Deliberate and unreasonable refusal to co-operate: duty upon giving of notice

Homelessness Reduction Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 18th January 2017.

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

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

As the Committee knows, we reordered the business because we anticipated amendments being tabled to this key clause. It is clear, however, that we do not have any amendments to discuss today. I know that many of us will be disappointed by that, and I want to update the Committee on the situation and the reasons why we have reached this position.

In our last sitting before Christmas, I reported that we had discovered a technical problem with clause 7 —specifically, that the clause was drafted too widely. At that time, we believed that a simple amendment would resolve the issue, tightening up the circumstances in which the provisions of the clause could be triggered. However, when drafting the amendments and the consequential amendments to other parts of the Bill, the local government sector and the charities that work day-to-day with homeless people—namely Shelter and Crisis—identified further issues with how the prevention and relief duties would be ended should an applicant refuse an offer of suitable accommodation. That is obviously a key part of how the Bill will work in incentivising applicants to work co-operatively with local housing authorities. If it did not work correctly, there would be a very real risk that the Bill would create an unacceptable new burden on local housing authorities and would fail to achieve the policy objectives.

I have been working with my hon. Friend the Minister and with Shelter, Crisis and the Local Government Association to address the issues that have been identified. The priority has been to ensure that we maintain protections for all applicants who co-operate with the new duties. That has involved working through the complex relationship between the Bill and the existing legal framework to ensure that the protections for those in priority need are not affected unacceptably. We want no reductions in how priority need households are assisted. We want to make it clear to new applicants that we are providing help and assistance, but it is not a one-way street.

We are now exploring potential solutions and hope to be in a position to resolve the situation on Report, with amendments tabled by Friday. I hope that if colleagues have concerns they will place them on the record so that I, as the Bill’s promoter, and the Minister can look at them in the round and make sure we deal with the issues that have rightly been raised by the charities and the LGA and in other representations we have received on this clause.

When we debated clause 3 in December, we discussed the new duty on local housing authorities to assess the applicant’s case and agree a personalised plan. Clause 7 outlines the important steps that must be followed in those hopefully rare cases where an applicant deliberately and unreasonably refuses to co-operate with the key required steps set out in the plan that they agreed with their local housing authority. This process is designed to include safeguards that will protect vulnerable applicants from abuse of the process.

When people who are threatened with homelessness or are actually homeless present themselves to the local authority, they might be in a state of difficulty not only from a mental health point of view, but in facing this problem for the first time in their lives. If that is the case and they are directed to do things by a housing authority, they may not appreciate and understand the plan. Throughout the development of the Bill, I have listened carefully to the views of the homelessness charities to ensure that vulnerable individuals are not unfairly penalised for non-co-operation on some of the very issues that caused them to seek assistance in the first place.

The clause includes numerous safeguards that I will outline briefly. I can assure the Committee that, in the recent discussion of amendments, my key driver has been to protect those safeguards and to enhance them if possible, so that no one is placed in a position whereby they feel they have been fooled and tricked into accepting something that they do not want.

Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson Conservative, Mid Dorset and North Poole

Before Christmas, my hon. Friend characterised the clause as “tough love”. Given his recent comments, does he anticipate that that will remain his attitude in relation to the clause, or has it changed?

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I do characterise the clause as tough love. I do not believe it is acceptable for someone to arrive at a local authority and say, “Under the law, you have to provide me with housing; I do not have to do anything,” and then fold their arms, sit back and wait for the local authority to do things. Part and parcel of the clause is to say that there are responsibilities on the local authority and on individual applicants.

Clause 3 is about personalised plans. Under clause 7, if applicants do not co-operate with the local authority, it can terminate the duty. That is the tough love that I previously described. That is where the bar is placed in terms of a deliberate and unreasonable refusal to co-operate. I am very clear that we want to ensure the bar is sufficiently high so the local authorities do not disadvantage applicants, but at the same time make it clear to them that they have to co-operate with the local authority that is assisting them in alleviating their homelessness or threat of homelessness.

