HC Deb 08 July 1977 vol 934 cc1722-33

Amendment made: No. 51, in page 8, line 38, leave out from 'force' to end of line 5 in page 9 and insert—

  1. '(a) in England and Wales, on 1st December 1977, and
  2. (b) in Scotland, on 1st April 1978'.—[Mr. Rossi.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

We now come to Third Reading.

Mr. George Cunningham

Are we now on Third Reading?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Does the hon. Gentleman want to say something before Third Reading?

Mr. Cunningham

Not before Third Reading, but on Third Reading.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

On Third Reading I would normally call the Minister or the hon. Member who is in charge of the Bill.

Mr. Armstrong rose

Mr. Stephen Ross

I beg formally to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

5.13 p.m.

Mr. George Cunningham

I am not surprised that neither of the parents of the Bill wants to say anything about it. There is not much that can be said anyway.

I hope that I shall never again have anything to do with as sloppy a Bill as this one, or that I shall be asked to help process through this Parliament a Bill which has begun so ill-prepared—a Bill on which, since it is in effect a Government Bill, the Government have so manifestly and lamentably fallen down on their duty to provide a professional backup to ensure that legislation that reaches the statute book is of some minimum quality in drafting and construction.

The main fault at the beginning of this wretched Bill was that it contained a huge hole. The sponsors of the Bill said that all was well and that they merely wanted to establish a legal obligation to house beneficiaries. Their attitude has been "Do not bother us about who the beneficiaries are, because that will come later". But that did not happen in Standing Committee, because that was not their original intention. Their original intention was that it should be done by order, subject only to negative resolution of the House.

Surely anybody who has been connected with this Bill will know that the task is far more difficult than that. Whether the task is possible—or, if possible, worth while—depends on the definitions laid down in respect of the class of beneficiaries who are to have an obligation to be rehoused, the way which one lays down the responsibility to house those people as between one autho- rity and another, and the qualifications which are introduced in respect of people who render themselves homeless. Whether this whole exercise is possible—or, if possible, worth while—depends whether one can find answer to those questions.

The Government had not begun to clear their thoughts before the Bill was introduced. Indeed, they had not begun to clear their thoughts before the Bill received a Second Reading or by the time it reached Standing Committee—and, indeed, they have still not cleared their thoughts on this legislation. It will be left to the House of Lords to patch it up. Some judges say rude things about parliamentary legislation. I disagree with them frequently because I think that if judges were to draft legislation they would make a botch of it, but nothing judges could say about this legislation would be excessive. This is not the way to produce legislation in terms of language, construction or common sense. I hope that that point is taken. The Permanent Secretary of the Whitehall Department which produced this kind of stuff should be thoroughly ashamed of himself and should not remain in that post for long.

The Bill will now go to the House of Lords. The truth is, as I suggested in Standing Committee, that what we have been doing from the beginning is to throw out in advance any commitment in principle, and resolutely, step by step, we have been marching back to square one. We are now back at square one and in some respects it could be argued that we are at an even earlier stage than square one.

The blame for this does not attach to the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross). The unfortunate fellow had this draft foisted upon him. Any hon. Member is in difficulties in drafting a Bill, but if the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight had not had the "assistance" of the Department of the Environment in producing the Bill, with his couple of hundred pounds he could have produced a better Bill himself. Anyone could have done so. I repeat that the Bill, as it came to the House, could have been drafted on the back of an envelope in an evening, while watching television.

Since then we have been doing the difficult bit that neither Ministers nor officials in the Department of the Environment had the common sense to tackle before the Bill came forward. There attaches the blame, and also to the charities. We have all been bombarded with heartfelt pleadings during the proceedings on the Bill from SHAC and other charities which have led hon. Members to believe that the important thing was just a question of principle and of whether one wanted to help the homeless. They asked whether one had a heart. They did not use their heads at all to see the difficulties involved in the task that they were trying to get us to perform.

The blame does not fall at all on the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight, but it attaches strongly to the Department of the Environment, at official and ministerial levels, and in part to the charities.

