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

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Mr. Pickles: It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in Committee, Mrs. Roe. I also welcome the Minister to his post. He is still sniffing about looking for elephant traps—and no doubt for other things to do with elephants.

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I am not sure whether I should dispel the tension so soon, but I shall say now that we will not oppose the order. There are measures in it that we quite like, although there are others on which we are less keen. I will deal first with those that we quite like. In his answer to my question, the Minister threw up some interesting issues.

A new criterion for local authorities has been introduced in connection with domestic violence. Apart from the local authority in which a person resides, the place where a person is is relevant as well. I have had two very difficult cases involving violence in my time as a Member of Parliament. One involved an unpleasant man, whose former partner and children were terrified of his shadow. She disappeared to an adjoining authority, and to make that authority recognise that the young lady had a housing need was near impossible. The order will help considerably in such a case, and I welcome that.

The other case was even more unpleasant, certainly in terms of public policy. A young waitress saw an act of violence committed by a gentleman with a reputation for violence in an adjoining authority. She did the right thing: she stood up and agreed to appear in court. Then all his relatives started to pay her a visit. She fled. The police supported her attempts to find alternative accommodation once the trial was over but, again, it was impossible to make an adjoining authority agree about that. The order is welcome, as it would have moved the process along greatly. The Government are wise to introduce the relevant measure.

Having said how well the Government are doing, I might now have spotted something that is not so good. I specifically asked about article 6, on vulnerability and fleeing violence, and the Minister said it that applied across borders, which I support. However, it is clear from reading the order that there is no exception for cross-border violence, and all the other categories apply across borders. That is new, and I would be grateful if the Minister told us how we are to avoid picking and choosing where people live, and how that will work out—but perhaps that is a drafting problem, or I am reading more into article 6 than I am entitled to

I especially welcome the additional help for young people leaving care. For several years I have been involved with Brentwood Foyer, an organisation that has set up sheltered housing for homeless young people and those leaving care, so I know how useful the new provision will be. I have seen many young people get their lives together once they are in a stable environment, perhaps for the first time in their lives, and use that as a stepping stone to help them to move out into the world.

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I suspect that sadly, the Minister will have seen the rapid increase in the number of homeless young persons—an increase of 11 per cent. in the past two years, I believe. I would be grateful if the Minister would say how the order fits into the Government's general strategy for dealing with that.

I am concerned that people leaving the armed services are especially vulnerable. I recall an exchange between my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and the then Minister with responsibility in that area, who said that the rough sleepers unit was kept going only because of the high number of people who leave the armed services and find themselves sleeping rough. I find that unacceptable. If someone has served in the armed services, one would expect them to receive counselling and help. I should be grateful if the Minister would tell us a little about the liaison that is taking place between his Department and the Ministry of Defence, and in particular about how local authority associations have been involved in forming a strategy to help such young people.

Mr. Brazier: My hon. Friend has just made a powerful point. When the Labour party was in opposition, shadow Ministers highlighted that problem and set up a liaison committee to look into it, as well as into other areas where it was thought that members of the armed forces were disadvantaged by the policies of other Departments. That was welcomed throughout the House, but sadly, in this area as in so many others, the situation has got worse in the past five years.

Mr. Pickles: I recognise that situation, but I am not about to launch a major attack on the Government or the Minister, which would be inappropriate as there is good will to try to deal with the problems.

In introducing the order, the Minister acknowledged that the provisions extended to people leaving prison and to others who have been detained in some way, but said that they would not help people to jump the list. With great respect to the Minister, I am not sure that I agree. I would have some difficulty telling a hard-working family in bed-and-breakfast accommodation that someone who had just finished a custodial sentence—who could be a burglar, a robber or someone who had committed violence against women—had priority.

Mr. Foster rose—

Mr. Pickles: I give way to the sartorially elegant hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Foster: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for referring to my sartorial elegance, and I compliment him, too, on his elegant pair of braces.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern about telling his constituents that an ex-offender is regarded as vulnerable by the local authority and is being provided with accommodation, but does he accept that a mitigating factor, which might make them happier, is the clear evidence that those who are homeless following release from prison are infinitely

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more likely to reoffend? The provision of housing might significantly reduce reoffending rates. Would that idea allay some of his concerns?

Mr. Pickles: Such is my regard for the hon. Gentleman that when the opportunity arises I shall try that argument—but I shall keep the door open for a rapid escape, because I am not sure that it would convince. I am not saying that prisoners should be denied new accommodation, I am gently asking whether it is sensible in terms of the long-term cohesion of society for an ex-prisoner to have priority over a family, bearing in mind all the studies that the hon. Gentleman will no doubt refer to about the importance of housing in securing young people's future—

Mr. Foster: I apologise for interrupting the flow of the hon. Gentleman's argument. However, he is in danger of misleading the Committee and the public by saying that there is an intention that ex-offenders will have priority over ordinary families. He will see that the order refers only to ''vulnerable'' ex-offenders. That makes a huge difference.

Mr. Pickles: The hon. Gentleman has indeed interrupted the flow of my argument, because I was coming to the question of vulnerability.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West): I may be able to assist the hon. Gentleman. The proposed guidance to local authorities, which I obtained from the Vote Office, refers to section 189(1)(b) of the Housing Act 1996, under which priority is already accorded to

    ''a person with whom dependent children reside or might reasonably be expected to reside''.

Therefore, there is no question of an ex-offender having greater priority than a family with children—equivalent priority, perhaps, but not greater.

Mr. Pickles: I can confirm that. The hon. Gentleman need not have looked so far afield; it is in the explanatory notes, and I shall come to the matter of vulnerability in a—

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pickles: I could not refuse the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Bailey: Has the hon. Gentleman taken into account the fact that in practice, an ex-offender would not be given accommodation in preference to a vulnerable family, because each would need a different type of accommodation?

Mr. Pickles: I think that the hon. Gentleman is mixing two concepts. If what the Minister said is correct, a person who is pregnant or who has young children has priority and does not have to face the vulnerability test. There is no question but that a vulnerable family has priority. The new tests apply to those in the armed services, people who have been in prison and young persons not subject to provision by social services. In due course I shall come to them, as I have promised several times that I shall..

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I return to the question of the release of prisoners. The Minister said that the provisions apply to a person who is homeless in relation not only to his last local authority but to the place in which he is currently homeless. Can the Minister tell us about the logistics of ensuring that local housing authorities that have accommodation in areas near prisons are not overburdened with people who are released from prison? I can think of a number of charming places on the Isle of Wight, on the Norfolk coast, in Lincolnshire, or near me in Chelmsford, where it might be nice for people to put down roots. They are not necessarily places that have a lot of available accommodation.

Will the Minister tell us what research has been undertaken into the number of priority homeless? How much does he expect it to rise—as it certainly will—as a result of the order? He will recall that, during the Committee stage of the Homelessness Act 2002, several hon. Members, particularly those with local authority experience, expressed concern that local housing associations might not be able to cope. It was thought that they might be overwhelmed.

To what extent does the order complement existing local authority homelessness strategies, as highlighted by the local authority associations?

Mr. Brazier: That point is worth developing; with a prison in my constituency of Canterbury, I am very conscious of the problem. Everyone knows the stories—they are well substantiated—of tramps deliberately committing offences to get into prison for short periods, such as over the Christmas holiday. The order might provide them with a ticket for accommodation in parts of the country where there happened to be prisons—including Dartmoor, a prison not mentioned by my hon. Friend, which is in one of the most expensive counties. If the order were to provide a ticket that allowed people to get accommodation in the areas surrounding prisons, it could have a significant effect on housing and cause a lot of friction among local communities.

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