New Clause 5 — Co-operation between registered social landlords and local housing authorities

Orders of the Day — Homelessness Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:30 pm on 22 October 2001.

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'For section 170 of the 1996 Act (co-operation between registered social landlords and local housing authorities) there is substituted—

"Where a local housing authority so request, a registered social landlord shall co–operate in offering accommodation to people with priority under the authority's allocation scheme, if to do so is compatible with their constitution and does not unduly prejudice the discharge of any of their functions.".'.—[Mr. Don Foster.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 11, in clause 13, page 8, line 12, leave out from beginning to "(7)" in line 13.

No. 12, in page 8, line 15, leave out "or (b)".

No. 13, in page 8, line 37, leave out from beginning to end of line 45.

No. 14, in page 9, line 1, leave out from beginning to end of line 10.

No. 15, in page 9, line 14, leave out from "(5)" to end of line 16.

No. 16, in page 9, line 22, leave out from beginning to end of line 25.

No. 19, in clause 15, page 11, line 1, after "any", insert "deliberate, wilful, or negligent.".

No. 7, in page 11, line 4, at end insert—

'(d) any record of behaviour of a person (or a member of his household) which has affected the terms of a previous tenancy he has held.'.

No. 17, in page 11, line 6, after "given", insert—

'or allocation to be made'.

No. 18, in page 11, line 15, leave out from beginning to end of line 17 and insert—

'(2D) The only behaviour which may be regarded by the authority as unacceptable for the purposes of subsection (2C)(a) is—

(a) behaviour of the person concerned which would (if he were a secure tenant of the authority) entitle the authority to a possession order under section 84 of the Housing Act 1985 (c. 68) on any ground mentioned in Part 1 of Schedule 2 to that Act (other than ground 8); or

(b) behaviour of a member of his household which would (if he were a person residing with a secure tenant of the authority) entitle the authority to such a possession order.'.

No. 20, in page 11, line 37, leave out from "has" to "him" and insert "is informed".

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath

I begin with an apology to the House. Because of the way in which the Chair has chosen to group amendments for deliberation today, it is inevitable that a number of very different issues have ended up in the same group. This group contains four separate and distinct issues. Instead of my speaking on the entire group, were my hon. Friend Mr. Sanders to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he might give my voice a rest and the House a rest from having to hear it.

When she responds to new clause 5, the Under-Secretary of State, Ms Keeble, will no doubt remind the House that this is old ground that we have been over on several occasions. For anyone coming new to this "Groundhog Day" event, the issue is simple. Under the Bill, local authorities are required to develop a homelessness strategy, although in its delivery they will be increasingly reliant on various housing associations and registered social landlords.

As hon. Members who served on the Committee know, it is estimated that by 2004 more than 50 per cent. of all social housing will be in the hands of housing associations or registered social landlords. It is therefore agreed in all parts of the House that close co-operation between a housing authority and a housing association is crucial. The question is how we ensure such co-operation.

New clause 5 is one way of ensuring that by writing into the Bill a specific requirement for registered social landlords to co-operate with the local authority, unless to do so would be incompatible with their constitution or would in some way unduly prejudice the discharge of their other functions. The Government have suggested an alternative way forward, by making sure that the Housing Corporation has strong enough teeth to ensure that the housing associations for which it has responsibility comply with requests that they work closely with housing authorities.

In the Standing Committee, the Minister said:

"I share the concern that has been expressed that registered social landlords should play their part, but I believe that that will best be achieved through revised guidance and enhanced regulation by the Housing Corporation".—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 10 July 2001; c. 17.]

I have no doubt that in her response she will tell the House that she still believes that that is the appropriate way forward. Perhaps she can tell the House a little about her consultation and discussion with, and perhaps exhortations to, the Housing Corporation, and assure me that we will end up with clear statutory arrangements to ensure close co-operation between registered social landlords and the Housing Corporation.

