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Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman is quoting me out of context. He knows very well that Crisis used similar language when the counts were made. It implies no lack of caring for those people; quite the reverse. We want to know accurately how many there are, so that we can take the appropriate action.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman is compounding his earlier error. There is a reasonable debate to be had about the massaging of the figures in relation to the number of people sleeping rough. That is not precisely what he said.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): On the point raised by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton- Brown), does the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) agree that although housing asylum seekers is a factor, it is by no means the main factor? Is it not right to reflect on the impact of the right to buy?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Interesting though that may be, I remind hon. Members once again that they must confine their remarks to the amendment under discussion.

Mr. Foster: I accept, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I am not allowed to say anything in response, other than that I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King).

I have made it clear that my party and I support the amendments. The record will show that they were originally introduced by Liberal Democrats in both

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Houses of Parliament. We are therefore delighted that they are to form part of important legislation, which I hope will be on the statute book in a very short time.

Chris Grayling: I give the amendments a cautionary welcome. I have no doubt that the Minister's words and those of Lord Falconer in the other place about the aspiration underlying the amendments are well founded, but the Government need to be mindful of the consequences of such legislation, not because its motives are wrong, but because if it is implemented thoughtlessly, it could add considerably to the burden faced by local authority officers who are already hard pressed. It is difficult to legislate best practice into existence, which I assume is the aim of the amendments.

Speaking about the amendments in the other place, Lord Falconer said, and the Minister said similarly this afternoon:

The key words are

Around the country there are many well-run local authorities and housing departments, with first class officers who do as effective a job as they can in extremely difficult circumstances. There is a danger that in the detailed way in which the Government choose to implement the amendments, they risk imposing an undue extra burden on local authorities that are doing a good job. I seek the Minister's reassurance this afternoon that she will endeavour to ensure that that does not happen.

Problems of poor management can never be solved by legislation, but it is all too easy to place an additional burden on a hard-working officer who is already having difficulty getting the job done in the hours available, not because of anything to do with that person's job, but because of a small minority of problem cases in individual authorities.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): The hon. Gentleman will be aware of reports suggesting that, to date, the advice and assistance of some local authorities has been merely to refer people to Shelterline. Is he suggesting that we do not need the amendments? Clearly, the facts deny that view.

Chris Grayling: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I am not for a moment suggesting that we do not need the amendments. However, if the Government get the practicality of their implementation wrong, they could place an undue burden on housing officers who are doing a first-rate job. I am sure that he would agree that first-rate authorities are doing a first-rate job in many parts of the country. Such authorities would not countenance delivering an inadequate response to somebody who approached them with genuine need, but would do their best to deliver a practical, effective and

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proper solution. We need to support such people and guide towards better practice the authorities that take the actions that he describes.

Mr. Love: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. Does he accept that we legislate and provide guidance on best practice not for those who achieve it, but for those who do not?

Chris Grayling: I fully accept that the role of such legislation and of the amendments is to set a clear signpost for local authorities about what is expected of them. However, difficulties can arise in terms of the minutiae of implementation and how the provisions are put into practice. Many local authorities are delivering best practice. I spoke to a local authority officer today who said, "We are doing these things already; the first thing that we do when somebody comes to us with a problem is sit down, talk through their needs and work out their individual situation, so we can look at the options that are available to them." There is no doubt that that is already happening in many local authorities, although as the hon. Gentleman said, some do not follow such procedures.

Will the Minister explain what local authorities will have to do differently as a result of the amendments? Will they have to follow new procedures and check what they do against new guidelines as they work through the process of greeting somebody? How will the process differ from the way in which they currently handle such matters? Will their work in this area be subject to additional scrutiny? That point is significant, because if officers need to spend more time preparing paperwork for inspection, an additional burden will inevitably be imposed upon them. Thus, the detail of how the Government implement the provisions is extremely important. It is all too easy for a zealous project team to impose on authority officers a pile of paperwork and a process that is vastly too onerous and represents overkill rather than an effective solution.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) mentioned cost and highlighted the situation in London. The process has cost implications, and the Government always need to be mindful that every step they take potentially has such an implication. Costs may arise in terms of man hours rather than direct cash investment, but none the less, the Government need carefully to consider the matter when they think through implementation. In addition, if a case is simple—housing officers deal with some simple and straightforward cases—will the process create much more complexity for applicants? They also need to be mindful of that issue. Furthermore, as hon. Members have mentioned, it is all well and good having an excellent advice process for applicants with genuine needs, but in many parts of the country—my local boroughs of Epsom and Ewell, Reigate and Banstead and Mole Valley certainly fit the bill—the housing options do not necessarily exist to enable officers to deal with the problems that arrive on their doorsteps, even if advice processes are excellent. Regrettably, in the past four or five years, the number of new social houses built in this country has fallen dramatically.

My message to the Minister—I hope that she will respond to some of the points that I have made—is that the Government have a habit of imposing extra work on

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local authorities. I am still a councillor in the London borough of Merton and I have seen directly that that is the case. It is all too easy for 15 different small initiatives to create a significant block of extra work load for a local authority, especially when they come from different parts of Government. I seek the Minister's assurance that the legislation provides a signpost and will be handled lightly, except in the most pressing cases, and not impose huge amounts of unnecessary bureaucracy and time-consuming work on good, effective and hard-working local authority officers. I seek her assurance that it will be not an imposition on the best, but a route to tackle the worst.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): I, too, will speak briefly, because hon. Members have covered several of the main points.

I share some of the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) as regards the implementation of the provisions. The issue of London, where homelessness is a massive problem, was powerfully discussed by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson). The burden falls occasionally on the shoulders of London Members of Parliament, but most often, unfortunately, on locally elected councillors who do not necessarily have the wherewithal or the time to deal with such a large number of cases. I am worried that the provisions have been insufficiently thought through, and I hope that the Minister will be able to pacify my fears. I agree with the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate that we in London require considerably more resources. I represent a central London seat. Asylum seekers place a great burden on the city of Westminster in relation to housing.

As a quick aside, I want to say that the rough sleepers unit has been a great success during the past three or four years. Although concerns have been expressed about the massaging of figures, that should not detract from its achievements. Ms Casey and the Metropolitan police have played an important role in helping to clear up the streets in central London. I hope that they have done so in an effective and long-term way. I shall move off that subject, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I can see that your tolerance has been taken almost to breaking point.

There is a particularly acute homelessness problem here in London. I hope that consideration will be given to increasing central Government resources or to targeting one or two experimental schemes to ensure that the right policy is put in place, not one that will cost a lot of money and create more bureaucracy further down the line.

The homelessness problem in London turns not only on asylum seekers. Many young people see London as a honeypot—an exciting area to live. They take casual labouring jobs, working initially on a part-time basis, and are then unable to afford to pay rent, start to sleep rough and spiral downwards. That leads to problems deeper than those that are dealt with by housing departments.

Will the Minister provide for an opportunity within a fairly short time—say, two or three years—to judge whether the provisions are working correctly? Will she ensure, through the new burdens principle, that, notwithstanding the remarks of the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), any ongoing problems do not place undue burdens on local council taxpayers here in London?

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