Outcry over Bill to end family housing priority

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The Independent Online

Public Policy Editor

The Government yesterday pressed ahead with its plans to reshape legislation covering the homeless, to bitter protests from housing groups and the promise of outright opposition from Labour.

There are signs that the Tory whips are not entirely confident of carrying the measure in a Housing Bill which has in effect been split in two after it threatened to be the biggest piece of legislation ever laid before Parliament. A second Bill covering construction and regeneration measures will be introduced into the Lords next month.

Because of the size of the Bill, David Curry, the Housing Minister, said yesterday that plans to give grants to private companies to build housing association-type homes, and the rent regulation that would go with that, have been postponed. Although the measures will be considered for the next session of Parliament, the electoral timetable makes it unlikely they will reach the statute book.

The biggest controversy, however, will be the removal of the duty on councils to give priority for permanent homes to homeless families. Instead they will be provided with temporary housing, which could be in the private sector, for 12 months, renewable if they are still homeless for another 12 months. Any extension beyond that will have to be in the private sector. They will take their place alongside others - including childless couples - on the waiting list for permanent accommodation.

Mr Curry argued yesterday that that would retain a safety net while providing greater fairness. Permanent homes would be allocated on the basis of need, not its cause.

Shelter argued that the measure "strikes at the very heart of family life" by forcing families with children into expensive temporary private lets.

John Perry, director of policy at the Institute of Housing, said homeless families would face repeated moves, disrupting children's education, in a regime likely to produce different provision in different local authorities.

Nick Raynsford, Labour's housing spokesman, predicted that the end result would be families - not just single people and couples - on the streets.

Some parts of the Bill won widespread support - notably new powers for local authorities to set up housing companies which will take over council stock but have access to private capital to refurbish them, and measures to make it easier for landlords to deal with anti- social tenants.

n Housing benefit fraud may be costing pounds 1bn a year, according to a study released by the Department of Social Security yesterday. That loss, around 10 per cent of the housing benefit bill, is on top of the pounds 1.4bn in unemployment benefit and income support fraud identified by an earlier study.

From July a national register will match data across local authorities, catching people who claim in more than one local authority area. Councils are being offered a pounds 10m challenge fund to develop anti-fraud measures. New incentives for councils to detect fraud and more work by the Audit Commission are also being introduced.