HL Deb 10 December 2001 vol 629 cc1-74GC

Monday,10 December 2001.

The Committee met at half-past three of the clock.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Skelmersdale) in the Chair.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Skelmersdale)

Before I put the Question that the Title be postponed, it may be helpful to remind your Lordships of the procedure for today's Committee stage. Except in one important respect, our proceedings will be exactly as in a normal Committee of the Whole House. We shall go through the Bill clause by clause; noble Lords will speak standing; all noble Lords are free to attend and participate; and the proceedings will be recorded in Hansard. The one difference is that the House has agreed that there shall be no Divisions in a Grand Committee. Any issue on which agreement cannot be reached should be considered again at the Report stage when, if necessary, a Division may be called. Unless, therefore, an amendment is likely to be agreed to, it should be withdrawn.

I should explain what will happen if there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, which seems fairly likely. This Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and then resume after 10 minutes.

Title postponed.

Baroness Maddock

Before we proceed, there is a mistake in the list of amendments for today. Under the name of myself and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, are Amendments Nos. 6, 7, 8 and 9. In fact, I only tabled Amendment No. 6; Amendments Nos. 7, 8 and 9 were tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, and the noble Viscount, Lord Astor.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

I was aware of that but it may or may not be, looking at the list of groupings, that these amendments will be called at all. So perhaps we can start with Amendment No. 1 in Clause 1, that of the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham.

Clause 1 [Duty of local housing authority to formulate a homelessness strategy]:

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 6, at end insert— ( ) Any such review or homelessness strategy shall be part of the wider-ranging housing strategy of each authority. The noble Baroness said: I disown completely Amendment No. 9, which I do not recall having seen before and which seems to replicate Amendment No. 8 almost in its entirety. Wherever it came from it did not necessarily come from me. I wish to speak to all the amendments in the first group in order at this stage. In addressing Amendment No. 1, I shall also be speaking to Amendments Nos. 2 to 5, 7 and 8. As I said, Amendment No. 9 can be deleted as I do not know who it belongs to.

All these amendments are related to the review of homelessness and the subsequent strategy which local authorities will have a duty to prepare. Amendment No. 1 would make it a requirement that any such review should form part of a wider ranging housing strategy and should not be a stand-alone exercise. It will be apparent from the most cursory examination of this Bill that it places a duty to house a much wider range of those in priority need than in the past. It also gives almost unlimited time for decisions to be made and agreed by homeless people. Moreover it takes a very cursory examination of the statutory housing figures available to each authority to realise that they are faced with an almost impossible task in trying to provide all the accommodation predicated as being necessary for those in priority need.

There are already over 11,000 people in bed and breakfast accommodation alone and those who are currently defined as a priority of the homeless amounted to 114,350 in 2000–01—a rise of 11 per cent over the previous year. By definition, before adding any further categories there is a need for as many permanent units of accommodation as possible, but between 1997 and 2000 the amount of new social housing built amounted to just 95,000 units, which does not in any way match the numbers required.

In many cases, the extra duties in this Bill will make an impossible task worse for many authorities, even those with the ability to co-operate with other authorities. It must be right, therefore, that all housing authorities' requirements are set alongside the availability of both current and future accommodation so that realistic planning can he carried out. For this reason, it would seem only sensible for there to be a full housing strategy to incorporate the homes review.

Amendments Nos. 2 and 4 would add a reference to rough sleepers to the requirement to ensure that accommodation is available for the homeless. The Rough Sleepers' Unit is currently responsible for helping people who sleep rough, but it is clear from the debate in the other place that the unit's long-term future is by no means settled and that, in due course, the responsibility may fall back to individual local authorities. For that reason alone, each individual local authority ought to be aware of how many rough sleepers are in its area. In any event, it should be co-operating fully with the Rough Sleepers' Unit to identify and help people. There is no mention anywhere in the Bill of rough sleepers. There must be some recognition of their existence, because in many instances they require permanent rather than just temporary help. As I have already said, the accommodation to which they and other homeless people require access will always be limited and they should be recognised as being part of that need.

Amendments Nos. 3 and 5 would define those who would be deemed to be strategic partners of local authorities in the provision of housing and help to the homeless. It is inconceivable that any review of homelessness could be undertaken without all those who have either responsibility for, or a means of, providing housing for the public sector being included as an integral part of the strategy.

In many authorities, housing provision now relies heavily on approved landlords in the private sector—not only those with houses in multiple occupation, but others who work at the local authority on a regular, if ad hoc, basis who will be part of a landlords forum. Without such co-operation, there would be an even greater deficit of housing than there currently is. No review would be meaningful or accurate without their interests being represented.

