HC Deb 30 April 1996 vol 276 cc1013-24

'1.— A local housing authority shall ensure as far as is reasonably practicable that absolute priority in the allocation of housing accommodation is given to the following persons—

  1. (a) a young person leaving care who is referred to the authority by a voluntary organisation;
  2. (b) a person who is referred to the authority by a social services authority;
  3. (c) a person who is referred to the authority by a health authority;
  4. (d) a person who is referred to the authority by a registered social landlord or voluntary organisation providing temporary accommodation for single homeless people, and which has nomination rights with that authority;
  5. (e) a person who is referred to the authority by a voluntary organisation which has nomination rights with that authority.'.—[Mrs. Maddock.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mrs. Maddock

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time

Madam deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following; New clause 2—Priority in housing allocation to be accorded to persons owed a duty under section 167 and 174—

'1.— The local housing authority shall ensure as far as is reasonably practicable that absolute priority in the allocation of housing accommodation is given to a person to whom the authority has a duty under sections 167 and 174.'. New clause 27—Right to be allocated similar property— '. Any social housing tenant shall have the right to request and be offered specifically identified identically sized property owned by the same social housing landlords; unless the landlord can show that that identified property is specifically needed for a particular tenant on the grounds of medical or disability needs.'. Amendment No. 3, in clause 137, page 84, line 14, after '(1) ', insert— 'Except where otherwise directed by this Part or by Part Seven of this Act,'. Amendment No. 4, in clause 138, page 85, line 2, at end insert— '(1A) They do not apply to a person to whom the authority are subject to a duty under sections 167 and 174 (a person found to be homeless).'. Government amendment No. 121, in clause 143, page 87, line 11, leave out '(2) ' and insert— '(2A) As regards priorities, the scheme shall be framed so as to secure that reasonable preference is given to—

  1. (a) people occupying insanitary or overcrowded housing or otherwise living in unsatisfactory housing conditions,
  2. (b) people occupying housing accommodation which is temporary or occupied on insecure terms,
  3. (c) families with dependent children,
  4. (d) households consisting of or including someone who is expecting a child,
  5. (e) households consisting of or including someone with a particular need for settled accommodation on medical or welfare grounds, and
  6. (f) households whose social or economic circumstances are such that they have difficulty in securing settled accommodation.
The scheme shall also be framed so as to secure that additional preference is given to households within paragraph (e) consisting of someone with a particular need for settled accommodation on medical or welfare grounds who cannot reasonably be expected to find settled accommodation for themselves in the foreseeable future (2B) The Secretary of State may by regulations—
  1. (a) specify further descriptions of people to whom preference is to be given as mentioned in subsection (2A), or
  2. (b) amend or repeal any part of subsection (2A)
(2C) The Secretary of State may by regulations specify factors which a local housing authority shall not take into account in allocating housing accommodation. (2D) As regards the procedure to be followed,'. Amendment (a) to the proposed amendment, at end of paragraph (f), insert— '(g) persons to whom the authority are, or have been, subject to a duty under sections 164, 167, 171 and 174 of this Act.'. Government amendments Nos. 122, 124 and 125

Mrs. Maddock

We now come to what, for me, is without doubt the most important part of the Bill, because there can be no greater measure of housing need than being homeless. That principle seems to be common sense, but as I shall explain, the Government seem determined to disregard it in the Bill. Until very recently, that principle was accepted by all parties in Parliament. It was first set down in law in the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977.

That historic Act was the first ever to give homeless people a right to a home, and was introduced by the then Liberal Member of Parliament Stephen Ross, who is sadly no longer with us. The Act received support from hon. Members of all political parties, including many Labour Members—who, of course, were then in government—and many Conservative Members. Three Conservative Members were sponsors of the Bill.

Many hon. Members who supported that Act and spoke in favour of it in 1977, including then Ministers, thought of it as only the first step towards ending the dreadful honor of homelessness. It did not give a blanket right to be housed to all homeless people; it simply stated that certain groups were in priority need. The criteria that had to be met were quite harsh, such as being homeless through no direct fault of their own. People included in the priority need category were those in any household including or expecting a child, any household including an elderly person or a disabled person and any household made homeless as a result of an emergency, such as flood or fire.

