Homelessness Bill

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Mr. Don Foster: I accept that what the Minister said may be the case in certain circumstances. However, even with her limited experience in the post but from a wider experience of life, the Minister will be aware of a large number of converted tower blocks and warehouse conversions that are now occupied by people who have paid large sums to live there. I do not believe that the general thrust of her argument holds up strongly.

Ms Keeble: From my wide experience of life, the most spectacular example of tower blocks being converted and brought into use is in Wandsworth. Those were not used to rehouse homeless people, but were sold off at high prices. If we are to tackle the deep-seated problems of homeless people, we must carefully examine solutions that include the nature of the property and the people who are homeless. Decisions about that are best made by the local authority, and all suggestions for the way forward can be made in clear guidance more properly than in the Bill. That includes the matter of homesteading, which some authorities are examining. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham is correct that I have been given in-flight fuelling, and I can tell him that the target is to provide at least 100,000 new or improved homes for low-cost renting or home ownership. The Housing Corporation's target is 63,700 homes. Perhaps more importantly in response to his point, the NHS starter homes initiative is for around 10,000 key workers.

Authorities should take a view about what is important to their area, and it does not do to make primary legislation too prescriptive. I am not persuaded that every issue that should be addressed in a review or strategy should be listed in the Bill. However, we will ensure that that is fully addressed in the revised points of guidance, which I am sure deals with the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford.

Mr. Kidney: My hon. Friend says that guidance will deal with the matter and she has pointed out how in the past, the Government have given guidance to local authorities about strategically tackling the problem of empty homes. There has even been the stimulus of linking that to local authorities' housing investment programme allocations. What does the Minister think of the Empty Homes Agency's assessment that half of all authorities do not have an empty homes strategy? That is the best argument for why a measure is needed in the Bill.

Ms Keeble: I understand that while housing authorities produce housing strategies, not all necessarily produce homelessness strategies. Placing the duty on them to produce such strategies, with guidance for how that should be carried out, is the best way to ensure that local authorities seriously examine the matter of empty properties. That is a particular pressure point in some parts of the country, although not in others.

On that basis, I ask that the amendment be withdrawn.

Mr. Don Foster: We have had a useful debate. I especially commend the contribution of the hon. Member for Stafford and also that of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. The both raised the importance of the issue and the increasingly urgent need to tackle it. The Minister's response is unsurprising. It is similar to those we heard in previous debates from others who occupied his post. Our good friend argument A is, on this occasion eloquently expressed by the Minister, that only significant strategic issues should be specified in the Bill, and that everything else should be covered in guidance. Tackling the huge problem of empty homes and linking that with dealing with the significant problem of homelessness is a strategic issue that deserves to be specified in the Bill.

I intend to ask the leave of the Committee to withdraw the amendment. However, I hope that the hon. Member for Stafford does not believe that if he presses his amendment and, as I hope, receives the support of many members of the Committee, a hole will open up beneath him and the sky will fall down. I assure him that it will not and that, if he is prepared to press his amendment, he will be surprised by the large number of people who will support him in achieving something for which he has long fought. Today he has the opportunity to deliver it, and we wish him well. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman: If the hon. Member for Stafford wants to press amendment No. 15 to a Division, he should tell the Chair at the appropriate time, which will be when we discuss clause 3, not now. He may then move his amendment formally, which I would be prepared to accept, but that is, of course, a decision entirely for him.

Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 7, in page 2, line 19, at end insert—

    `(d) providing for the welfare of animals under the control of homeless persons.'.

You, Mr. Gale, may have done so before I arrived—as I said, I was attending an Adjournment debate—but the last time we discussed a similar amendment, you disclosed an interest as it related to animals, and you may wish to do so again. If you do not, I shall continue. I, however, disclose an interest.

The Chairman: Order. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is absolutely right. I had not spotted the amendment, but it is well known that as the chairman of an animal welfare organisation I have an interest in homeless people and pets. I do not recall that causing a problem for the Committee when we discussed the matter previously, and I trust that it will not do so this morning.

Tim Loughton: Thank you, Mr. Gale. I thought it a good opportunity to re-emphasise your commitment to animal welfare. As you know, I have a great deal in common with you, and I disclose an interest too, although it is much more humble than yours. I support a charity in my constituency—an organisation called Canine Partners for Independence—that has been adopted by the mayor of Worthing. It is a highly worthwhile organisation that trains dogs to perform duties in the home for people with disabilities. It does truly remarkable work and is desperately short of money. Anyone who would like to donate can ask me for the details afterwards.

