Homelessness Bill

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister has told us how much investment the Government propose. To put the Government's homelessness strategy into perspective, can she predict how many registered social housing units will be built during the course of this Parliament?

Ms Keeble: I cannot give a number off the cuff. The hon. Gentleman knows about the amount of investment and the money that has gone into repair and maintenance, which will be crucial as regards the number of units that are kept in the current housing stock. We need to reduce the homelessness figures. We must also use all the housing resources at our disposal so that people are properly housed.

Tim Loughton: Will the Minister give way?

Ms Keeble: I am close to concluding and want to deal with the point that the hon. Member for Bath made about the Housing Corporation. My letter to the Housing Corporation is now entirely a matter of public record. I do not want to commit to the Housing Corporation's view of the situation, but undertake to consult with it on the hon. Gentleman's detailed points.

On that basis, I ask the hon. Member for Eastbourne to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Waterson: A sense of deja vu overwhelmed me for a moment. It is a bit rich of the Minister to shower all those compliments on the hon. Member for Bath when she talks about minor tinkerings with the Bill. Conservative Members can take responsibility for improving the Bill massively by causing the demise of part I of the Homes Bill. I do not want to go too far into all that, but the Minister and her friends, the Liberal Democrats, have obviously formed a mutual appreciation society.

A sense of deja vu overwhelmed me for a moment, because we went round and round the houses—if I may use that expression—the last time that we debated these issues, arguing over whether something should or should not be in the Bill: arguments A or B. Having re-read the previous debates and ministerial answers, and having heard the latest ministerial answer, we do not seem to have made much progress. The Minister talks about revised guidance and regulations and the role of the Housing Corporation. Although we shall debate it in more detail later, I am grateful for her confirmation that rough sleeping is included in homelessness, although the Bill does not say so.

The point remains: what will happen if a housing authority does not do what the Minister expects it to do and hopes that it will do? When I intervened, she explained the mechanism that would apply if a housing authority were in breach of a statutory duty. The whole point is that we are not putting a statutory duty on housing authorities to carry out consultations, so we are still left with the dilemma posed by the hon. Member for Bath over whether to press the amendment to a vote.

I was also interested to hear what the Minister said about bed-and-breakfast numbers, to which we shall no doubt return. The Government must learn that to set up a unit or crown a tsar will not always solve a problem. She indicates that reports of the death of the council house have been exaggerated, but one needs only examine the figures.

There comes a point where arguing on the same issue over and over again makes little difference. The Government would be sensible to include the amendments in the Bill, but as local housing authorities will increasingly be controlled by the Conservative party, the problem may go away. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Homelessness Reviews

Mr. Waterson: I beg to move amendment No. 6, in page 2, line 11, at end insert

    `; and

    (d) the availability of housing advice within the district.'.

I shall attempt to be brief. We debated this amendment during the passage of the Homes Bill. The amendment would add a fourth requirement to clause 2(1). As subsection (1) stands, local authorities would carry out a homelessness review to look at levels of homelessness, the activities that are carried out and the resources available. They should also look at the availability of housing advice in the district.

I do not intend to go over all that again. However, we benefited previously from detailed research carried out by Shelter into the question of housing advice and the massive variations in the quality of that advice throughout the country. People from Shelter told different housing departments that they were single mothers, children or whatever in an attempt to get advice on housing. In one case, a single mother received absolutely dreadful advice that was of no help at all. The only thing that the housing department did right was to give her a customer satisfaction form to fill in on her way out. On the basis of that and other research, there is no doubt that the quality of housing advice often leaves a lot to be desired.

In a previous discussion, the then Minister, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), tried to defuse the argument by talking about a draft of the guidance notes, with which the Committee had been provided. There was much discussion, including comments from the hon. Member for Bath, about whether the draft guidance notes addressed the problem. The then Minister seemed to think that references to sources of data on homelessness dealt with the issue, but seemed to refer to the authority collecting information for its own decision-making purposes.

The Minister stated:

    ``The availability of housing advice, its quality and extent, should and will have to be considered as part of homelessness reviews.''—[Official Report, 30 January 2001; Vol. 362, c. 315.]

As a bold statement of what we want to achieve—and wanted to achieve before—I can do no better than to quote that. That approach must be right, but I remain unclear about how far we have progressed with the draft code.

The Minister concluded his contribution to that debate by asking the hon. Member for Bath:

    ``Will the hon. Gentleman accept that the notes will be incorporated within the existing code?''—[Official Report, 30 January 2001; Vol. 362, c. 316.]

He also promised to check the point.

We never returned to that question in that Committee. We now have a golden opportunity to return to it and to press the Minister to tell us whether the code of conduct has been improved and tightened up on the basis of evidence from Shelter and others.

Many people throughout the country are not receiving the level of housing advice to which they should be entitled. I tabled this probing amendment to give the Minister an opportunity to update the Committee on that point.

11.45 am

Mr. Don Foster: The Committee will not be surprised to know that I have tremendous sympathy for the amendment, not least because it is, word for word, the same as amendment No. 67, which I tabled during the passage of the Homes Bill. I was interested when the hon. Member for Eastbourne said, ``We debated this during the passage of the Homes Bill.'' Indeed we did, but not a single member of the Conservative party took part in it. I am nevertheless delighted that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue so eloquently.

Mr. Waterson: The hon. Gentleman is right that we did not participate in that narrow debate on 30 January, but I spoke at some length—unusually for me—on the Shelter report in another debate, for which I cannot find the reference at the moment. I would not like to mislead the Committee unwittingly by suggesting that this was something that we did not care about.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman is right that the issue of the advice given to homeless people was debated on a number of occasions. I clearly remember the lengthy discourse that he gave us on one occasion. If he checks the record, he will find that he was responding to an amendment moved by a Government Back Bencher. I certainly would not wish to suggest that the matter is insignificant.

As the hon. Member for Eastbourne says, the Government's response last time was that the subject was an argument A case. For Committee members who do not know what it is, argument A is similar to the suggestion that a Christmas tree should be decorated with as many baubles as possible. The problem is that once some baubles have been added, those missed off may seem to some people to be of no importance whatever. That argument has some merit in certain cases.

A more important result of that debate was an absolute assurance from the then Minister that the guidance to be issued to local authorities would include examples of best practice, and firm advice to ensure that that best-practice approach was adopted by local authorities. That Committee was told that copies of the revised guidance would be circulated later. My question to the new Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), whom we welcome to his place, is this: have the Government adhered to the undertaking given by his predecessor, and will it be possible for Committee members to see the most up-to-date version of the guidance so that we can be sure that those assurances have been followed through?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead): May I add my voice to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) to express my pleasure at serving on the Bill? I am pleased to be working with my hon. Friend in supporting the Bill in Committee.

As has been pointed out, the amendment is similar to—in fact, identical to—that which was moved during the passage of the Homes Bill. In that respect, I am entirely with the hon. Member for Eastbourne in singing the praises of the film ``Groundhog Day''. It is a fine film, second only in its genre to the John Landis classic ``Three Amigos!''. The amendment reminds me of one of those sequences in ``Groundhog Day'' in which the events were slightly different but the outcome was the same.

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