Deliberate and unreasonable refusal to co-operate: duty upon giving of notice

Homelessness Reduction Bill – in the House of Commons at 11:45 am on 27 January 2017.

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Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government) 11:45, 27 January 2017

I beg to move amendment 10, page 11, line 19, at end insert—

193ZA Consequences of refusal of final accommodation offer or final Part 6 offer at the initial relief stage

(1) Subsections (2) and (3) apply where—

(a) a local housing authority owe a duty to an applicant under section 189B(2), and

(b) the applicant, having been informed of the consequences of refusal and of the applicant’s right to request a review of the suitability of the accommodation, refuses—

(i) a final accommodation offer, or

(ii) a final Part 6 offer.

(2) The authority’s duty to the applicant under section 189B(2) comes to an end.

(3) Section 193 (the main housing duty) does not apply.

(4) An offer is a “final accommodation offer” if—

(a) it is an offer of an assured shorthold tenancy made by a private landlord to the applicant in relation to any accommodation which is, or may become, available for the applicant’s occupation,

(b) it is made, with the approval of the authority, in pursuance of arrangements made by the authority in the discharge of their duty under section 189B(2), and

(c) the tenancy being offered is a fixed term tenancy (within the meaning of Part 1 of the Housing Act 1988) for a period of at least 6 months.

(5) A “final Part 6 offer” is an offer of accommodation under Part 6 (allocation of housing) that—

(a) is made in writing by the authority in the discharge of their duty under section 189B(2), and

(b) states that it is a final offer for the purposes of this section.

(6) The authority may not approve a final accommodation offer, or make a final Part 6 offer, unless they are satisfied that the accommodation is suitable for the applicant and that subsection (7) does not apply.

(7) This subsection applies to an applicant if—

(a) the applicant is under contractual or other obligations in respect of the applicant’s existing accommodation, and

(b) the applicant is not able to bring those obligations to an end before being required to take up the offer.”

This amendment provides that a local housing authority’s duty to an applicant under section 189B(2) of the Housing Act 1996 (inserted by clause 5) comes to an end, and the applicant does not proceed to the main duty under section 193 of that Act, if the applicant refuses a final offer of an assured shorthold tenancy of at least 6 months or an offer of social housing under Part 6 of that Act. In either case, the offer would have to be of accommodation that is suitable for the applicant.

Photo of Natascha Engel Natascha Engel Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 11, page 11, leave out lines 29 and 30

This amendment, and amendments 12 and 13, limit the grounds on which a notice can be given under new section 193A of the Housing Act 1996 (inserted by clause 7), so that it can only be given if the applicant deliberately and unreasonably refuses to take a step that the applicant agreed to take, or that was recorded, under new section 189A of that Act (inserted by clause 3).

Amendment 12, page 12, leave out lines 9 to 11

See amendment 11.

Amendment 13, page 12, line 16, leave out from “refuse” to “after” in line 17 and insert “to take any such step”

See amendment 11.

Amendment 14, page 13, line 16, after “made” insert “by a private landlord”

This amendment, and amendments 15 and 16, make it clear that a final offer of an assured shorthold tenancy would not be made by the local housing authority itself, but rather be made by a private landlord and approved by the authority. A local housing authority cannot grant an assured shorthold tenancy - see sections 1 and 19A of, and paragraph 12 of Schedule 1 to, the Housing Act 1988.

Amendment 15, page 13, line 19, leave out “by or”

See amendment 14.

Amendment 16, page 13, line 29, leave out from “not” to “unless” in line 30 and insert “approve a final accommodation offer, or make a final Part 6 offer,”

See amendment 14.

Amendment 17, page 13, line 39, after “if” insert “—

(a) section 193ZA(3) disapplies this section, or

(b) ”

This amendment inserts, into section 193 of the Housing Act 1996, a reference to section 193ZA of that Act (inserted by amendment 10), under which section 193 can be disapplied.

Amendment 18, in clause 9, page 15, line 6, after “section” insert “193ZA or”

This amendment allows an applicant to request a review of a local housing authority’s decision as to the suitability of accommodation offered to the applicant by way of a final accommodation offer or a final Part 6 offer under section 193ZA of the Housing Act 1996 (inserted by amendment 10).

