Housing and Regeneration Bill

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Schedule 1

The homes and communities agency
Question proposed, That this schedule be the First schedule to the Bill.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I, too, welcome your benign chairmanship, Mr. Benton, as somebody who will be with our Committee proceedings for the next few weeks.
The schedule gets to the nuts and bolts of the HCA, and I shall press the Minister on one or two issues, particularly one that I raised in oral evidence. The last paragraph of the schedule states:
“The Secretary of State...may—
(a) appoint the first chief executive”.
I asked the Minister for Housing about that in oral evidence, and she said:
“We intend to appoint the shadow chief executive as soon as possible”.——[Official Report, Housing and Regeneration Public Bill Committee, 13 December 2007; c. 142, Q234.]
That was four weeks ago, so I wonder whether the Minister can update us on the appointment of the chief executive.
The schedule also deals with the members of the board, and the Minister for Housing also said last year that she hoped to have a shadow board up and running “from April next year.” I take it that means that in April this year there will be a board. It would be helpful if the Minister were to outline the progress that is being made with the board’s appointment.
The schedule also deals in paragraph (4) with staff. Again, it would be helpful if the Minister were to outline whether the existing staff of the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships will be transferred to the HCA, or whether the process that was used during the reorganisation of the health service will be adopted, whereby people in effect have to bid for their own jobs. Many people who work in those organisations hope to become HCA staff, and it would be helpful if the Minister were to outline their position during the transition period.
The schedule also deals with property, and it would be helpful if the Minister could say whether the Government propose to do what they have done with other departmental bodies or quangos, and re-locate them outside London, or whether they intend the body to stay in London. As he knows, the Housing Corporation is based on Tottenham Court road. Does he intend to base the HCA in London, or does he have other ambitions for it?
Again, this may be getting slightly ahead of the game, but does the Minister envisage a regional structure, replicating the organisation of the Housing Corporation? I take it that he wants the staff all in one place—that he wants to co-locate the relevant people from English Partnerships with the relevant people from the Housing Corporation, rather than have them continue to work in separate buildings. It would be helpful if the Minister were to share some details and colour in the schedule’s black and white prose, so that we have an insight into the way in which the organisation will start.
Mr. Wright: I appreciate the comments made by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire. I am a great admirer of his; he is a great talent for the Conservatives, and it is a shame that he will spend the rest of his career in opposition, but we all have our crosses to bear. He mentioned that 1997 was not year zero, and I understand and appreciate that. I am a lover of history. I did a history degree and I have read about Lord Heseltine in history, but perhaps we can confine the issue to history and move forward. That is what the agency intends to do.
I also welcome the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, who has considerable experience from his former remit as a Minister. He raised some interesting and pertinent points about the governance of the agency, and I hope that I can reassure him. The appointment of the chief executive is crucial if we are to ensure that the agency hits the ground running and its agenda moves forward quickly. I know that Members have been concerned about that, so may I point out that Sir Bob Kerslake, who was the chief executive of Sheffield city council, has been appointed as the agency’s shadow chief executive. He will start in March 2008. The recruitment process for the Chair will continue, and Sir Bob will be involved with that incredibly closely. His appointment is a good one, not least because the Committee will tease out the importance of local government in the delivery of homes; Sir Bob knows the local government sector extraordinarily well and will, I suspect, be a great champion of it. His appointment is very welcome.
I should like to make a wider point about the broader functions of the agency. I am sure that you will rule me out of order, if necessary, Mr. Benton, but I hope that you will not. During our oral evidence sessions, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing said that various funding streams from various parts of the Department would be delivered through the agency. That is all part of the broader concept that the communities and local government will set the strategy for housing delivery and regeneration policy, and that various agencies, be they local government or the Homes and Communities Agency, will deliver that. At 9.30 am, my right hon. Friend is laying a statement before the House about this. I have advance copies for Committee members, setting out the functions of the agency in relation to delivery. It sets out in some detail what delivery functions the agency will provide, including, to give a quick summary, decent homes, housing market renewal and the Thames Gateway. So, we have fair sight of the statement that will be laid in four minutes and we can have a chat about that.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire made some other points about schedule 1. He talked about approval of terms and conditions for staff. Given that the new agency will be a non-departmental public body under DCLG, staff terms and conditions will have to remain broadly in line with those for departmental staff so that aspects such as pay bargaining remain consistent. For that reason, the Secretary of State will have to approve the terms and conditions of staff in the new agency.
