HL Deb 12 November 2001 vol 628 cc369-413

3.8 p.m.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

As many noble Lords will no doubt know, the Homelessness Bill was the first Bill to be introduced in another place in the current Session—a sign of the importance that the Government attach to its provisions.

The Government are committed to strengthening the existing safety net that local housing authorities provide to those who have lost their home or are at risk of becoming homeless. Homelessness often occurs in the wake of other upheavals in people's lives—for instance, the breakdown of a relationship, or health problems—and hits already vulnerable people harder still. The law already requires housing authorities to help those who find themselves homeless through no fault of their own. The provisions of the Bill will encourage authorities to assess their performance and see how they can target their assistance more effectively.

The Homelessness Bill is therefore intended to secure the prevention of homelessness as well as its relief. Clauses 1 and 2 of the Bill will require local housing authorities to undertake a comprehensive review of homelessness in their district. This is not simply a head-counting exercise to determine the number of cases in the district and likely future levels of homelessness. The reviews will also require a good, hard look at what is already being done—not only in the public sector but also in the private and voluntary sectors—to prevent homelessness and to ensure that accommodation and appropriate support are available for those who are homeless; and to help people who need support to avoid becoming homeless.

Clauses 1 and 3 of the Bill will require each housing authority to draw up a strategy for preventing homelessness in its area and ensuring that adequate resources are available to help those who become homeless on the basis of the evidence gathered in its review. These strategies should embrace not only local authorities' relevant housing and social services functions, but also—with their agreement—the activities of other bodies, including voluntary organisations, that are working in the area to prevent homelessness or assist homeless people. The Bill encourages a multi-agency approach to tackling homelessness as part of these strategies. To ensure that they continue accurately to reflect the situation in each authority's area, strategies will have to be reviewed at least every five years.

The Bill also modifies the existing homelessness provisions of the Housing Act 1996 to strengthen the protection available for homeless people. The provisions of the Bill will also offer greater protection to those who are unintentionally homeless but do not have a priority need. Housing authorities will be under a clearer duty to provide advice and assistance in such cases, and will have a new power under Clause 5 which will enable them to secure suitable accommodation for this client group, where they have sufficient resources available.

Clause 6 will ensure that all applicants who are unintentionally homeless and have a priority need must be secured suitable accommodation for as long as necessary until a settled home becomes available for them. It will also remove the current limit of two years on the main duty of housing authorities to secure suitable accommodation for homeless people in priority need.

Authorities are currently prevented from using their own accommodation to provide temporary housing for homeless people for more than two years in three. That restriction can be very unhelpful, putting an extra obstacle in authorities' way as they seek to find short-term accommodation for people whom they are obliged by law to accommodate. The relevant section of the Housing Act 1996, Section 207, is therefore repealed in Schedule 2 to the Bill, which will give authorities greater flexibility to meet homeless people's short-term housing needs.

Clause 8 of the Bill will ensure that homeless applicants have the right to ask the housing authority to review the suitability of any accommodation they are offered without having to risk being made homeless again if the authority upholds its initial decision. That will help to ensure that all applicants are offered settled accommodation which is suitable for them.

At present, if other accommodation is available locally in the private sector, authorities can do no more than provide advice and assistance to those who approach them for help. Clause 9 of the Bill will remove this restriction on authorities.

Clause 10 of the Bill will clarify the obligations of local housing authorities towards people who have suffered violence or have been threatened with it. It will provide that applicants who would be at risk of any form of violence if they remained in their current home must be treated as homeless. Moreover, authorities will not be able to refer applicants to an authority in another area if they would be at risk of further violence there.

Under Clause 11 of the Bill, applicants will also have improved rights of appeal to the county court where they are dissatisfied with the local authority's homelessness decision. The court will be able to extend the 21-day period during which such applications can be made if there is a good reason to do so. Furthermore, applicants will have a new right to appeal to the county court if they are dissatisfied with a decision by the authority not to continue to accommodate them pending an appeal to the county court on the substantive homelessness decision. At present, local authority decisions not to accommodate can be considered only in the High Court by judicial review. The new powers will obviate the need for two different courts—the county court considering the appeal on the substantive homelessness decision and the High Court looking at the decision not to accommodate—to be involved in the same homelessness case at the same time.

Perhaps I may break from outlining the detail of the Bill to refer to a relevant point. We have also consulted on proposals to make an order under the Housing Act 1996 to extend the categories of homeless households who have a priority need for suitable short-term accommodation. The categories currently include families with dependent children, households where someone is pregnant, and households where someone is vulnerable as a result of old age, mental or physical disability or some other special reason.

We propose to extend the definition of priority need to cover 16 and 17 year-olds, people who are vulnerable as a result of being forced from their homes by violence, young people aged 18 to 21 who have previously been in care, and people who are vulnerable as a result of having spent time in local authority care, the Armed Forces or prison. I should note that the Government are firmly of the view that 16 and 17 year-olds belong, wherever possible, with their families, but in cases where a young person's relationship with that family has irrevocably broken down, they must be found suitable accommodation and support. The order will ensure this.

The order will also provide that people who are vulnerable as a result of having served a custodial sentence must be treated as having a priority need for accommodation. This proposal has been portrayed by some as giving ex-prisoners priority for housing over families. Let me make it absolutely clear that the order will do nothing of the kind. Being treated as having a priority need for accommodation under the homelessness legislation does not give anyone priority for the allocation of long-term social housing. The process of allocating long-term social tenancies is quite separate from the operation of the homelessness safety net.

Perhaps I may also remind noble Lords that ex-offenders without appropriate accommodation are twice as likely to reoffend as those who have settled housing. In the long run, it is many times more cost-effective to assist ex-offenders to go straight, in order to be able to work and to contribute to society.

I shall be frank. The provisions of the Bill and the priority needs order are intended to provide a safety net which is broad enough and strong enough to ensure that all those who are most vulnerable within our society will be provided with accommodation if they become homeless through no fault of their own. The result of that will doubtless mean that even more people will be recorded as statutorily homeless. But we must re-evaluate what the homelessness figures mean. These are people who are being helped; they are no longer homeless. Where the system currently fails is in the number of homeless people who are not covered by the current legislation and are therefore invisible in the statistics. Bringing their circumstances to light is the first step in securing settled housing for them, and we make no apology for doing so.

The Government's immediate priority must be to ensure that such people have somewhere suitable to live in the short-term. We need to work towards preventing homelessness occurring in the first place and ensure that sufficient accommodation is available so that those for whom homelessness cannot be avoided do not have to spend long periods in unsatisfactory temporary accommodation. We are aware of the plight of families placed, for want of a better option, in temporary bed and breakfast accommodation by authorities. We have set up the Bed and Breakfast Unit to work with authorities and other stakeholders to address the problem. The unit aims to reduce within two years the use in England of such accommodation, particularly in relation to families with children.

The next priority is to improve the quality of existing homes and to increase the supply of affordable accommodation. Last year, we published a comprehensive policy for housing in The Way Forward for Housing. The Government are committed to ensuring that everyone has the opportunity of living in a decent home. We are increasing investment in affordable housing through the Housing Corporation to over £1.2 billion by 2003–04, almost double the level in 2000–01.

There is also a part for the private sector to play in meeting housing demand. The Housing Investment Programme and the Best Value in Housing regime encourage local authorities to set out clear strategies to tackle empty property. We fully support the action of the Empty Homes Agency to encourage and cajole local authorities to implement effective strategies and will refer to empty property strategies in the revised guidance on homelessness. Such strategies are an opportunity for authorities to assess the potential of empty homes in their area and seek to engage their owners to bring back the homes into use. As a last resort, local housing authorities already have powers to make compulsory purchases of empty properties.

I should also like to touch on the operation of the Children Act 1989 with regard to homeless families. I have no doubt that some noble Lords will be aware of the concerns of Shelter regarding this issue, having followed discussion of the Bill in another place or perhaps having seen recent media coverage. These concerns were prompted by two recent court cases in which the obligations of a social services authority under the Children Act 1989 to provide accommodation and financial support for children in need were considered.

The Government take this matter very seriously and are giving it careful consideration. It has become clear to me that we need further evidence of how the provisions of the existing Act work in practice. I intend to meet representatives of local government and social services very shortly to obtain that information, and I shall report to the House in due course. In particular, I shall report to the House before the Bill has completed its passage through this House.

I return to the Bill. Its provisions also cover the allocation of social housing by local housing authorities. The Bill improves the rights of new applicants for local authority housing and existing social tenants seeking a transfer. Under Clause 13, local housing authorities will have to give proper consideration to all applications, whether these are for a first-time tenancy or for a transfer, and the current requirement to maintain a housing register will be abolished.

Clause 13 of the Bill will also replace the power which enables local housing authorities to carry out so-called "blanket exclusions" of whole categories of would-be applicants with a much more focused power, which will enable authorities to decide to treat individual applicants as ineligible, but only where they meet stringent criteria. These are that the applicant, or a member of his or her household, has been guilty of unacceptable behaviour; that the behaviour was serious enough to make the applicant unsuitable to be a tenant of the authority; and that this behaviour still renders the applicant unsuitable to be a tenant at the time the application for housing is considered.

This provision is intended to allow authorities to reject only those cases where the applicant, or a member of his or her household, has a record of serious unacceptable behaviour and has made no efforts to reform. We shall make clear in statutory guidance that unacceptable behaviour will not include, for example, minor rent arrears, and, in particular, it will not include rent arrears which are the result of delays in the payment of housing benefits which were outside the control of the applicant.

It is important that human rights are respected. Clause 13 provides that an applicant who finds that his or her application has been thrown out on these grounds will have the right to ask for a review of the decision.

I know that concerns have been expressed about these provisions. Local housing authorities will, in some cases, need to perform a delicate balancing act when considering using these powers. This has certainly been the most difficult aspect of the Bill to shape. However, I believe that we have got the balance about right.

Clause 15 will give authorities the flexibility to draw up transparent allocation policies which reflect their local circumstances. This clause will also give applicants the right to obtain information about how their application is being handled and to ask for a review of key decisions by the authority.

The Government want to see authorities move towards allocation systems which allow both new applicants and existing tenants a greater degree of choice from the available accommodation which fits their needs. We believe that this is the best way to ensure that social tenancies are sustained and communities are maintained. We are therefore funding some 27 pilot schemes at present to test different approaches to choice-based letting. While these schemes are led by local housing authorities, there is a very strong emphasis on ensuring that they work in partnership with registered social landlords and other stakeholders.

The Bill and the priority need order, to which I referred, are at the heart of the Government's wider efforts to tackle homelessness. The Government are determined to ensure that people who become homeless through no fault of their own should be helped to secure suitable, affordable accommodation. The Homelessness Bill is vital to this work. It will strengthen the safety net, ensure that local housing authorities take a strategic approach to addressing homelessness in their areas, and allow authorities to be responsive to local circumstances in their allocation of social housing. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Falconer of Thoroton.)

3.25 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, in rising to the Dispatch Box for the first time as a shadow spokesman, I declare an interest by reminding the House that I am an elected member of a London local authority. I shall try not to refer too much to that local authority, although it has a good record on most aspects of its services—including housing—and, like all other local authorities, it will be greatly affected by the Bill before us today.

The provisions which make up the Bill were snatched from the jaws of the death of the Homes Bill, which, rightly, bit the dust as a result of the general election. In general, the provisions have been supported by the Opposition in both Houses, but not without reservations about some of the practical implications associated with them.

