Mr. Don Foster: I thank the Minister for her responses to the separate issues that have been raised and I am delighted that she has already had informal meetings with the Housing Corporation. I understand that tomorrow's meeting will be formal and I hope that minutes will be
I confess to being disappointed with the Minister's response in respect of whether it is appropriate to omit at the eligibility stage of determining what support to give a homeless applicant the issue of possible rejection on the ground of previous behaviour. She accused me of conflating the stages of eligibility and priority, but if there is confusion about that it is hers, not mine.
The issue is simple. I genuinely believe that the Government intend that a high priority be given to housing need in allocations policy. Indeed, I believe that because it is what they keep telling us in every single one of their housing documents. For example, in paragraphs 9.15 and 9.16 of the housing Green Paper, they state:
On the behavioural hurdles that should be set at the various stages, I genuinely believe that there is confusion in the Government's mind. They have rightly said that we should not allow any old behaviour criteria to be adopted. There are already significant problems with rent arrears and hon. Members are well aware that 89 per cent. of housing authorities use it as a reason for not allowing a transfer to take place. Of those, two thirds have no specific detail about what level that rent arrears should be.
There is genuine concern about the issue, so it seems odd to say the least that the Government propose a series of high hurdles early in the process. For whatever reason, a local authority might not want to house a certain person, but even if he does not cross those high hurdles he is allowed to move on to the next stage, and rightly so. Yet the Government say that, at that next stage, the local authority can take any behaviour into consideration.
That person can get through the first stage against agreed criteria, but at the next stage of priority the local authority can say, "We don't like you. Any behaviour will do, so you are not going to get high priority and you won't get housing." I suggest to the Minister that there is an inconsistency in the procedure. Again, I hope that she will reflect on it.
'and its strategic partners, to include registered social landlords and housing co-operatives, landlords of houses in multiple occupation registered with the authority under the Housing Act 1996, members of landlords' forums, and voluntary organisations and other relevant bodies ("strategic partners")'.
'(4A) The authority shall maintain a list of those organisations which are its strategic partners, which it may modify from time to time.'.
(d) the availability of housing advice within the district.'.
'(d) providing for the welfare of animals under the control of homeless persons.'.
'(5A) In formulating a homelessness strategy the authority shall have regard to
(a) the total and types of empty housing and vacant property within their district which should be based on regular audits of such property;
(b) targets for the re-use of such properties for residential purposes;
(c) "turn-around" times for the re-letting of empty property; and
(d) its own action plan to achieve the targets set out in paragraph (b) above, including action by any public authority, voluntary organisation or other body or person whose activities are capable of contributing to the achieving of these objectives.'.
'(5A) In formulating a homelessness strategy the authority shall make specific reference to
(a) the extent and nature of empty housing and vacant property within their district across all sectors and tenures;
(b) targets for the reuse of such properties for residential purposes; and
Mr. Clifton-Brown: The amendment deals with the duty of the local authority to formulate a homelessness strategy, which is outlined in clauses 1 to 3. We consider it against a background of the number of priority homeless rising from 102,650 in 199798 to 114,350 in 200001a 12,000 increase in the past four years. The figures come from the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions press release entitled "Statutory Homeless England, Second Quarter 2001". The number of people living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has soared by a staggering 152 per cent. from 4,500 in quarter 2 1997 to 11,314 in quarter 2 2001.
The duty on a local authority to formulate a homelessness strategy is extremely welcome, but we must get it right. Our amendment No. 1, which incorporates a number of other strategic partners, must be the right way forward. It should be the duty of a local authority to involve registered social landlords and other strategic partnersfor example, representatives from the private rented sector and from non-governmental organisations, such as Shelter, Crisis or the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which have a particular role in a particular area. Given that background, it is important that we seriously consider this proposal.
Registered social landlords have far greater flexibility to borrow money from the private sector. The Government are a little chary of that, and perhaps could improve the situation. By levying more money from the private sector, they would have more money to build more social housing units and thereby reduce the homeless figures that I have just given.
Some of those large-scale voluntary transfers are from large authorities, such as Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow. It is not just the smaller authorities, such as my own, that have carried out large-scale voluntary transfers: large numbers of houses are being transferred from local authorities to registered social landlords. Under those circumstances, it would be illogical, if not bizarre and perverse, not to put a statutory duty in the Bill that those bodies should be consulted by local authorities when drawing up their homelessness strategy. I hope that the Minister will have something to say about that.
There is a second argument in this saga. Housing associations are, by and large, run by volunteers. It would be odd if they were not consulted under the homelessness strategy. I can see no good argument why people who are giving such good serviceI emphasise thatin the
I do not believe that the fact that such bodies are voluntary should make any difference. They work with these difficult problems day in and day out. That proves that they are serious organisations. The argument may be put that they are too small to have any real input into the debate. I do not think that size makes any difference: if registered social landlords are small or large, if they represent a few or many private landowners or if they are deemed to have a realistic contribution to make to the debate, they should be included in statute.
We have been round this course twice before, so I know that the Government may try to resist our amendments. If they are not prepared to incorporate such bodies in the statute, as we think they should be, please may we have some pretty strong regulations that make it perfectly clear that local authorities would be expected to include them.
The third argument for including such organisations relates to the contention that they would undermine the strategic responsibilities of local authorities. As I have shown, within a few years the majority of the public sector housing stock will be run by registered social landlords. Admittedly, local authorities will still be involved and will have a vital role in determining public housing strategy, but it would be bizarre if these organisations were not included in the homelessness review.
Amendment No. 8 sets out four considerations to which authorities should have regard in formulating a homelessness strategy. I think that the Government would have difficulty arguing that these matters are not important enough to be taken into account. The first is that the total and types of empty housing and vacant property within an authority's district should be based on regular audits of such property. Unless authorities are carrying out audits of how effective they are at turning property around, they are not doing their job well. Surely the Government's best value initiative will demand that audits are conducted. If the best value initiative demands that an audit should take place, why not put that in the Bill?
I can illustrate graphically the difference in efficiency between local authoritiesthe average turn-around of empty housing in the Isle of Wight is two days, whereas the three worst local authorities, which as one would expect are Labour controlled, including that of the Deputy Prime Minister, Kingston upon Hulltake many months to turn around their empty properties. I am sure that the Minister will argue that those Labour authorities have a much more difficult housing problem because they are
We need to examine this problem carefully. If local authorities could bring up the average turn-around of empty properties and make it a little quicker, that would have a huge impact on the homelessness problem.