The right hon. Gentleman asked what would happen to current English Partnerships and Housing Corporation staff. I must point out that because we are talking about the skills base and, perhaps, skills shortages, this certainly is not a project about reducing staff numbers. It is about better using the expertise of existing bodies. The structure of those new bodies has not yet been determined. No compulsory redundancies have been identified and if any redundancies are required, it is estimated that they will be met through natural wastage. All staff who transfer to the agency will be protected. Similarly, although pension provision for staff is still to be determined, it is certain that staff who transfer to the new agency will be offered pensions equivalent to what they currently have. With all of that, the transition team is drawing up plans for the transition of the delivery of the various work streams to be achieved.
The right hon. Gentleman also asked where the HCA would be located. It is proposed that it should have a national and regional presence, with offices in London and each of the English regions. It is expected that it will be configured along the lines of the Government offices, but specific decisions about the location of the headquarters and regional offices will be made as part of the transition process. Ministers will look at the location of existing offices, and at their lease terms, as is consistent with the recommendations of the Lyons review. I hope that I have reassured the right hon. Gentleman.
Question put and agreed to.
Schedule 1 agreed to.
Alistair Burt: On a point of order, Mr. Benton, although I am grateful for the Minister’s good intentions in bringing to our attention the written statement that was laid before the House this morning, I must put on record my concern that something pertinent to the clauses that we are discussing has been produced half an hour after the Committee began its sitting, given that it could, presumably, have been produced at any time this week. This information is pertinent, as it refers to one of the amendments that I have tabled about the Thames Gateway. To produce it at half past 9 on the morning of our first sitting strikes me as most impertinent of the Department. I do not hold the Minister responsible. If he had not told us about it, we should not have known, but I wonder whether an adjournment would be in order, while we consider the matter and make the adjustments that we need to make to the work we have to do in this morning’s sitting, so that we can start again this afternoon.
I thank the Minister for bringing the matter to our attention, but ask him to tell the Minister for Housing of my concern that something so important has appeared at this stage, when I see no reason why it could not have been dealt with yesterday, to give us much more notice and help us in our deliberation. Will he consider an hour’s adjournment of the Committee, so that we can consider the matter and get on with it this afternoon?
9.30 am
The Chairman: Order. That is not strictly a matter for the Chair, although I take the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, and have perhaps some sympathy with what he says. I do not think that it is appropriate to adjourn the Committee. Now that the hon. Gentleman has made the point, it will be observed and perhaps recorded in some other quarters for deliberation. It is a fair point, but does not justify my adjourning the Committee at this stage.
Mr. Wright: Further to that point of order, Mr. Benton. I welcome your ruling on the matter of an adjournment. I recognise and welcome the sentiments expressed by the hon. Gentleman, as he set out his concerns. A balance was needed and I was keen to ensure that the whole House would be aware of the written ministerial statement that was laid down at half past 9, and that the Committee would, during its deliberations, have sight as early as possible of things that were extremely pertinent to the matters under discussion. The hon. Gentleman was very fair about acknowledging that. A balance was needed and I intended to give Committee members as much notice as possible.
The Chairman: Order. I think that it was a fair point, and I hope that it is noted in other quarters that, where possible, any information pertinent and relevant to the Committee should be made available well before the Committee sits.

Clause 2

Sir George Young: I beg to move amendment No. 13, in clause 2, page 1, line 11, after ‘supply’, insert ‘, accessibility’.
The amendment would extend the remit of the Homes and Communities Agency to cover increasing not just the supply and quality of new housing but also its accessibility. This is a consensual, bridge-building amendment that I know the Minister will want to accept as evidence of his good will and as an improvement to the Bill. By increasing accessibility, I mean ensuring that disabled and older people can enter and use the new homes to be provided under the Bill as independently as possible.
