Homes Bill

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Mr. Waterson: It would be helpful if we all avoided the territory of manifesto drafting. We have not said that we will not continue to consider the wishes of tenants, but we intend to accelerate the LSVT policy even more than the Minister has done, and I pay tribute to him for building so successfully on it. He should not unwittingly suggest that we have said something that we have not said.

Mr. Raynsford: I am pleased to hear that, as some newspapers had reported that the Opposition were proposing the transfer of all council housing to other landlords. It is interesting to hear a rowing back from that position, if it ever was their position.

A wide range of other bodies—probation services, voluntary organisations that work with young people, bodies that address the needs of rough sleepers and many others—should also be engaged in reviews and strategies and in the prevention and management of homelessness. Multi-agency co-operation recognises that agencies may have clients in common, and many of the services that each agency provides can contribute to the prevention and management of homelessness. Such co-operation is driven by client needs, not organisational structures.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will be pleased to know that Bolton's homelessness figures, although recorded at about 1,000 people a year under the Tories, have currently been reduced to 800. However, more work is involved. The homeless persons officers in Bolton told me a few weeks ago that the level of complexity of the cases accepted now had increased enormously, and that it was not uncommon for them to deal with cases involving domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse and even child protection issues. They said that the multi-agency approach was needed like never before.

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend, who has had a long interest in housing and homelessness and has a great deal of experience on the subject, makes a telling point. I congratulate his authority in Bolton on its success in reducing homelessness numbers, but I acknowledge that the problems are often more complex now due to the factors to which he referred. I assure him that the emphasis on a multi-agency approach to tackle the problems is central to the Government's strategy, and we believe that it should be central to local government strategies as well.

The amendments fall loosely into two categories. Some would place statutory duties on registered social landlords, and some would specify bodies that should co-operate with local authorities. Amendment No. 64 seeks to place a statutory duty on RSLs to assist their local housing authorities to carry out a homelessness review and formulate a homelessness strategy. Amendment No. 65 seeks to place a statutory duty on RSLs that hold accommodation in the district of an authority to take the homelessness strategy for that district into account in the exercise of their relevant functions. Similarly, new clause 10 seeks to place statutory duties on RSLs to co-operate with local authorities in offering accommodation to people with priority under the authority's allocation scheme, and to assist authorities in the discharge of their functions.

RSLs will be central to the development and implementation of homelessness strategies, as I have said. Their engagement in helping local housing authorities to deliver their statutory duties will be essential. I should like to take the opportunity to thank the many RSLs and their representative body, the National Housing Federation, for their support of the Bill. The majority of RSLs will be willing participants although, as the RSL sector is diverse, some may not be able to assist. The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon referred to Home Housing, which has a large stock. I think that Anchor housing trust is larger, but Home Housing is certainly one of the largest. At the other end of the spectrum are very small organisations providing a tiny number of units, or co-operative housing engaged only in meeting the needs of the members of the co-operative association. The latter group would not necessarily be well-placed to assist either in the formulation of a strategy or in its implementation. The blanket nature of the duties would not work or fit well with the diversity that is characteristic of the RSL sector. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) recognised, when he moved the amendments, that there might be a problem with that. It is important to recognise the diversity.

The other point that needs to be stressed is that RSLs are independent, voluntary bodies. I will return to the importance of the term ``voluntary'' shortly. They are regulated, and they are monitored under statute, but they remain independent bodies. It is not appropriate or necessary to place on them statutory duties, as if they were local authorities. It is essential that we respect their independence. However, we look to them to support local housing authorities in the development and implementation of homelessness reviews and strategies. The Housing Corporation will be strengthening its guidance in that respect.

Amendments Nos. 66, 68 and 71 would have no real effect. The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon made the point that although he could find nothing objectionable in the amendments, he could not see any purpose in putting them in the Bill either. The amendments are designed to add registered social landlords to the lists of bodies that are referred to explicitly in the Bill. Registered social landlords are already included in references to voluntary organisations, so it is unnecessary to add a category. All RSLs are voluntary organisations, by definition, but some voluntary organisations are not RSLs.

Interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly, some voluntary organisations become RSLs. I pondered that at lunchtime, when I had to speak at an event organised by the construction industry training board, which was held in a building called Centrepoint, an office block in central London. There is also a well-known voluntary organisation that provides extremely effective relief to young homeless people in London called Centrepoint. Its name was an ironic reference to the building, which was empty at the time that the voluntary organisation was established. The developer of the block had made the interesting discovery that it was more profitable to keep it empty than to let it. That was one of the bizarre features of the property market then.

Centrepoint has done extraordinarily good work in meeting the needs of young, homeless people. It chose to seek registration as a housing association—it is now an RSL—because that enabled it to run services that it could not otherwise have run, and to have access to funding from the Housing Corporation. Voluntary organisations can become RSLs. We feel, therefore, that ``voluntary organisations'' is an all-embracing term, which covers RSLs. It avoids any problems that might arise through the use of alternative definitions.

As for the listing of particular bodies that must co-operate with local housing authorities, one effect of these amendments would be that many small landlords would be obliged to participate. I have already referred the hon. Member for Bath to the difficulty of seeking to impose duties on very small RSLs that do not have the expertise or the capacity to make a meaningful contribution. If there is a willingness to co-operate, I would expect local authorities to welcome it, and to build on it to achieve real partnership. However, such arrangements cannot be forced, and in my view would be undermined by a statutory obligation.

My principle objection to the amendments is that they would undermine the strategic responsibilities that we are placing on local housing authorities. It is for local housing authorities to undertake homelessness reviews. They can do so in partnership, as part of a multi-agency approach, but it is their responsibility and it would not be wise or sensible to dilute that. It is part of their housing and wider community responsibilities. It is important that local authorities accept those responsibilities and are clear about where the buck stops. Sharing responsibility would simply dilute it, and the amendments are therefore unhelpful.

I shall deal now with a number of specific points raised by hon. Members. The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon made several contributions with which I wholeheartedly agreed. I hope that he will not find my confession embarrassing, but I can reassure him by saying that I disagreed with him on two matters.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the death of council housing. That is not part of the Government's agenda. We have dramatically increased investment in the renovation and improvement of council housing; investment has doubled in the lifetime of this Parliament. From April, we shall introduce a major repairs allowance to provide the means for authorities to keep their council housing stock in good order in the years ahead. We believe that council housing has an important and continuing role. It will be part of a more diverse housing sector, and there will no longer be monopoly provision. A range of providers will all meet high standards and allow the public an element of choice, which we believe is desirable. For the foreseeable future, council housing will be not only important but the largest element in the total social housing sector. To suggest that council housing is in its death throes is far from the truth.

3 pm

Mr. Curry: The Minister is being extraordinarily squeamish, and unnecessarily so. When people talk about council housing, the image that comes to mind is exactly the one that the Minister raised—of monopoly providers, and row upon row of identical housing in rather dreary estates. None of us wants to sustain that. We want a diversification of provision and regeneration programmes. We hear more and more talk about creating communities and providing diverse activities where once there were rolled-up suburbs.

The Minister will recognise that not only council houses but councils, too, have changed dramatically. The present and previous Governments were responsible for major reforms in the role of local government; local government is seen by both parties as an enabler, not necessarily a provider. Why be squeamish when houses and councils have both changed?

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Prepared 25 January 2001