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Mr. Foster: I am most grateful for the Minister's response. When we see more detail of the regulations and guidance--in Committee, I hope--perhaps we will be able to push the point a little further.

I turn to part II, which deals with homelessness. As I have said, we are delighted that some of the worst aspects of the Housing Act 1996 will be repealed. That legislation was put on the statute book primarily as a result of the work of the late Liberal Member of Parliament, Stephen Ross, on the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977.

Like the Minister, I found the Conservatives' amendment somewhat ironic--I choose my words carefully--bearing in mind that their legislation removed from local authorities a responsibility to have permanent concern about the accommodation of homeless people. By removing the right of local authorities freely to use their accommodation, the Conservatives made homelessness even worse.

I do not know whether the Minister was slightly taken aback, as I was, by the many interventions when he was dealing with part I and the important issue of buying and selling houses, whereas only one intervention was made by a Conservative Member on homelessness.

The issue of homelessness is vital, and it is vital that the measures proposed in the Bill are agreed. However, we believe that other measures need to be addressed. If we are to provide the range of support that local authorities will need if they are to help homeless people, councils should be free to invest all their capital receipts from right-to-buy sales in developing new social housing. Local authorities should have more teeth if they are to insist on a much greater proportion of affordable housing in all new developments. We believe that the planning process, through PPG3, is inadequate. There should be other measures such as mortgage rescue packages to prevent homelessness initially.

Labour Members made a key point: a sensible empty homes strategy is vital, but it is missing from the Bill. The Government could do two things almost immediately to end the obscenity of having 150,000 homeless households while having 750,000 empty homes. They could equalise at a lower rate VAT on repairs and renovations. I know that privately the Minister would love to do that. Secondly--it has already been hinted at--they could introduce much stronger compulsory purchase powers for local authorities to bring back into use homes or houses that have been left empty deliberately by unscrupulous landlords.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): Is there not a third strand, which is the way in which many council

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properties are under-occupied? We need policies that will encourage local authorities to get individuals to give up such properties in favour of families. However, before those individuals do so, they must be given a viable alternative, and that is not being offered by housing associations. Only local authorities will be able to deal with the situation. Once again, local authorities must be given the right to spend their own money on providing viable alternatives.

Mr. Foster: My hon. Friend draws me on neatly to another point, and something that is missing from the Bill. It ties in with what he is saying. Any Member who has read the Bill in any detail will perhaps be surprised that there is no reference to registered social landlords, yet they are to be one of the key providers of affordable accommodation.

I draw the Minister's attention to the part of the Bill that refers to the development of a local authority strategy, which we welcome. The only other body that is to be involved is the local authority's social services department. There is no requirement in the Bill or in the guidance notes for there to be consultation with the registered social landlord. Nothing in the Bill--this is crucial to the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock)--will require a registered social landlord to have a duty to take into account the local authority's homelessness strategy. Only when RSLs and local authorities work in partnership will we begin to tackle some of the problems.

Mr. Raynsford: Subsections (3) and (8) of clause 18 refer specifically to local authorities working with voluntary organisations or other bodies that they consider to be capable of helping them. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that that includes registered social landlords.

Mr. Foster: I am grateful to the Minister. I was about to refer to the quaint term "other bodies". It strikes me that RSLs are infinitely more than just another body. They are key to what is happening. It is surprising that there is no specific mention of RSLs. I acknowledge entirely that there is reference to other bodies.

More needs to be done in respect of temporary accommodation. The Minister rightly referred to his concerns about the quality of existing temporary accommodation. However, although local authorities will be required to provide suitable accommodation for the long-term solution of the problem, there is no requirement that temporary accommodation shall be defined in the same way as being suitable. I genuinely believe that that issue needs to be dealt with because two welcome measures--extending the range of people that local authorities will have to cater for under the new definitions of homeless categories and giving greater choice to homeless people, which will mean that they will stay in temporary accommodation longer--will put much greater pressure on temporary accommodation. There will be a real danger that, to meet that requirement, accommodation that is even less suitable will be found by local authorities. I hope that the Bill will include a specific requirement that temporary accommodation must be appropriate.

On allocations policy, we welcome the increased flexibility that is being provided. We want to make sure--perhaps the Minister can give an absolute assurance--that

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providing greater choice means more than one offer being made to a homeless person or household. He has said in briefings that that is the intention, but I hope that we can be given a clear assurance that the Government intend to offer a wider range of choice--not just one option.

We welcome much of the Bill, but nevertheless believe that it represents work in progress. I do not know how many Members found a bit more time to watch television over the holiday and became glued to programmes such as "Changing Rooms" and "Ground Work". [Hon. Members: "Ground Force".] Well, I have not had the opportunity to see much of those programmes--I am just becoming gripped by them. However, I was struck by the fact that they give the broad outline of a plan at the beginning in the hope that it will work out by the end. I hope that, in Committee, we will have the opportunity to help the Minister to make sure that we get the Bill right because it deserves to succeed.

