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Mr. Clifton-Brown: I anticipated earlier that one of the Minister's arguments would be that local authorities would lose their strategic role in producing homelessness strategies if it was incorporated in statute that other agencies were to be included. However, as I said then, if by 2004 more than half of all public housing is run by registered social landlords, surely it is correct that they should be incorporated in statute as one of the consultees in the homelessness strategy policy.
Ms Keeble: The hon. Gentleman might think about the difference between the strategic purchaser function and the provider function. In this instance it is important that the local authority have a clear strategic role in identifying the views of the community and ensuring that provision is in place. Of course authorities will need, and want, to do that in partnership with local agencies and everyone involved in the community, but I would argue the reverse of what the hon. Gentleman says. As the provider role is dispersed more widely, it is even more important for the local authority to be absolutely clear about its strategic function of dealing with housing issues and ensuring that proper provision for homeless people is in place.
Amendments Nos. 2 and 5 are consequent on amendment No. 1. We must take a sensible and strategic view of what is necessary to establish a robust and coherent framework for undertaking reviews and delivering strategiesa framework that allows offices to run their affairs competently. That means taking a sensible view of the level of detail required on the face of the Bill.
Last week I made copies of a draft chapter of the code of guidance and draft good practice guidance covering homelessness reviews and strategies. It is available for Members in the Library. Hon. Members will see that the need for close co-operation and ways of achieving effective partnership working are thoroughly explored in those documents.
Amendment No. 3 would require local authorities to review the availability of housing advice in their district as part of their homelessness review. I am grateful to hon. Members for raising that important issue. It is certainly our underlying intention that these provisions should do more than address the consequences of homelessness: they should 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, and its quality and extent, should most certainly be considered as part of a homelessness review. I hope that that will give the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) the assurance that he seeks.
Amendment No. 4 would place on local authorities, as part of their statutory duties to undertake homelessness reviews, a requirement to review provision for the welfare of animals under the control of homeless persons. I agree with Opposition Members that authorities should try to ensure that those placed in temporary accommodation are able to keep their pets, as far as it is possible and reasonable to do so. The issue is of particular concern to two groups. One is elderly people; it is important that local authorities make proper provision and treat the issue with great sensitivity. The second is homeless people; attachment to pets is often a substantial barrier to helping people get off the streets. A number of local authorities have made specific provision to deal with that problemfor example, providing kennels in night shelters, or removing the "no animals" clause from housing association tenancy agreements.
However, it is not appropriate to place such a requirement in primary legislation or to give it more prominence than many other important matters that local authorities will have to address in drawing up their homelessness reviews. The draft 1999 code of guidance for local authorities on the allocation of accommodation and homelessness already makes specific mention of an authority's need to be sensitive to the special needs of applicants, especially elderly applicants, with regard to the companionship they may get from their pets, when allocating accommodation. We will also ensure that the issue is covered in guidance in relation to homelessness. I am grateful to hon. Members for raising this issue and I fully recognise the concerns expressed, but the matter can and should be addressed through guidance, not through the Bill.
Amendments Nos. 8 and 9 would require local authorities to include an empty homes strategy in their homelessness strategy and are specific about the steps that they would have to take to devise such a strategy. Local authorities that are committed to effective action on empty properties will normally choose to set out their plans in the form of a clear strategy that matches resources to the scale of the problem in their district. Indeed, the housing investment programme encourages authorities to do so and we require them to report their performance through the best value in housing programme. That does not mean, however, that we should impose a statutory requirement on authorities to produce such a strategy or to set out prescriptively the procedures that they should follow in drawing it up. I am not convinced that that would in itself result in any greater commitment, or level of useful activity, on the part of some authorities. I am even less convinced that the Bill is the right vehicle for proposing such a duty on local authorities.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) for the points that he raised and I pay tribute to the work that he has done to highlight the issue and the work of the Empty Homes Agency. We are
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I thank the Minister for her very full reply. I would have more sympathy with her rejection of all our amendments if it were made in a different climate. Against the background of a rising number of priority homeless people and those housed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, I am a little sceptical about all these matters being put into the guidance and about whether they will affect the situation. However, we shall have to wait and see. The time is getting late and we want to allow enough time for Third Reading. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment made: No. 22, in page 5, line 43, leave out ", after subsection (1)" and insert "
(a) in paragraph (f) of subsection (1), at the end there is inserted "or as to the suitability of accommodation offered to him as mentioned in section 193(7)"; and
(b) after that subsection'.[Mr. Ainger.]
'and paragraphs 3 and 7 of Schedule 1'.
Dr. Whitehead: I trust that these amendments will be agreed by the House with acclaim. They all deal with one minor issue in providing that paragraphs 3 and 7 of schedule 1 will come into force on Royal Assent. Paragraphs 3 and 7 of schedule 1 amend existing sections 161(2A) and 185(2A) which were inserted in the Housing Act 1996 by section 117 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999.
Section 161(2A) of the 1996 Act currently provides that the Secretary of State cannot prescribe in regulations that a class of person is qualified for the allocation of local authority housing under part VI of the 1996 Act if that class of person is excluded from entitlement to certain state benefits, including housing benefit, pursuant to section 115 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. Groups excluded by section 115 include persons subject to immigration control who have been given leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom on condition that they do not have recourse to public funds. Section 185(2A) makes similar provision in respect of eligibility for homelessness assistance under part VII of the 1996 Act.
The policy intention behind the 1996 Act provisions is to ensure that those not entitled to housing benefit cannot be prescribed as qualifying persons. We are not concerned with entitlement to the other benefits. Arguments put forward in recent judicial proceedings cast doubt on whether these provisions achieve the policy intention, and paragraphs 3 and 7 seek to make the position clear. However, they need to come into force as quickly as possible to avoid any further possibility of doubt. That is especially necessary if paragraph 3 is to have any usefulness as other provisions, namely clause 13, would repeal section 161 of the 1996 Act when commenced.