Provision for homeless people before the 1977 provisions was patchy at best, and short-termism was the order of the day. The problem was seen not as a real need for long-term housing but as a temporary requirement caused by some inadequacy on the part of the family concerned.

The 1977 Act changed all that. Its raison d'être was to help individual families achieve a long-term solution to their individual crises of homelessness. Temporary accommodation cannot achieve such solutions, because it hinders children at school, makes it harder for people to get jobs and affects people's health—mentally and physically.

In short, homelessness is hell, and most people who become homeless do so as a direct or indirect result of losing their job. Homelessness means that people become excluded. It divides society. It shuts people out from opportunities for education, from meaningful work, often from health care, from financial support and, fundamentally, from decent housing.

Many homeless people become trapped in a downward spiral. Their escape routes are shut off by measures that have been enacted in recent years. Homelessness deprives people of their stake in society, and we know that it can drive them into crime.

The effects of homelessness often continue well after people have a roof over their head. By depriving people of the security of knowing that they have long-term accommodation, we make their lives much harder, which is the very last thing that families want when they have been made homeless.

I believe, as do many people outside the House, that we are turning the clock back to the days of "Cathy Come Home". A few years after that documentary was shown, a local authority housing officer was quoted—in a 1971 study of homeless families—as saying of homeless people: I have to pay attention to the ordinary standards of decent people. We don't want these dead legs. They muck up the books and make life a misery for ordinary folk. The days when local authorities could get away with such an attitude are now, thankfully, over.

The Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 has not been perfect, but it has helped the more than 1.5 million people who have been accepted for rehousing by local authorities because of it.

The amendments and new clauses in this group are about who should be given reasonable preference in the allocation of social housing and, in particular, whether vulnerable homeless people should be included in lists of people who receive such preference. That is what my amendment (a) to Government amendment No. 121 is about. It is not an ideal solution. The only amendments that would keep intact the right of homeless people to long-term accommodation are in a group led by my amendment No. 35, due for discussion later. However, amendment (a) would deal with the ridiculous situation in which almost anything is accepted as a measure of housing need but homelessness.

9.30 pm

I have no argument with the criteria that the Government have included. I shall not attempt to vote against their amendment. But I cannot see what justification the Minister can have for saying that, while insanitary and insecure accommodation will give someone reasonable preference, homelessness will not. That is unless he is saying that being homeless is extremely insanitary and extremely insecure.

Many people outside the House are extremely worried about what is not in Government amendment No. 121. It is welcome as far as it goes, but it fails explicitly to include homeless people as a group to be given priority. Homelessness is a distinct form of need in itself, and it should be recognised in any allocations criteria. The Government amendment gives wide powers to the Secretary of State to prescribe the details of allocation procedures. I believe that adding homeless people to the new allocations criteria will result in a fairer system that will allow the needs of that group to be considered alongside the needs of others.

Amendment (a) is the most crucial amendment in the group. It is supported by the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford). I have also tabled several other amendments, and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will be sympathetic to them.

New clause 1 deals with several groups of people whom I and others outside the House believe should have priority above persons who have reasonable preference. I shall deal with each of those groups briefly. I start with young persons leaving care. We had much discussion about that group in Committee, and later I shall move an amendment to ensure that children who are dealt with under the Children Act 1989 are prioritised. If the Minister can tell me in response to the points that I make that he recognises that that group of children needs to be written down and recognised in the Bill, it may not be necessary for me to press a later amendment to a vote.

Other people who should be given priority are those referred by a social services authority to a housing authority, people referred by a health authority and people referred by a landlord providing temporary accommodation for single homeless people. All those groups were discussed in Committee, and I shall not do so further at this point, other than to say that I hope that the Minister will listen carefully not only to me, but to all the groups outside that are pushing for those people to be given priority.

New clause 2 goes further than amendment (a) in ensuring that homeless households have priority over and above people who have reasonable preference in the allocation of housing. The arguments for that are the same as I have already outlined. I shall highlight only the Department of the Environment's recognition in the housing White Paper that homelessness is a searing experience as a reminder of how widespread the recognition of the problem of homelessness is.

