Localism Bill — Report (1st Day)
Moved by Lord Whitty
1: Before Clause 132, insert the following new Clause-
(1) All measures required of local housing authorities in relation to social housing and homelessness as a result of this Part shall be undertaken in consistency with the housing strategy required by subsection (3) and with requirements under section 87 of the Local Government Act 2003 and section 13 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, and regulations and guidance issued by the Secretary of State.
(2) All local housing authorities must draw up an analysis of housing supply and demand in their areas and neighbouring areas as far as is relevant.
This analysis should include all forms of tenure in their area and cover at least the following-
(a) trends in housing supply and demand in the owner occupied, private rented and social housing sectors;
(b) trends in housing prices and rents;
(c) new developments, new build and conversions;
(d) empty properties;
(e) second homes; and
(f) broad demographic and employment trends in their areas.
(3) On the basis of this analysis, each local housing authority shall draw up a rolling ten year housing strategy for their area."
Lord Whitty (Labour)
My Lords, I recognise the Minister's confusion and nevertheless thank her for agreeing to deal with Report as we have. The reason that she was confused was that we clearly did not have a satisfactory end to Committee, and the last couple of parts of the Bill were not sensibly debated in this House. I am therefore very grateful-as, I think, are my colleagues on the Front Bench-that we are first debating on Report those parts which were then rather sparsely dealt. I thank her and, having seen the Chief Whip just walk into the Chamber, I hope that equivalent flexibility is shown from the Government Front Bench on other issues.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns (Lords Chief Whip, House of Lords; Conservative)
My Lords, I think that I had better assist the House. As the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, recognised, the flexibility given was in granting extra time at Report. However, for the guidance of the House, we follow Report stage rules, and I would not wish there to be any confusion on that matter.
Lord Whitty (Labour)
My Lords, I hope that I and my colleagues will keep to that.
In moving Amendment 1, I declare an interest as chair of a recently formed campaign group, Housing Voice. Amendment 1 is very similar to an amendment which was debated in Committee and it sets the provisions on social housing under the Bill in a wider context. This reconfigured amendment takes account of the response given by the Minister to that amendment. Like everyone else, I want to get on to the amendments that deal with the detailed issues which were not debated or replied to in Committee, so I shall not go over all the arguments again.
Simply, there are three reasons why we need an overarching commitment to the role of local authorities within housing as a whole. First, under localism, and as a result of other things, including the abolition of regional housing targets, local authorities have now become the major driver for achieving housing policy across the country. This follows more than two decades when the housing responsibilities of local authorities under both Governments have been somewhat reduced and their direct control as landlords has substantially reduced. This Bill and its consequences will put local authorities and a lot of the strategy relating to housing back on to local authority shoulders.
Secondly, I think we all recognise that housing is in crisis in terms of its provision, availability and affordability, and I shall just repeat one statistic. Household formation in this country is now running at twice the rate of the provision of new housing. Thirdly, that crisis affects all forms of tenure-owner occupation, the private rented sector and social housing-as well as mortgage markets. Therefore, it needs to be tackled holistically and there is a key role for local authorities in that. That should be put clearly at the beginning of this section on housing and the strategic responsibilities spelled out up front.
In reply to me in Committee, the Minister referred to other legislation where a strategic responsibility was already imposed on local authorities. As a result of her remarks, I have looked at those pieces of legislation and cross-referred to them in this new amendment. They are either rather specific or rather general. The Minister also referred to guidance in this area. Of course, the guidance is in the process of being changed to become somewhat more general, so the existing statutory references and the guidance are rather too vague. It is therefore in the context of localism and of the effective devolution of strategic responsibility to local authorities that we need a strategic responsibility in this House, rather than further ghettoising social housing, as there is a slight tendency to do in the Bill. The Bill would make significant changes to the way in which social housing operates without cross-reference to the effect of the changes on other forms of tenure, or indeed vice versa.
We will come to debate the provisions, on which there will be strongly differing views, but my central point is that almost none of them can be confined to social housing. They will have effects on the private rented market. That is referred to in part in the homelessness provisions but nowhere else. They will also have effects on the demand for affordable mortgages, on planning, on development, on homelessness and on how local authorities deal with empty properties. The consequences of some of the provisions will be that social housing is seen as a residual housing responsibility rather than part of this whole. Whatever one thinks of those policies and the parallel policies dealing with the benefit side in the Welfare Reform Bill that we will debate next week, one cannot deny that the present housing crisis means that the pressures on social housing by restrictions on access to tenancies, or by raising rents, will cause further pressures on the private rented sector and the mortgage market. Nor can one deny that the effects of moving relatively high income groups of current social tenants out of the social tenancy market will also have those effects.
This Bill will make radical changes on social housing. It removes security of tenure for future tenants, abolishes most rights of inheritance and abolishes the financial framework under the HRA. It makes the availability of social housing effectively means-tested and the Welfare Reform Bill caps housing benefit. One can query whether that is consistent with the Government's overall strategy to move people from benefit to work, but nevertheless it will have those effects. There are also changes, which we will debate shortly, to the obligation of local authorities on homelessness. It will therefore push working families into the private rented or affordable mortgage market and may well drive the working poor in many parts of the country out of social housing and to change their location from the inner cities, putting pressure on areas where perhaps it is not currently so great. Except in relation to homelessness, there is no cross reference to those pressures.
Pressures are likely to increase and we will see a spiral increase in demand. A low rate of new build is continuing and the level of rents and access to mortgages and deposits on mortgages are all still going up. The latest reports suggest no let-up in that tendency. We need a clause of this nature in the housing provisions of a Localism Bill. We also need local authorities to co-operate with each other, which will be discussed in the planning provisions of this Bill. Whatever we decide on the provision for social housing, and assuming that the rest of the Bill more or less stands-especially if it stands as it is-we need social housing measures now clearly devolved to local government level to be placed within this wider context. We therefore need a clause such as this.
The existing provisions are not adequate. I appreciate that the Government may not like the wording of this proposed new clause, so if they want to take it away and come up with a better version in time for Third Reading, I am not proud and would be very happy if they were to give that commitment. Such a provision is absolutely needed. I beg to move.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Labour)
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Whitty put forward a similar amendment in Committee on the last day before the Summer Recess. The Opposition did then, and do now, give this amendment our full support and hope that there will be a positive response from the Government today.
There is a crisis in housing across all sectors. We have huge numbers of people on the waiting lists for social housing. The private rented sector cannot meet the demand as the cost of renting in this sector is often out of the reach of many people. You have only to look in the windows of your local estate agents, nearly all of which have a section devoted to private renting, to see what rents are being demanded per month. I grew up in social housing and was lucky enough to buy my first property in my twenties, but the picture is very different now, with people often having to wait until their thirties or forties to get on the property ladder, as they save up the money required for the deposit needed to get on the first rung.
In her response to the debate in Committee the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said that the amendment was unnecessary as local housing authorities were already under statutory obligations. She quoted both Section 13 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 and Section 87 of the Local Government Act 2003. That is fine as far as it goes, and noble Lords will see that my noble friend Lord Whitty draws in on those two provisions in proposed subsection (1) of his amendment in relation to social housing and homelessness. It goes on to require all housing authorities to draw up an analysis of housing supply and demand across all forms of tenure in their areas and neighbouring areas as far as is relevant. They must look at housing trends across all sectors, take stock of house prices and rents, understand what has been built and provided locally, and know the number and type of empty properties: for example, is this an area where there are a number of second homes, and what are the demographic and employment trends in the area? All this must be brought together to enable an authority to plan, make informed decisions and act to build communities and to enable areas to grow and prosper.
This is a sensible proposal and I hope that the Government have reflected on it over the summer. If they are not prepared to accept the amendment, that is regrettable, and I hope that the Minister will be able to tell the House in detail why not. If my noble friend is not satisfied, he may wish to test the opinion of the House.
Lord Waddington (Conservative)
My Lords, I was not intending to speak in this debate. In my few words I will try to be helpful. It is slightly extraordinary that we are prone to talking about the need for joined-up government, yet we debate for hours housing need and broad demographic trends and never mention the dreaded word "immigration". There has been study after study of population trends. Every one comes to the same conclusion; if immigration continues at about the current level, there will be a massive explosion in our population. As long ago as 2007, the ONS pointed out that up to 70 per cent of housing need is driven by immigration. Therefore, it is completely frivolous to talk about housing need without putting it in the context of many factors, of which clearly immigration is one.
It has been argued forcefully that if we could have a neutral position with precisely the same number of people leaving the country as coming into it, all the housing projections would be shown to be entirely unhelpful, because they suggest that housing need would evaporate just like that. That is the conclusion of almost every study that has been made. I am not saying that nil immigration is a possibility, but we ought now and again in our debates about housing need to mention how immigration and housing policies are closely interrelated. One cannot talk about one without talking about the other, yet most people are terribly fearful of talking about immigration. It is almost a forbidden subject. It is time we related the two subjects to make sense of them.
Baroness Wall of New Barnet (Labour)
My Lords, will the noble Lord read again what the amendment of my noble friend Lord Whitty calls for? I, too, had not intended to speak, but need to react to what he has just said. Subsection (2) states:
"All local housing authorities must draw up an analysis of housing supply and demand"-
that is to say, need-
"in their areas and the neighbouring areas as far as is relevant".
Therefore, there is no need for us to specialise in any particular area in the way in which the noble Lord suggested, because the amendment demands that all of that should be looked at-what is needed and what the supply will be, taking into account further areas that the authorities need to look at before covering that.
Lord Newton of Braintree (Conservative)
My Lords, I had not intended to intervene, either. I do not want to go too far down the same line as my noble friend Lord Waddington. Obviously, immigration-the number of people coming in as against the number going out-has some effect on the housing market. It must do. However, a lot of other trends, including the growth in the number of single-parent families and the huge increase in the number of people living on into old age as single people, are generating an additional demand for housing. That should be set against the current background where, even with low interest rates, the low availability of mortgages and the drop in housebuilding are creating something that we need to take seriously-namely, a diminution in home ownership in this country. As a Conservative who strongly supported the right to buy, with all the effects that that had, I am alarmed that we now have a situation in which our housing policy appears to be leading to a steady diminution in home ownership. There are strategic issues here that need looking at.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes (Conservative)
I am, of course, an immigrant, although I immigrated a long time ago. I remember being quite unsurprised to learn when I arrived in this country that there was no way in which an immigrant could get social housing. As the years have gone by, that position has changed dramatically. My major concern is the people who have waited on a housing list for 10, 15, 20 or 25 years without a hope in the world of ever getting anything. They see others-very often asylum seekers or others who have newly arrived in this country and are in need-jumping the queue. I cannot understand why if you arrive in this country needing housing-and are very grateful to be here, because this has always been a very hospitable country-you would be unprepared to go to an area of the country where there is vacant housing that is not being used. Many of these immigrants are quite capable of doing up properties themselves. I cannot understand why that is not a process. I am told by a local authority that I spoke to recently about this type of case that it has no flexibility in the matter. As I understand it, under the Homelessness Act it cannot say that people are entitled to be considered for housing because they have waited 25 years. It is not allowed to take any such matters into consideration. This is where the Bill will improve people's rights and make the process for getting social housing fairer.
The other thing that is desperately important is for councils to empty out social housing that is occupied not by those to whom it was given but by the sub-tenants to whom those tenants let it illegally. A huge amount of housing could be made available if that was looked into more thoroughly.
Lord Shipley (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I shall contribute briefly to this debate, although I, too, had not intended to do so. From my perspective, immigrants are welcome and underpin our economy. I say that because our wealth as a country has been dependent over many generations on those who come to live here.
Perhaps I may take us back to the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. In Committee I said that I had some sympathy with calls for a housing strategy. However, I am less certain that the timescale which the amendment describes-a 10-year rolling housing strategy-is sufficient because, as my noble friend Lord Newton pointed out, things change quickly. We are well aware that we have a growing rented sector; that in some parts of the country rents are rising well above the rate of inflation; that mortgage repossessions are rising, and that household formation is running at twice the rate of our new house-building programme. As we all acknowledge, the Government's plans for 170,000 homes at affordable rents will not be sufficient to bridge that gap, which is why the growth in owner occupation matters so much. However, people have to be able to get a mortgage. At present, with signs of rising unemployment and rising homelessness, there is a very real danger that more people will go into the private rented sector and that there will be a reduction in the quality of that housing stock.
There is a case for local councils here. Surely good local councils will have some awareness of what is lacking in their area, what the market needs, what private house builders will want to build and what the social housing needs of their area are going to be. They are going to have to be aware of that, otherwise I do not think that another part of the Localism Bill-the part relating to neighbourhood planning-will work. Neighbourhood planning requires some kind of evidence base to enable decisions to be made by neighbourhoods and, more broadly within the authority as a whole, about what the plans for that area should be. Housing and the use of land are central to that.
I hope that there is a way forward and that my noble friend will be able to reassure us. You do not actually need a 10-year housing strategy. You do need an acute, local awareness of housing demand and trends and an ability to be much more fleet of foot in meeting those trends than we have seen over the past two decades.
Lord Williamson of Horton (Crossbench)
My Lords, we are now coming to the vital questions of homelessness and overcrowding, but this amendment is a little different. It is a general amendment dealing with housing strategy. It does not deal only with the problems of homelessness and getting on the housing ladder: it deals with the whole structure in a local area of what is happening in the housing domain.
I see a lot of merit in this amendment for ensuring that in one way or another we can guarantee that this sort of information is available at the local level. No doubt the Minister will comment on that point because that is the issue underlying this amendment. Is this information seriously available at a local level? For myself, issues such as employment trends, not in the country as a whole but in a region or local area, are quite different. These issues are important for the planning and future analysis of how we can have the houses that we need for the population in individual areas.
