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6.4 pm

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): No doubt to the satisfaction of the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), I shall speak entirely about the part of the Bill dealing with homelessness. I suppose that I was the godfather of the 1996 Bill, which I still regard as a great, fundamental piece of legislation. The present Government's transfer programme, for example, would not be possible without the provisions of the Housing Act 1996. If the Act's provisions on homelessness were so wicked and have taken such a long time to correct, they were still important measures. I am not in repentance mode, but I shall speak about the future, not the past.

I agree with the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) that we must differentiate between the different circumstances in which local authorities operate. In large parts of the urban north, where there is surplus stock, the problem is finding people to live in the council houses. If there is more freedom to be creative in allocation, perhaps we can address some of those difficulties. In London and the south-east, however, the problem is a desperate shortage of homes for people to live in.

We can easily illustrate the differences by comparing the figures for cities north and south. In Leeds, where there are 71,000 council properties and a 3 per cent. average rate of void, which is a reasonably good record, the 10-year plan assumes a 20 to 25 per cent. decline in the number of council properties available. That is largely the effect of demography.

In Manchester there is a stock of 64,000. Any viable business plan for Manchester would plan for a reduction to about 40,000 properties over seven or eight years.

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Liverpool is down to 40,000 properties and has a rolling transfer programme which includes, in practice, the phasing out of social properties.

That pattern is not unique to the north of England. In Wales, Rhondda Cynon Taff--I apologise if I have not pronounced that correctly--has a contract out for the demolition of 380 council houses as part of a plan to get rid of unlettable properties.

In the north of England, the two-year duty had little practical impact, as large numbers of people could comfortably be housed well within the time of the review. In London, the problems are acute but entirely different.

The 1996 Act provided that local authority stock could not be used for temporary accommodation for more than two years out of three. Circumstances that have developed since then have made that a problem. There has been a move of population both into London and the south-east, and out of London. Asylum seekers and people who have been granted asylum are a significant part of the population coming into London and the south-east, whatever Labour Members may say. House price inflation has occurred, so the two-out-of-three rule has created difficulties, particularly for London boroughs housing asylum seekers, whose applications may take four or five years to be processed. It is sensible to introduce more flexibility.

There is no point in rehearsing an old argument, but London and the south-east, as well as other areas, would benefit if the VAT rules made it easier to convert properties for change of use. Despite the measures that were recently introduced, there is still no reduction in VAT if, for example, offices are converted into accommodation.

To see the practical effect of that, let us consider a London borough such as Westminster, with 6,500 people on the register. Reviews would remove about 1,000, who would move on, and place another 3,000 on the transfer list. Each year there are between 800 and 1,200 new lettings, 500 on transfer. About 900 lettings a year go to homeless people, so the great whack of the available property goes to people on the homeless list. As has been said, there is no way that the council can build its way out of those problems, because of the difficulty of finding available sites and the cost of the sites when they are found.

The crucial issue in a place such as Westminster is the housing register and the priority needs categories. Westminster moved from a date order system, which was challenged by a court case, and has had to go back to a points system. Inevitably, under a points system some people will always be at the back of the queue, and people cannot be given an idea of when they might be housed. There is a requirement that that should be the case, but it is impractical. The Bill, which removes the requirement to give additional preference to people accepted as homeless and the requirement to tell people how long they must wait before being housed, may permit Westminster to go back to a date order system. People would then have a better idea of where they stood.

The circumstances of the north and of the south mean that total care packages must be provided for people who are homeless. In the north, a tenancy is in many senses the last thing that people need, because of all the issues of skills, competence and confidence that are involved if they are to hold down a tenancy. One of the things that we learned from the rough sleepers initiative was how important all those competencies were, with housing almost at the end of the list. In fact, it was at the end of

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the list if there was a sensible progression. We need to sustain people and we need sustainable recovery, if I may coin a phrase. The two-year duty had practically no impact in places where the availability of property was so widespread. However, in the south, because of things like temporary accommodation in King's Cross, that has to be buttressed by all-round care for people, otherwise the worst possible circumstances prevail. A roof over someone's head is the beginning, not the end, of support.

