The clause and amendments go to the heart of the dilemma that talked about last week in clause 2. Almost everyone on the Committee supports the intentions of the Bill and the extension of the duties to local authorities, but that poses a substantial question about the additional burden and cost placed on local authorities. We continue to wait with bated breath for the Minister’s pronouncements on finance that we were promised for the Committee stage.
My amendments are probing—I do not intend to press them to a vote—because at the end of the day having a review provision in the Bill is right. I am sure Committee members have read the briefings we have had from London Councils and the LGA. London Councils estimates at least four additional stages for which a review might be requested. The very helpful explanatory notes to the Bill give eight examples of circumstances in which a decision may be reviewed.
Review decisions have become something of an art in local authorities. Highly experienced housing officers seem to spend their entire lives constantly writing reviews of homelessness decisions. In many cases, the decisions were thorough and proper—they have to be, one reason being that they are subject to review by the county court. Additional resources and staff are likely to be needed by local authorities not only internally, but because of a lot more proceedings in the extremely overstretched county courts, which already have substantial waiting lists for hearings.
There are two examples in the briefings. The group of east London authorities estimates that review processes will cost an additional £4 million a year. Swindon Borough Council estimates that it will need to employ two to three officers in addition to the existing seven employed in its homelessness section. These are substantial resources for individual authorities, but spread across the country they would be a huge additional burden.
I hope to keep my comments uncharacteristically short on amendments because the Government have an opportunity to show that they have thought about the consequences of the Bill. The debate on Second Reading showed that we have largely discussed and agreed the principles of the Bill and the additional duties.
We want to know how the Bill will work. This is a good example of where the Government can show that they have already thought about it. When I talk to my local authority and others, particularly in London where pressures are highest, there is huge concern they will be overwhelmed when the Bill is enacted. In many cases, having cut their budgets by about 50%, they simply do not have the resources to deal with the provisions.
I rise briefly to echo the points made by my hon. Friend on the review process. This is potentially life-changing. A review is important because it could be the difference between an individual and a family having a prospect of security in their housing conditions or being left to fend for themselves despite their vulnerability. It is essential that local authorities ensure that there is a proper review process at every stage. I support the principles of the Bill in ensuring that, with the additional duties and expectations it introduces, there is capacity for review at every stage of the process. However, as my hon. Friend said, it is critical that that process is properly supported and resourced.
I would like to know from the Minister what estimates his Department has made of the additional number of reviews that are expected in different local authorities. We know that the burden of responsibility will fall particularly heavily on London local authorities and those on the front line. What expectations does the Minister have of the additional costs? If those costs are not fully funded by local authorities, one disturbing consequence will be that the review process will be delayed.
I am sure I am not alone as an MP in frequently dealing with very distressed constituents who come to me saying that they have come to the end of the review process only for the local authority to ask for additional time, leaving them in emergency accommodation in very unhappy circumstances and often huge psychological distress. It is very important that we do not allow that to happen.
Finally, as my hon. Friend said, the Bill has to be seen in the context of an unprecedented squeeze specifically on funding for housing services in local authorities. Shelter has estimated that housing services—not the provision of housing; just the administration of housing services in local government—have fallen by 8% in the past year alone and by almost a quarter since 2010. That is a bigger single reduction than in any other area of local authority services. We all support the Bill, but it is absolutely incumbent on the Minister and Department to recognise that point, ensure that the resource implications are spelled out and understood by the Committee, and make a commitment to full funding.
I disagree with the amendment because the review process is important to give everyone a voice and ensure a fair and transparent service. It is therefore vital that the process is extended to cover all relevant decisions that can affect an applicant’s journey under the new duties. I disagree with the amendment because it would remove protections from the applicant.
The amendments would remove the statutory right of review in two instances. First, it would remove a person’s right to review
“any decision of a local housing authority…as to the steps they are to take under subsection (2) of section 189B”.
Those steps are the reasonable steps the authority must take to help to secure accommodation. Secondly, the amendments would remove a person’s right to review
“any decision of a local housing authority…as to the steps they are to take under subsection (2) of section 195”,
which comes from the fact that the authority
“shall take reasonable steps to secure that accommodation does not cease to be available”.
I understand that there might be a resource implication, but it is extremely important that vulnerable people get the right review processes so that they can get accommodation under the Bill.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I understand the need to streamline in local authorities or local housing authorities, but the amendments would be counterproductive and would take away some of the protections afforded to people. From my time as a local authority leader and from cases I see in my constituency, I know that people value the ability to challenge decisions. The provisions under clause 9 help with that, so I am pleased that the hon. Member for Hammersmith will not press the amendments to a vote.
The Government do not believe that amendments 9 and 10 will have the intended effect. Rather than streamlining the reviews process, the changes would simply remove protections for applicants. They would have the effect of removing an applicant’s right to request a review of the steps the local housing authority considers reasonable for it to take to help the applicant to retain or secure accommodation, which we would not seek to do. It is only right that applicants have the opportunity of redress.
