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Mr. Clifton-Brown rose--

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) rose--

Mr. Raynsford: I intend to make progress. I have already given way to the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown).

Mr. O'Brien: Is the Minister aware that we in this country have the slowest demolition rate in the western world? That has been a unique problem, as we have very old housing stock. Therefore, the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) is very important and should not be dismissed lightly. Older properties will form the majority of housing transactions, and structural surveys will therefore be critical and an additional cost to that of the home condition report.

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman should not misinterpret what I said. I made the point that for some older properties with a likelihood of a serious structural problem, most professionals will advise a full structural survey. However, I stressed that the availability of a home condition report will enable the provision of a great deal of additional information to most buyers who currently do not have it. In some cases, it will pinpoint a problem that could be resolved only by a full structural survey and will therefore inform people as to whether it would be appropriate to incur such additional expenditure. In all events, the public are to be provided with much more information on what is generally the biggest financial transaction in their lives, on which at present all too many do not have good information.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Raynsford: I intend to make progress. I must cover the second part of the Bill, which deals with the problem of homelessness.

Each year, more than 100,000 families and individuals are rehoused by local authorities because, through no fault of their own, they have become, or are about to become, homeless. No Government can eliminate entirely the fundamental causes of homelessness, but this Government's broad social agenda, which includes our

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housing and regeneration programmes, the work of the social exclusion unit and our welfare-to-work programme, is tackling the root problems.

The legislative framework for the relief of homelessness has been in place since 1977 but was significantly weakened by the previous Government in the Housing Act 1996. In our election manifesto, we promised to rectify that and to increase the protection available to homeless people. In 1997, we took early action to restore homeless households to the list of groups that should be given reasonable preference for housing by local authorities. It was a scandal that they should ever have been without some priority over households that are adequately housed. The change was effected by regulations, but the provisions in the Bill are necessary to remedy other weaknesses.

Under the provisions introduced by the 1996 Act, local authorities may fulfil their obligations simply by satisfying themselves that suitable accommodation is available in the private sector. Even where the authority provides accommodation, its legal responsibilities end after just two years. To make matters worse, authorities are restricted in how they can use their housing to accommodate homeless people temporarily while such people look for a settled home. The provisions add uncertainty, put homeless families and individuals under greater stress and discriminate against them at a time when they are most vulnerable and in need of support.

The Bill will require local authorities to ensure that everyone in priority need who is unintentionally homeless has somewhere suitable to live while they look for a settled home. That requirement will continue for as long as it takes to secure accommodation, and without the two-year restriction. The Bill will also allow local authorities discretion over how to use their homes to provide short-term accommodation for homeless people until settled accommodation becomes available. The measures are important, but more needs to be done to try to prevent homelessness occurring in the first place and to ensure that local services are up to the demands that are likely to be placed on them.

To this end, the Bill will require local authorities to review homelessness in their area at least every five years, and to put in place a multi-agency strategy for preventing homelessness, ensuring that adequate accommodation and support is available. The Bill will encourage a more co-ordinated approach by requiring both housing and social services authorities to take their homelessness strategy into account when carrying out their responsibilities. The Bill will also give authorities greater flexibility to provide accommodation for homeless people who are not in priority need but where suitable housing is available.

We believe that homeless people should be offered the same opportunity of a decent home that most in this country are lucky enough to enjoy. That is why we are taking steps in the Bill to ensure that local authorities are able to offer homeless people and others in housing need greater choice when they apply for long-term tenancies in social housing.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Choice within the private sector is usually the preferred option in my constituency, and New Forest district council runs a scheme to assist with deposits. Under the Bill's provisions, accepting a private sector tenancy will be

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punished because the tenant will, in so doing, effectively sign away his rights to further protection by, and support from, the local authority. That will lead to an increase in bed-and-breakfast provision rather than a reduction, and to a reduction in choice.

Mr. Raynsford: No. On this issue, as on so many others, the hon. Gentleman has it completely wrong. The Bill will not reduce choice. Instead, it will extend choice and opportunities and contribute to reducing homelessness.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Is there not a need for a specific reference to older people who are homeless? Of those who are most disadvantaged, older people who find themselves homeless have to overcome many barriers. I am pleased to hear what my hon. Friend says about social care. However, unless there is provision--often specialised provision--people can fall at the first hurdle. Does not that need to be taken into account in the Bill?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend rightly raises concerns about older people. Under existing legislation, older people are defined as automatically in priority need if they become homeless. The question is what provision the local authority makes for them. Through our code of guidance, which we are revising, we shall be issuing good practice guidance on how local authorities should best discharge their responsibilities to the elderly and all other groups. Our aim is to ensure that the most appropriate and effective assistance is made available to people, depending on their particular needs. The elderly have special needs, which my hon. Friend highlights.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): I support the principle of a multi-agency approach to dealing with homelessness. However, is my hon. Friend aware that one of the great problems in London is the massive increase in house prices? There has also been an explosion in private sector rents and a lack of ability on the part of local authorities and housing associations to build and provide new homes. In effect, homeless people will end up in private sector rented accommodation at extortionate cost while we are creating millionaires every week out of the housing benefit system. Would it not be better if we had a strategy of investing public money in good-quality housing that homeless people could move into permanently, rather than passing so much to private landlords?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend will have noted the spending review 2000, in which we have literally doubled the provision for investment in new social housing by registered social landlords. He will be aware that we have substantially increased investment through local authorities with our ambitious programme to tackle the entire backlog of substandard council housing within a 10-year time scale. It is a huge Government investment programme that is designed to ensure a proper supply of affordable housing to put right the terrible problems that we inherited as a result of years of neglect under the Conservative Government.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): Does my hon. Friend agree that empty homes are an underused resource? Does he agree also that homelessness strategies, if they are to

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be respectable, should deal with putting empty homes back into use? Will he say that local authorities should adopt that approach?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend has been an assiduous campaigner for action to tackle the problem of empty homes. He will know of the work that we have undertaken, the action that we have taken and the measures that have already been put in place. He will be aware of the continuing work that we do, with the support of the Empty Homes Agency, to tackle the problem. As part of a comprehensive housing strategy for their area, local authorities should have in place a proper arrangement for reviewing and taking action on the problem of empty homes.

The Bill will remove the need for local authorities to maintain a housing register--a bureaucratic requirement introduced by the 1996 legislation, which can hamper approaches that offer flexibility and choice to potential and existing tenants. It will strengthen the rights and entitlements of existing tenants and new applicants for social housing. It will require local authorities to publish a clear policy that explains how they will let homes and offer choice. Finally, it will require them to provide help for those who need assistance when applying for housing, ensuring that vulnerable families and individuals who are least able to fend for themselves are not disadvantaged.

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