The personalised plans will clearly set out the required steps that have been agreed between the applicant and the local housing authority. The steps must be those that are most relevant to securing and retaining accommodation. In some cases, the applicant and the local housing authority may not be able to reach an agreement about the actions despite trying very hard to do so. If that is the case, the required steps will be those recorded in writing and considered reasonable by the local housing authority.

The local housing authority will be required to keep under review both its assessment of the applicant’s case and the appropriateness of the required steps. If the local housing authority considers that the applicant is deliberately and unreasonably refusing to co-operate, it must give them a warning—it is not acceptable that it ends its duty at that point—explaining the consequences for the duties owed to the applicant if they do not begin to co-operate. At that point, if the individual sits back and says, “I’m not doing anything. I’m not taking the steps that I have agreed to take,” the authority can use a sanction.

The local housing authority must also allow a reasonable period for the applicant to comply and take external advice if necessary. If the applicant continues to refuse to co-operate following the warning, the local housing authority can choose to issue a notice that brings to an end the duties under proposed new section 195(2), the duty to take reasonable steps to help the applicant prevent homelessness, and proposed new section 189(b)(2), the duty to take reasonable steps to help secure suitable accommodation for those homeless and eligible for assistance.

Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson Conservative, Mid Dorset and North Poole

My hon. Friend mentioned a reasonable period, which appears in proposed new subsections (4)(b) and (8), but, unless I have missed it, there is no precise definition in clause 7 itself of what a reasonable period is. As he knows, a reasonable period for one man may be a very unreasonable period for another. Can he, as the promoter of the Bill, indicate to the Committee what he envisages would and would not be a reasonable period?

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

If I could just continue the point. The notice must explain the reasons for giving the notice and its effect, and inform the applicant of their right to request a review of the decision to issue a notice and the time period for doing so. My hon. Friend is a learned lawyer, and reasonableness is an issue that has been tested by the courts on many occasions. What is reasonable to an applicant facing a crisis and what is reasonable to a local authority may be two different things. It is difficult to lay out every detail in the Bill; regulations may be required to specify the period, and in the code of guidance that will be issued when the Bill becomes an Act, I expect to see a clear statement to local authorities of what is considered to be a reasonable period. If local authorities are acting in what the Minister and the Department consider to be an unreasonable manner, we may have to insist on a code of practice to set out that detail. I trust that local authorities will see that they are seeking to end the duties that they have to the applicant, so they must act in a reasonable manner.

As a final safeguard, where the prevention or relief duty has been ended under these measures, rendering the main housing duty inapplicable, the local housing authority has a further duty to the applicant if they are homeless, eligible for assistance, in priority need and became homeless through no fault of their own. In such cases, the local housing authority must as a minimum make a final accommodation offer of an assured shorthold tenancy of at least six months. To ensure that that measure and the safeguards work effectively, the clause also allows the Secretary of State to issue regulations setting out the procedures to be followed by local housing authorities in connection with notices.

There is therefore clearly a safeguard for my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole in the Bill, in that regulations can be laid if necessary to set out this whole process. I do not think it is reasonable for us to set out all those processes and procedures in the Bill, because they may change during its operation. As we have said previously, we are changing many aspects of legislation, much of which goes back 40 years, and this is clearly one of the areas in which we will have to see how the Bill operates. One challenge may be the level of homelessness, the number of applications a local authority receives and the resources available to it.

The clause will help to establish a process whereby people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless are encouraged to work proactively with their local housing authority to take responsibility to prevent or end their homelessness as soon as possible. Taken together with the other clauses in the Bill, the clause means that if applicants who are threatened with homelessness up to 56 days prior to becoming homeless put together a plan with the local authority and that plan is followed, no one should become homeless. We all understand that people will face more direct crises and need to approach a local housing authority much nearer the time that they become homeless, and may become homeless through no fault of their own and need assistance, but the clause is intended to ensure that applicants understand that this is not a one-way street where they turn up to the local housing authority, set out their case and then wait for the local authority to provide them with somewhere to live. The clause means that there will be a requirement on them, and importantly, if they do not accord with the plan and the steps that they have agreed to implement—

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

My hon. Friend has indicated that there have been discussions about amending the clause. So that the Committee is clear, is he concerned that although the clause ensures that the full rehousing duty is retained for those in priority need if there is a failure to co-operate—as Shelter and others have said, that is an important backstop—it is currently too wide and could lead to a penalty, not just in terms of compliance with the plan but in relation to the wider prevention and relief duties?

