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The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) is right to recognise the increasing importance of housing associations and other non-local authorities in providing housing. He is also right to welcome, as Conservative Members do, provisions that provide homelessness strategies and encourage local authorities to take a more preventive approach to homelessness. Our objection to the Liberal Democrats new clauses is their rather vague--I probably should not be surprised at that--way of approaching the relationship between local authorities and registered social landlords. We do not know why we need provisions "to strengthen co-operation", as the hon. Gentleman describes it, between registered social landlords and local authorities. We trust registered social landlords to decide what is reasonable.
It is also vital that RSLs are able to consider whether a property on offer is suitable for the applicant, given their household's needs and the available support."
Mr. Don Foster: I agree on all the matters that the hon. Gentleman has raised. There is great diversity among registered social landlords, and it is important to allow them to have regard to their constitution and key purposes. The new clause provides that those criteria can be used as exceptions, enabling RSLs not to co-operate if they believe that to do so would not be in their interests.
Mr. Loughton: I do not disagree with much of that, but the new clause would not guarantee that local authorities could not press registered social landlords to act in a way that would be unreasonable and prejudicial to the provision of housing for other potential tenants. We believe that section 170 of the Housing Act 1996 is adequate for the task. It states:
Mr. Loughton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The flow of complimentary language between him and the hon. Member for Bath is most unseemly and unexpected. However, Conservative Members will not support the new clause.
Far more important is the matter of the three amendments that we tabled in Committee. The Government greeted them with warm words then, but do not appear tempted to make those warm words more explicit in the Bill. We therefore feel it necessary to tease from Ministers more action and commitment than they have so far offered.
Amendment No. 18 would add rough sleeping to homelessness as a requirement for housing authority reviews. In Committee, we discussed at length the problems faced by rough sleepers, which are different from those faced by other homeless people. Rough sleepers' problems include dependency on drugs or alcohol and difficulties with social services, and their requirements with regard to the housing authority's review policy should be included in the Bill.
In Committee, we also discussed the role of the rough sleepers unit. We used the example of the rough sleepers initiative so ably introduced by my right hon. Friends the Members for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) and for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) when they were housing Ministers in the early 1990s. They did a great deal to tackle the problem of rough sleepers.
We believe that devoting a budget of £200 million to a quango filled with well-paid people is not the best way to concentrate resources on rough sleepers, and that it would be better to endow local authorities with the task. That is why we want the Bill to specify that rough sleeping should be part of a homelessness strategy. I hope that the Minister will reconsider his unwillingness to accept the amendment. We are not convinced by the reasons that he has produced so far.
Amendment No. 19, which is perfectly sensible, deals with homelessness strategies and whom local authorities should consult. The issue was covered in Committee at some length, and we congratulated the Government on the more holistic--that ghastly word, which we all vowed not to use--and comprehensive approach to including other partners in formulating homelessness strategies and using partnerships to execute policies to deal with homelessness. We thought it was simply an error or drafting omission that nowhere in the Bill is there an undertaking that when formulating or modifying homelessness strategies, the very people those strategies are to help--homeless people--should be consulted.
I mentioned in Committee the work done by organisations such as Shelter, which we all congratulated. It has been very supportive with regard to the homelessness measures in the Bill. Its report, "Closing the Gap", is a prime example of good practice and the way in which needs are translated into action. For that report, Shelter consulted the victims of homelessness. To consult homeless people seems a straightforward proposal. I should be grateful if the Minister explained to the House why he has not felt able to include such a provision in the Bill thus far.
Amendment No. 15 deals with local authorities consulting specialist organisations that represent people who have physical and mental disabilities. As chairman of the Conservative disability group, I spoke with some concern in Committee. I think that what we are trying to achieve fits in neatly with what the Government are trying to achieve and with the spirit of the Bill. I cannot see why such a provision has not been included.
Statistics show that more than 40 per cent. of homeless people, including rough sleepers, are over the age of 50. They are therefore much more vulnerable to the mental and physical effects of poor accommodation or rough sleeping and have a higher proportion of physical or mental disabilities. They have less easy access to mainstream advice services.
In terms of physical accommodation, it is straightforward stuff--wheelchair and door access, ramps and rails. People in wheelchairs should not be put in flats on the fifth or 15th floor of a tower block, making them prisoners in their own home. We have all seen people at our surgeries who have been offered wholly inadequate accommodation.
It is also a question of the area in which physically disabled people are housed. They need accommodation where an eye can be kept on them--where sympathetic neighbours, be they wardens or others, will look out for them or provide them with companions.
When people with mental disabilities are able to go back into the community, where they are placed and whom they live next to are very important. Families with young children will be less understanding and sympathetic to their situation. Organisations such as Mencap raise the problems of the resettlement of people with learning disabilities who remain in long-stay hospitals due to the absence of suitable accommodation for them when they come out--another form of bed blocking, effectively.
In Committee, we were given undertakings that argument A, which was cited by the hon. Member for Bath right at the beginning of the Committee proceedings, would not be trotted out as the all-encompassing excuse for not including measures such as those proposed in the new clause and amendments in the Bill. Argument A is essentially that if we mentioned certain groups of people, we would have to mention everyone--but we are talking not about a small special interest group, but about a large proportion of the population.
According to DSS figures, up to 8.5 million people have disabilities of varying severity. That is one in five adults. Even if we think that that is too broad a qualification, we should remember that there are 700,000 wheelchair users in England and Wales alone. That is 700,000 people for whom special accommodation must be provided. If it is not, they will have varying degrees of problem in gaining access to and egress from the homes allocated to them.
Why the Minister cannot concede on reinforcing the necessity to have regard to people who are specialists in dealing with people who have mental and physical disabilities, I do not know. We do not want to place enormous restraints on housing providers; nor are we asking for an enormous amount of extra resources. All we are asking for is that the Bill should state that regard must be had to the particular needs of a large part of the population--possibly the largest special interest in the population.
During our consideration of people with mental disabilities, the Minister quoted the Housing Act 1996. That Act was panned by the then Labour Opposition when it was introduced. It was remarkable how much of it the Minister was able to cite as the reason why our amendments should not be accepted. He said that our points were already adequately covered by the 1996 Act. The Minister said that mental illness was a priority category under the 1996 Act. We are talking about delivering strategies on including physically and mentally disabled people--not just acknowledging as a priority that they exist.
Our amendments are straightforward and not contentious. We mostly agree with the thrust of what the Bill is trying to achieve. However, we cannot see why the Minister, despite the warm words that he trotted out in Committee, has not felt able to stipulate in the Bill first, that the victims of homelessness should be consulted, and secondly--and perhaps more important--that local authorities should have greater regard to disabled people of various descriptions in formulating their homelessness strategies. On that basis, I commend the amendments to the House.