Homelessness Bill

– in the House of Lords at 2:58 pm on 15th January 2002.

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Report received.

Clause 1 [Duty of local housing authority to formulate a homelessness strategy]:

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative 3:06 pm, 15th January 2002

moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 6, at end insert—

"( ) Any such review or homelessness strategy shall be included as an integral part of the wider housing strategy of each authority."

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 1, perhaps I may say that everything in the Bill points to the fact that it is essentially about two things: the duties of local authorities in housing the priority homeless, the relevant categories being extended as a result of the Bill to those in the Housing Act 1996; and their allocations policies. If one reads the Explanatory Notes to the Bill, it becomes abundantly clear that local authorities will have to consider the first aspect as an integrated policy of the second.

Indeed, the Minister agreed with me when I raised that point in Committee. He said that the,

"homelessness strategy will inevitably be an integral part of its wider housing policy".—[Official Report, 10/12/01; col. CWH7.]

That is as it should be. The homelessness strategy, if a local authority were so unwise as to try to implement it on its own, would simply be unworkable. Therefore, it must be part of a full housing strategy, aligned to the authority's allocation policy. While there may not be a statutory requirement for there to be a housing strategy, since this legislation adds to the provisions for both homeless people and the allocations policies, it would be nonsense for them not to be part and parcel of a whole.

If the Minister believed that it would make any difference to his willingness to accept what I consider to be quite an important amendment, I would change the wording from "housing strategy" to "housing policy" so that the amendment would read,

"as an integral part of the wider housing policy of each authority".

In Committee we rehearsed the extra burdens which will be borne by local authorities in terms of finding and securing accommodation for an increasing list of priority categories—in altering their housing allocation structures and providing both temporary and permanent housing. Guidance as to the desirability of integrating the two does not seem to be a strong enough answer to this difficult and somewhat delicate question. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat

My Lords, my views on this matter have not changed since we discussed it in Committee. I have some sympathy for the comments of the noble Baroness. However, given the history of tackling homelessness in this country, I believe that in the first instance we need to give these strategies a high priority. I can foresee a time when they will perhaps become involved in a wider strategy.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Minister of State (Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, I am grateful for the explanation of the amendment given by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, and for the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. Perhaps I may say in parenthesis that Committee stage was not held in the Moses Room but upstairs. From the Government's point of view we found that a useful and genuinely constructive process, as I hope did other noble Lords who participated. I hope that that constructiveness has been reflected in the amendments we have now tabled, which cover a number of areas and meet a number of the points made. Therefore, it is a process and technique which worked.

Amendment No. 1 would require local housing authorities to incorporate their homelessness strategy into their wider housing strategy or, if the proposed amendment to the amendment is adopted, their wider housing policy. We think that that would impose an inappropriate requirement on local housing authorities. There is no statutory requirement at present for authorities to have a housing strategy, although in practice it is necessary to have one under the housing investment programme framework. Therefore, it would be an inappropriate burden to impose a statutory requirement for an authority to make its statutory homelessness strategy part of its wider housing strategy. It would be asked to make the homelessness strategy part of a wider housing strategy when there is no obligation to have the wider housing strategy.

However, as I said in Committee, I agree that an authority's statutory homelessness strategy will be an integral part of its wider housing policies. Clear advice to local housing authorities on that matter will be given in guidance, which I am sure is the right approach. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, who has a distinguished career in local government, would not want over-prescription on the face of Bills. Discretion must be left to the local authorities to act sensibly. On the basis that we give an assurance that the matter will be dealt with in guidance, I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, I start by addressing the initial observations made by the Minister. I believe that we all found the Committee stage helpful. That does not mean to say that we shall go on to find the whole process helpful. The Committee stage was held in Committee Room 4, which we believe worked much better than using the Moses Room. I have informed the Chief Whip of that, and hope that that arrangement will be continued.

However, I shall probably not be any more helpful on Amendment No. 1. I note the Minister's comments about the housing strategy not being a requirement. That is one of the reasons why I tried to adopt his words in Committee when I tabled an amendment to my amendment, to make the strategy part of a wider housing policy. I remain extremely concerned that the homelessness review cannot be carried out satisfactorily unless it works within the whole gamut of the local authority's housing policies. If an authority does not have enough housing, it does not make sense to try to work in the priorities that are coming forward in the Bill if that is not within the policies that are already there or are being constructed. I believe that it would make sense to have the provision on the face of the Bill either within the wider housing policies or within the wider strategy. I sense that the Minister is not with me. However, I should like to test the opinion of the House.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 1) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 85; Not-Contents, 156.

Division number 1 Private Parking: Ports and Trading Estates — Homelessness Bill

Aye: 83 Members of the House of Lords

No: 154 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative 3:25 pm, 15th January 2002

moved Amendment No. 2:

Page 2, line 9, after "homelessness" insert ", including rough sleeping,"

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 2, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 5. Amendment No. 3, standing in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, is also in this group.

Amendments Nos. 2 and 5 address the question of whether rough sleepers should be mentioned specifically on the face of the Bill rather than leaving the assumption that anyone sleeping rough is without question deemed to be homeless. In Committee, the Minister drew my attention to Section 175 of the Housing Act 1996. He suggested that it included rough sleepers as being those who have no accommodation available for their occupation. We had some amusing descriptions of people who got on trains at Newcastle on their way to London but got off at Nottingham by mistake. Even though the Minister got his route slightly wrong, there is still an element of doubt about this category.

It is my contention that if a number of rough sleepers were properly investigated, it would be found that they do have homes from which they may have departed for a number of reasons—dispute within the family, lack of jobs or enthusiasm to find the streets of gold. But in reality, they will be found to have a very reasonable place to go. The fact of the matter is that even after the most tenacious efforts to get them to return, many choose to stay on the streets. That is not at all what anyone here wants.

As I understand it, the current thinking on the future of the Rough Sleepers' Unit is that it should join up with the new bed and breakfast unit. That may be helpful, but it would be better if each local authority was also responsible for identifying and helping those rough sleepers within its boundaries. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat 3:30 pm, 15th January 2002

My Lords, I shall speak briefly to Amendment No. 3 which is in this group. The amendment concerns another group of people—older homeless people. I hope that today I shall get some commitment from the Minister with regard to guidance on this issue.

Little work has been done on the scale of homelessness among older people. Last year some research was commissioned by Bondway, St Mungo's and Thames Reach. That highlighted some of the problems facing single homeless and older homeless people. Many end up spending a long time in hostel accommodation. In the 50 to 59 year-old group, 32 per cent of the men and 26 per cent of the women had been resident in hostel accommodation for more than two years. In the 60-plus group the equivalent percentages were 60 per cent for men and 87 per cent for women. Even more worrying for women is that 59 per cent of women over 60 years old had been in hostels for more than 10 years. Therefore, we have a problem in that area.

The Government have recognised this problem, in particular when looking at the various problems experienced by people coming out of the Armed Forces. Better provision is made for them by the Armed Forces. However, older homeless people on the streets age much more quickly. They may suffer from bronchitis. They may have mobility problems or mental health problems. Some have problems with alcohol.

I talked in Committee about what I thought should be included in homelessness strategies. Local authorities must pay particular attention to that area and to ensuring that the health, social care and voluntary agencies are involved. It is obvious that offering a little help at the right time can make a huge difference. Preventing or at least slowing mental decline that sometimes leads to older people being institutionalised or ending up on the streets is important.

In Committee, I spoke about the implementation of the Supporting People scheme in 2003. The Bill is an opportunity to establish new ground rules for multi-agency working; older homeless people are important in that regard. Local homelessness strategies must assess the real level of need and services required for the older homeless. I hope that when the Minister responds he can give me some comfort on the matter.

Much as many of us support what we hope will result from the Bill, there is a real problem with resources—not just in relation to older homeless people. We lack affordable homes for people and, especially with regard to older people, there is a lack of move-on accommodation or accommodation that specialises in their care. We need more small residential homes for old people. Many people over 50 with chronic alcohol and behavioural problems cannot manage independently. We need housing especially for them. Again, I hope that the Minister can reassure me that the Government are addressing that issue.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Conservative

My Lords, I should like to add a word to the exchange that took place between the Minister and my noble friend Lady Hanham during our debate on Amendment No. 1. I entirely concur with the Minister and my noble friend that holding the Committee debate upstairs worked well and was constructive. However, I hope that that will not be taken as meaning that we should take a whole series of Committee debates off the Floor of the House, because we in this House gain enormously from being able to take part in several different Committee debates, rather than, as in the House of Commons, being locked up in one Committee and unable to speak more widely.

I mention that only in case that exchange, which was most felicitous, had been misunderstood. I should also like to add a word based on experience in the City of Westminster in support of what my noble friend said in moving Amendment No. 2.

There was concern during the homelessness count a year or two ago that the numbers in Victoria Street had suddenly risen sharply. There was therefore an attempt to verify why that had happened and whether the figures were accurate. As chance had it, a count was taken at 10 p.m. and at 2 a.m., to see what movement there was in the figures during the particular night in May on which the count was held. It transpired that at 2 a.m. a number of people were present who those taking the count knew perfectly well had flats—who were in accommodation—but who had decided to come down to chat with their friends who were sleeping rough. The picture is therefore potentially blurred. The greater focus that we can bring to the facts the better.

In terms of historic continuity, between the period when the Savoy Palace belonged to John of Gaunt and the time when the Savoy became a luxury hotel, there were hostels for the homeless in the Strand on a fairly continuous basis—during the Tudor and Stuart periods. The fact that people still sleep in shop doorways in the Strand is an index of the extraordinary continuity that sometimes occurs in our affairs.

However, when we clear such an area that is notorious for rough sleeping—I mean notorious in the sense of attracting public attention—by an holistic method, such as was referred to in Committee upstairs and may have been referred to on Second Reading, displacement will occur. That is what had produced the sudden upsurge of numbers in Victoria Street—including, tragically, a murder in Strutton Ground that some of your Lordships may remember. Imposing an obligation on the local authority—in that case, Westminster City Council—to treat rough sleepers in its municipal area is therefore thoroughly desirable.

To reinforce what my noble friend said at the close of her speech, the Westminster branch of the Council of Churches has a sub-committee on homelessness with which I used frequently to meet when I was in the other place. It was clear from parish experience across Westminster that there were a fair number of rough sleepers whom it would be difficult to persuade not to sleep rough, because they had always followed that life. We should not take the focus off rough sleepers, whatever previous legislation says—I recognise what the Minister said in Committee. The last thing that we want is to slip back after the achievements that the Government can rightly claim from the initiatives that they set up under the homelessness czar.

Photo of Lord Fearn Lord Fearn Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I also rise to support Amendment No. 2. On 15th November, when rough sleepers were counted, the figure totalled 532 for the whole of England, which I found hard to believe. It has since been proven wrong by many institutions that look after rough sleepers, such as the Simon Community. It said that there were many more rough sleepers but that that night there was a purge by police, when it is alleged that the police used a heavy hand and forced many people into hostels. Parties were also given on that night in cities, which brought in homeless people. That was, to say the least, rather strange.

In Sheffield, the count was one; in Birmingham, the count was two; in Liverpool, where a lot of people sleep rough, the count was not high, although I do not know exactly what it was. People sleep rough in my home town of Southport, but that did not figure in the count.

So I am concerned that people who sleep rough are not included in any kind of register or strategy by housing authorities. As a member of a local authority, I know that many slip through the net. How can the Minister ensure that rough sleepers are included among those who need accommodation?

Photo of Lord Hylton Lord Hylton Crossbench

My Lords, this group of amendments gives me the opportunity to welcome what the Government have been doing to devote greater thought and energy to the question of rough sleepers and those who are homeless. However, estimates of their numbers nationally and in London may be too low. I question whether May is the best and most representative time of year at which to take a census. From my observations in and around Victoria Street, the number has not fallen, it has remained fairly steady during the past three or four years. In that connection, I should like to pay tribute to the excellent work done by the Passage Day and Nightshelter and the Cardinal Hume Centre—and, no doubt, by other voluntary organisations—in conjunction with Westminster City Council.

I imagine that the Minister is well seized of the point that it is not just a question of providing more houses or hostels but one of total care and rehabilitation of people who have fallen out of normal society.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Minister of State (Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, perhaps I may turn first to Amendments Nos. 2 and 5 which address the position with regard to rough sleepers. I agree entirely with the policy aim enunciated by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke; we must maintain our focus on rough sleepers and not lose the ground gained by Louise Casey and the Rough Sleepers' Unit over the past few years of their operation. We believe that we have achieved that in the following way. Homelessness, as defined in Section 175 of the Housing Act 1996, includes rough sleepers. That is the advice we have received and which has been reaffirmed since this matter was raised in Committee by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham.

I believe that local housing authorities and housing practitioners fully understand that any definition of homelessness must include rough sleeping. If there is any remaining doubt, first, the point has been asserted both in Committee and again on Report and, secondly, the draft code of guidance which has been sent to the noble Baroness, along with copies to all other interested noble Lords, states explicitly that authorities must take account of rough sleeping in their reviews and when devising strategies. I hope that noble Lords will agree that the policy aim is the same, and that it is simply a legal question as to how that policy is achieved.

