Homelessness Bill

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Ms Keeble: Will the hon. Gentleman give me a chance to respond to those points? People must accept that the population of rough sleepers tends to be transient. The clear aim is to prevent people from ending up on the streets in the first place. To ensure that people are moved off the streets to somewhere more suitable as quickly as possible will be a permanent aspect of the work carried out in respect of homelessness. The consultation paper on how to continue the work sets out the current state of play, which includes considering the role of local authorities. Let us consider some of the work of the rough sleepers unit. It has, for example, identified the possibility of people who leave the armed services ending up on the streets. That could not have not have been done without the central strategic unit that operates nationally and throughout Departments.

Tim Loughton: That was a speech masquerading as an intervention, but I take the hon. Lady's point. Of course, the rough sleeper population will not be the same all the time for a host of reasons, most tragically because those who tend to be rough sleepers are most vulnerable to health or drug problems. About 75 per cent. of rough sleepers in Soho are consumers of crack cocaine and contribute to the drug problem there. The mortality rate of those rough sleepers will be higher than that of people who are not involved in such practices. I am not saying that we would be dealing with the same core client list, but I am trying to get a measure of exactly what the Minister thinks is achievable, by which the success, or not, of the rough sleepers unit will be judged, and of whether the Government can formulate what, if anything, will succeed the unit. I do not concur with her opinion of the success of the rough sleepers unit given the money that has been put into it.

Previously, we mentioned comments made by the head of Crisis, who gave the unit 10 out of 10 for intervention, but five out of 10 for prevention, and other people with long-standing expertise of dealing with rough sleepers. One such person is Cheryl St. Clair—I said that she was on the Christmas card list of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) but is not politically affiliated to us—who said that the biggest problem with the rough sleepers unit is:

    ``it is political. It is driven by political requirements rather than moral requirements.''

She also said that the unit has become obsessed by process and has lost sight of outcomes for homeless people.

On that basis, it is difficult to judge whether the rough sleepers unit has been a success at a time when many local authorities, not least Westminster, have been taking many initiatives of their own to deal with rough sleepers. More initiatives have been taken than for some time, which have been independent from, and in collaboration with, the rough sleepers unit.

I do not think that the Minister has justified the value for money effort of the rough sleepers unit. A lot of money is involved, and some highly paid professionals run it. We question not their integrity, but the value for money that they offer. The Minister has not made the case for the output that the unit has achieved. Therefore, six months on from when we received a similar answer from her predecessor, it is incumbent on her to tell us exactly what the Government expect the rough sleepers unit to have achieved by April 2002, and what will happen to the unit, or its successor or none, after that date. We have not received any details on that from the Minister, and on that basis, my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire made his case well for why we should continue to be sceptical about the merits and value for money offered by the rough sleepers unit.

Ms Keeble: I have already described the target set out for the rough sleepers unit and I am loth to repeat it for the sake of it, although I will. We set the specific objective of reducing the number of people sleeping rough in England to as near zero as possible, or by at least two thirds by April 2002. The unit is a substantial way down that road. Figures published in August—they are a bit out of date—showed that in June 2000 an estimated 1,180 people were sleeping rough in England, which was a 30 per cent. decrease. That is extremely good, in terms of the targets set.

The unit has also achieved permanent changes of thinking about rough sleeping and developed preventive strategies with central Government agencies. There is, and has been, a degree of sniping by the Conservative party about the rough sleepers unit, which is regrettable given the unit's track record. It has got results by taking a different approach that has stepped on the toes of some of the established charities that deal with homeless people—we saw that all over the papers when the unit was first set up—and it has thought innovatively about the causes of rough sleeping. It has identified vulnerable groups and worked with Government Departments to put preventive strategies in place. On that basis, it is correct to consult about how to take the process forward. It would be much better to have a consultation to consider the options and make a decision that will produce the best possible result for people who sleep rough, and in the process take into account the proper role that local authorities can and should play. I hope that on that basis and in recognising the genuine progress that has been made in dealing with the difficult human problem of rough sleeping, the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire will withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Selous: We are disappointed that rough sleeping is not specified in clause 3. However, as the arguments have been thoroughly explored twice, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman: Does the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) wish to move amendment No. 15?

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): You will not know, Mr. Griffiths, that this morning I received many plaudits, but they were all from Opposition Members.

The Chairman: Yes or no.

Mr. Kidney: No.

Tim Loughton: On a point of order, Mr. Griffiths. If the hon. Gentleman is not prepared to move his amendment, can we do so?

The Chairman: Yes.

Amendment proposed, No. 15, in page 3, line 12, at end insert—

    `(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 re-use of such properties for residential purposes; and

    (c) a strategy for action 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.'.—[Mr. Loughton.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 8.

Division No. 1]

Clifton-Brown, Mr. Geoffrey
Foster, Mr. Don
Kidney, Mr. David
Loughton, Tim
Selous, Mr. Andrew
Waterson, Mr. Nigel
Williams, Hywel

Clark, Paul
Francis, Dr. Hywel
Iddon, Dr. Brian
Keeble, Ms Sally
Love, Mr. Andrew
Moran, Margaret
Whitehead, Dr. Alan
Woolas, Mr. Phil

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Waterson: I beg to move amendment No. 5, in page 3, line 18, after `organisations', insert

    `, people living within the authority's area, including those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness'.

5 pm

After that excitement, we return to the mundane business of amendment No. 5. The amendment is simple, and I shall be brief. It reflects an amendment that we tabled in the Committee considering the Homes Bill. It would insert into the clause that deals with the homelessness strategy and how it is produced a provision that, in addition to public and local authorities and voluntary organisations, people who live in the authority's area, including those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, should also be consulted. No matter how expert many people are, those who have been or are homeless and those who are worried about becoming homeless may be the most expert in some respects. That is obvious. We do not understand why the Government did not accept the amendment last time, but we hope that they will be more charitable this time.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Griffiths, and I assure you that I tend to be brief where possible. I shall demonstrate the truth of that claim by saying that I agree with every word uttered by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), just as he agreed with me when we debated amendment No. 79 to the Homes Bill.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead): I, too, am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Griffiths. It is rather fortunate that we are dealing with a relatively straightforward matter, because I fear that the attention of some Opposition Members may have wandered to things that are occurring down the Corridor. I trust that as soon as they have any information on that, they will share it with their fellow Members.

Unfortunately, I cannot be any more charitable than my predecessor was when the corresponding amendment was debated in Committee on the Homes Bill before the general election, because the situation remains the same. The amendment's objective is laudable, but unnecessary. The Government have consistently put people at the centre of our policies. We expect local authorities to seek the views of tenants and residents, including those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, to inform homelessness reviews and help in drawing up strategies. Engaging people in the area, working in partnership and on a customer-focused basis are our expectations of local government.

As we heard in previous debates, it is not necessary to place every detail in the Bill. Indeed, hon. Members will agree that that is not always desirable. On occasion, too much detail distracts attention from what is critical and central. The code of guidance is the place to deal with that level of elaboration, and I have already outlined the intention of the revised code of guidance. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

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