We recognise the concerns that the review process has become difficult for some authorities, but we do not believe that cutting out safeguards for vulnerable people is the best answer. We will monitor the impact of the new duties on the levels of reviews, and we will work with stakeholders, including local housing authorities, to see what improvements can be made to the process.
Taking up the general point made by the hon. Members for Hammersmith and for Westminster North, we have worked with representative groups of authorities to understand the impact of the clause and have fed that back into the costs model. I can certainly say that this and other measures in the Bill will be funded. We are in the process of speaking to the LGA to discuss our final proposals. We also need to ensure that we have got things right in relation to clause 1.
I hope that that will be the case. I was heartened to hear that the hon. Member for Hammersmith does not propose to press the amendments to a Division. Understandably he wants to highlight the issue, but he also does not want to put something in the Bill that has the effect of taking away the rights of very vulnerable people.
We are developing a costs model around this and the other clauses in the Bill. We expect to be in a position to bring it to the Committee shortly. We need to clarify clause 1, as I have said, but after that I expect that the Committee will be able to see that we are funding this provision and other aspects of this important Bill.
I thank the hon. Member for Hammersmith and other Members for the brief debate we have had on these amendments. As the Minister and other colleagues said, the amendments would remove the right of review.
We should remember that local housing authorities will be dealing with a much greater volume of people whom they will have a duty to assist. Those people are extremely vulnerable. They have come into the local housing authority, probably for the first time, because they are either threatened with or suffering from homelessness. They are likely to agree to almost anything that the local authority says on first sight because they are in a position of seeking help and advice. When they go away with a plan put together with the local authority, they may discover after reading it and taking further advice that what is being offered is not reasonable. It would be quite wrong to remove their right to appeal and have the decisions taken about their case for help and assistance reviewed. I am sure that that is not the hon. Gentleman’s intention, but that would be the effect.
My hon. Friends on the Select Committee will know that during our inquiry, we took a great deal of evidence on that. Local housing authorities do not always do what they are supposed to do. They do not always adhere to everything expected of them—the mystery shopping exercises substantiated that during our inquiry. It is important therefore that reviews are possible for people who claim and need assistance from a local authority. That is why the reviews are spelled out loud and clear in the Bill. My concern is that the amendments would remove the protections for applicants.
I have every sympathy with the hon. Member for Westminster North in respect of potential delays. The Minister made an important commitment to monitor the process to ensure that we do not have review after review, and delay after delay, preventing people from securing accommodation. The resources provided to assist local authorities in delivering the duty are vital.
Does my hon. Friend agree that our current system often unintentionally exacerbates the problems for those who face homelessness? That is why it is so important we are careful with every amendment not to do the same thing. We are trying to rectify the situation.
As my hon. Friend says, the clear intention behind the Bill is to have a comprehensive strategy on dealing with homelessness and to reduce homelessness.
The aim is that no one ever becomes homeless. If they get help, advice and prevention measures from the local authority, they will not reach that terrible position. However, we know there are problems in local authorities at the moment and that many are not delivering what they are supposed to deliver. This group of amendments would remove the right of review, which is vital for vulnerable people. I trust that the hon. Member for Hammersmith, having heard the debate and the commitment from the Minister, will withdraw his amendment.
As I said, I have no intention of pressing the amendment to a vote. I hear what the Minister says, and I look forward to his proposals, but warm words are not good enough on this, wherever they come from.
I am the first to criticise local authorities when they fail in their duties, but I do not believe that most local authorities do so wilfully or because of a lack of concern. I do not believe that concern or compassion is any less among local councillors than among members of this Committee. The reason they are failing in their duties now is often inadequate resources. The reason they effectively ration their support for homeless people—which I am not defending, but this is a fact—is that they are rationing many of their services. It is irresponsible, in my view, for us to pass legislation that puts duties on other people without ensuring that those duties can be fulfilled. That is the point I will repeat as appropriate throughout our discussions on the Bill. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 3—Power to prescribe information—
‘The Secretary of State may in regulations prescribe the contents of a document which summarises the rights of a person under sections 202 or 204 of the 1996 Act and which must be given to an applicant by the local authority when the authority notifies the applicant of any matter under this Part.’
This new clause would enable the Secretary of State to produce a standard form, advising applicants of their rights at each stage of review and appeal. This would remove an administrative burden on local authorities and would also ensure that information is provided in a simple and accessible manner.
I will be brief because I think that we have dealt with the clause stand part debate. We all agree that if we are to give new duties to local authorities there has to be a power of review. New clause 3 is intended to be genuinely helpful, and I live in hope that, one day before I die, the Government will accept a clause that I table. It may be this one—who knows?