I should like to deal with the wider points raised in our debate on the position of rough sleepers. I reiterate that rough sleepers must be included in local authority strategies. It is vital that that focus is maintained. The noble Lords, Lord Hylton and Lord Fearn, referred to the issue of the rough sleeping count. Counts are not undertaken only in May; they are made regularly throughout the year. The most recent count was undertaken last November. The method used is to take a count of all those sleeping rough on one particular night. Everyone accepts that such a count provides a useful snapshot of the numbers involved. The methodology employed by the Rough Sleepers' Unit was developed by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions in partnership with the voluntary sector. Despite occasional criticism, independent evaluations have shown consistently that this method is the most effective one for evaluating the changing levels of those sleeping rough. It provides only one of the tools used to improve the effectiveness of our strategies to deal with rough sleepers.

The noble Lord, Lord Fearn, referred to a number of allegations that have been made. For example, he pointed out that there had been a police purge of rough sleepers in London. Inquiries were made by my department on this point, but there is absolutely no truth in the suggestion that there was such a police purge preceding a count. Although it has been suggested that there are inaccuracies, it is widely believed among those directly involved in the care of rough sleepers that the numbers have been dramatically reduced as a result of the work of the Rough Sleepers' Unit. It is extremely important that that point should be acknowledged. It is also important to note that allegations made in relation to the count are not stated as facts, as the noble Lord, Lord Fearn, put them in relation to the count made at the end of last year. Lastly, it is important to ensure that the gains achieved are consolidated so that the problem does not continue.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Conservative

My Lords, as exemplified by the noble Lord, Lord Fearn, in the statistics he quoted, the most recent count was broken down by district. It would be extremely helpful if the Minister could confirm that that will continue to be the case so that, for example, all the London boroughs will record their counts on one night. Of course I acknowledge that undertaking one count in May and one in November is a sensible compromise; counts are taken once in warm weather and once in cold.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Minister of State (Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, I know that the count is broken down between cities; that is, counts are taken for Birmingham, Sheffield and so forth, as well as for London. Perhaps I may write to the noble Lord with regard to the specifics of how the count for London is broken down.

I turn to Amendment No. 3, spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. The amendment would require housing authorities specifically to assess the levels and likely future levels of homelessness among older people in their district. The noble Baroness was candid and told the House that this is a probing amendment seeking certain assurances from me. First, I should say that this is an important issue. Homelessness, or the threat of homelessness, among elderly people is a specific problem which needs to be addressed by local authorities. It is a particularly frightening prospect for people as they grow older.

I am pleased to say that the draft good practice guide on homelessness strategies, which I sent out to noble Lords under a covering letter to the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, explicitly points out the need to provide specialist and preventive support services for older people, among other groups. It addresses certain specific needs and refers to the good practice guidance published by Help the Aged, Coming Home: a guide to good practice by projects helping older homeless people, published in 1997. I hope that this meets the concerns of the noble Baroness and that she will not press her amendment.

I turn now to two specific issues. Supporting People is an important initiative which seeks to embrace the needs of elderly people, ensuring that they can stay in their homes, while supporting the needs of those elderly who do become homeless. The noble Baroness also referred to the problems caused by the lack of affordable housing. That is an important issue which is even more significant in parts of London and the South East, as well as in other areas. It is a matter which we keep constantly under review. In the light of those remarks, I hope that the noble Baroness will not move her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative 3:45 pm, 15th January 2002

My Lords, I believe that my small amendment, which develops an argument we began at the previous stage of the Bill, has encouraged quite an interesting short debate on the question of rough sleepers. Perhaps my lack of experience of this House is beginning to lead me to the view that some of the worth of tabling amendments lies in putting on the record in Hansard the views of noble Lords with regard to certain aspects of an issue so that they can be referred to later.

The question of rough sleepers vexes us all, in particular the underlying reasons; namely, why are some people in that position and what will happen to them in the future? It is absolutely essential that an eye is constantly kept on the situation and that responsibility for addressing it is firmly pinned down. For as long as the Rough Sleepers' Unit still exists in one form or another—I acknowledge again today as I did in Committee the extremely valuable work undertaken by the unit—perhaps the amendment we are considering would not matter all that much. However, if there was any question that the Rough Sleepers' Unit would no longer continue its work, it would be fundamentally important to ensure that local authorities take up responsibility for looking after the homeless and rough sleepers.

Having listened to the Minister and to the debate, for which I thank all noble Lords who have taken part, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 3 not moved.]

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

moved Amendment No. 4:

Page 2, line 12, after first "authority" insert "and its strategic partners, to include registered social landlords and housing co-operatives, landlords of houses in multiple occupation registered with the authority under the Housing Act 1996 (c. 52), members of landlords' forums"

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, this amendment is grouped with Amendments Nos. 6 and 7. The amendments seek to provide amplification on the face of the Bill as regards with whom the local authority should consult in assessing the resources available from all sources in order to implement the housing review and the homelessness review; namely, those from whom specific action may be required and those who should participate in the consultations before the review is adopted. I know that the Minister will argue that it is unnecessary as the bodies I have specified are already implicit in the legislation. However, if only some groups and organisations are mentioned on the face of the Bill, then it is anomalous not to mention them all.

Again, I am sure that the words used in the draft code of guidance will be mentioned. However, the interpretation of legislation is made easier if it is explicit and mandatory. That is what I seek to achieve with the amendments. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Sheppard of Liverpool Lord Sheppard of Liverpool Labour

My Lords, I hope that noble Lords will treat me with some forbearance if I have a little to say about Clause 2 as well as about Amendment No. 4. Illness kept me away from your Lordships' House for most of last year and I was not able to take part in the earlier deliberations on this Bill, which I very warmly welcome.

Clause 2 spells out how a central purpose in the Bill is to be achieved. It imposes an obligation requiring local housing authorities to take a more strategic and multi-agency approach to the prevention of homelessness. All of us who have worked in the neediest areas of our cities know that we need all the allies that we can find. I hope that local housing authorities will make the most of the allies described in the clause and the amendment. The clause speaks of social services,

"other public authorities, voluntary organisations and other persons".

The amendment wants us to spell out on the face of the Bill what "other persons" should mean—all categories of landlord. I hope that landlords will be drawn into planning and partnership with local housing authorities, but I am not sure that they need to appear on the face of the Bill. "Other public authorities" could be spelt out, too, including, for example, health authorities, prisons and the probation service.

I want to say something about the contribution that voluntary bodies make to the prevention of homelessness. Last month, I was delighted to receive from Liverpool a report entitled Homelessness and the Diocese. It reports on a project that was launched after I retired. In partnership with the Church Army, the diocese appointed a homelessness officer. The project offers a great example of how voluntary bodies can act as bridges, bringing together different allies. Public grants to voluntary bodies give good value for money, drawing in a wide range of resources.

The homelessness officer in Liverpool, Ralph Upton, is a Church Army captain. He writes:

"There are no specifically Anglican projects in the diocese—all are partnerships with other Church or secular bodies".

They include ROC in St Helen's; the Salvation Army citadel joint project in Bootle; Adulam Homes; and, in the Roman Catholic archdiocese, Nugent Care and the Bond Scheme. Those projects build bridges across which unexpected volunteers can bring practical help to homeless people. When I went to be Bishop of Liverpool, I learnt to cease to mock the Mothers' Union, a strong and useful body. I was delighted to read in the report that the diocesan Mothers' Union had provided over 700 toiletry packs every year for refugees, asylum seekers and other homeless people.

Other parts of the voluntary movement in the frontline of helping homeless people in Liverpool include the Whitechapel Project, Petrus and the Merseyside Accommodation Project, which I remember visiting. The Merseyside project works through the rather traditional, old-fashioned idea of having landladies who offer supported lodging to 16 to 18-year olds. It is very effective.

Ill health often marches hand in hand with homelessness. The homeless outreach team of the Liverpool Area Health Authority reports that half of the 223 people found sleeping rough in Liverpool at various times over two years were found to have mental health problems. In St Helen's and Knowsley, the director of public health welcomed the approach from the diocesan homelessness officer. He raised with her the issue of the gap in healthcare provision for the homeless people who attended the ROC centre in St Helen's. She said that they discussed the need for a GP to attend the centre on a sessional basis, along with a chiropodist, a dentist and a nurse practitioner. They also discussed whether a health visitor could come occasionally to give health education. She said that health action zone funding was identified and that some staff had put themselves forward enthusiastically to become involved.

The Government identified those leaving prison as a priority group. The Church Army captain to whom I referred came to his present post after years as a prison chaplain. He speaks of the high number of people who have been in care who are in prison and in the homeless community. He works in partnership with the chaplains and staff at Liverpool prison, Hindley young offenders institution and Ashworth hospital. The National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders tells us that prisoners released homeless are twice as likely to reoffend as those who have a home. Prisoners who have no family support are between twice and six times as likely to reoffend. The Government's Headstart scheme has made money available at Hindley, and three prison officers are now working full-time on the resettlement and rehabilitation of those young offenders.

Should all the categories of landlord appear in the Bill? I hope that local housing authorities will make serious attempts to draw them in. The strategic multi-agency approach should also mean that the National Asylum Service should be required to provide information to local housing authorities. My brief tells me that Liverpool City Council is almost powerless to help. Refugees and asylum seekers are hidden behind the confidentiality of private agreements between NAS and private landlords. Nobody is prepared to tell the city council where those people are, and some of them have been the victims of dreadful housing provision.

Whether we make the Bill work effectively will depend on the attitude of local housing authorities. The report Homelessness and the Diocese tells me that one council has been good to work with. It is open and readily shares information, and the head of its rough sleepers initiative is also manager of the two direct access hostels. She values church input and other voluntary input. The report says that working with another local authority has not been such a positive experience. Most contact has been on its terms, when its wants something, and it tends to withdraw behind confidentiality.

I hope that local housing authorities will welcome the Homelessness Bill and take on with a good heart their obligation to adopt a multi-agency approach to the prevention of homelessness.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Minister of State (Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, I welcome the intervention of my noble friend Lord Sheppard of Liverpool. We missed him at Second Reading and at Committee stage. He has a huge amount to offer, because of his experience in Liverpool. I shall underline three points that my noble friend made. First, there is a need for alliances, if we are to make the Bill work; secondly, the attitude of local authorities will determine how effective the Bill is; and, thirdly, multi-agency working is vital to making the Bill work. All of us would agree about that. but other examples would include the probation service, voluntary organisations working with young people or with those suffering from mental health problems.

An authority's strategic approach to tackling homelessness will, of course, be effective only if it is exercised in co-operation with the organisations in the authority's area that provide services and assistance to homeless people. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, that there will be clear guidance on the organisations with which authorities should engage in the carrying out of homelessness reviews and formulating strategies, but it would not help—indeed, it would be harmful—to prescribe some but not others.

We all agree that working in partnership is vital, that the attitude of local authorities will be central and that they should be encouraged to work with the people in their area who can be most effective as regards homelessness. In the light of that, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I, too, appreciate the intervention of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sheppard. He has great experience and it was good to hear his voice.

I am seeking to spell out on the face of the Bill not all of those who will be involved in homelessness but those who will be required to provide housing. It is inconceivable that the Housing Corporation, with its ability to provide housing accommodation, and local registered social landlords—and, indeed, landlords in the private sector who are already co-operating with local authorities—should not be statutorily required to help with this very major problem.

I sense that I shall not move the Minister. I well understand the wider implications of who should be involved, but I still believe that all of those housing bodies should be included on the face of the Bill. None the less, I sense that I shall not get any further and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 [Homelessness strategies]:

[Amendment No. 5 not moved.]

Photo of Lord Avebury Lord Avebury Liberal Democrat 4:00 pm, 15th January 2002

moved Amendment No. 5A:

Page 2, line 35, at end insert "including persons with accommodation consisting of a movable structure, vehicle or vessel designed or adapted for human habitation, but where those persons have no place where they are entitled or permitted both to place it and to reside in it"

Photo of Lord Avebury Lord Avebury Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the amendment seeks to ensure that in local authority strategies for securing that sufficient accommodation is available for people in their district who are or may become homeless, attention is given specifically to the needs of gypsy families among others in the community.

As your Lordships may know, gypsies and Irish travellers are among the most extreme victims of social exclusion, suffering from lack of education, poor access to health and social services and severely limited job opportunities. They should benefit from the Race Relations (Amendment) Act, which imposes a duty on all public authorities to promote equality of opportunity, but, as far as I am aware, no steps have been taken by Ministers or local authorities to eliminate the huge disparities which exist between the gypsy community and the rest of the population. The lack of decent accommodation is at the root of the problem, as it has been ever since I first came to Parliament some 40 years ago.

There have been no studies on gypsies and homelessness, but all the travellers camping on unauthorised sites are homeless by the definition in Section 175 of the Housing Act 1996, to which reference has already been made. In comparison with the 532 rough sleepers indicated by my noble friend Lord Fearn, there were 2,608 families—not individuals—at the half-yearly count of gypsy caravans in January 2001.

Yet these people are not normally seen as homeless by the policy makers in the DTLR and its predecessors. The Green Paper did not mention gypsies and travellers at all, and the White Paper, Quality and Choice: A decent home for all, has one single paragraph on gypsies in all its 66 pages—and that refers simply to the £17 million refurbishment grant over a period of three years which has already been announced in the 2000 spending review.

The only other initiative mentioned was a research project to look at the availability and condition of sites, to be used as a means of assessing the need for new sites when it is finally published. As I understand it, this project is not likely to be ready in time to influence the 2002 spending review. Even if it concluded that the additional provision of private sites will never match the demand—and hence that homelessness would persist indefinitely for gypsies—Ministers have no idea of how to make up the shortfall.