Mr. Arthur Latham

If I may intervene now it will save me from making any contribution separately on Third Reading. Will my hon. Friend pause for a moment in his remarks to remember the rôle of the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi)? I did not serve on the Committee, but it has been my impression today that the hon. Member for Hornsey has a lot to answer for and I was confirmed in that impression when, after the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) had moved an amendment, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) asked him what it was about and the hon. Member for Hornsey had to rise and explain what the amendment was concerned with.

Mr. Cunningham

That amendment was in the name of the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi). Certainly as this Bill has emerged and now goes to the House of Lords it owes a great deal to the hon. Member for Hornsey. Whether one believes that the hon. Member was responsible for creating the Bill or ruining it is a matter of opinion, but certainly it is no longer the Bill of the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight or the Department of the Environment. Such merits or demerits as the Bill possesses derive from the hon. Member for Hornsey.

I hope that the lessons of the Bill have been learned. It is not enough to take a worthwhile objective and to get everybody steamed up about the importance of it without ever getting them to use their brains about the way in which it is practical and possible, and how one can get over the obvious difficulties of drafting and construction.

During the later stages of the conideration of the Bill hon. Members who have been closely responsible for the Bill really thought that the guidance issued under Clause 7 would not be just guidance, but would affect the nature of the obligations under the Bill. That is typical of the sloppy-mindedness that has gone into the Bill from the beginning.

I apologise to my colleagues and others to whom I have been such a nuisance during the consideration of the Bill, but I repeat that we shall have cause for regret if this monstrosity goes on to the statute book.

5.19 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Rossi

I congratulate the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) on having piloted the Bill so far, although faced with so many difficulties. I and my hon. Friends will assist him in giving the Bill a Third Reading. In doing that, I do not wish to imply that we consider this to be a perfect Bill—even as amended. Part of the trouble that has just been outlined by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham), has been due to the fact that the Bill appeared for our consideration at a late stage in the parliamentary year and we have had to rush through its stages to ensure that it will reach the statute book. That experience is not new to me. I have had the misfortune during the past four successive summers to be put in that situation by the Government in respect of legislation.

In the summer of 1974 we had the Rent Act, in the summer of 1975 we had the Community Land Act, and last summer we had the Rent (Agriculture) Act. Each presented us with the same difficulty. They were technical Bills that required a great deal of work—first to understand them and then to consult outside bodies and try to consider them within the time scale allowed by the Government, who said that they would not get on the statute bok unless they were dealt with by a particular date.

The task placed on Members from both sides of the House in considering these measures was intolerable, and in consequence enormous problems have arisen in implementation of the Acts. We all know the problems of second-period fixed lettings under the Rent Act and, as indicated in their Green Paper, the Government's anxiety to alter them. We know that the Community Land Act has not been operating and that within six weeks of enacting the Rent (Agriculture) Act we had to introduce an amending Bill because we had produced a piece of nonsense in one of the sections.

It would not surprise me if we had the same problems with this Bill. It would not be the fault of the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight or my hon. Friends and myself. We are put in this position by the Government deciding to organise the parliamentary timetable in such a way that we are forced to sit late at night, attend Committees and sit for up to 27 hours at a time to get the work done.

I agreed with some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury, but I believe that the Bill has made tremendous advances since Second Reading. We gave it a cautious welcome then, because it sought to transfer responsibility for housing the homeless from social service departments to housing departments, and that seemed to make sense. We welcomed it because the intention was to give legislative effect to Circular 18/74 of the last Conservative Government. Beyond that, it seemed that the Bill was defective and would create many problems unless steps were taken to amend it in many drastic respects.

We were concerned about the definition of homelessness and the difficulty that would arise if people caused themselves to be homeless in order to oblige a local authority to rehouse them. We have spent a great deal of time trying to cure that defect. By ensuring that local authorities are not obliged to rehouse people who become homeless intentionally, we have dealt with that problem, relieved local authorities of the burden and ensured that there will be fairness between one citizen and another on housing waiting lists. We have also ensured that there will be no possibility of queue jumping. We have succeeded in safeguarding families on housing lists and in preventing distortions of local authority housing points schemes.