5.52 pm

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): I am glad to have the opportunity to say a few words about the Bill because housing is a major problem in my constituency--it is perhaps the No. 1 problem facing Burnley. My hon. Friend the Minister would be the first to say that the Bill will achieve only part of what he and the Government want to achieve, and I am sure that housing will be an important part of the election campaign and of the legislative programme of the re-elected Labour Government. Our Green Paper "Quality and Choice" was produced last April and was followed by a consultation exercise, but there is a lot to do and much to implement, and the Minister does not pretend that the Bill does anything other than deal with two important issues.

I fully support the concept of a seller's pack--it is the right way to go and we have wanted such an improvement to be made to the housing market for many years. As the Minister said, a house is the biggest purchase that people make, so it is important that the right safeguards are in place to ensure that that purchase is dealt with properly. It is fortunate that he opened the debate because he has visited Burnley and the neighbouring constituency of Pendle to consider the problem on the ground, and he will not be surprised that I want to mention the particular problem for places such as Burnley. It is also fortunate that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), will make the winding-up speech. His constituency faces similar difficulties, and both Ministers understand the problem for areas in which it is difficult to sell property.

The difficulty in London is different. Labour Members who want to contribute to the debate mainly represent either London and the south-east or other parts of the country which face a different problem, but it is to the Minister's advantage that he has always recognised that the difficulties vary in different parts of the country. Also, he has always acknowledged that problems vary even within regions, which is to his credit. He is recognised everywhere as an expert on housing and we are fortunate to have a Minister who understands housing so well.

Last year, we in Burnley undertook a voluntary housing stock transfer to Burnley and Padiham Community Housing, particularly because the problems facing the private sector were so tremendous. We had a large number

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of empty houses and many houses lacked basic amenities. Many still need major structural improvement and repair. The council could not deal with this and its own housing stock, but the transfer has enabled it to concentrate on the private sector, which is a major problem. We have about 3,500 empty houses. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) intervened on my hon. Friend the Minister to refer to a house selling for £15,000 to £18,000. In certain parts of my constituency of Burnley, a block of houses could be bought for that price. I would be lucky to get £60,000 for my house, whereas a similar house anywhere in London would cost £250,000 while in some of the best parts it would cost between £500,000 and £600,000.

A couple came to my advice bureau on Saturday, and I almost cried when they put their case to me. The house next door to them caught fire just before Christmas, and another in the block had caught fire six months ago. They spent £3,000 to repair the problems caused by the earlier fire, and more than £1,000 in the past few months to improve their central heating. As they said, when they moved into their house the block was decent, but now more than half of it is empty and they want to know what is going to happen to them and their house.

The seller's pack will not help my constituents, although I listened to what my hon. Friend the Minister said and accept that clause 7(8)(c) provides for variation in certain parts of the country. I came to the House thinking that perhaps an exemption for all properties in council tax band A would be the right way forward, but Burnley borough council has 40,567 properties and 26,111 of those--64 per cent.--are in band A, which is an incredible proportion. However, not all those houses are in difficult areas. My hon. Friend saw particularly difficult areas such as Stoneyholme, Daneshouse and Burnley Wood and would also have visited Accrington road, but lack of time made that impossible. However, other houses in band A would sell for a reasonable price because of the area they are in.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) referred to assisted area status. Burnley does not have assisted area status, and a few months ago we lost objective 2 status as well, so those benefits would not help a place like Burnley. We must find a way to deal with the problems, and I am reassured by the fact that my hon. Friend said that the Bill provides for the appropriate variation.

In a letter to me, Burnley borough council states:

The use of the words "by some" suggests that the council does not think that that is necessarily the right way forward. However, I believe that the concept is right and I accept my hon. Friend's assurances. The Local Government Association and other bodies must get all the relevant local authorities together, whether they are in the north-west, the north-east or elsewhere, to study the problem and find a solution. We must make sure that the legislation helps, rather than hinders, that process.

Finally, I shall comment on part II, which deals with homelessness. The Housing Act 1996 was totally misleading in its name and was an appalling piece of

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legislation. It was typical of the previous Government and was one of the reasons why they were kicked out of office by such a large majority in the 1997 election. I welcome the fact that one of the first things that the Labour Government did, as speedily as they could, by regulation, was to allow councils to deal with certain aspects of the problem of homelessness. Now we are going one stage further by changing the 1996 Act through primary legislation.

In its letter to me, Burnley borough council writes:

It is important to recognise that in authorities which are not unitary authorities, social services are a separate area of responsibility. I have long believed that unitary local government is the best form of local government, but that is a separate debate. In an area such as Burnley, the county council is responsible for social services. I do not say this as criticism of the county council, with which we have a good working relationship, but difficulties arise because it is responsible for an aspect which is so closely related to housing. It is good that the Bill gives a specific role to county council social services.

The Government recognise the problem of homelessness. For humane reasons, we took steps to alleviate it straight away. We are now dealing with it responsibly and reasonably. That is to the Government's credit. I entirely support the Bill and will vote for Second Reading tonight.

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