Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): Liberal Democrat Members welcomed the Bill first time round and we welcome even more its re-emergence in amended form. Clearly, some thought and reflection have taken place in the intervening period and it has been much improved; Liberal Democrat Members hope to improve it still further.
We do not support the three new clauses, and would probably not do so in any circumstances. I have been a critic of the rough sleepers unit, partly because rough sleepers come in all shapes and sizes, but the initial recommendations for removing the bulk of them from the streets basically increased the provision available for those who would otherwise have gone into hostels. My criticism of the policy is that many rough sleepers have particular needs, but they do not all have those needs met. For example, those who require drug rehabilitation cannot all find places on rehabilitation programmes. Indeed, it is often the case not that there are no resources for such programmes, but that there are not enough people to carry them out. The Government ought to look at that separately; I am sure that the rough sleepers unit will be aware of it.
There are other issues which some people might consider minor. For example, a rough sleeper who has a pet cannot take it into a hostel. More thought needs to be given to the first stage of helping people to rehabilitate themselves after rough sleeping, if the problem is simply that they cannot take a place in a hostel because they have a pet animal with them.
The bulk of the work of the rough sleepers unit has rightly been praised from all parts of the House. The unit has issued best practice guidelines which have been of great benefit to local authorities. The fact that the unit examines what is happening in various parts of the country, assesses the numbers, and issues guidelines has improved the services available throughout the country to local authorities trying to tackle the problem of rough sleepers. Given that the Government have promised a review of the rough sleepers unit, the new clause should be withdrawn and forgotten for the moment.
New clause 2 would reduce the duty to assist people released from prison. First, it would set a six-month period from release until authorities had a duty to assist with housing. Secondly, if the applicant was not resident in the area at the time of sentencing, the authority would have no duty.
The Liberal Democrat view is that housing is fundamental to the rehabilitation of ex-offenders. Evidence suggests that people with fixed accommodation are less likely to reoffend and are more committed to any assistance programme in which they may be involved. The clause would make it much harder for ex-offenders to find accommodation and to move away from areas where they have criminal connections.
The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) seemed to suggest that once the sentence is served, the offender remains a criminal. That is not the view of our criminal justice system, and it is certainly not the view of those on the Liberal Democrat Benches.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to clarify what I said. Once a criminal has served his sentence, he can in no way still be considered a criminal. We are discussing the housing priority of various groups. It is our view that that matter is best left to the discretion of the local authority, especially in areas such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner). His authority has a particular problem, as it has three prisons.
Mr. Sanders: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. He said in his opening remarks that ex-offenders were criminals, and that criminals would jump the queue. However, they are no longer criminals once they have served their sentence, and I am glad for that clarification. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that former criminals were one of the largest groups of rough sleepers. The clause would remove their right to receive assistance as a priority group and their right to be looked on kindly by local authorities.
New clause 3 would limit the main homelessness duty to residents. It seems to confuse the aims of the Bill. There is a distinction between offering support to various groups and the allocation of priorities. The hon. Member for Cotswold mentioned service people. They may not be able to provide a local address within the previous 12 months, which would automatically remove their right to be recognised under the Bill as a priority group. The effects of the clause on such groups have not been properly thought through.
I shall comment later on the general deficiencies in the Government's homelessness policy, if I am lucky enough to catch the Deputy Speaker's eye. Meanwhile, in respect of all three new clauses, I hope that the motion will be withdrawn.
Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): I oppose the new clauses, which seem paradoxical in what they purport to achieve. The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), who speaks from the Opposition Front Bench on these issues, was rightly full of praise for the work that has been achieved by the rough sleepers unit, and its particular initiative in reducing the numbers of rough sleepers on our streets. However, new clauses 2 and 3, by what they would require of the Bill, would make the situation perfect for increasing the number of rough sleepers on our streets.
It is surely absurd to dub somebody an ex-offender, but perhaps I am paraphrasing what the hon. Member for Cotswold said. People can be in prison who are ex-members of the armed forces. They can be drug and alcohol-dependent and can be vulnerable. If they have nowhere to go after having served their prison sentence and no one is responsible for attempting to house them, their most natural recourse will be to rough sleeping back on the streets.