New clause 27, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), has my firm support and I shall allow him to propound its merits.

Amendment No. 3 is to some extent a technical amendment that could stand in its own right, but it is designed to make it clear that any duty given to local authorities, particularly with regard to homeless persons, by part VI or part VII of the Bill will override the general allocation provisions.

Amendment No. 4 would exempt households to whom the local authority has a duty under the homeless persons provisions from the allocations criteria, with the clear indication that the duty to house them is separate from and additional to general allocation schemes operated by the local authority. I have no quarrel with the final three Government amendments and I welcome the Secretary of State's recognition that any changes to regulations on the matter should be passed by an affirmative resolution of each House of Parliament. I pressed Ministers on that in Committee.

As Liberal Democrats, we recognise that there is a serious problem with the length of local authority waiting lists throughout the country and, especially, that problems in some regions lead to people blaming homeless people for the length of time that others wait on the list. The Government claim that the solution of putting homeless people into temporary accommodation and then on to a waiting list is the answer, but it will not make waiting lists any shorter or make any significant difference to the speed with which most people on them will be housed.

The Government's proposals will not reduce housing need or demand and they will certainly not increase housing supply. Some of their proposals have immediately led to a reduction in the supply of social housing. In that way, they are failing everyone in housing need.

The challenge for us all is to strike a balance between the long-term housing needs of everyone who is adequately housed in Britain today and the immediate requirements of homeless families. Liberal Democrats believe that that can be done by a single route of entry, but only if certain conditions prevail: that all homeless households are registered on the waiting list as soon as they present themselves to the local authority; that the local authority has a duty to find them temporary accommodation of as stable a nature as possible for as long as it takes; that they are found permanent accommodation or find their own accommodation in the private sector; and that councils should be able properly to recognise the problems of homelessness and the inadequacies of temporary accommodation in the point systems that they use for allocating tenancies.

The last of those is what amendment (a) is about. It is about not queue jumping, but putting some fairness and common sense back into the Bill. It is about allowing local authorities to consider the full picture of a person's position and ensuring that people who become homeless can be helped back on to their feet and given some stability at the earliest possible moment.

In their 1989 homelessness review, the Government concluded: there is little doubt that homeless people would and should expect to have priority in any system of housing allocation based on need". My colleagues and I are trying to ensure that that principle is in the Bill. I intend to press amendment (a) to a vote and I urge hon. Members on both sides of the House to support it.

I am sorry only that certain hon. Members here tonight believe that this is not an interesting topic. There are people sleeping on the streets and, if we are not careful, we shall undo all the progress that we have made in recent years with the support of all parties, the Churches and all groups that have to deal with homelessness. If we are not careful, we shall undo all the work of those groups over a number of years. I strongly urge all hon. Members who care about homelessness to support amendment (a).

Mr. Raynsford

Homelessness is one of the crucial housing and social issues of our time, and it is right that the House should have an opportunity for an albeit brief debate on those crucial elements in the Bill. Sadly, homelessness is and has been for the past few years all too evident a feature of life in Britain. It is a scar on our society, and blights the lives of hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens. It is an affront to any civilised society to see the extent of homelessness in Britain today.

The fact that homelessness exists on such a scale is testimony to the failure of the Government's housing policy to ensure the provision of adequate homes for people in need. It is no coincidence that the past five years have seen the lowest output of new homes for renting of any period since the end of the second world war—an average of 28,000 new homes a year, compared with more than 120,000 new rented homes a year during the five years of the Labour Government.

The failure to provide adequately for housing needs has inevitably led to the appalling problems of homelessness that we face today. But rather than addressing those problems directly, with measures to increase the output of rented housing, and responding to people's needs, the Government are behaving in a shabby and disreputable way, by seeking to reduce local authorities' statutory responsibilities towards the homeless.

In summary, the Government are making the victims of the homelessness crisis pay for the Government's own failure to provide adequately for people's housing needs. They are making an entirely unjustified attack on the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, which has provided the statutory framework for the relief of homelessness throughout the past 18 years.