Before the Minister responds, however, may I raise three points which, I hope, will inform her deliberations with the Housing Corporation? First, in respect of the number of lettings currently taking place, there has been a significant reduction in the share of new lettings to homeless households. That has been in decline for the past decade. In 1992–95, 25 per cent. of new lettings went to homeless households. By 1999–2000, the figure had fallen to just 11 per cent. I am well aware that there are many complex reasons for that figure, but it shows that the RSL sector as a whole is not doing enough to support the Government's policy objectives. I hope that that will form part of the Minister's discussion with the Housing Corporation.

Secondly, on possessions, recent figures from the Lord Chancellor's Department show that social landlords were granted more than 26,000 possession orders in 2000. That figure is up by 12 per cent. from the previous year and has more than doubled in the past six years. Again, there are complex reasons for that, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the underlying reasons for the increase are the demands of meeting performance indicators on managing rent arrears and delays in processing housing benefit.

There is no doubt that the increased use of possession orders is causing unnecessary homelessness. Of course there is a place for possession orders, but far too often they are used as the first, rather than the last, resort. I note with interest that in the latest edition of "Roof", Shelter launches its "Evictions: who's counting?" campaign to get more detailed information about the problem. I hope that the Minister will look into that matter, too.

Thirdly, we will consider later in this group of amendments the question of suitability to be a tenant. That should form part of the discussions with the Housing corporation. It is important that the new regulatory guidance is consistent with the framework in the Bill for allocating accommodation, particularly in circumstances where applicants can be deemed to be unsuitable tenants. Throughout our earlier deliberations, Ministers have been keen to stress that a high legal test should be applied. A registered social landlord cannot be allowed to decide that it does not like the behaviour of a particular tenant. It is important the guidance produced by the Housing Corporation mirrors the high tests that apply to local authorities.

Amendments Nos. 11 to 18 relate to what has often been called the neighbour from hell. I stress that I do not believe we should take away from local authorities the discretion to take account of antisocial behaviour, nor discretion in factors that pose a threat to fellow tenants. I also believe that local authorities should have discretion to frame their allocation schemes to reflect local circumstances. I accept those matters in their entirety. Many local authorities have a real problem to grapple with, and in so doing they face many challenges. However, the Government were right to state in a number of policy documents that housing need must be given a high level of consideration when dealing with the problem of homelessness. The purpose of the amendments is to remove the issue of behaviour from the decision whether a person is deemed to be eligible. There is no intention to remove the issue of behaviour at later stages when the crucial issue of priority will have to be decided.

It is vital that local authorities are able, as is proposed in legislation, to consider the issue of suitability in terms of prior behaviour when determining priority, or whether there should be no priority. However, that should not happen at the first stage of considering eligibility. If at the first decision-making process—that of eligibility—the issue of behaviour can be taken into account, it is possible for a local authority to determine immediately that a person is not eligible without having any regard for the housing need of the applicant. It would be especially worrying if that were to happen in circumstances where the applicant is not an individual but a member of a homeless family. Perhaps one individual in the family has behaved in such a way that at a later stage the authority may use it to deny the family priority. At the earlier stage there would be no opportunity for the local authority even to bother to make an assessment of the housing need of every member of the family.

I hope that the Minister will recognise that we are not seeking to water down the clear arrangements that have been put in place following earlier discussions to enable local authorities to take behaviour into account. The tabling of the amendments is a move to ensure that something that is close to the Government's heart and to the heart of Liberal Democrats is taken into account. Housing need must be addressed.

If my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay succeeds in catching your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he will be keen to speak to amendments Nos. 19 and 20. We are concerned that there is inconsistency in the Bill in respect of behavioural issues. It is bizarre that when we come to consider various decisions on the levels of support that are to be given, we find it has been decided that there should be a set of clearly defined strategies for determining whether certain behaviour is acceptable or unacceptable, and what impact that will have on someone's likelihood of receiving support. In determining the level of priority—one small piece of the procedure—we move from having a set of listed criteria to stating suddenly that the local authority can take any behaviour into account. That is flying in the face of the logic that many of us have discussed many times in earlier stages of the Bill's consideration.