We were also tremendously concerned about the problem of some local authority areas acting as magnets. The areas that we had in mind were particularly seaside and country authorities, those near railway termini and airports, and the areas in which there would be Service families leaving Service accommodation. We wanted to ensure that the reception authorities did not find themselves landed with virtually the totality of homelessness because of drifts of population to those areas.

One of the matters that we regarded as of major importance to the Bill was to ensure that the primary responsibility for rehousing the homeless fell upon the authority with which the closest connection could be established—for example, normal residence, family ties and employment—so that the burden would be spread equitably among local authorities. That has been achieved.

We were also concerned to ensure that the priority cases were clearly defined in the Bill and not left to regulation, or to guidance to be given by the Secretary of State at some later date. We have now spelt out in the Bill the classes of person to whom priority shall be given for housing as homeless families over and above the generality of families on housing waiting lists. It is a great advance that we have now secured that definition.

There are a number of other matters to which we have directed our attention both in Committee and on Report. In consequence we have now obtained a Bill that is workable in the sense that local authorities will be able to manage the burdens that are being imposed on them. There will be an even-handed and fair system between one authority and another in dealing with this tragic problem that is still in our midst.

I still have one reservation, apart from the technical wording of the Bill, which we have discussed at great length today and which, no doubt, their Lordships will consider and try to put right in due course, the principles now having been firmly established and agreed. I am still troubled about resources. Throughout the passage of the Bill the Government have insisted—they said so in the Financial Memorandum when the Bill was first published—that there is no need for additional resources to be made available to local authorities. The local authorities say that that is not so. They calculate that they will need another £2 million to £3 million a year to employ the additional staff that will be required to carry out inquiries into homelessness, to deal with the various situations that the Bill creates and to deal with the new obligations that are imposed upon them.

This is a Private Member's Bill, and that must be an argument between Government and local government. It is not something in which we can intervene. All that can be said is that if the authorities are right and the Government fail to make the resources available that the local authorities need, the Bill cannot work. We can pass as many pieces of paper as we like and stamp them as Acts of Parliament, but if it is physically and practically impossible to implement them they will remain waste pieces of paper.

We do not wish to see a situation arise in which a local authority pleads the Bristol Corporation case. The Minister will remember that in that case it was said that where Parliament imposes a duty on a local authority, even in the most absolute language, if that duty is impossible of performance because the authority does not have the resources to discharge it, the courts will not require the authority to carry out the obligation that Parliament has sought to impose. If Parliament wishes to impose an obligation, it must make the money available so that it can be discharged. I leave that as a cautionary warning to the Minister. I do not want it to be thought or said that because the Opposition are giving the Bill a Third Reading we accept that it is a Bill that is workable without additional resources being made available to local authorities. That is a matter about which negotiations must take place.

I have congratulated the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight on his success in piloting this difficult Bill through its various stages. I should also like to thank him for the co-operation that he has given to me and to my hon. Friends in meeting the various points that we have raised from time to time. The fact that he has met us on these points has enabled us to assist him in ensuring that the Bill has reached this stage today. If it had not been for give and take and common sense on both sides, he would not be in this happy position today. I thank him for meeting the many genuine objections that we had to the Bill as originally drawn.

Finally, it would be churlish of me not to offer my thanks also to the Minister and officials in his Department who, in a sense, have acted as honest broker between the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight and myself. They have given us professional assistance and expert advice in trying to translate the principles that troubled us into language that would have legal effect. It is clear that some hon. Members still do not feel that the language gives complete effect and is still legally defective. I am satisfied that all parties concerned have tried their hardest to produce a workable Bill that will deal with the desperate problem of homelessness. With good will, I trust that the Bill will work.

5.32 p.m.

