§ Lords amendment: No. 1.4.29 pm
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble)
I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
§ Ms Keeble
The amendments were tabled in response to concerns raised during the Bill's consideration in another place and in this House on Second Reading and Report. The concerns centred on the fact that not all local housing authorities deliver a good service when discharging their duties to provide assistance and advice to homeless applicants who have been found not to have priority need for accommodation or to be intentionally homeless or threatened with homelessness.
The Government believe that it is extremely important that local housing authorities provide a good service and ensure that they meet their statutory obligations under homelessness legislation. I am mindful, however, that much of the concern expressed stemmed from the perception that some authorities are not doing what they are already required to do by statute.
The Bill strengthens the duties to provide advice and assistance, but the amendments will take that further. They will require an assessment of the applicant's housing need before any advice and assistance is provided, with a clear inference that the assessment must be taken into account in the advice and assistance proffered.
The amendments will also require that the advice and assistance given include information about the type of accommodation that would be appropriate for applicants. That in turn must include information about the likely availability of accommodation in the local authority area, where applicants should go and to whom they should apply in order best to locate it. I must emphasise that those requirements will not be exhaustive and will not mean that advice and assistance is confined to such matters. Examples of other issues on which applicants may need advice and assistance will of course be covered in guidance.
Amendment No. 1 is minor and consequential to amendments Nos. 11 and 12, which insert new subsections (6), (7) and (8) in section 195 of the Housing Act 1996. One effect will be to displace what would have been new subsection 195(6), as inserted by clause 5(2), and to renumber it as new subsection 195(8).
The Government feel strongly that there must be increased emphasis on the provision of good quality, properly tailored and timely advice for those experiencing 457 or facing homelessness. Those issues were raised, among others, by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). The amendments will help to locus local housing authority minds on what must be done. Clearly, placing statutory duties On local authorities may not always be sufficient to ensure that good quality and consistent results are delivered on the ground, so we shall reinforce our message through clear statutory guidance. I commend the amendments to the House.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)
This is the last opportunity that the House will have to discuss the Homelessness Bill. The Bill started its life under the guise of the Homes Bill, which included provision for the seller's pack—the controversial part 1 of the Bill. Part 2 of that Bill, which has become the Homelessness Bill, was uncontentious and, had it been a Bill on its own, would have become law before the election. So, in a sense, the huge number of hours that both Houses have spent debating these matters has been unnecessary. Nevertheless, Her Majesty's official Opposition welcome the Bill—although we also welcome the opportunity to discuss the amendments.
The amendments will strengthen the duties on local authorities to assist homeless people who ale not in priority need. When providing advice and assistance, an authority will have to assess the applicant's need and provide information about the availability, location and sources of accommodation appropriate to the applicant's needs. As well as applying to those who are unintentionally homeless but not in priority need, the amendments apply to people who are intentionally homeless and to those who are threatened with homelessness but not in priority need.
On Second Reading, I asked the Minister when she would publish the list of those in priority need. We were assured, in this House and in another place, that it would be published by Third Reading—yet here we are, considering complicated Lords amendments, which is difficult to do without having seen the list of priority homeless. We think that we know what will be on it, but it would have been helpful to see it.
Before the election, the Prime Minister promised everyone the chance of a decent home, and we all say amen to that. He also vowed:Our approach will be founded on the basic aim of ensuring that everyone bas a chance to a decent home".[Interruption] Whatever Labour Members are saying, the Government's own statistics show that homelessness in England has increased by almost 12,000 in the past four years. The number of priority homeless has risen from 102,650 in 1997–98 to 114,350 in 2000–01—an increase of 11,700 or 11 per cent. under the Government's stewardship.
The Lords amendments are welcome, but the number of homeless is going up, the number of social housing units being built is going down and the number of empty homes is going up. The situation is getting worse and may be appreciably worse than the Government's official statistics indicate. Crisis—the charity formerly known as Crisis at Christmas—estimates that there might be up to 400,000 hidden homeless. The Government are aware of those figures, and I ask the Minister to instigate some proper research so that we can find out the true situation.