Increasing the priority categories—including now the Invisible"—which qualify for permanent housing over and above those already in the 1996 Act, however justified this may be, will have an enormous impact on local authorities' ability to carry out their duties. As, indeed, will the requirement to provide temporary accommodation for as long as it takes to find suitable permanent accommodation which meets the requirements of the homeless person—a position which can be further affected by the provisions for review and appeal of housing authority decisions.

I am speaking only of London at the moment—although I am sure the situation is reflected in other metropolitan authorities—where an ever increasing number of vulnerable, threatened or homeless people are already in temporary accommodation, often, as the Minister said, entirely unsuited to their own situation or that of their families. They continue to remain in it because of the scarcity of reasonable, permanent housing into which they can be settled.

In England alone, the number of households living in bed and breakfast accommodation has risen nearly three-fold since 1997, from 4,100 in the first quarter of that year to 11,340 in the second quarter of 2001. The cost is phenomenal, both in terms of financial outlay and human suffering. Extending the current categories of those deemed to be a priority will inevitably increase the current tensions in the demand for and availability of both temporary and permanent housing. No amount of government exhortations will change that situation in the short term.

As the Minister said, Clause 13 abolishes the duty on local authorities to maintain a housing register. If this is done, one can only question what requirements there will be for them to record applications made to them under the new provisions and their outcomes. In truth, the removal of the requirement for a housing register will not be mourned, particularly by those who have been on the waiting list for years. However, their chances of finding housing in the statutory sector is not likely to improve as the erasing of the housing register is, in reality, an admission that councils will not be able to consider offering housing to any but those on the priority list.

This, of course, has the additional effect of making it difficult to create a balanced community. There is a great need to ensure that, in estates or areas in which statutory housing is predominant, there are sufficient residents who do not need support themselves and who can help provide stability for the more vulnerable living alongside them.

With this in mind, and conscious that many local authorities have divested themselves of part or all of their housing stock to housing associations or other voluntary social landlords and many working closely with landlords in the private sector, it is odd that the duty to assist with the housing of homeless people is not to be statutorily extended to them. I note from the debate in another place the proposal, confirmed by the Minister in his opening remarks, of a requirement for housing associations and registered social landlords to co-operate with the local authority. It is proposed, however, that this will be laid down in regulation and not in statute. We shall wish to test that concept during our further consideration of the Bill.

I said that the Government consider this matter capable of being directed by regulation, and I understand that consultation has just started. However, I should draw attention to our concern that the regulations are not currently available for consideration. I seek an assurance from the Minister that they will be published before Committee stage so that they can be taken into account.

The Government have also indicated that they will prepare guidelines on the definition of "vulnerable groups". These may be contained in the order referred to by the Minister, but are presently not available. I seek the same assurance that they, too, will be published before Committee stage. I do not see how we can properly consider the provisions if we do not have access to that information.

The designation and rationale of the extended categories of those in priority need are fundamental to the Bill and will have an immense impact on how local authorities implement it. It seems, at the very least, lax that the draft regulations on both matters are not available. It would also have been helpful had the Minister published the guidelines on how the Government plan to deal with private sector rogue landlords, and also their proposals for the licensing of houses in multiple occupation.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has published a consultation paper on private sector rogue landlords which I shall make available. It was published two or three weeks ago.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his intervention.

As I suggested, private sector landlords have an important role to play in helping to resolve the problems of homelessness. Therefore, we should welcome seeing and discussing the licensing of HMOs in particular, since a "light touch" regime should mean that there continues to be low-cost rented housing of a good and regulated standard in the private sector. That is an immensely important protection against homelessness for those who are able to live in that kind of accommodation. Such accommodation will be vital, since the proposed new subsection (2A) to Section 167 of the Housing Act 1996 within Clause 15 of the Bill suggests—I believe for the first time—that access to statutory housing could be means-tested.

The homelessness strategy which local authorities will be required to produce will have to cover not only their plans for identifying and supporting the homeless or putative homeless and the provision of advice, but also allocations and their ability to meet the totality of the needs of those presenting to them. It will, in truth, be a major part of any "housing" strategy—because one cannot be carried out without the other. I wonder, therefore, why the term is not "housing strategy" or "homeless and allocations strategy". Indeed, either might have provided a better title for the Bill.

The plight of the homeless moves us all. The sight of young people—and often those who are not so young—sitting at night in particular, under sleeping bags in doorways, in all weathers, is unacceptable. The Rough Sleepers Unit has done an excellent job. I believe that there is yet another consultation in progress, which will not (once again) be completed within the time-scale of the Bill, on its future. But it is of great relevance to the legislation.

The good intentions behind the Bill are manifest, and are supported as such. Its contents must be dealt with against a background of falling numbers as regards new social housing. According to the DETR, the figures were down, from 150,000 in the period 1993–96 to 95,000 in the period 1997–2000. There is a need to improve the administration of housing benefit. Some local authorities are not performing at all well and should be relieved of their responsibility in this area. The number of empty homes stands at an estimated three-quarters of a million in all sectors. Each of these aspects can contribute to homelessness.

We welcome, however, the recognition that there are people whose anti-social behaviour is such that they put themselves beyond the need for further consideration by the local authority from whose accommodation they have been evicted. Again, there is a suggestion of more statutory guidelines. And can we please see those?

The Bill is a many-headed hydra. Although, we support it in general, during its passage we shall want to test some of its assumptions and its practical application.

3.35 p.m.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, I begin by declaring my interests. I am a president of the National Housing Federation, president of the National Housing Forum and a patron of the Empty Homes Agency.

The speed with which this important piece of legislation has hit the tracks in this Session is in stark contrast to its slow progress in the previous one. We welcome that change. We are especially glad the Part I "fell off" along the track. Nevertheless, it is a quarter of a century since the Liberal MP, Stephen Ross, piloted the first Housing (Homeless Persons) Act through Parliament in the form of a Private Member's Bill. Despite a substantial increase in our national wealth since the 1977 Act, there are still many homeless people on our streets and in our communities.

The Minister outlined the Bill's purpose, and he knows that we agree with, and welcome, much that it contains. However, he will be aware from the speeches made in this House and by my colleagues in another place when the previous Bill received its Second Reading, that there are still some matters on which we should like to make progress.

Perhaps I may deal first with allocations. The Bill sets out a new framework for the allocation of social housing. At present, many local authorities operate policies that deny people in need access to housing for reasons of rent arrears. That is often connected with the maladministration of housing benefit.

I welcome the Ministers remarks today, and the Government's housing Green Paper stated that the intention was to put an end to these types of practices. However, despite the Minister's words, we on these Benches are not convinced that the Government have got these matters quite right. We shall seek to press amendments preventing applicants being deemed ineligible for accommodation before their needs have been assessed. We shall also put forward amendments defining the circumstances in which local authorities can reduce the priority given to applicants. I welcome the Ministers remarks on that point. We shall also propose amendments in relation to the notification of priority given and the right to a review of such decisions. We want to strike a balance between meeting housing need and providing local authorities with the discretion not to house anti-social tenants.

We shall continue to pursue amendments regarding accommodation for applicants taking up their statutory right to a review of their housing need. Local authorities have a power to do that, but, as the Bill stands, an applicant for a review must appeal to the High Court if the local authority will not house that person. We believe that the appeal should be to the county court—not only in the interests of justice, but as a matter of consistency in administration.

We shall propose an amendment to give homeless people a reasonable length of time to consider their decision on a final offer of accommodation. Some local authorities give as little as 24 hours. Given the importance of ensuring that tenants need to be able to sustain their tenancies, I am at a loss to understand why the Government have been reluctant to concede this matter.

I turn briefly to provisions for dealing with non-priority homeless people. Again, I welcome the Minister's remarks. But we are not convinced that the statutory duties are strong enough to ensure a consistent, adequate standard of help and advice for this group.

I do not expect the noble and learned Lord to give definitive answers on these matters today. I should welcome an opportunity to discuss them with him before the next stage of the Bill.

There is another area of the Bill where we have some concerns and that is the role of registered social landlords. With registered social landlords set to overtake local authorities as the largest providers of social housing by 2004 it is vital that we have a clear and fair framework for their role in helping local authorities to meet housing need in their area. I am sure the Minister is aware that Shelter in particular has concerns in that area. The National Housing Federation is concerned about the accuracy of some of the figures for housing need lettings by registered social landlords when assisting local authorities. I hope that we can also discuss that matter before the Committee stage.

I now turn to some of the wider issues that we believe will influence the effectiveness of this legislation in tackling homelessness. I was particularly pleased to hear the Minister refer to the problem with the Children Act. I also read the article which appeared, I believe, in the Observer a week or so ago. It certainly had shades of "Cathy Come Home". I believe that the heading referred to homeless families losing their children.

I turn to other government measures. We welcome the new proposals and the consultation on the regulations to extend priority need to homeless vulnerable groups. I am particularly concerned about those who have suffered domestic violence. That matter has not been dealt with by the Government as quickly as many of us were led to believe would be the case. I should like some assurances from the Minister that the regulations will dovetail in every way with the Bill. It is clear from experience with the Rough Sleepers Unit that such groups need quality aftercare to sustain their tenancies and that those with drug and alcohol related problems need good rehabilitation facilities. That is why I mention once again the Government's Supporting People programme. It needs to be effective and adequately funded to back up everything we are talking about.

As the Minister said, we expect the Government to publish a national homelessness strategy in December 2001. As we have heard today, local authorities will also be required to draw up their own strategies. In both cases we believe—I echo here what the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said—that these are vital strategies. They must not be add-on strategies; they must be an integral part of wider housing policy and provision. It is important that local authorities are required to consult closely on these plans with registered social landlords for them to be effective.

Previous speakers have mentioned the dreadful effects of temporary bed-and-breakfast accommodation. We welcome the fact that the Government are setting up a unit to tackle that. However, the good intentions behind the Bill and the various projects I have discussed will not be realised unless the supply of affordable housing is increased and unless we have an efficient and streamlined system of housing benefit.

The total housing stock of local authorities and registered social landlords has decreased by something like 150,000 units since 1996. Shelter believes that 100,000 new units need to be built each year while Alan Holmans of Cambridge University estimates the figure to be 80,000 to 85,000. The former DETR predicted that only 35,000 new units would be built each year. The reality is that last year only 17,000 units were built. That is the scale of the problem. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord can tell us what resources for new homes he has argued for with the Chancellor and what the prospects are for housing in the Chancellor's pre-Budget report to be issued in a couple of week's time.

As has already been mentioned, there is much poor accommodation in the private rented sector. Nationally, we have three-quarters of a million empty homes, about 600,000 of which are in the private sector. As others have said, we recognise that the private rented sector plays an important role in meeting housing need, but it is the most economically and socially disadvantaged people who often end up in the poorest housing. A long promised first step to improving such housing would be a statutory scheme for the licensing of houses in multiple occupation. The Government are aware that they will have an opportunity to keep their promise by backing just such a scheme as part of Dr Des Turner's Private Member's Bill on energy conservation. As a Brighton MP he has much experience of that housing sector. I was pleased to hear the Minister's comments on empty properties. I urge him to consider some other suggestions t hat he did not mention such as equalisation of VAT on new build and refurbishment, higher council tax rates on empty properties and a new housing market renewal fund.

I have probably detained the House long enough. In the ensuing couple of hours I look forward very much to hearing the valuable personal knowledge of my noble friend Lord Fearn when he makes his maiden speech. My noble friend Lady Hamwee will bring her expertise on London and regional government to the debate.