Similarly, there is the question of empty properties. We now have town centres with hundreds of empty shops which could easily be converted into housing. Will they be converted into housing? We do not know, but that should be featured in the knowledge available to the local authority. I am not pressing for the exact words, but I am sympathetic to this idea and I hope that the Minister will comment on that in his reply.
Lord Beecham (Labour)
My Lords, I support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Whitty and will make a couple of observations-one in relation to something that was touched on in the amendment and another that is implicit. In the first case I refer to subsection (2) in the amendment, where my noble friend suggests:
"All local housing authorities must draw up an analysis of housing supply and demand in their areas and neighbouring areas as far as is relevant".
In many cases that is a fundamental point which was made more difficult by the abolition of the regional spatial strategies. We know of authorities that are currently having considerable difficulties. In earlier debates I cited the case of Stevenage, which was looking to increase its housing stock. It cannot do so within the narrow confines of the borough, and it is not finding a warm welcome from the adjoining borough of North Hertfordshire. There are other cases of that kind.
In looking at housing needs, as has previously been indicated, it is sometimes necessary to look beyond the confines of an individual housing authority and to make proper provision for at least a sub-regional area. That is an important part of the amendment. I would be grateful for some assurance from the Minister that, even if she is not prepared to accept the amendment as it stands-and I hazard a guess that she might not be-the Government will look at how these cross-boundary issues of determining housing need can be adequately addressed.
The other issue could be wrapped up within subsection (2)(f) of the amendment:
"broad demographic and employment trends in their areas".
One change in the housing situation in many towns and cities with universities and colleges is the high demand for student accommodation. Some of that is met by purpose building-by the university or private institutions-but a lot of it is met by the occupation by students of what in normal circumstances would be family housing.
As with immigrants, there is certainly a strong case to be made for the contribution made by students, and higher and further education, within the local economy. However, they absorb a considerable amount of housing accommodation that was originally designed for families and put additional pressure on the local housing stock and the local housing market. In the light of changes to be made to housing benefit and welfare benefits generally, that pressure is likely to increase because private landlords may well find students a readier purchaser of rented accommodation, as it were, and more able to afford it, than ordinary families and ordinary individuals seeking housing. I think my noble friend Lord Whitty would agree that this should be included in the demographic trends and analysis that he suggests authorities should make. Again, it would be helpful if the Minister were able to comment on this issue.
Finally, the issue of the number of vacant properties has already been touched on this afternoon. This was referred to this morning in a meeting convened by the Minister, with her right honourable friend the Minister for Housing. Mr Shapps rightly pointed out that waiting lists have grown to something like 1.2 million. He also said that there were a million empty properties in the country-correcting me, appropriately; I thought it was somewhat less than that-which would virtually take care of the waiting list.
Of course there are good reasons why some properties will remain vacant for some time-while they change hands, for example-but there is a real issue over bringing into use the empty properties that could help deal with the housing problem. I regret that the Government's policies on empty dwelling management orders, for example, make it more difficult, not less, for local authorities to address the issue of properties that have been left vacant for some time. They now have to be vacant for two years or more and include an element of environmental degradation before a council can take action. Again, dealing with empty properties is referred to in the housing strategy, but it would be welcome if the Minister would indicate whether there are proposals currently in the Government's mind to facilitate the use of empty accommodation and to speed up the process of dealing with empty properties.
Baroness Hanham (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Communities and Local Government; Conservative)
My Lords, I got us off to a really good start, and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has taken that on as well. This is a general amendment on a very serious and specific subject, and I recognise all that has been said across the House and the analysis of the housing situation. In all fairness, I should point out that this is not just a short-term problem. This has been a long-term problem over the years, and both the previous Government and this Government have been trying very hard to address at least some of the issues that have been raised.
There are all sorts of reasons behind a lack of housing and none of us would disagree that the present situation is pretty difficult. It is pretty difficult in the private market. It is very difficult, as has already been said, for young people to get on to the housing ladder; it is very difficult for them to afford mortgages. There is a big problem for that age group and for people starting off on their housing lives.
As has already been said, and was admitted by the Minister this morning, there are empty properties that need to be brought back into use. There is a lot of pressure on housing requirements all round. As the Minister also said, in reality we cannot build ourselves out of these difficulties in the short term. One hundred and seventy thousand homes are being built through the affordable homes programme for social housing, and they will make some contribution towards it. The waiting lists have gone up and, as has been said already, a million homes are required, which is a big problem. The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is about drawing attention to that and identifying what is required. He said that in Committee I said that this amendment would not be needed. It will not surprise him when I say now that it is not needed. Already, there are statutory provisions requiring local authorities, which the noble Lord mentioned, to collect evidence on housing need and demand in their areas for market and affordable housing. That is in planning policy statement 3 and is included in the guidance.
Local authorities are already required to plan effectively for the housing needs of their population under Section 13 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, which of course was brought in by the Government of noble Lords opposite. They are also required to discharge their housing functions in accordance with the strategic priorities as detailed in their housing strategies. We dealt also with housing strategies at the previous stage.
While I understand that the noble Lord is trying to make sure that local authorities understand the way in which their housing markets operate, what their limited stock may be used for and how they will plan for the future, in fact those requirements are already there. I am also certain that the Homes and Communities Agency, which works with local partners, has to demonstrate that it understands the local housing market, including supply, the private rental sector, social housing and homelessness. There are requirements all round for this information to be available. One aspect of this Bill is that it includes enormous areas-we could, for example, spend a long time discussing empty properties, student accommodation and other areas-but this is not a Bill precisely for the big housing provisions; it has some quite specific areas to deal with.
I do not think that I can add anything more. We do not require these amendments. I certainly agree with my noble friend Lord Shipley that a 10-year housing strategy would not be helpful. My experience of housing strategies for a period is that they are usually completely useless and out of date before they get started. Even though the noble Lord says that this would be a rolling programme, to try to envisage 10 years forward would not be at all helpful. The matters detailed in the amendment are all requirements already. All local authorities should know their requirements, even if they cannot meet them, and should be making plans to ensure that they know what those requirements are. In working with the private sector as well as the social sector, they should be able to see whether or where they can make progress.
It is an escapable fact that the housing market is in a very difficult situation, as is the country's economy. As I have said, the previous Government had as many problems with this as we are experiencing at the moment. I do not think that any of that will be resolved by this amendment, and therefore I ask the noble Lord to withdraw it.
Lord Whitty (Labour)
My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving the amendment her careful consideration, and I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, my noble friends Lord Beecham, Lord Kennedy and Lady Wall, and to some extent the noble Lord, Lord Newton, for speaking in support of it. The Minister has reiterated her previous position that this amendment is not necessary and I think I interpret that as her saying that not only are there objections to the wording of this particular proposed new clause in terms of a 10-year rolling strategy and other things but that she could envisage no strategic clause that would be helpful to the position. If that is the case, I have to part company with her.
The noble Baroness was right to say in opening that there is a long-term trend and that it will certainly take a long-term programme to reverse it. However, things have got significantly worse in the past few years with the decline in new build as well as in the mortgage market. As the noble Lord, Lord Newton, said, for the past 30 or more years we have assumed that the housing situation was going to be improved, at least in the long term, by the increase in home ownership. That has seen a very sharp reversal. We see from a report published only last week by the National Housing Federation that home ownership has already fallen from over 70 per cent to 63 per cent, and it envisages that it will shortly be below 60 per cent. That is an entirely new situation confronting the Government, developers and local authorities, so there is a sharper situation than the one envisaged by the provisions of the earlier legislation.
I also think that this Bill as a whole places more responsibility on local authorities than was the case when those pieces of legislation were brought forward. Personally, I am in favour of putting more responsibility on local authorities in this regard, and in that sense I depart from some of the measures taken by the previous Government and the one before that. However, in the situation that we face, local authorities are both legislatively and in reality going to have to take more responsibility, and therefore they need a strategic framework.
Furthermore, the key point which the noble Baroness missed is that the third line of the amendment makes it clear that we cannot consider the social housing strategy set out in subsequent clauses of this Bill, which we shall come to debate, unless it is set against an overall strategy. That, in a sense, is the main reason for putting this in at this point in the Bill, otherwise we move straight to social housing, with all the problems of waiting lists, which we know councils face, and all the problems that have been identified in relation to the provision and allocation of social housing without referring to a wider framework. That would be wrong.
There are legitimate questions about whether a 10-year strategy is the right one. We need some sense of perspective for planning and development purposes, but we must also recognise that we have to adapt to changing circumstances. A rolling programme allows you to do that. If the noble Baroness wishes me to change the reference to 10 years, I will do so, but we need some sort of rolling programme. If we do not have it, the social housing propositions in the Bill will be seen-I hate to put it in these terms in one sense-as an attack on past social housing practice and a problem for future social housing rather than as a contribution towards solving the overall housing crisis. I therefore think that this issue is sufficiently important for me to test the opinion of the House on the amendment.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Labour)
My Lords, I moved these amendments on the last day before the Summer Recess and we are back to them again on the first day after the recess. These are two very important amendments and, as I told the House on
I have tabled these amendments because at present it is not clear that tenants have any protection and, as it stands, the effect of the Bill may be to block up the system. As people progress through life, if they have children and then grow up and move on, often they want, and are prepared, to downsize the accommodation they are living in. This would mean that they can live in a property that is more suitable to their present circumstances. That is good for them and good for the local community at the same time, as it frees up much-needed accommodation with a large number of bedrooms and other amenities, which can then be used to help people in housing need. But no one will even consider downsizing in that way if the consequence could be that they lose their secure tenant status. Of what possible benefit would it be to them? If you are in your late 50s and it is just the two of you and you have downsized, all of a sudden you could be on a flexible tenancy for, one hopes, five years, because the council has followed the guidance and not tried to give you a shorter tenancy. Why would anyone want to do that? There is no incentive to do that; it would just cause risk and worry to you, as you start to think about retirement and taking things a bit easier.
One of the most worrying aspects here is the law of unintended consequences. You may be trying to solve a problem and make matters worse. It is also worrying that, taken with the proposal to cut housing benefit for people who are under-occupying, this could be seen as a two-pronged attack on some of the most vulnerable people in social housing and in social need. We on these Benches oppose that strongly.
In the other place, Mr Andrew Stunell, the Liberal Democrat Member for Hazel Grove and a ministerial colleague of the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, at the Department for Communities and Local Government, recognised that these proposals would cause concern. He spoke about what any sensible landlord would do, but the problem is that people sometimes do stupid things and social landlords and local housing authorities are no exception to that rule. Also, I do not think it is a sensible way to legislate-with our fingers crossed, saying, "Don't worry, it will never happen". If we go on like that, we will very quickly be able to point to new examples of exactly that happening. If the Government have no intention of seeing secure tenants offered flexible tenancies when they move, they should accept my amendments, because to do otherwise gives a clear signal that they are either not thinking the problem through or in fact that is exactly what they really intend. I beg to move.
Baroness Hanham (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Communities and Local Government; Conservative)
My Lords, when I stood up last time I was remiss in not welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, to his full-time position on the Front Bench. He is very welcome indeed and I hope that he is going to enjoy it. He may not enjoy the start of it, though; I fully understand what he is saying on this amendment but I also think that a bit of flexibility within the provisions is required.
We do not think that it is necessary to legislate to prevent local authorities from ever disqualifying transferring tenants. There may be exceptional circumstances where, for example, tenants have not paid their rent or there is some problem associated with the transfer, but by and large, under practically all circumstances, we would expect transferring tenants to be transferred without trouble. The noble Lord mentioned downsizing to a smaller flat, moving from a bigger flat to a smaller one or moving because of work from one place to another. We would expect all those to go without any difficulty at all and without the local authority having to make any exceptions.
As I say, though, there might just be exceptions. The only one that I will give the noble Lord at the moment is that there might be rent arrears that need to be paid off before the tenants move. Flexibility for the local authority in those circumstances would be removed by this amendment. We are producing secondary legislation that will outline when local authorities can and cannot prevent people transferring. If there were any evidence that local authorities were disqualifying transferring tenants inappropriately, that would be covered by that secondary legislation, which will not be on hand immediately but is coming.
I believe that the positions as currently drafted are correct and that the proposed provisions are unnecessary. I hope that the noble Lord will feel that he can withdraw his amendment.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes (Conservative)
I thought we could do that on Report for a question. I asked the Clerk earlier. Perhaps that could be clarified.
If the local authority were adopting a flexible policy and happened to adopt the policy as set out in the amendment, could it do that in any case without it being in the Bill?
Baroness Hanham (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Communities and Local Government; Conservative)
The local authority has flexibility at present so it would be able to prevent the transfer. The wording will mean that it is fully understood that the transferring tenants will perhaps not be able to transfer under those circumstances.
My Lords, I will seek advice about that as it was not in my notes. I will tell the noble Lord about that as soon as that information appears, whether on this amendment or another one.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Labour)
I thank the Minister, and I am grateful for her kind remarks at the start of this debate. Hopefully, we will get a response on the guidance later on. Her remarks have given me some comfort and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
Amendment 3 not moved.
Moved by Lord Shipley
4: Clause 134, page 126, line 4, after "1985)" insert "or who have been owed such duties at any time within the previous five years,"
Lord Shipley (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, in moving Amendment 4 I shall speak also to Amendments 7, 17 and 18. I first thank my noble friend the Minister for the helpful letter that she sent to me during the Recess in response to several of the amendments that I had tabled in Committee. Several of the issues that arise from that will be considered further on Report. In this group of amendments, I should like to press a little further on some of the key issues.
