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Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): This is the last opportunity that the House will have to discuss the Homelessness Bill. The Bill started its life under the guise of the Homes Bill, which included provision for the seller's pack—the controversial part 1 of the Bill. Part 2 of that Bill, which has become the Homelessness Bill, was uncontentious and, had it been a Bill on its own, would have become law before the election. So, in a sense, the huge number of hours that both Houses have spent debating these matters has been unnecessary. Nevertheless, Her Majesty's official Opposition welcome the Bill—although we also welcome the opportunity to discuss the amendments.

The amendments will strengthen the duties on local authorities to assist homeless people who are not in priority need. When providing advice and assistance, an authority will have to assess the applicant's need and provide information about the availability, location and sources of accommodation appropriate to the applicant's needs. As well as applying to those who are unintentionally homeless but not in priority need, the amendments apply to people who are intentionally homeless and to those who are threatened with homelessness but not in priority need.

On Second Reading, I asked the Minister when she would publish the list of those in priority need. We were assured, in this House and in another place, that it would be published by Third Reading—yet here we are, considering complicated Lords amendments, which is difficult to do without having seen the list of priority homeless. We think that we know what will be on it, but it would have been helpful to see it.

Before the election, the Prime Minister promised everyone the chance of a decent home, and we all say amen to that. He also vowed:

[Interruption.] Whatever Labour Members are saying, the Government's own statistics show that homelessness in England has increased by almost 12,000 in the past four years. The number of priority homeless has risen from 102,650 in 1997–98 to 114,350 in 2000–01—an increase of 11,700 or 11 per cent. under the Government's stewardship.

The Lords amendments are welcome, but the number of homeless is going up, the number of social housing units being built is going down and the number of empty homes is going up. The situation is getting worse and may be appreciably worse than the Government's official statistics indicate. Crisis—the charity formerly known as Crisis at Christmas—estimates that there might be up to 400,000 hidden homeless. The Government are aware of those figures, and I ask the Minister to instigate some proper research so that we can find out the true situation.

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The number of people in bed and breakfast accommodation has soared. Since the election, it has increased by 9 per cent., from 11,340 to 12,290. It is all very well Lords amendments Nos. 1, 9, 10 and 11 requiring guidance to be given, but if the Government do not know the true state of homelessness it will be difficult for local authorities to give guidance and come up with strategies. A huge amount of money is wasted on short-term bed and breakfast accommodation. If a proper capital budget could be formulated so that private rented leased accommodation could be purchased, we could begin to get some people into long-term, decent homes, which was the Prime Minister's aspiration before the election.

Shelter strongly supports the Lords amendments. Throughout the Bill's passage, and that of its predecessor, the Homes Bill, it raised concerns about the quality of advice and assistance given to non-priority homeless applicants. Some local authorities are very good at providing such advice, but some—the laggards—are pretty poor, which is why we welcome the Lords amendments.

Shelter's concerns were highlighted in its report "Singles Barred" and were taken up by right hon. and hon. Members. Under current arrangements, it is common for applicants simply to be given a list of bed and breakfast hotels, irrespective of their needs. Given the deteriorating homeless situation and the fact that the number of people in bed and breakfast accommodation is rising alarmingly, there is an even greater need for the amendments. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us an idea of the true situation and what the Government are doing about it.

The bed and breakfast unit is trying to reduce the number of homeless people, but without the proper budget to do so. The rough sleepers unit has reduced the figures, but in a similar count of rough sleepers the Simon Community found the same number in just a few streets rather than the whole capital. The accusation is that, to get the count down, the rough sleepers unit has been deliberately massaging those people who are sleeping rough. That is a pretty serious accusation, and we want to ensure that we know the true number of hidden homeless.

In mentioning the hidden homeless, perhaps I should take a minute or two of the House's time to describe what Crisis and other organisations are getting at when they refer to the estimated 400,000 people who, despite the Prime Minister's aspirations, have no proper roof over their heads. They include all those who sleep anywhere—rough, in bed and breakfast accommodation, or on somebody else's floor or sofa—other than in a permanent house of their own. The number of such homeless is rising all the time because more and more people are not in a stable marriage, because they aspire to own a home at a younger age, because they are living longer and because a certain number of legal and illegal immigrants are taking up houses that would otherwise be used to accommodate the homeless.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South): Shame!

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Lady says "shame", but it is a fact of life that people are coming into this country and taking up houses that would otherwise be used for the homeless. Until the Government recognise that fact—

Ms Taylor: Disgraceful!

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: It is not disgraceful. It is a fact of life, and if the Government do not recognise it, how will they provide a proper policy for the homeless?

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): Is it not true that there are two other factors that the hon. Gentleman has not mentioned: house prices rising beyond the pocket of most people, and the failure to use funds derived from the sale of council houses to provide replacement social housing? They are much more significant factors than the ones that he mentions.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I am afraid that we are engaged not in a general debate on homelessness, but in a discussion of the amendment, to which we must revert.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. We are discussing amendments that will give powers to, and impose duties on, local authorities, against the background of a general deterioration in the homelessness situation. Given that the Government have not provided the list of priority homeless that they promised, it is a little difficult—

Ms Keeble: Did the hon. Gentleman look at the draft order that was consulted on between August and October? If he did, what does he think of the different categories that it sets out, which are exactly those proposed?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Exactly what I said—we have a good idea of what is in those categories because the Government published a consultation paper. Having consulted, the Government ought now to be able to tell us the results and publish the order. That is what we asked for on Second Reading, but we still have not been given it. To ask us to discuss the amendments when we do not know what the order will contain is a pretty shoddy way to treat the House. A statutory instrument could easily have been tabled and the matter could have been discussed upstairs before dealing with the amendments.

The amendments build on an earlier Government amendment, tabled during the passage of the Homes Bill, to strengthen the current duty to provide advice and assistance. Taken together, they should ensure that the quality of advice and assistance provided to non-priority homeless applicants will meet the basic minimum standards. We will all agree that that is a worthy aspiration, and I should like to hear what the Minister has to say before deciding how to proceed.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton–Brown) says that he supports the Bill, but proceeds to rubbish it, which will come as no surprise to anyone in this House. If we have heard anything shoddy this afternoon, it is his level of debate. In so many such areas, a corporate amnesia strikes all members of the Conservative party. The concern that the hon. Gentleman expressed for those categories of people in inadequate housing or without a home comes as something of a surprise. I cannot remember him ever voicing his concerns when the Conservative Government were in power and laid the foundations for the housing crisis that we undoubtedly now have in London.

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4.45 pm

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): If the hon. Lady believes that the record of the previous Government was so bad, will she explain why we maintained a substantial level of new build in social housing, a total that has almost halved—

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