I end by stating where we on these Benches stand on this issue. We believe that everyone should be able to live in a decent, affordable home within a strong community. But we also have made it clear that if current housing pressures are not tackled, homelessness will rise and that will undermine not only this piece of legislation but also the other initiatives to tackle poverty and social exclusion. Housing is a valuable investment not just for the people who live in it but also for their communities. I believe that it is a vital part of a successful and flourishing economy. We welcome the Bill and look forward to taking part in its further stages.

3.47 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Guildford

My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the Churches National Housing Coalition. As such perhaps I may say how much we welcome the Bill. Both in terms of professional commitment and the huge task undertaken by volunteers, the faith communities have for a long time taken significant action on behalf of homeless people. Having seen a similar Bill fail because of the onslaught of the general election, I hope that this Bill will be expedited by us all with speed; it is needed.

In 1988 I became what was then known as Provost of Sheffield. At my first celebration of Holy Communion one December Tuesday morning, six of us gathered at the Lord's Table. Across the Cathedral from us in the south aisle sat a further six people, all homeless men seeking shelter from a bitter December morning. They brought with them six different stories of alcohol problems, mental health problems, family breakdown, unemployment and of their personal breakdowns following their experiences in the last war. When the Cathedral started to offer a coherent service to such people we quickly found ourselves meeting the needs of up to 40 people at any one time, of all ages, both sexes and of every social background.

When I moved to Guildford in 1994 I discovered that there were already in place in that town a number of excellent projects for homeless people. We soon added to them in Farnham and Woking and other parts of Surrey and north-east Hampshire which formed the diocese. Even in the midst of prosperity and success there were those whose lives had so collapsed that they were in effect homeless. Homeless people are to be found everywhere.

The Bill offers the possibility of a strategic approach by local and national government. It is good news that local authorities will be required to publish reviews and strategic documents. I understand that a national strategy paper is due to appear in December. We look forward to hearing more on that. We similarly welcome the targets seeking to reduce by two-thirds the number of rough sleepers by April of next year.

I am sure that it is not just people in faith communities and churches who have been scandalised and offended in recent years by the growth of the number of people sleeping on our streets or, as clergy sometimes discover in their pastoral ministry, by families seeking to live in homes without a stick of furniture, with no resources, often unable to heat their homes. These things are an offence in a society of such great wealth and opportunity.

We have long needed a national and consistently-applied strategy. Across the political spectrum housing policy has been a Cinderella for many decades. We look for all-party support as we seek to build up a coherent national strategy consistently applied.

When considering the needs of all homeless people, I hope that Ministers will assure us that they will develop strategic plans to include non-priority homeless people—single people, for example, below retirement age; and families whose children have now grown up.

I agree with the comments of the noble Baroness. I, too, want to press the Minister about the reference in new Section 160A to "unacceptable behaviour". People we have dealt with in our own ministry include not only those who do not pay but also the mentally ill and those with alcohol or drug problems. It is easy for local authorities to refer to "unacceptable behaviour" with the result that the needs of some of the most vulnerable people in our society are not met.

I support the comments about the need for the issue to be viewed in a wider setting. Those of us who live in the South East know that we face a serious crisis with lack of sufficient low cost and affordable housing to meet the needs even of those in employment serving our public services. It would be good to know that the Government have coherent and achievable plans to meet what is becoming a major crisis in the south of England. Failure to do so will ensure that any strategy designed to deal with the homeless will not succeed.

I conclude by repeating our warm welcome for the Bill. We wish it success and we pray that it might bring good news to some of the most vulnerable people and families in our society.

3.53 p.m.

Lord Fearn

My Lords, I would normally speak on tourism and most people expect me to do so. However, when considering my maiden speech in this House, I decided that homelessness and especially homeless young people is a subject dear to my heart and should take priority.

Some time ago I slept with Jeremy Irons in a cardboard box on the steps of Westminster Cathedral. Half way through the night a group of very young people said to me, "This is a gimmick, isn't it?" I had always felt that it was. They asked, "Why don't you get out among the real homeless?" As a member of a local authority for 38 years—as I am still—and as housing spokesman in another place at that time I decided that I had better do so. I went to the hostel of the Simon Community, working in London. It caters mainly for the elderly. It was and is doing an excellent job. Members of that community invited me to go out in their van to see for myself. I did so for a few nights. On the first night, in February, it was snowing heavily. They took me to a park in the middle of an affluent community with many buildings and many businesses. There were 214 homeless young people there. I know that the figure was 214 because I counted them. I thought that I was going to meet druggies and alcoholics. However, having spoken to them all, there was none. I thought, "They're all unemployed". I asked; and the majority was not unemployed. Those people had never been able to get together the three months' rental which the Rachman society still demands in this city. I followed up the investigation and found that that was so.

So we must not always say that those young people between 17 and 25 are suffering from drugs, alcohol and disease. They are not. They cannot afford rental unless seven or eight of them band together to live in two rooms. That does not apply only to cities—I have visited Liverpool where voluntary and church organisations do great work among the homeless—but also to towns like Southport which has an affluent society. It is a beautiful town of 100,000 people. It is a seaside town with 12 miles of beach. There is plenty of housing but probably of the wrong kind. We have managed to buck the trend of the tourism downturn. We now have 4 million day visitors. It is a nice town.

However, there is another scene: the young homeless. I have been a member of Light for Life, a church organisation, which goes out among them. I am President of the Schizophrenia Fellowship. In the Schizophrenia Fellowship drop-in centre it is fine at 6.30 every night. But after 6.30 the young people are again out on the streets. There are not many in our town but they are there.

Every two months at midnight my doorbell rings. A young chap leans on the door—he is a very decent type and has been coming regularly for nearly two years—and asks, "Can you find me accommodation?" Every two months I find him bed and breakfast accommodation. He does not stay there for more than three or four days. He disappears again and we find him back under the pier. He cannot go under the pier at present because a heritage grant is making it one of the best piers in Great Britain—and I am one of those Peers! It is a beautiful pier but the young chap cannot go there now; he has gone to a garden I know of. I asked him, "What do you really want?" He said, "All I want is a place of my own". He does not want a hostel. Many of them do not want hostels. They would like a unit, a unit that could be provided, if the Bill does its job properly, by the local authority.

Having been a member of two local authorities—I still am after 38 years— know that that is not happening and probably will not happen unless more resources are put behind the Bill. In saying "more resources", I include probably the best organisations for solving the homelessness problem among young people: the housing associations. Wherever possible, they have steamed ahead; they are the only ones who have taken the risk and who have had the courage to give young people single units. Therefore, if we have any resources to spare, not necessarily through the local authorities but certainly through central government, they should be placed where they can be best used. I believe that the housing associations meet that need.

In my area we have a housing association. For two years I did not know that it existed, until someone in the Schizophrenia Fellowship said, "I have a unit, Quest Housing". Quest Housing is now spreading and is doing a great job in providing those units. There are others. For example, in London there is Camden Housing, which has also taken the initiative in providing homes for single, young people—young people who are on their own. I have had figures, details and documents from Centrepoint, which is an organisation that is also doing the right thing by young people, and CDS Liverpool has the STEPS system in place now, providing single units for young people.

As the Bill passes through the House I hope that single, young people will always be remembered and that something, not necessarily in relation to local authorities but probably in relation to housing associations, will emerge so that we can, once and for all, clear what is the "big issue".

4.2 p.m.

Baroness Massey of Darwen

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Fearn, and to congratulate him on his most informed and moving maiden speech. He has spoken with real feeling and, amazingly, without the need for notes. The noble Lord, Lord Fearn, is a Peer from Southport and, as a fellow Lancastrian, I can assert that that is one of the many points in his favour.

For many years he worked for the Royal Bank of Scotland before becoming the MP for his local town. Following that he was Liberal Democrat spokesman for health and tourism. Clearly, he has a tremendous sense of civic pride and loyalty, being a local councillor and being involved in many local activities, including sports and drama. His wide interests and dedication to a number of political and social issues will make him a great asset to your Lordships' House.

Already much has been said about the Homelessness Bill here, in another place and by numerous concerned organisations. Shelter says that the Bill, if implemented effectively … offers the best opportunity in a generation to make real progress in tackling and preventing homelessness in all its forms". I welcome, like other noble Lords, the duty of local housing authorities to formulate strategies based on reviews. I welcome the Minister's emphasis in relation to vulnerable people. I shall not repeat what has been said, but I want to focus, as did the noble Lord, Lord Fearn, on the homelessness of young people. I am reassured that the Minister has already referred to concerns that I shall express.

The report in the Observer mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, gives horrendous examples of homeless families being threatened with having their children taken away following a High Court ruling in May. Perhaps the Minister will respond further to that if he can.

The Children Act 1989 places the needs of children above all other considerations when offering council services, and has regularly been invoked to provide homeless families with permanent accommodation. In legal terms, the needs of children, are "paramount". However, recent court cases brought by the London boroughs of Lambeth, where I live, and Barnet have successfully challenged the Act. Homeless families have been told that the whole family cannot be helped and that the children of the families should go into care. That is because both Lambeth and Barnet are short of accommodation for homeless families. Presumably, other councils could follow suit and separate families. That loophole must be dealt with.

One woman threatened with eviction has two children aged 10 and 15. She has been told that she became intentionally homeless when her former partner sold their house and spent the proceeds. As she said to the Observer, That doesn't make any difference now". She is terrified about what may become of her and the children. Another woman in the East Midlands was told that her children, one aged three months and the other six years old, should be taken into care after she moved into a hostel for the homeless. She is still breastfeeding the baby. That is punitive and unacceptable.

A large body of research shows that separating children from their parents, particularly at a young age, is seriously damaging, both emotionally and psychologically. It is shocking that homeless people, who may have suffered great misfortunes in their lives, should be punished through their children. It is shocking that local councils should allow that to happen for purely financial reasons, and that they should play with children's lives. Such action could have the most dreadful consequences.

What would children say if they were consulted about this situation? Consultation is enshrined in both the letter and the spirit of the Children Act. Some children would be too young to comment, but older children would be concerned about their families, their schooling, their relationships and their future. The Department of Health Social Care Group has been instrumental in listening to children following appalling scandals in the childcare system. I suggest that we are heading for new scandals if local authorities needlessly separate children from their parents.

Homelessness does not necessarily involve abuse or neglect of children. It means being unfortunate enough to have nowhere to live. It calls for support, not punishment of the worst kind. Deprivation can relate to more than physical deprivation, and neglect to more than material neglect. I suggest that separating children from their parents could result in serious emotional neglect and deprivation.

This Government have shown themselves to be concerned about the well-being and achievement of children. There will be an overarching children's strategy. There is already a Children and Young People's Unit, whose remit is to co-ordinate the strategy and to, join up Government policy and thinking on children and young people". There is a Children's Fund; a Social Exclusion Unit, a Minister and a Cabinet Committee on Children. The Sure Start programme helps and supports families at a local level. All that is progressive and visionary, but surely we cannot allow paradoxes to creep in. The rulings on the rights of homeless people and their children are paradoxes of a particularly nasty kind.

I look to my noble and learned friend the Minister for some enlightenment on whether his earlier statements will resolve the issue, or if there could be an amendment to the Bill or to the Children Act 1989 to confirm that when a child's need is expressed, that need can be related to the accommodation of them and their families, whether or not they are regarded as intentionally homeless.

This constructive Bill will remove many anomalies. I hope that during its passage we shall resolve this essential and urgent issue of the potential separation of parents and their children.

4.10 p.m.

Lord Best

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Fearn, particularly as he has brought personal testimony and experience of homelessness on the ground. That will act as an antidote to the dry statistical material that I shall bring before your Lordships. I declare my interest at the outset as director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. I am responsible for many—I almost said innumerable—reports on the subject of homelessness over the years. From that perspective I want to share some thoughts with your Lordships.

