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Schedule 1

Minor and Consequential Amendments

Amendments made: No. 24, in page 13, line 15, at end insert—

'(2) This paragraph comes into force on the day on which this Act is passed.'.
No. 25, in page 13, line 33, at end insert—

'(2) This paragraph comes into force on the day on which this Act is passed.'.—[Mr. Ainger.]
Order for Third Reading read.

9.10 pm

Ms Keeble: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Homelessness Bill is a vital strand of the Government's wider housing strategy to ensure that everybody has the opportunity and choice of a decent home. It will empower local housing authorities to provide greater protection to vulnerable families and to individuals who find themselves homeless. It will provide for more effective strategies and services both to tackle cases of homelessness and to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. Most important, however, it will give homeless people more rights and, through regulation on which we are currently holding consultations, it will extend those rights to more vulnerable people.

The Bill has struck a chord with Members on both sides of the House. Whatever our disagreements on some of the detail, it is clear from the speeches made on both sides of the House that there is real concern about the homeless and real support for these proposals, which will really transform the life chances for many of the most vulnerable people in our society.

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Our proposals will strengthen the homelessness safety net. They will promote a more strategic approach by housing authorities so that they can manage homelessness more effectively and prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. The Bill will encourage housing authorities to offer more choice to all people applying for social housing. Our proposals are designed to protect the most vulnerable people in our society, to promote housing choice, to help create sustainable communities and to confront some of the problems of social exclusion.

One of the most important changes that we want to bring about through the Homelessness Bill is to channel much greater effort into the prevention of homelessness. As I said earlier, our proposals will require housing authorities to adopt a more strategic approach to tackling the causes of all forms of homelessness and preventing its recurrence.

The Bill also strengthens the existing homelessness safety net by making several amendments and repeals to provisions in the Housing Act 1996. In doing so, it will remove some of the restrictions that have damaged the cause of some of the most vulnerable people in our society. The Bill will ensure that all applicants who are unintentionally homeless and have a priority need must be secured suitable accommodation for as long as necessary, until a settled home becomes available. The current two-year limit on the main homelessness duty to secure suitable accommodation will be removed.

The Bill will make several important changes to current legislation to strengthen the protection available to homeless people. One of the most important of such groups includes people who are homeless due to violence, especially domestic violence. The measure makes it clear that applicants who would be at risk of any form of violence if they remained in their current home must be treated as homeless. It will prevent authorities from referring such people back to an area where there would be a risk of further violence.

In Standing Committee, I undertook to consider with my colleagues at the Department of Health and report to hon. Members on issues arising from the operation of the Children Act 1989 in relation to homeless families. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) for drawing that important matter to my attention. I share her concerns that social legislation should provide the vital safety net that it is intended to give.

The issue relates to the workings of the Children Act 1989 and was prompted by concern about two recent court cases. In both cases, the courts considered the nature of the obligation of a social services authority under the Children Act 1989 to provide accommodation and financial support for children in need, particularly when parents are unable to secure accommodation and a local housing authority is not obliged to help under the Housing Act 1996. I have discussed the issue with colleagues at the Department of Health; it is a complicated matter and we are giving it serious consideration, especially in the light of further information that has recently been received from Shelter. We shall therefore need to return to it once the Bill has been considered in another place.

Mr. Don Foster: May I press the Minister on that point? Can she give the House an assurance on the case of

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a homeless family seeking support from a local authority which, because of the behaviour of one family member, decides that the whole family is ineligible? Will the work that she will do with her colleagues to review the Children Act lead to support being provided under that Act, as it will not be provided under homelessness legislation?

Ms Keeble: The exact interrelationship between homelessness legislation and the Children Act is under dispute. Assurances have been given that the recent court cases do not change the obligation. However, we want to look more closely at cases that have arisen and we shall return with detailed advice which, I hope, will cover the points made by the hon. Gentleman.

