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Session 2001- 02
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Homelessness (Priority Need For Accommodation)(England) Order 2002

Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 1 July 2002

[Mrs. Marion Roe in the Chair]

Draft Homelessness (Priority Need for Accommodation) (England) Order 2002

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Tony McNulty): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Homelessness (Priority Need for Accommodation) (England) Order 2002.

Tackling homelessness is a vital strand of the Government's wider housing strategy to ensure that everyone has the opportunity and choice of a decent home. Although it is important to tackle the worst manifestations of the problem, such as children living in bed-and-breakfast hotels and people sleeping on the streets, a new approach must be taken to help all homeless people. It must focus as much on investigating the reasons why people become homeless as on ensuring an adequate supply of affordable housing.

This year, a new homelessness directorate was set up within the Department to introduce the new approach. Key elements are a commitment to ending the use of bed-and-breakfast hotels for homeless families with children by March 2004—except in emergencies—sustaining the achievements of the rough sleepers unit in reducing the levels of rough sleeping by more than two thirds between June 1998 and November 2001, and developing a stronger and more strategic approach to tackling reforms of homelessness, underpinned by updated homelessness legislation. The directorate is currently in the process of allocating £125 million for 2002-03 to meet those objectives, £10 million of which will be used by housing authorities to deliver the protection provided by the order.

The new approach will empower local authorities to provide greater protection for families, young people and vulnerable individuals who are homeless or threatened with homelessness through no fault of their own. It will lead to more effective strategies and services to tackle the causes of homelessness and prevent people from becoming homeless. The Homelessness Act 2002 is central to any new approach; when it comes into force later this month, it will provide stronger protection and help homeless people in a number of ways. It will require all local authorities to carry out a homelessness review, develop a strategy for their area to prevent homelessness, and provide accommodation and/or support for people who are or may become homeless.

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The legislation will repeal the two-year time limit that applies to the main housing duty owed to unintentionally homeless households in priority need. Housing authorities will be required to secure suitable accommodation for as long as it takes to find a settled home. It will also allow housing authorities to secure housing for homeless households that are not in priority need and unintentionally homeless, giving them greater discretion to help people in their community.

The Homelessness (Priority Need for Accommodation) (England) Order 2002 complements the Act by extending the categories of those for whom the housing authority must secure accommodation if they are unintentionally homeless. Those categories currently include families with dependent children and households in which someone is pregnant, or vulnerable as a result of age, mental illness, physical disability or some other special reason. They also include those who are homeless as a result of a disaster, such as flood or fire.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): The explanatory note provides a test by which a local authority can determine whether a person is vulnerable. Will that definition of vulnerability apply to all categories, not only the categories in the order?

Mr. McNulty: As I understand it, the vulnerability clauses in the order and the explanatory note are specific to the order. I believe that the definition of vulnerability in article 5 and elsewhere refers specifically to those who are covered by the order and to no one else, but I shall inform the hon. Gentleman shortly if I have misled him.

Both existing and new categories focus on those who are likely to have the greatest need for housing. The order will ensure that when necessary, housing associations must secure suitable accommodation for all 16 and 17-year-olds who are genuinely homeless, unless they are owed a duty under social services legislation. When possible, housing authorities should explore the possibility of reconciling 16 or 17-year-olds with their families and allowing them to return home. However, when there is real estrangement and individuals cannot return home, they will unquestionably be at risk without a place to live. In such cases, housing authorities should provide a safety net and arrange appropriate accommodation and support.

The order will also give priority need to people who are vulnerable as a result of fleeing their homes because of violence or threats of violence. Evidence demonstrates that a high proportion of people who end up sleeping rough come from institutionalised backgrounds—not least in London. The order will extend priority need to young people aged 18 to 20 who have been in care—a group that may be at risk because of a less than propitious start in life.

Mr. Pickles: Which local authority has the duty to rehouse someone who flees violence? The one from which they came, or the one to which they fled?