To summarise the concern expressed at the meeting, it was that the Government want to bring about a step change in the supply of housing, but that parallel policies on accessibility kick in after the policy is under way, instead of at the same time, or earlier. The object of the amendment is to ensure that the pledged 3 million new homes, to which the Minister referred earlier, will be truly sustainable and designed according to the needs of the current and future population, taking account of demography.
Over the next 20 years, the number of disabled and older people will increase by roughly two thirds, and we must factor that into the design of the homes being planned. At the moment, 1.4 million people need accessible accommodation, including 329,000 disabled people who are living in housing totally unsuited to their needs. On top of that is a nationwide shortfall of about 330,000 wheelchair-standard houses. As well, approximately half of all disabled children live in unsuitable housing.
Disabled people are more likely than others to live in a house that does not meet decent homes standards. The relatively small amount of new social housing in recent years has also hit disabled people hard. The thinking behind the amendment is to promote the lifetime home standard, which the Minister will know has been around since 1991 and is promoted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The standard includes design features to ensure that a new house or flat will meet the needs of most households. It does not mean that every family is surrounded by features that they do not need; it means that a new flat or house can be adapted to future needs and is flexible enough to meet whatever comes along in life—a teenager with a broken leg, a family member with a serious illness or even people carrying in heavy shopping.
The lifetime home standard has been around for some time. I should like the Minister to give us some assurances about its application to the properties that will be built under the Bill. In 1999, part M of the building regulations was extended to include new housing, but those standards ensure that disabled people can visit homes, not live in them. In March 2004, the Government announced that they would review part M with a view to incorporating the lifetime home standard within two years. That commitment was reiterated in 2005 in “Opportunity Age”, which said that measures would be in place by 2007. An advisory committee was set up to begin the work, but it was suddenly disbanded.
It is not clear whether local authority new build, which the Bill promotes elsewhere, must meet lifetime home standards. There is a pressing reason why it should. The Minister will know what pressure there is on disabled facilities grants. They are mandatory grants to which people are entitled, but there is a long waiting list and the work is quite expensive. It involves retro-fitting at great cost the sort of facilities that I believe should be designed in at the beginning. The additional cost of building to lifetime home standards ranges from £165 to £545 a dwelling. That compares quite favourably with the average disabled facilities grant, which is factored in later.
Unless we address the layout and design of housing stock, the housing problems facing disabled people will continue and may get worse. That is why I believe that the HCA should make the need for accessible, flexible and adaptable housing a priority. Without the amendment, nothing in the Bill will ensure that the issues that I have mentioned are addressed. I hope that the Minister will look benignly on the amendment in order to promote the supply of accessible housing and reduce housing inequalities for disabled people.
Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): I welcome you as Chairman of this Committee, Mr. Benton, and look forward to serving under your chairmanship. I also draw attention to the interests that I declared during an earlier sitting. I hope that they stand on the record and do not require a repeat, as the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire said at the time.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the importance of this matter, but I do not agree that the amendment is appropriate. The argument was presented in a way that probably did not do justice to part M of the building regulations, which has improved accessibility significantly. The changes to that part of the regulations were not simply about making it easier for people with disabilities to visit other homes but required all new housing to meet accessibility standards. That has been important in the provision of level access, setting the width of doors and other such matters that make it easier for disabled people to gain access to all homes that are built. I accept entirely that that applies only to new housing and that it takes time to work its way through.
In his comments on year zero, the right hon. Gentleman was perhaps not as generous to the Government’s record as he might have been. The Government in which he served declined to amend part M of the building regulations to introduce changes requiring level access and accessibility improvements in all new housing. The Government who were elected in 1997 committed to and introduced those changes, and also supported the application of the lifetime homes standard. He rightly highlighted the work of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in propagating that concept, and the Government gave, and still give, considerable encouragement for the application of lifetime homes by registered social landlords and others.
There has been progress, but accessibility is important and it is right that there should be a short debate on it. I hope that the Minister will indicate clearly the Government’s commitment to continuing work to improve accessibility. My only reservation about the amendment is the usual one of the list principle. When one particular item is added to a list, others are excluded by inference. The right hon. Gentleman knows only too well that many other important housing issues could be added to the list of objectives that the HCA ought to pursue: energy efficiency is an obvious and topical example. We should not single out accessibility, but it is extremely important and there is more to be done to improve it and propagate lifetime homes. I hope that the Minister is able give us an assurance us on that.
