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Points of Order

4.36 pm

David Winnick (Walsall, North): Mr. Speaker, I know that you are, like your predecessors, concerned with the reputation of the House. There has, understandably, been criticism about the fact that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards has not been reappointed as a matter of course. Indeed, a written question on the subject appears in Friday's Hansard.

What steps can be taken to debate the issue? When I raised the matter with the Leader of the House on 28 June, he said that

The suspicion is that in carrying out her duties she has been too zealous in interpreting the rules to which the House has agreed. We know that the office was created because of allegations of sleaze, which did the House so much harm. It is unfortunate that it has been decided that the present Commissioner will not be reappointed as a matter of course. Is there any way in which we can debate the matter on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Speaker: It is not for me to advise the hon. Gentleman on procedural matters from the Chair via a point of order. He is as aware of procedure as I am, and it is up to him to find a way of bringing a motion before the House and debating the matter.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware that the House passes its Sessional Orders, dealing with facilities for entry and access to the House, at the beginning of each Session. You may be aware that on Sunday and this morning the traffic light system in Parliament square broke down, causing a considerable build-up of traffic around the House. In light of the difficult circumstances in which we currently operate, when access for emergency vehicles might be needed, I wonder whether you would be so kind as to make inquiries about what can be done to ensure the robustness of the systems that operate the traffic lights, so that at least the terms of our Sessional Orders can be adhered to.

Mr. Speaker: I find that the traffic lights always break down at the most inconvenient time. All I can say to the right hon. Gentleman is that at the moment we have a great many worries, particularly about security, but that matter is now on the record.

22 Oct 2001 : Column 39

Orders of the Day

Homelessness Bill

Not amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

New Clause 1

Rough sleepers

'The Rough Sleepers Unit shall cease to operate with effect from April 2002, and its powers and responsibilities shall be devolved to local housing authorities.'.—[Mr. Clifton-Brown.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.39 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 2—Limitation of main homelessness duty for prisoners

'In subsection (1) of section 193 of the 1996 Act (duty to persons with priority need who are not homeless intentionally), after the word "assistance", there is inserted—
", has not been sentenced to imprisonment in respect of a conviction and been released from imprisonment within a period of six months prior to his application not having been resident in the authority's area at the time of sentence,".'.

New clause 3—Limitation of main homelessness duty to residents

'In subsection (1) of section 193 of the 1996 Act (duty to persons with priority need who are not homeless intentionally), after the word "assistance", there is inserted—
", was continually resident in the authority's area for a period of twelve months prior to his application,".'.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: This is my maiden performance from the Front Bench, and I am honoured to be here.

The Homelessness Bill has a rather long-drawn-out history. Hon. Members will recall that the Bill's contents were essentially part II of the Homes Bill, which fell in the previous Session because of the general election. Had the Government accepted the Opposition's recommendation that Ministers drop the controversial aspect of the Homes Bill—on the seller's pack—the provisions of the Homelessness Bill would already be enacted and we would not have to spend time today debating the Bill and the proposed amendments to it.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I share many of the hon. Gentleman's feelings on that issue. Nevertheless, does he not accept that the Government's opportunity for reflection during the Dissolution occasioned by the general election has enabled Ministers to table amendments that are welcomed not only by Liberal Democrat Members but by Conservative Members?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman is right, and Conservative Members welcome greater reflection on any legislation. Indeed, the Opposition have been so critical of the Government's timetabling of various legislation because that timetabling does not allow sufficient reflection on legislation. Moreover, as we shall see today, although Ministers had time to reflect further on this

22 Oct 2001 : Column 40

legislation, they have not reflected long enough on some matters. We shall see what Ministers propose now after reflecting on the Opposition's amendments.

As I said, the House has long awaited the genesis and gestation of the Homelessness Bill. The provisions of new clause 1 itself, on ending the rough sleepers unit, were debated in Committee during passage of both the Homes Bill and the Homelessness Bill. On 25 January 2001, in debate in Committee on the Homes Bill and the provision on rough sleepers, the then Minister, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), said:

The Opposition have tabled new clause 1 to probe the Government's intention on this matter. The Under–Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble)—whom I welcome to the debate—said:

I believe that that consultation will conclude on 1 April 2002. The Minister continued:

Therefore, the first question for the Minister is what role she envisages for the rough sleepers unit. The purpose of new clause 1 is not to criticise the RSU's performance, as that has been rather good. From June 1998 to June 2000, the number of rough sleepers has decreased by 62 per cent., from 1,850 to 700, which is a commendable improvement. The reason why Opposition Members object to the RSU is that it is too bureaucratic and too expensive. Moreover, local authorities have the major role in dealing with rough sleepers. We believe that, as local authorities know most about what is happening in relation to rough sleeping in their area, they should be the leading partner in dealing with the problem.

What is the current nature of the problem of rough sleeping? As we know, 700 people are still sleeping rough on the streets. No hon. Member on either side of the House wants to see anyone sleeping rough at any stage, and we all accept that most of those who are sleeping rough are transient and can be helped in one way or another. We know also, however, that hard-drug use is a major factor in the reasons why people sleep rough. Some 75 per cent. of the rough sleepers in Soho are involved with hard or soft drugs. Perhaps we need to tackle the underlying problems in this area.

4.45 pm

Another reason that the Government may cite for keeping the rough sleepers unit is that a large number of rough sleepers come from our armed forces. That is an utter disgrace. If we cannot provide proper counselling for members of our armed forces to ensure that when they leave they have a proper place to sleep and bring up their families, something is very wrong with the organisation.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): If the new clause were successful, is the hon. Gentleman confident that local authorities will have the ability to perform

22 Oct 2001 : Column 41

similar roles to the rough sleepers unit? Will they be objective in carrying out that responsibility? Will they be able to cope with the pressure that will be put on them by charities and organisations that will constantly press them to look closely at the problem of rough sleepers? I do not believe that local authorities will be able to deal with that responsibility objectively. I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman could tell me whether he thinks they could.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: We are not saying that local authorities should have the sole role in this matter; indeed, they will be one of the partners, along with the voluntary sector and charities. Local authorities know best what is going on in their area and they are the correct people to play the leading role. The hon. Gentleman asked whether local authorities would be objective. The vast bulk of local authorities—which do a tremendously good job—will take a responsible role and will be effective.

It must be said that the authorities that are most likely to be effective in this area are Conservative-controlled. In terms of turning around empty houses, Conservative authorities are successful, while Labour authorities take many months, or more, to turn them round. The local authority in Westminster has come up with innovative schemes to house rough sleepers, and such schemes should be replicated across the country. Best practice should be disseminated by the internet and other forms of information technology. By doing that, local authorities, with other partners, will be able to tackle the problem of the remaining rough sleepers.

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