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Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
Homelessness Bill

Homelessness Bill

Standing Committee A

Tuesday 10 July 2001


[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]

Homelessness Bill

Clause 3

Homelessness strategies

4.30 pm

Mr. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 2, line 30, after 'homelessness', insert '(including rough sleeping)'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 1—Rough sleepers—

    'The Rough Sleepers Unit shall cease to operate with effect from April 2002, and its powers and responsibilities shall be devolved to local housing authorities.'.

Mr. Selous: I am pleased to be a member of this Standing Committee discussing homelessness, on which I made my maiden speech. I referred in that speech to some of the homeless charities that deal with rough sleepers, a subject dealt with in this amendment and the proposed new clause.

First, I should declare an interest to the Committee. Some time ago, Mr. Lee, one of our distinguished Clerks, was a tenant of mine. I hope that he would confirm that I was in the model landlord category.

The amendment and the new clause would make certain that local housing authorities ensure that their strategy specifically includes the prevention of rough sleeping. That would render the rough sleepers unit redundant. The responsibility for dealing with rough sleepers should be transferred to local authorities—they are more in touch with the problems in their districts than the rough sleepers unit can hope to be.

The amendment is important because I know from my constituency surgery, that little provision is available for families who face possible eviction and sleeping on the streets after they have been evicted from private rented accommodation and offered 28 days bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I would be interested to hear the Minister's comments on a case of that kind in my constituency. A lady in the circumstances that I have described came to see me. She has been evicted from private rented accommodation and offered 28 days bed-and-breakfast accommodation. She is expecting her fifth child on the day before she will be forced out of the bed-and-breakfast accommodation, so she came to ask me what would happen. I understand that, in the eyes of the law, she is considered to be intentionally homeless. However, that still leaves me in a difficult position as to how I should advise her. Will the Bill make a difference in her case?

District councils and their metropolitan or unitary counterparts should be able to put applicants in contact with sufficient numbers of providers of emergency accommodation to meet their local needs. That is what I would have expected to happen in the case of the lady who came to my surgery. In Committee this morning, the Minister spoke about local authorities having telephone and fax numbers and e-mail addresses of organisations in their locality who could provide such emergency housing services. However, a senior officer of the council involved in the case I have mentioned told me that that was not the case. A database needs to be created containing such information nationally, so that we can give the best possible advice to people in such circumstances.

New clause 1 would bring to an end the rough sleepers unit and allow that budget of some £198 million to be transferred to the local housing authorities in proportion to the level of rough sleeping in their areas. That was envisaged by the then Under-Secretary in part II of the Homes Bill. It would allow the budget of £198 million to go directly to the local authorities over three years. The administration budget of £3.6 million is included in that, as are the salaries of the senior staff: I gather that Louise Casey has earned between £70,000 and £75,000, that her deputy earned about £54,000, and that the third most senior member of staff earned between £45,000 and £60,000. All that money would then become available to go directly to the local authorities that assist rough sleepers in their areas.

In the previous Parliament, when the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) was the Minister, he told the Committee that he envisaged that responsibility for rough sleeping would be returned to local housing authorities. I trust that that is still the Government's position.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Griffiths, and I am grateful that you were able to step into the breach at such short notice. I have been told that this is the first time that you have chaired a Committee, and it is nice to have a little seniority over you, as I now have a morning's experience behind me.

Clause 3 is vital. It requires local housing authorities to take a multi-agency and strategic approach to preventing, and responding to, homelessness. It sets out the basis for such a strategy, and it requires that such strategies are kept under review. Many different agencies are involved with people who are homeless, or at risk of becoming so, and it is important that they work together to avoid duplicating their services, which might create gaps in provision.

When local housing authorities conduct reviews and draft strategies, they should work with other authorities and agencies, such as social services authorities or departments, health service organisations, and those administering housing benefit.

Registered social landlords will also be central to the development and implementation of homelessness strategies. Multi-agency co-operation is to be encouraged because it is recognised that agencies might have clients in common, and that many of the services that they provide can contribute to the prevention and management of homelessness.

The purpose of the strategy is set out in subsection (1). Local housing authorities must make plans to prevent homelessness in their districts, to secure sufficient accommodation and provide support for people who are homeless, and to provide support for people who might become homeless. They must also help people who

    ``need support to prevent them becoming homeless again.''

That is called the revolving door syndrome.

A strategic approach by housing authorities to the prevention of homelessness and to the management of its consequences is central to improving the lot of many of society's most vulnerable members. That will be greatly enhanced by multi-agency co-operation to address the needs of individuals, and I welcome the widespread agreement to that approach.

I referred to amendment No. 4 earlier in the debate. It seeks to make it explicit that rough sleeping is included in the term homelessness, and I assure hon. Members that that is already the case. The code of guidance will make it clear that authorities will need to take account of rough sleeping in their reviews and strategies.