In addition to dealing with immediate problems of homelessness, the Bill deals with wider issues in social housing. It includes measures to give improved rights to new applicants for local authority housing by setting standards for consistency both in the treatment of their applications and information. It also provides for more choice for new and existing tenants in the social housing sector who are seeking a transfer, which is an important, but often overlooked, aspect of the Bill. It opens the way for choice-based lettings schemes, which give new applicants and existing tenants who wish to transfer to another property more say in choosing where they live from the properties available to let that are appropriate to their needs. That is the best means of meeting the long-term housing requirements of those who need social housing in a way that is sustainable both for individuals and the community; it will create more solid and lasting communities. The Government's vision for the future of social housing is to increase choice and customer-centred approaches while continuing to meet housing need. The challenge for pilot schemes in choice-based letting is to examine how choice and need can be better integrated.

Our proposals for strengthening the protection available to homeless people go beyond the measures in the Bill. We have recently consulted on a priority needs order under the 1996 Housing Act, about which the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) asked, to extend the categories of homeless households with a priority need for suitable temporary accommodation. The order will ensure that, where necessary, local authorities must secure suitable accommodation for 16 and 17-year-olds. Wherever possible, we hope that efforts are made to reconcile those young people with their families and allow them to return home; but where there is real estrangement and 16 or 17-year-olds cannot return home, there can be no question that they will be at risk if they have nowhere to live and are forced out on the streets. It is right that housing authorities should provide a safety net in such cases and arrange appropriate accommodation and support.

The order will also give priority need to people who are vulnerable as a result of fleeing their home because of violence. Evidence demonstrates that a high proportion of people who end up sleeping rough come from institutional backgrounds, including people who have been in care, prisons, long-stay hospitals or the Army. Discussions earlier this evening demonstrated the concern of many Members about those people. The order will extend priority need to young people aged 18 to 21 who have previously been in care and the other groups which I mentioned. The key test in all cases will be whether the applicants are vulnerable. I hope that the House will agree

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that a proper statutory safety net for vulnerable people is essential to protect them from the damage that homelessness and rough sleeping can inflict on them and to help them rebuild their lives.

The Bill represents a big step along the road to achieving the Government's goal of ensuring that everyone has a decent home. It will help all social tenants by promoting choice and encouraging local authorities to adopt customer-centred letting schemes that give people more say in where they live. Most of all, it will deliver on the Government's commitment to social justice by giving extra protection to the most vulnerable people, making sure that they have a roof over their heads. I commend the Bill to the House.

9.20 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in favour of the Bill, which, as Ministers know, has received support from the official Opposition throughout its passage. However, I am a little disappointed that although he was to have opened the debate on Third Reading, the Secretary of State is unfortunately not with us this evening. I dare say that he is preparing for tomorrow's debate, and well might he do so.

I said that we support the Bill, although as has been clear throughout its passage and through the detailed and very good debate on Report, that does not mean that we have not had questions about its operation, or that we do not continue to have reservations about its impact. Those issues were ably raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) on Report.

As my hon. Friend pointed out early in his remarks, the measures that we are supporting tonight first appeared in a somewhat different guise as part of the Homes Bill, which was introduced prior to the election. It is worth recording again that had the Government not chosen to introduce in that Bill their ill-thought-out and unpopular measures relating to sellers' packs, the measures contained in the Homelessness Bill could have been on the statute book somewhat earlier.

As the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) observed, that delay gave Ministers time for reflection. From the comments made on Report, I hope that Ministers will accept that despite their time for reflection, there are still grave concerns about the full implications of some aspects of the Bill when they come into force. Despite the Minister's remarks on Third Reading, we must say that although we support measures in the Bill, it will not transform overnight the problem of homelessness in Britain.

I hope that Ministers have had time over the summer to reflect on the Government's record on homelessness. Before coming into government, the Labour party made a number of promises about the way in which it would tackle the problems of homelessness and empty homes. Back in 1996, the Prime Minister told a Labour housing conference that Labour would

During the various stages of the Bill's passage there has been debate on the figures for homelessness. It is worth putting on the record that the latest statistics from

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the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, which were issued in September, show that priority homelessness in England has risen from 102,650 in 1997–98 to 114,350 in 2000–01, and that the number of homeless in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has also risen from 4,500 households in the second quarter of 1997 to 11,340 in the second quarter of 2001.

