Homes Bill

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: It will be clear to the people of the Cotswolds from what the Minister has said in so many words that the number of houses to be built in the Cotswolds and the homelessness policy will increasingly be determined at regional level.

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman is trying everyone's patience. When he reads Hansard, he will see that I did not say what he claims. I have said repeatedly that the homelessness strategy will be the responsibility of the district council. Cotswold district council will therefore be responsible for its homelessness strategy. I am sure that it will want support and assistance from the social services provided by the county and from registered social landlords and the Housing Corporation.

Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that there should be no attempt to achieve co-ordination between those bodies in the preparation of a regional strategic approach to investment by the Housing Corporation or that there should be no attempt to engage social services in that approach? If so, I disagree, but I think that, on reflection, he will realise that our proposals are sensible.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister cannot import to me what I might realise. His words are on the record and will be studied carefully.

Mr. Raynsford: I am much happier in the knowledge that my words are on the record and will be studied than the hon. Gentleman will be when people study his words on the record, because he appears to have a very faint grasp of the processes whereby housing is provided and homelessness is relieved. He is wrong to suggest that the number of homes that will be built in the Cotswolds district is determined by the regional body. That is simply not correct. I hope that he will reflect on what I have said.

I have responded to some of the points raised by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon, but I have not yet dealt with the importance of proper liaison between housing authorities and social services authorities. In the previous debate, I mentioned that the consultation that followed last April's publication of the Green Paper revealed serious failures in that regard. That is why a stronger emphasis is necessary on the importance of close collaboration between both social services and housing authorities. The Bill provides the mechanism for that.

The right hon. Gentleman has a penchant for analysing words and questioning whether they are judiciously chosen. I have faith in the parliamentary counsel who designed the Bill. It has the merit of being comprehensible: it is written in a form of English that most people can find their way through. The concepts in clause 16 will commend themselves to most readers, who will recognise a sensible framework for defining the responsibilities of the local housing authority and ensuring co-operation with the social services authority.

4.30 pm

Mr. Curry: I want to be clear. Social services authorities have been asked to co-operate much more closely—sometimes to merge—with primary health organisations and with housing authorities. That is perfectly right and proper, but people must be able to recognise that the social services have a distinct function and cannot always define it in terms of what other bodies require of them. Consultation must be genuine and the capacity of social service organisations must be taken into account in the formulation of strategies.

Mr. Raynsford: I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, but if social services are to discharge their responsibilities and provide a proper service to homeless people, it is inevitable that they will have regard to the local homelessness strategies produced by district councils. Otherwise, it would be difficult to put an appropriate framework in place.

Mr. Curry: But those strategies are at the point of their devising and consultation with the strategic partners must take account of the capacity and advice of social services and must establish what form of co-operation is feasible at that stage. If it works well then, the problem that concerns me need not arise.

Mr. Raynsford: That is why we want to establish a framework to ensure consultation and the involvement of social services in preparing a strategy. It is up to the individual social services authority to set out what it believes are the parameters that limit its scope to meet the pressures placed on it. Each authority will also have to have regard to its statutory obligations, particularly to young people. The framework allows realistic discussion between social services and district councils before the strategy is put in place. When it is in place, the social services authority should, as it discharges its obligations, have regard to it.

I hope that all the loose ends of the clause, which we have covered exhaustively, have been tied up and that members of the Committee will agree that the clause should stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The Chairman: We now come to clause 17 and I find myself in a peculiar position as Chairman in having to declare a non-pecuniary interest. Amendments Nos. 62 and 63 deal with welfare of animals provision in housing. From a former incarnation, I find myself the chairman of an organisation called Pathway—an acronym for pets and the homeless. It is perverse that I am in the Chair when this issue might be debated. My Clerk and Mr. Stevenson, not me, made the selection this morning. If any member of the Committee feels that it is improper for me to remain in the Chair while these matters are debated, I would be happy to defer them to the Floor of the House and Mr. Speaker. If the Committee is satisfied that I can maintain my impartiality during the debate, we can proceed. We shall see how circumstances develop at the time.

Clause 17

Homelessness reviews

Mr. Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 99, in page 10, line 30, after `homelessness', insert `, including rough sleeping,'.

The Chairman: With this we may take amendment No. 100, in clause 18, page 11, line 11, after `homelessness', insert `, including rough sleeping,'.

