Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Robert Ainsworth: Our proposals for homelessness reform require local authorities to take a more strategic approach to tackling and preventing homelessness. Such a strategic approach will be effective only if it harnesses the efforts and activities of all the organisations operating in each authority's area that provide services and assistance to homeless people.

We have made it clear that a partnership approach is central to our proposals. We require local housing authorities to take a multi-agency strategic approach to preventing and responding to homelessness. There is a logical corollary: other agencies, statutory, voluntary and private, will have to play their part, and the voluntary sector includes registered social landlords.

Registered social landlords will be central to the development and implementation of homelessness strategies. In some areas, they provide the majority of social housing, and the transfer programme is increasing their importance in delivering services to tenants and in supporting local authorities in the performance of their statutory duties.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) quoted what my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning said in Committee, but he quoted him on a different point. Registered social landlords are subject to the Housing Corporation. If registered social landlords do not co-operate with the strategies drawn up by local authorities, the Housing Corporation can ensure that they do.

New clauses 2 and 3 seek to strengthen the statutory duties on registered social landlords to co-operate with local authorities in offering accommodation to people with priority under the authorities' allocation scheme, and to assist authorities in the discharge of their homelessness duties by depriving them of their discretion to consider what is reasonable in the circumstances. We have covered that ground pretty thoroughly now and in Committee. Registered social landlords are already under a duty to co-operate with local authorities to such an extent as is reasonable. That allows some discretion, but the provision is given teeth by the sector's regulator--the Housing Corporation.

7 Feb 2001 : Column 969

6 pm

In guidance and through its policies on investment, the corporation can influence and provide incentives to associations to ensure that they work constructively with authorities. The corporation is reviewing its guidance and will ensure that local authorities' strategic roles are highlighted and that registered social landlords should endeavour to help authorities to deliver that role.

Registered social landlords serve an important social purpose, but they are independent, voluntary bodies even if regulated and monitored under statute. I do not believe it appropriate, or necessary, to prevent them from exercising their discretion in relation to their statutory duties. It is essential that we respect their independence, but we certainly will look to them fully to support local housing authorities in the development and implementation of homelessness reviews and strategies, and the Housing Corporation will strengthen its guidance in that respect.

It is odd that those hon. Members who generally welcome the greater freedoms that we are giving to local authorities in carrying out their functions are seeking to place stronger statutory duties on registered social landlords. There is real value in the sector's independence and diversity. That has come about not by Government diktat, but by steady evolution, with associations informing and voluntarily supporting and contributing to the social housing agenda. Independence allows self-motivation, greater innovation and a vision that goes beyond statutory duties. In seeking to limit that vision, the hon. Member for Bath risks losing much of what is best in the sector. I believe that new clauses 2 and 3 would do more harm than good, so I ask him to withdraw the motion.

Mr. Don Foster: I apologise to the Under-Secretary for not joining the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) in congratulating him on his first outing at the Dispatch Box, but many of us in Committee had the opportunity to congratulate him on his promotion. Having said that, I found this outing rather disappointing, because he claims that, under new clause 2, some of the freedom and flexibility of registered social landlords would be removed, which would be appalling, and that we should respect the sector's diversity and flexibility. However, at the same time, he categorically told me that I need not worry because, in fact, all registered social landlords were under the control and dominion of the Housing Corporation.

The Under-Secretary admitted that such landlords were regulated by statute and that they have statutory duties, but he now tells us not only that the Housing Corporation will issue new guidance but that there will be strengthened guidance. I want to provide a mechanism to strengthen the relationship between local authorities and registered social landlords. However, having told me that I could not do that, he now describes an alternative by which that will be done. Of course, in doing so, he generously answered--so avoiding my having to do so--the question about who would have control over such issues, asked by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). The answer is that those who hold the purse strings control the issues. Given that the Under-Secretary has given that response, I intend to withdraw the motion.

Mr. Ainsworth: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I confused him; I certainly did not mean to

7 Feb 2001 : Column 970

do so. I thought that he wanted to intervene, so I gave way to him. Although I am new to the Dispatch Box, I hope that I never fall into the habit of making such long interventions.

Mr. Foster rose--

Mr. Ainsworth: Does the hon. Gentleman want to intervene, or does he want to make a speech?

Mr. Foster: I am most grateful to the Under-Secretary for giving way now. I assumed, by the way in which he ended his previous remarks, that he had finished his speech and was seeking to persuade me to withdraw the motion.

Mr. Ainsworth: It is not at like the hon. Gentleman to be so self-centred; he should realise that the group contains other amendments, which have been tabled by other hon. Members.

Amendment No. 57 is misconceived. It would set up false alternatives and suggests that meeting need is not compatible with meeting demand. However, meeting need does not preclude promoting choice. For example, facilitating transfers within an authority's stock does not increase demand for social housing, but it does increase choice. Offering choice to homeless applicants is not incompatible with meeting need--they can occur together. The Bill will establish a robust framework for prioritising claims on social housing. It will allow need to be met and choice to be promoted.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) cited a couple of examples from his constituency. He will be aware that we are extending the priority categories to cover all 16 and 17-year-olds and all 18 and 19-year-olds leaving care. I should have thought that those categories, as well as a properly used definition of vulnerability, could cover those examples in a reasonable, caring and thorough local authority and that such people should be considered in those priority categories.

Mr. Simon Hughes: Will the Under-Secretary give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: At least the hon. Gentleman makes it clear that he wishes to intervene.

Mr. Hughes: On the Under-Secretary's response to amendment No. 57, in the Government's view, should local authorities meet need before demand?

Mr. Ainsworth: As I have said, we do not see a contrast. Local authorities must not only meet need, but provide choice. That is the core purpose of our proposals. We do not believe that there is a conflict between those matters.

Under amendments Nos. 18, 15 and 19, we need, yet again, to consider what should, and should not, be included in the Bill. We expect local authorities to seek the views of tenants, residents and those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, including rough sleepers. Their views will be central in informing, from a consumer perspective, the homelessness reviews and in helping to draw up the strategies. We expect local government to engage people in the area, to work in partnership and to

7 Feb 2001 : Column 971

be customer focused, but such matters need not be stated in the Bill. Homelessness includes rough sleeping, so adding rough sleeping, as suggested under amendment No. 18, would be meaningless. There is no need to imply, by including one group, that its needs were necessarily more pressing than another's.

I share hon. Members' concern about the welfare of those with mental health needs, but we shall ensure that such needs are carefully addressed in the code of guidance. I repeat that, no matter what problem a group faces, or how large the group may be, it is not necessary to state every detail in the Bill. Indeed, that is not always desirable, as we have discussed elsewhere.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) refers to the fact that such people are not mentioned in the Bill, but the Housing Act 1996 states that they are exactly the people who need to be looked after. Section 189(1)(c) of the Housing Act 1996 defines exactly the categories of people that he wanted to include in the Bill. The issues are covered, and I hope that he will accept that assurance.

Next Section

IndexHome Page