I greatly welcome the Bill, which picks up a number of points that have emerged from some of those many reports. It is an excellent Bill and it will do much good. I have asked myself whether it addresses some of the underlying causes of homelessness, because if we treat only the superficial manifestations of problems, we shall never really solve this huge national issue. I feel that the Bill speaks to some of those underlying causes.

Sometimes, homelessness is a result of personal or family circumstances. The Bill speaks to some of those circumstances, giving people rights and opportunities where they might not have had them. Sometimes, homelessness is caused by the behaviour of the people who supply or finance housing. That includes private landlords and even the social housing landlords, which used to be mostly local authorities but today are often housing associations. Shelter and others have expressed concern about the behaviour of some landlords. The Minister has already made some reassuring comments on that score.

I suggest that the main underlying cause of homelessness is the fact that there are simply not enough homes to go round in some areas of high demand. That includes London and the South East, but there are many other hotspots elsewhere, including rural areas and my own city of York, in the far north, and other places. If there are too few homes for the number of households, somebody will miss out—usually the poorest and most vulnerable in society—and homelessness will follow.

My analysis comes from the statistical evidence that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has been able to work its way through. I want to share my thoughts on whether the current shortages, particularly in high-pressure areas, are likely to get worse over the next 10 to 20 years, or whether we are likely to see some substantial improvements.

I shall try to spare your Lordships some of the most boring statistics, but the number of households formed each year continues relentlessly to grow year by year. Even though our birth rate is relatively low, we go on generating more households. One reason for that is that we live longer and do not vacate our homes for the next generation as quickly as we used to. That is good news for many of us, but it has housing implications.

We also have a great increase in the number of single-person households. That trend seems likely to grow. Nowadays, people settle down and form couples in their 30s, not their 20s. Some people choose not to marry at all. Other people marry but divorce or separate later. We go on generating more single-person households.

Then there is the net increase of people moving into this country, compared with the number who move out. New statistics to be published by the Office for National Statistics this Thursday, of which we have already had a preview in a press release, show that the actuaries side of the ONS has uprated its figures on the inward flow of people to this country compared with the numbers who leave. That will also bring extra pressures to bear. Those pressures may be welcome in other regards—we wish London to be a great international centre and we need people to do many jobs in our service industries and throughout the economy—but we must acknowledge that if we have more people coming into the country than leaving, that has housing implications.

To cut to the chase, when those factors are added together, 200,000 extra homes are needed each year just to cope with the growth in the number of households that are formed each year. Even achieving those 200,000 extra homes each year will only leave us in the same position as we are in today on homelessness and housing shortage, as manifested in hostels for homeless people, bed-and-breakfast hotels and the rest. If we want to improve on that position, we must increase the output of housing to meet the demand from the households that will be formed and to make inroads into the backlog of unmet housing need. That will bring us to a realistic figure of perhaps 225,000 extra homes required each year.

As things stand, is it likely that we will achieve those numbers in the output of the house-building industry and the provision by the housing associations and registered social landlords? That seems a very slim prospect at present. Last year, the total number of new homes provided came to 177,000—the lowest number since 1924, excluding the war years. The economy is motoring pretty well, there is lower unemployment, more people are able to purchase their own home and mortgage interest rates are relatively low, yet our house-building and construction industry had a poor year. The figures for this year look only marginally better.

The housing associations have not been having a good time as providers on the social side. The number of homes that they own has grown, but that is because they have been taking over council stock, not because they have been building and producing new homes in sufficient numbers. We were delighted to hear the announcement before the election that the allocation from the Housing Corporation to the housing associations was to be doubled, more or less, over the next two or three years. That will make a difference, but not anything like enough of a difference to cover the total number of new homes that are likely to be needed in the next 10 to 20 years to meet the additional numbers of households and to make inroads into the backlog of unmet need. If we continue to go backwards year by year and if shortages grow, homelessness as a national issue will get progressively worse.

While I greatly welcome the Bill, which tidies up and extends a number of important issues that have concerned many of us, I point your Lordships to the underlying problem and deep-seated cause of homelessness that will remain with us if we do not invest through the public and private sectors in the extra homes that will be needed in the next 10 to 20 years.

4.18 p.m.

Lord Warner

My Lords, I, too, strongly support the Bill. I shall briefly speak about some of the accommodation needs of young offenders—probably not the most popular group about whom noble Lords will speak this afternoon. I declare an interest as chairman of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Fearn, on his moving and excellent maiden speech and express my support for the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, about children and young people being separated from their families and taken into care because of an apparent shortage of social housing. That seems a bizarre social policy.

As many of your Lordships know, the Government have undertaken a major reform of the youth justice system. The accommodation needs of 16 to 17 year-old young offenders still present significant problems for the new multi-agency youth offending teams. Too many young people on community orders are homeless or lack suitable accommodation to prevent them drifting further down the path of crime. Particular problems arise in relation to young offenders who are on detention and training orders, where they serve half their sentence in custody and half in the community.

At any one time, some 2,500 or so young people are in custody under such an order. Since the average time spent in custody is approximately four months, about three times that number are affected each year. We know that many 16 and 17 year-olds in that group will not return to their parental homes or to the accommodation that they occupied previously. As we improve the quality of the custodial regimes for many of these young people, we find ourselves thwarted in our progress with them because they have nowhere suitable to live on their release from custody.

I believe that two sections of the Bill can help with the problem. The first relates to Clause 3, which sets out how local housing authorities should go about devising their homelessness strategy and whom they should involve. I hope that youth offending teams, which are separate from social services authorities, will be fully consulted and fully involved in the actions taken locally under Clause 3. I hope that the Minister will be able to give assurances that, in guidance on the new Bill, that point will be fully covered.

The second issue relates to Clause 15(3), which defines priorities for allocation of housing accommodation. A priority group is defined in the Bill as, people who need to move on medical or welfare grounds". Again, I hope that the Minister will feel able to incorporate in this category young offenders who are on the caseloads of youth offending teams where the teams are experiencing great difficulty in securing suitable accommodation for the young people.

I welcome the Minister's recognition in his speech that young people sentenced to custody, along with other young people, are a priority group in the draft Homelessness (Priority Need for Accommodation) (England) Order that has been put out for consultation. However, as he made clear earlier in his speech, some of the remarks made in the Third Reading debate on the Bill in the other place about criminals jumping the housing queue were distinctly ill founded.

I am also aware that in the consultation process some local authorities may seem to have suggested—mistakenly, in my view—that the provisions in the draft order will encourage parents to kick their 16 and 17 year-olds out of home. That is why we continue to need the type of assurance that the Minister has given this afternoon.

The daily reality is that there is a general lack of appropriate housing, often with personal support, for homeless young people, as the Social Exclusion Unit has demonstrated. In some local areas there is confusion as to whether social services or housing departments are responsible for these young people. Homeless young people who offend usually do so as a result of family networks breaking down. If they are to secure education, training and employment, they need stable accommodation and, in some cases, their healthcare needs must be attended to. As the Minister mentioned, we know that young offenders who are homeless on release from custody are twice as likely to reoffend as those who have accommodation. Youth offending teams need our support in this area. I hope that the Minister will be able to provide some of the reassurances that I seek this afternoon.

4.23 p.m.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, I declare an interest as a commercial and residential landlord. I very warmly welcome the Bill this afternoon. More households are now in temporary accommodation than at any time since the late 1970s. They number 70,000, with 40,000 in London alone. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, has already told us that there has been a tripling in the number of people staying in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. They now amount to 11,000.

I want to concentrate on the experience of homelessness for some families and its consequences for their children. Thus, I hope to underline my support for the Bill. I recently visited a Barnardo's project in Brixton for families in temporary accommodation. I was introduced to Vian, who is from Iraq. Her brother left Iraq and she was consequently imprisoned with her mother by the authorities there for a few years. While in prison, she conceived a child. She escaped from Iraq to Syria and there obtained from the British vice-consul documents certifying her experience.

However, when she arrived in the UK, those somewhat tatty documents were found to be insufficient for the Home Office. For 10 months she lived without any income support whatever. She resides in the living room of a one-bedroomed flat with her brother and his partner. Through the help of Barnardo's she has managed to obtain a bed for the floor. She is at loggerheads with the partner of her brother. It must be very difficult for that partner to have a two year-old child sharing such a confined space. Clearly, there are also many experiences from her past with which she needs to come to terms. She was crying when she described them to me.

I also want to mention another mother, Astrid, who is from Ecuador. Without the help of Barnardo's, she would not have been able to obtain the vouchers that she needs. For a long while she was helped by her friends, who have supported her tremendously since she arrived in this country. Her son, Camillo, is about four or five years-old. It was his birthday recently. The advice worker said that, normally when visiting a family, one has to be careful not to trip over the toys. There are no such problems when visiting that family. Astrid's friends clubbed together to buy her son a present for his birthday so that he would have at least one toy. That is the type of pressure under which the families whom we are discussing are living.

On Friday I met Danny at the annual conference of Voice for the Child in Care, of which I am a patron. It provides advocacy services for children in care. Danny had run away from his foster home and had spent three months during the winter in a shed. He had been found and was then obliged to return to his foster home. He was not happy with the situation, but that is how matters stood. Although he is still a very young man, he now has a partner and a young child. He works with the Care Leavers Association, visiting prisons and talking to care leavers about his experience. He tries to help them in some way. Danny said to me, "I have never experienced happiness in my life". I hope very much that he comes to do so.

He and his new family must be very much the type of people whom we have in mind with regard to this legislation. I very much hope that it will work towards meeting their needs. However, we must imbibe the truth shared with us by my noble friend Lord Best that in many areas sufficient housing is simply not available. None the less, strategic planning of the type encouraged by the Bill must be very welcome.

I also want to mention the work of the Rough Sleepers' Unit under its director, Louise Casey. Three years ago I met a young man at Piccadilly Circus. He had his crack pipe by his side and talked at a manic rate. He had a long beard and grime was deep in his skin. While I was speaking to him a young woman who had been begging in the subway came up and said to him, "Have you enough money to share with me so that we can buy some drugs together?" The RSU has been targeting such people, who are the so-called famous faces—those who have been on the streets for many years. It has already achieved its target of reducing the number by two-thirds. New homeless people arrive on the streets all of the time but the achievements are a tremendous commendation of the work of Louise Casey, of the charities involved, including Thames Reach and London Connection, and of the Government, who have provided the resources to help people who have been on the streets for so long to get off the streets and into accommodation. There is much more work to be done in terms of supporting them when they have arrived in accommodation—that point was touched on by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock.

The point about the regulations and the new qualifications for priority needs has already been covered. Those provisions are most welcome—particularly the extension relating to care leavers aged between 18 and 21. There is concern about allocations. I am glad that the Minister went to some lengths to offer reassurances in that regard. We shall examine the matter carefully in Committee.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, I was concerned to learn of the families in the article in the Observer. I make it absolutely clear—the noble Baroness alluded to this—that the ability of the parents in those families to parent their children was not in question. The fact that they were threatened with losing their children was simply a question of housing—one recognises the strains that local authorities are under.

Sometimes it appears that in this country we are not very good at valuing children. In view of the care system, the fact that 80 per cent of staff in residential care homes have no educational qualifications whatever and the remuneration that such staff receive, one begins to wonder what value we place on children, particularly when one compares the situation in this country with that on the Continent.

