Codes of practice

Homelessness Reduction Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 11th January 2017.

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Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government) 10:30 am, 11th January 2017

I beg to move amendment 13, in clause 11, page 17, line 20, at end insert—

‘(3A) The Secretary of State may issue a code of practice under this section only in accordance with subsections (3B) and (3C).

(3B) Before issuing the code of practice, the Secretary of State must lay a draft of the code before Parliament.

(3C) If—

(a) the Secretary of State lays a draft of the code before Parliament, and

(b) no negative resolution is made within the 40-day period, the Secretary of State may issue the code in the form of the draft.

(3D) For the purposes of subsection (3C)—

(a) a “negative resolution” means a resolution of either House of Parliament not to approve the draft of the code, and

(b) “the 40-day period” means the period of 40 days beginning with the day on which the draft of the code is laid before Parliament (or, if it is not laid before each House of Parliament on the same day, the later of the two days on which it is laid).

(3E) In calculating the 40-day period, no account is to be taken of any period during which—

(a) Parliament is dissolved or prorogued, or

(b) both Houses are adjourned for more than four days.”

This amendment provides that a code of practice under new section 214A of the Housing Act 1996 inserted by clause 11 must be laid before Parliament before being issued and that the code may not be issued if either House of Parliament resolves not to approve the code within the period of 40 days from the day it is laid.

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment 14, in clause 11, page 17, line 24, at end insert—

‘( ) Subsections (3A) to (3C) do not apply to the reissue of a code of practice under this section.”

This amendment clarifies that the procedure for issuing a code of practice inserted by amendment 13 does not apply to the reissue of a code.

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

I recognise that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East and other Members will wish to see and consider draft codes of practice before they are introduced. That is why I have tabled amendments 13 and 14, which require that a draft code of practice be subject to the negative procedure. Amendment 13 provides for that procedure to apply. Amendment 14 clarifies that the procedure for issuing a code of practice that amendment 13 inserts does not apply to reissuing a code. I hope that the Committee will accept both amendments.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

We are talking about the implementation of what we all want to achieve. The codes of practice are obviously important and the amendments set out that the statutory instrument will be subject to the negative procedure.

It is important to reflect on the concerns expressed in the Communities and Local Government Committee. For example, the London Borough of Wandsworth is concerned about the codes of practice being so woolly as to be meaningless or being so prescriptive as to be unworkable. We need to ensure the codes of practice are the focused tools that we want them to be and are based on collaboration and co-operation, so that they are not seen simply to impose a diktat or central command.

As we know, once a statutory instrument is before Parliament, particularly with the negative procedure, there is very little we can do to scrutinise it. Indeed, at an earlier stage, during the formal processes of consultation that will take place and eventually lead to the instrument’s being laid before Parliament, it will probably be too late, in many ways, to achieve the co-operation and collaboration that local authorities have suggested.

Shelter raised in the Select Committee the need for proper co-operation. Indeed, Salford has suggested a co-production and oversight of codes of practice, which I suggest should happen way before the formal process under amendments 13 and 14 and the formal consultation process that normally applies to statutory instruments. Will the Minister assure us that there will be the collaboration and consensus we see in the Welsh example, which we often pray in aid? The point is that it was a cultural change as much as an administrative one. That cultural change was about a consensual and collaborative approach that we have seen in this Committee and during the passage of the Bill. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East for the way he has enabled that to happen. It is important that that continues into the implementation, not least of these very important tools, the codes of practice.

I seek assurance from the Minister that that approach is part of the process set out in amendments 13 and 14, because plainly when the statutory instrument comes before Parliament we might ask questions about co-operation and consultation but it will be too late. I look forward to the Minister’s response. Perhaps he could also tell us whether the assurance on compliance will form part of the statutory instruments. It is one thing to get a code of practice out there but another to ensure appropriate monitoring of local authorities that are not complying, with consequences for inaction.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

I want to reinforce those points. The code of practice is important as something to which local authorities can properly refer. We know from the Select Committee report that when housing charities undertook mystery shopping in local authorities they found extraordinary variation in practice.

We know there is very good practice and that local authorities are working under extraordinary stress, with staff on the frontline invariably seeking to do their best. At the same time, under the sheer scale of housing pressure, especially in high needs areas, hon. Members will know from their own experience with homeless households and the charities’ work on mystery shopping that there are also examples of very poor practice.