It would be very difficult to reinstate the duty placed on local authorities by the 1968 Act after this distance in time. No local authority will make provision for gypsies on a voluntary basis. In fact, those authorities which have sites, in many cases have already off-loaded them onto housing associations.

It would be possible, perhaps, to encourage registered social landlords to provide group housing for gypsies and Irish travellers. There is anecdotal evidence to show that if schemes of that nature were developed they would be very popular—as they are, indeed, in the Republic of Ireland and, more recently, in the north of Ireland. Group housing is the preferred solution for travellers in all parts of the island of Ireland and it is highly unlikely that preferences would be completely different in Britain.

Novas, a housing association which already manages some gypsy sites, has indicated that it may be willing to develop group housing schemes, and the Housing Corporation has said that it would fund them in principle. In a letter from the Housing Corporation, Mr Norman Perry, the chief executive, said that it would consider applications for funding but that,

"housing for travellers would have to be identified as a priority in the regional housing statement and local authority housing strategy in order to attract funding".

Of course individual local authorities are not going to provide accommodation for gypsies in isolation from their neighbours because they would expect to become thereby more attractive to homeless travelling people from elsewhere in the region, and thus incur more rather than less unauthorised camping. If the Government really want to solve this problem, they will have to provide some incentive for local authorities within each region to determine jointly what has to be done. A major weakness of the clause is that authorities are not required to consult with neighbouring districts, as I imagine would be desirable more generally than on the needs of gypsies in particular.

The noble and learned Lord said on Second Reading that,

"if we produce a Bill that puts a duty on local authorities to produce their own homelessness strategies, then it is incumbent on central government to set out with some degree of precision what they intend to do in this area".—[Official Report, 12/11/01; col. 408.]

Presumably they will go into some detail on how they intend to assist—for example, the 13 districts in Kent to harmonise their strategies for dealing with homelessness as it affects gypsies.

Ideally there should be a plan for each of the regions, involving the government offices for the regions, whose purposes include the promotion of coherent regional approaches to social cohesion. This would fit in with the objectives of the Reaching Out action plan published by the Government, which states that government offices have a valuable regional perspective to bring to policy making, using the huge experience and expertise at regional and local level. The local housing authorities, and counties as well, have a great deal of knowledge of operating gypsy sites, but none of them can solve this problem by themselves.

Where would the money come from? The European Regional Development Fund would be a possible source, while in Britain money ought to be available from the New Deal for communities, which has already allocated no less than £10 billion over the next 10 years. That money is earmarked for neighbourhood renewal, but the Deputy Prime Minister said, when the fund was launched in September 1998, that the Government were,

"committed to tackling the problems facing our most deprived communities".

As I have already said, the gypsy community is perhaps the most deprived of all. The fact that gypsies are not concentrated into particular neighbourhoods ought not to deny them access to that money.

In his wind-up speech on Second Reading, the Minister also said that the code of guidance dealing with homelessness would be sent out early this year. Can he give the House a sneak preview and tell your Lordships how authorities are to be advised to deal with the situation that arises from the case of Clarke v. Secretary of State [for the Environment, Transport and the Regions] and Another, which was heard in the Queen's Bench Division on 9th October last year? In that case it was found that taking into account the fact that a gypsy had refused an offer of conventional housing was contrary to Articles 8 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. That was a planning case, of course, but it would have to read across into homelessness.

If a gypsy becomes homeless and does not want to go into fixed housing, then, as I read the case, the authority would have to be able to offer him a pitch on a caravan site. That could be rather awkward, considering the national shortage of pitches. Hitherto, authorities would have been able to offer a homeless gypsy family bed and breakfast accommodation, knowing that it would almost certainly be refused. Now, they might have an obligation to provide space for a caravan, even though such a duty does not appear to fall within the scope of "housing functions under this Part" in Section 206 of the 1996 Act.

I hope that the Minister will confirm, first, that a strategy for homelessness has to cover the traveller families on unauthorised sites, as in Section 175(2) of the 1996 Act.

Secondly, I hope that he will confirm that local authorities, where gypsies reside or to which they resort, must explicitly declare how they are going to resolve any shortage of accommodation which is shown to exist by the fact of unauthorised sites in their area. That is a totally different question from the management of unauthorised encampments to which the Government have given a lot of attention.

Thirdly, and assuming that the answers to the first two questions are positive, I hope that the Government will undertake that their national strategy will enable local authorities to link up with their neighbours so that the patterns of new accommodation to be provided by gypsies themselves—and by, I hope, registered social landlords if they can be enlisted in the way I have described—match the demonstrated need and will eliminate gypsy homelessness. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Minister of State (Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, this amendment seeks to make clear that homelessness strategies should include a strategy not only for securing that sufficient accommodation is available for people in the district who are, or may become, homeless, but also for people who, broadly speaking, have some type of mobile accommodation available, but do not have anywhere available to site it and live in it.

I am very sympathetic to the purpose of the amendment. I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that people who find themselves in such circumstances—that is, they have a mobile home but nowhere to place it—are already included in the definition of statutory homelessness which is to be found in Part 7 of the 1996 Act. Indeed, as the noble Lord knows, he has borrowed the relevant part of that definition, which is to be found in Section 175(2)(b), in order to construct his amendment. So the answer to his first question is a clear "yes". The definition of homelessness would include such people as I have defined earlier in these remarks.

Since the reference to people who are, or who may become homeless in Clause 3 of the Bill, must mean people who are or may become homeless as defined in statute, all those who fall within the definition of homeless in Sections 175 to 177 of the 1996 Act, also fall within the definition of people who are homeless within Clause 3. So the strategy must, as appropriate, deal with that category of homelessness.

The Government believe that it is right that homelessness strategies and reviews, which must consider all forms of statutory homelessness, as I have just said, should be conducted by local housing authorities. The guidance to authorities which will accompany the Bill will spell out clearly those groups to whom the authority owes a homelessness duty and how provision for these groups will need to be considered in the process of formulating its homelessness strategy.

It is vital that local authorities should have effective strategies for managing gypsy and traveller issues. Such strategies have to be driven at the local level and involve communities. The local agencies—in particular, local authorities and the police—have a vital lead role to play. They are best placed to bring both the settled and traveller communities together in developing effective strategies.

The noble Lord asked a second question about travellers on unauthorised sites. He asked whether that meant that the homelessness strategy for that district has to deal with that specific problem. I do not believe that I can answer that question categorically yes or no. It will depend on the circumstances in each case. But as I have made clear, gypsies and travellers in the circumstances identified can be homeless within the meaning of Clause 3. All categories of homeless people have to be addressed in the local authority strategy.

The noble Lord then widened the horizon of the debate and said that we should go beyond simply local authorities and talk about a strategy which might be sub-regional or regional because one cannot look at this matter by reference to individual local authorities. Of course, we have no objections to local authorities co-operating across a wider area to consider provision for gypsies and travellers. Indeed, we believe that it is a sensible way to ensure that their accommodation and wider needs are met. However, it is also important that these issues are considered at local level as sites need local acceptance to be sustainable.

The noble Lord referred to work that has been done in looking at the issue. We have researchers working at present to investigate, among other matters, the availability, quality and management of gypsy sites; site provision, both in terms of what actually exists and what the demands are for all kinds, and other housing provision and how those demands can be met.

The aim of the research, which is due to report this summer, which, as the noble Lord said, would be after the date of the spending review report, is to give a much clearer picture of the situation on the ground and the likely need for sites in the future. We would wish to evaluate this research and consider how it should inform our future policy on these issues.

I believe that I have gone quite some way in giving reassurance to the noble Lord. I share his concerns. Work has been done to address the issue on a broader basis than simply local authority by local authority. In the light of what I have said, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment. I shall write to the noble Lord about government offices for the regions. I shall also write to him about the Clarke case because I am not in a position to say what guidance, if any, was given in relation to that matter.

Photo of Lord Avebury Lord Avebury Liberal Democrat 4:15 pm, 15th January 2002

My Lords, I had a very helpful reply from the noble and learned Lord. He confirmed, as I hoped he would, that gypsies are covered by the strategy. He said that, where there are unauthorised sites in the area of a district or housing authority, the needs of the gypsies on those sites would have to be taken into consideration in formulating the strategy. The noble and learned Lord did not go quite as far as I had hoped in confirming that any gypsy on an unauthorised site was homeless by definition because he had no legal right to station his caravan on that particular land, whether he be on the side of the road or on land without the permission of the owner.

The definition in Section 175 of the 1996 Act would imply that any person not on a legally authorised site was in fact homeless. But that is a matter which I dare say local authorities will consider on an individual basis because there are some sites which in the past have been described as "tolerated". That is where a local authority has not taken any enforcement action. I suppose that the implication of the Minister's answer is that where a site is tolerated, the people living on it would not be treated as falling with the category of homeless. However, recently the Government have abandoned the use of the word "toleration" because they said that there was confusion with the police when deciding whether to take enforcement action on such sites for alleged criminal activities. The use of the word "tolerance" as regards planning enforcement was confused with the use of the word in relation to criminal offences that might be committed on the site. Therefore, that word is no longer in the vocabulary and nothing was used to replace it to describe sites against which local authorities do not intend to take enforcement action. Such sites may be the home of a gypsy or a number of gypsies, over a period of many years and without disturbance.

I am also grateful to the noble and learned Lord for endorsement of the idea that these problems cannot be solved by local housing authorities themselves and that they will need the help of the regions. When he writes to me I hope that he includes the government offices for the regions, because they are the logical organisations through which policy can be implemented over a wider region and money can be found to provide extra accommodation where that proves to be necessary.

I very much look forward to the national strategy which the Government intend to announce shortly. Unless one has a complete idea of the shortages that exist whether as regards rough sleepers, as we discussed a few minutes ago, or in this case the number of places required to accommodate all the gypsies living in the country, one cannot make plans within those totals as to what should be done within each of the regions and local authorities. The concerted action of government, regions and local authorities will be needed in order to solve this problem. I hope that the Government have the political will to see that all the districts have the means of carrying into effect the strategies that they put together, and that they will have the full support of Ministers in doing so. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 6 and 7 not moved.]

Clause 5 [Provision of accommodation for persons not in priority need who are not homeless intentionally]:

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

moved Amendment No. 8:

Page 4, line 2, at end insert "provided that the authority are satisfied that the exercise of this discretion shall not significantly reduce their opportunities to offer accommodation to such persons as are mentioned in section 167(2)(c), (d) and (e) of the 1996 Act (allocation in accordance with allocation scheme) as amended"

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, Clause 5 extends to local authorities a discretion to provide accommodation for those who are homeless but who are not in priority need and who are not considered to be intentionally homeless. These will tend to be single people, for whom very little can be done at present, and couples who are not vulnerable and do not have children. To some extent these are the people who have been left to fend for themselves even if a local authority had accommodation in the past.

My concerns relate to the number of priority categories that are being developed under the terms of the Bill. Although it may be clear that there are some areas where the impact of extra discretion in terms of responsibilities may not matter, there are areas of the country where any further extension of the power to assist will become completely meaningless, as accommodation is simply not available. I refer to London and to some metropolitan areas; indeed, some rural areas may be in the same position.

The extension in terms of those who may be considered for help will mean that the needs of those delineated in Section 167(2), amended and increased by Clause 15(3) of this Bill, may realistically have to be prioritised if there is any possibility of their being offered accommodation at any stage.

My amendment would provide local authorities with a means of attempting to ensure a balance of allocation within their allocation policies, and would give authorities some discretion as regards the implementation of their policies. I am sure that guidance will be issued on this matter. However, it brings into sharp focus the difficulties which some of the more beleaguered authorities will have in implementing this part of the Bill. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat

My Lords, perhaps I may add to my comments in Grand Committee. The amendment concerns a discretionary power. Therefore, it is not necessary. There are areas of the country where the demand on housing is much lower, which enables better use to be made of the housing. For that reason, although I understand the noble Baroness's comments, I do not believe that such an amendment is needed to enable local authorities to do what she requires.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Minister of State (Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, effectively encapsulates in three sentences the objection to the amendment. I shall go slightly further and say that it would restrict a discretion on the face of the Bill when the kinds of decisions that have to be made are ones that one very much wants to leave to local authorities.

The noble Baroness's concern is that those who have been accepted as statutorily homeless should not be given undue priority over others in housing need who seek local authority housing—particularly so in the case of homeless people who do not have a priority need for housing. That is her basic complaint.

As I explained in Grand Committee, Clause 5(1) does not affect the preference or priority which must be given to applicants under an authority's allocation scheme. An authority might in theory exercise the discretionary power to use non-secure tenancies to accommodate unintentionally homeless applicants who are not in priority need, to the detriment of needy households who had applied through the authority's allocation scheme. But would it happen in practice? That is the point the noble Baroness is making. I do not believe that it would—not least because it is in the interests of authorities to build stable communities.

Proposed new Section 192(3) needs to be read with Section 159(1) and (2) and with Section 167(1) and (8) of the Housing Act 1996. These make clear that the grant of a secure or introductory tenancy or a nomination to an RSL tenancy can only be done through a formal allocation under Part 6 and in accordance with the authority's allocation scheme. So proposed new Section 192(3) is not an easy or alternative route to a secure tenancy or RSL nomination which bypasses Part 6.

