whose lives are usually chaotic. In addition, some of them are mentally ill. After talking to many of those people in the centre of Bolton, I became convinced that we must deal with one of the commonest causes of sustained homelessness—substance misuse—in a holistic way.

I have to tell the Government that the way in which the cases of Ruth Wyner and John Brock have been dealt with—especially the aftermath of those cases in which section 8 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 was strengthened—has made it much more difficult to include that group of people socially, and I implore the Government to talk again to the professionals and to think again.

Ironically, drugs are also available in our prisons, but we make no attempt to close them down or to take any action against the management of those institutions for allowing drugs to be used on those premises. Why, then, should even housing associations, often involved in some of the housing-plus schemes that I have referred to, now be afraid of providing housing and opportunities for some of our previously socially excluded citizens? We must be prepared to go the extra mile to rehabilitate drug addicts back into society, and we should applaud those people who work with them in a voluntary or a paid capacity; we certainly should not persecute them.

I welcome all the commitments to dealing with homelessness that the Government made during the previous Parliament, as well as those that they are making in the Bill—for example, the inclusion in the priority need group of 16 and 17-year-olds and those leaving care, prison or the armed forces. I welcome the clause that will prevent a local authority's duty towards the homeless from being discharged through the use of assured shorthold tenancies in the private sector.

I welcome the requirement for all local authorities to provide adequate housing advice not only to those homeless people in priority need but to all those who do not have a home. I welcome, too, the recognition that those suffering from racial harassment or domestic violence are also in priority need.

I was very pleased that the housing Green Paper referred to regional difficulties. My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) has already referred to the fact that there are great differences between the north and the south. In fact, differences exist in each region. My hon. Friend is right to ask the Government to consider localised housing policies, rather than having a national housing policy. Certainly, that is the way in which the Government are moving.

I realise that what I am about to say is not politically correct, but it makes no sense to continue to operate the right-to-buy policy in areas of greatest demand—Greater London and rural villages. I know how popular that policy has been, and I have never criticised those who have exercised their rights, but that does not make the policy right, especially in the light of this debate. Is it any wonder that public sector workers are difficult to employ in London and that so many people have to spend so long in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, when former council properties are still being sold at discounted prices

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then re-sold at unbelievable prices? I implore the Government to review the right-to-buy policy in those extremely high-demand areas.

The clause that will provide a new duty to allocate temporary accommodation for unintentionally homeless people that is brought to an end only when the applicants have been provided with settled accommodation will have little impact in towns such as Bolton, but it will have a great impact in areas of high demand. The clause will end the insecurity faced by many homeless people and restore the recognition that homeless people need long-term solutions.

Many local authorities will welcome the greater flexibility offered under the Bill to develop their allocations polices. I am very pleased that my local authority is one of the 27 that the Government have chosen to try initiatives such as the Delft proposal, and I look forward to the outcome of the pilot scheme.

I am happy to recommend the Bill to the House. Its enactment will meet another of our 1997 manifesto commitments: local authorities will provide unintentionally homeless people in priority need with temporary accommodation until they are provided with settled housing. I hope that housing will remain high on the Government's agenda throughout this Parliament.

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