As the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) said, that Act was passed with support from hon. Members from all parties. Although essentially it was passed by the Labour Government with the active involvement of Stephen Ross, the Liberal Member who promoted it as a private Member, it also attracted support from some Conservative Members.

That legislation has been reviewed twice during the lifetime of the Government—in the early stages of the Government, in the early 1980s, when the current Deputy Prime Minister was Secretary of State for the Environment, and again in the late 1980s, when the late Lord Ridley and Mr. Chris Patten, who is now Governor of Hong Kong, were Secretary of State for the Environment.

Both those reviews concluded that the legislation was working well, and that there was no need for change. It is a comment on today's Tory party that it now sees the need to interfere, and to damage legislation that the Government's predecessors regarded as working well. There is no justification for what the Government are doing; there has been no objective change in circumstances to merit it.

The Bill is a mean, shabby piece of legislation that will withdraw assistance from many people in need by reducing local authorities' existing obligations, thus facilitating matters for local authorities that do not wish to accept their responsibilities towards the homeless. It will also break the link established by the 1977 Act, between the provision of housing for the homeless and that for all other categories of need.

Bringing the homeless into the mainstream, rather than condemning them to a period in temporary accommodation, was one of the most important gains made under the 1977 Act. That Act put an end to some of the most disgraceful features of the treatment of the homeless, so well portrayed in the television programme that shocked the nation in the 1960s, "Cathy Come Home"—practices such as the splitting of families and the degradation of families, and the use of squalid and disgusting former workhouses and other forms of temporary accommodation for the homeless.

The fact that the 1977 Act got away from that and concentrated on the permanent housing of homeless people was one of the great gains that it made. Yet the Government are now acting directly to reverse that, and seeking to put homeless people into temporary accommodation again.

Believe it or not, if the Bill gets through Parliament, it will make it impossible for local authorities to provide direct rehousing for homeless people, other than in the exceptional circumstance of their already being registered on the housing waiting list and having sufficient points to qualify—or rather, to use the slightly curious term that the Minister used in Committee, of their having "almost enough" points to qualify. The Minister has never clarified how that definition would work; we know that it is a mess, and will prove unworkable.

The Government's action is a dereliction of their responsibility to one of the most vulnerable sections of our community. It shows that today's Tory party has turned its back on the poor, the homeless and the vulnerable and demonstrates the Government's failure to ensure that the needs of all members of our society are properly met. I pledge that the Labour party, on its return to government, will ensure that there is a proper and effective statutory framework to guarantee the rights of homeless people and make sure that they get proper treatment and help in the form of permanent accommodation.

9.45 pm

We shall restore the framework created in 1977 if the Government succeed in their intention of dismantling it. Whatever happens tonight, I hope that this legislation will not pass unscathed in another place. It runs against all our country's instincts for fairness that underpinned the 1977 Act, which gained enormous support throughout the country—as has its retention. When the Government consulted on the proposal to change the law, more than 10,000 people responded. Almost all said that the legislation should stay, that the Government should abandon their proposals and that the 1977 Act was working well. It is only the Government who want to pursue their proposals. They are flying in the face of all informed opinion, the voluntary organisations that work with the homeless, the local authorities and the people who know and care most. Their proposals are wrong-headed and will not work or last. We will vote firmly tonight against those measures because they are wrong and we want in their place a proper framework to ensure the maintenance of responsibilities towards the homeless.

Mr. Curry

The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) prefaced her remarks with the words "as Liberal Democrats". I might say, "as Conservatives" or "as Labour"—new or old—because this issue engages and concerns the whole House. The hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) made some accusations about whether we cared. I do not claim such exclusivity for my concerns. They are general. There is a legitimate political argument about how we translate them into practical politics. It is not legitimate to bandy about qualitative concerns to try to show that we have more concern than other people.

I spent part of this morning dealing with people who operate the rough sleepers initiative. That deals with the street homeless—the worst-off people in the most difficult circumstances, who are often difficult to help. I am concerned about that and I want to drive that policy forward, but I do not claim that, if I were to be replaced, it would come to a halt. The determination to tackle the problems is real and goes across the House. I stake my claim on an ecumenical basis for what I believe is an essential policy.

