Mr. Love: In response to the hon. Member for Eastbourne, I rise to support the amendments, though I am always mindful of delaying the Committee and do not want to repeat the arguments. As a London Member, however, it is important to highlight some of the arguments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North.
London and the south-east are high-demand areas. We recognise the new power in the Bill to allow authorities to house non-priority cases, but it is unlikely in the short term to have any real impact in the Greater London area. There are substantial numbers of non-priority homelessabout a quarter of all homeless, amounting to 54,000 cases last year. Evidence suggestsand Shelter confirms it that that could be a significant underestimate.
If we cannot provide accommodation, we should be able to provide a decent level of advice and assistance. On the basis of my experience as a London Member, approximately a quarter of all the cases at my surgery are housing-related, a significant number being non-priority cases.
I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North in noting that my local authority is under considerable stress. I recognise its difficulties, but the service that it provides can be variable. People often come to my surgery without any understanding of their own circumstances and the authority has failed to provide them with any helpful advice. Clearly, many such people are priority neither for housing nor for advice and assistance. That must change. The response of some local authorities to requests for assistance is to give the telephone number of Shelterline rather than to offer proper support .
We should examine ways of strengthening the current duty. Frankly, it hardly exists because authorities are asked only to provide advice and assistance ``appropriate'' in the circumstances, which leaves it wide open to interpretation. The weakness of that provision was demonstrated in the consumer exercise in the Shelter survey. Two of the authorities mentioned were in the London area.
The survey showed that the advice and assistance was variable and sometimes very poor indeed. That is hardly surprising when we know that some people were not even interviewed. How advice and assistance can be provided without interviewing people to ascertain their circumstances is a mystery. Sometimes no advice whatever was offered and no one was interviewed about their level of vulnerability or asked to check that their interpretation of the guidance was correct. I know of such cases from my constituency surgery.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne mentioned the provision of a written notice and telling people that there is a review mechanism. We need to look at that. While accepting local authorities' concern about being too prescriptive, there are areas on which the code of guidance will need to advise on what the advice and assistance should be. Everyone would accept that one needs to interview the person concerned to ascertain his or her housing needs. We should also provide information and advice on the availability of accommodation. If the local authority and the social sector cannot assist people with that, general guidance should be given to assist them in finding their own solutions to their housing problem. As has been said, there is also a need to provide assistance with benefits entitlement. In the London area, much accommodation is unfurnished and people need help to find out where they can obtain furniture if they want to move into such accommodation.
Giving a written decision and having it reviewed are important rights that should be available. As my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North said, the Bill should strengthen the rights of non-priority homeless people because of the stress that exists in high-demand areas. I hope that the Minister will be able to do something to help with that.
Mr. Raynsford: We have had an excellent debate. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee who have a deep understanding of the issues and want better provision for the homeless have made clear and passionate speeches. I pay tribute to not only their contributions but those of Shelter, an organisation that has campaigned for many years on behalf of homeless people and has provided back-up, research and expertise to advise hon. Members on how to improve homelessness policy and how to draft amendments most felicitously to achieve some of its objectives.
Mr. Waterson: I am delighted that the Minister's appreciation of Shelter has moved seamlessly from Opposition to Government. I associate my party with his endorsement of Shelter, an extremely helpful organisation to which we are all grateful. There is a cross-partyindeed, all-partyconsensus on these matters.
Mr. Raynsford: I have listened with interest to the points raised by hon. Members and agree with much that has been said. Authorities should take seriously their responsibilities to those who are unintentionally homeless but not in priority need. It is not acceptable for authorities to send such applicants away without adequate advice and assistance. Shelter's recent study, ``Singles Barred'', which has been quoted by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, reported on the variable, inconsistent and sometimes inadequate quality of local authority advice and assistance. The hon. Member for Eastbourne singled out the passage dealing with the 30-year-old woman and highlighted the different treatment that she received in different areas. He pointed out that in one area she was told that she was not a priority because she did not have children.
