Homelessness Bill

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The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 13, in schedule 1, page 15, line 23, at end insert—

    `For section 210(1) (suitability of accommodation) there is substituted—

    ``In determining for the purposes of this Part whether accommodation is suitable for a person, accommodation shall only be regarded as suitable if—

    (a) it is not overcrowded (within the meaning of section 324 of the Housing Act 1985);

    (b) it is fit for the number of occupants and it has adequate means of escape from fire (within the meaning of sections 352 and 365 of the Housing Act 1985); and

    (c) in the view of the authority it is fit for human habitation (within the meaning of section 604 of the Housing Act 1985).''.'.

Ms Buck: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

It is a great pleasure to be back in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, discussing the Bill. It has been particularly interesting to watch the hon. Members for Eastbourne and for Bath, missing the moral message and slugging it out for the role of the Bill Murray central character, which is that of a man so confused with self-importance that he is condemned to relive chapters of his life until he rediscovers his essential humanity. One needs only to cast the obvious Sonny and Cher characters on the Opposition Benches who are responsible for the irritatingly persistent theme tune, ``I got you, babe''. I will not be cast as the eponymous rodent, for obvious reasons.

The amendment would recast ``Cathy Come Home'' with a happy ending. Although I welcome the Bill with passionate enthusiasm, and I am sympathetic to the spirit of the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Bath, some housing need is equivalent to homelessness and measures are needed to redefine legislation to take account of the problem.

Some properties may be considered unreasonable under section 175 of the Housing Act 1996, but assessment of overcrowding is extremely difficult in practice because it is based on room and space standards that are rooted in legislation first drawn up in the 1930s.

Clusters of overcrowding in some areas are now as acute as they were in the 1930s. I do not claim that conditions in Paddington and north Kensington will form the basis for a current version of ``Angela's Ashes'', but expectations about what is acceptable have changed significantly, especially in respect of overcrowding and the age at which children of different gender should stop sharing a bedroom. We have different expectations about the kind of environment we want our children to grow up in and pressure is now rightly placed on parents to be responsible for seeing that their children do homework, which is impossible in the overcrowded conditions that legislation currently permits.

A cluster of families in my constituency live in conditions that are not yet defined statutorily as overcrowded. However, one family of five in the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea—a Conservative-run council—have a small, one-bedroom flat that will become statutorily overcrowded when the baby is one year old. That family is sharing two rooms, neither of which is larger than my office. Those are the kinds of conditions that we expect families to live in. A constituent in the same borough who has five-year-old twins and a two-year-old wrote:

    ``The fact that my wife and I are still together is a miracle . . .''—

because of the pressure they are living under—

    ``the council has us at 139 on the council housing list and we have been told that we have an indefinite wait and will never be housed.''

After my intervention, the environmental health and housing departments at Kensington and Chelsea agreed that both of those families could be technically defined as homeless and in temporary accommodation for the purpose of assessing their position in respect of permanent accommodation. However, the underlying problem still exists because babies under one do not count when assessing eligibility and children under 10 count as half a person. In practice, as anyone who is a parent knows, such an assessment of space requirements is not consistent with the reality of bringing up a child.

Another reason for bringing the legislation up to date is that the Public Health Act 1936, which is at the root of current statutory overcrowding legislation, does not take account of local authorities or registered social landlords. The statutory overcrowding legislation is directed against bad individual landlords, whose property is over-occupied for their own profit. As a consequence, the legislation places no positive duty on a public landlord to act to eradicate overcrowding. That has all kinds of implications, which is the reason for this probing amendment.

In practice, local authorities take decisions about the reasonableness to occupy accommodation on overcrowding grounds on the basis of the prevailing circumstances in their communities. The logic of that is simply that the greater the pressure of housing need in a local authority area, the less likely one is to qualify as homeless on grounds of overcrowding. The problem is compounded in areas of acute housing stress—which covers swathes of the south-east, inner-city cores and some towns across the country. There is a risk that by changing the definitions and allowing families that meet a new statutory overcrowding limit to rise to the top of the priority list, we are merely shuffling the pack. Without an increase in supply, all of that is meaningless. The lack of definition means that the problem is suppressed. We must have a clear legislative framework by which to identify the number of households involved, with a modern, acceptable definition of overcrowding. That is the basis for a different argument about supply.

I welcome the comments that my hon. Friend the Minister made in last week's adjournment debate on housing pressure in London. She responded sympathetically to points that a number of my colleagues raised about overcrowding in London, and I take that as an indication that she is prepared to respond sympathetically to the new clause and consider it further.

Mr. Don Foster: I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington (Ms Buck) who has played an important role in addressing these issues. I have much sympathy and support for her amendment.

I shall briefly touch on my amendment and on the suitability of accommodation that local authorities make available under their requirement to accommodate homeless individuals or households. Members of the Committee will know that local authorities are already required, under a range of statutory measures, to tackle poor housing conditions in their area, but the accommodation that they provide for homeless households does not have to comply with those standards. The legislation rightly proposes that the accommodation that local authorities provide to homeless individuals or households should be ``suitable'', but it does not define suitability. Local authorities must have regard to the existing legislation, which defines suitability, but that legislation does not require that they meet those minimum standards.

The amendment is a probing amendment that suggests minimum standards for accommodation so that it is deemed suitable for people who are homeless. I am sure that all members of the Committee are aware of the requirement to have regard to various aspects of housing: for example, the Housing Act 1985 requires consideration of issues such as slum clearance and overcrowding, which the hon. Lady mentioned, and houses in multiple occupation. There are also requirements in respect of the affordability of accommodation. Legislation exists that attempts to provide some definitions but the local authority is under no specific requirement to do more than have regard to those definitions. Like the hon. Lady, I acknowledge that some of the existing definitions are massively out of date: the legislation on overcrowding, for example, is based on legislation enacted before the second world war. Measures that go that far back obviously need to be reconsidered. However, they are on the statute book and I used them in my amendment, although I acknowledge that more up-to-date Government proposals would be preferable.

Ms Keeble: I am grateful to hon. Members for raising important issues of homelessness and quality. Since I took on responsibility for housing, several hon. Members have expressed concern about the operation of room and space standards. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North raised the issue on Second Reading, and other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King), returned to it last week in an Adjournment debate on housing in London.

Overcrowding and poor standards are unacceptable, but it will take time to deal with such deep-seated problems. The issue has a long history. The first standards date back to the Nuisances Removal Act 1855 and the Diseases Prevention Act 1855, which permitted a local authority to close a house where insufficient

    ``privy accommodation, means of drainage or ventilation''

or other nuisances were such

    ``to render a house or building, in the judgment of the Justice, unfit for human habitation''.

11 am

Fortunately, we have moved on since then. When pressure on housing rises, it is a regrettable fact of life that more poor and unsatisfactory housing is drawn into use and the occupancy of existing accommodation increases, resulting unfortunately in overcrowding. My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North was right to note the difficulties with the overcrowding regulations. We all recognise that there are problems, especially in London and the south-east, where demand for all forms of tenure is growing beyond the region's capacity to cope.

Many people live in unacceptable conditions, and we are all familiar with the problems faced by those in temporary accommodation.

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