Amendment 19, in clause 12, page 17, line 22, after “section” insert “193ZA(6) or”

This amendment applies the provision in article 3 of the Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) (England) Order 2012 (S.I. 2012/2601), about when accommodation is to be regarded as unsuitable, to a decision by a local housing authority as to whether they should approve a final accommodation offer by a private landlord for the purposes of section 193ZA of the Housing Act 1996 (inserted by amendment 10).

Amendment 20, in clause 12, page 17, line 26, leave out “vulnerable person” and insert

“person who has a priority need”

This amendment applies the provision in article 3 of the Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) (England) Order 2012 (S.I. 2012/2601), about when accommodation is to be regarded as unsuitable, to accommodation secured by a local housing authority, in discharge of their duty under section 189B(2) or 195(2) (inserted by clauses 5 and 4, respectively), for all persons who have a priority need rather than just “vulnerable persons”.

Amendment 21, in clause 12, page 17, leave out lines 32 to 37

See amendment 20. This amendment removes the definition of “vulnerable person”.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

This is the last set of Government amendments and I am grateful for the forbearance of the House. As I explained on the last group, we identified a number of issues with clause 7 that we were unfortunately unable to resolve in Committee. This group contains the core corrections to clause 7. We have already discussed the related amendments to clauses 4, 5 and 6, and this group also contains related amendments to clauses 9 and 12.

Amendment 10 delivers an important change, and has been laid following extensive discussion with the local government sector and with Crisis and Shelter. It deals with the consequences for applicants of refusing offers of accommodation made by the local housing authority during the relief duty. The Bill already provides that the local housing authority can bring the relief duty to an end if an applicant refuses an offer of suitable accommodation. The applicant can then go on to the main homelessness duty under section 193 of the Housing Act 1996, if they are owed it. We believe it is right that where an applicant is made a suitable offer under the relief duty, they should not be able to move into the main duty by refusing that offer. That is an important part of the balance between rights and responsibilities for applicants. However, it is also essential that, if the offer is intended to be the applicant’s final offer, appropriate safeguards are in place.

Amendment 10 provides that where an applicant refuses an offer and the relief duty is ended, the applicant will not proceed to the main duty, but that will apply only if the offer reaches a particular standard. The offer must be either a final accommodation offer or a final part 6 offer, and the applicant must be informed of the consequences of refusing and of their right to request a review of the suitability of the accommodation. A final part 6 offer is a suitable offer of social housing. A final accommodation offer is an offer of an assured shorthold tenancy with a term of at least six months in the private rented sector.

Amendments 14, 15 and 16 clarify that a final offer of an assured shorthold tenancy made to an applicant who has refused to co-operate will be made by a private landlord. This clarification brings the clause in line with other provisions relating to private rented sector offers in the homelessness legislation.

Amendments 17, 18 and 19 reflect the relevant changes introduced by clause 10 to the relevant parts of the Bill, including providing that the applicant can request a review of the suitability of the accommodation and that appropriate suitability requirements apply.

The last set of amendments to clause 7 relate to another issue we identified during Committee stage. At the moment, clause 7 is drafted in a way that means that the definition of deliberate and unreasonable co-operation is drawn more widely than we intended, covering co-operation with the local housing authority in the exercise of its functions under the prevention and relief duties. Amendments 11, 12 and 13 make it clear that the provisions apply only when the applicant’s refusal to co-operate relates specifically to the steps set out in their personalised plan.

Finally, on amendments 20 and 21, clause 12 amends article 3 of the Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) (England) Order 2012. Article 3 currently requires that when a local housing authority approves an offer in the private rented sector for those in priority need under the main homelessness duty, additional checks are required to ensure the property is in reasonable physical condition, is safe and is a well-managed property. Those additional checks are extended by clause 12 to those defined as vulnerable persons and to secured accommodation in the private rented sector under the new homelessness prevention and relief duties.

Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee were concerned that the protection did not go wider. In particular, Ms Buck suggested that other types of applicant should be afforded this protection, including families with children and pregnant women. These concerns were echoed by my hon. Friends the Members for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson), for Colchester (Will Quince), for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) and for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan). I have listened carefully, and I am pleased to bring forward amendments 20 and 21 to provide that these additional checks be made in respect of all those with a priority need where the local housing authority secures private rented sector property under the new prevention and relief duties.