Amendment No. 7 would require the authority to refer in its homelessness strategy to its allocation scheme, including details of how it is drawn up, what is included and what its priorities are. This will become comprehensively important as the Bill progresses and as we see the number of people who will be included in the priority category and the very real difficulties that there will be in housing anybody else who is not within those categories.

Amendment No. 8 would make it mandatory for local authorities to consult with the Housing Corporation, relevant housing associations and registered social landlords. Without the amendment, the need to consult would be discretionary only. That ties in with other amendments in the group. I beg to move.

Baroness Maddock

I shall speak to my amendments in this group but, first I shall respond to the amendments spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. I understand her point about including homelessness strategies in the general housing strategy. The Government say in one of their draft codes of guidance that that could happen, if appropriate. It will become more obvious as we discuss the Bill that there has been a lot of bad practice by some authorities. When the Bill is passed, we should encourage local authorities to review their homelessness strategies thoroughly. They should not have to be part of the general strategy, but should be something better. My experience of the 1996 Act and everything that has happened since leads me to believe that this is the correct thing to do.

On the other issue that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, raised, the matters of who local authorities consult with, this is quite important. My honourable friends in another place raised the issue of the role of registered social landlords. Since it was discussed in the other place there has been a good deal of discussion and some helpful letters and correspondence from the Housing Corporation. I hope we can deal with this issue but I am still not absolutely convinced that we have exactly what we need on the face of the Bill. I will be listening with interest to what the Minister says on this point.

I now wish to turn to my own amendment, Amendment No.6. I make no bones about it—this is an opportunity for me to talk about an issue that I have been concerned about ever since the Government proposed the Supporting People programme. From April 2003, the programme will totally re-organise support for people living in the community. This particularly affects support services for homeless groups and specialist homelessness groups.

The groups about which I am particularly concerned are the small voluntary organisations that give support to people who are perhaps going into tenancies, before they get into tenancies, or when they are between living in a group tenancy and then going into their own accommodation. That is the group I am particularly concerned about and I know that the Government, in their good practice guide, their homelessness strategy, point out that voluntary organisations will play an important role in some of these areas.

Having raised this issue when it was first announced by the Government, as time has gone on and I have increasingly read articles in the housing press, my fears about what might happen have not been allayed. The groups I am particularly concerned about are small voluntary groups. At the moment, a great deal of their revenue—and from my own experience I know this applies sometimes to women's refuges, for example—is based on the benefit that comes their way from the clients in that particular refuge. Organisations like that are often run by a few people on a voluntary basis. The work they are likely to do, to bid into this process, will be quite difficult.

The Government are continuing—and have been for some time—to send out a constant stream of consultation papers, through questionnaires, draft guidance and discussion papers. Local authorities have recently received their first round of implementation funding and they are now adding to this. They are recruiting teams and setting up new forums and preparing their own questionnaires and consultation papers for local providers. However, I wonder how some of the small organisations I have talked about are managing to deal with this and whether they are engaging properly in the programme. I would argue that it is difficult for many of these groups because they lack capacity within their organisation to do so. I would be interested to know if the Minister and his advisers have any advice to local authorities as to how they can protect these people and help them with the time and resources that will be required to take part in this process.

The next point I would like to make concerns what will happen after 2003. We know about the budgets until then and there is an interim housing benefit, which I welcome. However, if new schemes are to become available after 2003, it is by no means clear where that money will come from.

There are other Members of the Committee who will share my concerns, perhaps not here but later in our discussions. There are particular areas such as floating support for people who are in new tenancies for the first time, and support for families who have been homeless. I know that the YMCA is looking at people coming out of foyers, are also concerned about the type of support that it will get. It particularly emphasised the fact that follow up work is essential on all fronts. I believe these types of organisations can sometimes supply it.

Nevertheless, to be positive, I welcome the fact that the Government have already announced funding this year to help councils prepare and some of that funding has been ring-fenced. Another helpful thing that the Government have done is to decide to pay people supporting grants a month in advance, rather than in arrears and that will help some of the organisations about which I have been talking. However, I have some concerns about this and have spoken to the Minister. I hope that he will be able to reassure me on some of these points.

3.45 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

Perhaps I can ask the Minister a couple of questions arising out of the amendments of the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. First, with regard to rough sleeping, I would not for a moment deny the seriousness of the problem, but will the Minister tell us how localised it is? It seems to me, from what I have read, that while it may be a local problem, it is also one that manifests itself in areas other than that from which an individual may have come. It is therefore something that needs to be dealt with on more than simply a district-by-district basis.

Secondly, when I first read Amendment No. 1—and I do not for a moment disagree with my noble friend—I did wonder how it could be otherwise than that a review or homelessness strategy would be part of a wider ranging housing strategy, because local authorities just as much as central government need to join up their policies. I then began to wonder whether it was not likely to cause some problems to put it in this way, because there are other areas of policy work and strategies that need to have regard to housing strategy for a development plan.

