HC Deb 22 July 1996 vol 282 cc92-5

Lords amendment: No. 181, in page 93, line 30, leave out ("there is") and insert ("he has")

Mr. Curry

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 182 to 186.

Mr. Curry

These are drafting amendments to clarify the law.

Mr. Raynsford

I agree with the Minister, but I cannot allow this opportunity to pass without commenting on the obscure processes of legislation. Essentially, the amendment restores to the first clause of the Bill relating to homelessness, a structure similar to the one that was created in 1977 when the Rent Act first reached the statute book. Those who have followed the processes by which the legislation has been attacked by the Government will know that there has been an on-going battle to defend the principles that lay behind the 1977 legislation.

That Act was a positive and appropriate response to the needs of homeless people, and it provided a framework that has worked well for 18 years. It has ensured that a large number of people have had accommodation—they would have been homeless without it. It is a tragedy that the Government have continued to pursue their vendetta against the homeless by seeking to undermine the provisions of the 1977 legislation.

The only consolation is that, over the past six months or so, we have been able to mitigate, to a modest extent, some of the damage that has been done by the Government. What I find curious about this group of amendments is, as I have already said, that we are now returning to a format similar to the one that was originally proposed in 1977. The legislation starts with a definition of "homelessness" and includes other categories of people who have accommodation but who cannot secure entry to it or who cannot reside in it because of constraints, such as those identified in amendment No. 182.

7.45 pm

Many hon. Members believe that the 1977 legislation should have been left unamended—other than a clarification to ensure that it was interpreted in the way that was originally intended—to guarantee that homeless people receive help in the form of secure accommodation. An element of doubt was cast on that by a judgment in the High Court a year ago. Apart from the need for clarification—to reinstate the original intention of the 1977 legislation—there was absolutely no need to linker with the legislation, and it is a tragedy that the Government have chosen to do so.

This tragedy will affect the lives of many people. The only consolation that we have is the knowledge that the Government's shortsightedness in undermining the homeless legislation is matched only by their short life expectancy. The next Government—a Labour Government—will reinstate a proper framework of responsibility for the relief of homelessness. The Labour party will ensure that the original intentions.of the 1977 legislation are put back on the statute book. Homeless people will have a guarantee of a proper legal framework of responsibilities backed by law to ensure that they are not deserted in their hour of need.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

I ask the Minister to clarify how these amendments will help the homeless, given the number of boarded-up council houses throughout country, particularly in my constituency. I wrote to the Minister last December about the problem of boarded-up council houses in my constituency, and I received a reply from the Under-Secretary on 11 January that assured me that forthcoming legislation would help to meet the problem.

I see absolutely no reason for council houses to be boarded up. It is a tragedy of incompetence. It is no good for housing the homeless; it is no good for the neighbours of the empty houses, who have to put up with the mess, inconvenience and vandalism that can occur; and it is no good for council tax payers, who should be able to look to earnings from valuable assets instead of the liabilities of leaving the properties empty.

I assure my hon. Friend the Minister that the problem still persists in my constituency. On Friday, I visited Beechcroft grove—I would like the Minister to visit Beechcroft grove. From its name, one would think that it is a pleasant, leafy suburban street. Sadly, when I stood in Beechcroft grove I felt as if I was in Beirut, not in Britain. There are 37 houses, 21 of which are empty and boarded up. What confidence can anyone have in a council that persists in such a dereliction? By coincidence, on the day of my visit, three vans arrived with workmen from the council to start cleaning up the mess in the so-called gardens of the empty properties.

What would my hon. Friend the Minister say to Mr. and Mrs. Harrison, of 27 Beechcroft grove, who have occupied the property for 37 years? It is now surrounded by a desert of derelict properties. Why should they have to pay rent of £1,500 per annum? Would it not be better if they could buy the property under the right-to-buy legislation? It should cost them not much more than £1,500—they should get a full discount on top of the low value of the properties in the area.

I should like the Minister to assure the House that new provisions will provide an opportunity to bring new, caring owners on to such an estate, whether as owner-occupiers or as landlords.

On Friday, I was certainly pleased to visit Beechcroft grove with Mr. John O'Donnell of the North West Landlords Association, who is a good example of a caring landlord, and who certainly would not like to leave his properties empty. Bolton council is for ever pleading poverty, yet there it is with 21 houses that should be worth well over half a million pounds. Presumably those houses are now totally worthless, if not a liability.

I am grateful for the opportunity to mention that issue in the debate. I should be pleased to hear the Minister say that legislation will address the issue and that my constituents Mr. and Mrs. Harrison and their son can look forward to living again in a pleasant Beechcroft grove instead of the derelict mess that it is now.

Mr. Curry

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) must look to the other Bill on housing—the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Bill—for specific legislative help. That Bill will enable local authorities to use renovation grants in a strategic manner in housing renewal areas. That may be the answer to his specific concerns.

Generally, about 2 per cent. of council houses are vacant, and about 1.1 per cent. are management voids and are available. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is crucial that those houses should be brought into use, and the Government are urging on local authorities an empty property strategy. When we do the annual round of housing investment programmes, we always seek to receive from local authorities effective strategies to do the obvious thing—to bring empty properties into use wherever possible.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendment Nos. 182 to 186 agreed to.

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