Another statistic that is relevant to our debate on homelessness was mentioned on Report by the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), who raised the important matter of empty properties. I entirely agree with him that in tackling homelessness, the issue of empty properties must be a priority. Again, before coming into government, the Prime Minister said:

Yet, as the figures stated by the hon. Member for Stafford show, there are a significant number of empty properties in the United Kingdom. From April 1997 to April 2000—the last period for which departmental figures are available—the amount of empty council housing in England has risen by 7 per cent. Local authorities and the Government need to address the issue of empty properties as a matter of priority. We all know the frustrations that constituents feel when they are desperate for housing and they see empty properties down the road. They cannot understand why something cannot be done.

I shall refer to press reports from earlier this year. For example, in June, The Northern Echo referred to an estate in Bishop Auckland. It stated:

The Western Daily Press referred to the Upper Horfield estate in Bristol. The article read:

The Observer referred to the Halton Moor estate in Leeds. It stated:

Earlier this evening the Minister said that the question of empty properties is often complex. I accept that there are issues that often go beyond the efficiency of a local authority in dealing with its properties. However, there are complex issues connected with behaviour on estates that need to be considered. Problems on estates caused by drugs, vandalism and antisocial behaviour may make other residents move out, which means that properties are left empty and derelict. If we are to tackle homelessness, we cannot allow a significant number of properties to lie empty. They are often derelict, and effectively they are going to waste. At the same time, there are people who are desperate for homes. They need to occupy those empty properties.

The Government cannot rest on the laurels of their performance so far in tackling homelessness. The Bill will not wave a magic wand over the problem. However, I hope that it will encourage local authorities to take a more wide-ranging approach, to make it easier for them to tailor allocations to local circumstances and needs and enable them to provide greater variety of choice for those who find themselves homeless and reliant on the local authority or other providers for support.

I welcome especially the objective of dealing with those who are at risk of violence other than domestic violence. It is sad that that problem needs to be

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incorporated within a homelessness policy, but it is necessary to do so. I welcome the fact that the Government will be dealing with it. I welcome also the proposals to deal especially with young people who are vulnerable and homeless. My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Mr. Hendry) specifically referred to the scandal of the treatment of many young people who have been in local authority care. I hope that the Bill will go some way to provide the badly needed support for such young people.

The transitional arrangements for the new system include the abolition of housing registers and increased flexibility for the increased priority categories. It is important that those who are on housing registers with local authorities have full information about the transition and the new arrangements that will come into place. I am sure that we all know from constituency cases that problems can occur when people are given insufficient or inaccurate information about housing that relates to their local authority and their local area. It is important that everybody is made aware of the new arrangements and understands why they have been brought into place.

I shall comment briefly on the national homelessness strategy and the consultation that the Government have launched on it. It might seem slightly odd that at a time before the Bill is to be enacted, when the Government have only just launched their consultation exercise, we hear about a strategy that will set out action by central Government and local government to tackle homelessness. Perhaps the Minister will explain how the strategies that local authorities develop in response to the Bill will fit in with the national homelessness strategy.

Many reasons exist for the increase in homelessness, not least the way in which the Government have made the housing benefit rules more difficult for local authorities to apply. The myriad regulatory changes—almost one a fortnight—that they have introduced in recent years make it difficult for those who administer the rules. That has caused genuine problems for people, as the better regulation taskforce and the local government ombudsman have recently shown. It often means that people lose their homes because of problems dealing with the regulations.

We have questioned several other aspects of the Bill, and we await the full implications of its operation and its impact on homeless people. However, we share the Government's hope that the measure will enable local authorities to produce wider-ranging, more innovative approaches to homelessness in their areas. We hope that they will consider tackling their local circumstances and needs more flexibly. The different issues that different parts of the country experience will thus be addressed. I trust that, consequently, we can all look forward to making better provision for the genuine needs of those who become unintentionally homeless.

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