Homelessness Bill

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Mr. Waterson: I am not saying that there is no force to that argument, but I do not believe that it wins the day. The proposal is not a wacky idea that I dreamt up on two separate occasions, and there is a view among some key players in social housing that it would be a good idea. The hon. Lady and others will remember the Green Pepper campaign that was co-ordinated by the Catholic Housing Aid Society and the Churches National Housing Coalition. It said:

    ``Green Pepper welcomes the requirement for a greater strategic role for local authorities through assessments of local need. However, it is important to emphasise that the applicants themselves, the voluntary sector and faith groups will have a great deal of knowledge to assist in audits of local need.''

I am sure that we all agree so far with such a statement. It went on:

    ``Where local authorities act on their own, they may not always be able to see the full picture.''

That is the point that I am trying to make. Others share the concern that local authorities that are not necessarily modern and forward-looking in their thinking may want to act on their own and not take any great notice of what RSLs think, despite the reality that they are, to an increasing extent, the ones who run social housing.

The Chairman: Before we continue the debate, I remind hon. Members that we should focus on clause 1. I understand that at the start of discussions on a Bill, especially on the first clause, Front Bench Members must set matters in context. However, I would not want those who have never before taken part in such proceedings to get the impression that a Second Reading debate is permissible on every clause.

Mr. Don Foster: I note what you have said, Mr. Gale, and intend to stick closely to the debate on clause 1 and on the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Eastbourne.

I begin by warmly agreeing with his view, expressed both now and in the Committee on the Homes Bill, that it is a pity that clause 1 refers specifically to the local authorities drawing up a homelessness strategy in isolation from their other housing obligations. I share the hon. Gentleman's view, and that of the Local Government Association, that it would have been preferable to require local authorities to produce a single housing strategy that includes all the details required under this legislation. The key issue before us, however, is whether, given the changing social housing situation, clause 1 goes far enough in respect of the strategic partners other than the local authorities which have significant responsibilities for dealing with housing need.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne detailed his views on the issue of large-scale voluntary transfer. He argued that that was a Conservative party policy which, egged on by the Conservatives, the Labour Government have taken on board lock, stock and barrel and are implementing even more rapidly than the Conservatives would have done. I was interested in the intervention from the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), who made the most valid point of all. The rapid movement towards large-scale voluntary transfer is happening because tenants' choices are not made on a level playing field. Local authorities do not have the same rights to borrow money to improve their housing stock that are available to registered social landlords and others. I agree with the hon. Member for Eastbourne that the matter should still be left ultimately to tenants, but if those rights were equalised, local authorities would be able to make a stronger case to those tenants. We would not then see so many authorities adopting large-scale voluntary transfer.

The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that a large number of the large metropolitan authorities that have not so far taken part in the LSVT exercise plan to do so in the next wave. All the evidence suggests that by 2004—as I said in my intervention—most social housing will be managed and run by registered social landlords.

11.15 am

When we discussed this issue during our debate on part II of the Homes Bill, Mr. Gale, you will remember that I moved an amendment similar to the ones being moved by the hon. Gentleman. However, my amendments were specifically restricted to including registered social landlords in the development of the homelessness strategy in conjunction with the local authorities and did not, unlike his amendments, include a range of other strategic partners. The most important relationship that must be got right when developing homelessness strategies is the relationship between the RSLs and the local authority. When we debated that matter last time, the then Under-Secretary of State for

Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), said in response to my amendments:

    ``Registered social landlords are already under a duty to co-operate with local authorities to such an extent as is reasonable. That allows some discretion, but the provision is given teeth by the sector's regulator—the Housing Corporation.''—[Official Report, 7 February 2001; Vol. 363, c. 969.]

Would it be sensible to accept amendments such as those proposed by the hon. Member for Eastbourne, or can we rely on the Housing Corporation—the sector's regulator—to ensure that registered social landlords are delivering on that matter and, especially, on their prime function of ensuring that housing need is met?

As a result of deliberations and subsequent parliamentary questions that I asked, it is clear that the Government are keen for the housing regulator to have more teeth to ensure that registered social landlords meet their obligations. Prior to deliberations in this Committee, I wrote to the new Minister about the matter to ask whether she could reassure me that the Housing Corporation would have sharp enough teeth to ensure that my concerns would be met by changes to the way that it operates, rather than by amendments.

There are two routes to achieve that. The Housing Corporation's regulatory code is to be amended, and a new draft has been circulated for consultation. My worry is that although the consultation has led to a number of comments, we do not know whether proposals that would sharpen the teeth of the Housing Corporation will be accepted. In the absence of that knowledge, it is difficult to know whether we should support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Eastbourne, or if we can rely on the alternative route.

My concern about the current code that is out for consultation is that while specific reference is made to the importance of meeting housing need, it does not give that the prominence that I, and other organisations including Shelter, would like. A further worry is that there is no performance indicator in the mechanism for such a key task. Do the Minister and the Government wish to see that issue given a higher prominence in the code? What is the Minister's opinion of a performance indicator?

I am grateful for the helpful response to my letter that I received from the Minister on 9 July. In my letter, I raised the second route for beefing up the work of the Housing Corporation with respect to the intended statutory housing management guidance that is to be issued. I asked the Minister when the new draft would be published and consultation would take place. From her helpful response, I understand that the corporation intends to issue the draft statutory housing guidance at the end of this month and that there will be a 12-week consultation period. I am delighted to hear that, and perhaps we should await the responses. Unfortunately, given that we have all agreed that we want a swift passage of the Bill through the House, we will not know the results of the consultation. I would welcome some assurances from the Minister about that matter.

As you will have guessed, Mr. Gale, I am in two minds. On one hand, it is sensible to place the work, the role of and the relationship between registered social landlords firmly in the Bill. On the other hand, I have received strong assurances from the Government that the Housing Corporation will have the necessary teeth to ensure that my concerns are met. The Minister's response will be important in helping me to decide how to vote on the issue, should that be necessary.

I hope that the Minister is willing to ensure that my letter to her, and her response, are placed in the hands of the Housing Corporation, so that they are aware of my concerns. More importantly, in her reply on 9 July, she stated:

    ``The Corporation is determined to challenge associations which cannot demonstrate that they are fulfilling their primary function of accommodating people in housing need.''

I am delighted that she believes that that is what the corporation will do, but how will the corporation challenge the associations and make sure that they put matters right if they are failing?

The decision on which way to vote is difficult, and I look forward to the Minister's reply. Judging by the helpful responses that I have already received, I suspect that she will be able to persuade me.

Ms Keeble: As hon. Members have said, in a sense we are here to complete unfinished business. For some of us, it is our first exposure to the intricacies of the Bill, while others have already made important contributions. The work on the Homes Bill has been invaluable in developing this legislation, and I acknowledge the debt that we owe to my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), and to hon. Members who helped to scrutinise and improve the Bill. I also acknowledge the role played by the hon. Member for Bath in that process.

The principal aims of the Bill are to set a coherent framework for local authorities to adopt in tackling homelessness, to strengthen the homelessness safety net and to extend choice.

Mr. Waterson: Will the Minister give way?

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