Homelessness Bill

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Ms Keeble: Let me get on a little further, and then I will.

Mr. Waterson: I might forget my point.

Ms Keeble: If the hon. Gentleman thinks that, his point cannot be very important.

The aims of the Bill have been widely welcomed, although I recognise that, over the next few sessions, we must explore with care its detailed workings. Bearing in mind your guidance, Mr. Gale, not to expound too widely on the background, I will say a little about that before turning to the amendments.

The causes of homelessness are not simple and vary from case to case. Rapid economic growth in London and the south-east must surely have contributed to the increased pressure on social housing in London and the surrounding area. We have made a start in dealing with the problem through initiatives outside the Bill. Some causes of homelessness are localised, as recent floods have demonstrated, and others are personal to the individual concerned, as in cases of relationship or family breakdown.

Although the Government have set the framework for tackling homelessness, local authorities are best placed to co-ordinate and lead the effort in their local areas, and to initiate preventative measures. That is why the Government's proposals for homelessness reform, set out in last year's housing Green Paper, included a policy of requiring local authorities to take a more strategic approach to tackling and preventing homelessness. Such a strategic approach will be effective only if it harnesses the efforts and activities of all the organisations providing services and assistance to homeless people that operate in an authority's area. A partnership approach is central to our proposals: we require local housing authorities to take a multi-agency and strategic approach to preventing and responding to homelessness.

Clauses 1 to 3 of the Bill set out the basis for such a strategy, and require that it be kept under review. Many agencies are involved with people who are homeless, or at risk of becoming so, and they should work together to avoid duplicating services, which might result in the creation of gaps in provision. Local housing authorities should conduct reviews and draw up strategies in partnership with other authorities and agencies, such as social services authorities or departments, health service organisations, and those that administer housing benefit.

Registered social landlords will also be central to the development and implementation of homelessness strategies. In some areas, they provide the majority of social housing and, as has been pointed out, the transfer programme is increasing their importance in delivering services to tenants and supporting local authorities in the performance of their statutory duties.

Several hon. Members have argued that the Bill should include statutory provisions to require registered social landlords to co-operate with authorities in the discharge of their duties and in the undertaking of homelessness strategies and reviews. I share the concern that has been expressed that registered social landlords should play their part, but I believe that that will be best achieved through revised guidance and enhanced regulation by the Housing Corporation as the statutory regulator of the registered social landlords sector. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bath for the prominence that he has brought to that issue, and for his acceptance that further statutory obligations are not essential at present and that our mutual objectives can be achieved through regulations.

A wide range of other bodies should also be engaged in reviews and strategies, and in the prevention and management of homelessness, including probation services and voluntary organisations that work with young people or with those suffering from mental health problems. Organisations that deal with rough sleepers also have a vital role to play. It is important to highlight that, in the Bill, homelessness includes rough sleeping. As there is not a simple, single cause of homelessness, co-operative approaches must be adopted that require several agencies to work together. Multi-agency co-operation recognises that agencies might have clients in common, and that many of the services that each of them provide can contribute to the prevention and management of homelessness. Multi-agency working is driven by the needs of clients, rather than by those of organisational structures.

Before I discuss the amendments, I will deal with some of the issues that have been mentioned, and, in particular, those that were raised by the hon. Member for Eastbourne. He mentioned the increasing size of the problem of homelessness, and, in particular, the increased numbers of people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I agree that those figures are too high, but 70 per cent. of the people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation live in London, and the economy and the housing market in that city are special issues that have created unique pressures. As many hon. Members who represent London constituencies have repeatedly said, those problems require London-based solutions.

That point underlines the need to ensure that local authorities can draw up strategies that are best suited to their local requirements. The Government have also set up the bed-and-breakfast unit to look at the particular problems of the number of people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

11.30 am

The hon. Gentleman also raised issues concerning investment. We have substantially increased investment in housing—there has, for instance, been a £3.3 billion increase in the current year. We have introduced a new major repairs allowance of £1.6 billion from 2001-02 to encourage efficient management and proper investment in council housing. I want to stress that that money is not for new-build housing: it is for work on existing council stock.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of empty council properties.

Problems caused by pressures in different parts of the country call for local solutions. That would provide the best possible result, not just for the use of the properties, but for local communities and local people looking for housing. We have discussed stock transfers. I suspect that reports of the death of the council property have been greatly exaggerated. We are committed to increasing the number of stock transfers to registered social landlords, but only with the agreement of the tenants. Housing authorities can look at other options, but if they are to retain their stock, it should be through best-value assessment.

Amendment No. 1 specifies which bodies should co-operate with local authorities. The amendment would unintentionally catch out small landlords and oblige them to participate in homelessness reviews and strategies. Housing co-operatives and landlords of houses in multiple occupation are important housing providers, and some will want to engage with the authority. I expect local housing authorities to welcome willingness to co-operate, and to build on it to achieve real partnerships. Such arrangements cannot be forced, and may be undermined by statutory obligation.

My principal objection to the amendment—this re-iterates my predecessor's objections—is that it would undermine the strategic responsibility that we place on local housing authorities. Local housing authorities must undertake homelessness reviews in partnership as part of their housing and wider community responsibilities. It is important that authorities accept those responsibilities and recognise that they are lead responsibilities, shared with dilute accountability and performance.

Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 are consequent on amendment No. 1. I would be surprised if local authorities did not keep lists of their regular contacts' telephone numbers, fax numbers, e-mail and personal addresses; but this is not a matter for inclusion in the Bill. We must take a sensible and strategic view on how to establish a robust and coherent framework for reviews and strategies; a framework that allows intelligent offices to run their affairs competently. We shall have to take a sensible view of how much detail is required in the Bill.

Mr. Waterson: If a local authority were to surprise the Under-Secretary by not acting as she expects—although we all agree on how local authorities should act—what mechanism will set them back on the path of righteousness?

Ms Keeble: The Government have mechanisms to ensure that local authorities undertake their statutory duties. It is wrong to assume that many local authorities will not comply with the statutory duties given to them. If management and administrative functions were governed by prescriptive rules set out in the Bill, we would tie the hands of good local authorities without addressing the problems that the hon. Gentleman identifies.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I apologise for arriving late, Mr. Gale.

On the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne, the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions recently remarked that private companies could be sent in when a local authority's homelessness strategy is deemed a failure. Does the Under-Secretary envisage that a local authority might find itself subject to the decisions of a private company that has taken over responsibility for the administration of the strategies that they are being asked to devise, and which we are debating?

Ms Keeble: I do not want to look at new ways of providing housing that involve threats to send in inspectors from private companies. The hon. Member for Bath talked about a way of working and the relationship between the different partners involved in dealing with the problem of homelessness—housing authorities, registered social landlords, housing associations and other agencies. Those are important relationships, and I support them. They must be based on mutual agreement and common respect, and must, at the end of the day, deliver the overall housing strategy, provide individual housing units that ensure that we can get rid of the scourge of homelessness and give people a choice of decent accommodation that meets their needs, whether temporary or permanent.

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