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7.59 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): Maiden speeches are coming thick and fast, and they have made this debate even more pleasurable than it would otherwise have been. I congratulate all those who have made their maiden speeches tonight. I enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams). There was a nice vein of gentle humour in it, but he also dealt responsibly with serious issues such as debts in farming and the present crisis caused by foot and mouth disease.

I was pleased that the hon. Gentleman paid such a generous tribute to his immediate predecessor. Richard Livsey was not so quick on his feet by the end of his time here, and he and I had offices over at Millbank. Many times, I enjoyed a good conversation with him while walking between the offices and the House. The hon. Gentleman said that the electors of Brecon and Radnorshire have enjoyed a long line of good, hard-working constituency MPs, and in him they have the makings of another.

I should like to declare a non-pecuniary interest as honorary president of a voluntary sector charity, the Bethany project, which provides accommodation for homeless people in Stafford.

It is a pleasure to be able to take part in this debate and to welcome this measure to help homeless people. It will be the first Bill to be given a Second Reading in this Parliament. It is a slight oddity that it was not mentioned in the Gracious Speech, but I put that down to the

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dexterity and skill of my right hon. Friend the new Secretary of State. Like others, I welcome him to his post and congratulate him on it.

What I like about this Bill is the way in which it restores the value of dignity to this area of public policy—restoring to people the dignity of a shelter, of a home of their own. As many Members have said, the Bill keeps a manifesto promise from not just a few weeks ago but 1997. In the same two manifestos also came the promise to license houses in multiple occupation. I look forward to an early start by the Government on keeping that promise, too.

I am particularly pleased that the amended Bill—it represents part II of the previous Homes Bill—contains a new duty on local authorities to adopt a strategic approach to dealing with homelessness. It is an excellent idea, but requires resources. Many have mentioned the resource of other agencies—registered social landlords, some private sector landlords, social services departments, health authorities and, particularly, the voluntary sector—but local authorities will need the ability to spend money to meet their strategic aims and to borrow enough money to invest in housing stock.

Many hon. Members have mentioned the scourge of empty homes. It is a sad fact that, in England every year, about seven homes stand empty for every one household recognised by councils as homeless. I commend to hon. Members the ten-minute Bill that I introduced in the previous Parliament, the Empty Homes Bill, which attempted to deal with the problem. Sadly, my Bill never saw the light of day as an Act of Parliament, but this Homelessness Bill offers the opportunity to take up some of its measures. For example, my Bill suggested that local authorities should be under a duty to adopt a strategy to deal with empty homes, and that fits nicely with the requirement in this Bill for local authorities to adopt a strategy to help people to avoid homelessness or to meet need when people are homeless.

I would like the Government to explore the ideas in my Bill of giving local authorities more financial instruments—principally, the ability to deal more creatively with council tax charged on empty properties. It is vital that the Government give local authorities greater powers of compulsory purchase to be able to deal with the regeneration of areas where properties are standing empty. That would help to meet the need of homeless people by filling empty properties.

Another strategic issue of which it is important the Government do not lose sight as they consider this Bill is the interaction of housing benefit and homelessness. Several hon. Members have commented on the matter already. Some have commented on the inability of some local authorities or the private companies to which they have passed the duty to administer housing benefit; others have commented on the difficulties of detecting fraud and the requirements placed on local authorities to investigate and verify claims before they can make payments. Throughout that time, people are under the risk of losing their homes for non-payment of rent.

The parts of the Bill that I welcome include the long-term approach to meeting the needs of homeless people, and especially the emphasis on the prevention of homelessness. I also like the suggestion that there can be more support for homeless people of lower priority, such as single people. I should like local authorities to be

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encouraged to develop the offer of housing-focused interviews, in the same way as we now have work-focused interviews for those who are seeking to claim benefit. I also like the emphasis in the Bill on quality of service.

I want help to get through to all those who are in need of housing owing to homelessness or the threat of it. For those who are hard to reach, I hope that local authorities will have full regard in their strategies for the help that can be given by social partners who are doing the work already. For those who are hard to help—those who are unable to speak for themselves or put their case effectively—I hope that all authorities are able to develop a systematic approach to offering advocacy services.

I also agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, about the involvement of registered social landlords in developing a homelessness strategy. They will not merely be major providers of accommodation for homeless people. They have a wealth of experience, alongside that of local authorities, in tackling day-to-day housing issues, and they have much to offer local authorities in developing strategies for dealing with homelessness.

I want to emphasise that, as other hon. Members have said, none of the fine words in the Bill and the strategies that will follow will be of much use if there is not an adequate supply of affordable housing in which people can live. The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) mentioned Cambridge university research suggesting that there is a need for 80,000 to 85,000 new units of affordable housing a year. The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) mentioned the Shelter figure of 100,000 units of affordable housing every year for the next 10 years.

Those figures have meaning to most people around the country because they see people waiting in overcrowded circumstances, bed and breakfast, temporary homes—or no home at all—for homes to be provided for them. Hard though local authorities work to meet that need, they simply do not have an adequate amount of housing. Tackling such problems will take a determined effort over the next few years, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear at the beginning of the debate. I look forward to watching that determined effort take shape and to delivering the fruit of it as a home and the dignity of a shelter for every citizen of this country.

8.7 pm

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I should like to start by complimenting the hon. Members for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) and for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) and my hon. Friends the Members for South-West Bedfordshire (Mr. Selous) and for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) on their maiden speeches. I must also, of course, compliment the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons), who mentioned that his constituency had continually changed in size and shape. My constituency seldom changes in size or shape. Indeed, I do not believe that it has done so since the early 19th century, although it is getting a little further from France every year.

