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Ms Keeble: Opposition Members' explanation of their position on the Bill was more than a little bogus. It was

25 Feb 2002 : Column 467

always a good Bill that advanced the rights of homeless people, which is why it met with such strong support on both sides of the House. We must all recognise that a Bill can be improved in the course of its progress through Parliament; that is what this process is about.

This is an example of a good Bill having been made better by careful scrutiny during its passage. The amendments are a case in point. The issues that they deal with have been argued about right from the start, and we have tabled amendments that address some of the concerns that have been raised. This must be about the fifth or sixth time that we have debated the Bill, but hon. Members are still expressing those concerns. That makes me think that if we went through it another a half a dozen times we would still go on producing refinement after refinement.

5.15 pm

This group of amendments is important because it deals with those who are homeless but who do not have priority needs. We all know that the homelessness figures, and those for people living in bed and breakfast accommodation, have been going up. The Government are extremely conscious of those figures, and of the fact that hon. Members on both sides have constantly raised them, and we have taken action to deal with them. I shall not go into the details of that action, because I might be ruled out of order. We have, however, taken action very quickly, and the numbers—hard and sad though they are—are not a patch on those of 10 years ago.

In response to the points made by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton–Brown) about the priority needs order, I would expect there to be a likelihood that some of the figures could get worse once such orders are in place. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is asking questions about the orders, because draft provisions have been consulted on and were widely known. He must know about the different categories involved, which include homeless 16 and 17-year-olds, care leavers who are vulnerable as a result of having been in care, people who are vulnerable as a result of institutionalisation—including those who have been in custody, about whom some Conservative Members were concerned—and those who are vulnerable as a result of fleeing domestic violence.

Mr. Don Foster: I am sure that the Minister will understand that, following the draft provisions and the consultation, the House is still waiting for the Government's response to the consultation. Is the list of categories that she has just outlined to be the final list? If it is, I welcome it warmly—as, I suspect, will the vast majority of those who responded to the consultation—but we have not heard that officially yet.

Ms Keeble: I take the hon. Gentleman's point. We have a very good working idea, if I can put it that way, of the categories of people involved in these provisions.

The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) illustrates why these amendments are so important. The advice will be available not only to people with priority needs, which is why it is so important that we improve the quality of this service, and I understand why the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) and others pressed so hard to table amendments of this kind.

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The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) asked a question about the nature of the advice and what exactly it would mean. The amendments represent progress because they would enshrine in the legislation the processes that should be gone through in giving advice to people who do not have priority needs. That would include making an assessment of their needs, and providing information on the location and sources of certain types of accommodation. The proposals would be effective because they set out the processes that those without priority needs need to go through to get the right quality of advice.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister has admitted that, when these categories of priority needs are published, the amount of homeless people with those priority needs will rise. I have told the House today how the figures have risen in the last three years. Is the Minister able to give the House any clear guidance on how far the homelessness figures will rise further as a result of these specific amendments?

Ms Keeble: No, that is not possible. The hon. Gentleman will see what I said when he reads Hansard, but what I think I said was that the figures would rise in some areas. It is possible that the work that needs to be done to get the homelessness figures down will produce rapid results, and that by the time the priority needs orders come into effect the figures will have gone down, so that there will be a slight increase at that point from a lower base. It is impossible, however, to give an accurate estimate of the numbers, largely because this involves categories of people who have not been recognised under previous legislation. Therefore, we obviously do not know how many are involved, but common sense tells us that if more people are regarded as homeless and given rights to housing, the numbers are likely to go up. We shall look closely to see what happens in terms of those figures.

Chris Grayling: To pick up the Minister's point relating to my comments, will she reassure me that any new process will not require all those authorities that are doing the job properly to make changes, but will set an alternative benchmark for those that are not?

Ms Keeble: That depends on whether they are going through the process as it is now. The proposal sets out the procedures that should be gone through to ensure that people who are homeless but not in priority need get the advice and help that they require to secure accommodation. Local authorities will be able to decide quickly as to whether they already go through such a process—the matter is for them to judge—but the proposal represents an effective way to specify outcomes and ensure that people know what they have to do to provide an effective service. More detail will be given in guidance.

On monitoring, as has been said in another place, housing departments undergo best value inspections and work will be done through the new homelessness unit. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate asked about money. Already, £8 million has been allocated to local authorities to administer the new legislation and I understand that discussions are taking place around the possibilities of making additional

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provision. The spending review process is also in place. That, I hope, deals with the points raised by the hon. Member for Bath.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown rose

Ms Keeble: I hear the voice of my hon. Friend behind me. I give way to him.

Dr. Iddon: Does my hon. Friend find it staggering, as we on these Benches do, that the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) is whingeing about the extra burden that may be placed on his public sector housing authority? The City of Westminster did everything possible to flog off every council house there. Should not we also remind him that there is the matter of £48 million outstanding? Will the City of Westminster chase—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order.

Ms Keeble: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I must say that I cannot help agreeing with my hon. Friend.

Mr. Clifton-Brown rose

Mr. Mark Field rose

Ms Keeble: I give way to the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field).

Mr. Field: On the basis of that brief exchange, may I point out that the sum concerned is about £24 million?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sorry, but that is not germane to the debate.

Ms Keeble: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Clifton-Brown rose

Ms Keeble: I want to make progress, but I shall come back to the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Member for Bath was right to refer to the Shelter report, which highlights the need to give extra thought to advice for non-priority people. I am pleased that it has been possible to introduce what I think are simple and workable amendments that will improve the quality of service for those groups. He also asked about the decent housing target. The Government have made a huge commitment to that challenge and we are assured through all the local authority returns that we are still on target to meet it.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the relationship between the housing associations and the local authorities and, in particular, responsibility for advice in areas where large-scale stock transfers take place. I have two points to make. First, the Department continues to work closely

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with the Housing Corporation, at both official and ministerial levels, to ensure that those in social housing are given a good service—a seamless robe, as it were—when that it is humanly possible. Secondly, a number of local authorities do not always appreciate that they will not lose all responsibility for housing functions in their areas just because they have transferred their stock. They will still be responsible for procurement.

I take the point of the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell about the need to have aspirations, while ensuring that they are practical. As I have said, the amendment would guarantee—without giving rise to a great pile of bureaucracy—that those needing advice received it, and that the advice was of a uniform standard throughout the country.

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