458 The number of people in bed and breakfast accommodation has soared. Since the election, it has increased by 9 per cent., from 11,340 to 12,290. It is all very well Lords amendments Nos. 1, 9, 10 and 11 requiring guidance to he given, but if the Government do not know the true state of homelessness it will be difficult for local authorities to give guidance and come up with strategies. A huge amount of money is wasted on short-term bed and breakfast accommodation. If a proper capital budget could be formulated so that private rented leased accommodation could be purchased, we could begin to get some people into long-term, decent homes, which was the Prime Minister's aspiration before the election.
Shelter strongly supports the Lords amendments. Throughout the Bill's passage, and that of its predecessor, the Homes Bill, it raised concerns about the quality of advice and assistance given to non-priority homeless applicants. Some local authorities are very good at providing such advice, but some—the laggards—are pretty poor, which is why we welcome the Lords amendments.
Shelter's concerns were highlighted in its report "Singles Barred" and were taken up by right hon. and hon. members. Under current arrangements, it is common for applicants simply to be given a list of bed and breakfast hotels, irrespective of their needs. Given the deteriorating homeless situation and the fact that the number of people in bed and breakfast accommodation is rising alarmingly, there is an even greater need for the amendments. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us an idea of the true situation and what the Government are doing about it.
The bed and breakfast unit is trying to reduce the number of homeless people, but without the proper budget to do so. The rough sleepers unit has reduced the figures, but in a similar count of rough sleepers the Simon Community found the same number in just a few streets rather than the whole capital. The accusation is that, to get the count down, the rough sleepers unit has been deliberately massaging those people who are sleeping rough. That is a pretty serious accusation, and we want to ensure that we know the true number of hidden homeless.
In mentioning the hidden homeless, perhaps I should take a minute or two of the House's time to describe what Crisis and other organisations are getting at when they refer to the estimated 400,000 people who, despite the Prime Minister's aspirations, have no proper roof over their heads. They include all those who sleep anywhere—rough, in bed and breakfast accommodation, or on somebody else's floor or sofa—other than in a permanent house of their own. The number of such homeless is rising all the time because more and more people are not in a stable marriage, because they aspire to own a home at a younger age, because they are living longer and because a certain number of legal and illegal immigrants are taking up houses that would otherwise be used to accommodate the homeless.
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
The hon. Lady says "shame", but it is a fact of life that people are coming into this country and taking up houses that would otherwise be used for the homeless. Until the Government recognise that fact—
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
It is not disgraceful. It is a fact of life, and if the Government do not recognise it, how will they provide a proper policy for the homeless?
§ Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)
Is it not true that there are two other factors that the hon. Gentleman has not mentioned: house prices rising beyond the pocket of most people, and the failure to use funds derived from the sale of council houses to provide replacement social housing? They are much more significant factors than the ones that he mentions.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)
Order. I am afraid that we are engaged not in a general debate on homelessness, but in a discussion of the amendment, to which we must revert.
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. We are discussing amendments that will give powers to, and impose duties on, local authorities, against the background of a general deterioration in the homelessness situation. Given that the Government have not provided the list of priority homeless that they promised, it is a little difficult—
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
Exactly what I said—we have a good idea of what is in those categories because the Government published a consultation paper. Having consulted, the Government ought now to be able to tell us the results and publish the order. That is what we asked for on Second Reading, but we still have not been given it. To ask us to discuss the amendments when we do not know what the order will contain is a pretty shoddy way to treat the House. A statutory instrument could easily have been tabled and the matter could have been discussed upstairs before dealing with the amendments.
The amendments build on an earlier Government amendment, tabled during the passage of the Homes Bill, to strengthen the current duty to provide advice and assistance. Taken together, they should ensure that the quality of advice and assistance provided to non-priority homeless applicants will meet the basic minimum standards. We will all agree that that is a worthy aspiration, and I should like to hear what the Minister has to say before deciding how to proceed.
§ Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)
The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) says that he supports the Bill, but proceeds to rubbish it, which will come as no surprise to anyone in this House. If we have heard anything shoddy this afternoon, it is his level of debate. In so many such areas, a corporate amnesia strikes all members of the Conservative party. The concern that the hon. Gentleman expressed for those categories of people in inadequate housing or without a home comes as something of a surprise. I cannot remember him ever voicing his concerns when the Conservative Government were in power and laid the foundations for the housing crisis that we undoubtedly now have in London.
§ Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)
If the hon. Lady believes that the record of the previous Government was so bad, will she explain why we maintained a substantial level of new build in social housing, a total that has almost halved—
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. I have already reminded all hon. Members that the debate is on the amendment.
§ Glenda Jackson
I will, of course, abide by your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker, but it breaks my heart because I have the figures at the tip of my tongue to show just what damage was inflicted on affordable house building, not least in London.
I most earnestly support the Government's clear commitment to making a sizeable part of housing socially affordable, and the amendments are therefore welcome, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to answer some of my questions on these amendments. The provision of advice is essential in preventing homelessness and in assisting those people, of whatever category, who face the fact that they are or will soon become homeless. A properly integrated advice service is necessary to all local authorities. We have many good examples in some London boroughs of how such an integrated service can work. It requires integration not only by local authority housing departments but by social services and health departments.
Given the categorisation that is increasingly used in order to try to identify the most vulnerable in terms of housing need, local authorities need to be able to incorporate those advice centres that deal specifically with one category of person, be it the single homeless, women or the elderly. In future, local authorities should not automatically refer someone seeking advice to one of those single category advice centres, because there must be some way to integrate the advice provided, especially as local knowledge is so important to the issue.
The central point that I wish to make is that we are asking local authorities to take on a greater and more complex burden than the one with which they currently attempt to cope. I hope that the Government will consider providing the additional resources for local authorities that will undoubtedly be needed, not least to train their front-line staff once the strategy has been introduced and the advice service has been finalised and defined. In that way, the staff—who, day in and day out, will meet desperate and distressed people—will be able to provide the quality of service that will be essential to the strategy.
We should also have some way in which to monitor whether advice services are up to date with the most recent advice and statutory changes—
§ Glenda Jackson
No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman.
Such advice and statutory changes may impact on people who face the possibility of homelessness or who are already homeless. The most obvious example for those of us who represent London constituencies is the changes that have been made to the housing benefit system. It is not unusual for someone giving advice to be unaware of 461 the changes that have been made, but advice must be accurate and up to the minute. Therefore, while I welcome the amendments, I strongly urge that the Government consider the issue carefully, especially the need for additional support and resources for local authorities.
§ Mr. Don Foster (Bath)
I agree with the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) that we are now putting great pressure on local authority housing departments. The Bill will place significant additional burdens on the housing departments of local councils, so extra resources, were they to be made available by the Government, would be most welcome. I entirely agree with the hon. Lady that advice must be up to the minute, comprehensive and accurate; many housing departments will be required to improve significantly the range of training opportunities for their staff so that they can provide that advice.
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his generosity in giving way early in his speech. Is he aware that the Bill's money resolution provided £8 million, which has already been used up? The Association of London Government reckons that £20 million is required to implement the Bill, including the Lords amendments, in London alone? The cost for the entire country is therefore likely to be £40 million, which will largely be borne by local authorities up and down the land.