Individuals have told me, quite plausibly, some of the things they have been told in a harsh gatekeeping environment. They have been told that if they make a homelessness application they will be sent to another local authority, sent out of London or, in some cases, have their children taken into care. They have been told that it would be better for them not to make a homelessness application because it would be easier to house them outside the legislation, even though that is not what they want. We know there are examples of such poor practice.

I know that local authorities are anxious to ensure that a code of practice is of use. None the less, it is important that we have an opportunity to scrutinise that code of practice and are able to satisfy ourselves that it will be valuable, sharp and focused. I hope the Minister will be able to give us that assurance.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I welcome the Minister’s amendments. When we come to discuss the codes of practice in full I will have much more to say. The key point is that any proposed code of practice will be subject, I trust, to full consultation with all public bodies before being laid before Parliament. It will then be subject to negative procedure, which means that Members of Parliament will be able to scrutinise the final outcome of the deliberations following that consultation. That will allow us to implement the code.

As the hon. Member for Westminster North and my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate pointed out, local authorities will want to have their say and ensure that the codes of practice are clear, not woolly or over-prescriptive. We will then be in a position to get the results we desire rather than implementing something that will not work.

The other point is that the provision does not apply to the reissue of any codes. If the Minister or the Secretary of State believes that things are not working, action can be taken more quickly, which is to be welcomed. I welcome the amendments and trust that we can agree to them.

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

Hon. Members have made very good points. We all believe that the Bill is a good tool for enabling culture change, and that it will drive different thinking and different behaviour among local authorities. We have heard from the various charities that have done mystery shopper exercises. The Bill has been driven by a concern about the need for more consistency in how the current legislation and statutory guidance are implemented locally and how assistance is received by people who go to a local authority for it.

The clause is very much a process whereby we will enable further parliamentary scrutiny of the decisions that the Secretary of State will make on creating and bringing into force codes of practice. There is obviously the issue of reissuing guidance, or reissuing under the code of practice things that are already dealt with in guidance. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East said, that will sometimes need to be done quickly and, therefore, the procedure will not apply. If we see that local authorities are not responding properly to the guidance that is currently issued, we will be able to beef up our approach quickly if necessary.

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

The Minister’s proposal is very welcome. Thinking off the top of my head, almost, I am wondering whether, given that we have been setting precedents in our approach to this legislation and subject, there might be a role for the Select Committee to have a brief hearing on the draft code of practice to consider whether it really does deal with the problems that the Committee has identified.

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

That is certainly an innovative suggestion, which I would need to take away and think about further. However, I see where the hon. Gentleman is coming from. I accept that we have dealt with the Bill very much in the spirit of co-operation, as we want to get the right outcome for the people we all represent. I have heard what the hon. Gentleman said, and I will take it into account.

On other codes of practice that may stem from the changes made by the Bill and other statutory guidance that is issued, it is extremely important that we enable parliamentary colleagues to be consulted on measures in the code of guidance. Although the measures will not be voted on as such, there will be a procedure whereby Members can bring a debate to the House and potentially pray against any code of guidance that they did not think was right. However, given the spirit in which we have approached this matter, rather than taking safeguards away, in most cases we would look to add further safeguards to help people. I therefore hope hon. Members are reassured that this is a positive tool with which we can enhance the situation for the people that we are trying to help through the Bill.

Amendment 13 agreed to.

Amendment made: 14, in clause 11, page 17, line 24, at end insert—

“( ) Subsections (3A) to (3C) do not apply to the reissue of a code of practice under this section.” —

This amendment clarifies that the procedure for issuing a code of practice inserted by amendment 13 does not apply to the reissue of a code.

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

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I support clause 11, which will allow the Secretary of State to introduce statutory codes of practice that provide guidance on how local authorities should deliver their duties relating to homelessness and homelessness prevention. When the Communities and Local Government Committee investigated homelessness, we heard repeatedly that the quality of service provided to non-vulnerable households, if a service is provided at all, is completely inconsistent across the board. It is a complete postcode lottery.

Clearly, the Bill’s intention is to change not only the law but the culture of local authorities. In the Select Committee’s evidence sessions and in private hearings that I attended in preparation for the Bill, I heard about individuals repeatedly meeting dismissive and discriminatory treatment when seeking support for their housing needs. Members who had the chance to have a look at that video before Christmas will remember that it demonstrates that this is a wide-ranging problem across a number of local authorities. The Select Committee has called for a code of practice that

“outlines clearly the levels of service that local authorities must provide and encourages regular training of staff to ensure a sympathetic and sensitive service. Services should put users first with a compassionate approach that gives individuals an element of choice and autonomy.”