The most important element of the changes that the Government intend to make was alluded to by the Minister. Although it is not in the Bill, it concerns extending the duty to 16 and 17-year-olds. At present, children leaving care are catered for as a result of the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, which gives additional responsibility to social services departments. The issue, however, is about 16 and 17-year-olds who are not in care, which is referred to in chapter 9 of the housing Green Paper. The effective liaison between social services and housing departments will matter. Currently, the duty in cases of need falls on social services departments, and, as the hon. Member for Burnley said, in parts of the country where local government is in two tiers, there will have to be effective case-specific protocols across local authorities to make sure that no one falls through the net.

In rural areas, there are different problems. There is isolation, and there is a problem with fragmentation of services and identifying where people have difficulties. Much poverty and hardship in rural areas is less visible than in cities. There are problems in places such as Brighton, Eastbourne and Scarborough, which are at the end of railway lines, when kids turn up and declare themselves homeless. Co-ordination is essential because 16 and 17-year-olds cannot hold tenancies as they are minors and cannot be liable for debt. In addition, they are not eligible for housing benefit, so if they have tenancies they have to be sponsored by a social services department.

The Bill will help local authorities in cases where the current cost of looking after care leavers can be immense. In Liverpool, I discovered, the cost can amount to £1,500 a week when young people are placed with a voluntary sector organisation or a chosen landlord. That does not usually have a positive outcome, as the total package that goes alongside housing is not available. Some youngsters may be ready for tenancies--which, of course, have to be underwritten--but others will need a staging post to link housing with education and training in a foyer plus concept. It is not good enough just to check from time to time that they are not getting into trouble.

Beyond that, there is still a serious problem with where young people live, as there is not a great deal of single-person accommodation. There is often a great deal of local hostility to what are perceived as hostels for troublemakers who are dumped on a law-abiding neighbourhood. We have all experienced that. There is a problem with temporary accommodation because, as we know, the mixing of older men and youngsters is not a good idea.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Curry: In a moment.

From experience we know that regeneration is not helped by large concentrations of single persons on estates. One answer may be rotating tenancies with

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properties serving to provide temporary accommodation and then reverting to permanent stock after a while. I shall give way to the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) who, no doubt, will be mindful of the time.

Mr. Love: I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's recognition of the need for a change in homelessness legislation. I want to ask a question concerning 16 and 17-year-olds. Does the right hon. Gentleman feel that the strategic nature of some outlines in the Bill will help to provide the multi-agency approach towards which he is moving?

Mr. Curry: If the Bill does not encourage a multi-agency approach, there is no point in proceeding with it. We all recognise that housing is necessary, but it is not a sufficient solution. Housing will not be sustainable without the elements that make it possible for people to acquire the competencies to manage something as simple as rent and acquire the ordinary ability to use their finances sensibly over a week or fortnight to keep body and soul together.

There are difficulties for couples because temporary accommodation and tenancies are not easily available. There are increasing problems with childless couples and mixing a few couples in accommodation where there is a predominance of single men. Those are real social problems. It therefore makes sense to enlarge choice by bringing the private sector more into play. Some local authorities have established landlord forums, where landlords meeting certain standards in facilities and management can go on a common register with housing associations. That can extend to common application forms with housing associations. That widens choice and offers a wider resource base for housing, both geographically--as houses can be made available in parts of a city that would not otherwise be available--and qualitatively.

If the idea of the abolition of the duty to maintain the register is to permit local authorities to offer more choice and be more creative--everyone quotes the Delft example, almost ad nauseam--that can be supported, provided the local authority continues to keep effective track of people in need and to fulfil its duty to forecast housing need.

The Bill is an addition to the framework of the Housing Act 1996. Despite what some people have said, the Bill very much pushes that. When the Minister emerges from his Hemingway mode and comes out from behind the hair on his chest, he will recognise the common underlying objectives. I hope that the Bill will build on those objectives. It firms up the strategic duty, but I suspect that it will make little difference to who is housed where. I am sceptical about how much it will add to choice.

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