§ Mr. Foster
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, as it is the next point that is logical for me to make. He will be well aware that the Government have accepted the new burdens principle: if additional burdens are placed on other bodies, the Government will make funds available to meet those requirements. There is growing concern in local government, not just in London but across the country, that the new burdens placed on it by the legislation, welcome as it is, will not be sufficiently met by the sums currently allocated in the money resolution, as the hon. Gentleman said.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about that, but there is an area of disagreement between us. In his opening remarks, he said that had the homelessness provisions of the Homes Bill been dealt with separately, the measure would have gone through the House and another place very quickly indeed, and that there would have been no need for our subsequent lengthy debate. I fundamentally disagree; one of the great merits of that debate is that it enabled a large number of amendments to be tabled by parties on both sides of the House and considered by the Government.
The Government have considered many proposals and accepted some of them, sometimes reluctantly. As a result, the Bill has been significantly strengthened in a number of areas. The issue of the advice and guidance to homeless people was first raised in early discussions of the Bill; initially, proposals by Members on both sides of the House were rejected by the Government. I am delighted that at long last we are considering those proposals in the Lords amendments, because they strengthen the Bill significantly. As the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) pointed out, although many councils and their housing departments provide an 462 excellent service in delivering clear, timely, up-to-date and comprehensive advice and guidance to homeless and potentially homeless people, sadly, as the Shelter report points out, a number of local authorities are not in the same league; some of them have not been providing particularly helpful advice and guidance. The Lords amendments strengthen the legislation, making it a requirement for all local authorities to provide high-quality advice and guidance, so I very much welcome them.
Like the hon. Member for Cotswold, I am concerned that providing advice and guidance to homeless people will be of minor assistance in tackling the problem, unless there is a significant increase in the availability of affordable housing for the many people who are either homeless or who have an unacceptable standard of housing.
Like many other Members, I am concerned about the availability of affordable housing. A small step that the Government sensibly took was the new deal for communities plan, which was designed to help to improve the quality of the housing stock. Unfortunately, although the Government made a commitment that £240 million would be available for the current financial year, the amount spent under the scheme, as a result of a range of difficulties that were apparently unforeseen by the Government, will probably be less than half the money allocated. There is a real problem, and the Government may fail to achieve their sensible target of bringing all housing up to a decent standard by 2010. I shall be grateful if the Minister comments on that issue.
The Minister will be well aware of some of the commitments that Lord Falconer made in another place. I know that the Government are keen on recycling. Part of the Minister's speech today is word for word the speech given by her noble Friend, although there is nothing wrong with that. She told us that the Government feel strongly that there must be increased emphasis on the provision of good quality, properly tailored and timely advice to those who are experiencing or facing homelessness. I suspect that she carries the entire House with her in that regard.
In another place, my noble Friend Lady Maddock asked Lord Falconer to give assurances that there would be clear indications of how local authorities' work in this area and their performance would be monitored. In response, Lord Falconer referred to plans to introduce a homelessness directorate within the Department. He said that part of the directorate's job would be to monitor the advice and guidance given by local authorities. When the Minister responds, I hope that she will say how that work is progressing.
The Minister in another place referred to existing inspection arrangements for local authorities as a second strand of monitoring. He referred specifically to the Government's plans for a national homelessness strategy and the relevance of that to the inspection of local councils' work. I shall be grateful if the Minister is able to give us any more up-to-date information about that work.
The amendments refer only to the advice and guidance that is to be given by local authorities. The House will be aware, however, that an increasing proportion of affordable housing is no longer in the hands of local 463 authorities. We know that within the next three or four years more than 50 per cent. of affordable housing will be in the hands of registered social landlords.
The Minister will be well aware that throughout our deliberations on the Bill I have stressed the importance of close co-operation between local authority housing departments and registered social landlords. What thought have the Government given to ensuring that registered social landlords will be helped and enabled to increase the quality of advice and support that they are able to offer, preferably in conjunction with local authority housing departments? I hope that the Minister will be able to comment on that and on whether advice and guidance will form part of the Housing Corporation's guidance to registered social landlords.
I know that the Minister believes that the link between registered social landlords and housing departments is an important one, for she has said so on several occasions. I hope that we can have her assurance that the issue of advice and guidance will form part of a close working relationship.
