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9.21 pm

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): Her Majesty's Gracious Speech announced three housing Bills. All of them will be of interest to people living in our inner cities and beyond. The first Bill will speed up the home-buying process, the second is a commonhold and leasehold reform Bill and the third is a Homes Bill to help the unintentionally homeless.

Proposals to speed up home buying are long overdue. Compulsory sellers packs, which will contain standard and essential information and provide buyers with crucial documents, including survey information, search details and a contract proposal, are welcome. The question is whether those proposals will work. The pilot scheme in Bristol was not a true test because the sellers did not have to pay for their packs. When sellers are asked to pay, will they be prepared to do so, and will the financial institutions recognise the packs or call for their own surveys?

The service targets to encourage faster local authority searches are welcome, as are measures to encourage the use of new technology to speed up the service. We await the detail of the legislation, but hope that something can be done to speed up the home-buying process and to reduce the unnecessary costs that are often incurred by genuine buyers.

Before commenting on the commonhold and leasehold reform Bill, it is worth remembering what the Government said in their consultation paper:

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Liberal Democrats recognise that while leaseholds might suit some people, many leaseholders are unhappy with the system, and our policies would be geared to helping them to enfranchise themselves. The Government have recognised the need to change leasehold arrangements and have offered two proposals in a draft Bill. Those proposals involve the introduction of commonhold and, for those who cannot afford or do not wish to join that scheme, further reform to the current leasehold system.

Commonhold is a new form of tenure for blocks of flats and other multi-unit properties. However, many leaseholders and their associations have criticised the Government's proposals. They feel that the Government's objectives will not be sufficient to end the "misery and distress" experienced by leaseholders. Their criticisms are threefold: first, that leasehold will continue to exist without a schedule for its full removal; secondly, that commonhold will not be a solution for leaseholders because 100 per cent. of tenants and the freeholder must consent, which is highly unlikely; and thirdly, that in order for leaseholders collectively to enfranchise under the proposed plan, they would have to allow the freeholder to retain the "marriage value" of the property when the lease has less than 90 years remaining. What reassurance can the Minister give to convince leaseholders that their fears are unwarranted?

The Homes Bill will implement the homelessness package outlined in the housing Green Paper. It will meet the Government's manifesto commitment to restore the duty on local authorities to provide homeless people in priority need with settled accommodation. Can we expect it to set out a more strategic and preventive statutory framework for tackling all forms of homelessness? That would create a modern framework for reducing homelessness by shifting the emphasis from crisis-driven intervention to a long-term approach focused on tackling social exclusion.

The formulation of the new duty will mean that homeless people in priority need will be provided with settled accommodation, but what about homeless people who are not in priority need? Will the new legislation improve the assistance given to them? Under the existing legislation, authorities are required to provide advice and assistance to help that group secure accommodation. However, the level of service provided is often poor, with applicants sometimes sent away with just a list of bed-and-breakfast establishments.

The housing Green Paper emphasised that local authorities should provide accommodation for homeless people who are in priority need if they have the scope within their housing stock to do so. However, authorities already have that discretion if they wish to use it. It may help in areas where there is less pressure on the housing stock, but it will not improve the position for people in most areas of the country where the pressure on housing is greater.

We believe that the intention should be to improve the level of service as far as possible for homeless people in all areas of the country. We recognise that in high-demand

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areas it is unrealistic to expect authorities to provide accommodation for this group. However, the quality of advice and assistance is not dependent on the amount of stock available, and there are numerous examples of good practice achieved in various parts of the country.

The housing Green Paper floated proposals to reform the social housing lettings process, to introduce more flexibility and to promote choice. Which of those proposals will be implemented in the Homes Bill?

We agree with the aim of allowing local authorities to implement lettings schemes that are relevant to local needs and priorities. That is consistent with promoting a stronger strategic housing role for local authorities. However, there is a need to ensure that, within a more flexible framework, meeting housing need will continue to be a key priority, and that certain basic requirements are met in all local authority areas. We believe that local flexibility should be underpinned by a set of minimum standards, which could be set out in regulations.

The Green Paper was clear that applicants should be suspended from the lettings process only in exceptional circumstances and that vulnerable groups should be safeguarded. Any reform of the lettings process must also give priority to providing a robust mechanism for ensuring that the current wide-ranging exclusions from social housing are brought to an end.

We hope that the Homes Bill will contain important new measures to prevent homelessness, and that the emphasis of the statutory framework will shift from crisis-driven intervention to a more long-term approach. Will the legislation include the proposals in the housing Green Paper to place local authorities under a duty to carry out homelessness audits and to publish strategies for preventing homelessness in their area? Will it ensure that social services departments participate fully in this process so that homelessness strategies operate across all relevant parts of the local authority?

With the social housing sector continuing to diversify and the stock transfer programme set to increase to 200,000 units per year, it is important that robust arrangements are in place to ensure that housing need continues to be met after transfers have taken place. That links in with the scope of the strategic role of housing authorities and with the emphasis on creating sustainable communities, as set out in the Green Paper. Will that be recognised in the legislation?

Will the legislation recognise that the current statutory framework does not give adequate protection to victims of racial violence and harassment? That was recently highlighted by a case reported in The Guardian, in which a family who had suffered persistent racial harassment were not offered alternative accommodation by their local authority. That is a complex case, but it highlights some of the housing difficulties faced by victims of racial abuse.

The current homelessness legislation makes it clear that it is not reasonable for a person to continue to occupy accommodation when they are experiencing violence from a partner or another associated person. Shelter, the housing pressure group, does not expect the first draft of the Bill to include new provisions in this area. Is this another area where the housing lobby will have to wait and see?

The present homelessness legislation sets out categories of people whose vulnerability is such that they are considered to have a priority need for housing. They

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currently include people with dependent children, pregnant women, those who are vulnerable as a result of old age, mental illness or disability, and those made homeless as a result of a natural disaster.

The housing Green Paper proposed the extension of priority need to new groups, including homeless 16 and 17-year-olds, people leaving care and those who were vulnerable as a result of violence and harassment or had an institutionalised background. Will those measures be included in the Homes Bill, or will they be introduced in new regulations under powers conferred by the Housing Act 1996?

Homeless people who experience domestic violence and who have dependent children are currently considered to have a priority need for housing. However, although they may be considered homeless under the current legislation, people without children who are fleeing domestic violence are often not found to be in priority need by some local authorities, and are therefore not entitled to temporary accommodation.

Ms Oona King: I, too, welcome many of Shelter's proposals. As for how councils can extend provision for the homeless, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government's intended review of the £8 million increase in revenue support grant should take place earlier rather than later?

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