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Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): I have news for the hon. Gentleman. Many Labour-controlled local authorities have the same initiatives as the council he has just mentioned. My authority, Bolton, has a very good rough sleepers initiative. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the proposals implied by his new clause could be built into the requirements of the homelessness strategy that the Government will ask local authorities to produce?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I entirely agree. The two aspirations—the new clause and the hon. Gentleman's comments—are not mutually exclusive. One would expect the Government to build into the Bill some form of duty for local authorities. This problem is too important to be left hanging in the air and that is not the intention of my new clause. The intention is to probe the Government in view of previous statements by Ministers on the realistic role of the rough sleepers unit.

The unit is somewhat bureaucratic and expensive. We know, for example, that it has a budget of £198 million over three years, which could go directly to local authorities. That is a huge sum that, to use a rather crude phrase, could be recycled into the problem. I do not mean that uncaringly, but it is a simple fact of life that the money could go towards solving the problem, especially as local authorities already have housing staff in place, so there is some duplication between local authorities and the unit. We want to eliminate that duplication, not in any way to reduce the effectiveness of the effort being made to deal with the problem, which we regard, as the hon. Gentleman does, as very important.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): There is indeed a great deal of duplication. Will my hon. Friend

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speculate on how many homeless people that size of budget could help if it were channelled directly into the problem?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend reinforces my comments about duplication. Anyone can do the maths: 700 people divided into £198 million produces a very large sum for each rough sleeper. I am not saying that I would expect all the money to go towards the rough sleeping problem. It could be well directed towards some of the other problems that I have outlined, and others that we will refer to in our subsequent discussions.

The unit's administration budget is £3.6 million, and the chief executive is paid between £70,000 and £75,000. I do not begrudge her that in the slightest—she has done an amazingly good job—but she could be using her skills elsewhere, and the money that she and her staff are paid could be going towards dealing with this and other problems.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) tabled new clause 2 to try to ensure that those who are released from prison do not get undue priority in a local authority's provision for the unintentionally homeless. This is a sensitive area. The problem with one group being given priority is that other groups are de facto disadvantaged. We have all heard from perfectly ordinary, decent constituents who, for one reason or another, despite being highly deserving, have not accumulated quite enough points—if the local authority is using a points system—to be housed. If we are to give criminals—that is what they are, or they would not have been in prison in the first place—priority over some of those people, it will make it even harder for them to get off the bottom of the pile.

I do not want to be too harsh. Of course, the rehabilitation of offenders must be an important part of our work. Again, we should give local authorities more discretion. Every case is different, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as you will know from your surgeries. You will have had heart-rending cases of people who have not been able to get priority for housing. In some circumstances, people coming out of prison might deserve priority, but it should not be written into the Bill that all such people should get it automatically. The more inclusive lists become in legislation, the more exclusive they are of those people who are not on the list. I wholly support new clause 2, and I hope that the Government will take it into account.

The third of our new clauses deals with priority for local people. This, too, is a difficult area; I have had several recent constituency cases involving the same kind of people—those who have not notched up enough points to be given priority housing, who find that people come in from outside the area and take priority over them.

If we want to maintain communities we should give local people some sort of priority. People moving back to live near their families are a classic case; communities would be strengthened by giving them priority over somebody coming in from outside—for example, a criminal. A criminal coming in from outside could be made a priority over people who were originally local and wanted to move back and live near their family. The problem when such people lose a house is more acute in rural areas, because in some places, a village house owned by a registered social landlord comes up only once every few years, and if a local person loses that one opportunity it may not come again for a long time.

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My hon. Friend is right to want to put on the statute book the idea that those who have a local connection should be one of the groups considered to have a priority need for housing.