Authorities recognise the legitimate claims of those on their waiting lists to a fair chance of being offered accommodation. Many on the waiting list may be housed in unsatisfactory circumstances and may have been waiting for some time, particularly in areas of high demand. Others may have a pressing need to move on medical or welfare grounds or for the avoidance of hardship to themselves or to others. I cannot envisage that, in practice, any local housing authority would put the claims of homeless people whom they recognise as being "not in priority need" ahead of needy groups applying for accommodation through the allocation scheme.

Local authorities must act reasonably and are publicly accountable. We do no favours to local government in specifying every last matter that it must consider. Too often, we preach the principles of local accountability while tying the hands of local authorities. I am glad to see noble Lords on the Benches behind the noble Baroness nodding in agreement. I believe that this is an area where local authorities are unlikely to get it wrong and consider that the amendment would be an unnecessary fetter and complication to the Bill—which I know the noble Baroness would wish to avoid. I therefore invite her to listen to reason, to listen to those on the Benches behind her who have great experience of local government, and who would regard it as unwise of her to press this matter to a vote.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, I am fascinated by the Minister's reply. I do not seek to fetter anyone with this amendment. All I am doing is giving authorities greater discretion. The words of the amendment are:

"provided that the authority are satisfied that the exercise of this discretion shall not significantly reduce their opportunities to offer accommodation".

It widens the scope of local authorities and enables them to shift what is in Section 167 an important group of people for whom priority allocation is required.

However, the Minister has exercised his usual charm in putting forward arguments against the amendment. Even if he does accuse me of all sorts of strange things in regard to local authorities, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Minister of State (Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, in moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 30, 32 and 33.

These amendments have been brought forward in response to concerns raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, in Grand Committee, when her comments received widespread support from other noble Lords. The concerns centred on the fact that not all local housing authorities deliver a good service when discharging their duties to provide advice and assistance to homeless applicants who have been found not to have a priority need for accommodation or to be intentionally homeless or threatened with homelessness.

The Government share the noble Baroness's view that it is extremely important that local housing authorities provide a good service and ensure that they meet their statutory obligations under the homelessness legislation. However, I am mindful that much of her concern arises because of the perception that some authorities are not doing what they are already required to do by statute.

The Bill already provides for the existing duties to provide advice and assistance to be strengthened, but Amendments Nos. 30, 32 and 33 will take this further. They will require an assessment of the applicant's housing needs to be made before any advice and assistance is provided—with an unspecified but clear inference that the assessment must be taken into account in the advice and assistance proffered. The amendments will also require that the advice and assistance given must include information about the type of accommodation that would be appropriate for the applicant. That, in turn, must include information about the likely availability of accommodation within the local authority area and where the applicant should go, and to whom he or she should apply in order best to locate it.

Amendment No. 9 is minor and consequential to the amendment—and also to Amendment No. 34, to which I shall speak later as it concerns Clause 15.

Amendments Nos. 33 and 34 insert new subsections (6), (7) and (8) in Section 195 of the Housing Act 1996. One effect is to displace what would have been new subsection (6) of Section 195, as inserted by Clause 5(2) of the Bill, and require it to be renumbered as new subsection (8) of Section 195. Amendment No. 9 gives effect to this renumbering.

The Government feel very strongly that there must be increased emphasis on the provision of good quality, properly tailored and timely advice for those experiencing, or facing, homelessness. The amendments that I have introduced will help to focus local housing authority minds on what must be done. Clearly, placing statutory duties on authorities may not always be sufficient to ensure that good quality and consistent results are delivered on the ground. We shall reinforce our message through clear statutory guidance—both on the advice and assistance duties, and on putting together the local homelessness strategy—and through the national homelessness strategy.

I commend Amendments Nos. 9, 30, 32 and 33 to the House. In the light of my introductory remarks on these amendments, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, will not feel the need to move her Amendment No. 10. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat 4:30 pm, 15th January 2002

had given notice of her intention to move Amendment No. 10:

After Clause 5, insert the following new clause—

"PROVISION OF ADVICE AND ASSISTANCE

( ) A local authority, in providing (or securing the provision of) advice and assistance under sections 190(2)(b) and (3), 192(2) and 195(5) of the 1996 Act, shall ensure that—

(a) an assessment of an applicant's housing and related needs is carried out, and that the results of that assessment are taken into account in the provision of advice and assistance;

(b) appropriate and timely information is provided about the availability of accommodation in the area; and

(c) information and advice is provided about the applicant's right to a review of a decision under section 202 of the 1996 Act (right to request review of decision)."

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat

My Lords, perhaps I may begin by saying that these Benches warmly welcome the amendments put forward by the Government. They do meet the concerns that we raised in Grand Committee. I should point out that other people supported such amendments; and, indeed, many people gave me support throughout the Committee stage. I have in mind the National Housing Federation, of which I declare once again I am a vice-president, as well as groups such as Shelter and Crisis.

However, perhaps I may press the Minister on one point. I should stress that I do not intend to speak to Amendment No. 10, or to move it. Can the noble and learned Lord indicate how he intends to monitor local authority performance in the area? For example, will it be a matter for the Housing Inspectorate to consider? I ask that question because it is the key to the whole initiative being a success. Having said that, I shall certainly not move Amendment No. 10.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench

My Lords, I warmly welcome the amendments put forward by the Government. They are exactly what one would have desired. As this is the first occasion upon which I have had the opportunity to speak this afternoon, perhaps I may mention the general enthusiasm of those agencies working with young homeless people. I have in mind the work of the Rough Sleepers' Unit and its great achievements over the past three years. There is a history here of difficulty that was outlined in Shelter's report Singles Barred. In the past, assessments have been inconsistent between different local authorities; for example, in one metropolitan authority, a 17 year-old man was forced to leave his home due to family breakdown. He was properly assessed by that authority and suitable accommodation was arranged for him in a shared house. However, the same man had a different reception from another London authority. On that occasion, he was simply told that, without identification and a letter providing proof that he was homeless, there was nothing that that authority could do for him.

The homeless persons' units have been the Cinderella of local authorities. The Bill will bring them into the spotlight and that, in turn, will improve the service provided, thus preventing people from becoming unnecessarily homeless. I shall give noble Lords an example of another problem experienced by a London charity. Young people were being told by local authority homeless persons' units to go to certain places. However, on arrival, and after having travelled all the way across London, they would find that some of those places were closed. They had been given out-of-date information, and those young people with so many other difficulties were faced with a further problem. Moreover, because of the changes introduced under the new Rough Sleepers' Unit, many hostels that were previously open to emergency cases—that is, direct access hostels—have now become "referral only" hostels. Again, local authorities were referring young people to them despite the fact that their doors were closed.

As I said, I warmly welcome the government amendments. Because of the failures in the past, I wish only to add my support for the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, regarding the importance of monitoring this area. The Minister was good enough to make it very clear in Grand Committee that he, or his successor, would be keeping a very firm eye on performance in the area. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord would be good enough to reiterate that commitment at this stage of the proceedings. I also wonder whether he would be good enough to say what role the Housing Inspectorate might have in the continuance of that monitoring process.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Minister of State (Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for indicating that she will not be moving Amendment No. 10. As regards monitoring, I can tell the noble Baroness that, as announced before Christmas, a homelessness directorate will be established within the DTLR. Its purpose will be to streamline and co-ordinate all the work carried out on homelessness by central government. In relation to delivering results in the area of homelessness, we recognise that the people in the front line will be those working in the local authority.

The homelessness directorate must have a sufficient relationship with local authorities to enable it to know what is going on in the area, and establish whether or not the measures taken are effective. The provision of advice and assistance pursuant to the terms of this amendment and the wider duties are important matters for the homelessness directorate to consider. Separately from that, noble Lords will know the various means by which local government performance can be monitored. The relevant inspectorates, some of which cover homelessness and housing, will also need to consider the level of performance in the relevant local authority.

Finally, one of the effects of the Bill is that a homelessness strategy must be published. Plainly, such a strategy will have to set out how, for example, the provision of this expanded duty would be delivered. Therefore, there are three methods by which monitoring can take place. I repeat: this is an important aspect of dealing with homelessness. It is one that we would expect to see delivered.

On Question, Amendment No. 9 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 10 not moved.]

Clause 7 [Events which cause the duty to cease]:

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat

moved Amendment No. 11:

Page 4, line 40, at end insert ", and states that the offer shall remain available for such period as the authority may determine is reasonable in all the circumstances"

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat

My Lords, this is a fairly simple amendment to Clause 7. Its purpose is to provide for local authorities to give homeless applicants a reasonable period of time in which to accept or refuse a final offer of accommodation.

We discussed the issue in Grand Committee. I know that the Government agree in principle with the thinking behind my amendment. However, the Minister argued at that time (at col. CWH 31 of the Official Report) that local authorities were already under a general duty to act reasonably in allowing applicants time to decide whether or not to accept an offer. However, we know that local authorities frequently do not act reasonably in this area. There is evidence that homeless applicants are often given as little as 24 hours, sometimes even less, to decide whether to accept an offer of accommodation. Such a short period of time places those applicants under considerable pressure to accept an offer. I believe that it undermines the intentions set out in the housing Green Paper as regards providing homeless people with a greater choice over the housing in which they wish to live.

Although strong guidance in this respect would be welcome, we continue to believe that current performance in the area and the lack of regard that authorities often have for the guidance mean that a stronger statutory duty is required. My amendment would achieve that aim without interfering with the local authority's discretion by simply specifying that a "reasonable" period of time must be allowed to consider a final offer. The concept of "reasonableness" is used extensively in the Bill, and elsewhere in the Housing Act 1996. I dealt with that aspect of the matter in more detail in Grand Committee, so I shall not repeat my arguments today.

It is worth noting that the Conservatives tabled similar amendments in another place that would have given applicants a minimum period of four days in which to decide whether to accept a final offer of accommodation. There are a number of factors that may impact on the ability of an applicant to make a quick decision. Applicants may be working in a different area; they may have children and care commitments; and they often have problems as regards visiting another area if it is different from the area in which their children attend school. People who are homeless find life pretty difficult anyway. Expecting a quick decision is unfair on many vulnerable people.

One in three of those accepted as homeless and in priority need are single people without children who are considered vulnerable. The remaining acceptances are families with children or families including someone who is pregnant. We are talking about very vulnerable people.

The pressure that homeless households are under is compounded by the many other disadvantages that they face when they apply for social housing. Homeless households are likely to get many fewer offers of accommodation and they get less choice over the area in which they live. The previous department—the DETR—produced figures showing that since 1991 there has been a sharp increase in the proportion of authorities operating a policy of one offer only. By 2000, that figure had increased to 75 per cent. We are talking about vulnerable people in real situations.

I believe that I have demonstrated the need for further action. I hope that the Minister can respond positively. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, I was not going to intervene on the amendment, but I have been moved to do so by the recollection of my time as a housing chairman. I found that it was important not to allow too much time for a decision. There will always be more priorities in London than housing accommodation available. If somebody sits on an offer for four, five or six weeks and is allowed any amount of time, they may prevent somebody else making a decision and getting a property that they want. The question is how the word "reasonable" is interpreted. I have heard an almost infinite number of debates in this Chamber on that subject. There is a real problem with people having too long to make a decision and others being put in jeopardy as a result.

Photo of Lord Avebury Lord Avebury Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I cannot help pointing out that, once again, the noble Baroness is trying to fetter the discretion of local authorities. Surely responsible local authorities are capable of deciding what is reasonable. The word is very common in statute. I am sure that they would not have any difficulty and that they would not allow those offered housing to take so many weeks to respond that they deprived others of the accommodation.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Minister of State (Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, says that sometimes the period is too short and the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, says that sometimes it is too long. Plainly, the period needed will differ from circumstance to circumstance. A reasonable time will have to be given. That is the current position and no amendment is required to say that. There is already an implicit legal duty to ensure that applicants have a reasonable time to consider a final offer of accommodation under Part 6 of the 1996 Act. That includes allowing a reasonable period for final offers to be considered. That duty of reasonableness can be discharged only if account is taken of the applicant's particular circumstances and the wider considerations.

I agree that it is important that authorities should act reasonably, particularly when making final offers of accommodation, as they have the potential to bring the homelessness duty to an end, whether accepted or refused. To place the requirement to act reasonably for final offers on the face of the legislation is superfluous and might even lead to the incorrect assumption that a reasonable period need not be offered in respect of any other offer. I am happy to reiterate the commitment that I gave in Grand Committee that a clear reminder will be given to authorities in statutory guidance—to which they must by law have regard—that they must allow a reasonable period for final offers to be considered. In the light of that, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

In Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, expressed concern that local housing authorities should not be able to bring the main homelessness duty to an end with a qualifying offer of an assured short-hold tenancy with a private landlord until it was absolutely clear that the applicant had understood the written statement that explains that he has no obligation to accept the offer and that if he accepts it the homelessness duty will end. In emphasising the importance of real understanding, she had the support of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, and the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. Amendment No. 13 would provide that the applicant must acknowledge that he has either read or had read to him the statement.

We thought about the issue and decided that the critical point in what the noble Baroness said—the point that had the support of other noble Lords—was that the applicant must confirm that he or she has understood the statement. That may involve him reading the statement himself or having it read to him by someone else, but it might also include, for example, translating the statement into another language or explaining to the applicant, step by step, the effect of his acceptance of an offer.