The effect of Amendment 4 is to extend the period during which the homelessness duties will recur if a local authority discharges its duties by means of a private rented sector offer. I am keen to extend it from two to five years. Secondly, it would provide for a household that has been accepted as homeless to receive reasonable preference on the authority's allocation scheme during that period of five years because of its need for stable accommodation to break the cycle of insecure accommodation. Two years is simply too short and will increase the insecurity of those who have been accepted as homeless.
The Bill currently sets out that the homelessness duty can recur only once following the loss of accommodation during the recurrence period. Therefore, if the applicant was subsequently evicted from the accommodation provided on the reapplication, the duty would not recur for a second time. The applicant would have to make a fresh homelessness application. I find this restriction difficult to justify and see no good reason why the homelessness duty should not recur on each reapplication. Crucially, it would provide a key incentive for local authorities to ensure that their original allocation was as suitable as possible.
The main homelessness duty is owed to people who are considered to have a priority need. These include households made up of a pregnant woman; dependent children; applicants aged 16 or 17; applicants aged between 18 and 20 who have been in care; applicants who are vulnerable as a result of having been in care, old age, mental illness, handicap or physical disability; and those who have perhaps been a member of the Armed Forces, served a custodial sentence or fled violence or threats of violence. These are examples of groups who are most in need of secure, affordable homes and whose welfare would be most at risk from a series of short-term lettings and repeat homelessness. That is why two years is simply not sufficient and five years would be much better.
People who leave an institutional setting such as care, hospital, the Armed Forces or prison often struggle to live independently and deal with all the practicalities involved in establishing a home, particularly if they lack support. Knowing that they may be forced to move again quite soon can be particularly unsettling and may throw up practical and financial problems. Combined with the recent and forthcoming restrictions to the local housing allowance, this part of the Bill will mean that households that are dependent on full or partial housing benefit will be pushed into the cheapest third of the private rented sector, without any reasonable preference by virtue of their homelessness for a permanent and affordable home provided by an accountable and regulated social landlord, who can then refer them to support and advice services.
There is a link between homelessness and reasonable preference for social housing. The Housing Act 1996 limited the duty to accommodate homeless applicants to two years. Part 6 of that Act established that permanent accommodation can be obtained only through the allocation scheme, not through the homelessness duty, although homeless people should have reasonable preference in allocation. The Homelessness Act 2002 restored the duty to accommodate indefinitely, if necessary via the provision of temporary accommodation, until a settled home is secured. However, the 2002 Act also introduced the qualifying offer, whereby the homelessness duty can be discharged into the private rented sector with the applicant's consent.
The danger here is that the Government may undermine the homelessness legislation by removing the need for consent to discharge the duty into an insecure private letting. I fully understand the need for local councils to use private sector accommodation but that private setting needs to be secure as opposed to insecure. Children and vulnerable adults in particular need the security of a permanent home in order successfully to address issues around family relationships, education, schools, employment, mental and physical health, reoffending and drug and alcohol dependency. The only sustainable way to meet housing need in expensive market areas is by increasing the supply of secure and genuinely affordable rented housing. Allowing housing authorities simply to discharge their homeless duty into the private rented sector regardless of local pressures could simply encourage a race to the bottom whereby homeless people are routinely discharged into the private sector, even in areas where social housing is in plentiful supply.
Amendments 7 and 17 relate broadly to the same point. However, Amendment 18 would prevent the duty recurring just once. The Bill allows households who have been placed in the private rented sector and who have become homeless again within two years still to be owed the main homelessness duty regardless of their priority need status. However, it allows this to happen only once. Amendment 18 would remove this provision. A single recurrence of duty does not offer sufficient protection. A homeless person's first accommodation may be unsuitable and lead to repeated homelessness. If people become homeless again because a tenancy breaks down, they should continue to be owed a duty of accommodation as often as it is needed. Reassessing the household each time to determine their priority needs status could be stressful for the household and, indeed, burdensome for the council.
I hope that my noble friend the Minister will look again at the aim of Amendments 4, 7, 17 and 18. I do not think it is too much to ask that those who have been owed such a duty at any time within the previous five years, as opposed to two years, should be assisted in this way. It would help families and individuals who are living in difficult circumstances or have difficult problems to become stabilised in a neighbourhood where they get to know people and people get to know them. I hope very much that my noble friend will increase the two-year period to five years.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes (Conservative)
I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, might wish to speak. I would rather hear from him first. However, I listened with interest to the noble Lord who moved the amendment. I noticed that one of the categories to which he referred comprised those who had fled violence, which comes back to the asylum seekers we discussed earlier. People who have waited years and years for housing feel great resentment in that regard. Their local authority may have placed them in private sector housing. That was certainly the situation in a case of which I know. The people in that case have found the situation in the private sector impossible as the landlady is not prepared to reduce the rent to the housing benefit rate and has already had an eviction order confirmed by the court. The tenants have been told that they must stay in the accommodation and be made homeless as otherwise the council will have no obligation to them at all, and that if they leave the accommodation they will be regarded as being voluntarily homeless. They have gone everywhere to try to find alternative accommodation. I am talking about central London, which has particular problems in this regard. For some reason we all automatically come to central London because it has a great charm. Whether that is because someone else from your country came here previously and you would like to be in a little group with everyone else, I do not know. I was never in "Kangaroo Valley" in Earls Court, but that was a well known fact even there.
However, it concerns me that people who have for years been deserving cases are not getting any opportunity or help. The people who I am talking about are now being offered an opportunity, after 16 years in other accommodation-they are well over 50-of a possible place in a hostel, although they have not been promised that. They are elderly people-well, they are in their 50s, but the husband is not well and has a heart condition.
Why should that happen to people who see accommodation offered to an asylum seeker, who is in a category of being very grateful to this country? It was said by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, when he moved the amendment, that there are areas where social housing is in plentiful supply. When, years ago, I was on Westminster Council and had responsibility for housing, we decided to offer people the right to live in Liverpool where a lot of accommodation was available. They could be offered that rather than bed and breakfast in London, which was all that we could offer here. They were all offered buses and were supposedly taken off to Liverpool. Only 50 per cent of them ever arrived. The other 50 per cent were never seen again, never made any further application to the council, and I have no idea what happened to them. But why was what proved to be an attractive offer for 50 per cent totally unattractive to the other 50 per cent?
We therefore have to be careful when considering anything regarding homelessness that we do not overlook the people who have become homeless after perhaps years of having somewhere to live, or the people who would qualify if we passed the Government's proposals in the Bill, of which I am a strong supporter. They would make it possible for councils to attach value to various things that they think are important locally, such as the connection with an area over time. I am worried by this sort of amendment. I am not directly opposed to it because I have every sympathy with homeless people, but we have to look wider and think about the full implications.
Lord Beecham (Labour)
My Lords, my experience of the housing of asylum seekers in the city of Newcastle certainly does not lead me to the view that they have been given wonderful accommodation for which there was a great deal of demand by those in housing need locally. On the contrary, NASS, the national body charged with responsibility for housing asylum seekers, seemed-if I may put it this way-rather less than careful in its choice of the landlords it engaged and the standards of accommodation that the asylum seekers were given. That reinforces the views of some of us that, while we join the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, in recognising that there is a perfectly reasonable place for the private rented sector in helping to rehouse homeless people, it is imperative that the standards of that housing be adequately assessed and continually monitored.
I therefore strongly support the amendments-in particular the provision about the length of time for which the obligation to rehouse would remain. However, the reference of the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, to Westminster's generous offer to ship people up to Liverpool raises a question. It actually raises several questions, but the one for this afternoon's purposes is whether it would be possible for an authority to discharge its duty under the Bill as it currently stands by offering accommodation outside the area of the authority in which the homeless person currently resides. I may be wrong, but I assume that that would be the case. One hears of authorities in London that are already faced with the possibility of tenants no longer being able to afford accommodation, given the impending changes, and are seeking to acquire or make arrangements for accommodation along the south coast and elsewhere-something that has happened in the past.
Can the Minister give an assurance that it would be at least the initial responsibility of the local authority to try to accommodate people within its boundaries unless the protected tenant or homeless person chooses otherwise? It would be unfortunate if the legislation were, no doubt unwittingly, to encourage the export of homeless people to other authorities, as that may well carry with it other local authority responsibilities-social care and the like-which will be a charge on those authorities, let alone the fact that the people involved may not want to move, at any rate, not for a considerable distance. As I read it-I am open to correction-although authorities are required to advise initially on what might be available locally within their area, if that does not work, they can allocate accommodation outside it. Presumably, if that is refused by the homeless person, the duty to find them accommodation would end. That seems an unsatisfactory conclusion, further compounding the difficulties which many people face.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Labour)
My Lords, briefly, I support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley. This is a welcome group of amendments that are intended to give homeless households additional protection to that proposed under the Bill.
As I said before, we have a housing crisis. Homelessness is one of the many symptoms of that. We need to ensure that appropriate procedures are in place to protect people who find themselves in distressed or difficult situations. In some cases, two years may be more than adequate, but there will be cases where that is not appropriate, and we should look at how we can make further provision for those situations. Of course, it is very likely that homeless households that need to make use of the provision will include some of the most vulnerable individuals with whom local authorities have to deal. If the Minister is not minded to accept the amendment, perhaps she can reassure us that the matter will be kept under review following implementation of the initiatives on homelessness in the Bill.
I add that if the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, were minded to test the opinion of the House, he would find support on these Benches. I also make the point that the Government Chief Whip reminded the House earlier that we have additional time, but otherwise this is a normal Report. If the opinion of the House is not tested at this point, we are running out of options.
My Lords, I thank all those who have contributed to the debate. We recognise that the homelessness duty is one of the major responsibilities of local authorities. However, I resist the amendment to extend the duty to five years, on the basis that often two years is sufficient. People who face homelessness need suitable accommodation, but that is often supportable within the private rented sector. As has already been said, the homelessness duty involves reasonable preference for people on the priority list who need housing. They need suitable accommodation, but not always social housing. The amendment would be unfair to other households on the waiting list that need social housing, which would have to wait longer to have their housing needs met.
One purpose behind the Bill is to allow local authorities much more flexibility in the use of the accommodation they have and in how they can fulfil their obligation to house people-not only homeless people, but those who are on their waiting list. Sometimes, two years is quite sufficient to let people who have been homeless start to find their way forward.
A number of points have been made on that matter and I should like to start with the one raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, on asylum seekers-a point also picked up by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham. For asylum seekers in this country who are homeless, the homelessness provisions require that accommodation should be in their area if reasonably practical. Only after that requirement has been tested can they be placed out of the borough but, again, there is the certainty that several factors have to be taken into account, such as location and affordability-matters that are now considered all the time. As has been said, applicants who become homeless after two years can reapply, and they will still be able to obtain support by making a fresh application for assistance, should that be necessary. Therefore, they are not abandoned at the end of two years. There is support for them and the local authority still has a responsibility towards them.
I understand the noble Lord's desire to see that timeframe extended, but we do not think that that would be in the interests of local authorities, those who are homeless and those who are waiting for accommodation. We are satisfied that local authorities' obligations to those who are homeless can be fulfilled satisfactorily within two years, with the expectation that if at the end of two years they still require housing they will again either be treated as though they are unintentionally homeless or be given advice and help in finding accommodation.
I hope that the noble Lord will be satisfied with that reply and I ask him to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Shipley (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I thank the Minister very much for her response, although from my perspective it is a little disappointing. I think the evidence over the next two to five years will demonstrate that a five-year period would be wise. However, I am still hopeful that the Minister will think further about this matter. Perhaps discussions can take place over the next few weeks between Report and Third Reading that will cause the Government to look further at whether the timeframe can be extended to five years. In the hope that that may yet prove possible, I am prepared to await an outcome that we might secure at Third Reading, and I therefore beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 4 withdrawn.
Moved by Lord Kennedy of Southwark
"Prevention of homelessness: advice and assistance
(1) The Housing Act 1996 is amended as follows.
(2) After section 184 (inquiry into cases of homelessness or threatened homelessness) insert-
"184A Prevention of homelessness: advice and assistance
(1) An authority must, in the course of its enquiries under section 184, offer advice and assistance to the applicant for the purpose of the prevention of homelessness.
(2) The Secretary of State may make regulations about the information to be provided to applicants under subsection (1), following consultation with local authorities.""
Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Labour)
My Lords, I was hoping that the Government would have indicated that they were going to accept this amendment or perhaps even sign up to it before this afternoon's debate. The amendment seeks to amend the Housing Act 1996. It would insert an additional clause, adding a new Section 184A. The new clause would put a duty on local authorities to offer advice and assistance to applicants for the purpose of preventing homelessness, and it would give the Secretary of State the power to make regulations in this respect if he so wished. It is a proportionate amendment that places a sensible and not too onerous duty on local authorities.
I am sure we all agree that homelessness must be eradicated. The Government, local authorities and the voluntary sector need to work together to develop strategies and initiatives to ensure that all citizens can sleep in a bed in their own home. Only with a multi-agency approach can we develop solutions to this grave social problem that destroys people's lives and their prospects for the future.
People become homeless for a whole variety of reasons, including mental illness, social exclusion, family breakdown and repossession-to name but a few. What is clear is that if you are homeless you are a vulnerable person no matter what your circumstances have been in the past, and as a society we need to be in a position to provide help and support.