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

Clearly, the intention is to lay out that individuals have responsibilities and must follow their actions. There is however a concern that in some local authorities—not all, but some—there could be an impact on priority need and vulnerable households. I expect that amendments will be tabled on Report to revise the position and make clear that we are talking, as I have said, about those who deliberately and unreasonably refuse to co-operate, but also to ensure that we do not impact the main relief duty. We have striven from the word go not to change the impact on individuals who are owed a responsibility by their local authority already.

I will continue to work with my hon. Friend the Minister to bring forward a package of amendments on Report, which I hope we will all be able to support. If Committee members want to put particular comments on the record so that we can use them in our deliberations between now and Friday, when we need to table the amendments for Report, I would be very keen to hear them. I will be working on the amendments over the next week, and I hope that Members will be able to support them when they come before the House.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Housing)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I greatly missed the Committee last week.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Housing)

I hear what the promoter is saying, but I am sure that it is not true, because the Committee had the services of my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North. It is always dangerous to ask someone to stand in for you when they are more experienced, competent and knowledgeable on the subject, but there we are.

I will not be long on this clause. With all due respect to the promoter and the Minister, if we are to debate it all over again on Report, and we are yet to have the benefit of the amendments, I would rather wait and see what happens then. It is unfortunate that the Bill has had to be sliced in this way, and that we are jumping around from clause to clause. I understand that we all want to get it right, but it is not an ideal way to proceed, as will be clear when we come to clause 1. We Opposition Members will try to be as disciplined and organised as we can be, in order not to repeat ourselves or lengthen the debate more than is necessary, which is the guidance we have heard from Mr Chope as well.

Therefore, all I will say on clause 7 is that we do not oppose it; it is a necessary clause, because there has to be some sanction or limitation on the relationship between the applicant and the local authority. The key issue is getting the balance right. What is the balance? I pose the question, which may be better answered on Report, when we know the full extent of the clause. We are all familiar with the term “unreasonable”, but are perhaps less familiar with the term “deliberate”. There have been perfectly reasonable representations from both sides, if I can put it that way—from Shelter and from the Association of Housing Advice Services. One side of the argument is that it is essential that the bar is set very high, so that local authorities cannot evade their duty; on the other hand, the process must not be overly bureaucratic, or effectively provide no sanction because the applicant would be entitled to the same assistance as they would if they had not deliberately and unreasonably refused to co-operate. That question hangs in the air. As for the definition of “deliberate” and what might constitute that behaviour or how authorities would define it, that is a question that the Minister or the promoter may wish to deal with, although it may not be a matter for today.

I reserve any further comments. It is regrettable that we are doing this on Report. I remember having a conversation early on with the promoter, in which I said, “We might wish to table some clauses on Report,” and he said, “Can you please ensure that you do that in Committee, so that we have a clean run at Report and Third Reading?” I think I may have to table something on Report myself now; we will see.

Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson Conservative, Mid Dorset and North Poole

The hon. Gentleman mentioned unreasonable behaviour. I completely take his point and agree with what he says, but in clause 7, there is a definition to help local authorities define what the characteristics of unreasonable behaviour would be. Would he anticipate, as I do, that that sort of subsection will be essential in any sort of rewriting, to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected?