Alistair Burt: I rise to support the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire and to respond to the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich. Having been the Minister with responsibility for disabled people, I rather regret that we did not do more to change the standards required. Of course, there was the inevitable tussle between Departments, but there is now greater recognition that the matter is not just about disability but about ageing.
When amendments are tabled on behalf of disabled people, or when people talk about the disabled lobby, there is sometimes not enough understanding in the wider community that virtually everything that is done for people with disabilities, particularly in relation to space, movement and housing, inevitably benefits anyone who is ageing as well as women with buggies and so on. A different approach needs to be taken, and the long-term needs of the people who benefit from such changes as my right hon. Friend suggests must be borne in mind. Will the Minister indicate how the agency will deal with that?
Such improvements also help to deal with a problem that we shall come back to from time to time. Despite the fair wind being given to the establishment of the agency, for reasons that we have already explored, a niggling factor in the back of many minds is that it may turn out to be just a numbers machine. Because the Government have set targets and understandably want to meet them, worrying that they have not in the past, there will be huge determination just to churn out units. When that is coupled with changes over the years that have meant that the space given to each housing unit is much smaller, it puts extra pressure on the needs of those with disabilities and those who are ageing. The Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation reckons that in the next 20 years, there will be an increase of between 57 per cent. and 67 per cent. in the number of disabled older people. A significant number of new people will be coming into that time of life, with needs that are not discretionary for them but crucial to their enjoyment of life—their accessibility to those things that we all too often take for granted.
I would be grateful if the Minister would indicate how he and the agency intend to handle that. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s amendment.
9.45 am
Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): Briefly, I wish to respond to the point made by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich about the risk of that leading to the creation of a list of further requirements within the measure. I wish to support the proposal.
My professional experience prior to coming to this place was in undertaking housing needs surveys. I was making recommendations for the development of new schemes to meet social housing need. We often found that it was sensible to recommend that schemes be easily adaptable—in most cases they were very small schemes. In other words, the configuration of the building itself should ultimately be adaptable—there might not be a need straight away for disabled access and for ground floor, walk-in baths and those types of utilities, but the buildings themselves should be easily adaptable for when a need might arise at some later stage.
I strongly support the introduction of the measure; this is an appropriate amendment, which does not portend the creation of a long list. In many recommendations of developments in the past, that seemed to be appropriate. One does not need, at the point of construction, to go to the expense of including and installing all of the utilities, but simply to allow for ease of adaptation at a later stage.
Mr. Wright: I thank the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire for the amendment and for the positive and constructive manner in which he articulated the arguments. I would expect no less from him. I find the manner in which the debate is being conducted pleasing and encouraging. I understand where he is coming from with the amendment, but it is not necessary. In the Bill, the agency already has the object of improving the supply and quality of housing in England, with a view to meeting the needs of people living in England—that includes ensuring provision of housing of all tenures and types appropriate to the needs of community. If those needs are for accessible housing, that is what the agency must provide or facilitate the provision of. We will ensure that the Homes and Communities Agency is tasked to provide or facilitate the provision of accessible homes appropriate to the needs of the community.
During the debate I was struck by the points made by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire points about ageing. I absolutely agree with them. I am looking into the subject. Some of the facts are striking. We talk about household growth formation and how that is increasing—something like 223,000 new households being formed every year. That is why we have a housing shortage that needs to be addressed—with 3 million new homes by 2020. Older households make up 48 per cent. of year-on-year household growth. That is a phenomenal amount, which we need to address. The over-85 population will increase by 85 per cent. by 2031. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned that a third of older households lived in non-decent housing, particularly privately rented. We need to address that. Older people spend between 70 and 90 per cent. of their time in their homes. They must have an appropriate, decent home in order to do so. Appropriate and safe housing is critical in increasing independence and health. Preventive measures could save up to £3 billion in NHS costs for over-65s, by reducing falls and accidents. The Government recognise the growing challenges and opportunities that are posed by demographic changes and, in particular, by the ageing population.