I am not the sort of Conservative who is known for wearing his compassion on his sleeve, but I am passionate about public service—or, should I say, the better delivery of essential services?—including education, health and housing. I greatly value my experience of working with

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Governments of both political parties. I worked with the former Conservative Government on the improved delivery of health and social security and with both Conservative and Labour Governments on education, most recently in helping the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) to deliver his policies in the London borough of Southwark, a failing local education authority, which was required to privatise the management of the education service. That was a great privilege.

Today, I am here not to talk about myself, but to say a few words about my constituency, which is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful in the country. Today, London is only a little overcast, but even when the rest of Britain is battered by gales, our island basks in the sunshine. Its charms are well known to yachtsmen, walkers and cyclists. I occasionally say that it never rains on the Isle of Wight, but that is a slight exaggeration. In fact, it seldom rains on the Isle of Wight.

The island is famed for Osborne house, Cowes week and Parkhurst and other prisons. Incidentally, I should like to compliment the island's prisons and, for the benefit of the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), put on record the fact that they are driving down drug abuse within their walls. Some aspects of the island are less well known: for example, it is one of Britain's biggest producers of garlic—indeed, we export garlic to France. There is a garlic festival each year, which I commend to hon. Members. There, one can sample not only garlic bread and garlic mushrooms, but garlic beer, garlic honey and garlic ice cream. I strongly recommend them.

We also have Britain's biggest collection of dinosaur remains, as illustrated by the recent BBC programme "Dinosaur Island", but the best collection of dinosaurs on the island are the former Liberal Democrat councillors who now run the island from county hall. They have stopped using the name Liberal Democrat—perhaps as a result of certain setbacks earlier this month—and now call themselves something else. They frequently call for less Government intervention and direction in the way in which local authorities are asked to deliver their services, so it was interesting to hear the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) ask for far more detailed intervention and guidance, as well as for that guidance to appear on the face of the Bill. They speak with forked tongue, those Liberal Democrats.

We are fortunate to have our own highly successful and effective media on the Isle of Wight. I must be the only Member of Parliament to have his own local newspaper, radio station and television station. The most recent addition is Angel Radio, which boasts that it never broadcasts news or timechecks, but only music first recorded before 1959.

It is appropriate that I should speak on the Homelessness Bill, because the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 was piloted through the House by my distinguished predecessor but two, Lord Ross of Newport. The Act caused local authorities nightmares, but provided a lifeline for many people in need. Local authorities have learned to live with the Act, and the improvements and changes made to it since it became law, to provide a far better service for homeless persons. Lord Ross's successor was Barry Field: it was a great loss to the island when he was forced to retire on grounds of ill health shortly before the 1997 general election.

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My immediate predecessor was Peter Brand—a general practitioner and local councillor for many years before his election to Parliament. He fought the 1997 election on the slogan "Put a doctor in the House" and this year's election with "Keep a doctor in the House". It is a testimony to his qualities as a general practitioner that islanders preferred to put a doctor in the surgery. I thank him for the care he gave the island in his four years as its Member of Parliament. I am grateful.

I also thank Etty McKinley of the island organisation People Off the Streets. She drew the Homes Bill to my attention at a public meeting during the general election campaign and asked whether I would support it if it were reintroduced. I had to reply that it would depend on which parts were reintroduced, so I am glad that the Government have dropped the more controversial elements—at least from the current version of the Bill—and that the Opposition will have the opportunity to support most of the proposals. I also congratulate Etty on her effective work when undertaking the homeless persons count on the island at the time of the recent census. It is most important that we have accurate figures on homelessness which, as many hon. Members have mentioned, is not confined to large cities.

Solving the problem of homelessness does not require a massive housebuilding programme—my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon has already made that specific point. The Deputy Prime Minister's proposals for 8,000 new homes, half of them on greenfield sites, were deeply unpopular on the island. Housebuilding is not the right cure for homelessness. As my hon. Friend the Member for South–West Bedfordshire said, we must work to prevent homelessness, especially by supporting family structures, because most youth homelessness is a result of broken families.

When dealing with homelessness, we must have proper priorities for the allocation of housing. The system must be seen to be fair to those who already live in a particular area. The genuine local connection rule should be sustained and, if possible, strengthened. It is not a genuine local connection with the Isle of Wight to have been on the island for a few months picking tomatoes. It should be a requirement that people claiming that they are homeless—or, for that matter, those claiming jobseeker's allowance—demonstrate that they have not moved from an area of low unemployment to one of high unemployment, such as my constituency. I welcome the commitment to flexibility that the Secretary of State made in his introductory remarks. I hope that that commitment extends to enabling local authorities to arrange the genuine local connection rules so that they suit local circumstances.

Let me flag up a few of the issues that I intend to raise on behalf of my constituents in future weeks and months. The Isle of Wight is an area of high unemployment where average income is less than three quarters the national average. It suffers from being separated from the mainland by sea and not receiving proper recognition from the Government in terms of funding. The island suffers because of the failure of the recently introduced police control centre at Netley to pass messages on to police stations on the island; I want something done about that.

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I also want more work to be done on the cost for individuals of crossing the Solent and on the use by Wightlink of Wootton Creek. Wightlink is one of the ferry companies; it is the major user of Wootton Creek as well as the harbour authority, which must give rise to a unique conflict of interest. I want clarity about the future of Osborne house: the closure of the King Edward VII convalescent home at Osborne was greatly and deeply regretted on the island. I want there to be clarity about the future use of that wonderful resource. I want the Government to fund the rebuilding of the main road from Ventnor to West Wight through the St. Laurence Undercliff, which slumped seriously following recent rains.

All those are objectives that I intend to follow up on behalf of my constituents during my time as a Member of Parliament. I am proud to represent Isle of Wight and thank the House for this opportunity to speak.

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