In conclusion, this is an unusually long list of amendments for the Report stage of a private Member’s Bill, but I have worked closely with my hon. Friend Bob Blackman, the local government sector and homelessness charities to ensure that the Bill is fit for purpose, and I want again to thank them all for their efforts in putting together what is now a very strong package.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Housing) 12:00, 27 January 2017

The purpose of the amendments is to clarify and give certainty, where required, to certain provisions in the Bill and, in some cases, to correct drafting or extend the ambit of clauses. We have no problem with any of the amendments, and I am pleased to say, having just reread the briefing from the local government and charities sides, that although one side supports them more than the other, as one would expect, both agree that they should go forward as a package.

Amendment 10 makes it clear when the interim duty comes to an end, about which the LGA and others have been anxious for certainty. Amendments 20 and 21, which the Minister just referred to, were particularly called for by Shelter and in Committee by my hon. Friend Ms Buck, who led for the Opposition on that part of the Bill. I am pleased the Government have tabled the amendments because they address a key point by providing that all priority need households be included, rather than just those that are vulnerable, which clears up an important omission. One side, in particular, favoured the amendments, but all sides are at least content with them.

Another thing the amendments, particularly amendments 10, 20 and 21, have in common is that they incur costs. The Minister said, slightly coyly, that when the amendments passed, he would return to the matter of costs. I hope that means on Third Reading, because, from what I have heard, I assume the amendments will pass in a few moments. The costs will not be negligible. Obviously, he goes into this with his eyes open, but it would be helpful if we had an update today or at least were told when we will have it. We need to be certain not only about what the Bill means—that it addresses the key points—but that it will be fully funded.

With those comments, I need not prolong the debate, because we have gone through the amendments with the Minister and the officials, and I think we have a pretty keen understanding of why they are necessary and should form part of the Bill.

I am delighted to rise for the last time on Report in support of a group of amendments. My hon. Friend the Minister introduced them at length, so I will keep my remarks to the pertinent points. I thank him and the officials for all their work in getting us to the point of these detailed amendments. I am sure that all would agree that it has been a long and almost tortuous journey to identify the different issues with clause 7, but we have worked patiently and appropriately with the LGA, Crisis and, in particular, Shelter to resolve the issues such that everyone now supports the amended clause 7, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) pointed out.

As I said earlier, we did not want a change in the law to put priority-need families in an even worse position than they were already in. We wanted to enable single homeless people, and others who were not currently owed a statutory duty, to be given help and advice and an offer of suitable accommodation. At present, that accommodation will almost certainly be in the private sector, but it is up to local authorities to establish whether they can find a social rented property to provide for such people.

I particularly welcome amendments 20 and 21. As we heard from the Minister, in Committee there were representations—not least from the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), who kicked off on the issue—about the scope of what is now clause 12 in relation to the suitability of offers in the private sector. Ideally, local authorities would inspect and approve every single offer to every potential tenant, but during the pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill we decided that the cost to them would be beyond what was reasonable. We therefore focused on priority need, and, indeed, vulnerable people. I am delighted that the Minister has found a way of extending the provision to all those people, not least pregnant women.

Photo of Jonathan Reynolds Jonathan Reynolds Shadow Economic Secretary (Treasury)

We have all managed to make this part of the Bill sound very technical, but it seems to me that what it basically means is that the quality of private rented homes offered to families will improve, which is something that a great many people want to happen. Is that the hon. Gentleman’s understanding as well?

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

Obviously, we do not want families or individuals who are reaching a crisis point in their lives, having become homeless, to be placed in completely unsuitable accommodation, or with rogue landlords who are unsuitable people to be offering accommodation in the first place, and it should be the duty of local authorities to ensure that that does not happen. The amendments will ensure that the current position is corrected for the benefit of society. Ideally, no one would ever be offered unsuitable accommodation, but, as I think we all recognise, that is sometimes the case.

Clause 7 deals with

“an applicant’s deliberate and unreasonable refusal to co-operate”.

A balance needed to be struck. As the Bill’s promoter, I must make it abundantly clear that homeless people will not be able to just turn up to their local housing authority and say, “You have a duty to find me somewhere to live”, and then fold their arms and wait for it to happen. They will have a duty to co-operate with the plan and carry out the actions required under it, and if they fail to do so, the housing authority will be able to terminate its duty. So there are duties on both sides, which must be right.

Equally, however, I do not want applicants to be unfairly penalised for some minor discrepancy. For example, if an applicant missed an appointment because of a need to visit a doctor or hospital, or as a result of some other commitment, it would be unfair and unreasonable for a local authority to penalise that individual. As the Minister has explained, the review process will be tightened to ensure that people receive written notices and are given an opportunity to review any unfair decision. That strikes the right balance, ensuring that applicants can receive a service—help and advice, and an offer in the private or socially rented sector—while also requiring them to take actions themselves.