Having made that point, why is it necessary to provide for the authority to have these two powers at all? If they do not already have powers to review homelessness and to formulate a homelessness strategy, that makes a nonsense of local authority activity and goes to support the arguments my colleagues and I have made for a power of general competence, but I do not believe that that can be the point.

It is important to get on the record that it is not necessary to spell out a power such as this in legislation, because if it is necessary to say that a local authority has such powers, that must call into question equivalent powers in different areas. For that reason I ask the Minister to confirm that it is convenient as a matter of drafting and readability of the Bill, but not necessary for legislation. There must be other similar powers that, if they needed legislation to spell them out, would be open to challenge as not being within the vires of a local authority.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

We have heard a lot of good sense in the past 15 minutes, based upon wide experience of being members of committees, chairmen of housing committees and so on. I am sure that the Minister will appreciate that that is because of anxiety, not nit-picking or meticulousness. The Minister and the ministry are well served if it can give assurances either that that which is being sought is not necessary, or that that which is being sought has been taken on board and will be taken account of in some other way.

The great concern of parliamentarians is, of course, to see things written on the face of the Bill. I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, rightly pointed out that there may not be a need for some of the things that have been mentioned to be written on the face of the Bill if we can understand what is being asked. It would have been unthinkable up to 10 or 15 years ago to have had a Bill dealing with the homeless. The homeless have always been with us to one degree or another and it is manifest of the Government's interest and determination to tackle the problem that they have found the time to produce this Bill in a very crowded legislative programme. We all know exactly what I mean in that context.

I accept everything I have heard pleading the case. But I am also willing to listen to the Minister when he tells us, as I am sure he will, that what is being sought is not necessary. Like many Members of the Committee who spoke earlier, I do not believe that a strategy can be complete without a direct reference to the homeless as a segment of our people—"our people" being the people that we try to look after in the committees. I hope very much that the Minister will be able to give the assurances that colleagues are seeking and I look forward to hearing what he has to say.

The Minister of State, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

I agree with my noble friend. We have heard a great deal of good sense in the past 15 minutes and I hope that I shall be able to give the reassurances that noble Baronesses have been seeking in relation to what I suspect have in many cases been probing amendments.

I shall deal first with what the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said by way of introduction. She is absolutely right that the effect of the order will be to increase the numbers of people legally in priority need. She is right to say that the number of households now housed in bed and breakfast has gone up to 11,000. She is also right to say that the problem is getting worse. I do not believe for one moment that she is suggesting that the right course is not to acknowledge that the problem is getting worse, nor is it the wrong course to extend the priority need order to those who are genuinely in priority need; for example, 16 and 17 year-olds. We should treat them as priority needs. As a result, the problem with which we are all wrestling is how then one delivers on making the law fit the environment in which we now operate.

The noble Baroness described "an impossible task" being made worse by legislative changes. I did not understand her to be saying that the legislation was a bad idea, but that it makes us face the difficulties with which we have to wrestle in determining how we deal with homelessness. Those are problems with which we need to deal, but we need to deal with them up-front and recognise that there are real problems that we all need to face.

I turn to the first amendment, which the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, also addressed. Her first amendment would require local housing authorities to incorporate their homelessness strategy into their wider housing strategy. At the moment there is no statutory requirement on local housing authorities to have a housing strategy although in practice it is necessary under the Housing Investment Programme framework. Because there is no explicit requirement it would be inappropriate to impose a statutory requirement for an authority to make its statutory homelessness strategy part of its wider housing strategy. However, I entirely agree with what the noble Baroness is saying; that an authority's statutory homelessness strategy will inevitably be an integral part of its wider housing policy. It has to be. Clear advice to local housing authorities on this matter will be given in guidance.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Maddock and Lady Hamwee, both made the point that there would be other strategies as well that might affect homelessness. That is plainly right and the guidance will focus on that as well because it is necessary for people to look at homelessness in a context that is much wider than simply bricks and mortar. I hope that that deals with the first amendment.

Amendments Nos. 2 and 4 relate to rough sleepers. They are not explicitly mentioned, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said in her remarks: therefore could we make it clear on the face of the Bill that homelessness includes rough sleepers? I entirely understand her concern. Of course we would want homelessness strategies to deal with rough sleepers. However, I hope that she will accept my assurance that rough sleeping is already covered by the definition of "homeless" employed in the Bill.