The hon. Gentleman is somewhat confused about the realities of the housing that is provided by local authorities for people for whom they must already accept a responsibility. He kept talking about houses. It would be rare in the borough in my constituency and in some of the most hard-pressed boroughs, if not all the boroughs in the Greater London area, if they were able to afford to offer a house to anyone for whom they had a specific housing responsibility. There are vast numbers of people in temporary housing. Families are in bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
The hon. Gentleman talked about locality and individuals' links with particular areas. In Greater London, local authorities accept housing responsibilities, but they may house a group, an individual or a family in a borough many miles from their own. It is especially a problem for the GLA because it is probably the most hard-pressed area for housing, and certainly for affordable housing, in the United Kingdom.
I say to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that I do not support the call for the rough sleepers unit to be wound up and for responsibility to be farmed out to local authorities. The idea of the hon. Member for Cotswoldthat the problems of rough sleepers would be solved by divvying up £198 million between 700 peopleleads me to believe that he is not as aware as he should be of the realities of rough sleepers.
Often, a rough sleeper's problems are not solved by bricks and mortar alone. Such people have many complex needs that cannot be met by an individual or one organisation. They require properly integrated support packages, which in my experience include a local authority and a voluntary or charitable organisation. The national health service will most certainly be included, not least in the area of improving mental health. There may be a requirement for advice from the Benefits Agency. Certainly there will be a need for retraining and reskilling. The needs of rough sleepers run through our national life, which is why I do not support the new clauses.
I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider my suggestion because, despite the RSU's excellent work, I believe that such an approach to preventing rough sleeping and keeping people off the streets will not remain a central and integral part of the work of the London boroughs and local authorities throughout the country.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I agree with the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) that the delay in introducing the Bill has been fortunate, especially for the two issues to do with prisoners and others. My constituency background led to my tabling new clauses 2 and 3, but I am sure that the experience is not limited to my constituency.
The Minister acknowledged the specific circumstances of the Isle of Wight in respect of prisoners, but the relevance of the point about other people moving into a constituency and seeking housing is not confined to the Isle of Wight. The island word "overner" is usually used jocularly to refer to someone who comes from the mainland. No one counts as an islander without being there longer than 30 years.
Prisoners do not choose to come to the island, but they may choose to remain. Many new Members must deal with the problem of who is responsible for prisoners. When prisoners write to me from Parkhurst, do they belong to me or the Member of Parliament for their home constituency? When prisoners' relatives who live on the island complain to me about conditions in a prison in another part of the country, is it my responsibility or that of another hon. Member?
Residents of the island believe that those leaving prison are the responsibility of where they came from. The hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) was wrong to suggest that new clause 2 would remove any duty to provide assistance for prisoners. It merely makes it clear that the duty should be exercised by the authority in which a prisoner lived at the time of sentencing. Provision for prisoners should be made, but not in the constituency where they happen to be imprisoned and released.
As the Minister acknowledged, there are three prisons on the island. That must be more per head than in most constituencies. One in particular has a good record of dealing with drug addiction and paedophiles. It is not surprising that paedophiles find it more difficult to move back to their home constituencies when they are released and are therefore more likely to seek housing on the island. That, however, is not the right solution because they need to be reintegrated.
There are examples of paedophiles who, on their release, have returned to Newport, in my constituency, to the house they lived in when they were convicted. They are known by the local community, which takes a tolerant, understanding and sensible attitude towards them and does not drum them out. Surely we would recommend that approach, not their transfer to a place with which they have no connection and where they are likely to be regarded with grave suspicion.
I do not demur from the assertion of the need to offer support to released prisoners, but that requirement should not be imposed on my constituentsor on the constituents of other hon. Members with prison establishments in their constituenciesdisproportionately. There are also prisoners whose wives or girl friends come to live on the island during their sentence, because that makes it easier to visit. It is difficult for local people to see that those wives or girl friends deserve to be housed on the island at the time of release.
The Minister suggested that there was a lack of compassion in the amendments. There is no lack of compassion, but there is an understanding that if we give priority to one group, we reduce the priority of another. I would like to emphasise, particularly to the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), that there is no suggestion that prisoners should not be dealt with, merely a suggestion that they should be dealt with where they live, rather than where they are released.