As we discussed during consideration of the previous incarnation, the Homes Bill, we believe that homelessness reviews should mention animal welfare considerations. Such considerations can take two forms—homeless people who are rough sleepers, whom many of us see every day, who often have dogs with them, and people on homeless lists, such as elderly single people or families, who have a pet as part of their family from whom they are loth to be separated. In both cases, because of the framing of homelessness priorities and a shortage of accommodation, those people find themselves in a less beneficial place in the queue to secure accommodation.

In 1991, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), was the Minister with responsibility for housing. His triumphs in reducing the number of rough sleepers in London from 1,000 to 286—as it was estimated when the programme was completed in 1996—are well documented. During his tenure, a hostel was set up in east London that dealt specifically with rough sleepers who had accompanying pets and it proved a great success. The previous Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East gave us examples of where that initiative has been replicated in other cities.

Rough sleepers may be loth to go into the hostels provided because they do not want to be separated from their pets. The providers of such accommodation must make a value judgment as to whether the dog—as it usually is—is an essential attachment to the rough sleeper or whether it is there for business reasons, because a hungry-looking dog pulls at the hearts of potential donors.

A more widespread problem involves people on the homeless register who are offered an 11th floor flat in a tower block, for example, who may have a dog that they regard as a companion and part of the family. Such cases may involve families or, more likely, a widow or widower who has replaced a human partner with a canine partner. It can cause enormous distress if the accommodation offered specifically excludes pets. Similarly, there is little prospect of people being able to take a pet into bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

Homelessness reviews should include recognition of the problems of rough sleepers or people who find themselves homeless through no fault of their own and who are attached to pets and become trapped in a cycle of homelessness. When I last raised the matter, the Minister's predecessor said in his closing response to me:

    ``local authorities should cover this issue, along with others, in the guidance that they draw up as part of their strategy.''—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 30 January 2001; c. 319.]

He did not think that it should be built into primary legislation.

In keeping with the theme of our discussion about guidance, if the Minister is not minded to accept our amendment—as I have a hunch is the case—perhaps he or she could give some indication as to the possible success of ensuring that local authorities include in their guidance some recognition of the problems that can be posed by homeless people who have pets, and who are therefore excluded from the various homes that are offered.

Dr. Whitehead: I cannot declare an interest in the amendment because my cat ran away during the general election. [Hon. Members: ``Why?''] It could not stand Conservative canvassers knocking on the door. It is a matter of considerable personal grief. I am sure that the Committee does not wish to dwell too deeply on the matter, so I hope that it will be passed by.

12.45 pm

I am indebted to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham for his brevity. He has a fetching pair of watches on his cufflinks, so each time that he scratches his ear he must be aware of the passing of time. I am also aware that the issue is important, although some people may not believe that it is the most essential strategic subject in connection with homelessness. The amendment would place on local authorities, as part of their statutory duties to undertake homelessness reviews, a specific requirement to review provision for the welfare of animals under the control of homeless persons. It is true that a number of homeless people have pets and are very attached to them. It is important that local authorities endeavour to ensure that those placed in temporary accommodation can keep their pets, as far as that is possible and reasonable, but whether there should be a statutory requirement to do so is another matter.

I know that such matters are of particular concern to many elderly people and it is important that local authorities make proper provision and treat the issue with sensitivity. Attachment to pets is often a substantial barrier to help people get off the streets and several local authorities have made specific provision to deal with it, such as providing kennels with night shelters or removing the ``no animals'' clause from registered social landlord tenancy agreements. As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, in the previous debate mention was made of hostels and move-on accommodation in Leicester, Manchester, London and elsewhere. Such provision has, on occasions, proved important in ensuring that people move from the streets.

However, that is different from whether it is appropriate to place such a requirement in primary legislation or to give it more prominence than many other important matters that local housing authorities will have to deal with when drawing up their homelessness reviews. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue. I fully recognise his concerns, but I believe that it is a matter that can be dealt with through guidance, as is our intention. The draft guidance on homelessness reviews and strategy will be issued towards the end of October, soon after Parliament returns from the summer recess, and will thus be available before the Bill has completed its passage through the House. On that basis, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

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