Homes Bill

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Ms Buck: Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whether his proposal has the support of the London borough of Westminster, to which he referred and which is one of the local authorities in my area? That borough is at the heart of Britain's rough sleeping problem.

Mr. Loughton: I do not think that the borough council is the heart of the rough sleepers' problem—if that is what the hon. Lady was suggesting.

Ms Buck: I mean the area.

Mr. Loughton: Geographically, it is where most rough sleeping exists. I have not discussed the rough sleepers unit with members of Westminster borough council; they may or may not be in favour of our proposals. I would be interested to hear their comments.

Mr. Love: The inference of the amendment is that responsibility for rough sleeping would be given to local authorities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Regents Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) has said, that would place an inordinate burden on Westminster, where most of Greater London's rough sleeping burden falls.

Mr. Loughton: An inordinate amount of money is being poured into the rough sleepers unit—£200 million, as I said—and one would expect that a large proportion of that would be allocated to the place where the problem is most prevalent, which we all agree is Westminster. The council has carried out several initiatives, with a great degree of success, quite independently and ahead of what the rough sleepers unit may attempt to do.

Ms Buck: The hon. Gentleman asked me whether I had a view on the matter of Westminster. I have not asked the council for a view of his amendment. However, I have a great deal of praise for the director of social services in Westminster, who has worked effectively in co-operation with the rough sleepers initiative. I doubt whether the hon. Gentleman's sweeping proposal would have the backing of that authority.

4.45 pm

Mr. Loughton: I think that the hon. Lady meant the rough sleepers unit, rather than the rough sleepers initiative, which was a very different scheme introduced by the previous Government. I have figures on the problem in Westminster and I have discussed them with councillors in recent months, but neither I nor the hon. Lady knows whether Westminster would support closure of the rough sleepers unit. My guess is that, because it prides itself on certain of its rough sleeping initiatives, it would—as with so many other things—rather finance its own projects than rely on a Government quango that, for example, spent a great deal of money not on finding alternative accommodation for rough sleepers, but on advertising certain projects.

I do not want to discuss the matter at enormous length, given that the amendments are largely probing amendments. The rough sleepers unit has been going for more than 18 months and has used considerable resources, but we have heard little about it so far. It has been given a high profile by a Government who are obsessed with being seen to issue targets and set up bodies, rather than allowing us to judge on the basis of outcomes and success levels whether they have solved a problem. I should be grateful to hear why rough sleeping is not a key consideration in the Bill. Does the Minister believe that the rough sleepers unit, with its considerable budget, should have a monopoly of provision in dealing with rough sleepers?

Mr. Curry: Rough sleepers are those who have slipped through the net and beyond the stage of prevention. Everything else has failed to that point, so we are in the business of intervention. In fact, not many sleep rough, but those who do often have mental health and drink problems, and various other problems in combination. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham is right to probe the Government's intentions, and he is also right to say that the money spent should be tested against outcomes. After all, one great advantage of the rough sleepers initiative was that voluntary organisations came together with officials to make the scheme work. At the same time, one was constantly trying to discover what was best practice. Sometimes, difficult decisions had to be made. Some voluntary organisations had pet projects that came to an end because others were doing better and showing better outcomes.

It is right that the project be tested by outcomes. I know that this is an emotive subject, and that in terms of this Government's philosophy, social inclusion has in a sense replaced economic intervention, but even in such a sensitive area, it is right that we test whether the project is delivering what it is supposed to deliver. That is particularly important in areas such as central London, where the problem is highly concentrated. However, it can migrate easily. For example, there is a significant problem in parts of the east end of London. To identify good practice, we should look to outstanding voluntary organisations such as the Salvation Army or St. Mungo's. There should be a tough analysis of what works and what does not, and money should be shifted for particular purposes so that good practice can be delivered. Moreover, we should ensure that best efforts are made and best outcomes achieved.

Mr. Love: Given the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's comments, does he agree that responsibility for rough sleeping should be returned to local authorities?

