Duty to assess all eligible applicants’ cases and agree a plan

Homelessness Reduction Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 am on 7th December 2016.

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Amendment proposed (30 November): 1, in clause 3, page 4, line 44, leave out from “particular” to the end of the paragraph and insert—

“(i) what accommodation would be suitable for the applicant and any persons with whom the applicant resides or might reasonably be expected to reside (“other relevant persons”);

(ii) the schooling arrangements for the children of the applicant and of the other relevant persons;

(iii) caring provided to or by the applicant and the other relevant persons; and

(iv) the location and natures of the employment of the applicant and the other relevant persons”.— (Mr Betts.)

This amendment would ensure that the assessment of an applicant’s case takes account not only of suitable accommodation for the applicant and those residing with the applicant but also their schooling, caring and work arrangements.

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:

Amendment 3, in clause 3, page 5, line 2, leave out “and”.

See amendment 4.

Amendment 4, in clause 3, page 5, line 5, at end insert—

“(d) what other support the applicant is or may be entitled to from any public authority under any other enactment.”

These amendments would ensure that, when assessing a case, the local authority must consider any other duties which might be owed, whether by it or by another authority, for example a care-leaver who has applied as homeless may be owed additional obligations under the leaving care provisions of the Children Act 1989.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

At the last sitting, I talked about amendment 1 and how it was important, when local authorities made an offer of housing accommodation, to have regard to the location of that accommodation in respect of the household’s employment, caring responsibilities, schooling arrangements and so on. I said it was important to ensure that the code of guidance was implemented and I sought unanimity across the Committee on that matter.

Since then, the Minister helpfully requested a meeting with me and the hon. Member for Harrow East. We talked about what was in the code of guidance and I accept that there are probably more things in there than in my amendment. The problem is that many local authorities are not having proper regard to that and are not carrying out their responsibilities in the way we would like.

I am sure the Minister will confirm that he has now indicated that once the Bill is enacted, he will write to all local authorities to draw attention not merely to the new elements of responsibility they will have under the Act, but to existing responsibilities under previous legislation and the code of guidance. He will ask them to come forward with a strategy to deal with homelessness. He will work with the Local Government Association to try to get some model wording for the advice that local authorities will offer to those presenting themselves as homeless, including on suitability and appropriate location of a property, that a local authority should have regard to.

The Minister will ask authorities to reply to him indicating their strategy and the wording in their advice. He will then have staff available to go into those local authorities where he has concerns that they might not be following that through. I think that is a summary of our conversation, but I would be happy for the Minister to confirm that on the record. In that case, I would not press my amendment and would be happy to move on with our discussions.

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

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the constructive conversation that we had following last week’s Committee sitting. I am pleased that he recognises that local housing authorities must already have regard to the significance of any disruption that would be caused by the location of the accommodation to the employment, caring responsibilities or education of the person or members of the person’s household, under article 2 of the Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) (England) Order 2012.

I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman on the successful implementation of the Bill. As he said, that will include working with the sector on the code of guidance and on the co-production of templates for personalised plans on this and other elements of the Bill; re-emphasising to local authorities the importance of complying with the suitability order; and taking the further steps that he has just mentioned.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

Will the Minister assure me that, within the code of guidance and his follow-up to ensure that local authorities are implanting it, due regard will be given particularly to the most vulnerable children with special needs? I say that because only this week I dealt with a case—one on review—where a family with a severely disabled child attending a special school in central London had been placed by Westminster Council in Essex, requiring the parents to get up at 5 in the morning and commute for five hours a day. That child has now been in that situation for many months—

Order. Minister.

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

I hear what the hon. Lady says. We are saying that the suitability of accommodation order should be followed. We are determined that we want that to be followed and, therefore, will reiterate that in guidance. We will take the steps mentioned by the hon. Member for Sheffield South East to ensure that local authorities are complying with the law.

That brings the discussion of this matter to a conclusion. I thank the Minister for his reassurance and for taking the significant initiative of having that conversation ahead of this sitting to try to get agreement. Not all Ministers behave in that way, so when they do we should respect it and have proper regard for it, because that is how things should be done. I very much thank the Minister for that, and I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East for joining that discussion. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I thank hon. Members for the amendments they have tabled and for the debate we have had. I reiterate to the hon. Member for Sheffield South East that we are not talking about mere guidance; local authorities will be ordered to take into account matters of education and employment, and the other aspects he mentioned. We wish to proceed in this Committee by consensus and discussion. If we can agree on that, it is going to help considerably.

Clause 3 will require local housing authorities to carry out an assessment for all cases in which an applicant is homeless or threatened with homelessness. The housing authority will have to look at the circumstances that caused the person to become homeless, or that threatened them with homelessness, which will be specific to that person, and it will have to look at the person’s housing and support needs.

Following the assessment, the authority must work with the applicant to agree what steps need to be taken by the applicant to secure and retain suitable accommodation, and what steps need to be taken by the authority to help them. The steps must be notified to the applicant in writing, in the form of an agreed plan, which will mean that applicants will be clear on what steps they, as well as the local authority, need to take to get accommodation.

There may be circumstances in which agreement cannot be reached. If that is the case, the local authority must record the reasons why and provide the applicant with a written copy of them that also contains the steps that the authority will take and those that it thinks it would be reasonable for the applicant to take.

The clause has been included in the Bill because local housing authorities are not currently required to assess the circumstances that have caused an applicant to become homeless or to be threatened with homelessness. That can lead to vital information about the applicant’s circumstances being missed, which in turn causes them extra difficulties. By asking applicants for more information about what happened to make them homeless or led to their being threatened with homelessness, a potential solution should be identified.

A more personalised approach will definitely help local housing authorities to get it right first time and prevent people from becoming homeless. The tailored approach will help the applicant and the housing authority to understand the actions that have to be taken and the responsibilities on both sides. The clear intention is to help both the housing authority and households to become more effective in preventing and alleviating homelessness, thereby diverting more households from the crisis point.

I have sympathy with the desire of the hon. Members for Westminster North and for Sheffield South East to ensure that the consideration of specific issues relating to education, employment, health and other matters is spelled out. Only this past weekend, a constituent’s case was related to me. The husband is undergoing knee surgery at a local hospital, the three children are in local Harrow schools, and both the mother and father of the children are employed locally. Harrow Council has offered them a place in Wolverhampton, so it is clear that the existing order is not being enforced correctly. I welcome the Minister’s commitment to making sure that local authorities understand and implement their duties. With that, I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 8