Amendment No. 20 raises an issue that the Minister and I have debated on many occasions. That issue is whether, when a decision is made about the priority to be given to an applicant, the local authority should have a duty to notify the applicant of the decision, as it has in earlier stages of the process. There has been confusion during many earlier debates about the significance of priority. I say that it is vital. If a local authority decides that someone is eligible but has no priority for housing, he or she will not be helped. If it decides that an individual is eligible but that he or she has low priority, that person will find that there is no opportunity to be helped. That is the situation in many parts of the country. I hope that it will be accepted that priority is an important issue.

As I have said, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay will wish to amplify one or two of the points that I have raised. I hope that we shall have more interesting responses from Ministers to these amendments than to the previous string of amendments.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold 7:45, 22 October 2001

Amendment No. 7 adds the following clause:

"(d) any record of behaviour of a person (or a member of his household) which has affected the terms of a previous tenancy he has held."

The amendment relates to allocation schemes that local authorities have to consider.

I broadly agree with what Mr. Foster said about amendment No. 18, which is similar to No. 7. However, I believe that amendment No. 7 is more direct and to the point. He said that there is a real problem with which local authorities must grapple, and I entirely agree. He added that housing need must be given a high priority in dealing with homelessness. A balance must be struck.

In considering the allocation of scarce houses, local authorities should be given a power to consider the previous behaviour of a tenant, and perhaps in the area of another local authority. At present, there is no such power, especially when a tenant has come from a different authority. He may have a long record of antisocial behaviour towards his neighbours; he may have, for example, a long record of bad rental payment. However, a different local authority may not take that record into account as the law stands. Surely it would be reasonable for a system of voluntary recording to be undertaken so that a local authority is able to pass on such information to the next local authority. That would be one of the factors that could be taken into account when considering the allocation of housing. Perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us whether she agrees with that approach and whether she agrees with amendment No. 7.

Photo of Adrian Sanders Adrian Sanders Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

I support amendments Nos. 19 and 20, both of which are designed to tackle the same problem and the same deficiency. We all want to do something about neighbours who are disruptive, who cause annoyance, disruption, pain and hurt to others, and the need to do so is recognised in many parts of the Bill, but not in the one that we are discussing. For example, an applicant can go through all the eligibility tests, but when it comes to allocation the priority is lost. Amendment No. 20 is designed to correct the procedure where there is a duty to inform the applicant at all stages about the decisions that have been taken, and in those terms it is similar to amendment No. 19. However, there is no such duty at the allocation stage. It is almost as if there has been an omission at the final stage.

Amendment No. 1 would ensure that local authorities exercise their discretion in determining the priority that is given to applications for housing in line with the Government's policy intentions. The amendment is designed to promote consistency and to ensure that the Government's policy intentions are met, as set out in the housing Green Paper.

Much of the debate so far has focused on giving local authorities discretion not to house antisocial tenants. We agree that local authorities should have the discretion to take into account previous violence, antisocial behaviour and other factors that pose a threat to fellow tenants. More broadly, authorities should have discretion to frame their allocation scheme to reflect local circumstances.

However, proposed new subsection (2A)(b) in clause 15 gives local authorities wide-ranging discretion to take "any behaviour" into consideration when assessing an applicant's priority for accommodation; it does not refer only to antisocial behaviour. Unlike at other stages in the allocation process, no test defines the circumstances in which an authority should apply the provision. That is inconsistent and means that authorities could reduce priority for rent arrears or other reasons. That is common under current arrangements.

In many parts of the country, the decision to reduce an applicant's priority will mean that he or she will not be housed. That is especially relevant at the moment because local authorities suspend or exclude people for rent arrears that have nothing to do with them but have occurred through, for example, delays in housing benefit administration.