I would like Opposition Members to point out where the difference lies, because in many respects it is more apparent than real. There were concerns, and I hope that I have tried to meet them. I agreed to put the allocations criteria in the Bill and to attach a power to change them by affirmative resolution so that, if it became necessary to make subsequent changes, it could be done. I have never claimed biblical certainty. We are trying to deliver something. There may be occasions when it has to be amended. That is part of normal political life if one is sensible about what one tries to put forward.

I also changed the period of duty to two years because I thought that it was more reasonable. We are left with what I believe is the one central issue that divides the House. There is no point in denying that it does. I believe that it is reasonable to seek to distinguish between people who become homeless as a manifestation of a deep-seated, long-term need and who will require long-term help, and people who become homeless because they are overwhelmed by a particular circumstance, but who, if they are given emergency help, may be able to climb out of the difficulty. I recognise that a great many people will fall into the former category, but some 18 per cent. of those who are accepted as statutorily homeless never take up social housing, so there are people who fall into the latter category. Everyone needs emergency help; no one is proposing to tear that away. Indeed, the Awua judgment, which I have never prayed in aid—we intended to reform the legislation before it, so I am not prepared to make a claim that is not honest—has virtually removed the safety net in its entirety. So the practical effect of the proposals is to replace that safety net.

All those who find themselves in that situation need that emergency help, but we need to find out whether they need the long-term accommodation and help that carries with it the right to buy and, perhaps, succession rights, or whether they can subsequently manage by themselves, which means that the social housing can be made available for those who need it on a long-term basis. That is a reasonable and honourable proposition.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)

My hon. Friend has certainly moved since Second Reading, when widespread concerns were expressed. He will have seen the note that I let him have from Shelter housing aid in Taunton, which pointed out that the placing of families in short-term private rented accommodation would result in greater insecurity. It emphasised that 38 per cent. of those accepted as homeless applicants in Taunton Deane in my constituency had lost private rented tenancies compared with an average for the whole country of 11 per cent., according to DOE figures. That concerns me very much. What assurances can my hon. Friend give me?

Mr. Curry

I recognise my hon. Friend's concerns. He will know that I have had extensive discussions with Shelter and many of the voluntary organisations. My response is twofold. First, if there is not suitable private sector accommodation, people in those circumstances can be accommodated in local authority or housing association stock. Secondly, to try to make more private sector accommodation available, we are discussing allowing local authorities to lease such accommodation for 10 years, so that they can exercise more effective management under the capital financing rules—those have been widely welcomed. I should be perfectly willing to discuss a particular circumstance in my hon. Friend's constituency with him, because circumstances differ across the country.

The Government are proposing a sensible measure. I recognise that it has raised a dispute. We are seeking to help the people in the greatest need. I am not concerned about morality, or about any of the emotional overtones that people sometimes falsely bring to a debate. There is a real emotion about this debate, which is about people in need. My focus is to help people in need. That is my sole criterion, and I therefore commend our amendments to the House. I ask the House to support us in putting those allocations criteria, as they stand, on the face of the Bill. I am confident that they will embrace the circumstances and pick up the needs that we must identify.

We had a serious debate in Committee and I have no doubt that that debate will continue. Of course, I shall continue to discuss with colleagues across the Floor of the House how the legislation is working. I shall be ready to make changes if it appears, in practice, that it is not working as we intended. That is a sensible precaution in politics. Despite being a low Methodist and not having biblical truth in this matter—a primitive—I shall not enter into an argument with the hon. Member for Greenwich. I also have a quotation. Perhaps it is a curious measure, but there we are. We have had a debate across the Floor of the House. I think that the hon. Member for Greenwich was brought up in Raynsford hall and I was brought up in a council property—it is a funny old world.

I commend the amendments to the House.

Mr. Betts

I shall not go into the Labour party's general opposition to the dismantling of the 1977 legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) has already done so very well, both here and in Committee.

I shall raise three issues about the relationship between the allocations criteria that the Minister intends to put on the face of the Bill and the rights of homeless families. The first is an issue that came up in Committee, when the Minister said that a homeless family who got nearly enough points to be at the top of the list could nevertheless be offered a permanent home immediately by the local authority.