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Housing)

Yes, but “unreasonable” is a term with which we and, more importantly, the courts are familiar, if a matter has to reach that point. “Deliberate” is a rarer and higher standard, and that term gives me pause, but I think the consensus is that it needs to be there, because “unreasonable” is not sufficient. I only ask for a slightly clearer exemplification.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Conservative, Colchester

I am conscious that there are likely to be further amendments on Report. I want to touch briefly on the new duty to assess cases and agree a plan. I very much support the idea of a personalised plan, whereby we empower those who seek help with a number of key steps that they are expected to take, which are reasonable, proportionate and, most importantly, achievable. That will encourage positive action and working together to find a solution, rather than people simply turning up at the council saying, “You have a duty to house me because I’m homeless.” Instead, we will say, “Let’s look at the steps we can take together to address the issues”—and, in many cases, the complex needs—“behind your homelessness or risk of homelessness before the situation gets worse.”

No doubt we have all seen situations involving councils. It is difficult, because the vast majority of local authorities are excellent and take their duties and responsibilities very seriously. Some, however, discharge their homelessness duties far too easily, which has knock-on effects on other areas and local authorities. For example, if a borough or district council discharges its duty on homelessness for whatever reason, it puts added pressure—especially if children are involved—on either the unitary authority or the county council in respect of social services, and that is often hugely expensive compared with the action that could have been taken by the local authority.

There have been a number of comments on deliberate and unreasonable refusal to co-operate and the definition of “unreasonable”. Clear guidance on what is unreasonable would certainly be helpful, but the addition of that word adds a safeguard. I used to be a lawyer as well.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Conservative, Colchester

I used to be; I am not any more, I am glad to say. The addition of that word protects those with mental health issues or complex needs. We know that the vast majority of people who are at risk of homelessness or are homeless have very complex needs.

I very much welcome the safeguards in the Bill, including the concept of a warning letter that clearly and succinctly sets out what will happen if someone fails to co-operate and the clear steps that will be taken after that. On the whole discharging of the duty, I welcome the fact that those who are found to have deliberately or unreasonably failed to co-operate, even after the warning letter, will still receive, as a minimum, an offer of suitable accommodation, with an assured shorthold tenancy of six months. That adds the necessary protection and safeguard. and stops additional pressure being put on county councils.

Photo of David Mackintosh David Mackintosh Conservative, Northampton South

I am pleased that the clause is included, because I strongly believe in the principle of personal responsibility. Of course, public bodies have a duty to help people, especially those who are vulnerable or traumatised. I am sure we have all seen cases of people in difficult circumstances who, inexplicably, do not co-operate with the local authority, even in challenging situations.

Local authorities may well worry about how this new legislation will affect them. That is why I welcome the proposals. Action plans can be agreed between the council and the person seeking help, with proper, agreed actions for both parties to undertake. The council, of course, has a responsibility to help, but this also allows people to help themselves; as my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester put it, it helps to empower people. They are an active participant in the process and take some responsibility for their destiny. This is about much more than finding a home and helping someone in the short term. This helps people to set off on their future path, and to help to create their own future.

Of course, the action plan must be realistic and achievable, but the principle is very important. I am pleased that clause 7 also sets out for local authorities what to do if a homeless applicant deliberately and unreasonably refuses to co-operate or follow the actions in their personal action plan. If someone is deemed to be unreasonably refusing to co-operate, written warnings will be issued and the authority can take action. It is helpful and appropriate that this will not affect anyone who does not co-operate because of mental health issues or other complex needs. Having a plan is halfway to solving the problem, so the clause is a helpful part of the Bill, and I welcome it.

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Labour, Dulwich and West Norwood 11:00 am, 18th January 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I want to put on the record my disappointment that we are not able to debate amendments to the clause in Committee. The judgments and the balance of responsibilities involved in the clause are among the most complex and sensitive of any aspects of the Bill. We should have the opportunity to consider the balance of responsibilities and judgments in full in Committee with the wording that is likely to make it into the Bill.

The case that the hon. Member for Harrow East described of a person who simply sits back and does nothing about their circumstances is indeed clearcut, but in my experience such cases are extremely rare. Much more common are cases that involve judgments around the location and type of property. Those judgments involve issues about which many of us, if we had the misfortune to find ourselves homeless, would also feel strongly. People who find themselves homeless often feel, quite rightly, a strong sense of injustice and a high level of distress around their circumstances. They want things to be put right in such a way that they can imagine rebuilding their life in acceptable circumstances. Judgments as to what somebody would regard as a suitable offer of accommodation are therefore necessarily very difficult and sensitive.

