Homes Bill

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Mr. Foster: Before the Minister draws his remarks to a close, will he deal with prevention as part of the strategy? So far he has dealt only with those who are already homeless. What about people who are vulnerable to homelessness?

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman has jumped ahead. I was about to move on to guidance for local authorities. I shall ensure that the need for authorities to give careful consideration to the interests of vulnerable groups generally, and of vulnerable young people in particular, is addressed in the code of guidance. It will cover the prevention of homelessness as well as its relief.

The Secretary of State's power to issue guidance under section 182 of the 1996 Act relates to homelessness and its prevention. The Secretary of State will therefore be able to issue comprehensive guidance about the new functions of local authorities under the clause. That is precisely the intention. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, having heard my reassurance, will withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Foster: I am grateful to the Minister. I am pleased with the extension of the categories and with the guidance that will be offered. It seems clear that the guidance will be comprehensive. I am delighted that the Minister has included specific reference to prevention. I hope that he will build on existing examples of good inter-agency work in different parts of the country, such as the City and County of Swansea's youth homelessness strategy. I also hope that he will acknowledge that the guidance might encompass strategies such as those that have been developed by some local authorities and their strategic partners in helping 14-year-olds prepare for life by themselves when they come out of care. Some authorities, such as that in my constituency, provide halfway houses to help young people. The Minister will be aware of many such examples throughout the country. I urge that specific examples be included in the guidance, as there is nothing like encouraging the others by showing them the best that can be done. Given the Minister's assurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

4 pm

The Chairman: It is my view and, given the notes that I received from Mr. Stevenson, his, too, that the matters arising from clause 16 have been thoroughly, if not exhaustively, debated. Having said that, the stand part debate is grouped on the selection list with new clause 17.

New clause 17 relates to housing and homelessness. The homelessness policy has been extremely thoroughly debated over the past several hours. I expect any debate on new clause 17 to concentrate specifically on the housing element of the debate and, therefore, to be extremely narrow.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take new clause 17—Duty of a local housing authority to formulate a housing and homelessness strategy—

    `.—(1) A local housing authority (``the authority'') may from time to time—

    (a) carry out a housing and homelessness review for their district; and

    (b) formulate and publish a housing and homelessness strategy based on that review.

    (2) The social services authority for the district of the authority (where that is a different local authority) shall give such assistance in connection with the exercise of power under subsection (1) as the authority may reasonably require. The registered social landlords holding accommodation in the district of the authority shall give such assistance in connection with the exercise of power under subsection (1) as the authority may reasonably require.

    (3) The authority shall exercise that power so as to ensure that the first housing and homelessness strategy for their district is published within the period of twelve months beginning with the day on which this section comes into force.

    (4) The authority shall exercise that power so as to ensure that a new housing and homelessness strategy for their district is published within the period of five years beginning with the day on which their last housing and homelessness strategy was published.

    (5) A local housing authority shall take their housing and homelessness strategy into account in the exercise of their functions.

    (6) A social services authority shall take the housing and homelessness strategy for the district of a local housing authority into account in the exercise of their functions in relation to that district. The registered social landlords holding accommodation in the district of the authority shall take the housing and homelessness strategy into account in the exercise of their functions in relation to that district.

    (7) Nothing in subsection (5) or (6) affects any duty or requirement arising apart from this section.'.

Mr. Foster: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time—

The Chairman: Order. This is a stand part debate. If new clause 17 were to be moved, it would be moved formally later.

Mr. Raynsford rose—

Mr. Foster: I give way to the Minister.

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman might want to substitute new clause 17, which would require him to request a vote against clause 16 standing part of the Bill. If that is his intention, I shall strenuously oppose it.

Mr. Foster: I am grateful for the Minister's assistance. I was aware that to have new clause 17 accepted I would have to get rid of the existing alternative.

The purport of new clause 17 draws us into the debate about combining housing and homelessness strategies. The draft guidance that the Minister has offered us today shows the Government's desire to ensure that existing requirements for a housing strategy, together with the new requirements for a homelessness strategy, should be collided. The purpose of the new clause, which would replace much of the substance of the Government's clause, is merely to do that. The provision is deficient, as it includes the issue of requiring registered social landlords to take into account the strategy developed by the local authority. As I said, I accept that that presents difficulties. I hope that the Minister will accept the principle of the need to specify in the Bill that one housing and homelessness strategy should be created, rather than two separate strategies.