It is important that we do not stifle local authorities that are coming up with innovative schemes. I would be the last person to want to prevent such schemes, but I do not believe that this measure will do that. I am keen to ensure that services are compassionate, fair and open and work well with other services. I believe that codes of practice will effectively give the Government a stick, so that they can impose prescriptive measures on local authorities that are not acting in the spirit of the Bill. That will help with improving standards and sharing best practice across the country, which is what we all want. Everyone should experience the best standard of help rather than the minimum.

I have seen elements of good practice throughout the country that we do not want to stifle. Equally, Government and Opposition Members will have seen local authorities that failed to help people who are homeless through no fault of their own. Under clause 11, the codes of practice—there may be more than one—will not come into operation on the day on which the Act is passed, but guidance will be issued with a statutory basis, so that local authorities know what they are supposed to do.

We already know that many local authorities are currently ignoring some of their legal responsibilities. Ensuring that clause 11 stands part of the Bill will mean that local authorities are put on notice that if they come up to the standard of the best, the Secretary of State will not need to take any action, but that if they fail to do that, a code of practice could follow quite quickly, to force them to do what we all want them to do.

This legislation comes 40 years after the previous legislation that dealt with these problems. We do not get the chance to change legislation very often, so I am very keen on this provision, because we should not have to wait another 40 years. We have a hook that gives the Secretary of State an opportunity to introduce and change codes of practice, so that we can ensure that best practice is shared and that local authorities come up to the standard of the best.

The measure plays an important role not only in ensuring that, after the Bill becomes law, local authorities will change their culture and way of operation, but in giving us an opportunity as Members of Parliament to make sure that the Secretary of State, whoever he or she may be, can introduce further measures to ensure that the best standards are implemented right across the board.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

As I indicated in responding to the Minister’s amendments, I, too, welcome this approach. I very much want to see a culture change in local authorities. The examples of gatekeeping that I referred to were applied to people in priority need. These are people who really should be navigated through the system because they have children, have disabilities, are elderly or have severe health problems. Even in those circumstances there are examples of gatekeeping that is so harsh that those people are effectively turned away or deterred from making an application.

On non-priority groups—the type of groups for which the Bill is particularly keen to see some form of service provided—we know that even some best practice involves little more than giving somebody a list of telephone numbers and telling them that they may be able to access accommodation in a hostel. My own local authority has a bundle of papers that runs to 40 or 50-plus pages of phone numbers. I have spent some afternoons doing my own mystery shopping, sitting and ringing the phone numbers, trying to find out whether they exist or will take people on benefits and so forth. I find, almost invariably, that someone will spend hours, and a lot of money, on a telephone, not being able to get through. We absolutely know that the gatekeeping process is very harsh, and sometimes even worse, because of the nature of the experience that an individual will have when they are in a housing option service. Local authorities need to work within statutory guidance and do not always do that.

The critical point for me is accountability. We need to have a form of measuring what local authorities are doing and a way to hold them to account. That should not be excessively bureaucratic—we do not want to add too much to the monitoring workload of already very stressed local authorities—but we cannot measure the success of the code of practice and the way that the cultural element of the Bill is working just through another mystery shopper operation later and by anecdotal evidence from charities or from our own casework.

At the absolute minimum, local authorities should provide a written statement of the advice and options that they give to everybody in non-priority need, which those people could then take away to whatever advocacy and representation they can access in this post-Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 world—some of it is still there—and which would demonstrate to that outside organisation, whether it is a councillor, a Member of Parliament or a charity, what the local authority has said is available and the advice that the local authority has given to that person. That would not be a set of actions that they have to take, but a summary of what the local authority is going to be able to do.

I do not know whether the Minister will commit to that, but we need a means of holding local authority performance to account, in a simple and consistent way that applies to Wandsworth, Hull, Blackpool and everywhere in the country. If we do not have that, further down the line we will find that there is good practice and some cultural change on the back of the Bill, but if all the other pressures continue to mount—we know further cuts in housing benefit are coming down the line, there is a pressure on affordability and a continuing crisis in housing supply—we will find that, despite the best efforts, we will end up with a number of very vulnerable individuals still not receiving consistent advice. There will be a need for the code of practice further down the line, but ideally we do not want to have that. We want to make sure that the Bill’s provisions are implemented from day one. We need to know how we can measure that and hold local authorities to account.