I say that because—this is not by any means unique to the Bill—housing legislation is littered with notices. An example would be, under clause 4, proposed new section 195(8), which says:
“A notice under this section must be given in writing” and so on. Rarely, but sometimes—it seems to be idiosyncratic—notices are to be in a prescribed form, and it is helpful to have notices in a prescribed form. I think of section 21 notices, which are perhaps one of the most widely used, or section 8 notices. To have a prescribed form is helpful to both the party issuing it and the party receiving it. That, in my submission, would make a small but significant contribution to alleviating the burden on local authorities, because things would be done in a clearer, more consistent and thorough manner, which would be clearer for the person on whom the notice is being served. That is the simple point, and I look forward to the Minister’s accepting the new clause.
I will speak first to clause stand part. The Government welcome the measure that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East proposes. We believe that it will encourage local authorities to deliver their new required services to the highest possible standard, ensuring that vulnerable people who require help because of homelessness get the support that they need. As my hon. Friend explained during the discussion on the amendments, this measure means that an applicant can request a review of the decisions made by the local housing authority when delivering its homelessness support services under the new duties in the Bill.
Elsewhere in the Bill, new prevention and relief duties for local housing authorities have been brought in to better support vulnerable people who are either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. The clause ensures that applicants can request that a review be carried out of the decisions taken by the local housing authority when undertaking those new duties. The measure does not amend the review process; it just extends which decisions are covered. We hope that this measure will encourage local housing authorities to deliver their new services effectively and to the highest standard. If they do not, there is a clear and transparent recourse process that applicants can follow.
New clause 3 would give the Secretary of State the power to prescribe a document summarising an applicant’s right to request a review for all relevant decisions taken by a local housing authority when discharging its homelessness duties and an applicant’s right to appeal to the county court on a point of law arising from any decision on the review. The authority would be required to supply a copy to applicants each time it is notified of anything relating to those rights and duties.
Although I understand that the new clause is intended to be helpful, local housing authorities are already required by law to inform applicants of their right to request a review of decisions and the guidance recommends that the procedure should be explained fully. In cases when the applicant has difficulty understanding their rights or the implications of any decision, it is also recommended that authorities arrange face to face support to understand the full picture. A prescribed document such as a standard letter or form would work against that flexibility and could result in an applicant failing to understand or exercise their rights.
In addition to this requirement under the existing legislation, clause 2 of the Bill, which is on the
“Duty to provide advisory services”,
states that each local housing authority in England must provide, among other things:
“information and advice on…the rights of persons who are homeless or threatened with homelessness, and the duties of the authority, under this Part”.
We will make it absolutely clear in guidance that this should include information on an applicant’s right to review.
We will certainly keep the guidance under review and address any concerns about the applicants’ ability to understand and exercise their rights. I hope that, given that reassurance, the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.
I trust that the hon. Member for Hammersmith will see from the Minister’s comments that new clause 3 is unnecessary. However, it is important that we consider the right to reviews in this process, because we are extending the homeless support services for people not only in priority need but across the range of homelessness, and the aim of the review process is to ensure that a fair and transparent service is offered to an applicant. It is crucial that that covers all the decisions that affect the applicant’s journey to seek and obtain support.
Currently, applicants have the right to request a review made by the local housing authority in relation to their homelessness case in specified circumstances, so it is important that clause 9 does not change the current review process but merely extends it to the new duties in this Bill. That will allow an applicant to request a review of specified decisions in the new prevention and relief duties in the Bill.
Specifically, with the decisions that can already be reviewed, individuals have the right to request a review when a housing authority decides: what steps it will take to help to prevent an applicant threatened with homelessness from becoming homeless, or to help an applicant to secure suitable accommodation; what duties are owed to all eligible persons who are homeless or threatened with homelessness; to end the duty to help to prevent an applicant who is threatened with homelessness from becoming homeless, or the duty to help to secure suitable accommodation when an applicant—this is a very important aspect of the review process—has “deliberately and unreasonably” refused to co-operate with the authority when exercising its prevention or relief functions, or to take up any agreed step in the personalised plan to prevent or relieve their homelessness, or to take any step that the authority considers reasonable and has recorded when no agreement could be reached; what duties are owed to such applicants, and the suitability of accommodation offered by way of a “final Part 6 offer” or a final accommodation office offer.
The key issue here is that this process raises the bar on reviews and on the position of applicants who “deliberately and unreasonably” refuse to co-operate. That is very important. This is a bit of tough love, if you like. An applicant can come in and seek help from a local authority, but if they just sit back with their arms folded and say, “You’ve got to find me somewhere to live” and actually take no action on their own part, then a local authority can say, not unreasonably, “Well, you’ve got to be part of this process as well”. It is important that applicants understand that duty but also that local authorities can end the responsibility if someone unreasonably and wilfully obstructs the process.
All other aspects of the current review process remain, including the right to appeal to the county court on a point of law if the applicant is dissatisfied with the initial decision. I trust that the hon. Gentleman understands that under those circumstances new clause 3 is unnecessary, because local housing authorities already have to inform applicants of their right to request a review. I therefore hope that he will not press new clause 3.