Mr. Curry: My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has made it clear that he wants to probe the Government's intentions, and to be reassured that this money will be spent well and will be subject to the same test as other moneys. That is a perfectly honourable intention, and he has my total support. I am sure that the rough sleepers initiative will demonstrate that it is achieving positive outcomes in the most difficult of circumstances.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin): After the Lord Mayor's show comes the man who sweeps up.

The cynicism of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham is entirely misplaced. I accept his comments about the good work of the rough sleepers initiative, which, as he pointed out, was introduced by the right hon. Members for North-West Hampshire and for Skipton and Ripon. To that extent, there is no difference between us in terms of how to deal with this serious and conspicuous problem. The hon. Gentleman said that the subject is an easy target because it is high profile. That is certainly true. The fact that foreigners come to central London and see people camped in doorways disgraces us all, from whatever party.

The rough sleepers initiative did a lot of good work from 1991 onwards. However, my memory goes back further than that, to what we now look back on as the Thatcher decade. I remember the shanty town that grew up in Lincoln's Inn Fields in the 1980s, from which one could travel down Kingsway, down the Strand and up to Victoria and see people camped out in every doorway.

I do not pretend that the problem has gone away—anyone who went out tonight could find people camped in doorways. However, the problem is not on the same scale as that in the Thatcher decade. Of course, the right hon. Members for North-West Hampshire and for Skipton and Ripon come from the merciful wing of their party—I cannot speak for all Conservative Members present—and it does not surprise me that they, unlike their party as a whole, took the problem seriously.

The new clause would disband the rough sleepers unit and give local authorities the primary responsibility for dealing with problems of rough sleeping in their area. I am pleased to acknowledge that Front-Bench Opposition Members share the Government's concern for the plight of people sleeping rough. That view should unite all members of the Committee.

The rough sleepers unit was established in April 1999 with the objective of reducing the number of people sleeping rough in England to as near zero as possible, and by at least two thirds by April 2002. The unit has already made excellent progress against that challenging target. In London, for example, 1,300 referrals to temporary or permanent accommodation have so far been made.

The unit's work draws together different programmes from across the statutory sector, taking a joined-up approach in considering why people sleep rough in the first place and offering them an approach to a life on the streets. Working across government, it ensures that all organisations with a stake in the problem—such as local authorities, the Prison Service, the Benefits Agency and the armed forces—are doing their bit towards tackling rough sleeping.

The figures show that between June 1998 and June 2000, the number of people sleeping rough on any one night across England fell by more than one third. In June 2000, an estimated 1,180 people—still far too many—slept rough on a single night. There is still plenty of work for the unit to do. Central Government responsibility for addressing the problem has been essential. The new clause would cut short much of the unit's successful work and pass responsibility back to local authorities.

However—this may satisfy the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham—it is not intended that the unit should become a permanent fixture. Work is already under way to develop an exit strategy, which will consider how to tackle rough sleeping and to prevent people from hitting the streets in the first place. That will continue after the unit has met its target in April 2002. It is envisaged that eventually the unit will be wound up and responsibility will be passed back to local authorities. Since rough sleeping will be considered as part of the strategy, amendments Nos. 99 and 100 are superfluous. Given that, I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman withdrew the amendment and did not press the new clause.

Mr. Loughton: I am grateful to the Minister for that clarification—that was the aim of the probing amendment. The Minister acknowledged—with a degree of selectivity—the good work under the previous Government. What was done between 1991and 1997 was put on one side in favour of looking back at the achievements of the 1980s. As I said earlier, at the end of the previous Government's period of office, the number of homeless people in London was estimated at 286. Today, of the figure that the Minister gave—1,180 nationally—540 are rough sleeping in London. The number has almost doubled, so according to the figures from the rough sleepers unit, the problem has increased during the past three and a half years.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon raised an important point when he said that the value of the unit will be assessed by its output.

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