I suggest that the solution is that it is unnecessary to refer on the face of the Bill to the means by which an applicant has come to understand the content of the statement. All that is needed is that the central requirement that he has understood it is specified. Our Amendment No. 12 would achieve that and would simplify the existing provision in the Bill. It would have the additional benefit of emphasising the key requirement that the applicant has understood the statement. I therefore commend Amendment No. 12 to the House. It is intended to deal with the point that gained widespread support around the Committee. I therefore hope that the noble Baroness will not move Amendment No. 13 when the time comes.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative 4:45 pm, 15th January 2002

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, I shall certainly not move Amendment No. 13. I am grateful to him for accepting that there was room for improvement in the sense and sensitivity of that aspect. I am glad that he has accepted this small but important change.

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his comments. We pursued the issue in Grand Committee. I am pleased with what he has said. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Baroness Hooper Baroness Hooper Conservative

My Lords, because Amendment No. 12 has been agreed, Amendment No. 13 is pre-empted and therefore cannot be called.

Clause 9 [Abolition of duty under section 197]:

[Amendment No. 14 not moved.]

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat

moved Amendment No. 15:

After Clause 10, insert the following new clause—

"SECTION 202: REVIEWS

After section 202 of the 1996 Act (right to request review of decision) there is inserted—

"202A SECTION 202: REVIEWS

(1) This section applies where an applicant has the right to request a review of a decision by an authority or authorities under section 202.

(2) If the applicant is dissatisfied with a decision by the authority—

(a) not to exercise their power to continue to secure that accommodation is available for the applicant's occupation pending a review under section 188;

(b) in a case where the authority have secured that accommodation is available for the applicant's occupation under section 190(2)(a), to cease to secure that accommodation is so available before the time available to the applicant to bring an appeal under section 204 has expired (or, if sooner, the day on which an appeal is brought by the applicant);

(c) not to exercise their power to secure that accommodation is available for the applicant's occupation pending a review, under section 200(5); or

(d) to exercise their power under either section 188 or 200(5) for a limited time ending before the time available to the applicant to bring an appeal under section 204 has expired (or, if sooner, the day on which an appeal is brought by the applicant) or, in either case, to cease exercising their power before that time, he may appeal to the county court against the decision.

(3) An appeal under this section may not be brought after the time available to the applicant to bring an appeal under section 204 has expired (or, if sooner, after the date on which an appeal is brought).

(4) On an appeal under this section, the court—

(a) may order the authority to secure that accommodation is available for the applicant's occupation until the time available to the applicant to bring an appeal under section 204 has expired (or such earlier time as the court may specify); and

(b) shall confirm or quash the decision appealed against, and in considering whether to confirm or quash the decision the court shall apply the principles applied by the High Court on an application for judicial review.

(5) If the court quashes the decision it may order the authority to exercise any of the powers mentioned in subsection (2) in the applicant's case for such period as may be specified in the order.

(6) An order under subsection (5)—

(a) may only be made if the court is satisfied that failure to exercise the power in accordance with the order would substantially prejudice the applicant's ability to pursue the review against the authority's decision in his case;

(b) may not specify any period ending after the time available to the applicant to bring an appeal under section 204 of the Act has expired.""

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat

My Lords, this is another amendment that we discussed at some length in Grand Committee. Although the Minister has been very helpful in correspondence and has tabled amendments that cover some of our concerns, I regret that this was not one of them, so I shall pursue the issue once again.

We believe that Amendment No. 15 would increase access to justice by providing homeless applicants with a right to appeal to the county court against the decision of a local housing authority not to accommodate him or her during the review of that decision. Currently such appeals are heard in the High Court.

The Government have accepted that, at the subsequent stage at which an applicant can appeal the review decision on a point of law, the equivalent power to order an authority to provide accommodation should lie with the county court. An amendment has been included in the Bill to achieve that objective, and Amendment No. 15 mirrors that amendment.

When we discussed the issue in Grand Committee, the Minister had four main arguments against the new clause. The first was that it would interfere with local authorities' discretion. He said, secondly, that there is no filtering process in the county courts, so that there would be an influx of unmeritorious applications and applicants would be encouraged to bring vexatious cases. He argued, thirdly, that cases should be brought only in exceptional circumstances, and that judicial review in the High Court is therefore the appropriate legal remedy. He said, fourthly, that giving the same power to the county court at the subsequent appeal stage makes administrative sense, although it seems that the same logic does not apply at the review stage.

When I was a Member of the other place and we were considering the Housing Act 1996, Labour Members pressed much more wide-ranging amendments on the issue than I am proposing in Amendment No. 15. I suspect that I supported them in those amendments. I am therefore somewhat disappointed that the Government are not continuing the line that they thought was right in 1996.

I shall deal with the Minister's four objections, the first of which was on local authority discretion. We believe that the amendment does nothing to increase the presumption that local authorities should provide accommodation. It leaves existing relevant statutory powers precisely as they are; it would merely transfer the route of appeal, if an authority refuses to provide accommodation, from one court to another. We also do not believe that it would lead to a large number of unmeritorious cases. The argument that doing this would interfere with local authority discretion therefore simply does not stand up.

The Minister dealt, secondly, with the need for a filtering process, which is perhaps the most important point. He argued in Grand Committee that judicial review procedure provides a filtering process that is not present in the county court. Currently, when a decision not to accommodate during a review is challenged, an application is made to the High Court for permission to apply for judicial review and for an injunction to accommodate pending the outcome of that review. If the court is satisfied that there is a case to answer, permission and an injunction will be granted, and the full judicial review hearing will be listed. At that point, the overwhelming majority of authorities will reverse their original decision and agree to provide accommodation after all. I am grateful to Shelter for informing me that its legal team is not aware of any examples in which the foregoing has not been the case.

Although it is right to say that procedures differ in that there is no formal permission stage in the county court, the most important point is that, in practice, the principles that would be applied by the court in deciding the case would be exactly the same. Those were set out in the Court of Appeal's judgment in R v London Borough of Richmond. They also represent a stringent test in deciding whether accommodation should be provided. It is difficult to see how the new clause would provide an incentive to bring unmeritorious cases as it does absolutely nothing to encourage people to think that they would be successful. Therefore, in practice, we do not believe that the new clause would lead to many more cases.

The Minister's third point in Grand Committee was that challenges should be brought only in exceptional circumstances and that the appropriate legal remedy is in the High Court. I agree that applications should be made only when there is a strong case. However, the Government's argument seems to be that the power to require an authority to provide accommodation should remain in the High Court in order to keep the number of applications down. We believe that judicial review is a remote and inappropriate remedy for homeless people, and that current arrangements prevent them from exercising their legal rights effectively when they have a strong case. I think that that point is particularly important. Despite guidance, local authorities rarely provide accommodation during the review process, even when the applicant has a strong case.

The Minister's fourth point was on simplifying administration. He argued that giving the parallel provision to order an authority to accommodate an applicant at the subsequent appeal stage would simplify the process as the appeal itself is already held in the county court. We believe that similar arguments can be applied in relation to the review process.

I have spoken to the amendment at some length, and I spoke to it in Grand Committee. I believe that the Minister understands our objective in the matter. We have also tried to answer the points that he made in Committee. I therefore hope that, today, I shall receive a slightly better response from him on this rather complicated amendment. However, it has to be technical because of the very nature of the issues that it addresses.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench

My Lords, it might be helpful if I were to give an example of the matters just dealt with by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, as there seems to be some concern about them.

A man approached Shelter for assistance. He was 17 and had been living with his father, with whom he had had a very difficult relationship. His father had made him leave their home several times in the past. On this occasion, the young man was on licence from prison and had to be resident at an address to avoid being returned to prison. The authority accepted that he was homeless but said that he did not have a priority need. That was despite guidance stating that

"the Secretary of State would generally expect to find homeless . . . 16 and 17 year olds to be vulnerable and hence in priority need for accommodation".

A review of the authority's decision was requested, but the authority refused to provide accommodation pending a review. Shelter brought judicial review proceedings to require the authority to provide accommodation during the review. The authority subsequently issued its review decision, stating that it had re-examined the situation and found that the client was, in fact, owed a full housing duty.

I hope that I have given the example at the appropriate stage of our proceedings. As the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, said, it is a very complex matter, and I am afraid that I may have misunderstood the particular provision.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Minister of State (Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, was right on target. It demonstrated, did it not, that judicial review provided an adequate remedy in that example?

I shall try to be brief in dealing with the point made very clearly by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. I am afraid, however, that we still disagree on it.

An applicant who is dissatisfied with the housing authority's decision on his homelessness case has the right to request the authority to review the decision. If dissatisfied with the authority's decision on review, the applicant has the right to appeal to the county court on a point of law.

Under current provisions, applicants who wish to challenge an authority's decision not to continue to accommodate pending either a review by the authority or an appeal to the county court must seek judicial review of that decision in the High Court. The example given by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, is relevant to that point. The provision provides an avenue of redress for applicants in the event that an authority does not make a proper decision; for example, by failing to give due consideration to all the circumstances, or perhaps failing to consider them at all. It is appropriate that the authority should have discretion whether to continue to accommodate applicants once it has completed its detailed enquiries and satisfied itself of the facts of the case.

Amendment No. 15 would give the county court a power to intervene in decisions by a housing authority not to continue to accommodate a homeless applicant pending a review. However, applying to the courts to overturn an authority's decision should be a matter of last resort and should only be considered when it is clear that the authority has not made a proper decision. I believe that the principle of judicial review by the High Court remains valid where applicants wish to challenge an authority's decision not to continue to accommodate pending a review by the authority of the homelessness decision—that is, at the first procedural stage.

The Government are concerned to ensure that local authority discretion in these matters is not completely undermined. That is my reason for resisting the move to give the county court the power to intervene in the decision by an authority not to continue to accommodate at the review stage.

The Government believe that if the power to intervene in local authority decisions not to continue to accommodate an applicant pending a review were moved from the High Court to the county court, that would have various consequences. First, the county court would be duty bound to consider every application that was made to it. Secondly, there must be a strong likelihood that the court would be minded to require the authority to continue to accommodate in just about every case until the court had the opportunity properly to consider the application. Having done that, the court is very unlikely to want to take any action that would result, directly or indirectly, in the applicant becoming homeless.

I was not sure but I thought that the noble Baroness said that applications for injunctions pending the hearing of judicial review invariably led to the injunction being granted once leave had been given. If that experience were taken to the county court, where there is no filter, could not the same possibly occur? In effect, one would in practice take away discretion from the local authority.

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat 5:00 pm, 15th January 2002

My Lords, perhaps I was not being very clear. If I remember rightly, my argument was that there comes a point at which the local authority gives in, as it were, and therefore does not need to carry on. That is why the situation probably would not arise.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Minister of State (Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, if one gives the county court the right to intervene in the decision about whether one should house someone pending a review, and the invariable practice of the court became that it would always intervene to secure continuing accommodation pending a review, discretion about whether or not to continue to house pending the review would, in effect, be taken from the local authority and given to the court. That would mean that although there was a category of people whom the local authority thought should not be housed, accommodation would nevertheless need to be provided for them. What impact would that have on those with needs that were greater than those of the people whom the local authority had just assessed as not being sufficient to justify continuing housing?

The third consequence would be that the net effect would be an incentive for every homeless applicant who received a decision against his interests to ask for a review by the authority and apply to the court for an order requiring the authority to continue to accommodate him until the review was completed, thus completely undermining the local authority's discretion to decide whether to exercise its power.

Local authorities have an immediate duty to secure accommodation for new applicants where there is reason to believe that they are homeless and in priority need, until the authority has had a chance to look into the circumstances and to satisfy itself whether there is indeed homelessness, whether that homelessness was caused by the applicant and whether there is priority need.

It is right that authorities have that immediate duty and that applicants should have the right to ask the authority to review any decision that goes against their interests—for example, that they do not have priority need or that they became homeless intentionally. However, it is important that authorities themselves should have the discretion to decide whether there is good reason to continue to accommodate applicants during a review and that that discretionary power is not undermined by the possibility of intervention by the courts on a routine basis.

I earnestly ask the noble Baroness to consider what we have said. Our approach is not the result of penny-pinching but because we think that it is the right approach. I therefore urge her to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank the Minister once again for a very full answer. He will be aware that the Housing Law Practitioners Association strongly supported the approach, as did Shelter. People would not take such cases forward unless they had a very good case because they would not get legal aid or funding. Part of what the Minister said would not happen. However, I thank him for making even clearer his reasons for disagreeing with me. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 12 [Application of Part 6 of 1996 Act to existing tenants]:

[Amendment No. 16 not moved.]

Clause 13 [Abolition of duty to maintain housing register]:

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for pausing for a moment. I thought that I should have a nice little rest while the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, moved Amendment No. 16. In relation to housing, it always seems to be my role to move amendments quickly one after the other.

The amendment involves a matter that we raised in Grand Committee. Significant concerns have been expressed about the Bill's provisions relating to unacceptable behaviour, which makes someone unsuitable to be a tenant. In Grand Committee, the Minister made a strong statement and set out how he expected local authorities to implement the provisions. He also highlighted several factors that must be considered by an authority, and that will be incorporated into guidance. We welcome that statement and the correspondence I have had with him on some of those matters.