The Minister said that he would respond and he has done so in writing to a number of questions that we raised in Committee. I thank him for doing so. Generally, he has clarified issues, but he has done nothing to clarify this issue. Indeed, he has obscured it further. He said that, if a homeless family has nearly enough points to be at the top of the list but is not right at the top, the authority does not have to allocate housing mechanistically to the person at the very top of the list. If local authorities started allocating houses to people who are not at the top of the list, there would quickly be a lot of complaints to the ombudsman about their allocations policy.

The Minister went on to say: I understand that, in the sorts of situations that Mr Betts had in mind, some authorities would treat the household as a special case on an exceptional basis, and would give it additional priority; there would be nothing to prevent them from doing that in the future. It is not acceptable for there to be a complete dismantling of the homeless persons legislation, to be replaced by the Minister saying that there is nothing to stop local authorities giving additional priority to homeless families on an exceptional basis. That is not the current fundamental right of homeless families. That is not acceptable, and it will not be workable in practice.

I draw the Minister's attention to two other issues where the relationship between the allocations policy and the rights of homeless families appears to be flawed. The Minister said about allocations policy that authorities should give reasonable preference to people who are living in unsatisfactory housing conditions. The irony of the situation is that a homeless family who are living in housing that it is unreasonable for them to continue to occupy can be categorised as homeless and can receive automatic accommodation—according to the Minister's rehousing allocation policy.

However, a homeless family who have no home at all cannot be rehoused under the allocations policy because there is no reference in the policy to the rights of homeless families to be awarded points under the allocation system. It is nonsensical that an allocations policy can give preference to someone who is homeless but who has a home that is unsatisfactory, but cannot give preference to someone who has no home at all. That stupidity is contained in the Minister's policy, which he is proposing tonight.

Finally, paragraph (b) of the allocations policy says that people who are occupying housing accommodation that is temporary or occupied on unsecured terms can have preference. That means that a homeless family who would now be eligible for rehousing with permanent accommodation straight away can get preference only once they have been given temporary accommodation by the local authority. In other words, a homeless family have to be moved into temporary accommodation before they can get priority for permanent accommodation. Moving homeless families around from one area to another adds to family insecurity, adds different schools for their children and adds other insecurities in relation to relationships. The Government are supposed to espouse family life, but this proposal would destroy families.

I hope that the amendments are accepted tonight, particularly amendment (a), because it would mean that, despite the rise in homeless families under the Government's allocation policy, they would be protected in a way that they are not currently.

Mr. Simon Hughes

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) did not deal with one point; however, she made perfectly proper points about the difference between the Minister's approach and our approach. My hon. Friend sustained the tradition of Stephen Ross; that is a perfectly valid view. Many people believe—this is not a party point—that the one thing that would provide the opportunity for those who are homeless to be more adequately housed would be if the Government restored the substantial cuts in housing investment that have cut housing more than any other public investment sector since the Government have been in office.

I put a separate issue to the Minister in relation to new clause 27. Five years ago, or thereabouts, an elderly tenant on a council estate in Bermondsey, the Arnold estate, asked to move to a vacant property—the same type of property that she was already in; a one-bedroom property—next door to her elderly sister. They wanted to live next door to each other so that if they were sick in the night, they could bang on the wall. The council said that it could not allocate the property to her and that she would have to go into the pool and that she would come up if she was lucky. The property was allocated to someone else. Eventually, we persuaded the council that that was an inhumane way to proceed. When the property next became vacant, the council said that it would move the lady in, but it was too late because her sister had died.

We believe that when someone lives on an estate and an identical property comes up—no bigger, no grander, no more expensive—that is more suitable because of their immobility, disability or illness, they should be able to move into it, thereby releasing their property into the housing pool for allocation to someone else. That should happen without prejudice to those who need to be allocated a particular property on a council estate.

One of the great iniquities of the allocation of council housing is that it is done in an inhumane way and that existing tenants cannot move where their family needs and their requirements require them to be. I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to what is a new clause rooted in practical experience in south London.

Question, That the clause be read a Second time, put and negatived.

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