I am not sure whether any noble Lords have ever been homeless. I certainly have not, but it is fair to say that if you find yourself in that position you will not be in the best frame of mind. You will most likely be distressed and worried and not thinking too straight or clearly. It is a shocking truth today that in one of the richest countries in the world there are still people living on our streets. You can find rough sleepers close to here. I do not mean the protesters in Parliament Square. One need only walk down Victoria Street on the way to Victoria Station, or past Charing Cross Station and Coutts Bank to where rough sleepers gather in the evening for soup and bread. One of the most tragic scenes is of young people with their lives in front of them living on the streets. They are easy prey for a whole variety of people who would do them harm.
My amendment is a small step in the right direction, which I hope the Government will take. Amendments 12, 13 and 14, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, are worthy of support and would ensure that people are given improved notification of advice and assistance that they receive. The amendments would build protections for vulnerable people, ensuring that they understand their rights and are not missing out on the support that they are entitled to. I am sure noble Lords will be aware of the report of the Local Government Ombudsman, Homelessness: How Councils Can Ensure Justice for Homeless People, which is strongly critical of the way in which many councils prevent or delay homeless applications. I beg to move.
Lord Shipley (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16. Amendment 12 would require local housing authorities to provide written notification of housing and homelessness advice and assistance given under housing option schemes and to undertake other measures for the prevention of homelessness. Central to many councils' current approach to homelessness and its prevention is the concept of housing options. Under this model, people who approach the council for assistance are required to have a formal interview in which advice on housing options is offered. This is a prerequisite not only for those seeking homelessness assistance but for those seeking to join the housing register or to apply for social housing under a choice-based letting scheme. Under the current system, housing options advice is subject to virtually no statutory guidance.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, drew attention to the recent report by the Local Government Ombudsman, and I should like to say a little more about that as it is highly material to this part of the Bill. That report highlights instances of council gate-keeping, where local authorities delay or prevent homelessness applications for no good reason. It notes how many people are prevented from making a homelessness application even when they are clearly in a priority need category. It warns that councils could be guilty of maladministration, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, pointed out. It also states that some councils fail to do enough to prevent people becoming homeless, fail to look into whether a person needs help and fail to recognise an application for help with interim accommodation when someone is legally entitled to it. The ombudsman's report specifically calls on councils not to use homelessness prevention activity to block people from making applications, illustrates why this amendment is necessary to ensure minimum standards for housing option services, and, crucially, recommends that councils explain any decisions in writing.
The ombudsman, Dr Jane Martin, said:
"We see too many cases where individuals have suffered injustice at a particularly precarious moment in their lives when they most needed help. Often extremely vulnerable, they can find themselves sleeping rough or on people's sofas, struggling to find the foothold that would allow them to change their circumstances. When councils fail to give them a helping hand at that key moment, it can affect that individual for years".
In many instances, people are not being permitted to make a homelessness application. In other cases, they may accept the offer of a private sector tenancy, believing this to be made under one of the statutory homelessness duties, only to find that the authority does not regard itself as having taken a homelessness application at all. The amendment would ensure that people who seek homelessness advice are fully aware of whether they have made a homelessness application, and are given a letter clarifying the advice that they have received.
The amendment was spoken to briefly in Committee by my noble friend Lady Doocey. The Minister responded by saying that the amendment would place requirements on local authorities to provide advice and assistance that were too bureaucratic and that she would resist it for that reason. However, I hope that she will be prepared to look at this again, because the findings of the Local Government Ombudsman-we shall have further debates about the role of the ombudsman when considering later amendments-clearly show that there are significant problems with the service that some local authorities provide, and that there is a need for minimum standards for housing option services to ensure that they adhere to existing homelessness legislation. There must be a guarantee that people will not be turned away without meaningful support, or prevented from making a homelessness application when they are entitled to do so.
The amendment would not encourage bureaucracy, since many good local authorities already provide this type of service as a matter of best practice, and the requirement to provide written statements of advice or client care letters is standard practice in the advice sector. It is a basic level of service in most other advice agencies and a core element of services contracts such as legal aid contracts delivered by agencies such as Shelter and Citizens Advice. The requirement to provide written notification advice would also make it more likely that authorities would record data covering the reasons why people approach them for assistance, the type of household and the advice given. Such local data would be essential to inform local planning decisions, documents and tenancy strategies, which is a new duty required by the Bill.
I turn to Amendments 13, 14, 15 and 16. Amendments 13 and 14 relate to the notification of homelessness advice for non-priority-need homeless people. They link to Amendment 12 and would ensure that people who are homeless but are not in priority need and therefore entitled to a duty of advice and assistance are given improved notification of the support that they receive. Experience shows that single homeless people who approach their local authority for help are often given inadequate advice and assistance and can be left with no choice but to stay in overcrowded conditions or with friends or family, to squat or to sleep rough. One-third of single homeless people applying to their local authority did not even get to see a housing adviser, according to a report by Crisis earlier this year. Others may be given unhelpful advice, wrongly signposted, sent to hostels that are full or given written material that is not entirely helpful. Amendment 14 would also require local authorities actively to consider using their existing discretionary power to accommodate non-priority- need homeless households. If they chose not to exercise this power, they would have to give a reason for the decision in the notification of homelessness advice.
Finally, Amendments 15 and 16 relate to the emergency duty to accommodate. The aim of the amendments is to ensure that non priority-need homeless people are entitled to emergency accommodation. At present, if a household is deemed to be in priority need but intentionally homeless, in addition to providing advice and assistance the authority has a duty to provide suitable accommodation for a period that will give the householders a reasonable chance of finding accommodation for themselves. The amendment would extend that duty to cover homeless people who are deemed not to be in priority need.
This is a complex set of amendments relating to the rights of people who are homeless and the duties of local authorities to provide advice and support for them. However, given the overall context of newspaper reports over the summer stating that there will be a rise in the number of homeless people, we should take the matter seriously. There is going to be a rise in homelessness in the next few years. It seems to me that in order to explain to local authorities what they are required to do and to give voice through your Lordships' House to the views expressed by the Local Government Ombudsman, the Government need to move a little more in the direction of supporting the aims of Amendments 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16. I sincerely hope that the Minister will be able to give us some further confidence that this matter will be looked at again.
Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top (Labour)
I shall intervene very briefly. The Minister may remember that I had responsibility for homelessness, way back, from 1997 to 2001. It seems a long time ago. I had responsibility for reducing the number of rough sleepers, and we managed to reduce it by more than two-thirds in less than two years. We were only able to do that with the co-operation of local authorities. I know that this Government came to power with an intention to develop and extend the commitment to keeping people off the streets. The problem is that, because of all sorts of circumstances, that has not happened.
For example, in Newcastle, I chair a major homeless organisation, which has worked very well with the council that the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, led until fairly recently and that my noble friend Lord Beecham led some time before that. In the winter of 2009-10, we successfully, together, made sure that there were no rough sleepers in Newcastle. That was a remarkable achievement. I am very sorry to tell the House that every night last winter there were between 12 and 18 rough sleepers. That was because there was no alternative accommodation. There was no room in hostels, and no room in other accommodation to which people could be moved from hostels, so this is, once again, becoming a crisis. The House will recognise, I suspect, that the availability of social housing in the north-east is still better than it is in many other parts of the country, certainly better than in central London, but if we are suffering those problems in the north-east, there are going to be even greater pressures in the rest of the country. What I very quickly learnt, and it has stayed with me ever since, is that a good local authority, working effectively with the voluntary agencies involved, can help prevent homelessness. As the Government have recognised in a range of areas, early intervention and prevention are far more cost effective to the public purse and, in relation to the people we are talking about, far more effective in their lives. If there are children, early intervention certainly becomes even more critical in their lives and prospects.
These amendments are around the responsibility of the local authority to work with other partners in their locality to do whatever they can to prevent homelessness. I do not pretend that this is easy. I know from my daily contact with the Cyrenians in the north-east and with other homeless organisations nationally that this is not easy, but unless that begins to be seen as a priority within the local authority, it will not happen in different localities. Whatever we say in this House, the Government need to find a way of reinforcing that to those local authorities that are identified in the ombudsman's report as not fulfilling that responsibility. I do not believe that you sort things through legislation: you sort them through good practice and commitment, but legislation should help.
I know that the Government will not have the opportunity to come back to this legislatively for some time because the pressures on the legislative timetable will be too great. I therefore ask the Minister to recognise what is happening in our society in terms of the increasing problem of homelessness and will find ways in this Bill to re-emphasise to local authorities their responsibilities to intervene quickly so that homelessness is prevented. It is possible. There are good examples in the country where that has happened. It is unusual for me to welcome anything from Newcastle quite honestly, and people from the north-east will understand why I say that, but there has been good co-operation in Newcastle. However, even there, street homelessness is rising. We know why and we know how to solve the problem but we cannot do that without support from the Government.
Lord Avebury (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I am prompted to intervene by listening to what my noble friend Lord Shipley said about the Local Government Ombudsman's report and the reinforcement that we have just heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong. I am ashamed to say that I have not read the report myself, but I note with concern what it says about councils doing everything that they can to prevent homelessness, which is what the noble Baroness said, and what my noble friend said about the councils that failed to do enough to prevent homelessness. That can be so important at the critical moment when a person becomes homeless and may suffer the effects of the rest of their lives.
I particularly wanted to say something on the subject in light of the fact that we are about to witness a case in which a council is deliberately making people homeless. I am talking about the case that your Lordships will be aware of where the local authority in Basildon is evicting 150 people from the Dale Farm Travellers' site. That will take place at some point in the week beginning
I would like to know what the local authority in Basildon will do when these people find themselves without a home, because their homes will be taken away and put in storage. They will be left on the roadside. How will we deal with a situation of that kind? Why can we not take national action to prevent this crisis? All it requires is for local authorities to discuss with the neighbours in the county of Essex how land can be provided for the small number of people who live on the 51 pitches that will be subject to eviction instead of scattering them all around the landscape. Culturally appropriate alternative accommodation has been identified, but it is far away in the distance. One site is in Suffolk where there may be 10 pitches and another is in Lancashire where there may be six.
The families on the Dale Farm site are inter-related and very cohesive, and will be deprived of the social support arising from the fact that they have all lived together on the same site for 10 years and are mutually supportive. They have a network of local support: for example, from the churches and from some councillors, particularly Councillor Candy Sheridan, who has made enormous efforts to identify alternative land in the neighbourhood, and who was on the point of being successful when this Government came into office. I am very sorry to say that I think it was a direct result of Mr Pickles tearing up the regionalism agenda, which of course may be very good in general but does not happen to suit this particular case.
In the Liberal Democrat manifesto, we entered a reservation against the abolition of regionalism. We said that as far as Gypsies and Travellers were concerned, we would retain the edifice of work that had been done through Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Needs Assessments, public inquiries and the redistribution of obligations between local authorities, which would have had a huge effect, particularly in Essex, where although Basildon had provided more than its fair share of accommodation to Gypsies and Travellers, some neighbouring authorities had done nothing at all. In the regionalism agenda of the former Government, there was some redistribution between the local authorities which would have brought those others into doing their bit; they have been able to back off from providing anything at all under the free-for-all that Mr Pickles has imposed on the country and on the Gypsy and Traveller communities.
There is an example where not only has the local authority done nothing to prevent homelessness, it has actually deliberately caused it. Basildon is not entirely to blame in that the neighbours have done nothing, but I think that even at this late hour the Government should intervene, knock heads together and find alternative land so that 150 people are not dumped on the roadside.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for these amendments. I will resist the temptation, if I may, to respond the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. It is a very specific case and not in the general terms of this amendment, which concerns homelessness, in particular people who become intentionally homeless.
As I have said previously, the amendments seek to put a bit more bureaucracy into the work that local authorities do and for which they have duties. Indeed, the Local Government Ombudsman, in the report that was referred to, acknowledged that the homeless legislation and duties within it are clear, although these are perhaps not always carried out in the way they should be.
Homelessness is a terrible thing and nobody would stand here and say that we should not try to deal with it in the most expeditious way possible. The noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, who is very much involved in dealing with homelessness and who had a very good reputation, if I might say so, as a Minister, has laid out very clearly the difficulties inherent in reducing homelessness, though the fact is that it can be done. I think that, in London, the mayor has introduced a one-night-only policy whereby people are not able to be homeless for more than one night. They should be found, fed and given accommodation. That sort of flexibility and ability to move on one's feet is required as regards anything to do with the resolution of homelessness matters.
Once again, I will resist getting too dogmatic and bureaucratic about this. We know that there were 188,000 cases of prevention and relief in 2010-11. Many people who were helped and assisted with accommodation would not have been recognised as statutorily homeless. The Government working in partnership with local authorities rather than compelling them to do things makes that work better. Putting housing options and homelessness prevention work on a statutory footing would be overly burdensome and probably counterproductive because it would become a tick-box exercise, which we do not believe is the correct way to deal with individual cases.
As regards Amendments 5 and 15, it is important to reiterate what I have made clear previously. A person should not be found intentionally homeless if the only reason for their homelessness is that he or she cannot afford their accommodation because of a reduction in financial resources outside their control. Therefore, they will be helped under those circumstances.
We have also said that a local authority owes those who are intentionally homeless and in priority need a duty to secure that accommodation is available for a period that will help them to get back on their feet. Placing a duty on local authorities-
Baroness Whitaker (Labour)
Will the noble Baroness say how the arrangements that she prefers apply to Gypsies and Travellers? I will not take one particular case but, nationally, 25,000 Gypsies and Travellers are homeless and they very much need advice and assistance on what legal sites can be made available to them. In the years she quoted when so many homeless people were found accommodation, no accommodation was made available for those 25,000. Basildon is only one example, albeit perhaps the worst at present. How can arrangements be made other than through these sensible amendments to accommodate 25,000 homeless people?
