Duties to help to secure accommodation

Homelessness Reduction Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 14th December 2016.

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

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

This relatively brief clause was introduced to add clarity and assist with the efficient functioning of the homelessness prevention and relief duties. It ensures that the requirements that the housing authority must meet when it secures accommodation itself do not apply when it takes steps to help an applicant to secure accommodation. This is about efficiency and providing flexibility to applicants.

This short clause is particularly important for a number of reasons. Let us consider a typical scenario: a household has been unable to find accommodation because it cannot afford the rent deposit. That is often a problem, particularly in areas of London. The household approaches the local authority, which assesses its situation and sees that the single barrier is the deposit. The reasonable step is for the authority to provide that deposit.

Without the “help to secure” duty in clause 4, and without clause 6, which disapplies certain requirements, the authority would need to find accommodation for the household, and that takes time and resource. Therefore, as soon as the authority finds a suitable property, it will offer it to the household. It is likely to be the first property that it finds, and it might not necessarily be in the exact location that the household wants. The household may not have had any difficulty in finding accommodation. Therefore, the time and resource spent on looking for a home could have been better spent on helping another household. That relates to some of the issues that we have already discussed, including the provision of education, employment and health. Clearly, that is also part and parcel of the duty of the applicant, who must take action, not just sit back and wait for it to be done by the local authority.

Under clause 6, as well as clauses 4 and 5, the authority could make an assessment and provide the deposit but, importantly, let the household find its own accommodation when it is capable of doing so. That frees up the authority’s time to help someone else who may be more vulnerable and not able to secure their own accommodation. It also means that the household has a choice over where it lives and what sort of accommodation it lives in. The clause is essentially an “avoidance of doubt” provision. It ensures more flexibility by making clear that various requirements of section 205 of the Housing Act 1996 are appropriate when a local housing authority is securing accommodation itself, but not when it is helping to secure accommodation under the relief duty or the prevention duty.

When authorities carry out their prevention work they do not generally need to take account of those requirements, because the household usually sources its own accommodation. Under the clause, the requirements will apply only when the local housing authority secures accommodation.

Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson Conservative, Mid Dorset and North Poole 11:00 am, 14th December 2016

I was scratching my head when I first read the clause—perhaps it was too late at night. My hon. Friend said that, although the clause is short, it is none the less important. I looked again at section 205 in part 7 of the 1996 Act to ensure that I was reading it correctly. If what I am told is right, the clause will help single homeless people in particular; we often meet them in our surgeries and they are more likely to be street homeless, as is the case in Poole. However, I cannot fathom out how on earth the clause helps that category of people. Have I misunderstood? Will my hon. Friend enlighten me?

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

Let me try to enlighten my hon. Friend. The aim, as I have explained, is to provide flexibility so that if a household is able to secure its own accommodation—this might be part of a plan that has been put together—it can do so and then return to the local authority if, for example, the deposit is an issue. The local authority can then say, “Fine. We can deal with the deposit. Thank you very much. Off you go.” For someone who is more vulnerable and requires the local authority to identify housing for them, clearly that is a different issue, because they will need more help and advice. The local authority will then secure accommodation for the individuals affected.

The clause aims to ensure that local housing authorities have the flexibility they need and that applicants can secure accommodation and then return to the local authority and say, “We have found somewhere.” The local authority cannot then turn around and say, “We don’t want you to go there; we want you to go here.” The clause provides flexibility ultimately to protect the applicants, which is key. It will also help the local authority to avoid potential conflict when applicants are, not unreasonably, acting to help themselves. We do not want people to sit back and wait for the local authority to do it for them; we want them to get on, do it for themselves and get help and advice from the local authority. That is what we want the Bill to achieve.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Conservative, Colchester

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Does he agree that the measures are about empowering those who find themselves in that position? I suggest that they do not want to appear as victims reliant on state handouts. They want empowerment to get their lives back in order. If they are making those decisions, that will be best for all involved.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

During the Select Committee inquiry, several witnesses made clear that they were happy to approach the local authority to get help and advice and then take action. The problem that they experienced at first was not getting the help and advice from the local authority. Many individuals were homeless for the first time and were shocked at not knowing what to do and how to do it. If the local authority were to act as a one-stop shop and point them in the right direction, they would be perfectly able to secure accommodation. They just want that extra assistance. We do not want to bind the hands of people who are perfectly capable of looking after themselves but just need that extra help and advice, given that they face a major crisis in their lives.

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

In an area with high demand where properties are snapped up quickly, a family might want to move to a certain property. If they have to go back to the local authority for it to inspect the property, that would cause delay and the property might be taken by somebody else in the interim. Is that not the type of situation we are trying to avoid?

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

Indeed. We will come later to the duty of the local authority to inspect properties. This is a sensible change that would mean that local authorities could work much more efficiently and households would have more choice over where they live. That is often a key demand. In our surgeries, people often say that local authorities are making offers of properties in completely unreasonable locations. This measure would give applicants far more control over their future lives. I trust that we can agree to the clause and move on.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Housing)

I was not going to speak to the clause, but I will do so briefly because the debate has taken a slightly surreal turn. My reading of the clause is exactly the opposite to that of the hon. Gentleman.

The picture painted by some of the interventions is that non-priority homeless people are taking their pick of attractive properties in the area and may be competing with others or people who are not in the same market, and that local authorities might intervene with some bureaucratic procedure to stop them doing that.

My reading of the clause is that if somebody goes to a local authority with a duty under clause 5, it is much less restricted in how it can discharge that duty than would be the case for priority homeless people. That is why Shelter has asked for it to be made clear that this should be suitable accommodation under the 2012 homelessness regulations.

It would be wrong of me to oppose the clause. As I said in my remarks on clause 5, the onerous additional burdens placed on local authorities are likely to lead to their duty towards priority homeless people being subverted by the new duties. However, we should go into these matters with our eyes open. It will not be the applicant but the local authority that will be given a greater degree of flexibility. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is correct that this will be less bureaucratic and more effective, but to paint a picture that it somehow gives the keys to the housing market to those who come to local authorities with such a degree of need is, at best, wishful thinking.

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

Clause 6 adds clarity to the homelessness prevention and relief duties. It ensures that the requirements that a local housing authority must meet when securing accommodation for applicants itself do not apply when it takes steps to help to secure accommodation. That common sense change means that authorities can work more efficiently and can direct resources to where they are needed most, and that households get the help they need while retaining their ability to make their own choices about where they live. The Government are therefore happy to support the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 6 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 10