New clause 1 would disband the rough sleepers unit and give local authorities the primary responsibility for addressing the problems of rough sleeping.

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Mr. Selous) made a point about a lady who visited his constituency advice surgery, and I want to respond to it. From the description that he gave, it was unclear how she would be judged by the local authority, and I do not want to hazard a guess about that, as I might get the answer wrong. When one looks through the details of such a case, it is easy to miss out a couple of factors that can affect whether a person is intentionally, or unintentionally, homeless, and that affects all that person's subsequent rights. I have a suggestion to make to the hon. Gentleman. Some excellent handbooks have been published that might help him and, when he has been a Member of Parliament for a little longer, he will begin to realise that judgments of this type must be made by local authorities and that we have to give our constituents advice on them. That would be far better than my hazarding a judgment on the brief facts presented by the hon. Gentleman.

There is no reason why families with children should have to sleep rough. If they are unable to find accommodation themselves, they can seek help from social services authorities. Although it is said that rough sleeping is the same as homelessness, there is quite a difference between the two. I have not come across a family or a person in the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman described who ended up sleeping rough on the streets. Although they may not have had the most desirable accommodation, they would not have ended up sleeping on the streets.

I am pleased that the Conservative party shares the Government's concerns about the plight of people sleeping rough. The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire expressed his interest in the subject on Second Reading; it is a matter that seems to unite members of the Committee.

The hon. Gentleman's probing amendment is probably designed to discover the Government's intentions for the future of the rough sleepers unit, which was established on 1 April 1999. It had the specific objective of reducing the number of people sleeping rough in England to as near zero as possible, or by at least two thirds, by April 2002. The unit has already made excellent progress against that demanding target. It takes a partnership approach, delivered through a national strategy.

The unit's work draws together different programmes from across the statutory sector. It takes a joined-up approach to considering why people sleep rough and offering them an alternative to life on the streets, working across Government to ensure that all organisations with a stake in the problem—local authorities, the Prison Service, the Benefits Agency and the armed forces—do their bit to tackle the problem, considering prevention as well as cure. Some of the work that is done with agencies and Government Departments would be extremely difficult if it was merely devolved to local authorities, which would not come up with the innovative policies devised by the rough sleepers unit.

Figures show that between June 1998 and June 2000 the number of people sleeping rough on any one night across England had fallen by more than one third. In June 2000, there were an estimated 1,180 people sleeping rough on a single night. It is essential that the Government are responsible for addressing the problem of people sleeping rough. The new clause would cut short much of the unit's successful work and pass responsibility for tackling the problem of rough sleeping entirely to local authorities. That would not be remotely in the interests of people sleeping rough and it would not support the agencies' constructive work to help the vulnerable people who sleep on the streets.

The rough sleepers unit has begun consulting on a future strategy. The consultation will consider how to take forward measures to end rough sleeping and to prevent people ending up on the streets in the first place. That should continue once the unit has met its target in April 2002. The role of local authorities will be one factor in the analysis. They will need to build on their present successes in reducing the number of people sleeping rough, to ensure that numbers are sustained at a low level and do not start to creep up to the previous historic levels.

The rough sleepers unit consultation process will take into account what role local authorities should play after 2002. I therefore ask the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire to withdraw the amendment and not to press the new clause.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I wish to ask the Minister a few questions, especially in response to her query about new clause 1 and the future of the rough sleepers unit. When responding to similar amendments that we tabled to the pre-run of the Bill, her predecessor, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South, said:

    ``it is not intended that the unit should become a permanent fixture. Work is already under way to develop an exit strategy . . . It is envisaged that eventually the unit will be wound up and responsibility will be passed back to local authorities.''—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 25 January 2001; c. 310.]

4.45 pm

The Minister described the work of the rough sleepers unit as unique. As she sees it, what it is achieving could not be achieved if such work were devolved to local authorities. However, such action would only devolve it back because such functions were carried out by local authorities in the first place. Is the hon. Lady saying that the rough sleepers unit is still on track to be wound up after April 2002, as the previous Minister promised? Has such a decision been taken?

The Minister mentioned—I think that she was repeating her predecessor's comments—that the unit would be wound up after it had met its target in April 2002. [Interruption.] That was what her predecessor said. If the Minister wants to intervene, she is welcome to do so. Such comments presuppose that that target will be met, unless it has been altered. Can the Minister explain how that target will work? She said that the number of rough sleepers fell by one third between 1998 and 2000. Does that mean that the Government acknowledge that there is a rump of rough sleepers for whom alternatives to rough sleeping will never be taken up? Is there ultimately a zero target for rough sleepers or is it a matter of reducing their number to a rump level?

I am slightly confused about whether the Minister thinks that local authorities could carry out the job undertaken by the rough sleepers unit. We would contest that, although it was the responsibility of local authorities in the first place. They had a good deal of success with the rough sleepers initiative in the first part of the 1990s.


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