Mr. Don Foster: Can the hon. Gentleman imagine a situation in which a prisoner might, as a result of the offence for which he or she was convicted, subsequently have a major family breakdown? That prisoner's main relatives might happen to live in the same constituency as the one the prison is in; it would therefore be more appropriate for that person to be housed in that area. I accept that that is fairly unlikely, but it is possible. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the amendment would prevent that from happening?
Mr. Foster: We are dealing with a hypothetical example, but I was using it to illustrate the complexity of the situation and the problem that would be created by the hon. Gentleman's amendment. It would be perfectly possible for someone to have been sentenced in another local authority area and to have had a breakdown of family relationships as a result of the activity that led him to be sentenced. The remainder of his family might happen to live in the local authority area in which the prison was located. By the hon. Gentleman's own admission, that local authority would be unable to assist that person in those circumstances, even if it wished to do so.
Mr. Turner: I understand that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the remainder of the prisoner's family with whom he maintains good relations. I misunderstood; I thought that he meant those with whom he no longer had good relations. In those circumstances, I hope that the family would be able to support the person, and that he would not expect that support to be provided by the rest of the community.
I want to add a further point on the housing of former offenders. It is a matter of great concern to my constituents, and perhaps to many others, that housing associations do not have information on the records of ex-offenders when they come to allocate housing to them. They might, therefore, allocate housing to known paedophiles, who have finished their sentences, in the middle of housing estates or blocks of flats where young children live. That matteralthough not the subject of the amendmentneeds to be taken on board by the Government.
New clause 3 relates to the problem of the definition of "local connection" for the purposes of statutory homelessness. I thank the Minister, in passing, for confirming that local authorities will be allowed to take account of local connection in their allocation procedures. However, the new clause is about statutory homelessness. Many people on the south coast of England, and perhaps in many other parts of the country, come to coastal constituencies to work in the holiday trade or in fruit picking, and to live in holiday accommodation that is available for short lets during the winter months. At the end of, say, six or seven months, they present themselves as homeless to the local authority. If they are taken as homeless, they go up in priority and the normal, regular, long-standing residents of the constituency go down. We must understand that giving additional priority to one person means a lower priority for someone else. That is the point that has not been accepted by Liberal Democrat Members. Priority for one means less priority for another; frankly, islanders are fed up with being pushed to the end of the queue by people who come to work as fruit or tomato pickers.
David Wright (Telford): Would not the hon. Gentleman have been better served by tabling a new clause that specifically mentioned those groups, if he is particularly concerned about them? This is a blunderbuss new clause that covers a range of people.
Mr. Hancock: Can the hon. Gentleman explain what would happen to a service man whose family or marriage broke up while he was at sea? On his return from the sea, he might leave the Navy. The family might have been based in my constituency in Portsmouth and his natural home would be Portsmouth, but perhaps for more than a year he would have had no recognition of that fact and no address in Portsmouth or anywhere else that was his.
Mr. Turner: Nothing in the new clause would remove local authority discretion to give priority to specific groups. All I am saying is that many constituencies, which are perhaps not like Portsmouth, South, experience a regular, seasonal influx of workers who, at the end of their term, during which they might have been provided with accommodation while they picked tomatoes or garlic, present themselves as homeless. They jump the queue in which others have waited patiently.
Glenda Jackson: I am most interested in the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I do not understand why his local authority accepts people as homeless without considering other contingencies that would make them vulnerable. Surely we are discussing not the exercise of local authority discretion, but how most local authorities, which are seriously overstretched in respect of affordable social housing, attempt to deal with such problems. I have yet to encounter a local authority that does not have a strict listing of what constitutes vulnerability.
Mr. Turner: I am sure that that is true, but the point is that those who live in an area temporarily, having come for a specific short-term job, should not get priority above normal residents. That is the substance of my new clause.
I agree entirely with those who have spoken about the success of the rough sleepers unit over the past few years, but I was intrigued as I listened to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) as she suggested that all the changes and the joined-up thinking across government began when the unit was created.