Dr. Iddon: The hon. Gentleman seems to be concentrating on areas of high demand, but he knows that houses are available in areas of low demand. If the Government accepted new clause 3, would it not rule out a person moving from an area of high demand to an area of low demand?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman is right. The Opposition believe that, by and large, people should be housed in the area from which they come. If people come—from London, for example—to seek priority housing in an area of low demand such as his, if there is no priority housing available, it would be better for them to be sent back to their own local authority, if that is convenient and possible for them, and that authority should then consider the problem.

I accept that the problems for an authority such as the hon. Gentleman's are totally different from those in my area. Legislation, however, always deals with the most difficult cases, and in an authority such as mine, where there are probably five potential applicants for every house that becomes available, it is disheartening for local people with a reasonably high priority need for housing to find that people coming in from the outside make sure that they never reach the point of being offered a house. I accept part of what the hon. Gentleman says, but I believe that he would also recognise the severe difficulties that face an authority such as mine.

Priorities are difficult, but the Opposition think that local authorities should be given discretion. Hon. Members will see that later amendments attempt to give local authorities more duties and obligations—yet the more duties and obligations we give local authorities, the less easy it is for them to make their own decisions and the less effective they will become.

For example, a huge number of directives and regulations have been issued concerning housing benefit, and in some authorities the administration of that benefit has descended into chaos. The Opposition do not want to see that. We want an effective homelessness policy; we want local authorities' housing policies to become ever more effective, with rapid turnround of empty houses in both the private and the public sector, so that we can deal with some of the problems.

New clause 1 deals with rough sleepers—a problem that we acknowledge, and want to reduce further. We also want to ensure that correct discretion is given to local authorities over which groups should have priority on the housing list, and new clauses 2 and 3 were tabled with that objective in mind. I ask the Government to answer the questions that I have posed.

5 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble): I welcome the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) to his new position and to

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the deliberations on the Bill. The new clauses and the other amendments tabled all seek to alter the homelessness responsibilities of local housing authorities.

New clause 1 would cease the operation of the rough sleepers unit and give housing authorities the primary responsibility for addressing problems of rough sleeping. I hope that all hon. Members share the Government's concern for the plight of people sleeping rough. The RSU was established in 1999. It has been set the specific 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.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the unit has already made excellent progress towards that demanding target. It has taken a partnership approach, delivered through a national strategy. Housing authorities and voluntary sector agencies play a key role in delivering the strategy at local level. One of the successes of the unit has been its ability to draw together different programmes from across government, including programmes to help people suffering mental ill health or problems of drug and alcohol addiction. It takes a joined-up approach in looking at why people sleep rough in the first place, and offering them an alternative to a life on the streets.

By working across government, the unit makes sure that all organisations with a stake in the problem—like local authorities, the Prison Service, the Benefits Agency and the armed forces—are doing their bit to tackle it. The hon. Gentleman acknowledged that the results had been good, but that is not only because the unit has been able to reduce the numbers—the head count—sleeping rough. It has also been successful in changing thinking in the approach to dealing with rough sleepers and introducing more permanent solutions.

The unit has been consulting authorities, voluntary sector homelessness agencies and others, including people sleeping rough, former rough sleepers and those at risk of rough sleeping, on a future strategy. The unit is currently examining responses to the consultation and is evaluating the impact of its strategy to identify how work to tackle rough sleeping, and prevent people from hitting the streets in the first place, should continue beyond April 2002. The hon. Gentleman recognised the impact of that date. An announcement on the future arrangements will be made in the coming months.

The role of housing authorities will, of course, be a factor in the analysis. They will need to build on their present successes in working in partnership with voluntary sector agencies and other statutory organisations to reduce the number of people sleeping rough, to ensure that numbers are sustained at a low level. That will be a substantial challenge. The hon. Member for Cotswold identified the role of the Ministry of Defence and, in doing so, he recognised the complexity of the issue and the importance of ensuring a smooth transition from the present arrangements to whatever comes after April 2002. The new ways of working that have been introduced must be continued, so that we do not see a rise in the head count of people sleeping rough after that date.

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