I am grateful to the Minister for his time and forbearance, particularly in respect of that issue, which has occupied a substantial amount of time for all concerned. The compromise that has been reached will improve the Bill yet further and ensure that all people who have a priority need, and indeed those who do not, are secured private rented accommodation under these new homelessness relief duties. It will also ensure that those additional suitability checks will be carried out by the local housing authority to ensure that the property is safe and well managed. On that basis, I trust that all hon. Members will support these and the other amendments that the Minister has brought forward, so that we have a suitable package of measures to present to the other place, it will see the wisdom of our lengthy debates and close scrutiny of these proposals, and view them as a package of measures that together improve the lot of those people who are homeless.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

I would like to respond to several of the matters raised by colleagues.

Andy Slaughter mentioned the work with the LGA around amendment 10. He is correct on that, as he is on amendments 20 and 21, in relation to the concerns of the charities, particularly Shelter. He showed that he is extremely sharp when he raised the point about costs and the comments I made earlier about when I would bring forward further details of the additional cost incurred due to amendments that have been made to the Bill this morning. Indeed, my intention was to bring those costs to the House once the Bill had been amended. I will not tease the hon. Gentleman any further. In a few minutes, I hope to be giving further detail on the cost.

Before I conclude, I want to correct one point I made this morning when we dealt with the second group of amendments and I was responding to the points made by Mr Betts. He raised the issue of the code of guidance and it being put before the House. I inadvertently said that the code of guidance would be put before the House. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recall from all those long Committee sittings that it is in the legislation that the code of practice will come before the House, rather than the code of guidance. However, I will seek to reassure my hon. Friend, or rather the hon. Gentleman—I was straying into risky territory again, there. I want to reassure him by saying that we would certainly welcome his Committee’s involvement in relation to the consultation on the revised code of guidance that will come out of the provisions in the Bill.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee

I thank the Minister for that helpful clarification. The Committee will try to play a constructive role in that. We welcome the code of guidance coming to us, and we will as quickly as possible take a look at it and get comments back to him. Equally, if the code of practice is coming to the House, we will probably want to play a role as part of that formal process as well.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. As ever during this process, he has sought to use a very constructive tone in the debate and has shown pragmatism. We have been able to all work together; that goes for the Opposition Front-Bench team, too. It has not been easy at times, but there has been a pragmatic approach to making sure that we get this legislation into a good place and to the other end of the Corridor, thereby encouraging noble Lords to support not just the amendments dealt with today, but the overall Bill as a significant package towards helping people who are at risk of becoming homeless, or who do indeed become homeless.

Amendment 10 agreed to.

Amendments made: 11, page 11, leave out lines 29 and 30.

This amendment, and amendments 12 and 13, limit the grounds on which a notice can be given under new section 193A of the Housing Act 1996 (inserted by clause 7), so that it can only be given if the applicant deliberately and unreasonably refuses to take a step that the applicant agreed to take, or that was recorded, under new section 189A of that Act (inserted by clause 3).

Amendment 12, page 12, leave out lines 9 to 11.

See amendment 11.

Amendment 13, page 12, line 16, leave out from “refuse” to “after” in line 17 and insert—

“to take any such step”.

See amendment 11.

Amendment 14, page 13, line 16, after “made” insert “by a private landlord”.

This amendment, and amendments 15 and 16, make it clear that a final offer of an assured shorthold tenancy would not be made by the local housing authority itself, but rather be made by a private landlord and approved by the authority. A local housing authority cannot grant an assured shorthold tenancy - see sections 1 and 19A of, and paragraph 12 of Schedule 1 to, the Housing Act 1988.

Amendment 15, page 13, line 19, leave out “by or”.

See amendment 14.

Amendment 16, page 13, line 29, leave out from “not” to “unless” in line 30 and insert—

“approve a final accommodation offer, or make a final Part 6 offer,”.

See amendment 14.

Amendment 17, page 13, line 39, after “if” insert “—

(a) section 193ZA(3) disapplies this section, or

(b) ”

This amendment inserts, into section 193 of the Housing Act 1996, a reference to section 193ZA of that Act (inserted by amendment 10), under which section 193 can be disapplied.—(Mr Marcus Jones.)

Clause 9