New clause 19—Rough sleepers—

    `—(1) The Rough Sleepers' Unit within the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions shall be disbanded.

    (2) The authority shall address rough sleeping in their district, as set out in sections 17 and 18.'.

Mr. Loughton: I am sure that I speak on behalf of the Committee when I say that we are well aware of your credentials with regard to animal welfare, Mr. Gale. I am sure that they will not impinge on the matters arising from the clause.

Clause 17 deals with homelessness reviews. We have tabled two amendments and a new clause that is dependent on them which relate specifically to rough sleepers. Amendments Nos. 99 and 100 would specify in the Bill that in conducting homelessness reviews consultation and proposals on homelessness should specifically include rough sleeping. Hence the proposed additions to the beginning of clauses 17 and 18. New clause 19, which is designed partly as a probing amendment, would end the activities of the rough sleepers unit. We would transfer the responsibilities for dealing with rough sleepers to local authorities, because we feel that that is a better way of tackling the problem.

Opposition Members do not believe that the solution for dealing with rough sleepers involves purely setting targets, creating new quangos or appointing yet more tsars—

Mr. Waterson: Or tsarinas.

Mr. Loughton: Indeed. Such have been the characteristics of the rough sleepers unit, which was, we are told, launched with great vision in April 1999. It is difficult to avoid taking the cynical view that it is because of the visibility of the issue that tackling rough sleeping has become a key indicator for the Government of their success in tackling social exclusion. It is an easy, high-profile option, hence all the razzmatazz about the rough sleepers' unit.

Members of the Committee have referred during our deliberations to the success of the previous Government. I pay particular tribute to my right hon. Friends the Members for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) and for Skipton and Ripon, both of whom were integral to the rough sleepers initiative, which goes back as far as 1991 under the previous Government. The achievements during the five or six years the rough sleepers initiative was in operation were quite marked and were praised by many quarters, especially by people involved in dealing with homelessness and rough sleepers. Indeed, by the end of 1996, the number of rough sleepers in London was estimated to have decreased from about 1,000 at the beginning of the initiative to 286, of whom very few were below the age of 18.

The previous Government tackled the problem in part by funding 950 additional temporary hostel beds and considerably more beds in permanent accommodation for rough sleepers. The initiative extended beyond London, although, as always, the main problem was in the capital. Rough sleeping initiatives and rough sleeping initiative zones were introduced in Bath—I am sure that the hon. Member for Bath will want to congratulate my colleagues on their achievements there—Manchester, Oxford Brighton, and other areas.

We greeted with some cynicism the announcement that £200 million was to be poured into the rough sleepers unit, which would be headed up by a so-called tsar with a not inconsiderable salary. However, the major criticism has come not from us but from other organisations and individuals involved in dealing with homelessness. Indeed, shortly after its start, Shaks Ghosh, the head of Crisis, described the rough sleepers' unit and gave it 10 out of 10 for intervention, but five out of 10 for prevention. That has indeed been a hallmark of some of its activities. Shaks Ghosh highlighted the danger of individuals being sidelined in the march towards the achievement of the Prime Minister's high-profile targets.

What is being done at a strategic level to prevent rough sleeping in the future and to review the progress that the unit is making? Are the Government tackling in a joined-up way—a phrase we hear so much—problems such as drugs, which are intrinsically linked to rough sleeping? It is estimated that in Soho, in Westminster, some 75 per cent. of crack cocaine consumption is down to rough sleepers.

The rough sleepers unit has come in for a great deal of criticism from other homelessness organisations. Crisis said about that unit that

    street clearing, rather than helping the homeless has become the objective of policy.

Cheryl St. Clair is another critic. She has spent 26 years working in various homeless organisations. Although she is on the Christmas card list of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), she hotly denies that she has any political sympathy with the Conservative party and claims that she is non-political. She said that the biggest problem with the rough sleepers' unit is that

    it is political. It is driven by political requirements rather than moral requirements.

She says that the unit has become obsessed with process and lost sight of outcomes for homeless people.

The amendments and the new clause provide a way in which to query value is added by the rough sleepers unit at the not inconsiderable cost of £200 million. I would be interested in hearing the Minister's justification for that. What extra value is brought by that unit that could not be achieved by local authorities adopting strategies for rough sleepers and dealing with the rough sleepers on their own doorstep?

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