I reiterate the need for the lifetime homes standards, which the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire mentioned. Those set out criteria that make homes more adaptable to people’s changing circumstances, to create homes that are specifically built to ensure that they will adapt to the needs of people at different stages of life and enable people to remain independent—which is very important—and in control of their lives at all stages. Our intention is for all homes funded by the public sector to be developed as lifetime homes by 2011.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich mentioned the list principle, in a manner far more eloquent than I could, and I absolutely agree with his sentiments. I have no wish to elevate one strand of housing need above another. In order to deliver its object, the agency must improve the supply and quality of housing in England according to the needs of the community. Singling out any specific strand of housing would place a duty on the agency in relation to that type of housing.
Although accessible housing is hugely important, I do not think that it should be pursued at the expense of other forms of housing that are equally important and just as necessary to the community as a whole. I understand that, as a country that is ageing steadily, we will need to address this issue and it will be one of the major concerns and strategic priorities of the agency. However, I do not think it necessary, on the grounds of the list principle mentioned by my right hon. Friend, to put it in the Bill.
In summary, I do not think that it is wise to emphasise one type of housing in primary legislation. I therefore hope that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire will withdraw the amendment.
Sir George Young: The debate has been helpful and informative and I listened to the argument about rejecting the amendment on the list principle. I then turned over to page 2, and what did I find but a list? It states, “‘infrastructure’ includes—” followed by a list of eight things. I view with a little suspicion the argument that there cannot be a list on page 1 but the Government can have a list on page 2.
Mr. Raynsford: The right hon. Gentleman knows only too well from his experience that the list on page 2 is necessary because there is a reference to the term “infrastructure” and that without a definition, people could quibble about what that is. Rather different issues apply on page 1, where the object is
“to improve the supply and quality of housing”.
I would argue that “quality of housing” embraces a wide range of issues, including accessibility, energy efficiency, good design and other elements. If any one item is singled out, rather than having a comprehensive list—as there is on page 2—there is a danger of misinterpretation.
Sir George Young: There is a limit to the extent to which we can develop this line of argument. As to whether the list on page 2 is comprehensive, it says that the term “includes”, which presumably means that other things may be included. I had not intended to provoke the right hon. Gentleman into a vigorous defence of his record.
If one looks at the provision for disabled people, there has been an evolution and an improvement over decades. The Major and Thatcher Governments did things that had not been done under the Callaghan and Wilson Governments. My object in tabling the amendment was to gently nudge and to try to accelerate the process that had gone on over many years, under many Governments.
I asked the Minister a number of questions and perhaps he could drop me a line, for example, on whether local authorities have to build to lifetime homes standards or not. I might have raised some other issues that he did not deal with in his response. However, I have no wish to get these proceedings off to an acrimonious start by pressing this matter to a Division, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Andrew George: I beg to move amendment No. 34, in clause 2, page 1, line 11, at end insert—
‘(aa) to carry out, or provide for the carrying out of, regular assessments of the nature and scale of housing need in England,’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment No. 35, in clause 2, page 2, line 2, after ‘subsection (1)—’, insert—
‘“housing need” includes the condition of those who are homeless and those who are housed in insecure, unsatisfactory or overcrowded accommodation.’.
New clause 7—Rough Sleepers Steering Group—
‘(1) The Secretary of State shall, within six months of the coming into force of this Act, establish a body (“the Steering Group”) to review the services provided to rough sleepers in England and draw up an action plan to provide adequate hostel and permanent accommodation.
(2) The membership of the Steering Group shall include an equal number of members from central government, local government, registered providers of social housing and other relevant charitable organisations, with an independent chair.
(3) The Steering Group shall make recommendations within six months of its establishment in respect of the matters referred to in subsection (1).’’
Andrew George: It is a pleasure to move the amendments tabled by me and my banished colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), whom I hope will be joining me later in the proceedings.
The purpose of the amendment is to give the new Homes and Communities Agency the responsibility for ensuring that there are regular assessments of the scale of need for new social rented housing and low-cost home-ownership market housing. The reason behind it is that the largely desk-top base of the assessments that are often made by official bodies does not necessarily reflect the nuances within the market and the need for housing; nor is there the reassurance in the Bill that many of us would hope that the Government could provide that there will be regular updates of those assessments of housing need.
