Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill — Third Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:00 pm on 27th March 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Liberal Democrat 10:00 pm, 27th March 2012

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on her persistence in dealing with this matter and provoking some very powerful speeches from your Lordships, as well as making her own.

The issue is homelessness and housing supply. Whatever is being done now by the current Government, the stark fact is that at this moment the housing needed is just not there and cannot be created in an instant. Ordinary, decent, desperate people, whose motive is not envy, or to deprive others, or to make a political statement, are simply seeking a roof. Many of them would be regarded as vulnerable, in any normal sense of the word. Like my noble friend, I am interested in and concerned about the interface between these provisions and local authorities' housing responsibilities -in particular, whether a conviction is needed for someone who has been squatting to be unintentionally homeless. How does all that fit together, and what guidance will be given to local authorities on this?

My noble friend trailed, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically, my reference to the definition of housing. I will not go into a lot of detail; I make the simple point that those who know housing law far better than I do advise that the terms used in this Bill are not ones normally found in legislation. To all lawyers, that raises a question-I can see nods coming from the Cross Benches. One term in particular is,

"for use as a place to live".

In ordinary, common-sense terms, one understands that but we are talking about quite precise terms in legislation. The amendment as drafted may not be the best way of dealing with this, but it was an attempt to address the point using current legislation. My noble friend also referred to empty dwelling management orders and, like her, I am concerned to know what the Government's intentions may be on the future of those orders, which are much underused. However, it seems that the Government are not very enthusiastic about them; they are of course a matter for local authorities.

Because of the time, I do not want to rehearse all the arguments that others have made fully, some of which I alluded to last time. However, I would like to ask about guidance to be issued regarding the new offence. Section 7 of the 1977 Act is, as we know, in force and I do not think there is any guidance regarding that. It is wider than this clause, as I understand it, because it covers ancillary land, and that answers the point about the necessity for this clause. I will not go further into that now, but how are the police and the CPS to choose which route to go and which section to use? We have just heard about ACPO's response and its views, and I understand that the Government always issue guidance about a new offence. The guidance this time would need to go further, because it needs to be retrospective.

Finally, there is the question of commencement. In her Amendment 41, my noble friend has proposed that the section should,

"not come into force until", there has been consultation with,

"representatives of local authorities and"- using language to which we have become accustomed over the years-"such other persons as" are considered "appropriate". The term consultation here really does mean consultation. It does not mean just a period of grace or formality, because the consultees proposed in Amendment 41 are those who know the position on the ground. They know about the availability of conventional housing. To come back to the point from which I started, this is about housing supply and homelessness.