My Lords, the noble Baroness will know that there is already a requirement under legislation for local authorities to identify land that can be made available for Gypsies and Travellers in their local area, and in conjunction and agreement with local residents. There is already a recognition that Travellers are in a special position. However, a lot of Travellers are no longer travellers. Some of these people have put down permanent roots, although not always with approval. While they clearly need the help of the local authority and nothing should take that away, they do not always require accommodation.
My Lords, I think that local authorities are being asked to identify sites at the moment. It may be that they are not all available at present but, as I have said previously in the House, the Government have recognised the requirement to ensure that Travellers have somewhere to put their caravans and tents in order to be helped.
Lord Avebury (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I am sorry to continue on this theme, but I wonder whether the noble Baroness realises that we are facing an absolute crisis because the Government have torn up the previous mechanisms which were designed to ensure that all local authorities made a contribution towards the accommodation of Gypsies and Travellers and have left them free to decide, of their own volition and without any guidance whatever, whether they will provide accommodation and, if so, at what level. The result is that most authorities have scrapped the plans set out in the previous Government's regionalism system and said that they are not going to provide any sites. That is the case in Essex, for example, where the neighbouring authorities to Basildon are not going to lift a finger to rescue the 150 people who are to be thrown on to the roadside.
A lot lies behind the matter raised by the noble Lord. A lot has been said by the leader of the council and I think that there are expectations in Essex that this is a matter for Essex to resolve. However, it will be resolved against the background that they have been and should be asked to identify somewhere where the Travellers can be placed.
I am going to move on and say that placing a duty on local authorities to secure accommodation for a period for households that are intentionally homeless or not in priority need does make great demands on their limited resources, and this could have unintended consequences. Local authorities have a clear duty to provide advice and assistance to help those found to be intentionally homeless and, as under Amendments 13 and 14 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, all those who are unintentionally homeless and not in priority need will be assisted in any attempt to seek accommodation for themselves. The only difference between ourselves and the noble Lord is that his requirement is for all this to be put in writing and for there to be quite a lot of formula around how it is to be done. Local authorities already have discretionary powers to provide emergency accommodation to applicants who are not in priority need and not intentionally homeless, and they have a requirement to give assistance and advice. As I have already said, they are under a duty to provide advice and information to all people who approach them. People can make a homelessness application, and if they are homeless through no fault of their own and are eligible for priority need, local authorities must secure accommodation for them. The requirements are there and do not particularly need to be put into a more statutory framework.
Of course, anyone who is not satisfied and feels that they are not being properly helped has the right to go to the Local Government Ombudsman. The ombudsman's report has said that homelessness legislation is clear, so it is a question of how it is implemented.
Finally, it only remains for me to say that the Government are committed to tackling homelessness and rough sleeping. The Minister in the other place is well known for his efforts to deal with homelessness. Indeed, he said today that that was why he came into politics. The Government have maintained their homeless person's grant funding of £400 million over the next four years. There is a ministerial working group looking into tackling the complex causes of rough sleeping, which we have already spoken about. A rough sleeping count is now taking place so that we can know the full figures rather than just the estimated number.
I will resist these amendments and I hope that, with what I have said about local authorities having a duty to ensure that people are helped and assisted if they are in danger of becoming homeless, the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Labour)
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this debate, including the noble Lords, Lord Shipley and Lord Avebury, my noble friend Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, and the Minister. My noble friend Lady Armstrong set out very clearly what needs to happen, the benefit of early intervention and the problems that she sees emerging on the streets of the north-east. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, made a very useful contribution, expanding on the points that I made about the report of the Local Government Ombudsman, which is so critical of the way that many councils operate in this field.
I disagree with the Minister that the measure is unnecessary and overbureaucratic. I also doubt that a homeless person's first priority would be to make a complaint to the ombudsman about their situation.
The amendment seeks to improve the provision of essential information for people in some of the most distressing circumstances in which they could ever find themselves. It is so important that I feel that I need to test the opinion of the House.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Labour)
My Lords, this group of amendments is probably the most important that we will consider today as part of our deliberations on the housing section of the Localism Bill. If passed, it would give Parliament the opportunity to reflect on the changes after they become law and a period of three years has elapsed. They would then only be renewed if affirmative resolutions were passed by both Houses.
The changes in the Bill are significant. There is widespread concern about them. When the Government make such changes, they should always be prepared to listen and to be aware of the law of unintended consequences. By passing this amendment, Parliament would have the ability to review the decision it has made in a simple way that would not require lots of parliamentary time. I hope that the Government will be persuaded to accept this group of amendments.
It is important that we remind ourselves of what the Government propose and then reflect on the benefit of what I am proposing to your Lordships' House today. Clause 134 amends Section 193 of the Housing Act 1996 to enable local authorities to discharge their duty to homeless households by offering private sector accommodation. Individuals concerned lose their right to give their consent to the arrangement. Clause 136 gives a two-year safety net. We have to examine that in the light of the fact that that may not be long enough.
Organisations working closely with homeless households are most concerned by these proposals. The chief executive of Shelter, Campbell Robb, said recently:
"It is unbelievable that at a time when every two minutes someone faces the nightmare of losing their home, the Government is proposing to reduce the rights of homeless people who approach their local authorities for help".
The charity Crisis has an equally concerned view of these proposals. Both charities, along with many other respected organisations, have a unique understanding of the problems faced by homeless people and we should listen to them carefully.
If the proposals are further considered with the impact of the changes to housing benefit then the risks of homeless households being placed in a difficult, downward spiral are all too apparent. These are the reasons why we should avail ourselves of the opportunity to correct the situation, in case the reality turns out to be much less welcome and more damaging than the intention of the proposals in the Bill. I beg to move.
Lord Best (Crossbench)
My Lords, my name is against this amendment, in support of the sunset clause coupled with a report on the position of homelessness three years from now. The Minister said earlier that one of a local authority's most important duties is towards the homeless. A pretty fundamental change in the way that that duty is to be discharged means that it must be a good idea to pause for thought three years down the line and see whether these quite important and significant changes have made a big difference.
At the moment, the local authority must find the family or householder a secure and affordable place in the social housing sector. In the future, they will be able to fulfil the requirement placed upon them by seeing that family into a place in the private rented sector. That, by definition, is not going to be secure in the long term. Understandably, landlords may wish to have the property back and security of tenure over the long term cannot be offered. It may be that that property, after the reforms to housing benefit and the local housing allowance, will prove to be unaffordable. There is a gap between what the tenant pays in rent and the amount that they receive in benefit, and the private rented sector option may not work out.
It may be that the dire warnings that we have heard from Shelter, Crisis, Homeless Link and others do not work out in practice, but there is a danger that those warnings prove to be entirely timely. We had a lot of discussion on these provisions earlier in the House. The noble Lords, Lord Shipley, Lord Rix, Lord McKenzie and Lord Kennedy, the noble Baronesses, Lady Doocey and Lady Greengross, and others all spoke on this matter in Committee. There is a great deal of concern about the fundamental changes to the duties upon local authorities.
I hope that noble Lords had a chance to look at Hansard over the summer. As I have said, noble Lords should regard reading the last debate as a bit of a teach-in on all the aspects of homelessness that we ought to think about. We were not able to secure all those different aspects as a whole series of amendments to the Bill but the Government have, in trying to ensure that accommodation is suitable in the private rented sector, come up with a code of guidance. That has some very good things in it. It does not go all the way down the line, but perhaps that will lead to a successful outcome for those who are placed in the private rented sector. This sunset clause would ensure that after a period of three years a thoroughgoing report is placed before Parliament, and that unless the Secretary of State revives these measures by order, those measures will fall.
Earlier this year I moved a Motion on the housing benefit regulations asking the noble Lord, Lord Freud, the Minister responsible, whether he would over the months and years ahead put in hand a fundamental reform along the lines of the housing benefit reforms in order to see what impact they had on homelessness, families, poverty, people's incomes and the local authorities themselves. The noble Lord, Lord Freud, not only agreed to do that and to have a review, which is now under way and which will report in three stages over the next 18 months, but did it in a way that, I am pleased to report back to the House, met entirely with my approval and indeed that of others interested in these matters. He has brought together Professor Kemp from the University of Oxford and Professor Cole from Sheffield Hallam University; he has Ipsos MORI doing surveys and the IFS looking at the macroeconomics. It is a real, thoroughgoing review of the impact of these changes, which is just what we asked for and just what this House required. A comparable exercise to look down the line at how things are going would again be a triumph for the Government and a thoroughly commendable and useful exercise, which would provide the evidence and inform a decision on a sunset clause three years from now. Let us do it again. I strongly support the amendment.
Lord Beecham (Labour)
I congratulate my noble friend Lord Kennedy and the noble Lord, Lord Best, on moving this amendment. Having paid that compliment, I hope that they will not mind if I claim paternity of the amendment itself.
There are two issues that really need addressing. One is affordability and the other is the quality of the accommodation that will be offered to people. They give rise to the need to review the situation, as noble Lords who have moved and spoken to the amendment have made clear. Nearly half those who are housing allowance claimants find that their housing benefit now falls short of what is required by an average of £24 a week, which is a considerable shortfall. That is before the impending changes. A significant proportion, a quarter of tenants, find themselves spending half their income on rent, which is a very high proportion.
The condition of properties in the private rented sector in particular also gives rise to concern, as 40 per cent of them fall short of the decent homes standard, which is twice as high as the percentage in the social rented sector and well in excess of the figure in the owner-occupied sector. A high proportion of cases dealt with by Shelter come from the private rented sector-twice the proportion of claimants that you would expect from the proportion of households in the sector. Again, a high proportion of environmental health officers are reported by Shelter as encountering landlords who refuse to carry out even the necessary repairs to maintain properties in a safe condition; 36 per cent of environmental health officers say regularly that they find private landlords in breach. Yet this is the sector to which many people will be directed under the provisions of this Bill.
It may be that things will improve, which is obviously the Government's hope and intention, but it is surely necessary to take a check on this after a reasonable period. These amendments give that opportunity to rethink the situation if necessary. If things are going well, it is a simple enough matter to carry the legislation forward; if not, there will be an opportunity to address what might well be a very difficult situation for a great many people.
Lord Taylor of Goss Moor (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I declare an interest since I chair the National Housing Federation. The Government are embarking on some quite fundamental changes to the homelessness legislation, a piece of legislation that dates all the way back to my former colleague, Mr Ross. It has been of immense benefit to have that legislation in place, although it is not always popular. That said, as things stand there are some perverse consequences to the legislation and in how people may respond to its provisions. As a Member of Parliament for a Cornish constituency where homelessness and poverty have been high for many years, I saw some of that taking place. Concerns have been expressed about the use of the private sector, but I think that is wrong; the private sector can be right for individuals and homelessness should not be seen as a trump card in the process of housing allocation. So there are important potential benefits in the changes that the Government are making.
I have great sympathy with the argument that when profound changes are made we should ensure that there is a proper process of review of the consequences that come from those changes. Inevitably, there are unexpected consequences of these things; while it may not be that this particular amendment is the best form for that, I hope that I will hear from the Minister a very clear commitment for a process of review, in particular to look at whether the quality of accommodation provided by the private sector is adequate and, perhaps even more important, what the consequences have been in terms of individuals' ability to pay rent given the changes to the benefit system. I hope that the consequences of these changes will be positive, but I am all too aware that they may not be, so I look to the Minister to give some reassurance on that front.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes (Conservative)
My Lords, I am slightly concerned about two different aspects. First, the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, made the point about places being unsafe. That concerns me greatly because I understood that the council had powers, if a property was unsafe, to demand that work be carried out. So that disturbs me.
The other point that worries me very much is the whole attitude of private landlords to housing benefit claimants. This is a serious problem that I had personal experience of this week when someone I know, who has been going to estate agents and finding properties that they could afford with their £250 a week, was told by estate agents and by landlords themselves, "Sorry, we won't take anyone on housing benefit because if they don't pay"-I know that there is talk of sending the payment directly to the landlord, which has both advantages and disadvantages-"or if there's any doubt, we have to meet all the costs of the court and of getting possession of the property again". If there were some way in which the council could help the private landlord by ensuring that if there were any need to reclaim the property they would not be faced with those extra costs, that might change attitudes. It is a serious concern if people with a property to let within the range of housing benefit are unwilling to take such tenants.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their contributions. I understand that this is an important aspect for those who have moved the amendments.
I point out at the start that the noble Lord, Lord Best, made a powerful intervention over the welfare Bill and as a result-or, perhaps, we fully intended this anyway-the Department for Work and Pensions will carry out extensive research into the impact of the changes to the local housing allowance that are being introduced in 2011. That will go a long way towards dealing with the matters that are raised in this amendment. The department intends to monitor the impact of the changes on claimants, landlords and local authorities over a two-year period and will be publishing an interim report in 2012, with a final report due in 2013.
We do not want to trudge along this path twice. Not only should the report being carried out by the DWP address the impact of its changes but it will pick up some of the points that the noble Lord has made in his intervention today. I am not much wedded to having yet another report on what is virtually the same subject, although we might ensure that the report being produced by the DWP picks up on some of the points that have been made. I am not making any promises on that right now but I promise to raise the issue and see if we are at a stage where that could be done.
We believe that requiring the homelessness clauses to expire three years after commencement, which is what the noble Lord's amendment is about, would undermine the intention of our reforms. Allowing people under the main homelessness duty to turn down offers of suitable accommodation in the private rented sector and wait for an offer of social housing would be unfair. I do not think that that point was raised particularly but I want to lay it down at the moment. The changes that we are making are part of the reforms to social housing and we need to ensure that all this is fair, not only to the people who are homeless but to those who are on the waiting list and looking for good, affordable housing. We need to ensure that we get the best from our 4 million socially rented homes.