Much of the purpose of the Bill is in response to assessments, such as that undertaken by Kate Barker, of the need for housing in forthcoming years. My view is that that assessment is rather two-dimensional. It does not take into account the existence of sub-markets in those areas where those who, quite rightly, wish to express a need for housing do not necessarily have an opportunity to do so through any official channels. They do not feel that there is any chance of getting social housing in the foreseeable future; therefore their numbers do not exist on the local authority registers. They do not walk into local estate agents because the housing there is way beyond what local people on local wages can afford. Therefore, that need should be assessed.
I mentioned earlier that, in a former life, I was involved in the process of assessing local housing need, when housing departments undertook door-to-door surveys of that need in the early 1980s. When those surveys were started, local authorities were saying, “We know that there is not a need, because we have checked the local authority register and looked for the names of those who have sought properties in this particular village.” That particularly applies to rural housing need. Because no, or very few, people indicated a wish to live in that particular village or parish, the assumption was, therefore, that there was no need at all. They had not properly taken into account at the time that very few properties were ever likely to become available.
In areas such as my own in West Cornwall where, under the right-to-buy scheme, properties were being sold off and in some cases sold on and lost from the local community altogether, with some becoming second homes, people have not had an opportunity to express their need for affordable accommodation. There is no likelihood of their ever obtaining that type of accommodation within the area where their job is, where they have been brought up, where they have an attachment and wish to remain living. I believe that the Government need to take into account the need to undertake rather more sophisticated assessments of housing need. The new agency should accept that it has a responsibility to update that assessment of housing need, particularly in those areas where there is a sub-market. The new agency should accept that it has a responsibility to update that assessment of housing need, particularly in those areas where there is a sub-market. It is a little like the logic that transport operators use when they say that there is no need for buses on Sunday.
10 am
Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way—I have been following his argument carefully. What I have difficulty with is whether it is appropriate for that task to be carried out by the HCA or whether something more locally based, such as a local authority or even another body at regional or national level would be more appropriate.
Andrew George: There is nothing in the amendment that states that the HCA is required to undertake parish-based housing need surveys. In my view, it is not a requirement and I do not think that the amendment implies that the HCA should undertake that. However, it does need to keep an eye on whether the basis on which targets have been set for social housing, low-cost home ownership and market housing during a planned period is sufficiently sophisticated with regard to the numbers that pertain at the time.
There are many parts of the country where a local market exists. The Barker review seems to imply that, where there is a pressing need for affordable housing, it is possible to build a way out of that need. It suggests that, by keeping many thousands of market homes in an area, equilibrium will be achieved and the needs of working families on local wages met by the magic of the market through demand and supply relationships. However, there are many parts of the country where the market does not operate in that way. I mention my own area, west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, because it is a very good example of a part of the country where there is a sub-market, and where the housing market is also a receptacle for the desires of people across the country, particularly better-off people, who wish to buy properties for investment and recreation. I think that this is a rather simplistic view of the way in which the market works, because no matter how many houses are built in that area, as far as market housing is concerned, we will never achieve the equilibrium that would allow local people to meet their housing needs.
Across Cornwall, for example, the number of properties has more than doubled over the last 40 years and it has been one of the fastest growing places for housing in the United Kingdom—I believe that only Buckinghamshire and Cambridgeshire are above it. That will perhaps surprise many people who assume that Cornwall does not change much. In fact, it has seen phenomenal housing growth over 40 years but, despite heaping over 120,000 houses into the area, local people’s housing problems have become phenomenally worse. Simply building houses is not the answer to the problems. A more sophisticated understanding is required.
I hope that the Minister will take on board not only the fact that the Homes and Communities Agency, when making an assessment, should take into account the existence of what is often a need that cannot be expressed through normal and official mechanisms—such as through local authorities—of the type that I have described in rural areas, but the way in which sub-markets work. That process would be a great deal better informed if my amendments were accepted.
Furthermore, amendment No. 35 contains a proposal for a better and more detailed assessment of the extent of homelessness. Impressive attempts have been made by the Office for National Statistics, for example, to assess homelessness at the time of each census. I was certainly impressed by the amount of field work undertaken in many areas during the last census to uncover the level of homelessness across the country. However, those who understand the problem often found that figures in those assessments massively underplayed the extent of the problem and of the existence of an underclass and sub-market of demand that was not expressed in local authority waiting lists. Of course, that is because it could not be expressed there.
