First census of rough sleepers in homeless Bill

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Former soldiers, freed criminals and people brought up in care are to be allowed to go to the top of council house queues in a radical reform of homeless policy to be announced on Wednesday.

Former soldiers, freed criminals and people brought up in care are to be allowed to go to the top of council house queues in a radical reform of homeless policy to be announced on Wednesday.

A new Bill, which will force a duty of care on local authorities to provide accommodation for vulnerable groups, is being prepared for inclusion in the Queen's Speech.

The Bill will also pave the way for the first census of "rough sleepers" in England and Wales by requesting councils record the number of homeless in their boundaries once a year. Thiswill also help councils determine whether they have set aside enough housing for the homeless.

Around 1,000 people are believed to sleep rough, with many thousand more in temporary accommodation or "sleeping on friends' floors".

The Bill, which Whitehall sources say will be "short" to ensure that it will become law before the next general election, is expected to reverse the Tories' removal of the duty on local authorities to find permanent housing for homeless families. It will identify people who have come out of "institutions" - such as former members of the armed forces, teenagers leaving local authority care and young offenders released from prison - as priority cases for local authority housing.

Allowing people with criminal records priority over families and local people who are waiting on local housing lists is a controversial measure that is likely to be opposed by the Conservatives. But ministers want to "break the cycle of crime" and believe that helping people who have served less than a year in prison get off the streets will reduce the reoffending rate.

The Tories are not expected to oppose plans to designate teenagers leaving children's homes and ex-military personnel as vulnerable groups who should be housed. Men who have left the Army account for a disproportionate number of homeless people.

Studies show 40 per cent of those leaving prison become homeless and a third of children leaving care end up living on the streets. But local authorities are not required to treat these groups as priorities for subsidised housing. Women with children, the elderly and people with mental health problems tend to go to the top of the queue.

Ministers have come under pressure to fulfil their manifesto commitment to help the homeless. The Labour manifesto promised to "impose a new duty on local authorities to protect those who are homeless through not fault of their own and who are in priority need".

The Queen's Speech will also feature a Bill banning hunting which will impose a prison term for those who fail to pay a £5,000 fine.

The Bill will include three options which will be voted on by MPs and peers in "a free vote" according to an individual's personal views and conscience. One option will be a complete ban on fox hunting, another self-regulation by the fox hunting fraternity and the third will be a "middle way" - the establishment of an independent regulatory body which will have the power to ban hunting cubs and hunts in populated areas.

The new regulatory body would include a representative in favour of hunting, a country landowner, a conservationist, a vet, an animal welfare expert and an impartial chairman.

MPs are expected to vote for an outright ban, prompting fears that ardent hunters will deliberately flout the law and seek imprisonment as "martyrs". But the Bill is likely to be blocked by the pro-hunting House of Lords.

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