We cannot afford not to value our children. That is perhaps more true now than it has ever been. Noble Lords will be aware of the so-called demographic timebomb—we are becoming older as a population and there are fewer young people. We need to invest in young people. The Chancellor is keen to ensure that those working in industry—our workforce—can contribute to our economy more fully. Children may be looked after because their parents are not available; parents may be very worried about their children's housing and financial conditions and may not be able to give their children the good start in life that they need and which would enable them in the long run to be confident and resilient contributors to our society.

I warmly welcome the Bill, which I hope has a speedy progress through the House. Before I conclude, I repeat the point that was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. I hope that we shall soon see new regulations relating to houses in multiple occupation, which is a serious concern. I have spoken with mothers who have complained to their landlord about the state of hygiene of the lavatory. They have to take young children or babies into the lavatory with them. The landlord says, "That is how the tenants leave the facilities". That is not good enough. The new regulations will be most welcome. If the Minister could say when they are likely to be published that would be welcome.

4.34 p.m.

Baroness Rendell of Babergh

My Lords, one of the objects of the Bill is to require local authorities to make a serious commitment to providing affordable housing for all those in priority need. Others—notably, the single and the childless—are currently entitled only to advice and assistance from local authorities. The evidence of Shelter is that the standard of that advice and assistance varies greatly and in some cases is wholly inadequate. In many cases applicants are simply given a list of bed-and-breakfast hotels. The Bill enables authorities to secure accommodation for those of the homeless who are not in priority need and will allow them greater flexibility to assist non-priority homeless families by providing housing for such applicants where they have the scope to do so.

More than 11,000 homeless households—if a homeless person can, without irony, be called a householder—are currently housed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Long stays in bed-and-breakfast hotels, whose standard is often low, can have a deleterious effect on the well-being of families and in particular on the health and education of children. The establishment of the Bed and Breakfast Unit to work with local authorities in reducing the number of homeless who are so accommodated is welcome, but that issue should be given real priority across central and local government. Bedsit and single-room tenants are six times more likely to die from fire than people living in properties that are occupied by single households. Illnesses that we supposed to be evils of the past, such as tuberculosis, recur.

Another of the Government's aims is to reduce the number of people sleeping rough by two-thirds by April 2002. The Rough Sleepers' Unit is currently consulting on future strategy in that area. To meet the Government's manifesto commitment to keep the number of rough sleepers as low as possible, future work must focus on meeting the needs of vulnerable groups—in particular those with drug and alcohol problems and, above all, those with fragile mental health. Street sleeping is highly deleterious to health, even in fit people.

The poor administration of housing benefit causes tenants to build up arrears and, in some cases, to be evicted from their homes. Therefore, the steps taken by the Department for Work and Pensions to improve administration are welcome. London has high levels of poor-quality housing and at the same time the number of people living in temporary accommodation is at an all-time high. More than 2.7 million people live in overcrowded or even dangerous accommodation across the country and in London the problem is acute. Living in poor quality "bed and breakfasts" can have a severe effect on the health, education and well-being of homeless families, especially on children. Bronchitis, colds and flu are commonplace. Children can suffer from mood swings, over-activity and impaired development. There can be few noble Lords who have not seen people—generally mothers and children—coming and going from that kind of accommodation and invariably appearing hopeless, demoralised and sometimes desperate. In the United Kingdom in the 21st century no citizens in a British city should look as if they were refugees from their own country. It is bad enough that such conditions should prevail in other, less fortunate, parts of the world.

Apart from the human and emotional aspect of that kind of living, bed-and-breakfast accommodation is expensive, costing as much as three times more than housing people in the private sector. It is obviously a stopgap solution, bringing with it often very little more than a literal roof over a homeless person's head.

But will local authorities be equipped to implement the new laws? For their success it is crucial that all agencies, including local and central government, housing associations and the voluntary sector work together to ensure that the solutions that are offered in the Bill come into force. The experience of Shelter, gained over 32 years, of offering advice and advocacy to individuals and families facing the prospect of losing their homes is invaluable; and seeking its help and counsel should be a priority with local authorities, particularly those in London. For instance, the Bayswater Families Centre, which is an independent facility, provides support to families in temporary accommodation in W2. A Shelter caseworker who is based at the project for four days a week provides impartial information on housing options, practical help for clients and, if necessary, advocates on their behalf with the local authority and other service providers.

Shelter's Piccadilly advice centre is a leading supplier of advice and support for homeless people in the centre of London and is ideally placed to help people who are homeless and who are, at present, forced to sleep on the streets of the capital. Positive results of its work are that out of 60 casework clients, a quarter were permanently housed with the rest temporarily accommodated or awaiting housing. Last year, Shelter helped more than 3,500 people from Westminster. All of Shelter's services in London are underpinned by Shelterline—Britain's first 24-hour, free, national helpline. Set up in 1998 with the aim of providing information and housing advice to those who are often desperate, it had taken more than 200,000 calls by last summer.

Helplines could be another weapon in local authorities' armouries to fight against homelessness and help to achieve the Government's strategy. Such helplines keep people in the picture and reduce the lonely, hopeless feeling of being forgotten. At present, Shelter is taking the highest number of calls in Westminster, although calls come from every London borough.

We must hope that the Government's national homelessness strategy, due to be published soon, will take seriously the problem of the growing number of homeless people. The development of that strategy creates an unprecedented opportunity to complement the statutory framework set out in the Bill. It should raise the profile of homelessness across central and local government.

Perhaps even more important is the need to promote greater awareness among the public of what it means to be homeless—its causes and complexities. At present, far too many people dismiss being without a roof over one's head as fecklessness. I have heard people say not only that it is their own fault that people are homeless but that they like or prefer it instead of understanding that homelessness is often the result of a succession of unfortunate but unavoidable circumstances. It is important that the public—the passengers on the bus who pass street sleepers—are awakened to the right of everyone to have a decent home to live in.

4.41 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to participate in this Second Reading debate on an important Bill. The aim is to reform the legislation on homelessness and the allocation of social housing. That is clearly to be applauded. One of the most shaming sights in recent years has been the presence of individuals—many clearly in need of social care—sleeping rough on the streets of London, one of the world's richest cities. There are not only the obviously homeless but many others, often very young, occupying unsatisfactory, sometimes overcrowded and insanitary accommodation. In his excellent maiden speech, the noble Lord, Lord Fearn, movingly highlighted the plight of many such people. The Bill attempts to address those needs.

However, I should like to raise an issue which probably affects only a minority, but which is nevertheless important to the people concerned. I refer to the problems that can sometimes affect same-sex couples concerning the right of succession to a tenancy agreement. There have been cases—one of which went as far as the European Court of Human Rights—in which the surviving partner of a same-sex couple has been rendered homeless. That case concerned a couple one of whom had devoted much time to caring for an ailing partner. When that partner died, the local council took steps to repossess the accommodation that they had shared. No alternative accommodation was offered to the remaining partner.

As I said, the case went as far as the European Court, where it was unsuccessful. The local council was judged to have acted within its rights and to have been under no obligation to offer alternative accommodation. I gather that that is not possible in the case of a heterosexual couple, and can happen only in the case of local authority or social housing—where the remaining partner is unlikely to have the resources to opt for private accommodation. The case of a private tenancy was decided in favour of the remaining partner by the House of Lords. The private landlord seeking possession in that case failed.

It is true that local authorities can grant joint tenancies to same-sex couples, so that the surviving partner can succeed to the tenancy, but there is no obligation upon them to do so. There appears to have been a change of attitude recently, but the survey conducted by Stonewall—to which I am indebted for its briefing—suggests that some local councils still have no policy on the matter. Same-sex cases are generally still dealt with on an individual, discretionary basis—unlike those involving unmarried heterosexual partners.

That does appear to be an anomaly, which could be rectified by a simple amendment to the Bill to give to same-sex partners the same rights as now exist for unmarried heterosexual partners in terms of entitlement to succeed to a tenancy. There are safeguards in existing housing Acts to deal with problems of under-occupation that may arise on the granting of a right to succession. Ground 16 of Schedule 2 to the Housing Act 1985 provides that landlords may seek possession if they believe that the dwelling to which a family member succeeds is too large for him or her and that they can provide suitable alternative accommodation. Ground 9 of the Housing Act 1988 gives landlords a general right to seek possession on the grounds that suitable alternative accommodation has been provided.

I therefore hope that the Government may be prepared to take the opportunity provided by the Bill to put right that small anomaly. Incidentally, I understand that the law in Scotland has recently been amended to provide exactly the rights for same-sex couples that I seek.

4.46 p.m.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, I rise to follow the example of my noble friend Lord Listowel by talking about the relationship of homelessness to children. Homelessness leads to parental stress and family breakdown; to ill-health and to children's absence from school. It makes parenting well nigh impossible. Children who do not attend school do not get jobs, have nowhere to live, get involved in crime and drugs and suffer ill-health and unemployability.

Not only the homeless themselves suffer. Tremendous damage is done to society as a whole. The social cost is huge. When I was preparing for this debate, I found on my shelves a report published by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors—I declare an interest as a fellow of that institution—entitled, The Real Cost of Poor Homes. It is dated 1996, so it may be a little out of date. It states: It has been estimated that more money—as much as £2 billion—is being spent each year on treating illness arising from poor housing conditions than is spent by local authorities on their own housing stock. The Minister may have more recent figures.

The report goes on to highlight my next point. It states: Substandard housing conditions—whether in the form of overcrowding, noise pollution, cold and damp conditions or inadequate facilities—clearly have the potential to influence children's social and educational development. This can occur in several ways. To paraphrase, the report goes on to say that that affects children's ability to attend school and their health, and can affect their social relationships, because they are often moved from school to school as accommodation changes. It is often difficult for them to form satisfactory social relationships with their peer group because they tend to be stigmatised.

The Government's understanding of those and associated problems led them to set up the Social Exclusion Unit, on which they deserve to be congratulated. I was glad to hear the Minister say that he is considering the Shelter report, which says that many social service authorities are now routinely refusing to provide assistance for families as a whole and limiting their assistance to offering to take children into care. Of course, some families are unable to look after their children, but in those circumstances, children should still be taken into care by the proper route. However, if authorities are taking children into care simply to save money and avoid housing the parents, that is outrageous. I look forward to hearing from the Minister. I am grateful for his promise to sort out that matter and tell us what is really happening.

I turn for a moment to 16 and 17 year-olds. This is a tremendously vulnerable group involving young people without the support of their families. Social and personal support for this group is essential as an adjunct to housing, whether it is short-term housing—as it normally will be—or long-term. It is needed to help young people access training, stay with the training, and subsequently access work and stay with that work. They need to be picked up when they fail and encouraged to try and try again.

It is also necessary to help them to learn how to be householders; how to be adequate tenants and manage their personal affairs in relation to their housing. It is to be hoped that the Government's Connexions scheme will solve that problem by providing mentors. But I have honest doubts as to whether enough suitable people will volunteer to be mentors. Helping people of that age is a trying and exacting job.

Finally, I want to speak briefly about the fundamental challenge; that is, creating more affordable decent homes. Successive governments have tried and failed. But affordable housing tends to be treated as something that "we" provide for "them" or, from the homeless person's point of view, something that "they" provide to "us". Here I want to follow the well-known tradition of Miss Marples and make a comparison with my own village, which has more general application.

Around 15 years ago there was a move in my village to build a village hall. The Government, through one agency or another, were prepared to provide 80 per cent of the cost; 10 per cent of the cost was secured from a charitable foundation and it was left to the village to find the other 10 per cent. It became a tremendous enterprise. People in that village who had not spoken to one another for 20 years were standing shoulder to shoulder in an effort to raise the money for that village hall. The Government set up a committee to consider active communities and the family. Perhaps the Minister will draw my story to the attention of his right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who I believe is chairing that committee.