Amendment No. 20 makes the important point that authorities should provide information when no priority is given to an applicant. A way forward might be to amend the Bill so that it explicitly states that information about the decision and the right of review should be provided. Guidance for local authorities about decisions to reduce priority should also be given.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Highgate

I should like to speak against the new clause and deal with the remarks of Mr. Foster. I am worried that he advocates giving the Housing Corporation teeth to deal with housing associations that work with local authorities. In the borough of Camden in my constituency, the local authority and the housing associations work closely together. However, I am sure that he knows that some housing associations deal with specific minority groups—for example, single women. They have expressed anxiety, even at this stage, that the teeth that he advocates for the Housing Corporation could threaten their specific services to groups that remain excluded from local authority priority housing.

I share the hon. Gentleman's anxiety about the number of repossessions that have taken place. If they are a direct result of the inequities in housing benefit, I strongly urge my hon. Friend the Minister to speak again to our colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath

I understand the hon. Lady's point about housing associations that have been established to serve the needs of specific groups. The new clause takes that into account and states that the housing association does not need to work with the local authority if that would breach the purposes for which it was set up. She is wrong to say that it is easier for local authorities to work with registered social landlords; the figures show that the situation is getting worse after transfers.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Highgate

I do not believe that I said that. I spoke of the ease with which Camden, my local authority, works with all the housing associations in the borough. I stress that I read the new clause, and I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. However, representations have been made to me that suggest that housing associations that attempt to deal with the difficulties of specific minority groups believe—accurately or inaccurately—that any wish to expand their services or engage in development that would mean financial partnership with the Housing Corporation would result in their being put at the bottom of the list.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to speak to our colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions. Although I appreciate that the Government have stated that they do not expect fundamental changes for at least a decade, we cannot wait that long. Far too many people are being punished through no fault of their own, but because of the incompetence of those who provide housing benefit in the area. My borough of Camden has two charter marks for the excellence of its housing benefit service.

I assume that the amendments that Mr. Sanders have tabled deal with bad behaviour. Antisocial behaviour can be enormously destructive, as we all know from experience in our constituencies. However, I was not clear about the point raised by the hon. Member for Bath. Does he believe that the consideration of behaviour should be placed further down a local authority's list of priorities? No one accepts bad behaviour, and I appreciate that local authorities have difficulties in housing families that include one young antisocial member. In such a case, should the whole family be punished?

I am worried about inappropriate lettings, which have happened in the past and will doubtless occur in future. I want to consider the case of someone whose behaviour is not bad but may be perceived by neighbours as antisocial—for example, if an individual with mental health problems allied to alcohol dependency set fire to their flat. Greater consideration of previous behaviour before the inappropriate placing of the individual could have prevented the incident.

I do not support the new clause, and I hope that behaviour will be placed at the bottom of the list of criteria. I accept the point about antisocial behaviour, but the purpose of the Bill is to provide for those who are vulnerable.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions

We have had a good debate about amendments that deal with the difficulties of providing a housing service when we have a range of different providers, including housing associations.

The problems of antisocial behaviour are universally recognised as profound for those who provide or manage housing. Transparency and providing information to people who have applied for housing were also discussed.

New clause 5 would place a statutory duty on registered social landlords to co-operate with local authorities in offering accommodation to people with priority under the authorities' allocation schemes when that does not unduly prejudice the discharge of their functions. I accept the point about the implications for housing associations that provide special services.

I am grateful to Mr. Foster for raising an important issue, which we discussed at length in Committee, where I gave an undertaking to consult with the Housing Corporation about his concerns about the co-operation of registered social landlords and local authorities in tackling housing need. My officials have been working closely with the corporation to ensure that its revised regulatory arrangements can make sure that RSLs co-operate with local authorities.

