Homes Bill

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Dr. Iddon: We should not lose sight of the fact that we arrived in our current position because the previous Administration changed the subsidy system. Instead of subsidising bricks and mortar, which would have kept the stock in good condition, they decided to change everything: it is the housing benefit system that they introduced which got us into the mess that we are now in.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. However, I was trying to point out, without being too partisan, that the issue of choice it is not quite as simple as some hon. Members imply. The purpose of the amendments was to draw attention to the very important role of RSLs. I have given an indication of the number of properties in their hands and shown how that figure is increasing as the number of houses owned by local authority housing associations declines. By 2004, RSLs will operate the majority of housing in the sector, so it is vitally important that they are brought firmly into the development of homelessness and housing strategies. They play such a significant part, especially in those authorities that have gone through the process of stock transfer, that it is important that they be acknowledged on the face of the Bill.

3.30 pm

The Minister has referred to several other bodies that are not currently listed on the face of the Bill, including health services, organisations responsible for dealing with housing benefits, and the probation service. I fully acknowledge the role that they play and the importance of the local authority consulting them and involving them in the development of its strategy. However, RSLs are a special case.

The key element of the Minister's standard list argument that if a body is not referred to, people may assume that its significance is less than they hoped. Even if the Minister does not accept the new clauses, I am grateful for his having put on record the vital role that RSLs will play. I also acknowledge his point that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all definition of RSLs in terms of their constitutional arrangements and the activities that they undertake. In some parts of the country, the role of the RSL in urban or rural regeneration is significant, whereas RSLs in other parts of the country do not get involved in such activities. That has a bearing on homelessness strategies. We all recognise that dealing with the problems of homeless people involves more than ensuring that they have a roof over their heads: they need all the support services to which the Minister has referred. Some RSLs are willing to get involved in debates and joint planning and development with other bodies, whereas others are not.

The Minister is right to say that we should recognise the diversity of RSLs. He is also right to point out that they are voluntary organisations. As I said, amendment No. 65, which would require RSLs to do whatever the local authority said, is inappropriate and that is why I did not press it. However, new clause 10 and new clause 9, which has not been selected, also deal with that issue. New clause 9 has similar objectives to new clause 10 but is more easily explained. I sought in those new clauses to recognise that one cannot insist, as amendment No. 65 would do, that RSLs go against their constitution in complying with anything requested of them by the local authority.

The Minister has said that because there is such diversity among RSLs we should not expect all of them to do anything, but I draw his attention to section 170 of the Housing Act 1996 which new clause 9 would have amended. Section 170 states:

    Where a local housing authority so request, a registered social landlord shall

—not may, but shall—

    co-operate to such extent as is reasonable in the circumstances in offering accommodation to people with priority on the authority's housing register.

Nothing in the Bill would amend that piece of legislation. My new clauses would merely strengthen that requirement for the RSL to assist the local authority, except where that would be in breach of its constitution or would prejudice the discharge of its functions.

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that, because we are dealing with a large group of amendments, it has not been possible to deal with each one individually. I accept entirely that what the proposals in new clause 10 are largely consistent with the provisions of the 1996 Act. That is one of the reasons why we do not consider the new clause necessary. In addition, it is not appropriate to impose—as the bulk of the amendments in the group do—obligations to participate in the framing of a strategy on all RSLs: because of their diversity some would be well placed to assist, but others would not be able to do so. The principle of RSLs assisting in the discharge of local authority obligations is clear and it is already provided for. The amendments go much wider than the existing provision.

Mr. Foster: I accept that point entirely. However, my focus is currently on just one of the items in the list—new clause 10. I used new clause 9 to illustrate the point, because the principle is exactly the same.

The point that new clause 10 is making is that a requirement should be placed on RSLs to provide support to the local authority if the local authority seeks it, unless to do so would contravene the constitution of that RSL, or if the help provided would prevent it from carrying out some of its other functions. That strikes me as being perfectly reasonable. Moreover, it makes clear the meaning of the word ``sensible'' as it applies to section 170 of the Housing Act 1996. I ask the Minister to reflect on that and explain why he feels unable to support the new clause, which would allow any RSL of the type the Minister described—those whose activities differ from those of the vast majority—to be exempted from that particular requirement.

There is an additional reason why the new clause is important. I touched on it briefly before and I shall now expand on my comments. Half-way through our discussion of clauses 16 to 18, the Minister has kindly—perhaps—provided us with a document explaining the Government's intentions. I am grateful for document, but it would have been much more helpful if we had received it a few hours—if not a few days—earlier. Because I have been listening to the debate, I have not had time to study the document with the degree of diligence that I would have liked to bring to bear, but I note with interest that, a little later in our proceedings, the Minister is likely to accept one of my amendments which deals with vulnerable people—the document says that the Government want to support that amendment.

Notwithstanding his remark to the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon about it being unnecessary to insist on a housing strategy and a homelessness strategy packaged together, the document tells me that the Minister will shortly change his mind.

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman must recognise that there is no question of changing my mind. My point in my response to the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon is that all local authorities already have a housing strategy in place: they have to do so because of the HIP grant. That is not the case with homelessness, so it is right that in a Bill that specifically relates to homelessness we should impose an obligation to prepare such a strategy. That there might be a case for the sort of broader statutory definition of housing responsibilities that is recommended by the Chartered Institute of Housing, the Local Government Association and others, but that is not of immediate relevance to the Bill. It would in any case be unfortunate to rush such a proposal into legislation that focuses specifically on homelessness, in respect of which there is no adequate requirement to put a strategy in place. That is the point, and I hope the hon. Gentleman recognises it.

Mr. Foster: I have listened with great care to the Minister and I look forward to repeating those words back to him when we have the Official Report. I think that he will find that he has been particularly helpful in respect of the amendment that I will move at a later stage, not least because his own document states:

    Homelessness strategies should not be developed in isolation. A homelessness strategy should be consistent with, and integral to, an authority's broader housing strategy.

The Minister is nodding—he clearly agrees. I am sure that when he looks at the amendment that I shall propose, he will see that the purpose is merely to bring the two together, not to redefine what should be contained within the housing strategy along the lines proposed by several organisations. I hope that he is minded to accept recommendations, but no doubt he will do so only after reflection and at a later date.

Mr. Raynsford: I am delighted that providing the hon. Gentleman with our thoughts on how the homelessness strategy should be put together has created such a fertile quarry for research, either by him or by some Liberal Democrat research assistant, over the course of lunchtime. I apologise for the fact that it was not made available sooner. We rushed to get it out at the earliest opportunity, and I spent some time last night working on a previous draft to ensure that an acceptable draft could be given to the Committee today. We are doing our best to keep the Committee informed on a fast-moving issue.

To go back to the fundamental point, the hon. Gentleman must recognise that every local authority already has a housing strategy in place, so there is no need to oblige them to produce a housing strategy in order to discharge their responsibilities under the Bill. However, there is a need to require the preparation of a homelessness strategy and it would be sensible if that were consistent with the authority's wider housing strategy. There is no inconsistency in that.

Mr. Foster: I suspect that we are stretching your patience, Mr. Gale, but I hope the Minister will accept two points. First, there is a very strict ruling that hon. Members and others may not consume food within a Committee Room and, secondly, I only received the document at 2.30 pm, from which time I have had no opportunity to eat anything. Therefore, the idea that I was mining my way through the document over my lunch is false—any mining has had to be done with one and a half ears tuned to the debate.

 
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