There may be ways of drawing communities into the provision of housing or the repair of derelict stock. It might even be possible to enable some homeless people to contribute to the solution of their problem. That would not only increase the stock of habitable affordable housing, but also give back to those people their self-respect. Such a programme could help to build communities as well as build houses.

4.54 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, it is a joy and a pleasure to take part in this debate on a subject which is very dear to my heart. I detect that all contributors speak from their own experience, as I do also. Of all the legislation for which this Minister may be responsible, I hope he will be remembered most for the impact of the legislation before us today. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, mentioned changing the title of the Bill because of its wide-ranging interests. I thought perhaps the Minister would rather it was called the "Homelessness" Bill rather than the Homelessness Bill!

I look around the Chamber and I see a number of Peers with similar experiences to my own; that is, as former Members of Parliament from all sides and all constituencies. Of all the issues with which I had to deal in the years that I had the honour to represent Edmonton, the one that caused me the most personal distress was housing. I listened to people who were in anguish, in shock, miserable and who brought their children with them not least because if they did not, they would not be able to come and talk to their local Member of Parliament. I can tell the House that on two occasions, when I had finished my surgery, I went out to my car and sobbed. I cried because of the helplessness that I felt about my ability to help people in that situation.

All those connected with homeless people, not just Members of Parliament but members of councils also, experience a terrible feeling of hopelessness. If the Minister is able to advance on any of the fronts raised today, he will be doing a great service, not only for this Government, but also for hundreds of thousands if not millions of people.

The point was made more than once that the solution is to have more houses. I have always smarted at the fact that under the right-to-buy legislation our ability to solve that problem was diminished. I am not against people owning their own home; I have owned mine for 40 years. But it was ludicrous, at the same time as wanting to house people, to take away the council housing register—there are other registers now—and the social ability to house people. I do not take kindly to people who complain that, as a result of the right-to-buy, we have fewer houses available to house homeless people.

I can remember on one occasion a counsellor called Stone in Westminster took me to a house in Paddington in multiple occupation. It was an eye-opener to me. He was trying to find support for some aspects of housing. He asked me to go along and see the problem. I saw a room on the ground floor and there could have been 50 people squashed into it. One lady said, "Will you come and see where I live?". I said I would and we went up to the third floor. She lived with three children and her mother—five of them—in one room.

The landlord was receiving five rents because the rent was not charged per room; it was charged per individual. He was making a fortune, paid for by the rate payers and taxpayers of the country. All that benefit went to one person who had been clever enough to buy that house. The Chamber will understand that a number of businesses have sprung up which profit from the misery of people who are made homeless. Anything the Minister and his colleagues can do to tackle that problem will be welcomed.

The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, the noble Lord, Lord Laing, and myself are members of the board of trustees of a body called Charis. It is a charity in the Mile End Road which attempts to deal with drug and alcohol dependency. That organisation has a solution which works. Instead of a local authority spending money on taking people who are in the gutter off the street, drying them out, sending them out with a grant, and saying, "On your way", they say to the local authorities, "If you want us to do a job you will have to support us in it for at least 12 months". In that 12 months there is an educational programme. A relationship exists between that organisation, local employers and the local authority. When these sad men or women are rehabilitated, when an opportunity is found and they are given a job and find accommodation, they leave. That costs a lot of money but it is better than money being wasted on short-term palliatives.

We have heard about what I call "best practice" from the Cross Benches. My noble friend Lord Best—he has been my noble friend for a long time—is an eminent person in the field of housing and will make a great contribution. He underlined that the basic solution, with all the efforts we are making, is to build more houses. He made a point of which I am well aware. Sadly, we now build fewer houses in this country, private or council, than we have since 1924. Fewer home are now being built. Yet, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, points out, the need to form housing units for families is growing all the time. That is a real problem and the Minister has a real challenge.

Colleagues in this House will know of my long association with the Co-operative Movement. Perhaps I may point out that there are co-operative solutions to many of these issues. In a paragraph entitled, "Opening up the empties", the annual report of Co-op Home Services states: CHS is now the biggest user of temporary social housing grant in the country. The development of short-life housing is the origin of our work and remains a central activity. This enables us to produce dwellings quickly and cheaply and to provide a rapid service of new lettings available primarily to local authorities … One of our central beliefs is that people should take on the rights and responsibilities of controlling their own housing. For people unwilling or unable to achieve individual ownership, co-ops offer the most effective way of achieving such control. We emphasise the requirements of people in housing need who, for various reasons, are likely to rely on social housing. Their prospects for breaking out of the dependency and patronage that social housing can bring provide part of the motivation for our operations". I am sure that the Minister does not need me to draw to his attention the enormous range of ways in which the housing of people in this country can be improved. In desperate times, however bad the economy—this is a desperate time—priorities have to be made and balances struck. The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, and I are heavily involved in the welfare of park home owners. Often, people are driven out of what might be called better or more attractive accommodation and find themselves in park homes. That is not a bad thing. However, if one has a bad landlord or a bad site owner, that is indeed a great problem.

The Minister has an opportunity to encourage a number of initiatives. Some 40 years ago, when I was on the council in Enfield, one of the things we did when we came to power was to begin to buy up private properties and use them for council social lettings. At the time, that was frowned upon. However, we are looking for ways in which this problem can be eased, and perhaps that is something that the Minister will encourage. It was called "pepper potting". One house would be picked from one street and one from another. That was not liked, except by the people who were housed, who thought that it was great.

The greatest gift that the Government can give to hundreds and thousands of couples is to enable them to become tenants and eventually, when they climb the ladder, owner-occupiers. I hope that the Minister takes heart from this debate. There is not one speaker who has not spoken from the heart. My noble friend Lord Fearn spoke sincerely, as always, passionately and from his own experience. We have all had experience. I hope that the Minister will make use of such collective experience as the Bill passes through this House.

5.5 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, on the day that the Bill completed its passage through another place, the Minister answered a Written Question from my honourable friend the Member for Winchester, with regard to the number of homeless people in each of the past three years. The Minister announced that those accepted as eligible for assistance, unintentionally homeless and in priority need—it will not have escaped your Lordships' notice that this must have been, under the legislation, unamended—for the year 2000–2001 amounted to 114,350 households. As stated by the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, "households" is not the aptest term in the circumstances. That means far more than 114,000 individuals.

My noble friend Lord Fearn spoke movingly. He has often made me laugh. However, this is the first time I have been moved in such a way by a speech of his. He spoke about his experiences with the Simon Community. That is an organisation with which I have had the honour—I do not use that term lightly—to be associated for some years. Like my noble friend, I question the value of talking about these issues rather than "doing". Our job is both to talk and ensure that the outcome of our talking is to produce the best legislation. That is the tool that we have.

As my noble friend Lady Maddock stated, we welcome the Bill. We welcome the emphasis on the prevention of homelessness. As the noble Lord, Lord Best, stated, we must address the causes. It is worth emphasising the reliance which the Government place on local authorities. That is right, but we must also remember that local authorities cannot perform their strategic role without the means to do so. I make that point knowing that the local government settlement is not far away. It is right that strategies must involve social services, as the Bill accepts, plus education, health, and so forth. There is a whole list which, to use a phrase for which I do not care, amounts to "joined-up services".

Local authorities are the first resort of, among others, the many asylum seekers we wish to welcome into our communities. Perhaps I may give a flavour of the scale of the problem. I was struck by a figure that I saw recently relating to Southall in west London. That is a town with a population of between 60,000 and 70,000, which has had to accommodate about 12,000 refugees. Perhaps that is an unusual case, but it is a stark illustration of what we need to do for those who come into the country, not just those who have been here for some time.

When briefing myself for the Bill, I was surprised to learn that housing associations do not yet fund 50 per cent of the housing stock, though they will soon do so. I was also surprised to learn from Shelter that the right to buy is still such an issue. I share the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. I thought that so much was already bought that, in a sense, the problem had passed. In 1999–2000, four times as many properties were sold under the right to buy as were built by housing associations. I know that it would be invidious to end that right and disqualify those who have not yet bought, but I am not yet convinced that it would not be for the greater good.

As we all know, and as so many noble Lords have said, the real issue is the amount of stock; it is not a question of the identity of the landlord. However the cake is divided up, if it is not big enough there is a problem. As regards cash, I had hoped that the noble Baroness, Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, might have been present today to add her considerable argument to the debate. We must use all the mechanisms available.

Perhaps it is not a matter for today, but I am aware that the Minister's responsibilities also include planning and that we await a planning Green Paper. By all accounts, it will focus on the interests of business. I hope that soon the Minister will prove us wrong and tell us that it will assist with the provision of affordable housing. That would not go amiss.

While making it clear that we support the role of local authorities and housing associations, we are aware of the variability in letting policies. That matter was raised in another place. A figure which staggered me—I shall therefore impose it on your Lordships—showed that in 2000 more than 26,000 possession orders were made by social landlords. That was an increase of 12 per cent on the previous year and the figure has more than doubled in the past six years.

The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, referred to another area in which there are inconsistencies and variabilities; that is, the treatment of same-sex couples. If she tables amendments to the Bill to deal with that, she will certainly have the support of Members on these Benches. I checked with my noble friend Lady Maddock before saying that and she reminded me that we brought forward such amendments in 1996.

The position of many tenants is fragile. I recently read that 25 per cent of tenants in RSL accommodation are in full-time work with an average household income of £168 a week. One third of social housing tenants live in the most deprived 10 per cent of local government wards. Compare that with 85 per cent of mortgage holders who work full time and have an income of more than £600 a week.

In London—and here I declare an interest as a member of the Greater London Assembly—the imbalance is an issue in the work being undertaken on the special development strategy. It would be so easy for there to be a preponderance of housing in one part of London, in the east, many parts of which are ripe for regeneration. A lack of balance would threaten the sustainability of the whole of the capital. The west needs affordable housing, too. Examining the scale of need in London has made members of the Greater London Authority question whether the construction industry has the capacity to provide what we know we need. That matter was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Best.

The supply of affordable housing needs support through the private rented sector. We welcome the steps which the Government will be taking with regard to licensing houses of multiple occupation, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell. Inevitably, there have been references to housing benefit today. Many authorities are creakingly slowly managing to improve its administration. It is not an area in which the private sector, engaged by local authorities, has distinguished itself. Clearly, it is not a matter which local authorities are uniquely unable to deal with.

There has been much reference, in particular by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, to the inter-relationship of housing provision with the Children Act 1989. I was pleased to hear the Minister say that he would come back to the House on that issue before the Bill finishes its passage here. I hope that I can press him to come back early enough for us to use the Bill in order to right any problem which appears to need to be righted by legislation. Furthermore, I suspect that the local authorities in question, whatever one might think of the effect of their decisions and the court cases, acted as they did because of the pressure on their housing stock. We must not forget that.

Last weekend, the Observer followed up the reports on the problem with reports on runaway children, too many of whom are running away from violence and abuse and need help. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, referred to 16 and 17 year-olds but children leaving care comprise another category which must concern us. Listening to a debate in your Lordships' House two or three weeks ago about the educational needs of children in care made me realise that their lack of educational attainment must be part of a wider need. Finally, as regards young offenders, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Warner, if we mean anything by "prevention" we must have regard to that group.

The debate has covered inconsistencies in allocations and the differences in approach to "unacceptable behaviour". We shall return to the details of the circumstances and the use by different authorities of their assessment of behaviour. The right reverend Prelate mentioned the revolving door and we must try to shut it with people on the right side of it. I remember that the variable standards of advice and assistance was also an issue for debate five years ago.