We listened with interest to the hon. Member for Cotswold. I suspect that some of us disagreed with some of his remarks. Perhaps some of us strongly disagreed with his remarks about people who come in from outside this country and take the homes of the people already here. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on whether those were wise remarks for him to make. He might also wish to reflect on the wisdom of his reference to the massaging of people sleeping rough. Many of those people need a great deal of help and support. Massaging may be a small part of their requirements, but they need far more.
§ 5 pm
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
The hon. Gentleman is quoting me out of context. He knows very well that Crisis used similar language when the counts were made. It implies no lack of caring for those people; quite the reverse. We want to know accurately how many there are, so that we can take the appropriate action.
§ Mr. Foster
The hon. Gentleman is compounding his earlier error. There is a reasonable debate to be had about the massaging of the figures in relation to the number of people sleeping rough. That is not precisely what he said.
§ Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)
On the point raised by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), does the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) agree that although housing asylum seekers is a factor, it is by no means the main factor? Is it not right to reflect on the impact of the right to buy?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. Interesting though that may be, I remind hon. Members once again that they must confine their remarks to the amendment under discussion.
§ Mr. Foster
I accept, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I am not allowed to say anything in response, other than that I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King).
I have made it clear that my party and I support the amendments. The record will show that they were originally introduced by Liberal Democrats in both 464 Houses of Parliament. We are therefore delighted that they are to form part of important legislation, which I hope will be on the statute book in a very short time.
§ Chris Grayling
I give the amendments a cautionary welcome. I have no doubt that the Minister's words and those of Lord Falconer in the other place about the aspiration underlying the amendments are well founded, but the Government need to be mindful of the consequences of such legislation, not because its motives are wrong, but because if it is implemented thoughtlessly, it could add considerably to the burden faced by local authority officers who are already hard pressed. It is difficult to legislate best practice into existence, which I assume is the aim of the amendments.
Speaking about the amendments in the other place, Lord Falconer said, and the Minister said similarly this afternoon:The concerns centred on the fact that not all local housing authorities deliver a good service when discharging their duties to provide advice and assistance to homeless applicants who have been found not to have a priority need for accommodation or to be intentionally homeless or threatened with homelessness."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 January 2002; Vol. 631, c. 994.]The key words arenot all local housing authorities".Around the country there are many well-run local authorities and housing departments, with first class officers who do as effective a job as they can in extremely difficult circumstances. There is a danger that in the detailed way in which the Government choose to implement the amendments, they risk imposing an undue extra burden on local authorities that are doing a good job. I seek the Minister's reassurance this afternoon that she will endeavour to ensure that that does not happen.
Problems of poor management can never be solved by legislation, but it is all too easy to place an additional burden on a hard-working officer who is already having difficulty getting the job done in the hours available, not because of anything to do with that person's job, but because of a small minority of problem cases in individual authorities.
§ Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton)
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of reports suggesting that, to date, the advice and assistance of some local authorities has been merely to refer people to Shelterline. Is he suggesting that we do not need the amendments? Clearly, the facts deny that view.
§ Chris Grayling
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I am not for a moment suggesting that we do not need the amendments. However, if the Government get the practicality of their implementation wrong, they could place an undue burden on housing officers who are doing a first-rate job. I am sure that he would agree that first-rate authorities are doing a first-rate job in many parts of the country. Such authorities would not countenance delivering an inadequate response to somebody who approached them with genuine need, but would do their best to deliver a practical, effective and 465 proper solution. We need to support such people and guide towards better practice the authorities that take the actions that he describes.
§ Chris Grayling
I fully accept that the role of such legislation and of the amendments is to set a clear signpost for local authorities about what is expected of them. However, difficulties can arise in terms of the minutiae of implementation and how the provisions are put into practice. Many local authorities are delivering best practice. I spoke to a local authority officer today who said, "We are doing these things already; the first thing that we do when somebody comes to us with a problem is sit down, talk through their needs and work out their individual situation, so we can look at the options that are available to them." There is no doubt that that is already happening in many local authorities, although as the hon. Gentleman said, some do not follow such procedures.
