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5.56 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I join a large number of hon. Members who have already congratulated the Secretary of State in the knowledge that he will bring a certain flair to his post. It was clear from his speech that he has a genuine interest in this issue. I also welcome the new Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble); I hope that she enjoys her new brief.

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson). Interestingly, the Secretary of State began his contribution by referring to his visit this morning to the Passage and the work of Sister Ellen in helping homeless people. In doing so, he drew attention to the very point highlighted by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate: the Bill, by itself, will not solve all the problems of homelessness. It is important to recognise that homeless people rarely need only a roof over their heads; they need a wide range of support, often for problems related to unemployment, marriage breakdown and, as others have said, mental health difficulties and drug and alcohol abuse. It is vital that we continue work that will ensure the development of the inter-agency activities to which the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate referred.

The Secretary of State was right to draw attention to a number of issues that need to be addressed if we are to begin to tackle the serious problem of homelessness that we still have in this country. I was delighted that he referred to the urgent need to increase the amount of social or affordable housing; at least he recognises that that there is a continuing problem concerning the need to tackle the significant number of empty houses in this country. It is a disgrace that there are more than 100,000 homeless households, yet a staggering 750,000 empty properties in this country. I welcome the Secretary of State's assurance that he will look at measures to address that. I am also delighted that he will start to look, albeit rather belatedly, at the promise in the 1997 Labour manifesto to develop measures for licensing schemes for houses in multiple occupation.

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Those measures are all welcome, but the Bill does not seek to deal with them. It is important to recognise that we must not only address other measures but look at those that will impinge directly on the Bill. In particular, we must consider the Bill alongside the proposal to extend the categories of homeless people who, in future, have to be supported by local authorities. As we know, that package is likely to include 16 and 17-year-olds, care leavers and people who are vulnerable as a result of violence, harassment or an institutionalised background, including, as has been said, ex-service men and women.

I note that a consultation document on those new categories was published at the end of last week, with a consultation end-date of 21 September. I hope that when the Minister replies she will assure me that copies of that document will be made available in the Library. Perhaps she will also tell us when she expects the new categories to come into force. That will be an important measure, which we welcome, and we hope that it will be introduced as soon as possible.

I am delighted by the Bill. Like other hon. Members, I am pleased that it is the first Bill in the new Session. Perhaps that is a sign that housing will have higher priority in the work of this Parliament than it has had in recent years.

I was somewhat surprised by the frequent references of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) to the work of Shelter. He rightly praised to the skies the work that Shelter has been doing for years, but I remind him that one of Shelter's long-standing concerns is the fact that the previous Conservative Government's Housing Act 1996 repealed measures introduced by my late hon. Friend the Liberal Member of Parliament, Stephen Ross, in his Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. Nevertheless, if there has been a U-turn—a conversion—that is welcome.

The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) said that on topics such as housing Liberal Democrats sometimes tend to be anorak-like. On this occasion, I am afraid, I may prove him right. Having said that there is much in the Bill that I welcome, I acknowledge that there is still scope for improvement. In the measure's first outing, in its earlier guise of part II of the Homes Bill, a number of Liberal Democrat amendments were accepted in Committee. I am delighted—indeed, my cup runneth over—that the Government saw fit to incorporate in the Bill several elements that we proposed last time round, but which they rejected at that time. Nevertheless, further work is necessary in some areas.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Given that he is now a self-proclaimed anorak, and notwithstanding the importance of the availability of public finance for good housing, will he tell the House what assessment he has made of the effect of the change in the rules on the use of capital receipts from the sale of council houses on the size of interest repayments on local authority debt?

Mr. Foster: To save the House time, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave about three months ago to an identical question.

The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) referred to widespread concern about the impact of the rather large number of stock transfers that are taking

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place. Reference was made to the Minister's recent announcement that 328,000 properties are to form part of the second wave, bringing to 580,000 the total number of properties that will have been transferred. The hon. Gentleman is no doubt well aware that with a number of large metropolitan areas such as Birmingham and Sheffield planning to go down that route, it is likely that by 2004 registered social landlords will be the main owners of social housing.

My concern, which I expressed in Committee when we discussed part II of the Homes Bill, is that in the proposed legislation there is not a strong enough relationship between local authorities, which have responsibility for homelessness strategies, and registered social landlords, which will have the majority of the properties. As the Minister knows, the Government made it clear in the housing Green Paper that they intended to impose further requirements on RSLs and their relationship with local authorities; the Government spoke of a mechanism to ensure that.

During the passage of the previous Bill, I moved an amendment to try to improve that relationship. The Government assured me that that was not necessary, as the Housing Corporation would have more teeth. On the strength of that assurance, I was prepared to drop the argument. I followed up with a series of parliamentary questions about the Government's promise that the Housing Corporation would be able to ensure that registered social landlords worked constructively with local authorities. The answers left me somewhat disappointed.

I had hoped to receive confirmation that the Housing Corporation would strengthen its statutory housing management guidance. I was told that a new draft would be available in May, but so far that has not happened. However, in the draft that has been produced, there is considerable cause for concern.

The draft refers directly to the responsibility of registered social landlords to work with local authorities, but I can tell the Minister that that reference is very low down on the list of priorities, and that there is no sign of a performance indicator to monitor the circumstances in which RSLs refuse to accommodate households nominated by local authorities.

The Secretary of State mentioned my concern about guidance, and I certainly am concerned when guidance is weak. I prefer the legislative framework to be used, rather than guidance. If the guidance before us is the only guidance that there will be, I do not believe that it is strong enough to ensure that vital relationship, as more and more local authorities go down the stock transfer route.

The Minister may be able to persuade me not to introduce amendments to the Bill if she can assure me, first, that the Housing Corporation will give further consideration to increasing the priority attached to working with local authorities; secondly, that she will consider persuading the Housing Corporation to introduce a performance indicator in the code of practice; and, thirdly, that she will guarantee that there will be wide consultation before the guidance is approved.

There is another aspect of the Bill in which the guidance may be too weak. We have heard much about neighbours from hell, and it is right that that should be discussed. The hon. Member for Eastbourne pointed to

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the tension inherent in the issue. We want to ensure that local authorities do everything they can to assist homeless individuals and households, but we want them to retain the right to refuse to assist people who have consistently failed to maintain good standards of behaviour or to pay rent on time. There is a huge tension between the two objectives.

Glenda Jackson: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that rent is not being paid on time in some London boroughs because the housing benefit system is in such an appalling mess? That is one area in which there should be multi-agency working. Ministers in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions should be speaking to their counterparts in the Department of Work and Pensions to get the problem sorted.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the nature of the mess, and some of us have long waited for the Government to propose reforms of the housing benefits system. There is, however, an additional problem. Some local authorities have "out-sourced"—privatised—their work to address the issue. In just the past week, one local authority became so fed up with a privatised organisation's way of addressing the issue that it had to bring the service back in-house. As the hon. Lady said, it is so difficult to address the issue because it encompasses so many other aspects of local authorities' and other agencies' work. Indeed, it is doubtful whether it is possible to address the issue in isolation or to out-source it.

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