The Bill also seeks to bring about a change in homelessness culture and practice in local authorities. In its inquiry, the Communities and Local Government Committee certainly saw evidence of gatekeeping practices in some local authorities. It was common practice for them to look for minimal reasons to discharge the duty; we have to get rid of such practices.

The change in culture, the complexity of the judgments, the balance of responsibilities and the definitions of reasonableness and suitability that will apply to cases are sensitive and complicated matters and should not be left for us to consider in full on Report. I look forward to debating them further on Report, but I want to put on the record at this stage my disappointment that the Government have left this matter so late.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

I will follow on from those points in a similar vein. We are, in a somewhat rarefied Committee, looking at deliberate and unreasonable refusals to co-operate, while being far removed from the challenging circumstances faced by people, particularly those with complex needs. Even with revisions to the Bill on Report, we must be clear that the bar is set at a level that will ensure that there is understanding, particularly of those with mental health and complex needs, and that those needs are taken into account when considering what is deliberate and unreasonable. That does not mean that those people will not be liable to being deemed to have refused to co-operate. We need to look sensitively at how we ensure that the most vulnerable are taken account of properly.

On discharging duties, I recall a case in which the NHS was able to discharge its duty of care to a vulnerable constituent who had complex needs and was paranoid. When people knocked on the door to see whether he was going to co-operate, unsurprisingly he did not answer, because he was paranoid; it was a part of his condition. He repeatedly refused to answer the door, so the NHS discharged its duty of care to him. As for the safeguards in this provision, there is a warning letter. We need to look in detail—this matters—at how that warning letter will be communicated and take proper account of people’s needs, which include communication difficulties.

Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson Conservative, Mid Dorset and North Poole

That is exactly the point I made a few moments ago. Subsection (6) refers to taking into account the “particular circumstances and needs” of the applicant. My hon. Friend’s story highlights the reason why we need that safeguard in any future re-drafting of the clause—to protect exactly the sort of people he is talking about.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

We need to ensure that when the rubber hits the road, there is a reality to this, so that there is not the lowest common denominator of just discharging a duty, but there is a real, positive intent to meet people’s particular needs.

It is important to ensure there is reassurance and the backstop provided by new section 193B(4). The full rehousing duty for those in priority need must be maintained. We have often praised the Welsh for getting there first with the prevention duty, but this clause will do a lot better. It will ensure that, in this case, we do not follow the Welsh example, where legislation allows an authority to discharge all duties for those who refuse to co-operate and where there is evidence of one in eight households now being refused further help; emerging evidence suggests that they are often vulnerable people with support needs. That is despite codes of guidance, which we talked about in previous deliberations.

It is so important that we get this right. This is where it could go wrong, despite all the codes of guidance that might be produced. I welcome the care that has been given to ensuring that we get this right. The litmus test is those with complex, particular needs. We need to ensure in this deliberation on what is deliberate and unreasonable that we have a true understanding of vulnerable people.

Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson Conservative, Mid Dorset and North Poole

I, too, rise to say that I am disappointed by the difficulty that this Committee has been put under in not being able to look at clause 7. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate and with the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood that this is one of the most crucial parts of the legislation, and that a delicate balancing act needs to be got right.

That said, I support the principle. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East, the Bill’s promoter, when he characterises this as tough love. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South mentioned personal responsibility, and the phrase “help to empower” was also used. I entirely agree with the principle behind the clause but am disappointed that we cannot thrash out more of the detail. I will certainly take up the invitation from my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East to set out what I believe needs to be within the clause, although I support the thrust of it.

I had a meeting with a representative of East Dorset District Council—a local authority that you know well, Mr Chope, because East Dorset covers three constituencies: mine, yours and that of my hon. Friend Simon Hoare. The council is concerned not only about the potential burden on local authorities, but about the risk of this going wrong. The interplay between local authorities and housing associations was also raised.