It is not necessary for us to require Parliament to look at a wealth of information on homelessness. There is already a report on homelessness to be laid before Parliament and local authorities collect a wealth of statistics on the subject. I asked what this meant but no one seems to know: the P1E form, which is published quarterly, shows the trends in homelessness and how many households accept private rented sector accommodation.
Between all this, we are in fact addressing most of the areas that the noble Lord has raised and the requirements to ensure that people understand the nature and effect of homelessness and the impact of the measures taken by the DWP. I hope that the noble Lord will feel that this is satisfactory and that enough is going to be carried out, particularly, as I say, if I ensure that the DWP covers all the aspects that have been raised. I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Labour)
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. I am a disappointed that the Minister has not accepted my amendment, and she needs to go a bit further to satisfy me on that. If passed, my amendment would enable Parliament to review the situation, with the benefit of a report, of what the reality over the previous three years had been. That, I contend, is good government. With that, I seek again to test the opinion of the House.
Lord Shipley (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, in moving Amendment 8 I shall also speak to Amendment 20. Amendment 8 would restore the requirement that any offer of private sector rented accommodation must be reasonable for a homeless household to accept. For clarity, the amendment would simply restore the law to its current position, which is why it refers to the deletion of a clause.
At present, local authorities must be satisfied that accommodation offered to homeless households is "reasonable to accept". The Bill as drafted removes this requirement. However, the condition is important because "reasonable to accept" is distinct from suitability. It covers cases where a property may be defined as suitable in law by its condition, location and affordability but where there may be wider reasons for a household to turn down the offer. It has been used to challenge through the courts an offer of housing in an area where there had been racial harassment. It could apply equally in cases of domestic violence.
Amendment 20 seeks to define the suitability criteria for private sector rented accommodation offered to homeless households. It was previous tabled in Committee and would define suitability criteria for private rented accommodation in which homeless households are placed under the changes to the homelessness duties proposed in the Bill. It sets out important safeguards around physical standards, management, location and affordability. The Government have accepted some of the concerns raised about these issues at previous stages of the Bill, and have said that they are prepared to use order-making powers to set standards on physical condition and property management. Those are indeed very welcome. However, the Government have still not fully addressed the concerns around affordability and location.
Let me address examples of why an environment might not prevent accommodation being objectively considered as suitable but would, if an applicant were housed there, have a detrimental effect on that applicant. Examples include the risk of threats of racial harassment or violence by individuals unknown to the applicant, or a risk to the welfare of the applicant where the accommodation offered is in a neighbourhood associated with drug use or dealing and the applicant is a recovering drug addict. There may be a perceived risk of harassment or violence from individuals known to the applicant, such as a violent ex-partner whose relatives, friends or associates live in the neighbourhood.
There have been such legal cases; I draw attention to one in particular. A family refused an offer, arguing that it was unreasonable for them to accept the accommodation, even though it was suitable in terms of what was in it, because, when viewing the flat, they and their children had suffered racist abuse from people living nearby. That case went to the Court of Appeal, which considered that the flat may have qualified as suitable in its size, location and so on, but that the council should have gone on to consider the wider question of whether it was reasonable for the family to accept it in light of the intimidation. The court stressed that suitability and "reasonable to accept", while overlapping terms, are different concepts. The requirement of "reasonable to accept" does not apply to temporary accommodation, but only to offers that are intended to discharge the authority's homelessness duty completely. It is a serious issue and I am concerned.
In an ideal world I would be opposed to the removal of choice from homeless people by allowing local housing authorities to discharge their homelessness duty via an offer of private rented accommodation without the applicant's consent. However, I recognise the general problem of supply and that more than three-quarters of local authorities, when responding to the Government's consultation, said that they welcomed the proposed change and would use it. If local housing authorities are potentially able to discharge their main duty with one offer of private rented accommodation, it becomes much more important that this offer is suitable to meet the needs of the household.
The Government have recognised that physical and management standards are important and have outlined them in the statement that the Minister placed in the Library recently. However, I do not think that we have been told what the draft regulations will say. As the protection of homeless households is such an important issue, and given the absence of draft regulations, should we not include definitions of suitability in the Bill, particularly physical and management standards? The statement in the Library does not address the vital issues of affordability and location. The assurances given by the Minister in Committee that the local authority must by law consider the applicant's financial resources and the total cost of accommodation in determining whether the accommodation is suitable will do nothing to tighten the affordability aspect of the suitability definition.
There seem to be no reassurances on location. Once an authority has considered the applicant's financial resources in assessing family income and expenses, it can still take its own view of what is affordable when deciding where to place a family, as long as it can show that it has had regard to the guidance-or, to put it another way, local authorities are advised that a household's residual income should not fall below subsistence level. However, a local authority is able to depart from this guidance as long as it can prove that it has been considered. It would be much better if this were included in the Bill. The proposed new clause would include in the Bill certain specific criteria in relation to the affordability of accommodation and its location. These tend to be the most important factors in any offer of accommodation. This will prove to be a very important issue as homelessness continues to rise and local authorities have less accommodation to offer to those who are homeless and potentially homeless.
In addition to the affordability and location of the accommodation, we should consider the management of standards, who is renting out the accommodation, what processes they follow in managing their accommodation and whether it meets the standards of decency and reasonableness that I am sure all your Lordships would expect. I have further amendments concerning standards of accommodation in the private rented sector. I do not want to discuss them now but it is important that we define the quality of the accommodation, minimum physical standards and management standards better than we do at present. We should also take greater account of affordability and location. I hope very much that the Minister will agree to look further at this issue. People should not feel that the making of a single offer on the part of the local authority means that it has fulfilled its legal obligation towards them and that they should therefore take it up. I have great doubts about this issue but I still hope that the Government will understand that they have to do a little more than what is outlined in the note that has been placed in the House of Lords' Library.
Lord Beecham (Labour)
My Lords, I wonder whether I can tempt the Minister-probably not-to answer the point I made on a previous amendment about the applicability of offers made outside the area of the local authority that is determining the issue of homelessness. It is a question of suitability in this context. Perhaps she could enlighten us on that aspect when she replies.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes (Conservative)
This is a question of whether people have a 100 per cent right to decide what is suitable. I think we have all read about the case of a family who were very unhappy in Kilburn as they considered that the shops were not smart enough and who were moved to Kensington and Chelsea, which involved a huge amount of housing benefit being paid. I consider that those people did not have the right to say that they did not like Kilburn as it was not smart enough. That was unreasonable. However, as regards Amendment 20, is it not a fact that if a local council wished to do so it could use these criteria as part of its own flexible criteria and would not need to have that enshrined in the law? I very much support the flexibility in the Bill. It is unreasonable to tie councils in this regard. However, if you do not like what your council is doing, you can vote it out in the hope of getting a new council with a different attitude.
Lord Avebury (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I know that the Minister does not want to discuss the Dale Farm evictions, which are to take place in the week beginning
As regards the definition of suitability which my noble friend has suggested in Amendment 20, people in this position are often deprived of the rights which he proposes to confer on the homeless. For example, there is a reference to,
"disruption to the education of children or young persons in the household",
and more than 100 young children on the Dale Farm site attend the local primary school and will be dispersed across the countryside with no provision made for their education to continue. Bearing in mind that Gypsies and Travellers are the most deprived of all ethnic minorities, in terms of achievement and attendance in education, it is something of a triumph that so many of the children on this site have been persuaded to attend primary school. That is all going to be scrapped because, when they are on the roadside, it will be physically impossible and impractical for them to attend local schools-assuming that there would be a place for them to be admitted.
As regards the level of support available to the applicant in the district in which the accommodation is situated, we do not know where this accommodation will be, except in the two cases I mentioned earlier. One of them is in Suffolk, which is miles and miles away from where the applicants are at present living, and the other is in Lancashire, which is even more distant. There will be no level of support whatever; yet, in Dale Farm, they have access to services from not only the local authority but the Catholic church, which has made tremendous efforts on behalf of these people. Other local volunteers have given them social support of various kinds.
To generalise, therefore: whenever families are evicted from unauthorised sites the same thing happens. They are deprived of any support whatever-support that they are receiving from the local community. Any caring responsibilities of the applicant in relation to another person are also scrapped, because if a person is in need of care-such as the woman who is on dialysis on the Dale Farm site or a pregnant woman who has been notified today by the PCT that she will no longer be eligible for prenatal care-all that goes out of the window when you disperse people miles away across the landscape. I am not talking solely about the evictions from Basildon; I am trying to impress on the Minister that this is a general phenomenon of homelessness that applies to Gypsies and Travellers across the country.
I therefore warmly support my noble friend's proposal to insert in the Bill the new clause in Amendment 20. I only suggest to him that if we have to come back to this at Third Reading it should be added that the accommodation be culturally appropriate, because even the Government accept that Gypsies and Travellers are entitled to live in caravans or mobile homes; they have been used to doing that for generations, and before that in wagons. Many such people are therefore culturally averse to living in bricks-and-mortar accommodation, yet when the evictions take place in the week following
Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Labour)
My Lords, I support Amendments 8 and 20, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley. Amendment 8 is simple and keeps the law as it is. The proposals from the Government weaken the position of the homeless household and potentially put it at further risk. A property could well be deemed suitable, but not having the protection of "reasonable to accept" means that other factors such as a risk of racial harassment or, in domestic violence cases, the closeness to a former partner may not be taken into account. That is surely unacceptable.
As to Amendment 20, the ability to allow local authorities to discharge their homelessness duty through an offer in the private sector without the applicant's consent is controversial. If housing authorities are able to discharge their main duty with one offer of private rented accommodation, it becomes much more important that this offer is suitable for the needs of the household. A number of factors need to be taken into account, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley: affordability, location, management standards and physical standards.
One of the major factors in people becoming homeless is affordability. Is the home being offered really affordable, without the risk of them falling into debt? Is the location right for the family? Can the children remain at the same school or, conversely, do they need to be moved to another area because of threats to the safety of family members? On management standards, it is a fact that homeless households are very likely to be offered accommodation at the cheapest end of the private rented sector market. This puts the family at risk of being placed with landlords who are unsuitable-who breach housing legislation, have undertaken unlawful evictions or harassment, or have committed other offences. As to physical standards, private rented accommodation is often poor quality, and the Government's own research shows that 40 per cent of people living in the private rented sector live in non-decent homes, compared to 23 per cent of social tenants and 29 per cent of owner-occupiers.
If local authorities are to be able to discharge their duties in this way, the points I have outlined need to be taken into account, and the amendment spoken to by the noble Lord seeks to do just that. I hope for a positive response from the Government but, if there is none, I hope that the noble Lord will test the opinion of the House. He will certainly find support on these Benches and, I hope, in other parts of the House. I say that in particular as I reflect on the comments of the government Chief Whip that, other than an extension of time, this is a normal Report stage, and as such we are running out of options to deal with these serious and pressing issues.
My Lords, I hope that there will be few differences between us by the time we reach the end of what I have to say, because one of the main differences is that I would resist these amendments, largely due to the need for flexibility for the local authorities, and because definitions are always very difficult to follow.
I should like to go through not only what I laid in the House Library, which includes our statements on what we expect to do, but our discussions with Crisis and Shelter over the past few months on an order that will bring in some of the aspects that have been raised-probably most of them. Over the summer we have been considering our preparedness to use order-making powers and discussing which factors could be included in such an order. That includes consideration of protections against physical property standards, mentioned by the noble Lord, and whether landlords are fit and proper. We do not believe that there is any need to amend the Bill to achieve these aims. As I said, we have discussed this with Crisis and Shelter and have informally consulted local authorities on the proposed content of such an order, which we will bring forward for consultation. Do not ask me when, but we will bring that forward.
Existing safeguards in the homelessness legislation and statutory guidance will apply before the duty can be brought to an end with an offer of private rented sector accommodation. The authority must be satisfied that the accommodation is suitable for the applicant and his or her household. I shall go into more detail on that. It must also be made clear to the applicant that he or she has the right to ask for a review of suitability.
In considering suitability, the authorities must by law consider whether a specific property is suitable for the applicant and the household's individual needs. This includes considering whether the accommodation is affordable for the applicant, its size, its condition, its accessibility and its location. In considering affordability, again, the local authority must by law consider the applicant's financial resources and the total cost of the specific accommodation in determining whether it is suitable. That means that it would not be able to place households in accommodation with a higher rent than they could afford, whether with the help of benefits or otherwise.
When determining the suitability of the location of the accommodation, the authority must-again by law already in place-consider factors such as whether the accommodation is near the applicant's place of work; whether it will remove or disrupt the education of young people in the household; and whether it is as close as possible to previous accommodation, so that established links with doctors, social workers and so on can be maintained. As now, applicants have the right to ask for a review of accommodation suitability and, if not satisfied, to appeal to the county court on a point of law-the law being as I outlined.
I hope that that will, to some extent, reassure those who have moved or spoken to the amendments that there are already sufficient provisions within the current homelessness legislation regarding location and affordability. We are concerned that further strengthening that in legislation would restrict the ability of local authorities to make decisions on what is reasonably affordable, balanced against the availability of properties in the area. We have been discussing that tension all afternoon.
Following concerns raised in both Houses about the standard of private rented accommodation-made much of by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley-in Committee I referred to a statement that I laid in the House Library. That confirms that we are prepared to use existing suitability order-making powers to set out the factors that could be included in such an order. That includes not only physical standards but the landlord's behaviour and tenant management standards, which responds to the noble Lord's concerns. As I said, we have worked with Crisis and Shelter on the order, and that seems to be going smoothly.