Will the Minister explain what local authorities will have to do differently as a result of the amendments? Will they have to follow new procedures and check what they do against new guidelines as they work through the process of greeting somebody? How will the process differ from the way in which they currently handle such matters? Will their work in this area be subject to additional scrutiny? That point is significant, because if officers need to spend more time preparing paperwork for inspection, an additional burden will inevitably be imposed upon them. Thus, the detail of how the Government implement the provisions is extremely important. It is all too easy for a zealous project team to impose on authority officers a pile of paperwork and a process that is vastly too onerous and represents overkill rather than an effective solution.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) mentioned cost and highlighted the situation in London. The process has cost implications, and the Government always need to be mindful that every step they take potentially has such an implication. Costs may arise in terms of man hours rather than direct cash investment, but none the less, the Government need carefully to consider the matter when they think through implementation. In addition, if a case is simple—housing officers deal with some simple and straightforward cases—will the process create much more complexity for applicants? They also need to be mindful of that issue. Furthermore, as hon. Members have mentioned, it is all well and good having an excellent advice process for applicants with genuine needs, but in many parts of the country—my local boroughs of Epsom and Ewell, Reigate and Banstead and Mole Valley certainly fit the bill—the housing options do not necessarily exist to enable officers to deal with the problems that arrive on their doorsteps, even if advice processes are excellent. Regrettably, in the past four or five years, the number of new social houses built in this country has fallen dramatically.
My message to the Minister—I hope that she will respond to some of the points that I have made—is that the Government have a habit of imposing extra work on 466 local authorities. I am still a councillor in the London borough of Merton and I have seen directly that that is the case. It is all too easy for 15 different small initiatives to create a significant block of extra work load for a local authority, especially when they come from different parts of Government. I seek the Minister's assurance that the legislation provides a signpost and will be handled lightly, except in the most pressing cases, and not impose huge amounts of unnecessary bureaucracy and time-consuming work on good, effective and hard-working local authority officers. I seek her assurance that it will be not an imposition on the best, but a route to tackle the worst.
§ Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster)
I, too, will speak briefly, because hon. Members have covered several of the main points.
I share some of the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) as regards the implementation of the provisions. The issue of London, where homelessness is a massive problem, was powerfully discussed by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson). The burden falls occasionally on the shoulders of London Members of Parliament, but most often, unfortunately, on locally elected councillors who do not necessarily have the wherewithal or the time to deal with such a large number of cases. I am worried that the provisions have been insufficiently thought through, and I hope that the Minister will be able to pacify my fears. I agree with the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate that we in London require considerably more resources. I represent a central London seat. Asylum seekers place a great burden on the city of Westminster in relation to housing.
As a quick aside, I want to say that the rough sleepers unit has been a great success during the past three or four years. Although concerns have been expressed about the massaging of figures, that should not detract from its achievements. Ms Casey and the Metropolitan police have played an important role in helping to clear up the streets in central London. I hope that they have done so in an effective and long-term way. I shall move off that subject, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I can see that your tolerance has been taken almost to breaking point.
There is a particularly acute homelessness problem here in London. I hope that consideration will be given to increasing central Government resources or to targeting one or two experimental schemes to ensure that the right policy is put in place, not one that will cost a lot of money and create more bureaucracy further down the line.
The homelessness problem in London turns not only on asylum seekers. Many young people see London as a honeypot—an exciting area to live. They take casual labouring jobs, working initially on a part-time basis, and are then unable to afford to pay rent, start to sleep rough and spiral downwards. That leads to problems deeper than those that are dealt with by housing departments.
Will the Minister provide for an opportunity within a fairly short time—say, two or three years—to judge whether the provisions are working correctly? Will she ensure, through the new burdens principle, that, notwithstanding the remarks of the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), any ongoing problems do not place undue burdens on local council taxpayers here in London?
