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Mr. Hancock: Is the Minister satisfied that the RSU and her Department have accurate figures for the number of rough sleepers? A survey was done in my constituency—the city of Portsmouth has around 140,000 adults—and only one rough sleeper was found. When that

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result was questioned, it was suggested that the count was inaccurate because the likely places to find rough sleepers were too dangerous for the people carrying out the surveys to enter to ascertain the true figure. I know that on one evening at least a dozen people were sleeping in a derelict building but who had not formed part of the count.

Ms Keeble: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. The head counts are snapshots taken at a particular point in time. The work of the rough sleepers unit has shown that there is often a perceptible difference between the number of people who sleep rough and the number out on the streets during the day. If the hon. Gentleman has clear evidence of a substantial mistake, I would be happy to take it up.

The numbers reflect the circumstances of the nights on which head counts are taken. They are taken repeatedly and all the evidence points to a substantial and sustained decrease in the number of people sleeping rough which, I am sure, is down to the innovative and sometimes challenging way in which the rough sleepers unit has gone about its task. In the context of that work, I ask the hon. Member for Cotswold to withdraw the new clause.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Does the Minister accept that the success of the rough sleepers unit has been largely superseded and that the purpose of this consultation is to see what should follow it? We should use the resources that it consumes in a better way and, in particular, ensure that the best practice for which it is responsible is disseminated and used by local authorities.

Ms Keeble: I take issue with what the hon. Gentleman says. First, I would not underestimate the real value of the rough sleepers unit in challenging some of the conventions, including some voluntary sector assumptions, about rough sleepers. That has been extremely important and could have been done only by a very strong, centrally based unit.

It is also extremely important to recognise that the rough sleepers unit has not succeeded simply because it has got numbers down in one or two head counts. It has identified some of the structural causes of people sleeping rough and has considered structural solutions to the problem. Whatever the transition that takes place, those arrangements must be maintained so that there is no damage to some of the working practices which I suspect are still in their infancy, comparatively speaking. We do not want a return to the kind of problems which were well known in London when the hon. Gentleman's party was in government. That is why it is particularly important that we conduct the consultation carefully and do not precipitate a decision, one way or another, simply for the convenience of this legislation.

Dr. Iddon: Does my hon. Friend accept the point that I made to the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton- Brown) about local authorities building in to their strategy reports how they will deal with rough sleepers in the future?

Ms Keeble: That matter will covered in guidance; I am sure that people will find it of interest.

Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden): Does the hon. Lady agree in principle with the comments of her predecessor,

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the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), as quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), that the rough sleepers unit has a finite lifetime? If so, when we will have an exit strategy? When does the hon. Lady envisage that the current programme is due to reach its target, if not next year?

Ms Keeble: I have already given the time scales for the consultation, for when we expect to have a strategy and when, therefore, we expect to move on. It is more important to have the right solution than one that is time limited. I would prefer to have in place arrangements that not only deal with people currently sleeping rough but ensure that those who are at risk of being on the streets—people who have been in care, in the army or have come out of prison—do not end up sleeping rough. I would prefer a good solution to one that suits a particular bureaucratic time scale.

To turn to new clauses 2 and 3, the essence of the Homelessness Bill, and our proposed draft order extending the priority need categories, is to offer greater protection to those who are genuinely homeless through no fault of their own. It is about achieving more equitable systems for the allocation of social housing, and ensuring that authorities think strategically about the needs of all groups in their area and plan appropriate provision of accommodation and support accordingly. In short, the Bill mixes pragmatism with compassion, both of which the Opposition are clearly short on when it comes to the issue of ex-offenders.

There is a broad consensus of support for the thrust of the Bill, which is to strengthen the safety net available for people who are homeless and have a priority need. That consensus of support has included Opposition Members, yet new clauses 2 and 3 would weaken the safety net.

The effect of new clause 2 would be that ex-prisoners who wanted to make a homelessness application within six months of their release from prison would have to apply to the local housing authority in whose district they were residing when they were sentenced. If they were to apply to any other local housing authority within that period, no duty whatever would be owed—regardless of whether they were unintentionally homeless and had a priority need for accommodation. Only after six months would they be able to make an application to other local housing authorities and have it properly considered in the normal way.