Mr. Stephen Ross

First, I thank hon. Members who have stayed through this long Friday sitting. I particularly express my thanks to those of my sponsors who have been present, especially the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mrs. Miller) who has not been enjoying the best of health recently, but who has been a sponsor throughout and a loyal supporter of the Bill.

I thank the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) for his kind remarks. I appreciate the assistance that he gave to me and to the Committee in general. His advice, which has been well worth while, has been taken fully on board. I readily accept that without his co-operation the Bill would not have made the progress that it has.

I have tried to meet the reasonable demands of local authorities and at the same time to listen to the voluntary bodies, which have great experience in this area. I think that on occasions one side or the other has perhaps overreacted. I suspect that the voluntary bodies may have over-reacted to some of the amendments that we have discussed today. However, we have undertaken to look at some of the points that they have made. If we have erred, I trust that we shall be able to put matters right in the other place before the Bill, as I hope, receives the Royal Assent.

I should point out to the hon. Member for Hornsey that the Second Reading was on 18th February, so it is unfair to say that it has been rushed. One has to wait to get a place in Committee. Originally it was put in on a Wednesday. It is not entirely the Government's fault that it came on later. I suppose that if I had drawn No. 1 in the Ballot it might have been better, or No. 4 would have been better still.

The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) was a little unkind in his comments. I think that hon. Members listen to him with respect, because often he makes good points. I think that for a Scotsman to tell us how to put our English right is notable.

It is a fact that I went to the Department of the Environment with a draft prepared by outside bodies. When we were shown what the Government had in mind in draft form, it was clear that their ideas were superior to ours. The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury referred to being able to write the Bill on the back of a matchbox, I think. He may be able to do that, but I should not be competent to do so.

It is not my wish to see the Bill go through in a form that would mean that it would not work. I have fears that some interpretations of the measure may be misunderstood or misused. That is the last thing I want to see happen. I want to see the Bill work. The Bill concerns a non-party political matter. It was the last Conservative Government that tried to deal with hopelessness after local government reorganisation. It was obviously not working out correctly. Circulars 18/74 and 13/74 dealt with these matters in the Administration in which the hon. Member for Hornsey held office. It has been the consistent view of this Government that they would have to legislate and they have given undertakings to that effect on many occasions.

Obviously this legislation has been difficult to produce. It becomes increasingly more difficult to find suitable words to deal with the complicated situations we now face. I do not know how much further we can go. One of the problems is asking parliamentary draftsmen to find legal definitions for these increasingly complicated situations. I hope that the ideas in the Government's Green Paper, the Housing Finance Review, which makes a few moves in the right direction —and a few more ideas we have, on which we might be able to influence the Government—will release more accommodation into the general housing pool. If that happens we shall be making progress in dealing with the problem of homelessness.

It is a disgrace that in this country today we have increasing homelessness. We have the highest number of homeless people anywhere in the Western world, despite the fact that we have a slight surplus of houses over households. This is something that we have obviously got wrong and ought to be doing our best to put right. I am certain that when the Bill gets to the other place there will be some pleas, from clerics and others, to the effect that we have left out a vital group, namely, the single young homeless. I am sad that we have not been able to deal with them. From the word "go" I made it clear that the Bill could not cover them. It does not have the facilities to do so.

Nevertheless, included in the Bill is the provision that further priority groups can be considered and I hope that, as the country moves towards a more prosperous state we can give such persons greater consideration. I hope that whoever is Secretary of State in the future will be able to introduce the necessary measures to bring such people into the priority groups. I apologise to such people and to others who cannot be covered by the Bill.

I accept everything that the hon. Member for Hornsey has said about the financial situation. I think that some authorities could do more than they do at the moment with what they have and that there could be better dispersal of staff and better utilisation of premises. No doubt it is right that there will have to be further finance, and I hope that that can be found by the Government in their negotiations which are now taking place.

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your forbearance, and all hon. Members for assisting me through a tricky Bill. I thought at one time that we would fail. I am glad that we have got to this stage.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.