Localism Bill — Committee (10th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 20th July 2011.

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Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 6:15 pm, 20th July 2011

My Lords, this is clearly a debate that needs a lot more time than we have got tonight. I have listened to some very moving and knowledgeable speeches on the amendments and I understand fully the points that people have been making. The trouble is the time constraints-the way these have been grouped in this large bunch makes it almost impossible for me to deal with all the many points that have been raised in the manner in which I would have wished to do so. As a result, I will probably be quite general in my comments, but if there are issues which I think need further application, and I have not dealt with them properly, I will look at those in Hansard and will try to make sure there is a response. I think my response will be dry-it is not meant to be and I do understand all the points that have been made. I know that my colleagues in the House of Commons have made some quite sympathetic statements and I am not going to undermine any of those. However, in the interests of time, at this stage, I am going to respond to the amendments briefly. I ask people to forgive me for not going into great detail on what they have said, since it is inevitable that I shall not be able to do so.

I shall start quickly with Amendments 171D, 172A, 173ZE, 173ZF, 171B, 171C and 173. We all understand that the people who face homelessness need suitable accommodation, but they do not always require social housing. Therefore, local authorities should have the flexibility to take case-by-case decisions. The changes in these amendments would undermine the intention of the proposed measures. This would be unfair to households on social housing waiting lists, who would have to wait longer to have their housing needs met. This is a balance that housing authorities have to make all the time. It would be unfair to the taxpayer who would have to fund expensive temporary accommodation that is often completely unsatisfactory, as noble Lords know. By housing people in social housing who might manage in the private rented sector, we would stop somebody who needs social housing, probably on a lifetime tenancy, from getting it.

Our reforms strike a sensible balance between the additional safeguards for homeless households offered in the private rented sector accommodation, ending the main duty, and fairness to other households in need. It is not practical to expect private landlords to be prepared to offer tenancies for an initial fixed term of more than 12 months to tenants they do not know, although it will be possible and very probable that local authorities will want and need to negotiate longer tenancies where they can, if 12 months does not prove to be sufficient time.

I turn to Amendments 172, 173A, 173AA, 171D and 172A, and apologise for not attributing them to the relevant noble Lords. Existing safeguards will apply before the duty can be brought to an end with a private rented sector offer. The authority must be satisfied that the accommodation is suitable for the applicant and his or her household. In considering suitability, authorities must by law consider whether a specific property is suitable for the applicant and their household's individual needs. This includes considering whether the accommodation is affordable for the applicant, as well as its size, condition, accessibility and location. A lot has to be taken into account before the offer is made. On affordability, the local authority must by law consider the applicant's financial resources and the total cost of accommodation in determining whether the accommodation is suitable.

Statutory guidance, to which local authorities must have regard by law, sets out the factors on location and standards that should be taken into account. It also states that housing authorities should consider that a property would not be affordable if a claimant's residual income after rent and associated costs would be less than the level of means-tested benefit. Tying down criteria in legislation would restrict the ability of the local authority to make decisions on what is reasonable affordability, balanced against the availability of properties.

I understand the concerns about the issue of physical standards. I have laid a Statement in the House Library confirming that we are prepared to use existing order-making powers and setting out the factors that could be included in such an order. In doing so, we will work closely with organisations such as Shelter and Crisis to make sure that that is all workable.

Amendments 173ZZD, 173ZBA, 173ZA, 173ZB, 173ZD 173ZC and 173AB would place specific requirements on local authorities to provide advice and assistance and to collect data. This is too bureaucratic and I will resist the amendments for that reason.

Local authorities already have a discretionary power to provide emergency accommodation for households that are not in priority need and not intentionally homeless. We believe this strikes a reasonable balance between the need for some particularly vulnerable homeless households to be provided with emergency accommodation and the cost that this entails. We must be careful to avoid distorting legislation that balances protections for genuinely homeless people against rewarding those who have become homeless through their own behaviour.

The noble Lord, Lord Rix, drew attention to the issue of "reasonable preference" in a very moving speech. I understand about people with disability; I also understand the terrible difficulties carers have in trying to ensure that their offspring or their relatives are cared for. With regard to the reasonable preference category for medical and welfare, this includes people with a disability. This includes learning disability as well as physical disability. We are going to be issuing revised statutory guidance to make sure that that is absolutely clear. If the noble Lord wishes to discuss that or any other aspect further, I am only too happy to do so-when we have all had a holiday and if we can ever get away from this House tonight.

I have touched on Amendments 171D and 172A, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, on the question of "reasonable to accept". I will briefly expand on that. The two concepts of "reasonable to accept the offer" and "suitability" were always meant to be treated separately. After all, they relate to two different things. "Reasonable to accept the offer" was only ever meant to refer to whether an applicant could reasonably be expected to accept an offer if they were under contractual or other obligations in respect of their existing accommodation, with regard to rent or a tenancy agreement, and they could bring those to an end before they were required to take up the offer. Over time the courts have interpreted the two terms in a way that overlap and they now consider questions of suitability under the heading of "reasonable to accept". The Bill provides an opportunity to clarify what is meant by "reasonable to accept the offer" but I assure the noble Lord that there will be no lessening of protection as a result.

Turning to the amendments tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Shipley and Lord Palmer, local housing authorities already collect a wealth of statistical information on homelessness on a voluntary basis and the information is returned as a P1E. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, also raised physical management standards. Local authorities have a duty to take appropriate action if a property is found to contain a category 1 hazard under the housing health and safety rating system. This means that any property should be free from hazards that pose a significant risk to the occupant, such as electrical hazards, pests, damp and mould. So that is a requirement.

Following on from my honourable friend Andrew Stunell's comments in the Commons, I have laid a Statement in the House Library confirming that we are prepared to use existing order-making powers in setting out the factors that could be included in such an order. This includes consideration of protections against category 1 hazards and whether landlords are fit and proper people, which was a question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Best. If anybody has not had an opportunity to see those two Statements they are both there.

The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, also tabled Amendment 173AB. The homelessness legislation strikes a careful balance between offering protection for those who are homeless and restricting the burdens on local authorities to provide assistance to the majority of householders, most of whom, upon receipt of a Section 21 notice, will be able to secure their own accommodation without recourse to local authority resources.

Finally, on the right of complaint for private rented tenants, as now, applicants accepted as owed the new homelessness duty, if included in the private rented sector, have the right to ask for a review of suitability by the local authority and, if not satisfied, have the right of appeal to the county court.

I am conscious that I have not mentioned everybody and that I have probably not covered all the aspects I should, but over the next few weeks I will look at this, because I appreciate that it is an extremely important issue in the Bill. I hope that we will be able to do justice to it, if not now, then at the next stage. I hope that the noble Lord will be prepared to withdraw his amendment.