Draft Homelessness (Priority Need For Accommodation)(England) Order 2002

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Mr. Pickles: I am sure that that is a risk, and the Minister will doubtless tell us more about the test. However, I spent a very happy fortnight near Dartmoor in August a few years ago, but it rained every day; it will be a long time before I go back there.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): Try south Devon.

Mr. Pickles: I should have gone all the way to Cornwall.

I return to the vulnerability test. It seems tendentious and highly subjective, and it will be difficult to achieve conformity. The only example that I can give is that given in the explanatory notes—in the paragraph on page 2 that deals with article 6:

    ''In deciding whether a person is vulnerable, a local housing authority must decide whether a person is less able to fend for himself than an ordinary homeless person so that injury or detriment would result where a less vulnerable applicant would be able to cope without harmful effect.''

I am relieved, however, that that test does not apply to the previous categories, but only to the new ones.

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Is it the Government's intention to issue guidelines in order to ease local authorities into the process of making such decisions? After all, a homeless person is naturally vulnerable, so the guidelines should provide for what I might call the super-vulnerable or extra-vulnerable person. Will the test be local in nature? Will it allow local authorities in, say, Southend, Leeds or Newcastle to apply the vulnerability test differently—or will it be a standard test?

We shall not oppose the regulations, but local authorities should be clear about the Government's intentions concerning super-vulnerability. I look forward to the Ministers' response.

4.59 pm

Mr. Don Foster: I join the hon. Gentleman in saying how pleased I am to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Roe. Like him, I also welcome the Minister to his five-week-old responsibilities and wish him well.

Like the hon. Gentleman, we Liberal Democrats have no intention of voting against the order. Indeed, we welcome the measures. I have a few questions, but I do not intend to repeat the hon. Gentleman's comments, save to say that although he and I might disagree about the definition of vulnerability, I share his view that local authorities need greater clarity on how to interpret that definition. Having read, with due diligence, the draft guidance offered to local authorities, I find that work still needs to be done in that area.

Before I pick up on some of the details of the order, I would like to ask the Minister a separate question relating to the amount of money being made available to local authorities in respect of the measures in the order. As the notes make clear, the Government are making £10 million available to local authorities for 2002-03. The Minister mentioned that the measures in the Homelessness Act 2002 do not come into force until next month. Presumably, the £10 million is intended to cover the remaining nine months of the current financial year. Will the Minister confirm that the full year's allocation for the introduction of the measures will be well in excess of £10 million?

Furthermore, will the Minister explain to the Committee how the Government intend to allocate those funds to the relevant local authorities? The Minister will be aware that we currently have little or no data on the additional categories of people who are likely to present themselves as homeless under the order. It is not possible to say with certainty, for example, that such people will present themselves predominantly in large city conurbations or—bearing in mind the interests of my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders)—in seaside towns. What thought have the Minister and the Government given to the mechanism for the allocation of the money in the absence of any detailed statistical information about areas where people are likely to present themselves?

The Government are rightly extending priority need support to 16 and 17-year-olds. That is sensible, bearing in mind that such people are not automatically

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entitled to benefits and are therefore at increased risk of being unable to find and maintain accommodation. The draft guidance to local authorities that accompanies this section of the order is very welcome. Where a young person's family life is non-abusive they may in due course wish to return home, and the guidance recognises that it may take some time to help them to do that and that temporary accommodation may be needed. It also recognises that where a young person cannot return home, perhaps because of abuse or violence, permanent accommodation may be needed.

I welcome the Government's recognition that such support will be needed over some time. Does the Minister believe that the draft guidance to local authorities could be strengthened on the working partnership that needs to exist between local authority housing departments and social services departments? The Minister will be aware from the many debates on homelessness that the provision of a roof over somebody's head is only a small part of solving their problems. There is therefore a need for the continuing involvement of the social services department.

Such continuing involvement is particularly relevant in relation to the next category of those to be assisted—18 to 21-year-olds leaving care. I am delighted—and I am surprised that the Minister did not boast about it, because he is entitled to—that the provision will apply not only to those leaving care in future but to those who left care prior to the enactment of the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2001. That is very much to be welcomed.

