Standing Committee D
Tuesday 30 January 2001
[Mr. George Stevenson in the Chair]
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): On a point of order, Mr. Stevenson. This is a short Committee stage, but it is fraught with news and developments. I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake). He is presumably still finding it all a bit much as he is not in his placehe was a moment ago. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth) on his well-deserved elevation to Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the new Whip, the hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes). My joy would have been complete had the Minister for Housing and Planning been transferred to the role of Whipbut one cannot have everything in life. With great sincerity, I congratulate all and sundry on their various promotions, new arrivals and so on.
Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Further to that point of order, Mr. Stevenson. Mother and child are doing extremely well and my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington hopes to be with us this afternoon. I pass on his apologies to the Committee; he has had to go to a Select Committee to discuss the issue of water. Much more importantly, I join the hon. Member for Eastbourne in passing on to the Under-Secretary of State my heartiest congratulations. It has been a great deal of fun dealing with him as the Government Whip. I emphasise that all alleged deals are now off.
Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): Further to that point of order, Mr. Stevenson. In case it is misconstrued that there is a lack of enthusiasm among Labour Members, I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington and, perhaps more importantly, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East on his elevation to the circle of Ministers.
The Chairman: I am sure that all members of the Committee would enthusiastically endorse those sentiments. It has been a good time for births. We have had the excellent news of the arrival of the baby of the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington and of the birth of what I am sure will prove to be a most successful ministerial career. Can we now get on with our business?
Mr. Don Foster: I beg to move amendment No. 67, in page 10, line 35, at end insert
(d) the availability of housing advice within the district'.
I am delighted to move this amendment in the knowledge that the new Under-Secretary will respond to the debate. He is getting an early outing in Committee, which is always a good thingalthough I admit that we are giving him a bit of a dolly one as an opener. We will come later to an amendment tabled by some of his hon. Friends on the similar issue of housing advice by local authorities. That is rather more taxing, and it will be interesting to see how the Minister responds to itno doubt in a friendly and polite way.
The amendment proposes that, as part of the homelessness review, there should be a review of the advice offered to homeless people and those in danger of becoming homeless. I suspect that the Minister will tell us that the Government intend that the advice services offered by local authority housing departments should form an important part of the review, but that the amendment is not necessaryusing the now infamous argument A as justification. I am prepared to accept that that argument has some validity, but only if the Minister gives a strong assurance that the issue of advice will be taken seriously in the guidance that is offered to local authorities.
The Committee will be aware that the availability of advice tends to vary widely throughout the country. Under the Housing Act 1996, local authorities are required to provide advice, but, sadly, there is clear evidence from Shelter and other organisations that the advice is variable. If the Minister tells me that the guidance will provide local authorities with a detailed explanatory note on how they are expected to deliver advice and that it will give examples of best practice throughout the country from which other local authorities can benefit, I will be reasonably happy.
The Minister for Housing and Planning has already provided us with an early draft of the guidance notes and unfortunately they make little or no mention of advice. If the Minister looks at the notes, he will see that the pages are unnumbered, but in the suggestion box that refers to the review of activities that prevent homelessness, there are the two words: ``advice services''. No details are offered.
I may be prepared to accept a suggestion from the Minister to withdraw my amendment, but only if I am given a clear assurance that there will be much greater coverage of advice in the guidance that is provided to local authorities and that the guidance will specifically include examples of existing good practice throughout the country. I hope that the Minister will take that point on board. We look forward to his response.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Robert Ainsworth): I thank you, Mr. Stevenson, and other Committee members for the good wishes that have been offered to me in my new position. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North has assumed my previous position and is riding shotgun on the Bill. I am sure that he will do a better job than I ever did and I congratulate him.
Before I deal with the amendment, I want to let the Committee know that I have had a brief conversation with the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington. I told him that we had been updated constantly on progress at home. He said not to believe a word that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) said, because he was told nothing. That may give us an insight into how the hon. Member for Bath approaches other thingsI do not know. He said that we would come later to a more taxing amendment tabled by my hon. Friends. It does not surprise me that Labour Members are capable of tabling more taxing amendments than the Liberal Democratsthat comment should totally ruin our old relationship and let us make a new start.
I am grateful that the hon. Member for Bath has raised the important issue of advice, but he has anticipated my response. It is our intention that the provisions should not only address the consequences of homelessness, but help to avert it. Prevention through advice, assistance and multi-agency working will be an important aspect of all homelessness strategies and reviews. The availability of housing advice, its quality and extent, should and will have to be considered as part of homelessness reviews.
As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, we are on the well-trodden path of argument A. We are not persuaded that every issue addressed in the review should be listed in the Bill. We take the view that housing advice falls clearly under clause 17(1)(b)the requirement that reviews should look at the activities carried out for purposes relating to homelessness and its prevention. We will, however, ensure that that is fully addressed in the revised code of guidance.
The hon. Gentleman says that he has seen the code of guidance and that it does not make the appropriate references. I accept that it might have helped had the pages been numbered, but under homelessness reviews, halfway down the page, the first part of the suggestion box says:
``Sources of data on homelessness . . . evidence from advisory services (eg Housing Advice Centres, Citizens Advice Bureau).''
Mr. Foster: Of course I have seen that section. That is the section for the provision of data to help the authority develop its homelessness strategy. The issue that we are dealing with here is a range of advice, not only to help those who are homeless, but to help prevent homelessness. That is why I referred to the box headed:
``Review of activities which help prevent homelessness''
which specifically refers to ``advice services''. My point is that we need much greater guidance for local authorities about how they go about that, together with some examples of good practice.
Mr. Ainsworth: The suggestion box reads:
``Review of activities which help prevent homelessness''.
Many services, both statutory and non-statutory, contribute directly or indirectly to the prevention of homelessness. We think that the point is covered. To avoid a confrontation with the hon. Gentleman, I can tell him that we will try to ensure that it is. I therefore ask him to withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Foster: We appreciate that this is the Minister's first outing and well done to him for making a good fist of it following very much in the style of his predecessor. In the spirit of complete friendliness, I should point out that having the words ``advice services'' in the guidance does not give guidance to those advice services. The point that I was hoping that he would be prepared to address was the need to give housing authorities guidance on how best to provide those advice services.
Some local authorities provide that advice themselves; others use voluntary agencies. Many subcontract the work to citizens advice bureaux. Some of those who provide advice tend to provide it to only certain categories of people. Others have addressed an issue that worries Help the Aged and have tried to ensure that elderly people, who could also be vulnerable to homelessness, are provided with a full range of advice. Some others seem almost to miss out that category. There are examples of good practice. I hope that we can expand the guidance notes to local authorities so that we can give them greater guidance about how best to provide that advice.
Mr. Ainsworth: Will the hon. Gentleman accept that the notes will be incorporated within the existing code? I understand that the advice he mentioned will be incorporated within that document, but I shall check it, and perhaps he will do the same. If we are still in dispute we can talk about it.