On Amendment 8, I spoke in Committee about whether "reasonable to accept" removes a protection for homeless applicants, whether "suitability" will deal with that and the wider factors that, as the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, said, the courts have considered to fall under "reasonable to accept". I stress that there will be no change to or lessening of protection as a result of what we propose. The Government's view is that suitability covers a wide range of factors, and that view was included in the 2006 statutory guidance. For example, that guidance specifically provides that account needs to be,
"taken of any social considerations relating to the applicant and his or her household that might affect the suitability of accommodation".
Importantly, in the light of the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, any risk of violence-I take that to include domestic violence-or racial harassment in a locality would also have to be taken into account, so the applicant retains the right to request a review of the suitability of the accommodation and can raise any issues at the review. We remain in discussion with Shelter to provide the necessary reassurance on that point.
There were a couple of other questions. The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, reinforced what I said at the beginning of the debate: by putting all this in the Bill we could reduce the flexibility for local authorities. We believe that an order-which, of course, has to go through Parliament-is the proper way. The provisions are as they stand at present.
I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Beecham. I thought that I had responded to his question. Homeless people, under "suitability", can be placed outside a borough, but all that I mentioned would still have to be taken into account, so that if it was not suitable for them to go to live in the noble Lord's lovely Newcastle-which I know is perfectly managed and always has been-they could not be made to go. It is clearly possible that they might want to live somewhere else so, yes, they can be moved.
The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has tempted me again on the subject of Dale Farm and a few others. Some of what he mentioned will depend on whether the site on which Travellers are resting is authorised or not-whether it has planning permission or not-and therefore whether it falls within other regulations and legislation. That helps with the matters which the noble Lord raised.
I have dealt with the matter this time by reading my notes, because I felt that it was so important that this was done properly. If noble Lords need to look at what I said before our next sitting, they can. However, I very much hope that what I said will reassure them that this has all been taken very seriously, but that it is a restatement of what the law can already do.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Labour)
I see a nod of the head. Third Reading might be before the end of September, but I seriously doubt it, so the answer is yes.
Lord Shipley (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I am very grateful for the intervention and the Minister's response. I was encouraged by the fact that most of the issues that we have raised under the amendments will be in the order and that further discussion will take place. Strong views have been expressed on this issue and a lot of worries have been expressed in this afternoon's debate about increasing homelessness and the rights of those who are or may be made homeless. Any debate that can take place between now and Third Reading would be very helpful. I am very grateful to the Minister for making that clear and clarifying the position. On those grounds, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 8 withdrawn.
Amendments 9 and 10 not moved.
Clause 136 : Duties to homeless persons: further amendments
Amendments 11 to 15 not moved.
Moved by Lord Shipley
16: Clause 136, page 129, line 25, at end insert-
"( ) For section 190 substitute-
"190 Duties to persons becoming homeless who are not in "priority need"
(1) This section applies where the local housing authority are satisfied that an applicant is homeless and is eligible for assistance, and-
(a) are satisfied that he or she became homeless intentionally,
(b) are satisfied that he or she is not in "priority need", or
(c) both of the above.
(2) The local authority shall-
(a) secure that accommodation is available for his or her occupation for such period as they consider will give him or her a reasonable opportunity of securing accommodation for his or her occupation, and
(b) provide him or her with (or secure that he or she is provided with) advice and assistance in any attempts he or she may make to secure that accommodation becomes available for his or her occupation.
(3) The applicant's housing needs shall be assessed before advice and assistance is provided under subsection (2)(b).
(4) The advice and assistance provided under subsection (2)(b) must include information about the likely availability in the authority's district of types of accommodation appropriate to the applicant's housing needs (including, in particular, the location and sources of such types of accommodation).""
Lord Shipley (Liberal Democrat)
I shall speak also to Amendment 21. In a sense, the ground has already been covered because Amendment 16 relates to the emergency duty to accommodate to ensure that non-priority-need homeless people are entitled to emergency accommodation. To repeat the position, at present, if a household is deemed to be in priority need but intentionally homeless, in addition to providing advice and assistance, the authority has a duty to provide suitable accommodation for a period that would give the household a reasonable chance of finding accommodation themselves. The amendment would extend the duty to homeless people who are not in priority need. The evidence base for the amendment has been previously stated, so I shall leave it at that, but other Members of your Lordships' House may want to add to it.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Labour)
My Lords, I support Amendment 16 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley. The amendment seeks to make provision for non-priority-need homeless people to be afforded emergency accommodation. The charity Crisis collected considerable evidence that the homelessness service of local authorities does not always provide single people who are not in priority need with any meaningful assistance. A small extension of this provision to those who are not in priority need may be all that is needed to get people back on their feet, to help them to stay in employment and to prevent them from falling into a downward spiral. If the Government are not minded to accept the amendment, I ask the Minister to give the House an assurance that this matter will be looked at by the ministerial working party on homelessness chaired by Mr Grant Shapps MP, on which the noble Lord, Lord Freud, and the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, serve as members.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, was very brief in moving this amendment, for which I am grateful. I think that the best thing I can do is to say that I will certainly make sure that it is considered by the homelessness working party and I shall ask the Minister to take that on board. I hope that with that assurance the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Shipley (Liberal Democrat)
I am very happy to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 16 withdrawn.
Amendments 17 to 19 not moved.
Amendments 20 and 21 not moved.
Moved by Lord Shipley
"Exemptions from flexible tenancy regime
(1) The Secretary of State shall by regulations provide that a secure tenancy shall not be capable of being a flexible tenancy if it falls within one of such classes as shall be prescribed.
(2) The prescribed classes of secure tenancy referred to in subsection (1) shall include-
(a) tenancies granted to a tenant (alone or jointly with others) aged 60 years or more;
(b) tenancies granted to a tenant (alone or jointly with others) in circumstances where the tenant or a member of his or her household suffers from a long-term illness or disability, or has a need for secure accommodation on medical or welfare grounds;
(c) tenancies granted to such other persons as regulations shall provide who have a need for secure accommodation.
(3) In determining whether a tenant falls within one of the prescribed classes of person, the landlord authority shall have regard to guidance issued by the Secretary of State under this section.
(4) Where a tenancy is a secure tenancy by reason of regulations made under this section, it shall be a ground for possession within section 84 of the Housing Act 1985 (grounds and orders for possession) where the accommodation afforded by the dwelling-house is more extensive than is reasonably required by the tenant.
(5) The court shall not make an order for possession under subsection (4) unless-
(a) it is satisfied that suitable alternative accommodation will be available for the tenant when the order takes effect; and
(b) it considers it reasonable to make the order.
(6) Part IV of Schedule 2 to the Housing Act 1985 (suitability of accommodation) shall have effect for determining, for the purpose of subsection (5)(a), whether suitable alternative accommodation will be available for the tenant.
(7) Where the landlord considers that the ground for possession in subsection (4) applies to a tenancy, the court shall not entertain proceedings for possession of the tenancy unless the landlord has complied with the notice requirements in section 83 and subsections (3) and (4) of section 84 of the Housing Act 1985.
(8) Where proceedings are brought for possession of a dwelling-house under the ground in subsection (4), the court shall have the powers set out in section 85 of the Housing Act 1985."
Lord Shipley (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I shall also speak to Amendments 25 and 26. Amendment 22 defines the exemptions from flexible tenancies and, in particular, ensures that people aged over 60 and those with a long-term illness or disability are exempt from flexible tenancies. The amendment is designed to ensure that people who are in need of settled or stable accommodation and whose situation is unlikely to change are exempt from the flexible tenancy regime and receive a fully secure tenancy. It reflects the Government's own stated policy to guarantee social housing for life for some new tenants. Indeed, in their consultation paper, Local Decisions: A Fairer Future for Social Housing, the Government acknowledged that,
"we recognise that the needs of some are likely to remain broadly constant over the long term and social housing (although not necessarily the same social home) to remain permanently the most appropriate form of tenure for them because of the stability and security which it provides. This is likely to be the case particularly for older people and those with a long term illness or disability".
If the changes go ahead, this amendment will offer vital protection for some of the most vulnerable households in need of social housing.
Fear should be a great worry for us. I refer to people who fear that they will not have a roof over their heads for whatever reason and those who fear that they may not be able to stay in the place where they have cultivated a garden or looked after a home with happy memories and family associations. It is important that we are seen to do the right thing by those who are more vulnerable, who, under Amendment 22, are defined as those aged over 60 and those who have a long-term illness or disability.
Amendment 25 would increase the minimum tenancy period to five years. I feel strongly about this because the stability provided by social housing is vital for many vulnerable people. Indeed, it may be the first stable housing experienced by those in homeless households. Stability through social housing can provide a platform from which people can improve their individual and personal circumstances and it will encourage their aspirations.
Flexible tenancies will mean that people stay in areas for shorter periods, leading to higher turnover on estates and an increase in the associated problems of poor community cohesion. Therefore, as I think I said at Second Reading and in Committee, in theory I support lifetime tenancies, although I realise that there are practical difficulties in continuing to implement them in relation to new tenancies. It is absolutely right that the lifetime tenancies currently enjoyed by existing tenants should not be altered. In an ideal world I would prefer that to be the case for new tenants as well, although the inadequate number of social housing units means that in reality it will not be possible to do that for everyone. However, increasing the minimum tenancy from two to five years is important.
I have addressed this issue briefly from the perspective of the household and its personal circumstances but perhaps we can also address it from the perspective of a neighbourhood where there is no stability of cohesion because no one has a stake in it. Who will run the local community association and residents' groups or the youth clubs and all the things that come with stability and from people feeling part of an area?
The Government have already indicated that they would be willing to regulate to make it clear that in most cases the tenancy length will be five years. I would appreciate hearing more from the Minister about how that might work but I would prefer a minimum tenancy of five years to be written into the Bill.
Amendment 26 would ensure that secure tenants moving to a new property rented out by a social landlord were granted another secure tenancy. There was discussion about this in the other place and in your Lordships' House in Committee, when it was raised by my noble friend Lady Doocey. In response, I think that the Minister said that the Government would ensure, through directions to the tenancy regulator, that existing tenants moving from a social tenancy to another social home would keep their security of tenure. That is welcome, but the current direction to the regulator may be insufficient because it does not protect tenants who move to an affordable rent tenancy. As many of the available properties will be let at the affordable rent, this fundamentally undermines the goal of protecting the security of tenure of existing tenants.
These three amendments are important because they relate to the exact kind of tenancy and tenure that individual households are going to enjoy. One can approach this matter from the perspective of the individual, which I have tried to do, but one can also approach it from the perspective of the neighbourhood. Neighbourhoods need cohesion. Cohesion comes from people being part of a neighbourhood and that comes through length of residence. In turn, the people who enjoy that increased length of residence will participate in and contribute more to the delivery of social and community cohesion. I hope that the Minister will be able to say a little more about this and about ways in which such a provision might be placed in the Bill. If that cannot be done, perhaps she would say how we can make sure that the more vulnerable are properly supported.
Lord Taylor of Goss Moor (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I welcome my noble friend putting forward these amendments, and particularly Amendment 22. I should like to chase the Minister for some clarity about what seems to me a fundamental issue in the Government's reforms. There are two forms of provision in the development of social housing-long-term social housing at low rents for security and an intermediate affordable rented model. There is something of an unanswered question and for clarity it would help if Ministers could explain their long-term intention in how we are approaching these changes.
It seems to me that-this is reflected in Amendment 22-where there is clear, long-term need, it continues to make complete sense to have a model of housing that is secure and has low rents, for which the primary government support system is through a capital subsidy. We should be looking in the long run to ensure that there is adequate provision in terms of numbers of social houses to meet long-term needs. It makes no sense for the state to do this otherwise. That does not provide adequate security to individuals and it comes at high cost to the state if higher levels of rent are paid. In pure value-for-money terms, it makes sense to adopt the traditional social housing model.
I believe that, for people who are transitioning through periods of need, it makes more sense to have a much more flexible model, in which the subsidy may well come in the form of temporary help with rent-that involves a benefit system rather than a huge up-front capital subsidy and then a low rent. Very similar individuals in similar circumstances can either get the gold standard trump card of social housing or they may be in the rented sector. It is not obvious what the distinction is other than the circumstances in which people went into that housing. It is also the case that it makes no sense, when we are short of such housing, for property that has had a huge up-front capital subsidy to be permanently made available to people whose needs may radically change over time and who may not need it.
I can see the argument for two models but I do not see the Government being sufficiently explicit about the path by which the right people will get the right kind of offers and the circumstances in which they will get the security that they need if their needs are long term, in the way described by my noble friend. The definition in Amendment 22 looks perfectly reasonable, but it may be that it can be done better or that the Government think there are other routes for doing it. It is deeply important to define this and debate it properly, understanding not only the transition but where the Government ultimately want to take us. If we understand that, we will have a clearer idea of the long-term social housing need in this country. We can play that against those with such long-term needs. We will understand better the role of intermediate affordable housing and where that plays into the equation in the long term.
It looks to me that, without such a definition, we will be left with deep uncertainty for individuals in long-term need who want security. There will be deep uncertainty in terms of the individuals who get housing-some may get a social housing offer or an affordable housing offer, but there will be no clarity about who gets what. It is more likely that it will depend on what is available at any given time rather than on need. In particular, on the social housing model for those in long-term need, which is the best form of delivery, we will be giving up assets as they transfer over to affordable rent without any clarity on the numbers that we need in this country, the places where we need them or the long-term strategy.
Lord Whitty (Labour)
My Lords, my name is down for two amendments in this group. I strongly agree with most of what the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, said. I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, that this is the point where we are asking the Government to set out their long-term strategy. I am afraid that once they do, I think I will deeply disagree with it.