The guidance refers to the need for the housing department to liase with social services, but does the Minister agree that it would be much more helpful were its final version to state specifically that joint working between the local authority's housing department and its social services department is expected? That would be a sensible strengthening of paragraph 8.41.

I have referred to the need for greater clarity in relation to the definition of vulnerability, particularly in paragraph 8.13 of the guidance notes. On vulnerability as a result of an institutional background, I am sure that the Minister will recognise that those who are vulnerable as a result of institutionalisation will not necessarily present themselves to the local authority immediately after moving away from an institutionalised background. Often, people who come out of such backgrounds find themselves in all sorts of difficulty. All the research shows that they are likely to have moved around and been on the streets for a long time before they present themselves. Will the Minister make it clear that the Government intend the category to apply not only to those who have just come from an institutional background but to those who came out of it some time ago but can demonstrate their vulnerability?

Care leavers over the age of 21 are a welcome addition to the list of categories of people to be supported, as is the next category referred to by the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), that of ex-service people. I am particularly delighted

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that reference has been made to the military corrective training centre in Essex. It is clear that those who leave there may, subject to the vulnerability test, be provided with support.

However, is the Minister aware that in Wales, where such procedures have been in place for some time, there is a problem with ex-service people who have been court-martialled for offences that would not normally have been dealt with by a civilian judicial process, and who have then gone on to apply for housing? I understand—the Minister will correct me if I have got this wrong—that in Wales several people have presented themselves and said that they were in need of housing and were vulnerable as a result of a dishonourable discharge, and the local authority has said, ''You knew that if you behaved in that way it would lead to a dishonourable discharge, so you have made yourself intentionally homeless and are not covered by the support mechanism.'' That is unfair. I understand that it happens, but I hope that the Minister will make it clear that it is not the intention behind the order that it should.

Reference has also been made to ex-offenders. I am sure that we are all aware of the recent statistics on the number of ex-offenders who end up homeless and on the streets, and the very clear statistics about the implications of that for reoffending. Several of those statistics are worth placing on the record. About half of rough sleepers have been in prison or on remand, and homeless ex-offenders are about two and a half times more likely to reoffend than those who are housed. More than 40 per cent. of offenders are estimated to be homeless or without a permanent address on release from prison, and 26 per cent. of prisoners have a local authority care background, compared with only 2 per cent. of the general population. I therefore welcome the inclusion of ex-offenders in the provisions. I do not entirely share the concerns of the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar, and I genuinely believe that supporting ex-offenders who can demonstrate vulnerability will play a significant part in reducing reoffending. Many of my constituents, and, I suspect, the hon. Gentleman's, too, will be pleased about that.

Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman rightly suggested that there was an issue concerning the definition of vulnerability. Like him—and, no doubt, like other members of the Committee—I have met people who were fleeing violence or threats of violence, and I came across a horrific case at my surgery this weekend. Legislation already makes some provision for local authorities to support such people, and I am delighted that the order strengthens that legislation.

I have one concern in that regard, however. I hope that individuals will not be required to provide a police report to demonstrate that violence or threats of violence have occurred. Many people who have met the individuals concerned may be able to provide verification, and research demonstrates that GPs are often the first port of call. I therefore hope that people will not automatically be required to provide a police report.

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The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar asked which local authority would provide support. My understanding is that, as the Minister made clear, it is the local authority where the individual presents himself—or, more often, herself. I hope, however, that the guidance will be strengthened so that there is a strict code of confidentiality for information in such cases. As a result of the case that I encountered at the weekend, I am concerned about an individual who presents himself or herself in one local authority, when the incident allegedly occurred in another authority. The receiving authority may have to obtain information from the other authority, and it is vital that any details are kept strictly private so that information about the individual's new whereabouts is not made widely available.

The order is welcome, and ties in closely with the Homelessness Bill, which the Liberal Democrats strongly supported and worked hard with the Government to improve. We are delighted that it has now been enacted, and the order is an important adjunct to it. The sooner the order is introduced, the better.

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