§ Ms Keeble
Opposition Members' explanation of their position on the Bill was more than a little bogus. It was 467 always a good Bill that advanced the rights of homeless people, which is why it met with such strong support on both sides of the House. We must all recognise that a Bill can be improved in the course of its progress through Parliament; that is what this process is about.
This is an example of a good Bill having been made better by careful scrutiny during its passage. The amendments are a case in point. The issues that they deal with have been argued about right from the start, and we have tabled amendments that address some of the concerns that have been raised. This must be about the fifth or sixth time that we have debated the Bill, but hon. Members are still expressing those concerns. That makes me think that if we went through it another a half a dozen times we would still go on producing refinement after refinement.
This group of amendments is important because it deals with those who are homeless but who do not have priority needs. We all know that the homelessness figures, and those for people living in bed and breakfast accommodation, have been going up. The Government are extremely conscious of those figures, and of the fact that hon. Members on both sides have constantly raised them, and we have taken action to deal with them. I shall not go into the details of that action, because I might be ruled out of order. We have, however, taken action very quickly, and the numbers—hard and sad though they are—are not a patch on those of 10 years ago.
In response to the points made by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) about the priority needs order, I would expect there to be a likelihood that some of the figures could get worse once such orders are in place. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is asking questions about the orders, because draft provisions have been consulted on and were widely known. He must know about the different categories involved, which include homeless 16 and 17-year-olds, care leavers who are vulnerable as a result of having been in care, people who are vulnerable as a result of institutionalisation—including those who have been in custody, about whom some Conservative Members were concerned—and those who are vulnerable as a result of fleeing domestic violence.
§ Mr. Don Foster
I am sure that the Minister will understand that, following the draft provisions and the consultation, the House is still waiting for the Government's response to the consultation. Is the list of categories that she has just outlined to be the final list? If it is, I welcome it warmly—as, I suspect, will the vast majority of those who responded to the consultation—but we have not heard that officially yet.
§ Ms Keeble
I take the hon. Gentleman's point. We have a very good working idea, if I can put it that way, of the categories of people involved in these provisions.
The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) illustrates why these amendments are so important. The advice will be available not only to people with priority needs, which is why it is so important that we improve the quality of this service, and I understand why the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) and others pressed so hard to table amendments of this kind.
468 The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) asked a question about the nature of the advice and what exactly it would mean. The amendments represent progress because they would enshrine in the legislation the processes that should be gone through in giving advice to people who do not have priority needs. That would include making an assessment of their needs, and providing information on the location and sources of certain types of accommodation. The proposals would be effective because they set out the processes that those without priority needs need to go through to get the right quality of advice.
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
The Minister has admitted that, when these categories of priority needs are published, the amount of homeless people with those priority needs will rise. I have told the House today how the figures have risen in the last three years. Is the Minister able to give the House any clear guidance on how far the homelessness figures will rise further as a result of these specific amendments?
§ Ms Keeble
No, that is not possible. The hon. Gentleman will see what I said when he reads Hansard, but what I think I said was that the figures would rise in some areas. It is possible that the work that needs to be done to get the homelessness figures down will produce rapid results, and that by the time the priority needs orders come into effect the figures will have gone down, so that there will be a slight increase at that point from a lower base. It is impossible, however, to give an accurate estimate of the numbers, largely because this involves categories of people who have not been recognised under previous legislation. Therefore, we obviously do not know how many are involved, but common sense tells us that if more people are regarded as homeless and given rights to housing, the numbers are likely to go up. We shall look closely to see what happens in terms of those figures.
§ Chris Grayling
To pick up the Minister's point relating to my comments, will she reassure me that any new process will not require all those authorities that are doing the job properly to make changes, but will set an alternative benchmark for those that are not?