I appreciate and understand that existing tenants in their lifetime tenancies are by and large protected from this change. Therefore, any change and ultimate destination is pretty long term. It also seems to me that the Government's long-term ambition is to abolish long-term and lifetime tenures. I can understand the temptation for them to do so when there is a shortage of affordable housing and great pressures on the existing stock but it is the wrong temptation, largely for the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley. The role of council housing, not in its absolute origins but for most of its existence, has been to provide for people who cannot get on the housing ladder a degree of security and stability and to live in and work for a community in which to bring up their children.
I appreciate that there are some failures in that but there are also some significant successes. It has also meant that in some areas both rented and owner-occupied private sector properties can put the market price well out of the reach of most people. It has also allowed us to have mixed neighbourhoods in areas that would otherwise become ghettos for the rich. Just to take a random example, I mention the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Because of the legacy of Victorian philanthropists and some of their predecessors in what were two boroughs, there is a significant amount of social housing in an otherwise extremely rich area. Is that to be gradually phased out for people who are not regarded as exceptions but as part of the community? The stability of community has existed in many of the estates there, in other London boroughs, and in places such as Bristol, Newcastle, and so on because we have had long-term and lifetime tenancies. To abandon that prospect and effectively in the long term to turn the whole of social housing into safety net and emergency provision is to run the risk of destabilising communities which have hitherto been relatively stable and to ensure that only the very, very poor and those falling within the kind of exemptions specified in Amendment 22 can live in a lot of areas in our country, particularly our inner cities.
That is not a recipe for a stable and coherent society. The Government should hesitate before going completely down that road. There are some brakes on that provision in this group of amendments. On the amendment suggesting that flexible tenancies should be a minimum of five rather than two years, I cannot understand the Government's position. They are telling us that in practice five years probably will be the minimum except in exceptional circumstances, so why cannot we write the provision that way round in the Bill? It could say that there would normally be a minimum of five years except in exceptional circumstances which could then be defined in secondary legislation, and which would be subject to a degree of quality control by council decisions. If we move into flexible tenancies throughout, that would at least put a brake on the destabilising effect of potentially having only two-year tenancies, which does not give a couple, a family or even an individual a lot of security.
I would like to be more radical than that. My final amendment in this group suggests that there should be a limit, at least at this stage, on the degree of movement towards flexible tenancies, thus preserving, for the most part, that the default position for those who are entitled to new tenancies under these provisions are limited. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, on his exemptions. The most vulnerable people should certainly be exempt from this provision, but I would make the exemption wider or put a limit on the degree of progress towards destroying the stability that social housing has provided for many in our population.
As I said in the earlier debate, other sectors of housing provision are in crisis and overstretched, and likely to be so for a considerable time. That leads to instability and to a change in relations between the generations. If people cannot get on the housing ladder until they are 40, they will not be in a position to help their sons and daughters until they are well past retirement age-or at least the current retirement age. Therefore, there will be a need for more family accommodation, because people in many parts of the country will not able to get on to the housing ladder, or in many cases meet the rent for decent accommodation in the private rented sector.
Social housing should continue to provide that asset. The terms on which it does so may vary, but the comprehensive move away from life tenancies to flexible tenancies that may have a length of as little as two years would destroy a significant element of housing provision and opportunities in this country. I appreciate that it will take time to get to that position, but it should not be the final position. Therefore, my amendment in this group suggests that only 25 per cent of households should be moved to flexible tenancies. One could argue about the percentage, and obviously individual councils will take different percentages. However, there needs to be a maximum, otherwise we are laying down significant problems for the future at a time when other sectors of the housing market are in such a dire state and when the pressure on housing as a whole will increase for at least the next 20 or 30 years.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Labour)
My Lords, the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, has the full support of the Opposition. I concur in particular with the remarks of my noble friend Lord Whitty. This amendment was moved by the noble Lord, Lord Best, in the curtailed Committee stage on the last day before the Summer Recess. As the noble Lord explained, the amendment concerns the flexible tenancy regime proposed in the Bill. It is supported by both Crisis and Shelter and seeks to provide protections for certain vulnerable groups by excluding them from the proposals. The groups to be exempt are of people for whom, through a variety of circumstances, flexible tenancies are not appropriate. The groups include older people aged 60 or more, households where one or more member has a long-term illness, and tenants who need more secure forms of accommodation.
What worries me most about this section of the Bill is the reliance that the Government have placed on words such as "in most cases" or "of course, the social landlord will take into account the needs of the vulnerable". This is all too risky for the people most in need of additional help and protection. I hope that the Minister has had time over the summer to reflect on the proposals, and will be able to give us some welcome news today, and assurances that at least things will be tightened up. If that is not the case, I hope very much that the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, will press his amendment and test the opinion of the House.
Lord Best (Crossbench)
My Lords, perhaps I may say a brief word. I moved an amendment along these lines just before the Committee stage finished, and received many helpful reassurances about the way in which the policy might work. Perhaps it would help the House if the Minister, in responding to the question about where the policy leads, would agree with me that a fundamental part of the policy is that no opprobrium will fall upon any council or housing association that decides not to deploy flexible-that is to say, fixed-term-tenures. The Hanover Housing Association, which I chair, houses only older people. We are a retirement housing organisation. We have absolutely no intention of giving anybody a two-year or five-year tenancy: the idea is absolute anathema. People who move in to a sheltered flat or a retirement apartment will be able to stay there for the rest of their life: that is the deal. Some local authorities may take the view that the families whom they are housing-just like the older people in my case-should have security on a permanent, long-term basis. I invite the Minister to confirm-I think that she will be able to do this-that if a social landlord, be they a council or housing association, does not wish to take advantage of flexible tenures and fixed-term tenancies, that will not in any way rebound on them.
Lord Newton of Braintree (Conservative)
My Lords, perhaps I may briefly comment on the back of that. It was extremely helpful. Incidentally, I note that the noble Lord opened the Hanover Housing Association development in what was my constituency and is now part of my wife's patch: she was then in charge of social housing, so I declare that interest.
A lot of councils and housing associations do not want to go down this path. I hesitate to oppose all ideas of flexibility, because on the whole it is a good thing-and trying to say that localism is not a good thing is rather like opposing motherhood. However, if it were acknowledged that most people do not wish to see this policy applied, and if the Minister were to accept that no pressure will be put on them to apply it, that would ease the minds of many of us.
My Lords, I hope that I can ease the minds of all noble Lords on this. When we say flexible tenancies, that is what we mean. We also mean, with localism, that local authorities, housing associations and social landlords will be able to make their own decisions about this. If local authorities decide that they have enough housing provision and can manage their tenancies without the flexibility that we are offering, and if, as the noble Lord said, they are providing specialist housing, for example for older people, they will offer lifetime tenancies and that will be it-no one will put any pressure on them.
The reasons for introducing the measures relate, first, to the fact that housing is in short supply. Anyone who has anything to do with local authority housing knows that some people do not need lifetime tenancies. For various reasons they need them for a short term such as five or 10 years. At the end of that time their children may have grown up, they may need to move, their income may have improved so that they no longer need social housing and they may be perfectly happy to have a shorter tenancy. The move is in the right direction. It is correct that we should be able to say to local authorities that in discussion with their tenants they will be able to offer a tenancy of less than a lifetime. If, at the end of the three, four, five or 10 years that the tenancy is for, the situation has not changed, they will renew the tenancy. Nothing here threatens any housing association or anyone who is looking for social housing.
We have made it absolutely clear, and I have laid information on this in the House Library, that the two years mentioned in the Bill-I do not accept the premise of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, that we should put five years and then downgrade it to two-will be exceptional. Some noble Lords may not agree, but some people need only short-term accommodation. The Minister, Mr Shapps, cited someone he knew who had a major disability that was caused unexpectedly and who for a very short time needed help, which the local authority under these provisions would be able to give him because it could give a restricted-time tenancy. Other people such as recovering drug addicts and people with short-term financial problems should not be given a lifetime tenancy but would benefit from social housing for a short time on the understanding that if at the end of two years the situation has not changed they will be offered a further tenancy if it is required.
I refute absolutely that we are trying to change the whole nature of a tenancy. We are trying to maximise the use and value of social housing. We have all agreed this afternoon that it is limited, that it is precious and that some people require it at various stages of their lives. To entitle local authorities to have flexibility in what they do seems to us to be just plain sensible at this stage and in the situation we are in. We have made it clear-again, this draft is in the Library-that two years is to be exceptional and that the tenancy policies of social landlords and local councils will have to state what they mean by exceptional. A tenancy policy will state what the landlord sees as a possible exception for two years. That will have to be laid out so that everyone knows what it is. The expectation is that these will not be used very frequently. They will probably be used very infrequently, but there should be the right to have that flexibility. Therefore, by definition, the tenures stretch from two years rather than five, as is being proposed. We wish the two years to stay in the Bill.
I trust that the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and others have received the letter that I sent during the summer saying what we are proposing to do. We have made clear to the social housing regulator that this is to be the situation in the new tenancy standard on which we are currently consulting. The revised text sets out that tenancies with a term of less than five years may be granted only exceptionally, and if social landlords decide that there are exceptional circumstances they will be able to set out in their tenancy policies what those exceptional circumstances will be.
In addition to the example I have given, young people who need support for a short time, families who need a larger home for a short period and shorter-term support for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts are examples that we have been given as a result of the consultation on this by social landlords. They are real cases and there is a real ability to help people.
When the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, raised this in Committee, I made it clear that we recognise that the needs of older people and those with disabilities, for example, are going to remain constant over the long term. It will certainly be open to local authorities to give them long-term tenancies. It is perfectly sensible to keep older people in the house or flat that they are familiar with and not to remove them from the people and places that are familiar to them. We believe that landlords understand that as well, but we believe that safeguards are needed and that the tenancy standards are the right place for them as they will cover all tenants. This is important because the amendment would not cover both social tenancies and local authority tenancies. We believe that they should cover both so there is no doubt about it. We are consulting on a draft direction, and we will consider whether that can be tightened up. The direction relates to the tenancy policy. If it is possible, I hope that we will have a draft of that before Report, but I shall not make any promises on that at the moment.
We believe that Amendment 28, which was tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, is unnecessary. It seeks to guarantee continued security on moving home for secure and assured tenants, but only when they move to a local authority home. We want to make it clear that we are talking about moving within the affordable sector. Through the tenancy standards, we have guaranteed continuing security for existing tenants who move to another social-rented home.
I hope that I have made it clear in what I have said and the way I have said it that we do not expect these provisions to do anything other than free some local authority and social housing from people who do not need it and make it available for people who do, but they by no means undermine the provision and ethos that people who need a home for life should have it. It is just recognition that that is not always the situation and that local authorities should be able to work to that.
Lord Whitty (Labour)
Before the Minister sits down I should say that I felt that her assurance to the noble Lord, Lord Best, was not quite as unequivocal as the one I think he was seeking. The history is that when the past two Governments gave flexibility to local authorities, if those authorities had not followed the Government's preferred option-being less enthusiastic than was hoped about the right to buy or, under the previous Government, less enthusiastic than they wanted on stock transfer-a financial penalty followed down the line. If the Minister is giving an assurance in response to the noble Lord, Lord Best, that that will not happen this time, we should be grateful, but I do not think she quite went that far.
My Lords, I thought I made myself pellucid on this. Local authorities and housing associations will have the flexibility and the right to offer only lifetime tenancies. I do not see that that money has anything to do with this. I do not think there is any likelihood that Parliament will want to intervene in that. That is the situation. They can have lifetime tenancies for everyone if they wish, but if they have other people who they think could make better use of the property or have people who do not need it, as I have said before they will be able to do that. I cannot commit future Governments, so I would like to commit mine for a very long time, as they will be there, but as the noble Lord knows perfectly well one can commit only one's own Government, and I think I can commit ours to that.
Lord Shipley (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying the Government's approach to these amendments. I raised two issues. The first was the extension of minimum tenancies from two to five years and the second was the exemption of vulnerable people and households from flexible tenancies. On the first, I heard the Minister say that housing providers, local authorities and social housing can all continue to offer lifetime tenancies to new tenants. I think that is a very important statement, and I am encouraged by it. As I said earlier, I am an advocate of lifetime tenancies, largely on the grounds that if people are financially able to move, the vast majority do so and enter owner-occupation in practice. The problem that I have been trying to solve is not obvious in that respect because people move on from rented accommodation to owner occupation in large numbers. I was concerned about two issues. On the two to five years, I heard the Minister say that councils and social housing providers may continue to offer lifetime tenancies if they wish to do so, and that for two years to be used has to be exceptional and that the exception has to be clearly defined by that authority. That is extremely important because that becomes a public declaration of what an exception is.
On Amendment 25, which deals with the exemption of vulnerable households, I heard the Minister say that there is nothing in it to threaten anyone. I am much encouraged by that because I believe that to be true. We all recognise the fear of people who do not feel confident that they have their homes for their lifetimes and that they may be forced to move in old age, which is not particularly nice.
I am sufficiently encouraged by what the Minister said to believe that five years may apply in some places. I believe that most housing providers will continue to provide lifetime tenancies. Some, where they can prove the need for an exception, will go for two years. There may be specific individual cases where that is important or it may be for a specific geographical reason. I hope it will not be an excuse for those parts of the country that have serious problems with the availability of affordable rented housing to go for two years, with lifetime tenancies being offered much further away by other authorities. I see my noble friend the Minister shaking her head and I am sure that that is not the Government's intention.
Because I believe in both cases that there is still movement in our understanding of the regulations, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 22 withdrawn.
Consideration on Report adjourned until not before 8.31 pm.