Power to amend

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 16th September 2004.

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Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Regeneration and Regional Development) 6:45 pm, 16th September 2004

I shall try to do justice to the amendment. It is an important issue, but we must also ensure that we are living in the real world as well. I know that the noble Baroness is concerned to ensure that homeless applicants are treated fairly, which is what we want. We want people to be provided with accommodation suitable for their needs. We share those concerns.

That is partly why, for example, we introduced a target of reducing to zero the number of families with children accommodated under the homelessness legislation in bed and breakfast hotels and similar establishments for more than six weeks. That challenging target was met outright by 95 per cent of local housing authorities by the due date of 31 March this year. There were some 26 families.

In other words, when the target was announced, 6,000 children were moved out of bed and breakfast. It is true that some of them may have gone into temporary accommodation, but they have gone into a home of their own where they have a room, a kitchen and they can have their friends round. They are out of bed and breakfast accommodation. That was an incredible achievement by local government of all shades and we are seeking to maintain that figure having hit the target. We keep a constant watch on matters and we have since legislated so that if bed and breakfast accommodation has to be used it cannot be used for longer than six weeks.

We are also setting new accommodation standards for bed and breakfast accommodation and will be consolidating existing standards that apply to accommodation generally, when we issue a revision of the homelessness code of guidance for local authorities in the near future.

The Government want local housing authorities to adopt customer-centred approaches to the allocation of social housing, which give applicants more of a say in choosing where they live. While local housing authorities are under no statutory obligation to offer a choice of accommodation to applicants when they make an allocation of accommodation under Part 6, they are strongly encouraged to do so.

Indeed, the Government have set a target for all housing authorities to have adopted a choice-based approach to letting their long term accommodation by the year 2010. Furthermore, we believe that, where possible, choice-based lettings schemes should include homeless households. Offering choice is an important aspect of enabling the creation of sustainable communities.

However, the homelessness legislation provides a safety net for individuals who find themselves in a housing crisis. In areas of high housing demand where affordable accommodation is in short supply, it would not be practical for authorities to be required to offer a choice of such accommodation, or to take fully into account an applicant's preferences.

The type of accommodation used to discharge such a duty could include a place in a hostel; an offer of a non-secure tenancy in a house or flat, either in the authority's own stock or leased from another landlord; a direct tenancy with another landlord or, as a last resort, a place in a bed and breakfast establishment.

It will not always be practical for an applicant to view the accommodation beforehand; to be frank, there may be little point if no choice is being offered. It is important that the accommodation meets the minimum standards and is suitable for the applicant. In any particular case it is for the authority to decide whether the accommodation is suitable for the applicant.

In the main, where it is practical to do so, people, including the homeless, should have a choice under a choice-based lettings programme. Homeless applicants are using a different route for housing from people waiting in the queue or for an exchange. We need to make sure that their homeless circumstances are taken into account. We are making sure that they have a roof. There are different ways of doing that. Many authorities are introducing policies, which we greatly applaud, helping to prevent homelessness.

Where interim temporary accommodation has been secured by a local authority in discharge of its Part 7 duties, it is not possible to give people a choice in the normal sense of the word. This is crisis accommodation provided to cater for urgent needs of homeless applicants, many of whom would otherwise be living in unreasonable circumstances and some even sleeping rough.

We have cut rough sleeping by 70 per cent. They are not all in permanent long-term accommodation, but they are not on the streets. That figure is checked frequently. I have been out with the team myself not all night but late at night to see the work that goes on. We have cut rough sleeping by 70 per cent. We have removed families with children from bed-and-breakfast accommodation, and we now seek, through an increase in the housing programme, to address the provision of more social accommodation. In the mean time, for crisis accommodation it is not always possible to offer the choice that others would get using the normal route for housing.