I have already met the chair of the Housing Corporation, Baroness Dean, informally to discuss the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised. I shall meet her again tomorrow to underline the issue's importance and to satisfy myself about the corporation's proposed arrangements. It must take on board the hon. Gentleman's points, and those of my hon. Friend Glenda Jackson. I undertake to mention the point about the number of lettings and to get information about the percentage that go from the Housing Corporation to homeless families.

On repossessions, I understand that the article that the hon. Member for Bath mentioned referred to possessions by housing associations and by local authorities. The figures are not simply those for housing associations. The Department has asked for a breakdown of figures so that we can try to ascertain the percentage that is due to rent arrears and that due to antisocial behaviour. I hope that we can thus begin to find a way forward on a difficult problem. I therefore urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the motion on the assurance that the issues that he has raised will be tackled.

Amendments Nos. 11 to 16 would remove the provisions in the Bill which would give local housing authorities the power to decide to treat an applicant as ineligible for an allocation of housing, if satisfied that he was guilty of unacceptable behaviour serious enough to make him unsuitable to be a tenant, and which would prevent them from allocating housing to such a tenant.

Under the current provisions, section 167(1) of the Housing Act 1996 requires that every housing authority must have an allocation scheme which sets out how the authority determines its priorities for making housing allocations. Clause 15 of the Bill would substitute a new section 167(2), which deals with powers and duties concerning how allocation schemes must or may be framed.

Amendment No. 17 would provide that nothing in new section 167(2) would require an allocation scheme to provide for an allocation to be made to people the authority has decided are guilty of unacceptable behaviour serious enough to make them unsuitable to be tenants, and who, in the circumstances at the time their case is considered, deserve not be given any preference for an allocation.

Amendment No. 18 would reintroduce—in effect, reposition—the provision deleted by amendment No. 14, which specifies the type of behaviour which may be regarded as unacceptable.

The hon. Members who have tabled this group of amendments may consider that they would simplify the current provisions in the Bill which allow an authority to decide not to allocate to those who would be unsuitable to be a tenant of that authority. However, the provisions as drafted are robust and effective and, crucially, make a clear distinction between the issue of eligibility and the issue of whether any degree of priority for an allocation is deserved under the allocation scheme. This distinction is lost in the amendments. The allocation scheme deals only with the determination of priorities and with procedures to be followed. It does not bear on the question of eligibility for an allocation. If an applicant is ineligible, his allocation will not be considered under the scheme, since the issue of what priority he might deserve will not arise.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath 8:00, 22 October 2001

I have listened closely to what the Minister has said. Will she explain how, if a person is denied eligibility based on behaviour criteria, there will be any opportunity for the local authority to consider the issue of housing need?

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions

The issue of housing need is, of course, the overriding priority. However, I would underline the fact that those whose unacceptable behaviour is serious enough to make them unsuitable to be a local authority tenant cannot behave in that way with impunity. They forfeit the right to be considered for an allocation or to be given any preference for an allocation. It is right that serious antisocial behaviour cannot be tolerated, and local authorities must have the clear power to decide not to allocate to people who have demonstrated—and who continue to demonstrate—that they are unsuitable as tenants.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath

I fully understand the Minister's argument. I genuinely believe that she is right to say that local authorities must have discretionary powers to exclude people who have serious antisocial behaviour problems. Nevertheless, before we get to the issue of priority, we must address the issue of eligibility. If the Bill is to allow a local authority to deny eligibility to a family on the grounds of behaviour criteria, when is the issue of housing need to be considered in such a case? Surely the answer is that it is not.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions

The problem with the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Bath is that they conflate the two different issues of eligibility and priority order. It is right that a local authority should be able to make the decision in the first instance, judged by the stricter test of whether a person has forfeited the right, through their behaviour, to be considered eligible for a local authority tenancy.

Therefore, I do not consider that these amendments would improve the Bill, as they would place provisions which deal with local authority decisions not to make an allocation in the context of the allocation scheme. That seems to me to be the wrong place for them. I believe that the existing structure provides a better way to achieve the desired result, as it would give authorities an unambiguous power to decide not to make an allocation to applicants who had demonstrated that they were unsuitable to be tenants. I urge hon. Members not to press amendments Nos. 11 to 18.