We have already raised the relevant issue today. Given the poor record of some local authorities in following guidance, the application of the provisions is likely to be the subject of legal challenge when the legislation is enacted. It is important that there is no doubt about the Government's intentions. I hope that the Minister will state that he will oversee the wording of the guidance and closely monitor practice, including any legal proceedings that are brought under the provisions to ensure that the intentions that he has set out are met.

Our concerns about unacceptable behaviour are that the unacceptable behaviour test could go much wider than anti-social behaviour and would allow local authorities to apply it to a wide range of other situations, particularly where rent arrears are concerned. The Bill will give authorities the discretion not to house tenants in circumstances other than those involving anti-social behaviour. That is extremely common under current legislation.

Local authorities routinely apply for possession orders when they are not entitled to them. In 2000, 150,000 possession actions were taken by social landlords, the vast majority of which were for rent arrears. If such a landlord takes proceedings as far as the court, it is presumably satisfied that it is entitled to a possession order. However, of those 150,000 cases, only 65 per cent resulted in any order being made, of which only 18 per cent resulted in an outright order. In more than 80 per cent of cases where social landlords presumably assumed that they were entitled to a possession order, the court ruled that they were not.

It is important that housing and support needs are taken into account at this stage. People with problematic histories, such as rough sleepers and ex-offenders—we have already discussed them today—many of whom have been evicted from previous tenancies, may fall foul of the unacceptable behaviour provisions. Resettlement work and the policy on homelessness more widely could be undermined. I refer to the work of the Rough Sleepers' Unit in that regard.

It is also important to consider the way in which the provisions will be interpreted and applied at the local level. I hope that the Minister will give as firm a statement as he gave in Grand Committee. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Minister of State (Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, the noble Baroness was clear about her concerns in Grand Committee and was clear again today. It may well be appropriate for me to reiterate the assurances that I gave in Grand Committee.

I therefore restate that the Bill as drafted would not allow an authority to decide to treat someone as ineligible for an allocation simply by assessing his behaviour and not considering any other factors. Proposed new Section 160A(7) will give authorities a power to decide to treat individual applicants as ineligible for an allocation of housing. It will apply only where a person—either the applicant or a member of his household—is guilty of unacceptable behaviour that is serious enough to make him unsuitable to be a tenant of the authority and, in the circumstances at the time of the application, unsuitable to be a tenant by reason of that behaviour.

Where an authority receives an application and has reason to believe that either the applicant or a member of his household has been guilty of behaviour that may make him unsuitable to be a tenant, there are a number of steps which the authority must follow.

First, it must satisfy itself that behaviour has occurred which falls within the definition of "unacceptable behaviour"; in other words, the applicant or a member of his household must have behaved in a manner that would, if the applicant were a secure tenant, entitle the authority to a possession order under Section 84 of the Housing Act in relation to certain grounds. The grounds are those in Part I of Schedule 2, except ground 8. They are fault grounds and include behaviour such as conduct that is likely to cause nuisance or annoyance and use of the premises for immoral or illegal purposes.

In considering whether a possession order would be granted in the circumstances of a particular case, the authority will have to consider whether, having established the grounds, the court would consider that it was reasonable to grant a possession order. In case law it has been established that, when the court is deliberating, "reasonable" means having regard to the interests of the public and the interests of the parties. Therefore, in deciding whether it would be entitled to an order, the authority would need to consider those interests, including all the circumstances of the applicant and his household. That is stage one.

Under stage two, having concluded that it would be entitled to an order, an authority will need to satisfy itself that the behaviour is serious enough to make the person unsuitable to be a tenant of the authority. For example, it will need to be satisfied that, if a possession order is granted, it will not be suspended by the court.

Thirdly, the authority will need to satisfy itself that in the circumstances at the time of the application the applicant was unsuitable to be a tenant by reason of the behaviour in question.

Those three criteria provide a fairly stiff test. Only if it is satisfied in all three aspects may the authority consider exercising its discretion to decide that the applicant is to be treated as ineligible for an allocation. In reaching a decision on whether or not to treat the applicant as ineligible, the authority will have to act reasonably. That means that it will need to consider all the relevant matters before it. They will include all the circumstances relevant to the applicant, including health, dependants and other factors. In practice, the matters before the authority will include the information provided on the application form.

Therefore, it is important to bear in mind that it would be impossible for an authority to take a view on whether it would be entitled to a possession order without considering fully all the factors that a court would take into account in determining whether or not it was reasonable to grant an order. Then, in reaching a decision as to whether or not to exercise its discretion and treat someone as ineligible, the authority must consider all the relevant factors.

I believe it is important that housing authorities are clear about the implications of these important provisions. Accordingly, I undertake to ensure that these matters are included in the statutory guidance, for which I shall take personal responsibility, and that they will be issued to accompany the Bill. I also agree that it is right that the application of this measure is monitored. The type of factors to which I referred in answer to an earlier question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, will inform the way that that monitoring takes place.

I hope that noble Lords will agree that this is the best way to ensure that authorities act reasonably and consider all the circumstances of a case before deciding to treat an applicant as ineligible for housing. I hope that in the light of that, the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Lord Avebury Lord Avebury Liberal Democrat

My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord sits down, can he tell me whether there is a database of cases where the courts have granted possession on grounds similar to those which are being considered by the local authorities to which local authorities can refer in deciding these matters? He said that they would have to consider whether the court would have granted a possession order if it had had such facts before it. If a local authority can refer to such a database and can see that in a certain set of circumstances the court has or has not granted a possession order, that will obviously be very useful.

However, if there is no such database, and with the enormous variety of circumstances that might apply not to the applicant but to any single member of his household, how will the authority judge whether the courts would have granted possession in those circumstances?

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Minister of State (Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, as in all issues relating to how a court will react, a large number of cases will have been decided by the courts. Not all those cases will be reported or accessible on a database. There are a large number of databases which refer one to decided cases in court, including those concerning housing, but they are not comprehensive. I know from my own experience that all county court decisions—that will be the relevant court—or Appeal Court decisions are not reported. However, databases exist to provide some assistance in relation to this matter. The more access there is to the widest possible range of decided cases, the better.

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his comprehensive response to my amendment. In view of the assurances that he has given me and his oversight of practice in this area, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 14 [Applications for housing accommodation]:

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative 5:15 pm, 15th January 2002

moved Amendment No. 18:

Page 10, line 7, at end insert "and shall be entered in a register complying with the requirements of Schedule (Housing Applications Register) to this Act".

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 18, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 37, which contains a proposed new schedule. It is a matter to which I return following the Grand Committee. The abolition of the requirement to keep a housing register is something of a false dawn. As I said previously, few will mourn the passing of a register amounting to some 8,000 to 10,000 applications. However, there will still be an administrative need for a record to be kept of those applying for consideration under the allocation scheme.

While I recognise that there are varying degrees of pressure on housing across the country, it seems somewhat lax not to have any indication within the Bill that the freedom of release from the formal housing register brings with it requirements to record applications which are made and their outcome, even if that is only to say that there is no entitlement, no priority or no realistic possibility of housing in a defined period.

Monitoring and auditing of the housing position across the country will become infinitely more unreliable than it is already if there is no requirement to maintain administrative probity. My schedule in Amendment No. 37, of which I was quite proud—that is the reason why it has appeared again—gives the outline of how I consider the matter should be implemented. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Government Whip

My Lords, the Bill seeks to encourage authorities to move away from fixed registers and to consider more flexible ways of operating their allocation schemes which will enable them to offer more choice to those who seek a social housing tenancy. Amendments Nos. 18 and 37 would require the opening of a register of applications for allocation of accommodation; that is, they seek to lay down specific requirements as to how authorities keep records of the operation of their allocation scheme.

I understand the concern of the noble Baroness that all authorities should keep good records in order that they may be held accountable for their allocation decisions. In fact, it is inconceivable that any authority wanting to protect itself from a maladministration charge would not keep records of what happened in the course of an application made to it. Therefore, some form of list or register of applicants and decisions taken with regard to their applications is likely to be retained. However, I do not believe that it is right to prescribe in legislation the format of that record.

The Bill builds in safeguards to ensure that all applicants, including existing tenants who apply for a transfer, have their applications considered properly. It also ensures that applicants can obtain the necessary information that will allow them to assess how long they may have to wait for an allocation.

The Bill provides a sensible framework which gives individual authorities flexibility to construct their allocation scheme as they think best while providing safeguards that will ensure that reasonable preference is given to the categories of applicants most in housing need. It is for individual authorities to decide how best to conduct the detailed administration of their allocations.

In effect, the Bill specifies the ends that we wish to achieve through local authorities. But we want local authorities to be imaginative in doing so—to give advice and information and to develop choice-based letting systems—rather than simply being passive in the way that some authorities have been in the past, with waiting lists being constructed but with little happening thereafter. I do not believe that we need to tell them the means of fulfilling those goals; it would be potentially negative were we to do so. Therefore, I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. As he intimated, and as we both know from the past, there are authorities and authorities. Some have better procedures than others and some adopt better practices than others. It was in seeking to ensure that the best practices were adopted that I sought to have the matter put on the face of the Bill. I thank the Minister for his reply and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 15 [Allocation Schemes]:

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

moved Amendment No. 19:

Page 10, line 19, after "accommodation" insert "(including temporary accommodation) which may be available within the authority's district or within another authority's district"

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 19, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 20, 21 and 24. Amendment No. 19 addresses one of the most serious issues, particularly in London: the availability of decent temporary accommodation. There is rightly a move towards reducing the numbers of people in bed and breakfast accommodation and the amount of time they spend there. But in order to provide for all those who present themselves as homeless, it is a fact that many will continue to be placed in conditions which are less than satisfactory.

There may be options for applicants to be placed outside the authority in question if there is accommodation available in a particular authority. That position should be made clear. The homeless are as entitled as anyone else to know the true position and what options may be available. In Committee the Minister drew my attention to the fact that this clause came under Part 6 of the 1996 Act. I accept that that is the case. However, as Clause 15(2)(a) relates to people who are homeless within Part 7, it seems to me that it is relevant to refer to temporary accommodation for that aspect alone.

Amendments Nos. 20 and 21 are designed to follow one upon the other and to draw on to the face of the Bill all those who, as a result of the changes being made, will be entitled to priority consideration for housing. They would amend Section 189 of the Housing Act 1996. No one to whom I have spoken is, in general, against any of the principles of what is being proposed. However, there is great anxiety about the implications of the extra priority categories. In reality, in places such as London, housing authorities are in dire straits coping with the priorities in the 1996 Act. The Bill extends those priority categories. It is my view that they should all be in one place rather than scattered through the two pieces of legislation. Priorities will have to be prioritised. As I said in Committee, decisions will have to be made as to who is more vulnerable than the vulnerable. There needs to be recognition that that is the position. This is the best way I can think of doing that.

Amendment No. 24 returns to the concerns I expressed in Committee about the need for housing authorities to be able to balance their housing allocations to take account of the make-up of the community in any part of their area of responsibility. It helps no one, least of all those concerned, if too many vulnerable people are placed in one estate or statutory housing area without a balance of those who can help and support them. There have been too many incidents of sink estates in the past to allow that to happen again. Local authorities are well aware of that.

In general, I expect that what I seek in tabling the amendment happens in well-managed authorities. However, in view of the greater emphasis being placed on the young and the vulnerable, as well as those already categorised, it must be allowable for such a consideration as outlined in my amendment to be taken into account. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Minister of State (Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, like the noble Baroness, I shall deal with Amendments Nos. 19, 20, 21 and 24, which were either moved or spoken to in this group.

Amendment No. 19 deals with local housing authority schemes for the allocation of accommodation. It would require authorities to include in their allocation schemes a statement on offering applicants accommodation, not only within the authority's own boundaries but in other areas also. The noble Baroness indicated in Committee that she tabled the amendment because in some high demand areas even temporary accommodation may not be available in the authority's own area and, she says, applicants should be made aware of that.

I do not believe that it is necessary to place such a requirement on the face of the Bill. Shortage of affordable housing is a problem localised to some parts of the country, one of which the Government are well aware and are investing to alleviate. However, as it is localised, the desirability of an authority indicating the likelihood of an application being successful is, I believe, a matter for guidance rather than legislation.

Part 6 of the 1996 Act is concerned with long-term allocations of secure, introductory or assured tenancies. Therefore, the reference to temporary accommodation could be said not to be in the right place. The provisions of the 1996 Act for allocations relate to the selection of tenants of an authority's own stock and nominations to tenancies of accommodation held by other housing providers, whether other authorities or RSLs. An authority's policy on offering people a choice of housing implicitly includes its policies in relation to its own accommodation and its arrangements with other authorities. I therefore urge the noble Baroness to withdraw Amendment No. 19.

Amendments Nos. 20 and 21 would insert additional categories of housing applicants who must be given reasonable preference in the allocation of housing accommodation under Part 6 of the 1996 Act. Put simply, the additional categories covered by the amendments are unnecessary because they are already covered by the existing categories in the Bill.

Amendment No. 20 would insert four new categories, which exactly match the categories of homeless applicants who have a priority need for accommodation under the homelessness legislation. Those comprise Section 189(1)(a) to (d) of the 1996 Act. All homeless applicants who fall within one or more of those categories and who are homeless or threatened with homelessness will be owed a duty under various sections of the 1996 Act. Clause 15(3) of the Bill specifically requires that housing applicants who are owed such duties must be given reasonable preference in the allocation of housing accommodation by virtue of new Section 167(2B). The point made by the noble Baroness is already covered.

