Homes Bill

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Mr. Foster: I am grateful for the Under-Secretary's helpful suggestion. To make life easy for the Committee, perhaps he will circulate the guidance. If we do not have the document when we discuss the amendment tabled by his hon. Friends, perhaps we may return to the issue later. I am delighted that we will discuss it.

I am grateful for the Minister's helpful assurances and pleased to know that he accepts the spirit of the amendment. We will find a way of ensuring that local authorities' housing departments provide the best possible advice to homeless people and those who may become homeless in the future.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I beg to move amdt No. 62, in page 10, line 43, at end insert—

    `(d) providing for the welfare of animals under the control of homeless persons.'.

The Chairman: With this we may take amendment No. 63, in clause 18, page 11, line 18, at end insert—

    `(d) providing for the welfare of animals under the control of homeless persons.'.

These probing amendments relate to the esoteric but not insignificant issue of the welfare of animals in the charge of homeless people. There is no reference in the Bill or in the notes to the way in which local authorities and housing bodies deal with pets.

This could be described as a double-edged sword because the problem has two aspects. Many rough sleepers have dogs, as anyone who walks along the streets in the evening knows. Often, a dog is their only companion, which helps them through difficult circumstances. The less attractive side is that many people who sleep rough and beg on the streets have dogs because they are good for business and help to bring in the money; members of the public tend to be more sympathetic to the pet than to the person sleeping rough.

In the 1990s, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) was a housing Minister. He did much good work—it was a bone of contention last Thursday when statistics became available—in taking many rough sleepers off the streets by providing hostel accommodation for them. Many hostels refused to take the dogs, which meant that people were reluctant to leave their patch on the streets. However, one of the new hostels, in east London, catered for rough sleepers with pets. That hostel was a great success. There may be other such hostels, although I am not aware of them.

Has the Minister considered rough sleepers being offered alternative accommodation where they are allowed to take their pets—provided of course that they are not just stringing a dog along for the sake of extra takings? In addition, if families or single people who own a dog become homeless, their choice of alternative accommodation might be greatly restricted. All hon. Members will know of constituents who are facing homelessness, perhaps because they are in arrears with their rent and are being ejected, thus becoming priority homeless for the local authority. If only bed-and-breakfast accommodation were available, they would be unable to take their pet with them.

If such people were lucky enough to be offered a flat or other accommodation, it might be at the top of a tower block, where it would be wholly inappropriate to keep pets, even if doing so were allowed under the housing association or local authority byelaws. It is generally the case in high-rise accommodation that pets can be kept only if their owners inhabit the ground floor. That can cause problems. People often flout the rule and it is difficult to enforce, but many people are concerned about the welfare of pets—perhaps a big Alsatian dog—kept on the 10th floor of a tower block where there might be, at best, only a balcony to provide outside access, because that is unfair on the animals and does nothing to help their welfare. It can also have an adverse impact on neighbours who have to put up with dogs barking. We all know the consequences.

That is not a small, but a significant issue. I have encountered several cases of single elderly people whose spouse has recently died and the dog, which has been part of the family for many years, is all that they have for companionship. Such people might face a choice between bed-and-breakfast accommodation, a high-rise flat or a small house in an area where the housing authority will not allow pets. It is a real problem—after all, we are a nation of dog lovers. There are two questions to be asked: should there be better guidance for people in that position; and what measures should be taken to dissuade them from having pets, especially when they face difficulty acquiring accommodation for themselves and their family, let alone their animals?

It is difficult when the dog is such an important part of people's everyday lives, but we must take cognisance of that and find a way of accommodating such people. Those given a choice between giving up their dog or taking bed-and-breakfast accommodation without it might well end up as rough sleepers on the streets. The amendment is a preventive measure for people in those circumstances. These are probing amendments. Will the Minister explain how the Government's guidance to strategic partners dealing with homelessness strategies will deal with the issues that I have raised?

Mr. Robert Ainsworth: This is an important issue, and local authorities should endeavour to ensure that those placed in temporary accommodation are able to keep their pets, whenever that is possible and reasonable. The matter is of particular concern to many elderly people, and it is important that local authorities make proper provision and deal sensitively with it. As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) said, the problem might be a barrier to helping rough sleepers off the streets.

We must recognise, however, that it will not always be possible for local authorities to make provision for animals in all circumstances, especially when the animals are many in number, dangerous, or in poor health. Not all accommodation can be made suitable for pets, and circumstances vary a great deal. Authorities should consider carefully their arrangements for dealing with the welfare of animals and review the facilities available for accommodating them, but they will also have to balance such a demand on their resources against other important claims. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman says that the amendments are only probing amendments. Circumstances vary so much that it is inappropriate to place a requirement in primary legislation or to make the issue more prominent than others that local housing authorities will have to address when reviewing or drawing up their strategies.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned rough sleepers. Attachment to pets is often a substantial barrier to helping people off of the streets and local authorities often make specific provision to deal with the problem by reducing numbers in their area, for example, by providing kennels within night shelters, or removing the ``no animals'' clause from registered social landlord agreements. We are aware of specific provision made for pets in hostels and move-on accommodation in Leicester, Manchester, London and elsewhere. Some provision is made in England for pets to remain with their owners when they come off the streets into hostels or permanent move accommodation. The rough sleepers unit actively encourages local authorities and hostels to be flexible, so that they can provide accommodation for couples and pets when having a pet might be helpful in encouraging people off the streets. Local authorities have made such provision in Cambridge, Leicester, Manchester and in other hostels across England, including the rough sleepers unit rolling shelter programme in London.

The Government's position is that local authorities should cover this issue, along with others, in the guidance that they draw up as part of their strategy. It should not be built into primary legislation because of the rigidity that that would impose.

Mr. Loughton: I am grateful for the Minister's comments. As I said, these were probing amendments. It is right to treat the issue with sensitivity. I shall not press the amendments, but I regard the Minister's examples of hostel accommodation with kennels attached as good, but patchy. I agree about the dangers of building a requirement into primary legislation, but we need stronger guidance to encourage local housing authorities to take the matter into consideration. It should be left to local authorities to assess local circumstances and requirements, but the profile of the issue should be raised up the ladder in the guidance.

There may be a case for treating animal welfare charities—the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other smaller organisations—as potential strategic partners, especially in city centres where the rough sleeper problem is rife. How local authorities deal with pets in high-rise accommodation is an enormous grey area, about which the Government should give guidance. The problem cannot be pushed under the carpet and ignored. Tenants need clear guidelines to explain what they can and cannot expect; they must then weigh up within that equation the likelihood of their securing acceptable accommodation if they keep their pet or buy a new one.

I am glad that the Minister has acknowledged that the issue is an important one and I shall withdraw the amendment. However, I make a plea for the issue to be given greater priority in the Government's guidance to local authorities on homelessness strategies. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 17 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 18

Homelessness strategies

11 am

Mr. Don Foster: I beg to move amendment No. 69, in page 11, line 45, after `organisations', insert

    `, registered social landlords holding accommodation in the district of the authority, tenants' groups'.

 
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