Amendment No. 19 seeks to ensure that when an applicant's behaviour made that person unsuitable to be a tenant, that would count against him only when his behaviour was deliberate, wilful or negligent. It is certainly important that those who have behaved in an antisocial manner, or in some otherwise unacceptable way, should be given the opportunity to show they have reformed. However, it is also important that local authorities must be able to protect the vast majority of tenants.

Local authorities must be given the discretion to make balanced judgments on the basis of their knowledge of individual circumstances. Every time the Bill lays down further instructions that local authorities must take into account, we limit their ability to make decisions which, on the basis of their local and particular knowledge, they consider to be in the best interests of the majority of tenants and residents.

The existing provision already strikes a fair and proper balance between the interests of applicants and those of authorities and existing tenants, with its references to "serious" behaviour and "unsuitability" to be a tenant, and by linking into the grounds for possession in schedule 2 to the Housing Act 1985. These safeguards—already included in the Bill—ensure that to attract "no priority", a person must have been guilty of unacceptable behaviour serious enough to make him unsuitable to be a tenant, and which would entitle the authority to a possession order, so that those whose behaviour in the past has fallen short of the best, but is not intolerable, are protected. We have struck a balance which recognises that people can reform, but which also respects the right of the vast majority of tenants and residents to quiet enjoyment of their lives. I therefore ask hon. Members not to press the amendment.

Amendment No. 7 seeks to ensure that a person's previous behaviour, or that of a member of his household, may be taken into account when determining priority for allocation. However, past behaviour may already be taken into account under the terms of the Bill. Clause 15(3), which inserts new section 167(2A)(b) states that

"any behaviour of a person (or of a member of his household) which affects his suitability to be a tenant" may be taken into account. New sections 167(2B) to (2D) also make it clear that past behaviour can be taken into account.

However, account must be taken of current circumstances as well as an applicant's past behaviour. If there is clear evidence that the applicant has reformed or that the circumstances that led to his or her unacceptable behaviour have changed, the authority must have regard to that evidence. In effect, the authority should assess whether the applicant is likely to behave in an unacceptable manner if allocated housing now. I therefore ask hon. Members not to press the amendment.

The Bill gives housing applicants the right to request information about any decisions which have been taken, or are likely to be taken, about the facts of their case and about any decision that no preference will be given because of unacceptable behaviour. Amendment No. 20 would remove the onus from the individual to request information, and would place an obligation on authorities to inform applicants of any such decisions.

I am sympathetic to the thinking behind this amendment. I share the concern of the hon. Member for Bath that the application process should be transparent and accessible, and that applicants should be able to obtain the information that they need to get an indication of the degree of priority their application will receive, relative to others. I also understand the importance of priority in terms of people's prospects of being able to obtain accommodation.

I believe that local authorities should be encouraged to provide as much feedback on individual applications as is practicable, as early as practicable, so that those applying for housing know where they stand and understand their prospects, be they good or bad, and can make plans accordingly. That is particularly important in respect of those households that are being accommodated temporarily under the homelessness legislation while awaiting the opportunity of an allocation to provide them with a more settled home. I can assure Mr. Sanders, as I have said to the hon. Member for Bath, that that will be reflected in statutory guidance as strongly as possible. It will also be done in consultation with housing authorities.

I recognise also that the Local Government Association and the Association of London Government support the proposal. However, I remain concerned that we do not inadvertently place local authorities in a difficult position by including statutory duties that may not be practical. The provisions have been carefully and thoughtfully drafted. They recognise that, although some authorities may decide to continue to operate what might be characterised as points-based allocation schemes, others are moving to choice-based schemes, which allow applicants more opportunity to exercise their preference for particular properties. The statutory provisions therefore need to be appropriate to both types of scheme as well as any others that local authorities may devise.

