HC Deb 04 November 1986 vol 103 cc871-4

The Lords do not insist on their Amendment to insert a new Clause after Clause 19 to which the Commons have disagreed but propose the following Amendment in lieu thereof, after clause 19, insert the following new Clause"— .—(1) The Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 shall be amended in accordance with the following provisions of this section. (2) In section 1(2) (homeless persons and persons threatened with homelessness) after paragraph (c) there shall be inserted the following paragraph— (d) it is overcrowded as defined in section 89 of the Housing (Scotland) Act 1966 and may endanger the health of the occupants. (3) In section 4 (duties of housing authorities to homeless persons and persons threatened with homelessness) after subsection (6) there shall be inserted the following subsection— (7) Where a local authority has a duty under subsections (4) and (5) above "accommodation" shall be defined as accommodation that shall not be overcrowded as defined in section 89 of the Housing (Scotland) Act 1966 and which does not pose a threat to the health of the occupants.".

8.17 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Ancram)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

The amendment is the combination of lengthy and constructive discussions in the House and in another place on the likely effect of a decision by the Law Lords on an appeal under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act, which has become known as the Puhlhofer case. Hon. Members will recall that earlier we discussed an amendment proposed by the other place to the Act when we last considered the Bill on 2 July. The Government were unable to agree to that earlier amendment because, as I explained at the time, we felt that it would give rise to problems of interpretation and would impose excessive additional duties on local authorities. I also made it clear at that time that the amendment was unnecessary because no substantial evidence had been produced to support the allegations that the Law Lords judgment was having an adverse effect on the prospects of homeless people.

I accept that this new amendment is intended to meet our criticisms of the earlier version and that it has been altered in order to do so. It goes a considerable way towards removing the objections that I raised at that time.

I also accept that there are strong feelings in the House and in another place that, whatever the evidence, we should take steps now to resolve any possible adverse consequences arising from the Law Lords' decision in the Puhlhofer case rather than wait to see whether the decision has any effect and respond at a later date.

Under those conditions, and given that the amendment is a considerable improvement on the earlier version, I am prepared to accept it. As I said in July, we will continue to monitor the position. In addition, we are about to launch a research project to look at the way in which local authorities operate the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act and to assess how the system meets the needs of the homeless. We must reserve the right to return with alternative proposals at some stage if it emerges that the amendment is giving rise to significant difficulties. For the present, I believe that the intention of the amendment is clear and that the worst defects of the earlier version have been removed. Therefore, I recommend that the amendment be agreed to.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

From his point of view, the Minister has made the best of rather a bad job. It should be recognised that the Government have not suddenly agreed to this course out of the bigness and goodness of their heart. When the House was considering Lords amendments to the Housing and Planning Bill on the night before the Bill that is before us was considered in another place, a similar, but not exactly the same, amendment was passed.

As the Minister said last night during the course of our consideration of the Housing and Planning Bill, he is a great one for uniformity. He believes that there should be this example of uniformity between England, Wales and Scotland and that we should not be out of step. I note from the response to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) that the Minister does not go for uniformity between Scotland and England when it conies to old folks' housing that has been occupied by the elderly. The definition that applies to that housing in England is much wider than that which applies in Scotland, and I am sure that many authorities in Scotland would wish to be able to apply the same definition.

We welcome the Government's change of mind, however much it has been forced upon them. It can be said that a change of mind has been forced upon the Minister by circumstances which have been out of control. We welcome the fact that he has at last accepted some form of resolution of the Puhlhofer judgment.

The resolution may not be perfect—I am sure that it will prove not to be so—and problems may arise, and if that is the position the Government will have to bring the issue back to the House. If the amendment that is before us is one that the Minister believes to be necessary, we could have saved ourselves much parliamentary time if he had drafted and moved a similar amendment in Committee or on Report. He could have taken steps to arrange for such an amendment to be moved in another place. It is a fact that he has been forced reluctantly to accept the amendment that is before us.

Mr. Ancram

The hon. Gentleman is basing much of his argument on uniformity, and I suggest that he examines the equivalent English amendment. If he does so, he will find that the Scottish amendment is different.

Mr. Maxton

The Minister is normally better at listening to arguments. I made the point that he has raised when I said that the Scottish amendment was not exactly the same as the English amendment. The basic case, however, is the same. The Puhlhofer decision was overturned in another place. To use the words that I employed earlier, a similar though different amendment came before the other place when it was considering the Bill, and the Government had to accept it because they knew that the Bill would fall if they resisted it. If they had opposed the amendment in another place, they would have been unable to bring the matter back to this place. Therefore, they were forced to accept the amendment. The amendment meets what the Opposition have been suggesting for a long time, and I am glad that the Minister has at last come to the same conclusion as ourselves.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

On behalf of the alliance, I am pleased that the Minister has accepted the amendment. I do not wish to be other than pleased that we have reached this position, especially as the Act to which we are referring is the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, which was piloted through the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross). It is one of the most used Acts to face Members week by week and it is my experience that it is the one that is quoted most often at me.

The argument which led to the amendment turned on an issue which could have seriously undermined the effectiveness of what has proved to be a useful Act. Without the amendment, local authorities would have been allowed to house homeless persons in sub-standard property. I am sorry that the issue had to go backwards and forwards between this House and another place, but I am glad that at the end of the day there is agreement on the amendment in its final form. In the circumstances, I think that every one of us should be satisfied that on a rare occasion—too rare an occasion — we have achieved a real and genuine alteration to a Bill as it has proceeded within and between the two Houses.

Now that we are close to Prorogation, it is somewhat ironic that it is the unelected House that has managed to encapsulate the views of the people's representatives rather than the elected House. If this place had not had to take account of the views and amendments of another place, it might have tried to streamroller through Parliament the original provision. In this instance the existence of an upper House has proved to be effective. I am not sure how often during this Session it has defeated the Government, but it has done so on many more occasions than we have in this place. The Minister commented to me informally before we embarked on these debates that long may the other place continue to do so because there lies his future career.

We have made a bit of a meal out of this issue, but we have secured a good amendment. The Government have accepted it and I am sure that the House is pleased that they have done so. I can only hope that the next amendment will proceed with the same speed and degree of support.

Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)

I welcome the Government's acceptance of the amendment. I intended to make the same comment as the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce), that the Government have been driven to accept it by the onset of Prorogation. I remember the hostility that the Minister showed towards taking any action of the sort outlined in the amendment when we debated the matter at an earlier stage of the Bill's passage. All I can do at this late stage is to welcome the Minister's sudden conversion and acceptance of the persuasive arguments that we and many lobbyists have advanced on the need for a statutory measure to take care of the huge hole which was blown in the original legislation by another place when it acted in its judicial capacity.

Question put and agreed to.

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