§ Ms Keeble
That depends on whether they are going through the process as it is now. The proposal sets out the procedures that should be gone through to ensure that people who are homeless but not in priority need get the advice and help that they require to secure accommodation. Local authorities will be able to decide quickly as to whether they already go through such a process—the matter is for them to judge—but the proposal represents an effective way to specify outcomes and ensure that people know what they have to do to provide an effective service. More detail will be given in guidance.
On monitoring, as has been said in another place, housing departments undergo best value inspections and work will be done through the new homelessness unit. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate asked about money. Already, £8 million has been allocated to local authorities to administer the new legislation and I understand that discussions are taking place around the possibilities of making additional 469 provision. The spending review process is also in place. That, I hope, deals with the points raised by the hon. Member for Bath.
§ Dr. Iddon
Does my hon. Friend find it staggering, as we on these Benches do, that the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) is whingeing about the extra burden that may be placed on his public sector housing authority? The City of Westminster did everything possible to flog off every council house there. Should not we also remind him that there is the matter of £48 million outstanding? Will the City of Westminster chase—
§ Ms Keeble
I want to make progress, but I shall come back to the hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Member for Bath was right to refer to the Shelter report, which highlights the need to give extra thought to advice for non-priority people. I am pleased that it has been possible to introduce what I think are simple and workable amendments that will improve the quality of service for those groups. He also asked about the decent housing target. The Government have made a huge commitment to that challenge and we are assured through all the local authority returns that we are still on target to meet it.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the relationship between the housing associations and the local authorities and, in particular, responsibility for advice in areas where large-scale stock transfers take place. I have two points to make. First, the Department continues to work closely 470 with the Housing Corporation, at both official and ministerial levels, to ensure that those in social housing are given a good service—a seamless robe, as it were—when that it is humanly possible. Secondly, a number of local authorities do not always appreciate that they will not lose all responsibility for housing functions in their areas just because they have transferred their stock. They will still be responsible for procurement.
I take the point of the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell about the need to have aspirations, while ensuring that they are practical. As I have said, the amendment would guarantee—without giving rise to a great pile of bureaucracy—that those needing advice received it, and that the advice was of a uniform standard throughout the country.
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
May I return the Minister to an issue that was raised before she was interrupted by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and ruled out of order? She said that the Government had provided £8 million in compliance costs. Can she confirm that the money has already been used up in preparations for the Bill? Does she agree with the Association of London Government, which estimates the compliance cost for London alone at £20 million? By extrapolation, we can expect the Bill to cost authorities in England and Wales some £40 million. Are the Government likely to give that amount to local authorities, or will it be yet another of the burdens on authorities that the council tax payer will have to fund?
§ Ms Keeble
As I have said, £8 million has been allowed for and allocated, but I understand that it has not been used up. Obviously, officials are constantly discussing the costs of implementing this and other legislation with local authorities, and we continue to keep the matter under review; but we are committed to funding new burdens, and that commitment has been recognised in this Bill as in others.
The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) thought that the implications of the amendments had not been thought through properly. Some of us may think that they were thought through for rather too long. Certainly it took an inordinately long time for the proposals in the Bill to be accepted. The hon. Member for Bath laughs, probably because he knows how long the discussions have taken.
I realise that Westminster is experiencing serious difficulties—some caused by the disposal of council houses mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon)—relating to homelessness and bed and breakfast accommodation. That is one reason why measures of this kind are so important. Hard though it may be to provide permanent accommodation for homeless people, and to deal with the awfulness of being housed in bed and breakfast accommodation, there is also the category of people who have no housing, who have no priority under the legislation, and who are finding it extremely difficult to find somewhere to live. Those are the people who should benefit from measures such as this, which will enable them to receive advice and be pointed towards accommodation. 471 5.30 pm
I hope that that deals with hon. Members' queries. It is a small, practical but important provision which will go a long way towards improving what is an already good Bill. I commend the amendment to the House.
§ Lords amendment agreed to.