The hon. Lady overlooked a lot of the good work done in preceding years by the rough sleepers initiative, which sought precisely to bring Departments together in such a way that they would realise that many of the homeless and people on the streets had significant problems not just with drugs or alcohol, but with welfare, education and a range of different issues. The great strength of the rough sleepers initiative was that it tried to tackle those problems. The RSU moved on from that by providing an actual presence. It is wrong to say that that approach was taken only when the unit was suggested.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) suggested that the £198 million that is spent each year by the RSU could be better spent by local authorities, and I agree with his assessment. What worried me about the Minister's response to my intervention was that ministerial minds seem to be moving from a unit set up specifically to tackle the current crisis to something that is part of the permanent structure of government. I sense that the proposals will contain not an exit strategy, but an explanation of why Ministers believe that the unit should continue for some years more and then be reviewed again.
Unless the Bill contains a requirement that the unit should be wound up by a specific time, the issue will gradually slip off the agenda. The Minister's predecessor, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), was right to recognise that the unit should not have an enduring, permanent quality. When it has achieved its intentions, we should find other ways to carry out that work.
We should also recognise that the issues that affect different parts of the country reflect different needs. If money, instead of being handled entirely through the unit, were given to the local authorities affected, they would address their homelessness problems in different ways. It is possible that they would take a different approach in Hampstead and Highgate from that taken by Westminster, or Westminster would want to do it differently from Brighton or Manchester. Only by being given the funds, the ability and the discretion to deal with homelessness can local authorities make decisions in the interests of people living and sleeping rough in their areas.
Where appropriate, local authorities should be able to move towards prevention rather than cure. The numbers of rough sleepers are coming downwe all welcome thatso local authorities will want to become more proactive in addressing this problem. If they have the numbers firmly under control, they will want to prevent people from sleeping rough rather than take responsive action. That should not be done centrally: individual local authorities should be given the chance to do that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold spoke about people who leave the armed forces. Another dimension to the problem is the frightening proportion of rough sleepers who have come out of local authority care. Many of those people are still of an age at which the local
I listened with great care to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on new clause 2. Clearly, he has a particular problem, but it is not unique to the Isle of Wight. Many of us have constituencies with prisons in them or adjacent to them. It is a matter of great concern to all those communities that people coming out of prison look to set up their new homes in those areas. There may be good reasons why they do not want to go back to the areas they came fromeither because of marital breakdown or because the nature of the crimes that they committed was such that they do not feel they can fit back into that community. The communities in which prisons are, however, should not then bear the burden of finding housing for those people as well.
I was not sure what the Minister meant when she used the phrase "resident by a person's choice". I am not sure what that means. Many people leaving prison or any other form of institutional life would love to live in East Sussex, a beautiful area with wonderful scenery and great facilities. One can see why they would make that choice; one can also see why many people would want to live in an inner-city area with a vibrant community. I feel, however, that there should be a more tangible reason for wanting to live somewhere than the fact that it is an attractive location.
The Minister mentioned family connections. How tenuous could such a connection be? Are we talking about parents, or about brothers and sisters? Might a great-aunt happen to live in a place in which such people think it would be pleasant to live? That phrase, too, must be clarified.
Above all, when dealing with the resettlement of offenders, we must focus on what is best for them. Resettling them in the area in which they have just left prison may not be the best way of doing that. There will be places where they know more people, where they have a circle of friends, and which could have a positive influence on their rehabilitation.
What causes a number of people to return to the spiral of decline into criminality after their release is the nature of the circumstances and the community in which they happen to be living. Unless there is a support structure consisting of people who know and care about them, and who will tell them that there is a better way of leading their lives than a return to crime, it will be much more difficult to ensure that they do not slip back into criminality. If they come out of Parkhurst and live somewhere else on the Isle of Wight, or come out of Lewes and live in Lewes, they will not have access to the support system that would enable them to break away from a life of crime. That must be our first objective, and that is why I support new clause 2.
I have little to say about new clause 3, but I think it has a particular dimension relating to the Isle of Wight. In areas with peculiar local authority boundariessuch as that between Wealden and Mid-Sussexa number of anomalies would arise. People living in a small village next to a large town where their children go to school might wish to move to the town but might find it more difficult than they would otherwise. I see that the new clause has significant advantages for the Isle of Wight, however.