Homelessness Bill

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Mr. Waterson: Like the last general election.

Dr. Whitehead: Out of human kindness and sympathy, I did not draw that analogy, but as it is on the record, I am happy to endorse it.

Effectively, the clause is a transfer from Bath to Eastbourne. If that were a football transfer, it would not raise much money. Nevertheless, the arguments raised during debates on the Homes Bill are pertinent to today's discussion. It might be helpful if I briefly set out the aims of the clause.

Hon. Members may note that the clause already contains a number of broad points on guidance. It sets out the matters that local housing authorities must address when conducting a homelessness review. It specifies the purpose of such a review and it provides for the results of the review to be made public. The clause sets out the key steps that authorities should take to acquire reliable information and a sound understanding of the essential bases for formulating an effective strategy to resolve homelessness.

Subsection (1) specifies that a homelessness review

    ``means a review by the local housing authority of—

    (a) the levels, and the likely future levels, of homelessness in their district''.

The authority must also review the activities carried out for the various purposes set out in clause 2(2). The review must include a review of the resources available to the authority, the social services authority for their district, other public authorities, voluntary organisations and other persons for the various purposes set out in clause 2(2).

The purposes of homelessness reviews are set out in subsection (2). They are:

    ``preventing homelessness in the district . . . ;

    (b) securing that accommodation is or will be available for people in the district who are or may become homeless;

    (c) providing support for people in the district—

    (i) who are or may become homeless; or

    (ii) who have been homeless and need support to prevent them becoming homeless again.''

According to clause 2(3), once a review has been completed, the authority must provide for

    ``the results of the review to be available at its principal office for inspection at all reasonable hours, without charge, by members of the public''.

The authority must also provide

    ``(on payment if required by the authority of a reasonable charge) a copy of those results to any member of the public who asks for one.''

Taken together, those requirements provide a firm basis for drawing up homelessness strategies. They are the basic steps required. Individual authorities, having taken account of their local circumstances, may want to broaden the reviews to cover other matters, and I would encourage them to do so.

The amendment covers an important issue and it is good that we have another opportunity to discuss it. We intend that the provisions should do more than address the consequences of homelessness; they should help to avert it. Prevention, through advice and assistance, and through multi-agency working, will be an important aspect of all homelessness strategies and reviews. The availability, quality and extent of housing advice should all be considered as part of a homelessness review.

However, it is not necessary to list in the Bill every issue that should be addressed in a review. I take the view that housing advice falls clearly under clause 2(1)(b) if it is read alongside clause 2(2)(c)—the requirement that reviews must consider the activities carried out for the purpose of providing support for people in the district who are, or may become, homeless. We will, however, ensure that that is fully addressed in the revised code of guidance.

We will, however, ensure that that is fully addressed in the revised code of guidance. To answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Bath, I have taken note of the passage at column 316 of Hansard, in which my predecessor as Minister said that concerns would be incorporated in revised guidance. I understand that that revised guidance has not yet been finalised, but once it is available I shall ensure that hon. Members are given it as soon as possible.

Mr. Waterson: Would it not have made enormous sense to make the redraft guidance available to the Committee? As the Minister acknowledged, the issue was flagged up before the election. Civil servants have a break from politicians during a general election. Surely the guidance could have been prepared. Will it be available before the end of the Committee stage, or at least before the Bill completes its passage through the House?

Dr. Whitehead: The hon. Gentleman says that the guidance could have been completed during the election, but, as he reminded the House before the election, his party was about to become the Government, and I am not sure that it would have been appropriate for civil servants to work hard on guidance that related to a Bill that had at that stage fallen, when, according to his best estimates, his party was about to become the party of Government. Unfortunately for him, that event did not come to pass—

Mr. Waterson: The Minister cannot get away with that. Civil servants were clearly working on some parts of the Bill, because, despite its non-appearance in the Queen's Speech, it popped—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bath must contain his excitement. As the Bill popped up as the first of the Session, that explanation will not wash.

Dr. Whitehead: The hon. Gentleman should recognise that a proper protocol applies during elections. If at that point no signs suggested that the Bill would proceed, it would have been improper for the civil service to assume that the Labour party would win the general election and would immediately reintroduce the Bill to Parliament and complete the revised guidance relevant to that Bill. In saying that my explanation will not wash, the hon. Gentleman widens the boundaries of proper civil service behaviour and of what I am sure he and I would agree is the right action to take.

Mr. Waterson: I do not want to incur your wrath, Mr. Gale, but someone somewhere amended the Bill. The Bill is not word for word the same as part II of the Homes Bill. Is the Minister saying that no such work was done during the general election campaign or since the previous Bill fell and that all the work has been done since Labour won the election? If so, I accept his assurance immediately.

Dr. Whitehead: That is my understanding. I am not privy to the detailed day-to-day workings of the civil service, and I cannot categorically say that no civil servant gave—

Mr. Waterson: You are a Minister.

Dr. Whitehead: To respond to that sedentary intervention, I was not privy to the daily workings of the civil service during the last election but was out on the road trying to get elected, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman was.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will the Minister give way?

The Chairman: Order. The argument is becoming circular and far removed from the amendment. It is time to move on.

12 noon

Dr. Whitehead: Thank you, Mr. Gale. I am delighted to accept your guidance.

The issue is whether the proposal set forth in the amendment should be contained in the Bill or in guidance. During consideration of the Homes Bill it was suggested that some elements were already contained in the draft guidance and would be more fully placed in the revised guidance. The Bill itself strongly infers that local authorities should look for the availability of housing advice within their districts. Therefore, provided that we give an assurance—as we have already done—that the issue will be fully addressed in the revised guidance, it is reasonable that we should ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Don Foster: The hon. Member for Eastbourne was rightly chided for pursuing a particular avenue of debate. That must have been right because it was your ruling, Mr. Gale. However, the hon. Gentleman asked a perfectly reasonable question about whether the revised guidance would be available at some stage during the passage of the Bill through both Houses of Parliament. Will the Minister at least assure us that an opportunity will be given to see that draft guidance before it becomes impossible to raise the concerns that we have been discussing?

The Chairman: Order. Before the Minister responds to that intervention, I should make the Chair's position plain. The Minister cannot be responsible for what a Government Department was doing during an election when he was not a Minister in that Department. That is why I felt that the argument was becoming circular. However, the Chair takes the view that, when guidance notes are issued in relation to a Bill, those notes should be made available to Committee members as soon as practicably possible.

Dr. Whitehead: Thank you, Mr. Gale. As far as I know, the revised guidance will be available before the Bill's passage through the House is completed. I would like to ensure that I can make the revised guidance available on that understanding, so I shall write to the hon. Members concerned. That is my understanding of the situation.

Mr. Waterson: Well, it took a while to get there, but it would be churlish not to thank the Minister for his remarks. We may have a much shorter debate on that basis. I do not want to reopen the argument, but it would have been nice if the point had been thought of, as it was clearly flagged up in the previous debate. Otherwise, what point do these debates serve—even debates on previous versions of Bills?

I am happy to accept the Minister's assurance that draft notes will be available before completion of the Bill's passage through the House. It is probably optimistic to expect them during the course of this week, although that would be nice. It seems that we shall not return to consideration of the Bill until after the summer recess, so that should give abundant time to produce draft notes. If we could have them at some time during the summer recess—though perhaps not in August—that would be helpful.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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