Bill to ban 'queue-jumping' by homeless: New laws will end duty to provide homes for single mothers. Colin Brown reports

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The Independent Online
SIR GEORGE YOUNG, Minister for Housing, was accused by Labour yesterday of 'scapegoating the homeless' and bidding for a place in the Cabinet by announcing the go-ahead for legislation to stop the homeless jumping the queue for council housing.

The Government will introduce a Bill - probably in the Queen's Speech in November - to abolish the duty on local authorities to provide permanent accommodation for homeless people such as single mothers. It will be replaced by a duty to provide 'reasonable and suitable' accommodation for 12 months, pending review.

Although Sir George backed down from a plan to allow councils to fulfil their duty by putting the homeless into hostels and bed- and-breakfast accommodation, his statement to MPs caused an outcry in the Commons and among housing campaigners.

It was attacked as an 'unworthy and mean-spirited' plan by John Battle, the Labour spokesman on housing. It would 'scapegoat' the homeless, cost millions of pounds, and not provide a single extra home, he said. Gerald Kaufman, a former Shadow minister, said it was 'good news for the manufacturers of cardboard boxes'.

Shelter, the housing charity, urged the Government not to change the law. Sheila McKechnie, its director, said families seeking help in housing aid centres 'need permanent homes, not the strain on family life'.

Ministers expect the private sector to be used by councils, who, for the first time, will be able to use private short-lease flats and houses, which failed to qualify under the 'permanent accommodation' requirement in the 1977 Act.

That could lead to more homeless people being put up at the taxpayers' expense in unsold flats for rent, for example in the London Docklands. But with cuts in housing benefit planned, it is uncertain how long that could continue.

Sir George, whose statement in the Commons won support from Tory MPs, said: 'There is no reason why a household in suitable accommodation should be given a secure or assured tenancy for life merely because at some stage they have been accepted as statutorily homeless. That approach is not fair to people on the housing waiting list.'

The plans to amend the Housing and Homeless Persons Act 1977 will fulfil a pledge made by Sir George to the annual Tory party conference last year, when he was accused of appeasing the right wing, after the storm over unmarried teenage girls allegedly seeking housing by getting pregnant. Julian Brazier, a Tory backbencher, said the 1977 Act - introduced by Labour in the wake of the outcry over the Cathy Come Home television documentary - had caused an 'explosion of illegitimacy'.

It will tighten rules to stop people making themselves intentionally homeless. Those thrown out of the family home or turned out of flats by friends will no longer be automatically regarded as homeless. Foreigners granted entry to Britain on the understanding that they will have no call on public funds will not be entitled to public housing under the new legislation.

Sir George is convinced that it will lead to more young people staying at home rather than seeking a council flat. By removing the priority for the homeless, it will encourage them to apply for council or housing association homes by the normal waiting-list system. It will also drive more homeless young back to their families or to find more permanent accommodation, ministers believe. The Department of the Environment strongly denied the move was Treasury-led - officials said the expenditure impact was 'broadly neutral'.

Housing associations, widely regarded during the Eighties as the organisations filling the vacuum created by council house sales, are in danger of providing 'poor homes for poor people', according to a report published today, writes Steve Boggan.

More than 60 per cent of their properties have less living and storage space than minimum levels recommended 33 years ago. Bad designs, coupled with falling government grants, mean that housing-association tenants risk 'paying more for less', the report, by the independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation, says.

Professor Valerie Karn, of Manchester University, co-author of the study, said new housing association properties will become the equivalent of the architectural failures of the Sixties and Seventies because no scope has been included for adaptation. 'Our survey shows they are in danger of becoming the mass providers of poor homes for poor people.'

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