Amendment No. 21 would insert five new categories of homeless people who must be given reasonable preference for an allocation. Four of those are already covered in Clause 15 of the Bill by new Section 167(2)(a), which provides that anyone who is homeless within the meaning of Part 7 of the 1996 Act must be given reasonable preference for an allocation. "Homelessness within the meaning of Part 7" means statutorily homeless as defined by Sections 175 to 177 of the 1996 Act. Broadly speaking, those sections provide that a person is homeless if he or she does not have accommodation which is legally and physically available to him or her and his family, and which it would be reasonable for them to continue to occupy. That will include rough sleepers and all others who do not have a home, for whatever reason.

The fact that someone is homeless within the meaning of Part 7 of the 1996 Act does not necessarily mean that he or she will be owed a substantive homelessness duty. That would require them to have become homeless unintentionally and to fall within a priority need group. There may be some misunderstanding about the effect of new Section 167(2)(a). Its application is not limited to people who are owed a main homelessness duty; it extends to anyone who is homeless, whatever the reason for the homelessness.

I said that four of the categories proposed by Amendment No. 21 are already covered by new Section 167(2)(a). The fifth and last category proposed by the amendment is not so embraced because it does not address people who are homeless. It deals with existing secure or introductory tenants of a local authority who are seeking a transfer. Applicants in this position cannot expect to be given reasonable preference unless they fall within new Section 167(2)(c), (d) or (e). These categories would apply if they were living in insanitary, overcrowded or otherwise unsatisfactory conditions, or if they needed to move because of medical or welfare reasons or to avoid hardship to themselves or others. I hope that I have persuaded the noble Baroness that Amendments Nos. 20 and 21 are unnecessary.

Amendment No. 24 allows an authority to suspend the new provisions inserted into Section 167 of the Housing Act 1996 by subsection (3) of Clause 15. Most of those provisions confer a discretion on the local housing authority when framing its statutory housing allocation schemes. This is the case with new Section 167(2A) to (2E). Nothing would be gained by allowing authorities to suspend those provisions when the extent to which they use them is anyway at their discretion. Furthermore, some of these provisions are particularly helpful in meeting some of the concerns of the noble Baroness.

New Section 167(2), like its predecessor, requires allocation schemes to be framed in order to give reasonable preference in allocating housing to those who, in general terms, have the most pressing needs. This is a duty but the preference required to be given is one which is "reasonable" in all the circumstances. In determining priority between applicants who fall into a "reasonable preference" category, an authority may specify factors it will take into account—such as an applicant's financial resources or behaviour. They also allow authorities to ensure that local circumstances—for example, on a particular estate—can be reflected in allocation schemes.

Under new Section 167(2E)(b), authorities would be able to allocate particular housing accommodation to persons of a particular description in accordance with schemes known as "local lettings schemes". These could include key worker schemes where it might help attract modestly paid but essential staff to high-cost areas. In another area, such a scheme might be used to lower the child to adult ratio on an estate with a high child density. Or the scheme might be operated to provide housing for those who do not usually receive high priority on an authority's register—for example, young single people.

It is up to the authority, in consultation with its partners, to draw up a scheme which meets local housing needs and which supports the development of sustainable communities. The provisions of the Bill provide the foundations for this work and, within the statutory framework, wide discretion is given to authorities and schemes can be adapted to reflect local circumstances.

It is important to keep local letting schemes under review, and to monitor their impact on those who are not part of any local lettings schemes. Of course, local lettings schemes should not override the reasonable preference categories across an authority's stock when taken as a whole.

Taken together, the provisions of Clause 15(3) provide a robust framework for authorities. They will ensure that, in general, authorities allocate their housing to those in greatest need. But they will also provide flexibility to adapt schemes to local circumstances. In that way, looked at as a whole, the Bill, as drafted, meets the principal purposes behind the amendment. Therefore, I hope that the noble Baroness will not pursue Amendment No. 24.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Conservative 5:30 pm, 15th January 2002

My Lords, before my noble friend responds to the Minister, perhaps I may say a few words. I have waited to hear the Minister's response to my noble friend's amendments because I was conscious that we were going over ground covered in Grand Committee. I wanted to see whether any new arguments were to be adduced.

I have sympathy with the Government's attitude on the central point of not introducing unnecessary complication and leaving a degree of freedom to local authorities. The Minister implied that applicants fully understood the situation. Therefore, it did not need to be spelled out in writing or in terms of how local authorities responded to them in the way suggested by my noble friend.

I do not want to go back over ground that I introduced during the Grand Committee. However, I indicated that in London there is a major series of transfers between local authorities whereby one local authority will move its applicants into another one, while simultaneously the other local authority may be moving its applicants into the original one. I shall not go over all that ground, except to say that the Member of Parliament on the receiving end has to cope with the exportee's views. He can express a whole series of views about the local authority which suddenly exported him. The Member of Parliament is, by definition, ignorant of the practices of the other local authority and does not know whether his new constituent is trying it on or is genuinely ignorant about the circumstances in which the local authority finds itself.

As I say, my sympathy is with the Government. I am not in favour of complicating the issue. However, the Minister should not imagine that every applicant is fully aware of the circumstances. In that respect, my noble friend's suggestion would have illuminated his ignorance.

On the other hand, with regard to what my noble friend said about other categories, an analogy springs to mind from long in the past. It is not wholly irrelevant to this place. There was a discussion about whether an archdeacon whose father was a Peer was the venerable but honourable or the venerable and honourable or the honourable and venerable. The judging of these priorities will be a matter for local authorities when reaching a decision on the applicant in question.

That said, I agree that it is probably better to allow the local authority to make up its own mind how it exercises those preferences and those priorities, provided that it has a policy which can be communicated to applicants so that they can understand what is happening. I am perfectly content for the matter to be left to the local authority, but the local authority needs to have a policy.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. It probably covered more or less the same ground as previously, except for Amendments Nos. 20 and 21 where I was seeking to put on to the face of the Bill the categories of people affected. I accept more or less what the Minister has said. I can see the difficulties and perhaps the lack of necessity for these amendments.

I felt more stroppy about Amendment No. 24 until I heard what the Minister said. I wanted it to be absolutely clear within the scope of this legislation that the local authority has the right to adjust the make-up of its housing estates. I am very anxious about sink estates. I am very anxious about far too many people with priority needs being, perhaps, lumped together. I hope that people will not misunderstand what I mean by that. That is always the effect of having vulnerable people all together who cannot support each other. I think I have the Minister's assurance that the Bill will state that it will be the local authority's responsibility and that it will have the right to adjust its lettings to ensure that that does not happen. If I understood the Minister correctly in that, I shall not press Amendment No. 24. I beg leave to withdraw Amendment No. 19.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 20 and 21 not moved.]

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat

moved Amendment No. 22:

Page 11, line 1, after "any" insert "deliberate, wilful, or negligent"

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the group of amendments deal with housing allocations. Amendment No. 22 deals with a tenant's suitability. I shall speak to that amendment later. However, I turn briefly to the other amendments in the group. Amendments Nos. 23, 26 and 27 are about information and review. The Government have tabled Amendments Nos. 25 and 28, which cover the matter, and put their name to Amendment No. 26. I warmly welcome the Government's amendments and their action. When we raised the matter in Committee, the intention was for the onus to be on local authorities where unacceptable behaviour was found, and the amendments achieve that.

I return to Amendment No. 22. The draft guidance that I have seen on the matter is rather weak. A pre-consultative draft relating to the clause circulated in October 2001 states only:

"housing authorities can take into account the applicant's behaviour (or that of a household member) in relation to suitability as tenants. This can include serious or wilful rent arrears, deliberate unacceptable behaviour or deliberately creating unsatisfactory living conditions in pursuit of a quicker route to rehousing".

I am grateful to Shelter for providing evidence of how the policy and practice of some local authorities and registered social landlords currently means that people in housing need are denied access to social housing.

I emphasise that the amendment is designed to promote consistency and to ensure that the Government's policy intentions are met. In paragraphs 9.15 and 9.16 of the Green Paper, the Government clearly set out their policy intentions in the allocation of social housing. 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".

But the key sentence is:

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

I raised that matter in Committee.

Under the Bill as drafted, local authorities could reduce priority because of rent arrears or for other reasons. That is common under current arrangements. In reality, in many parts of the country, a decision to reduce an applicant's priority effectively means that he or she will not be housed. Current practice shows all too clearly how important it is to get the legislative framework right in that area. Despite strong guidance to the contrary, it is common under current legislation for local authorities either to suspend or exclude people with rent arrears or other debts. Those arrears are sometimes trivial and, in many cases, caused by the failure of the local authority to administer housing benefit payments.

Research for the previous Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions found that more than one in 10 authorities and registered social landlords that responded to a survey took account of council tax arrears when considering rehousing eligibility. That was despite the fact that draft guidance says that authorities should not take account of such factors. There is much other similar evidence. I therefore hope that the Minister will make it clear that housing need should be the main factor in deciding the priority of an application. I hope that he will emphasise the sort of behaviour that should not lead to an applicant being given a lesser priority—especially rent arrears caused by housing benefit problems and council tax arrears. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Minister of State (Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions) (Housing & Planning) 5:45 pm, 15th January 2002

My Lords, this returns us to an issue that the noble Baroness raised in Committee. Amendment No. 22 would ensure that an authority could take account only of deliberate, wilful or negligent behaviour that affected the applicant's suitability to be a tenant when determining the priority and preference to be given to an applicant who falls within the categories of applicant who must be given reasonable preference.

The provision in the Bill as drafted would allow authorities to take account of both good and bad behaviour which might have been demonstrated by individual applicants. Bad behaviour might include unacceptable behaviour which was not serious enough to make the applicant unsuitable to be a tenant, but was nevertheless a factor to be taken into account in assessing the level of priority deserved relative to other applicants.

For instance—this addresses the issue raised by the noble Baroness—let us consider an applicant who has a history of persistent but minor rent arrears not caused by any problems with housing benefit and another applicant, perhaps an existing tenant applying for a transfer, who has demonstrated that he is a model tenant. All other factors being equal, the authority may understandably decide that the latter deserves a degree more priority than the former.

The issue of what relative priority individual applications should receive for an allocation is a matter for the authority to decide, in accordance with the principles of its published scheme, where the basis for determining priority will have to be set out. It is right that the authority should have discretion to decide whether, and how, applicants' behaviour should be taken into account. The amendment would in effect reduce that discretion on behaviour to those aspects of behaviour that fall within the rubric, "deliberate, wilful or negligent". I should remind noble Lords that applicants will have the right under Clause 15(4) to obtain information about the facts on which the authority has taken its decision, and to request a review of that decision. For the reasons I have given, I ask the noble Baroness not to pursue her amendment.

As it is in the same group, perhaps I may also speak to Amendment No. 25. I have already spoken at some length about the provisions in Clause 13 that allow an authority to decide to treat an applicant as ineligible for an allocation because it is satisfied that he is guilty of unacceptable behaviour serious enough to make him unsuitable to be a tenant of the authority. Where an authority is satisfied that an applicant is unsuitable to be a tenant of the authority, it may decide to treat him as ineligible, or it may instead decide to consider his or her application but not to give any preference for an allocation.

As the Bill stands, the authority must notify the applicant of a decision to treat him or her as ineligible, and of the grounds for the decision. As regards a decision not to give preference, applicants have the right to ask to be informed, but the authority is not required to notify them unless requested to do so.

In Committee, the noble Baroness pressed for an amendment that would have required authorities to notify applicants about such decisions. Unfortunately, because of its construction it would also have required authorities to notify applicants about routine decisions taken about the facts of their application.

At the time, I said that I thought that the right balance was to leave it to local authorities to decide who to tell and when. I have, however, reflected on what the noble Baroness said. I can see the force of the argument that in areas where pressure on housing is high, a decision not to give preference could, as she said today, have the same practical effect as a decision to treat as ineligible. That is to say, as she put it, it could remove any realistic opportunity of the applicant being allocated accommodation. Moreover, the additional requirement—to notify—should not add significantly to authorities' workload, as I expect that, overall, only a small proportion of applicants will receive such decisions. I understand that the local authority associations support the proposal.

I therefore think that authorities should be required to notify the applicant when they decide not to give any preference because of unacceptable behaviour. Amendments Nos. 25 and 28, in conjunction with Amendment No. 26, will achieve that effect, and I invite noble Lords to support them.

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his long response. I am slightly disappointed as regards his comments on Amendment No. 22. I had hoped that he would reiterate the point I made that housing need should be an important part of deciding priority. I had hoped that he would also reiterate the point—as I believe he did in Grand Committee, although I cannot remember exactly—that people in arrears due to problems with housing benefit should not be penalised through this part of the legislation. As regards the Minister's other comments, I am grateful to him for taking on board the other points that we raised in this area in Grand Committee. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 23 and 24 not moved.]

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Minister of State (Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions) (Housing & Planning)

moved Amendment No. 25:

Page 11, line 37, at end insert—

"(aa) is notified in writing of any decision that he is a person to whom subsection (2C) applies and the grounds for it;"

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat

moved Amendment No. 26:

Page 11, line 40, leave out from "case" to end of line 41.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 27 not moved.]