On that basis, I hope that the Minister accepts that the purpose of amendments Nos. 34 and 35 is to ensure that the Homes and Communities Agency undertakes more than just a remote and, perhaps, unsophisticated, desk-based exercise. As I have made clear, I do not suggest that the agency itself undertake such surveys, but it might want to commission them to reassure itself about the accuracy of the information that it receives, such as on the level and type of need, on how that splits between social housing and low-cost home ownership, and on other aspects of the intermediate market, and of course for market housing itself. I believe that the need for that is far stronger than was expressed in Kate Barker’s review and elsewhere. I do not think that we are at that point at the moment. The work of the agency will only be as good as the quality of the assessment of needs that it itself undertakes.
Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con): I join the Minister and other hon. Members in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Benton, for what I know will be constructive proceedings in Committee. Opposition Members welcome many elements of the Bill, particularly the establishment of the Homes and Communities Agency. We recognise that the agency, whose objectives are set out in clause 2, has a wide remit, but elements of the remit appear to be missing from the Bill, and one of those is recognition of the problem of homelessness. I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House recognise that concern.
One thing that is frustrating when one starts to discuss homelessness is that there is an immediate reflex reaction among politicians to blame one side pre-1997 or the other side post-1997. I hope that in this Committee we can get away from that simplistic analysis of the issues of homelessness and talk about the real problems, which are certainly serious. Charities tell us that there are probably 400,000 or 500,000 homeless people. It very much depends on the definition used. The Government’s definition categorises four different areas of homelessness in temporary accommodation, but however we measure them, the numbers are certainly large.
A piece of work with which I was recently involved showed, for example, that there are 130,000 homeless children this year and that figure has doubled in the past 10 years. I said at the start that I do not want to turn this into a hugely political issue, because I believe that nobody in the House has come into politics to make people homeless. I accept that of Labour Members and the Government as much as I hope that they accept it of Conservative Members. It is not an objective of good people going into public service to make people homeless. My point is not to suggest that for one moment. However, it is important to recognise the facts and, using the same measurement that has been in place for a while and looking retrospectively, we can see that the number of homeless children has doubled. That point needs to be recognised, but the Bill has, surprisingly, relatively little to say on the subject.
A particularly extreme example of homelessness is rough sleeping, which has been addressed, quite rightly, by the current Government. They set themselves a target of reducing rough sleeping by two thirds, which was achieved. They set themselves a further target of reducing rough sleeping to zero, which has not been achieved. In fact, there is evidence that the number of rough sleepers is moving the other way; there has been a 9 per cent. increase in London over the past year alone.
Mr. Love: New clause 7 specifically mentions rough sleeping, yet the hon. Gentleman in his introductory remarks talked about the wider issue of homelessness. Why does his new clause not include the wider issue, rather than being aimed specifically at rough sleepers?
Grant Shapps: I introduced the new clause by talking about the wider issue of homelessness because rough sleeping is, I suppose, the most acute aspect of the wider issue. If the hon. Gentleman is arguing that we should have a broader definition in the new clause to include the wider problems of homelessness, that is certainly interesting. If his colleagues are prepared to back a wider definition, that should be worked on.
Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): I am getting frustrated and I felt the need to speak.
Alistair Burt: The hon. Lady is a Government Back-Bencher and will have to be terribly careful about that.
Lyn Brown: I realise that, and I am getting anxious about it, too.
The situation would be easier if the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield were to be so good as to differentiate between street homeless and families that are housed, because I presume that he acknowledges that the children of whom he speaks are in fact housed in temporary accommodation by local councils. They are not street sleepers. When he talks about street or rough sleepers, I should be grateful if he acknowledged that there are other issues—apart from the availability of homes—that cause people to sleep on streets, and that the Bill will not address those social and personal needs that people who are street sleeping encounter. If we can get our terms agreed throughout the room—
10.15 am
The Chairman: Order. I think the point has been made.