The Minister mentioned earlier that where there were examples of local authorities not employing best practice, he would “beef up” his response. I am not quite sure what beef up means in this context. It would be helpful to turn that into something in language that we can understand and monitor. Will the Minister tell us a little bit more about what will happen to local authorities if they are judged as such down the line—as I think some will be, even if the best of all outcomes is achieved—and what he will do to those authorities to make sure that best practice is adhered to?

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

I rise to support clause 11. As discussed, it seeks to create a basic standard in the form of a code of practice. That will ensure that local housing authorities have guidance on how to deliver homelessness prevention functions. The guidance will offer councils a reference to check against, to ensure that the level of service offered is equal to the best currently seen in the UK.

The clause speaks to the essence of what we have been talking about over the last few weeks. Up and down the country, services are being provided at a different level. Those people who are deemed vulnerable but not in priority need are often those who fall between the gaps and do not receive the service that they should. We have all agreed on that, which is why the clause is so important: it seeks to ensure that those people receive the best service throughout the UK, and indeed, to end the existing postcode lottery.

In many ways, the clause is not only about improving and equalising services, but about giving local housing authorities more guidance and steering—although it will not replace the existing code of guidance. It will enable the Secretary of State and all of us to raise the standards of homelessness support services across the country, so that the minimum level of service—equal to what is currently the best—is delivered. That minimum level will be one of the Bill’s supreme achievements.

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Labour, Dulwich and West Norwood

I, too, support the introduction of a code of practice. Does the hon. Lady agree that the capacity of local authorities to implement good practice depends not only on a code of practice, but on the resourcing they need to deliver a meaningful service? If so, does she therefore, with me, await with eager anticipation the Government’s committing to properly resourcing local authorities to implement meaningful support for homeless people?

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

The entirety of the Bill depends on resource, which is why it is crucial that the Government have already dedicated and allocated funds to it. It is important to remember that some councils are currently offering this level of service; if one council can do it, surely it is only right that every council should do it. It is also wrong that a postcode lottery exists in the UK, and that taxpayers paying the same tax throughout the country experience a different level of service from one another.

It is also crucial to consult and work with stakeholders to develop the code of practice. The clause seeks to equalise standards, as well as to ensure joined-up and collaborative working, and I therefore support it.

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

The Government support the clause and welcome the opportunity to ensure that the quality of homelessness prevention and relief support that people can access is improved across the country. We know that local circumstances differ, and therefore that local solutions and approaches will sometimes differ, but we want to make sure that service provision is fairer for everyone.

We believe that this approach, if and where required, will allow us to give local housing authorities greater clarity, alongside targeted guidance, to spread best practice and raise overall standards. That will sit well alongside the work the Government have already put in place to raise standards in local authority homelessness services—for example, with the launch of the Homelessness Prevention Trailblazers programme, which will share £20 million of funding in areas across the country that are best able to innovate and deliver a significant shift towards greater preventive activity.

The aim is to help encourage innovation and drive the cultural change that we want, putting prevention at the core of activity and building on the work of the best local authorities. We will work with local authorities to keep practice and standards across local authorities in England under review, and to identify strong examples of best practice. When deciding where a code of practice is required, we will look at evidence on whether local authorities are raising service standards via other non-legislative means. Where it is clear that, despite all other endeavours, standards have not been raised to an acceptable level, we will consider whether further improvements can be driven through such a code.

Where a code of practice is required, we believe strongly that it must be developed in consultation with local government. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East mentioned that. We will work closely with local authorities in that sense to develop any codes of practice to ensure that they are realistic, fair and built on consensus. As I said, my amendment will ensure that any new code will be laid before Parliament and subject to the negative resolution procedure. It is also worth clarifying that we do not see codes of practice as completely replacing the current code of guidance, which has a vital role in guiding the activity of local service delivery every day. We will be reviewing the code of guidance to incorporate the changes arising from the Bill. Any codes of practice will be complementary to that core document.

The hon. Member for Westminster North mentioned maintaining gatekeeping best practice. As we have discussed, a number of key provisions in the Bill allow people to get help earlier, but we are taking wider measures. I mentioned the prevention trailblazers, and we are reviewing how data are collected. As she said, it has often been the case that we know where things are going wrong because surveys have been done by charities and so on and so forth. We want to have a better method of data collection so that we, and particularly local authorities, have a far better idea of the people at whom they need to aim their help. We want more data transparency. As I mentioned, we are putting in place an expert adviser team to work directly with local authority areas. We will be looking through that to see exactly what a local authority’s strategy is so that we can get assurances that local authorities are doing the things that we want them to do. On that basis, I will end my remarks by saying that the Government fully support clause 11.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 11, as amended, accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 12