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

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Rob Marris: I have a small request. Will the Minister reconsider the proposed guidance to local authorities, which refers in two places to ''mental handicap''? My local authority refers to adults with ''learning difficulties'', and I assume that that is what the guidance means. Will the Minister reconsider the wording in the guidance, which is neither elegant nor kind?

Mr. Sanders: I have one brief question about the £10 million that is being made available under the programme. How will it be distributed, and what mechanisms will be in place to recognise the authorities that attract disproportionate numbers of vulnerable people? My hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) mentioned seaside resorts, which tend to attract abnormal numbers of vulnerable people. Will they receive a proportionate share of the resources to meet the needs of those people?

5.14 pm

Mr. McNulty: First, I thank the hon. Members for Brentwood and Ongar and for Bath for their kind words, which are much appreciated, although I am sure that they will not last long. I shall try to respond to all the points that have been raised, and I hope that hon. Members will feel free to intervene if I miss anything. Otherwise, I shall respond in writing.

The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar raised the issue of which local authority people suffering from violence would present themselves to. I am sure that we all have experience of dealing with cases similar to the one that he outlined. Like the hon. Member for Bath, I hope that the order will make it more difficult for the local authority to which the person fleeing from violence presents herself to send the applicant back to the local authority whence she came. If there is a continuing threat of violence, the local authority will not be able to play the game of throwing the person back to the local authority in whose area where they

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were previously housed. The order will block the loophole that allows vulnerable people fleeing from violence to be handed from pillar to post at a time when they are least able, physically and emotionally, to survive that. I do not know how any guidance or case law affects the idea of a police report, or the point made by the hon. Member for Bath about keeping matters confidential. I shall find out more and write to the Committee on those key concerns.

Many of the provisions in the order relating to vulnerability in the order are not new. Many of the categories set out in it already existed as categories of people in priority need. Some are new, but the core definition of vulnerability is the same as in the proposed guidance, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Bath. Paragraph 8.13 states:

    ''The critical test of vulnerability for applicants in all these categories is whether, when homeless, the applicant would be less able to fend for himself than an ordinary homeless person so that he would be likely to suffer injury or detriment, in circumstances where a less vulnerable person would be able to cope without harmful effects.''

That definition is already well established by the courts. The order simply extends the categories of vulnerable person to include those that have been outlined. The test of vulnerability is not new, but the categories have been increased. The test has existed since 1978, when the original homelessness legislation was first executed, and local authorities have been operating that test for many years. The definition of vulnerability is not to be found in legislation, but is established by the courts as the law is implemented in test cases.

Mr. Foster: Presumably if the definition has been tested in the courts over many years, there must be some evidence of whether the courts have found it difficult to apply. Does the Minister know whether the courts consider the definition to be easy to apply?

Mr. McNulty: Given that the definition remains largely unchanged, my impression is that the courts find it more than sufficient.

The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar asked about the increase in homelessness—

Mr. Pickles: I apologise for interrupting, but I want to ask the Minister a specific question. Must a person who is subject to violence vacate their property before the homelessness provisions can will apply? Although they are about to become homeless, do they have to leave their home for the provisions to apply? I would prefer that not to be the case. [Interruption.]

Mr. McNulty: As the hon. Member for Bath says, sotto voce from a sedentary position, that is a good point. I would have to explore it further. In the strictest interpretation, if such people do not present as homeless because they already have a home—whatever the unfortunate circumstances—the strictest interpretation is ''no''. However, I would not want to leave it there, so I shall get back to the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar.

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The order might mean that the number of people whom local authorities accept as homeless will increase. However, the order is concerned with ensuring that vulnerable people get the help that they need. In public policy terms, it is not appropriate to consider that if people do not present because they are not priority cases under existing legislation, they do not exist and the problem will go away. We would prefer more vulnerable people who need assistance to present themselves. The numbers might go up, but then those people will be able to be dealt with through the development of the homelessness strategies applied by the Homelessness Act. We hope that local authorities will, in general, develop more preventive measures to tackle homelessness more effectively.

The answer to the last question asked by the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar—which has just arrived as if by magic—is that a person can be considered homeless if it would not be reasonable for him to continue to occupy his home, even if it was currently under occupation.

Mr. Pickles: That is good.

Mr. McNulty: It is the news that we wanted to hear.

I am pleased that the Committee did not dwell on the complete red—or blue—herring, of the inclusion of vulnerable ex-offenders in the order. It is not a charter for all people leaving prison; it is about the vulnerability of ex-offenders; ex-offenders will not, as a whole, have priority. Vulnerable people will have priority over those who can manage for themselves, and ex-prisoners who fall into that category will be given a degree of priority.

The point made by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) about prisons is that when an authority accepts as statutorily homeless someone who does not have a local connection, but has one somewhere else, the authority dealing with the application can refer the applicant to the authority in the area in which he has a local connection. The Housing Act 1996 makes specific provision to the effect that time spent in prison does not establish a local connection in an area. How that operates in the context of vulnerability remains to be explored. Simply being in prison on the Isle of Wight at the time does not establish bona fides as a local from the Isle of Wight. Conversely, we do not want to penalise people by saying that a person from Cowes is no longer an Isle of Wight resident simply because he spent time in prison in the Isle of Wight.

None the less, the points made by some hon. Gentlemen about recidivism—which are echoed by the social exclusion unit—are real. It is no accident that the SEU report shows, as does countless other research, that it is often the most vulnerable ex-offenders, who would be covered by the order, who are often susceptible to traits and behaviours, and associations with other people, that lead them straight back into the penal institution whence they came. If the order tackles recidivism, it is a must be good thing.

We had hoped that by the end of June the guidance associated with the order would be published. It is now 1 July and that has not happened, so I apologise to the Committee. However, I assure the Committee that

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publication of the final guidance is imminent. As the hon. Member for Bath said, we have decided that it is an imperative to include the guidance within the body of regulations that govern housing authorities, so the decision has been taken that when it is published it will have immediate statutory force. However, we have undertaken to consult, and to adjust and tweak if the consultation so requires it. I hope that many of the points raised about the guidance will be fed into that process.

The sum of £10 million is for the remainder of 2002-03 alone, as the hon. Member for Bath intimated. That sum is in addition to the £8 million already added to the local authorities' revenue support grant for implementing the homelessness legislation. Amounts for future years will be announced following the spending review. I can say no more than that at this stage—pressed or otherwise.

The £10 million for 2002-3 will be allocated to all housing authorities. We are consulting the Local Government Association on the method to be used to achieve that, and we shall announce it shortly. In keeping with what the hon. Gentleman said, I believe that the LGA will recommend an allocation for 2002-03 that reflects the level of homelessness in different areas. I hope that the allocation will address the points that hon. Members made about seaside resorts, too.

Mr. Foster: I hope that the Minister will reflect on what he has just said. At the moment, there is no evidence whatever about how many individuals may present themselves as homeless as a result of the new categories or how they will be distributed across the country. If the Minister is merely saying that the allocation will be made based on the general levels of homelessness up to this point, it may not address the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay made—that some areas may disproportionately attract the new categories of homeless people.

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