We know that work on rough sleeping has been going on for a long time. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire did a great deal of work, which all charities that I have visited recognise, in setting up something like—he will correct me if I am wrong—4,000 emergency hostel places. We began to see a dramatic decline in the number of people sleeping rough, and as I said, I recognise the efforts of this Government in taking that objective further and in reducing the number of people sleeping rough by another two thirds. However, there are problems.
One problem, which has already been referred to in amendments Nos. 34 and 35, is that the number of people sleeping rough is by definition a difficult figure to pinpoint. The problem is that local authorities are asked to go out and make a street count to find out how many people sleep rough, but they will not find all those people. It stands to reason, because they will be hidden in locations that are sometimes hard or dangerous to reach.
There is a further problem beyond that obvious and natural under-reporting: the reporting mechanism. Each local authority is invited to send in a list showing how many rough sleepers they have, which is bracketed for cases in which the local authority does not physically go out and carry out a count. The list will say, nought to 10, 11 to 20 and so on, and when it comes in, the Department will, for example, count a rough sleeper count of nought to 10 as nought, regardless of whether the local authority estimated five, six or seven people on the list. That leads to a consistent underestimation of the number of rough sleepers, and if one adds it up throughout the country and compares the figures with figures from authorities that do actually return them, as I did in a recent report, one discovers that rather than 498 people sleeping rough in this country every night, there are more likely to be about 1,200. Can I be certain of that figure? No, because it is impossible to know. It fails to account for people who do not appear on the rough sleepers’ register simply because they are never found. That is not what I am talking about. These are people who are under-registered by a system that fails to take them into account, so I should be interested to hear from the Minister whether there are any plans to improve on that historical system to reach a more accurate count of rough sleepers.
Mr. Love: I thank the hon. Gentleman. Again, I am following his argument closely. Does he accept that there is a second function of collecting the statistics, and that is to show the trends in street homelessness? By measuring it over a period of time we can discover whether it is going up or down, and that is an important consideration in itself.
Grant Shapps: I absolutely accept the hon. Gentleman’s argument. This provides a measure that tells us that there was quite a dramatic reduction and tells us that it has started to turn around, particularly in London in the past year because of a number of different pressures. If we start to go into those now our discussion will go beyond the Bill.
I accept that it is important to have a measure. My criticism of that measure is that it could now be improved. It is important that that measure bears relevance to the actual number of people who are sleeping on the streets, rather than a red-blue-green measure of how well we are doing against an historical trend. I urge the Minister, perhaps through the Bill, to make that measure deliberately more accurate to the actual number of individuals.
Andrew George: I simply caution the hon. Gentleman against taking too much of a trend from the sort of field work that we are talking about, because sometimes the trend is more a function of the quality of the field work over time than the underlying trend itself. If the robustness of the field work is greater, it will identify something of larger numbers than a less robust period of field work. I also warn him that the people who are rough sleeping are not simply a social problem, as was implied by the intervention from the hon. Member for West Ham; they are people with genuine housing needs.
Grant Shapps: The hon. Gentleman’s argument runs contrary to the previous intervention. I think that we are agreed that it is important to have a measure; I believe further that it is important that that measure is accurate against the real numbers, so that when the Government say that there are 498 rough sleepers each night that is an accurate number, whereas at the moment we know it to be inaccurate. I am not certain that there is any specific evidence to suggest that counts are less accurate now than they were previously. I suspect that because the agencies and charities that carry out these counts for local authorities are getting better at it over time in a process of continuous improvement, the counts are getting slightly better rather than slightly worse, notwithstanding the problems with the mechanism for returning data to local authorities where there is a check box for a bracketed number of nought to 10 and so on.
I want to reflect on the point about the reason why people sleep rough. It comes down to the purpose of the new clause. The hon. Member for West Ham is right to say that it is never straightforward. My experience of meeting rough sleepers is that it is incredibly complex. If it was easy, both sides of the House at different times in past Governments would have cracked the problem and there would be nobody sleeping rough. I met somebody when I went out on Christmas Eve who had slept rough for 20 years—20 years on the streets—but when one talks to this chap, Ivan, he will say that he was offered housing time and time again.
It being twenty-five minutes past Ten o’clock The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned till this day at One o’clock.
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