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Minister of State (Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions) (Housing & Planning)

moved Amendment No. 29:

Page 14, line 1, at end insert—

"7A In section 188(3) (interim duty to accommodate in case of apparent priority need), for "continue to secure" there is substituted "secure"."

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Minister of State (Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, in Committee the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said she was grateful to the Housing Law Practitioners Association for drawing her attention to gaps in the existing provisions which give the local authority the power to accommodate certain applicants pending a review by the authority of its homelessness decision and pending an appeal to the county court on a point of law. I, in turn, am grateful to the noble Baroness for drawing my attention to these points.

The policy which underlies the current provisions is that, pending a review or an appeal to the county court, the authority should have the power to accommodate those applicants who have a priority need for accommodation; that is, those who are most vulnerable. I think that is the right policy and it accords with the central thrust of the legislation, that only this group are owed the main homelessness duty to secure accommodation.

An assessment of the current provisions, however, reveals two main gaps in the achievement of that policy. The first applies in respect of those applicants who have a priority need but are considered by the authority to have become homeless, or threatened with homelessness, intentionally and who, for whatever reason, were not provided with accommodation under the Section 188 interim duty pending inquiries. This will include, for example, priority need applicants who were threatened with homelessness pending the inquiries (and so did not need to be provided with accommodation). Where the authority finds that they became threatened with homelessness intentionally, the applicant may request a review of that decision and may become homeless during the course of the review. However, at present the authority has no power to accommodate in such circumstances.

The second "gap" applies more broadly to applicants pursuing an appeal to the county court. Current provisions (namely Section 204 of the 1996 Act) leave some doubt as to whether there is a power to accommodate applicants if the authority has not already exercised its power to accommodate pending the review.

Amendment No.34 will close the first gap and provide authorities with a specific power to assist those applicants whom the authority has decided have priority need but have become threatened with homelessness intentionally. The power will allow the authority to take steps to prevent homelessness or, if the applicant becomes homeless, to secure accommodation, pending a review of the homelessness decision.

Amendment No. 36 amends Section 204 of the 1996 Act and makes clear that, pending an appeal to the county court, the authority has a power to accommodate the same categories of applicant as it has a power to accommodate pending a review. This includes a specific reference to the new power provided by Amendment No. 34. Amendment No. 36 also makes clear that the power to accommodate an applicant pending an appeal to the county court applies whether or not the power to accommodate pending a review had been exercised.

Amendments Nos. 29 and 35 amend Sections 188(3) and 200(5) respectively. These are the current provisions which give authorities the power to continue to secure accommodation for certain applicants pending a review. The concept of being able to continue to secure accommodation limits the scope of power and is unduly restrictive. Amendments Nos. 29 and 35 therefore change this to a free-standing power to secure accommodation. As regards the change to Section 188(3), this will clarify in particular that, pending a review, authorities have the power to accommodate applicants who have priority need but have been found to be intentionally homeless. Under Section 190(2)(a), such applicants must be secured accommodation for such period as will give them a reasonable opportunity to find accommodation themselves but this duty may end before a review of the homelessness decision has been completed. There is currently some uncertainty whether authorities have a power to accommodate this category of applicant during the period after the Section 190(2)(a) duty has ended and until the review is completed. This is because there is no explicit provision giving a power to continue to accommodate under Section 190 and it is questionable whether the power to continue to accommodate under Section 188 should apply in a case where the applicant is being accommodated under Section 190.

I apologise for the complexity of the explanation, but it reflects the complexity of the provisions. It may explain why there are gaps in the current provisions and why it required a combination of the Housing Law Practitioners Association and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, to draw our attention to the situation. However, we have worked hard on trying to fill the gaps.

In Committee I said that there was a need to consult with the local authority representative bodies before making any amendments. This has been done and I understand that they are content with the thrust of these proposals. I hope that noble Lords will agree that these amendments close the current gaps and achieve the right policy. I commend Amendments Nos. 29, 34, 35 and 36 to the House. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat

My Lords, if my noble friend Lady Hamwee were present I am sure that she would thank the Minister for his comments on behalf of herself and the Housing Law Practitioners Association. It is a complicated area. I wish to make two comments about Amendments Nos. 34 and 36. I hope that I express them correctly as I am not a lawyer by training.

Amendment No. 34 provides a power to secure temporary accommodation pending a review of a decision that a person has become threatened with homelessness intentionally. The amendment refers to paragraph (b) of subsection (5) of Section 195 of the relevant Act. If the reference to paragraph (b) were omitted and the amendment read:

"If the authority decide that they owe the applicant the duty under subsection (5)",

I am told that the amendment would also cover decisions of no priority need.

The Government have evidently accepted the need for the temporary accommodation power where there has been a finding of intentional homelessness. It is not clear why they do not see the same need where the decision concerns priority need.

As regards Amendment No. 36, there is a view that it does not quite plug the gaps in Section 204(4) which concerns temporary accommodation pending appeal. That section currently provides that where the authority is under a duty under Sections 188, 190 and 200 to secure accommodation for the applicant's occupation, it may continue to secure that accommodation, if available, pending an appeal. With Amendment No. 36, the section would read:

"Where the authority were under a duty under Section 188, 190 or 200 to secure that accommodation is available for the applicant's occupation, or had the power under Section 195(6) to do so, they may secure that accommodation is so available".

I have been told that the reference to Section 195(6) should be a reference to Section 195(8), which is inserted by Amendment No. 34.

There is a view that the formulation is unnecessarily complicated by the reference back to earlier duties or powers. It could be simpler if it said simply that the authority may secure that accommodation is available for the applicant's occupation. That would bring it into line with the new wording of Section 188(3), as inserted by Amendment No. 29, and would be compatible with Clause 11 of the Bill. That would forestall arguments about whether one of the earlier duties existed. It would also allow for discretion if the authority accepts that it owes a duty on the day of the application, so that the duty under Section 188 does not arise, and the appeal concerns the suitability of the accommodation offered.

I am advised that that will help with the interpretation of this rather complicated section. It will probably be difficult for the Minister to respond in any detail at this stage, but we may be able to return to the matter at Third Reading. The Minister might have to read all that in Hansard, although, as a trained lawyer, he will perhaps manage it better than I did.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Minister of State (Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions) (Housing & Planning) 6:00 pm, 15th January 2002

My Lords, it is traditional to say that I am grateful for the response. For this, one would need a wet towel and every section of the Bill in front of one. It was a clear exposition, but the matter needs some thought. I suggest that we proceed with the amendment, but on the basis that we will consider the proposals made by the noble Baroness and that, if there is scope for improving the draft, we will return to it. We should, however, make the amendments now.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Minister of State (Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions) (Housing & Planning)

moved Amendment No. 30:

Page 14, line 4, at end insert—

"8A At the end of section 190 there is inserted—

"(4) The applicant's housing needs shall be assessed before advice and assistance is provided under subsection (2)(b) or (3).

(5) The advice and assistance provided under subsection (2)(b) or (3) 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).""

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Photo of Baroness Massey of Darwen Baroness Massey of Darwen Labour

moved Amendment No. 31:

Page 14, line 4, at end insert—

"In section 190 (duties to persons becoming homeless intentionally), after subsection (3) there is inserted—

"(4) In any case where the local housing authority are advised by a social services authority that a child who is in need within the meaning of section 17(10) of the Children Act 1989 (c. 41) resides with an applicant to whom they have secured that accommodation is available under subsection (2) above, they shall—

(a) continue to secure that accommodation is available for the occupation of the applicant and any such child for so long as the social services authority advise them that accommodation is required to enable the social services authority to provide services to such a child to promote or safeguard the child's welfare; or

(b) provide such assistance to the social services authority as shall enable the applicant to secure that accommodation becomes available from some other person.""

Photo of Baroness Massey of Darwen Baroness Massey of Darwen Labour

My Lords, this is the same amendment as I introduced in Committee. My intention is simply to keep the issue of the separation of parents and children by homelessness on the agenda. I am aware that the Minister and his officials are also concerned about the issue and are working to find ways of sorting it out. In Grand Committee, the Minister said:

"We were in the process of investigating whether there had been any change in practice in the way that local authorities provide assistance for families with children who are homeless. We regard it as a very important matter and we need to get to the bottom of what is going on".—[Official Report, 10/12/01; col. CWH 69.]

Meanwhile, more evidence is emerging from local authorities and from Shelter that there is separation of children and parents. I still believe that the issue of intentional and unintentional homelessness is confused and is not the hub of the matter.

I understand the difficulties caused by the interpretation of the Children Act 1989, which emphasises the needs of children above all considerations when offering council services but runs into difficulty on this issue. The result is that local authorities appear to have no power, let alone duty, to provide accommodation for children with their parents if no other accommodation is available. For example, there is no duty owed to parents who have been found intentionally homeless, although actual parenting is not in question. The result is that the only power that can be exercised to provide accommodation involves separating the child from the parents.

I realise that the Children Act cannot be our concern here, although its implications can. I also know that there are moves to amend the Act. Nevertheless, I hope that, in this Bill, a clause can be inserted to offer protection to parents and children who are made homeless. I look forward to clarification from the Minister. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat

My Lords, in Grand Committee, I supported the noble Baroness on this issue. There have been various reports in the press, so I hope that the Minister can update us. If there is a possibility that we could use this Bill to deal with the situation, I hope that that will be considered at Third Reading.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench

My Lords, my concern was that the loophole that has been discovered is being used as a threat to families to drive them out of local authority offices. That concern has been expressed by charities. Children are rarely taken into care, but overworked housing departments are using that loophole as an excuse to push families away. The families then disappear from sight, and there is a great fear that they will simply go into inadequate and inappropriate accommodation.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Minister of State (Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Massey for indicating that Amendment No. 31 is a probing amendment, giving me an opportunity to update the House on where we are. It is an important issue, about which great concern has been expressed. The concern is that if a local authority says that it may take a child into care, the family will simply disappear, rather than have the child taken into care.

The issue of accommodation for children in need and their families—covered by Section 17 of the Children Act 1989, which provision was the subject of the recently decided cases referred to in Committee—is important and will be considered in another place in the context of the Adoption and Children Bill. That will address the central issue of concern, namely the power of social services to provide accommodation under Section 17.

There is also the separate question of ensuring that there is good co-operation between the housing and social services departments in meeting the needs of such families. In Committee, I said that I had met several social services directors to discuss the situation and their approach to meeting the needs of such families. I was heartened by what they said. They all have arrangements in place to ensure that the social services departments work with the housing authority—or housing department, in the case of unitary authorities—to find an appropriate solution for the whole family, when dealing with families with children who have made themselves intentionally homeless.

In Committee, I also said that I had asked my officials to work closely with their counterparts at the Department of Health to see how we could ensure that such a sensible and co-ordinated approach would be adopted more widely. We are now agreed on that policy. Housing authorities will be required to notify the social services authorities as soon as it becomes clear that they are dealing with a homeless family with children who will not be owed the main homelessness duty, either because they have intentionally made themselves homeless or they are not eligible for housing assistance. Where the social services department requests the housing authority to assist it to discharge its functions under Part III of the Children Act 1989 in meeting the needs of the child, the housing authority will be required to co-operate. We are also considering ways of ensuring that housing and social services departments in unitary authorities work together on such cases.

Implementing the policy will require amendments to the Homelessness Bill. I had hoped to be in a position to table amendments today, but unfortunately I am not, as they are still at the development stage. However, I intend to table amendments at the earliest opportunity and undertake to do so before Third Reading.

In support of the policy, my department and the Department of Health will issue joint guidance to housing and social services departments about co-operative working. As I said in Committee, I do not think that the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, is the right way in which to tackle the problem. However, she has not necessarily put that line forward and has, rightly, been concerned about the issue and wishes to ensure that it is properly discussed. We will return to the matter at Third Reading.

Photo of Baroness Massey of Darwen Baroness Massey of Darwen Labour

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that response. I simply wanted to raise again the issue of homelessness of parents and children. I am reassured by what the Minister said, and I know that he will work to find a suitable way of dealing with the issue. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Minister of State (Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions) (Housing & Planning)

moved Amendment No. 32:

Page 14, line 7, at end insert—

"9A After subsection (3) of section 192 (as inserted by section 5(1) above) there is inserted—

"(4) The applicant's housing needs shall be assessed before advice and assistance is provided under subsection (2).

(5) The advice and assistance provided under subsection (2) 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).""

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Minister of State (Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions) (Housing & Planning)

moved Amendments Nos. 33 to 36:

Page 14, line 24, at end insert—

"(c) after subsection (5) there is inserted—

"(6) The applicant's housing needs shall be assessed before advice and assistance is provided under subsection (5).

(7) The advice and assistance provided under subsection (5) 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).";"

Page 14, line 24, at end insert—

"(d) after subsection (7) (as inserted by paragraph (c) above) there is inserted—

"(8) If the authority decide that they owe the applicant the duty under subsection (5) by virtue of paragraph (b) of that subsection, they may, pending a decision on a review of that decision—

(a) secure that accommodation does not cease to be available for his occupation; and

(b) if he becomes homeless, secure that accommodation is so available.""

Page 14, line 31, at end insert "; and

(b) in subsection (5), for "continue to secure" there is substituted "secure"."

Page 14, line 44, at end insert "; and

(b) in subsection (4), for ", they may continue to" there is substituted ", or had the power under section 195(6) to do so, they may"."

On Question, amendments agreed to.

[Amendment No. 37 not moved.]