To an extent, I understand the intention behind the new clause, and sympathise with the constituency interests that it seeks to protect. I think that they apply to one constituency in particular. I sense that, behind the new clause, there is concern that the draft order that the Government propose to make under section 189 of the Housing Act 1996, to extend the categories of applicant who have a priority need for accommodation, may lead to a significant increase in the number of ex-prisoners who will be entitled to temporary accommodation under the homelessness legislation.

Let me make clear that there is no reason to expect that the order would have the result predicted. First, the order would provide that there was priority need only where the housing authority was satisfied that the individual was vulnerable. Secondly, authorities should already accept that applicants who are vulnerable for that reason—or any other—have a priority need by virtue of the current provisions in section 189 of the 1996 Act. These provide

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that a person has a priority need if he is vulnerable not only as a result of factors such as old age and mental illness, but as a result of another special reason.

There has been a lot of nonsense—some of it shameful—talked about the provisions in the draft order which bear on those who are vulnerable as a result of having served a custodial sentence. It has been suggested that the order would allow ex-prisoners to jump the housing queue ahead of families. This is nonsense, and it confuses priority need for short-term assistance under the homelessness legislation with priority for an allocation of long-term housing through the housing register. The order bears on applications for assistance under the homelessness legislation. It puts ex-prisoners who are homeless and genuinely vulnerable on the same footing as other vulnerable homeless people who need short-term assistance with accommodation until a settled housing solution can be found.

I understand the thinking behind the new clause, but the 1996 Act already contains adequate provisions to address the situation where a person applies for homelessness assistance to an authority in one area but has a local connection elsewhere. Under current provisions, where an authority has decided that an applicant is unintentionally homeless, in priority need and owed a main homelessness duty, and if the applicant does not have a local connection with that authority's district but has one somewhere else, the authority has a discretionary power to refer the applicant to the authority in the area where there is a connection. For that purpose, a local connection can be established because of residence—by the person's choice—employment or family associations in the area or because of special circumstances.

Under guidelines issued by the Local Government Association, to which all housing authorities operate, there must be normal residence in an area of at least six months before a local connection is established by way of residence for the purpose of meeting the statutory conditions for referral. However, there is specific provision in the 1996 Act which prevents a local connection being established as a result of the applicant becoming resident in an area because he is detained in prison. Thus, under current provisions and arrangements, it would be open to an authority dealing with an applicant who was unintentionally homeless and in priority need, and who met the additional criteria that new clause 2 would impose, to refer him or her to another authority.

5.15 pm

New clause 3 seeks to tinker with existing provisions on local connection; I have already explained how those provisions work. Broadly speaking, under current arrangements, a person will not establish a local connection with an area by way of residence until he or she is normally resident there of their own choice—so not in prison—for at least six months. A local connection can also be established as a result of employment, family associations or special circumstances. The current arrangements therefore provide a pragmatic and flexible framework which, on the one hand, helps to provide a safety net for homeless people, allowing them to seek help wherever they are, regardless of whether they have a local

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connection. On the other hand, it allows local authorities to refer applicants to the appropriate authority in cases in which the local connection rests elsewhere.

New clause 3 would demolish that pragmatic framework. One effect would be that, regardless of whether homeless applicants had a local connection with an area because of employment, family associations or other reasons, they would be unable to obtain any homelessness assistance from the local authority in that area if they had not been resident there for at least 12 months. Such a proposition is unacceptable.

However, the effects of new clause 3 would go much wider. Many applicants will have lived somewhere in Great Britain for at least 12 months and would therefore be able to make an application to an authority somewhere, even if that involved making an application from a location at one end of the country to an authority at the other end. But what about the position of those applicants who had not lived anywhere in Great Britain for 12 months, which could include people from overseas who had been granted refugee status or given indefinite or exceptional leave to remain in the United Kingdom? It could also include European nationals with a right of residence in the UK. Those groups are eligible for assistance under the homelessness legislation, but could be denied access to such help under new clause 3. Quite apart from the practical implications, that could result in a breach of the UK's EU treaty obligations and other international obligations. The way in which those rules operate is obviously fairly complex, but they are designed to give the correct balance of rights for the homeless and flexibility for local authorities to make the best possible arrangements for people who present themselves as homelessness, so I strongly urge hon. Members not to press new clauses 2 and 3.

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