Perhaps when the Minister gets to his feet in a few minutes, he will give me and those at East Dorset some reassurance on the clause as drafted, or as we hope it will be drafted in future, and on the interplay with housing association duties. Many of our local authorities own very little stock and rely on housing associations to perform many of their functions and duties. What is the interplay between that and the clause? Is there a risk that housing associations will fall short or have a lower standard than is the aim and intention behind the clause?

I have said before that we are looking at the most vulnerable. I agree that there should be a strict definition in clause 7. As drafted, the tough love aspect is whether an applicant has deliberately and unreasonably refused to co-operate. I agree with the hon. Member for Hammersmith that this is familiar territory for lawyers and courts. In my view, it is helpful to have as much detail in the Bill as possible. That is why I welcome proposed new section 193A(6), which states that the characteristics—correction, circumstances—and needs of the applicant should be taken into account. Perhaps the Minister and promoter of the Bill should consider characteristics.

My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate gave a striking example of why it is necessary to take into account the circumstances and needs of the applicant. Knocking on the door might be sufficient for one applicant but not for another. Therefore, clause 7 needs that additional safeguard in its redrafted form.

The term “reasonable period” is also fertile territory for lawyers. My concern is that, if it is left in the Bill, lawyers will argue the toss that the local authority says, “Yes, it was a reasonable period,” while the applicant says, “No, it was not because more time was required. ” I understand entirely the difficulty of putting that sort of detail in the Bill. An indication of the timeframe from the Minister when he is looking at redrafting may be helpful, although I do understand the risk of causing problems.

Finally, like my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, I welcome the additional safeguard of a notice to inform and explain to the applicant. The Minister might pick up on one caveat. As drafted, subsection (8) provides for what would happen if a notice were not received. In an ideal world, we would need to ensure that notices are received. As we know, sometimes the serving of notices is not as straightforward in practice as it is to set out in a document. The Minister might consider and emphasise the need to ensure that notices are received.

Photo of David Mackintosh David Mackintosh Conservative, Northampton South

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that there should be a written warning or notice rather than just a verbal statement? People could be confused and lose bits of paper, so it is important to have this written down.

Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson Conservative, Mid Dorset and North Poole

I agree in part with my hon. Friend, but in fact it would be helpful to have both. Depending on the needs and circumstances of the individual, it could be helpful to have the notice read out. Of course, it should also have the fall-back authority of a piece of paper or document.

I would like the Minister to pick up the point in subsection (8) about the notice being

“made available at the authority’s office”.

Given we are considering the most vulnerable people, is that sufficient to draw attention to the fact that their rights are to be taken away under the homelessness provisions?

Photo of Flick Drummond Flick Drummond Conservative, Portsmouth South

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. If that information is not put very clearly in writing to the vulnerable person, surely the appeals will be more difficult. Will we see an increase in appeals if we do not get the clause absolutely right in the detail?

Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson Conservative, Mid Dorset and North Poole

That is absolutely right. It is not only the difficulty with appeals, but the rise in the number of appeals, exactly as my hon. Friend says. As a former lawyer, I want fewer of these cases appearing in front of court. Far too often, we have seen lawyers arguing over clauses exactly like this one by picking up points of technicality and trying to say whether a notice was served. Every effort should be made to ensure that notices are brought to the attention of individuals, and I would like reassurance from the Minister specifically on that point because the clause takes away rights that we are seeking to give to individuals.