The hon. Gentleman, like all members of the Committee, will know that the Government are determined to change that situation, which is why we will introduce an order that will extend the categories of priority need to include women fleeing domestic violence even when they do not have children. That demonstrates the Government's positive response to that situation, but of course it goes wider, as it covers people who will not be within the priority categories even when they are amended and who should receive better and more consistent advice than they are getting at the moment. There is merit in strengthening the current duty to move away from the subjective requirement for the authority to provide
and move to a more objective test. Of course, nothing is ever quite as simple as it seems, at least not when considering amendments. The wording
does not just appear here. It appears in four other locations in the 1996 Act, and it would be inconsistent to agree one amendment without making comparable amendments elsewhere to ensure consistency throughout the legislation. For those reasons we do not intend to accept the amendment, but I do intend, if possible, to table an amendment to schedule 2 for the Committee to consider on Thursday.
I am less attracted by the second part of the amendment, which would have the Secretary of State specifying matters to be taken into account in determining whether advice and assistance that the authority proposes to provide is reasonable. There is such wide variation in the circumstances of different local authorities in different parts of the country that it is simply not sensible to specify nationally how authorities should respond in the light of local circumstances. As hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have said, there are enormous variations and we must recognise that. We do not wish to be unduly prescriptive, and we recognise the concerns that have been expressed in some quarters of local government about an excessively dirigiste approach if this part of the amendment were to be accepted. My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North who moved the amendment, acknowledged that it might be a little over-prescriptive. In those circumstances, we believe that it is right to table an alternative amendment to enable the Committee to debate it on Thursday. That will be located in schedule 2. On that basis, I ask my hon. Friend to withdraw her amendment.
I must respond to one or two of the other points that have been made during the debate. The hon. Member for Eastbourne expressed concern that there was no reference to a multi-agency approach. We have been debating that for most of the morning. A multi-agency approach is fundamental to the way the Government want to see authorities discharge their responsibilities. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Coventry South-West
Mr. Robert Ainsworth: North-East.
Mr. Raynsford: North-Eastgot it! My hon. Friend made the point very effectively.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne was a little unwise in highlighting the problems of owner-occupiers facing homelessness. He will recall the legacy of the previous Government who, in the early 1990s, managed to create a crisis of repossessions and the worst crisis of confidence in the home ownership market that this country has ever seen. I am pleased to say that the number of repossessions and the number of people plunged into negative equity have reduced consistently under this Government. Therefore, the extent of the problem facing owner-occupiers is significantly less than it was under the Government he supported. However, I accept that we need to do more for those home owners in difficulty in just the same way as we need to do more for other people in difficulty. That is precisely the purpose of this legislation.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne referred to the legislation building on the 1996 Act. That is not an accurate description. This legislation amends some of the defects of the 1996 Act, which in certain respects significantly weakened the responsibilities for the homeless established in the 1977 legislation. If he has done his research, he will know that the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1997 was introduced as a private Member's Bill by a Liberal Democrat Member with the support of the then Labour Government and that it was opposed by the Tory Opposition, even though three Conservative Members had sponsored the Bill. The official Conservative spokesman at the time took the interesting view that because it was in his view a Government Bill, the Opposition would oppose it. That is perhaps a comment on the Conservative party's lack of vision at that time. The Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 established the proper framework of responsibility for homeless people. We are now not just restoring it from the ravages of the 1996 Act, but enhancing it through the improvements set out in the Bill and through the extension of the priority need categories that I have already described.
I end on a point of agreement with the hon. Member for Eastbourne. He rightly highlighted the need for high-quality services and he quoted Paul Bettison, the chairman of the LGA housing committee, with whom I have worked closely and harmoniously in recent months. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about Paul Bettison's constructive and positive approach on this. We are happy to work with the LGA to carry forward the policies in the Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) spoke with feeling of his experience and described how a quarter of his surgery cases involve housing or homelessness problems. He recognised the variable standards of service offered in his area, while at the same time acknowledging the difficulty that his local authority faces because of local pressures. It is undoubtedly true that all authorities can do more and certainly those authorities that face less pressure than his can do a great deal more. We hope that with a clearer duty to provide advice and assistance to those not in priority need, we will enhance and improve the quality of homelessness services throughout the country. I urge my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Regents Park and Kensington, North to withdraw her amendment.
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