The Bill is endorsed, as it must be, with the usual ministerial statement that under the Human Rights Act it is, compatible with convention rights". It is clear that the view that a decent home is a basic human right is shared throughout the House. We welcome the Bill at last. I say "at last" because those of us who sat through the legislation in 1996 heard a good deal about how after the election in 1997 things would be put right. I am pleased that now that is the case. We shall work to ensure that the Bill better meets the human rights of all our citizens. And because the subject stirs our passions, as was said by the noble Lord, Lord Graham, we shall use our heads and our hearts to get it right.

5.17 p.m.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Fearn, on his maiden speech. We, too, welcome the Bill and we welcome its emphasis on the prevention of homelessness. I want to touch on a few issues which were raised today and follow the noble Lord, Lord Best, in examining some of the underlying causes. They range from a lack of available housing to unemployment, to touch on only two.

I shall begin with housing benefit, a subject raised by a number of noble Lords. It needs reviewing as regards the minimum standard of its administration. We all know that practices vary from local authority to local authority, so perhaps the Minister will tell the House whether he is satisfied that the Government are successfully monitoring the delivery of the service relating to housing benefit. We would all agree that faster decisions are needed.

What do the Government propose to do about local authorities that appear unable to make satisfactory progress? It has been suggested that housing benefit should be brought under the remit of the Benefits Agency in order to get it right. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, mentioned that the private sector has been involved but decisions taken with regard to housing benefit also relate to the availability of houses and accommodation in the area. Faster and better decisions would also encourage private landlords to make more housing available.

A number of factors influence the amount of housing. There has been almost a chaotic situation in relation to adjudications in asylum cases, with large numbers of people coming here, and the need to deal with the backlog has made life difficult. The more asylum seekers there are in this country the less social accommodation is available. I am always concerned about the lack of progress by the Home Office in asylum adjudications. The more bogus asylum seekers there are in this country clogging up the system the more difficult it is to deal with genuine refugees who need accommodation. It is extraordinary that often families arrive in this country having passed through six or seven so-called safe states in the European Union. They are determined to come to this country rather than stop in those so-called safe countries on the way.

Another issue concerns offenders who are released into the community. Should they register for housing where they have previously lived or, for example, where they have just been released? Can one imagine the situation if all those released from prison on the Isle of Wight registered for housing there? That would place a strain on the system in that area. There are concerns about offenders who come back into the community and jump the gun. Can the Minister confirm that that will be dealt with by regulations? There is a separate problem for those in social housing who want to move. It is quite difficult to move from one area of the country to another.

Another issue that presents difficulties for local authorities is provision for the mentally ill. We are concerned that some of those who are mentally ill have been turfed out onto the street, often because of overcrowding in mental health institutions. The charge has been made that care in the community has aggravated the problem. I believe that care in the community worked in principle but it should not have meant that local authorities cut investment so that people were put on the street when perhaps they should not be there. We are all disappointed about this ongoing issue. I hope that the Government will address that factor which also affects homelessness. This has always been our concern. The Government must be disappointed that the health service in this country has not made the improvements that they have promised over the past five years.

Young people are a particularly vulnerable group. We should like to know where they are on the list of priorities. It is extremely important to have a policy to deal with those who are subject to community orders or are involved with the Probation Service so that that service and the police liaise with local authorities. Often young people's involvement with drugs has encouraged the kind of behaviour that has led them to become homeless. Concerns were raised about the Children Act. We shall deal with those matters in Committee.

One of the major factors in homelessness is the lack of available houses, built or repaired, or buildings t hat can be converted. I recall that about 10 years ago I asked an official in the Department of the Environment what was the first principle in planning. He replied with a completely straight face that it should be simple and easy. After that I never had much faith in the planning process. Sadly, the process is not simple and has never been easy; it is complicated and expensive The Government must have a policy to encourage the development of brownfield sites. I am aware that the Government have tried to do that, but there must be more houses in places where they are needed and also different kinds of accommodation. One would have thought that, with mortgage rates as low as they are, it should be possible to encourage much greater building in the private sector.

There are far too many empty houses in public and private ownership. The figures have been referred to this afternoon. We believe that there should be incentives for investment in run-down areas There should also be increased incentives for private landlords. One is always surprised when one visits various towns in the country and sees whole streets boarded up, yet the houses themselves are in quite good condition. They do not require rebuilding to bring them back into the system but repairs. Often there have been terrible social problems in the area, but it should be possible to do that. I am aware that the Government have tried to involve housing associations. I hope that they will do more because housing associations have been very successful in this area. Mention has been made of the right to buy. I believe that that should be further encouraged because it frees up money which councils can then use to invest in new housing projects.

I am afraid that not all the steps taken by the Government over the past few years have improved the situation. The change in mortgage tax relief and discounts on the right to buy council houses has not helped; nor has the increase in the rate of stamp duty. The Government should also do more to encourage the building of houses for multiple occupation which help to provide very low-cost accommodation. I hope that the Minister will look into that.

We have much to deal with in Committee. I cannot emphasise more strongly that it is extremely important for your Lordships to see the draft guidance—so many of the issues are dealt with in that guidance— before they deal with those matters in Committee. If we are to look at the Bill carefully we must do that. We need to keep families out of bed and breakfast accommodation. As the noble Baroness said, that is a very expensive way to house families. There are not enough homes in London and the South East where people want to live and we must deal with that.

In conclusion, the Minister could himself make a huge difference to the problem this afternoon. All he needs to do is to announce the demolition of that dreadful building the Dome and its conversion into affordable housing.

5.28 p.m.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I begin by referring to the exceptional maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Fearn, in what has been an exceptional debate— exceptional because of the passion that has been evident and the information that has been supplied to the House. But the noble Lord's speech stood out from all others as being both informed and run through with passion for the particular subject. It is plain from his speech that he will make a major contribution to the deliberations of this House, not I suspect just on homelessness—although plainly he will do so in that area—but on a whole range of other issues. I am sure we all agree that it was an incredibly impressive maiden speech.

As far as concerns the debate as a whole, I adopt what has been said by noble Lords, in particular by my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton. He said that all speakers when referring to housing and seeking to come to a practical solution spoke from the heart. We have a role to talk but also to try to promote some "doing" in relation to it. I extend that tribute specifically to the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, on the Opposition Benches. I welcome her to her place in relation to this debate. She made some specific points in relation to the Bill, with which I shall deal in my reply. I detected a practical understanding of the problem from her time as leader of a significant local authority in this city and an appreciation that something needed to be done about it. Her speech started with reference to the increasing number of people in unsuitable accommodation. She specifically and rightly referred to the fact that the number of people in bed and breakfast accommodation had increased to 11,000 by the last quarter; that the cost was phenomenal; and that increasing the priority needs—to which she did not object—will increase the pressure. I think that the speech of the noble Baroness showed a real understanding of the problem and a real desire to do something about it.

Perhaps I may deal with some of the specific points made by the noble Baroness. She referred to the removal of the housing register. The Bill removes the requirement to have a register but local authorities will still have the power to operate a register if they want to for any of the reasons that she indicated.

The noble Baroness and a number of other noble Lords emphasised the importance of trying to have both regulations and guidance available to the House before the Bill completes its passage. Perhaps I may quickly set out the position in relation to that. The draft priority needs order, which is made under Section 189(2) of the Housing Act, has already been published and consulted on. We are now considering responses. That is already available.

The draft code of guidance on allocations and homelessness is in preparation. The part on allocations is to be sent out for consultation before the end of this year. The part on homelessness will be sent out early next year for consultation.

A copy of the draft code of guidance on reviews and strategies is available in the Library of the House and in the Library of another place. It will go out for consultation before the end of this year. Quite a number of the documents for which the noble Baroness asked are already available in draft. They are not all available. I shall write to the noble Baroness in relation to any that I have missed.

The noble Baroness referred, as did a number of other noble Lords, to the licensing of houses in multiple occupation. That was an important commitment made in the Government's last manifesto and also in the 1997 one. Noble Lords will know better than I that licensing will require primary legislation. So far we have not been able to obtain time for that primary legislation. We accept all the arguments advanced in favour of it. It is simply a question of finding time. Noble Lords will know better than I the pressures on legislative time at the moment.

The noble Baroness referred to the requirement for a homelessness strategy that would connect in with other strategies relating to housing. I entirely agree with that. In many cases it would be sensible for local authorities to have a strategy that deals with homelessness and other housing issues. She raised the issue of what will happen to the Rough Sleepers Unit. It still has to reach its target by April 2002. But it is perfectly plain that that what the Rough Sleepers Unit has achieved so far is immensely impressive. We need to make sure that what it achieves is consolidated; that we do not have another cohort of rough sleepers moving on to the streets; and we must also check that it continues with preventive measures. We shall be considering the next stages in the near future.

The noble Baroness raised the issue of improvements in housing benefit. Housing benefit is a real issue. We all agree with that. What has been done in relation to housing benefit? The priority of the Department for Work and Pensions is to work with local authorities to drive up standards of service, tackle fraud and error and promote work incentives. A help team was established in March. It has visited a large number of local authorities to help with their particular problems. The administration subsidy for housing benefit has gone up and up. By 2003–04 it will have increased cumulatively by £24 million.

The three-year settlement process in spending reviews helps local authorities to plan how to deal with housing benefits in the long-term. The Department for Work and Pensions is developing a new performance framework for the future. It is a set of consistent national standards which will, for the first time, provide a clear basis for assessing local authority performance. That is an important issue. It takes time. But we have introduced as many measures as we possibly can to make progress in what is one of the great problems in the system—that is, making sure that housing benefit is better administered.

I turn to the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. I was grateful for her support on the Bill. She congratulated us on our speed in bringing it forward since the general election. I thank the noble Baroness for that. However, the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, having given us that congratulation, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, then took it away by saying how slow we were to produce it. Anyway, we have it now. Let us get on and make it as good as possible.

The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, raised the question of preventing people from being considered for accommodation who were deemed ineligible from the start because of their bad behaviour. That is an important issue. We take the view that, subject to appropriate safeguards, certain households in which there has been persistent misconduct in the past and where there has been no reform should become ineligible for consideration. That will happen only in very serious cases. However, we believe that there are such serious cases.

The noble Baroness next raised the question of accommodation for those whose rejection for housing is being reviewed by the local authority. The problem is that if one allows the county court to review whether or not accommodation should be provided while the review is going on, one in effect removes the local authority's discretion. That is what we are concerned about. Obviously the local authority's discretion has to play a part in the allocation of short housing. It must make judgments about that. In the area we are talking about it is dealing with people whom it has decided to reject. The question is whether the county court should then interfere with the exercise of its discretion as to whether it should provide housing while a review of that rejection continues. Quintessentially that is a matter for the local authority's discretion. It has quite difficult choices to make in those circumstances.

The question of a reasonable time within which to consider whether or not to accept offers of accommodation was then raised by the noble Baroness. That will depend on the circumstances. Sometimes when a good many offers have been made it is reasonable for it to he a short period of time. On other occasions, when a long pause has gone by before an offer is made, it may be more sensible to give a longer time. It will depend on the circumstances in a particular case. The noble Baroness said that she would welcome an opportunity to discuss that and other issues before the Committee stage. I would welcome the opportunity to discuss that and a whole number of other issues.