While I entirely support the thrust, aim and intention of the clause and its characterisation as tough love, I regret the fact that we are not able to debate its final form. We are almost shadow boxing in anticipation of what may or may not be incorporated into clause 7. I encourage the Minister to take on board all the points that have been made.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government) 11:15 am, 18th January 2017

I am afraid that I must start with an apology to the Committee. I know that the Committee was expecting to see the amendments today. Indeed, I was fully expecting to be able to introduce the amendments for consideration. I am sorry that circumstances have meant that that has not been possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East has already provided a significant overview of the concerns we have been investigating over the past few weeks, so I will not go into too much detail in that regard. I simply say that we are addressing the two issues that have been identified with the clause. The first is that the clause is drafted too widely. While an applicant could be penalised for deliberately and unreasonably refusing to co-operate with the required actions as set out in the personal housing plan, as the clause is drafted they could also be penalised for deliberately and unreasonably refusing to co-operate with the authority in relation to the prevention or relief duties more generally. That is a broader formulation of the clause and is certainly not the one intended.

The second issue is that we are not confident that the balance between incentives and protections is right in cases where an applicant refuses a suitable offer of accommodation at the relief stage. We have been working closely with homelessness charities to resolve that and develop a way forward, and I hope to be in a position to say more before Report.

My hon. Friend has made clear to the Committee this morning that we have spent significant time in the intervening period since the previous sitting and before then working with external stakeholders. We have been working with local authorities that have expressed concerns about what my first point may mean in relation to their duties, as well as with the charities that he mentioned, which obviously have significant concerns about the second point.

This is a very unusual situation. We have a private Member’s Bill, and the Select Committee has looked at it and proposed amendments. The Government have worked with the Member to come up with a form of Bill that works. Within that, we have also had significant engagement with local authorities, the LGA and stakeholders, including charities. My hon. Friend mentioned Crisis and Shelter. It is a complex situation, and I am determined to work with him to get the legislation right. I reiterate my disappointment that I have not been able to debate what I would have liked and expected to debate with the Committee, and again tender my apologies to the Committee.

A number of measures in the clause remain pertinent. Many times during our consideration of the Bill, Members have spoken about the importance of culture change in building a more co-operative relationship between the local housing authority and those who need their services. That is already the case in the best local authorities. We want to encourage those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness to work with their local housing authority to prevent or relieve their homelessness as soon as possible. We believe that such a co-operative approach is better for the individual or family, and is better for local housing authorities, too.

The clause sets out the actions a local housing authority may take if an individual who has made a homeless application subsequently deliberately and unreasonably refuses to follow the steps in the personalised plan agreed between themselves and the local housing authority. In most cases, the local housing authority and the individual will take the agreed steps and work co-operatively to resolve the situation before it becomes a crisis. However, if the local authority considers that an applicant has deliberately and unreasonably refused to co-operate with the required actions agreed in their personal housing plan, it must first issue a written warning explaining that that is the case, and that a failure to co-operate will result in the end of the duty to secure accommodation for the applicant. We will work with local housing authorities—this comes back to points that have been raised in the debate, on which I will now elaborate—to develop common-sense guidance on the meaning of “deliberate and unreasonable”.

To pick up on the points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Harrow East, for Enfield, Southgate and for Mid Dorset and North Poole on applicants deliberately and unreasonably refusing to co-operate, statutory guidance will set out the Government’s view on what that means. For example, it will include refusing to engage in negotiations with the landlord to prevent their tenancy from ending, or refusing to contact landlords or view properties. We have also talked about the definition of “suitable”, which is set out in existing legislation.

Several hon. Members have asked what a “reasonable period” is. Reasonableness is a well understood concept in law, which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole will understand. When considering what is a reasonable period, local housing authorities will have to have regard to all surrounding circumstances, which brings me to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate. We can consider saying more in guidance about the factors we expect local authorities to take into account when making the judgment. In doing that, I will take on board the comments made by hon. Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for North the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole made a good point on the interplay with housing associations. Local housing authorities will work closely with a range of landlords as they deliver the Bill, as they are intended to do now. Housing associations are key partners in many respects, but the clause relates specifically to the applicant’s co-operation with the steps that they agree with the local housing authority for their personal plan, and not with third-party organisations. I hope that clarifies the point for my hon. Friend.

Before adjourning the Committee, I remind hon. Members that there are two substantial amendments to clause 1 to be debated. I think it would be convenient for the Committee to debate those two amendments together with clause 1 stand part.

The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.