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Mr. McNulty: Again, as I understand it, it is the authority where the violence took place, if the person stays there; otherwise, it is the authority to which they flee. The legislation is not prescriptive, and the duty need not apply in the borough, district or housing authority from which the person comes; it is a question of where the need is. If flight from violence is the main reason for homelessness, the duty is on the housing authority to which the person presents. Again, if that is an error, I shall let the hon. Gentleman know as soon as I can.

Other categories of people who will have priority need for accommodation include those aged 21 or over who are vulnerable as a result of having spent time in local authority care, and those who are vulnerable as a result of having spent time in the armed forces or in prison. The key test with those categories is whether applicants are vulnerable, and that will be for local housing authorities to decide in individual cases.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): Following on from the Minister's straightforward answer to my hon. Friend, I must raise a plea on behalf of many local authorities. When a family is rehoused because of violence by the male—it usually is the male—their former local authority is often left with a problem. The male continues to have a secure tenancy and the use of a council house that was given to the family, which has since departed.

Mr. McNulty: There is much in the hon. Gentleman's comments with which I do not disagree, but I hope that he accepts that they are slightly beyond the remit of the order. He may choose to write to me, and, if so, he may like to know that I am, for my sins, on the ad hoc Cabinet Committee on domestic violence. The issue needs serious consideration, and the matter that the hon. Gentleman raised is worth pursuing, but perhaps not here.

In deciding whether a person is vulnerable, a local housing authority must determine whether he is less able to fend for himself than an ordinary homeless person, and whether he would suffer injury or detriment in circumstances where a less vulnerable applicant would cope without harmful effect.

The social exclusion unit's report on reducing reoffending, which was published today, complements the extension of the priority needs groupings. It highlights the opportunities inside and outside the criminal justice system to rehabilitate ex-prisoners.

The report highlights the extension of priority needs, which represents one of the major positive steps that we are taking to reduce reoffending. It is an important step in ensuring that people who might otherwise end up sleeping rough or returning to a life of crime are reintegrated into society. It is not a charter, as some have claimed, for ex-prisoners to jump the queue of those who are waiting for social housing.

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Mr. Don Foster (Bath): The Minister referred to the social exclusion unit's report, which was published today. He will be aware that earlier, leaked versions of the report referred to ex-prisoners being given a sum of money, but there is no such reference in the final report. Do the Government intend to give prisoners a sum of money when they are released, and, if so, what will it be? If not, what is the thinking behind removing the original recommendation?

Mr. McNulty: This is very early days for me, as I have been a Minister for barely five weeks—but I can still smell elephant traps. I am not responsible for the social exclusion unit or its report.

Mr. Foster: It was the Minister who referred to it.

Mr. McNulty: I am sure that there are people in the Room—whether the House recognises their existence or not—who will take that comment on board and relay it to the social exclusion unit so that the hon. Gentleman will receive a comprehensive response to his ever-so-slightly tangential question.

The measures will complement the effective strategy used to reduce rough sleeping to as near zero as possible, and the commitment to end the use of bed and breakfast for families with children by the end of March 2004. I hope that hon. Members agree that a proper statutory safety net for vulnerable people, and for those most at risk, is essential to protect them from the damage that homelessness and rough sleeping can inflict on them, and to help them to rebuild their lives.

The order will strengthen the protection available to homeless people. It proves the Government's commitment to improve housing for all and to tackle social exclusion. We are putting more money towards improvements in the quality of social housing and the supply of affordable housing. Affordable housing has a vital role to play in tackling homelessness, which is why we are investing more than £3 billion in housing. That will increase to £4 billion in 2003-04, with investment through the Housing Corporation's development programme nearly doubled.

We are determined to take action on homelessness and are therefore spending £125 million on the problem this year. The new Homelessness Act will bring about radical change. For the first time, local authorities will be required to put a strategy in place to prevent and tackle homelessness. Above all, the order will benefit the groups of homeless people with the greatest need, and I commend it to the Committee.

4.41 pm


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