Along with a number of other noble Lords, the noble Baroness raised the question of the Children Act 1989. Basically, the question was: is it true that social services departments or housing authorities are now more willing or feel more able legally to separate children from their parents when dealing with the issue of homelessness? It is said that there are two court cases which have made it easier for local authorities to do that. They are acting on the basis of those court cases. It is a point that has been picked up by Shelter and raised with myself and the Department of Health. We are being told that those two court cases do not effect any change in the law. What we need to look at is whether there is any change in practice. We are in the process of investigating that. I give no assurance as to what I shall come back with, except that I assure your Lordships that we shall look to see what the practice is. I shall report back to the House before it is too late for something to be done. It is a difficult issue. We should be careful not to change the law unless there is a proper basis for it.

The noble Baroness also referred to domestic violence. She was keen to ensure that any regulations dovetail with the Bill. I entirely agree with that. She also referred to the Supporting People proposals and said that it is important that they be effective and properly funded. The purpose of Supporting People is to provide a unified funding stream for the supporting of vulnerable people by local—

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for giving way. What concerns me about the Supporting People programme is the various rumours we hear about not being able to accept the total amount of money that is needed for it. I should be grateful if the Minister could reassure us that there will be enough money. That is the big fear of all the people involved in making that work. As other noble Lords have said, the programme is absolutely crucial for keeping homeless people in their tenancies once they are found for them.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I understand totally the importance of the Supporting People programme over the long term. The funding streams that Supporting People will bring together will deal with many of the categories covered in our debate today. Recently we published a consultation paper setting out how the sums are to be calculated. The best way forward for those with particular concerns is to respond to that detailed consultation which sets out with some degree of precision how we intend to calculate the amounts for the funding stream.

The noble Baroness also referred to the publication of the national homelessness strategy. I cannot guarantee that it will be ready by December, but if we produce a Bill that puts a duty on local authorities to produce their own homelessness strategies, then it is incumbent on central government to set out with some degree of precision what they intend to do in this area.

Perhaps I may turn to the contribution of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford. He set out the reasons underlying homelessness and expressed his support for a strategic approach by local authorities and central government. We endorse that with enthusiasm. He raised a fear that housing policy has been a Cinderella service in social provision. All noble Lords who have participated in the debate are well aware of the importance of housing. Although it must be considered in conjunction with the provision of other services—health, education and community services—it is an immensely important element when dealing with people who have a range of problems.

The right reverend Prelate also raised concerns about the provisions in Clause 13 covering unacceptable behaviour. I dealt with that point in my response to the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. However, plainly this is a matter that will need to be discussed in Committee. I thank the right reverend Prelate for what he described as his warm welcome to the Bill and his good wishes for its success. He described it as "good news for vulnerable people". That is absolutely right.

I have already referred to the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Fearn. It was truly excellent. Perhaps I may pick up on one point that he made. The noble Lord said that resolving the problems of homelessness will not happen unless more resources, including the best people to solve young people's housing needs, are provided. When addressing the problems of homelessness, resources will always be an issue. Sometimes it is said that the Government do not provide sufficient resources; at other times congratulations are offered. However, the Bill before the House today seeks to provide a structure within which the problems of homelessness can be addressed. Of course I agree that as many resources as are reasonably practicable should be made available, but here we aim to set out a structure to tackle homelessness, which will be with us for some time to come and which, as several noble Lords have rightly pointed out, is likely to rise in terms of cases accepted by local authorities because of the widening of priority needs. I take note of the noble Lord's comments as regards resources, but in the meantime the Bill sets out the structure for dealing with the problems.

My noble friend Lady Massey of Darwen quoted a report produced by Shelter: This Bill, if implemented, offers the best opportunity in a generation to deal with the problems of homelessness. I am grateful to her for that quotation. My noble friend also referred to the problem of children who are separated from their parents by local authorities when carrying out their duties either under the Children Act, in the case of social services authorities, or under homelessness legislation in the case of housing authorities. I have said that we shall consider this matter and seek the right course to address it.

The noble Lord, Lord Best, brought the debate firmly down to earth by citing a few figures which make it clear that, if estimates of the number of new households being created are correct, a significantly larger number of affordable homes will need to be built in order to meet the problem of homelessness. From those figures, it is quite plain that homelessness is going to be with us for some considerable time to come. For that reason, it is necessary to ensure that the safety net works well and that all those involved in providing that safety net play their appropriate part.

As regards the issue of affordable housing, we have increased significantly the funding being allocated for new affordable housing investment through the Housing Corporation. That funding will rise to over £1.2 billion in 2003–04, which is almost double the current level. Some 10,000 key workers in high demand areas will be helped to purchase a home through the Starter Homes Initiative. Total capital allocations for local authority housing are being increased from £1.2 billion last year to £2.5 billion by 2003–04. Those are significant increases but, to be frank, they do not reach the level of housing starts referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Best. Nevertheless, it marks an important start to addressing the issue. Because of the inevitable gap between the number of new houses being built and the number of people who require them, the need for the housing safety net to function effectively is extremely important.

The noble Lord, Lord Warner, referred to the position of young offenders. I can give the noble Lord an assurance that we shall include in guidance the point that youth offending teams should be included among the consultees regarding homelessness strategies. We shall consider in guidance whether those young offenders who need to move to avoid hardship will fall into the "reasonable preference" category for the allocation of housing. "Reasonable preference" does not equate with "vulnerable" and thus would not reflect the same priority for allocation, a point which I explained in my opening remarks.

The speech of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, was moving and impressive. He described the lot of those who live in poor quality, temporary accommodation and referred in particular to two families in a way that brings us down to earth as regards what we are trying to achieve by way of improving the relevant legislation. He also described a conversation with someone living in that kind of accommodation. That person had never experienced happiness in his life, which serves to underline the importance of ensuring that decent long-term housing is provided.

The noble Earl also drew attention to the Rough Sleepers Unit, and in particular to the work of Louise Casey. I am sure that all noble Lords would agree that the achievements of the unit are very impressive. Their hard work serves to illustrate that, in dealing with that particular kind of homelessness—as well as homelessness in general—we must roll up our sleeves and get on with doing the job, as well as persuading all the relevant players to co-operate in providing solutions to the problem. He also cited the article in the Observer and the question of whether children would now more easily be separated from their parents. He said that: Sometimes it appears that in this country we are not very good at valuing our children". That is a sentiment which we should all consider when dealing with homelessness. He also referred to the issue of houses in multiple occupation. I believe that, in responding to the points put by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, I have already reiterated our commitment to dealing with it, subject to legislative time being available.

My noble friend Lady Rendell of Babergh drew attention to the problems faced by vulnerable groups. She mentioned in particular the poor administration of housing benefit, a point I believe I have already dealt with. My noble friend also referred to the problems surrounding the provision of bed and breakfast accommodation, a matter raised at the start of our debate by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. It is a very expensive system and it must be possible to find better ways of dealing with homeless families. Bed and breakfast costs a great deal and I am sure that all noble Lords would agree that such provision has an extremely detrimental effect on families. As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, pointed out, bed and breakfast accommodation then leads to hugely increased costs in other areas. My predecessor in the post of Minister for Housing, Mr Nick Raynsford, established the Bed and Breakfast Unit, which is now in operation. It is looking urgently at ways in which the problem can be addressed. My noble friend also commented that the statutory framework we are putting in place may provide a good opportunity to deal with homelessness. I am grateful for her remarks.

My noble friend Lady Turner of Camden asked about the position as regards single-sex couples; whether they are suffering from an anomaly. On the basis of the briefing material before me, I am not in a position to deal with that particular point. I intend to write to my noble friend and respond to her comments.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, speaking from the Cross Benches, dealt eloquently with the cost of poor housing. I do not have to hand the up-to-date figures for the 1996 report from the RICS, to which the noble Lord referred. I shall seek to gather together those figures and write to the noble Lord. I am sure that all noble Lords would agree that a huge cost is borne in that respect. The more effectively we can deal with the issues of homelessness, the more we shall reduce that cost.

The noble Lord drew attention to the Observer article covering the separation of families by local authorities and also pointed out that it is not only a question of housing but also of offering support to young people. The noble Lord drew attention to the Connexions service, which is seeking to give that support. We are very conscious of the fact that we need to provide support to prevent, for example, tenancy breakdown, which frequently occurs with young people who have been on the streets for long periods before they are put into tenancies.

Dealing with homelessness is a fundamental challenge, not only in relation to the provision of more affordable homes but in preventing people with social problems from ending up homeless. It may help such people to stay in tenancies if we provide them with more support. I undertake to write to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and inform him of the "village hall" experience. Perhaps that will inform his approach in relation to the active communities.

I should say to my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton that I do not want the Bill to be called the "Domelessness Bill"; I am more than happy for it to be called the "Homelessness Bill". I agree that every contributor has spoken from the heart. My noble friend spoke impressively about the fact that people who are homeless are people in anguish; that they are people who need help. He described how, when he was an MP, people came to his surgery and brought their children with them because otherwise they would not have been able to speak to their MP. Like my noble friend, I hope that the Bill will make a real difference to the plight of homeless people.

My noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred to the right to buy. We are sticking with a right-to-buy policy, and the problems of homelessness have to be looked at within that landscape. Yes, of course we would like to build more houses. As I said, we have made more money available than in 1997 and 1998, but it will take a long time to reach a point where the numbers are high enough.

My noble friend referred also to co-operative solutions. I agree that they are well worth looking at. Indeed, shared ownership can make a real impact on the homelessness problem. As to a system of "pepper-potting", which was used by my noble friend's council in Enfield, he is right to say that that is somewhat out of fashion at the moment and is said to lead to problems. However, I agree that we need to address the problem of what kind of accommodation local councils should provide to deal with those who are temporarily homeless. Is it right that bed and breakfast is used so often, or would it be better if there were more properties—for example, in the private rental sector—which could be used to house the homeless?

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, underlined the importance of—she did not like the word—"joined-up" services. We agree that there is a need for joined-up services, not only between local authorities, particularly in London, to ensure that they work together to help the homeless, but between central government, local government and the statutory services in providing help for those who are homeless.

The noble Baroness referred to the 26,000 possession orders that have been made. There is a problem in breaking down the causes of possession orders. We are in discussion at the moment with the Lord Chancellor's Department, which deals with the courts, in an attempt to get under the headline figures and to see whether or not we can break down what causes people to have possession orders made against them, and what more we can do to help them.

The noble Baroness also referred to the issue of young offenders. I believe that she supported the Government's proposition that the more you help young offenders to settle into a home the less likely they are to reoffend.

The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, raised a number of issues, but he broadly welcomed the Bill. He spoke about the issues of lack of affordable housing and housing benefits, to which I have already referred. He referred to asylum seekers making the problem more difficult. Your Lordships will know that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary in another place has made an announcement about reforms for dealing with asylum seekers once they are here. We agree that the quicker one is able to deal with claims, the better it will be for the genuine asylum seekers.

The noble Viscount raised the question of where offenders register. They register where they have a local connection. People do not establish a local connection in an area by reason of being placed in prison there; they register where they have a local connection. He also raised the issue of "jumping the gun", by which I think he meant going up the housing ladder. As I said in opening, we believe that they should be treated as a priority need as homeless people. That does not mean that they are entitled to permanent housing quicker than other people—for example, families who have been waiting for some considerable time.

The noble Viscount raised the issue of the mentally ill. Those who are vulnerable by reason of mental illness are already a priority need group under existing legislation. As to young people, it is proposed that the priority needs order should be extended to include all 16 and 17 year-olds, all 18 to 21 year-olds who come out of care or the Armed Forces, or who are young offenders.

It has been an excellent debate. Every noble Lord has contributed from the heart and from a desire to make a difference. I very much look forward to the Committee and Report stages, where I hope we will all agree and try to make it a better Bill.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.