Mr. Curry: Following Mr. Stevenson's guidance this morning, I want to make a couple of points about the relationship between the housing department and social services. I am worried that there is a new danger that social services departments will be nibbled away or taken over by the health authorities or trusts on one side and housing departments on the other, and that they are now becoming a bit of a punchball in the middle of local government.

The clause uses three wonderful words—``may'', ``reasonably'' and ``require''. Those are three special words. The word ``may'' could easily be read as ``shall'', or ``must'', as the notes make clear. ``Reasonableness'' is a concept with which we are all familiar, and no one has found anything that does the job better. I am interested in the word ``require''. It has two meanings. There are things that need to be done that one can ``require'', or one can demand or ``require'' that something be done. I want to know whether ``require'' is facultative or imperative in this case, because that is important.

Social service departments are asked to take homelessness strategies into account. That is all very well in a unitary authority, but problems arise in two-tier authorities in which seven or eight district councils are pursuing different homeless strategies. Some will have had transferred stock and some will not. At the same time, social services departments that have an upper-tier responsibility in a two-tier system are under a great deal of pressure, especially financially. The pressure to passport through education and other spending has meant that social service departments tend to be caught in the middle feeling the pinch. I am anxious that the Minister should recognise who takes the lead in such cases.

In a sense, social services ought to be the more important partner. After all, social services departments are increasingly being expected to become important partners in health provision, and there seems to be a seamlessness between the provision of primary health care and looking after people in their own homes or in residential nursing homes. At the same time, housing authorities must also be taken into account. If we are not careful, social services departments will be taking account of what everyone else is doing and have no account of their own functions or any initiative left for what they are doing.

How does the Minister see the relationship, and how much does he expect social service departments to be able to knock a few heads together in local authorities, so that the strategy is not merely a local one? Over a county area there start to be many more common elements. If there is to be an effective interface between social services and homelessness, the greater the commonality in homelessness strategies, the more effective it will be to have that sensible relationship. It is that area that I want to explore, knowing how difficult life is in many social services departments and how vulnerable those who work in them are feeling.

Mr. Love: I apologise, Mr. Gale. In the urgency of wanting to intervene before you moved on, I inadvertently mistook new clause 10 for new clause 17, which is the clause on which I wanted to make some brief comments.

One of the symbols of the previous Government's housing policy was the explosion in street homelessness. Although the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon was involved in the rough sleepers initiative, I hope that he and the Committee will accept that one housing problem cannot be solved without addressing the wider strategic issues involved in housing. We have talked a great deal this afternoon about the rising numbers of homeless people in London. However, I think that we would all accept that in examining the problem of homelessness, increases in house prices and rents in greater London and restrictions on the number of affordable units of accommodation must also be discussed. One problem cannot be tackled in isolation.

While I accept the need for the homelessness strategy in the Bill, there is also a need for a wider housing strategy. The Green Paper and the recent housing strategy statement both acknowledge that. Now that strategic and management roles for local authorities are being separated out, there is a case for local authorities to have a wider strategic role.

I will touch on two or three issues that the Minister raised in an earlier debate with the hon. Member for Bath. There is a good deal of existing legislation regarding housing need and housing conditions. The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 and the Housing Acts 1983 and 1985 all refer to the need for local authorities to take notice of and address the issues of housing needs and conditions, but not to an overall strategy.

The Minister mentioned the allocation process, whereby a local authority can submit a bid for capital resources to develop a strategy. There is some concern among local authorities about the changes to the way in which housing investment programme allocations are delivered. They believe that the sanction available to the Government for the production of those strategies may not be as strong as it was in the past. I will not go into any great detail, but the new major repairs allowance, for example, will reduce the amount of overall capital delivered to local authorities and so reduce the sanction available in the production of a reasonable housing strategy.

We need to consider the wider issues. I accept the Minister's concern that the Committee should not debate those decisions, which may have wider ramifications, as we should focus strongly on homelessness. However, we should discuss them and return to them in future. The Scottish Parliament is grappling with some of those issues, as it is shortly to consider a housing Bill that will include a statutory duty to develop a housing plan and establish a mechanism to create a local budget. Most importantly, it will deliver powers for local authorities to provide, improve, repair and maintain housing in their local area.

I would like to have the Minister's response on the record to the following points. Of course, we should have a homelessness strategy and try to prevent homelessness. However, none of that can be delivered without an understanding of the wider housing stress in a particular locality; it requires a housing strategy. The existing legislation contains only piecemeal approaches to the issue. Local authorities are somewhat concerned that the HIP allocation process does not provide the proper mechanism for introducing an adequate strategy. Therefore, we should consider whether legislation is required.

 
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