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Mr. Dawson: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Raynsford: In a moment.

Those measures are being backed by an £11 million fund for pilot lettings schemes under which local authorities and housing associations can test choice-based approaches that put applicants and existing tenants first as customers. We shall evaluate the pilot schemes and promote the most successful approaches. I now give way, for the final time, to my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson).

Mr. Dawson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Will he clarify what his review of the regulations on priority need will mean to young people leaving care?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend is prescient because I am coming to precisely that issue.

We propose a further important change, on which we consulted in our housing Green Paper: extending the groups of people that local authorities should consider as having priority need for assistance under the homelessness legislation. The existing priority need groups exclude a number of particularly vulnerable people who should be better protected. We propose to add to the priority need groups, for the first time, two additional categories of young people: homeless 16 and 17-year-olds and 18 to 21-year-olds leaving care. I hope that my hon. Friend is pleased with that announcement.

We also propose to add people who are vulnerable as a result of their fleeing domestic violence or harassment or who come from an institutionalised background--for example, people leaving care, the armed forces or prison. Studies into the causes of homelessness and into the

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backgrounds of people who end up sleeping rough have consistently shown that a very high proportion come from an institutional background. Such people will be regarded as being in priority need where local authorities consider that they are vulnerable. We shall extend the priority need groups shortly by making an order under the existing legislation.

The Conservatives have attacked the measures on the grounds that they will allow prisoners to jump the housing queue, but they are wrong--the measures will not allow prisoners to jump the queue, but will provide an emergency safety net for vulnerable people who would otherwise be on the street. There can be few worse examples of the facile, unthinking, knee-jerk reaction that, along with bandwagon jumping, has become the trademark of the Conservatives. They complain in their amendment about the Government not doing enough to tackle the fundamental causes of homelessness, but also criticise measures specifically geared to prevent homelessness among those most at risk. The Conservative party complains about the Government not doing enough to tackle crime, but criticises measures designed to help those perhaps most at risk of being lured back to a life of crime to re-establish themselves as law-abiding citizens.

Those are the reactions of a party that has no understanding of the causes or consequences of homelessness and no integrity in respect of recognising the importance of pursuing policies that are right, even if they can be distorted and misinterpreted for cheap party political advantage. In contrast, the Government are committed to tackling the fundamental, underlying causes of homelessness and to ensuring that more effective help is given to the homeless.

We shall provide extra resources for local authorities to ensure that they can better meet their responsibilities and can implement effective policies to help homeless people. We shall revise our code of guidance on homelessness and allocations and produce best practice guidance to underpin reforms.

The Bill is an important measure that addresses two of the most important housing issues of our time: how to make it easier for people to buy and sell homes and how to tackle the evil of homelessness more effectively. The Government are committed to ensuring that every member of our society has the prospect of a decent home. The Bill is an important element in our strategy to achieve that objective, and I commend it to the House.

4.29 pm

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): I beg to move, To leave out from "That" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I begin by wishing you, Mr. Speaker, an extremely happy new year and by passing on my good wishes to your secretary on his knighthood. I also offer my

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congratulations to the Minister on his forthcoming elevation to the Privy Council. He has come a long way since we were councillors together in Hammersmith and Fulham. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests, although I make it clear that I have never practised in conveyancing matters.

It is a sad feature of this Parliament that we have spent endless hours debating gay rights and foxhunting, but much more serious matters affecting the daily lives of what Lord Falconer would grandly call ordinary people are relegated to the back of the queue. Instead, we have been obliged to follow the priorities of the liberal elite, who drive so much of the Government's agenda. [Interruption.] Nowhere is that truer than on housing policy. Now, in the dying months of the Government, we finally have a Bill on housing.

The last Labour manifesto had a great deal to say on the subject of housing. In particular, it promised that

That is the most significant omission from the Bill, and one which has disappointed people right across the housing sector. That is a manifesto promise that the Government have manifestly failed to keep. Why?

The Bill also promises to deal with the problems of homelessness. Why were the proposals not introduced earlier? As a Labour Member commented from a sedentary position, Labour had 18 years to think about the matter in opposition. At the serious risk of becoming typecast, the Minister has pursued the issue of housing for many years.

Some of the proposals in the Bill are welcome, which is why I shall not invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against Second Reading. Other proposals, we believe, are unnecessarily burdensome on local authorities, and much of the detail will need to be scrutinised carefully in Committee.

The Prime Minister promised in opposition that Labour would

He added:

However, the Government have presided over a growth in homelessness. Despite the Minister's attempts to spin the statistics, that is the honest truth. Almost all the figures that I shall quote are from his own Department. The number of families in bed-and-breakfast and other temporary accommodation had risen to 66,030 a year in the second quarter of 2000, compared with 43,650 in 1997--an increase of 51 per cent. The increase in the number of those in bed-and-breakfast accommodation is more than 75 per cent.

Priority homelessness is at its highest level since 1996. The figure in 1997-98 was 102,650 for total priority acceptances, and in 1999-2000 the comparable figure was 105,520. In other words, under the present Government 3,000 more people were homeless and in urgent need.

As if that were not bad enough, in London the problem is particularly serious. We have the highest homelessness figures for 20 years, with 48,000 households in temporary accommodation, including 6,000 in bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

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The problem is made worse by the chaos in dealing with asylum seekers. In 1999, there were 71,160 applications. By the end of November last year, that figure had already been exceeded. That has meant that less social accommodation is available for others.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Is he aware that the reason why the London housing situation is so precarious--I accept that it is--is not, as he is obliquely suggesting, the increased demand from asylum seekers, but the reduction in the supply of housing as a result of the severe problems of the London housing market? In fact, there were 10,000 fewer homeless acceptances last year in London than under the Conservative Government in 1990.

Mr. Waterson: I am not suggesting any more than the hon. Lady that there is one single reason for the problems in London. Indeed, it is only fair to say that the Association of London Government made a point similar to that of the hon. Lady in its briefings. However, the ALG's housing panel has called the increase in asylum seekers "a significant contributory factor" in rising homelessness. The London Research Centre attributed a substantial part of the increased use of temporary accommodation in London to the need to accommodate asylum seekers.

Under the Bill, the Government propose to give priority for social housing to applicants with an institutionalised background. The Minister managed to whip himself up into a lather as he reached his peroration on that issue. However, the plain fact is that the Government want convicted criminals to jump the housing queue when they are released. What sort of message does that send to law-abiding people who wait patiently to be rehoused, often for years?

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