The provisions on applicants' right to information about their applications, which amendment No. 20 would modify, are a case in point. Under choice-based schemes, active consideration of the facts of an applicant's case may not occur until he or she makes a specific application for a particular property. Under the provisions as drafted, an applicant has a right to ask about decisions likely to be taken on his application. That right applies at any stage of the process, including from the outset.

If no decisions have been taken by the authority at the point at which an applicant makes a request, the authority must nevertheless consider his application and inform him what the decisions are likely to be. I remain concerned that it would be impractical and onerous for authorities operating a choice-based allocation scheme to have to provide that information as a matter of course for all applicants, whether they require it or not.

I am also concerned about whether, under a choice-based scheme, an application would be considered in such detail. However, I am ready to give the matter further consideration. I shall ask my officials to consult the local government associations so that we can be absolutely sure of the implications involved and sure that we have a sound and practical provision. On that undertaking, I ask hon. Members to withdraw the new clause.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath

I thank the Minister for her responses to the separate issues that have been raised and I am delighted that she has already had informal meetings with the Housing Corporation. I understand that tomorrow's meeting will be formal and I hope that minutes will be available in due course. She goes with the clear wish of Members on both sides of the House that she fight hard to ensure that the commitments that she has made tonight are honoured by the Housing Corporation. We wish her well in those meetings.

I confess to being disappointed with the Minister's response in respect of whether it is appropriate to omit at the eligibility stage of determining what support to give a homeless applicant the issue of possible rejection on the ground of previous behaviour. She accused me of conflating the stages of eligibility and priority, but if there is confusion about that it is hers, not mine.

The issue is simple. I genuinely believe that the Government intend that a high priority be given to housing need in allocations policy. Indeed, I believe that because it is what they keep telling us in every single one of their housing documents. For example, in paragraphs 9.15 and 9.16 of the housing Green Paper, they state:

"Any decisions to suspend applications would need to take account of the circumstances of the household in order to safeguard vulnerable groups such as those with mental or behavioural problems, or the children of the families concerned. We would expect suspensions to be exceptional and that other ways of managing problems or risk may be more appropriate in many cases".

They continue:

"Meeting housing need remains the priority for lettings and transfer policies".

That picks up the point made by Glenda Jackson. Is it the key issue, and does it remain the Government's priority? I suggest that, by allowing local authorities to ignore housing need when eligibility is determined by simply addressing the issue of behaviour, they are going totally against what they suggest throughout their policy document. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that issue.

On the behavioural hurdles that should be set at the various stages, I genuinely believe that there is confusion in the Government's mind. They have rightly said that we should not allow any old behaviour criteria to be adopted. There are already significant problems with rent arrears and hon. Members are well aware that 89 per cent. of housing authorities use it as a reason for not allowing a transfer to take place. Of those, two thirds have no specific detail about what level that rent arrears should be.

There is genuine concern about the issue, so it seems odd to say the least that the Government propose a series of high hurdles early in the process. For whatever reason, a local authority might not want to house a certain person, but even if he does not cross those high hurdles he is allowed to move on to the next stage, and rightly so. Yet the Government say that, at that next stage, the local authority can take any behaviour into consideration.

That person can get through the first stage against agreed criteria, but at the next stage of priority the local authority can say, "We don't like you. Any behaviour will do, so you are not going to get high priority and you won't get housing." I suggest to the Minister that there is an inconsistency in the procedure. Again, I hope that she will reflect on it.

I am grateful for the Minister's response in respect of giving applicants information on the priority allocated to them, and I accept entirely that a complication is brought into play by the move to choice-based lettings schemes. I welcome the fact that more local authorities, including mine, are considering how to move to such a scheme. That change will alter the nature of the information and the way in which it should be provided. I am delighted that she has agreed to reflect on that. She has my assurance that I too will reflect on it in consultation with my colleagues in the other place, where the matter may be raised again. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.