The definition appears in Section 175 of the Housing Act 1996 and clearly includes rough sleeping, for it covers those who have no accommodation available for their occupation. Moreover, the Code of Guidance will make it clear that authorities will need to take account of rough sleeping in their reviews and in devising their strategies. The situation is legally covered, but if that is not sufficient—which it probably is not—we will also make it clear in guidance that the homelessness strategies must cover rough sleepers as well as everything else.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee asked specifically how localised it is. Rough sleepers frequently come from other areas. Frequently, people in rough sleepers' accommodation will tell you that they got on the train intending to go to Newcastle, but got off at Nottingham, for reasons that they are inadequately able to explain. The problem moves around. Prevention is vital in addressing all forms of homelessness in the future.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

I wondered whether you went through Nottingham to get to Newcastle.

4 p.m.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

That thought occurred to me as I made that comment. I was not sure whether the train line went that way. I should have said the Newark. We hope that prevention will also be addressed.

Amendments Nos. 3, 5, 8 and 9, would insert further definitions regarding organisations that the local housing authority must involve in its work on a homelessness strategy. The need for the local authority to work in partnership and not alone underlies the amendments. We entirely endorse that approach. A partnership approach is central to our proposals. We require local housing authorities, of which the noble Baroness has experience, to take a multi-agency strategic approach to preventing and responding to homelessness.

Clauses 1 to 3 set up the basis for such a strategy and require that it be kept under review. Amendment No. 3 specifies bodies whose role in tackling homelessness should be considered in the course of a local housing authority's homelessness review. The other amendments, which are to an extent consequential, would allow a housing authority to include references to actions to be undertaken by strategic partners in its homelessness strategy and Amendments Nos. 8 and 9 would oblige housing authorities to consult strategic partners and, in particular, the Housing Corporation, housing associations and RSLs, before adopting or modifying a homelessness strategy.

Many agencies are involved with people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless and it is important that those agencies work together to avoid duplication or gaps in provision. Local housing authorities should of course work with other authorities and agencies in conducting reviews and in drawing up strategies. We have in mind social services authorities and departments, health services and those administering housing benefit, among others.

Registered social landlords will he central to the development and implementation of homelessness strategies. In some areas they provide the majority of social housing and the transfer programme is increasing their importance in delivering services to tenants and in supporting local authorities in the performance of their statutory duties. I held a meeting with the key stakeholder organisations on 21st November to discuss the way forward on homelessness. I am pleased to say that it was agreed at that meeting that the Housing Corporation, the Association of London Government and the Local Government Association would work on an agreed programme for closer co-operation between RSLs and local housing authorities on tackling homelessness. I have asked to be kept informed of progress.

This morning, I met 15 of the major RSLs to discuss how they can help local authorities to meet their homelessness duties. That will be followed up early in the new year with a joint seminar for RSLs and local housing authorities. A wide range of other bodies should also be engaged, including probation services and voluntary organisations working with young people or with those suffering from mental health problems. Organisations that deal with rough sleepers also have a vital role to play.

Again, I repeat for the third time that I agree with the noble Baroness that the involvement of bodies cited in her amendment are vital to ensure effective local strategies. As it stands, the Bill enables local housing authorities to ensure that the potential contribution of such bodies is considered at the review stage, that their activities may—with their agreement—be outlined in the resulting homelessness strategy and that they are consulted on the adoption or modification of the strategy. This is by virtue of the references at Clause 2(1)(c) and Clause 3(3)(b) and Clause 3(8), to, "voluntary organisations and other persons". Registered social landlords, as non-profit-making bodies, fall under the definition of "voluntary organisations".

Homeless and multiple occupation landlords, and members of landlords' forums and clearly "other persons", and the housing corporation is a "public authority", so all the persons or bodies mentioned in the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, are already covered. From what I have said, I hope that it is clear that we completely share the approach that she outlined in moving her amendment. I can, in addition, assure the noble Baroness that clear guidance will be given to housing authorities as to the organisations they should engage with throughout the process of carrying out homelessness reviews and formulating strategies.

We should steer clear of placing such detailed and prescriptive requirements on the face of the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, would be the first to criticise the Government, quite rightly, for placing too many tick-box requirements on the face of the Bill. The Government are confident that the Bill already achieves what the noble Baroness has sought to ensure by tabling those amendments.

Let me move to Amendment No. 6, which was tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, on supporting people. The noble Baroness will forgive me if I do not deal with the detailed drafting of the amendment because she has made it clear, in moving her amendment, that she wishes to use it as an opportunity to raise concerns about the supporting people programme. The noble Baroness stated her concerns about the Government's funding regime for supporting people and the potential effects, in particular but not exclusively, on small voluntary groups. I am pleased to be able to reassure her on this point. Supporting people payments will be determined by contracts entered into between the local authority commissioning body and the service provider, and these contracts will last between three and five years. Supporting people funds are not allocated via a bidding round.

My department is very sensitive to the concerns of small voluntary organisations regarding the impact of supporting people and has taken a number of steps to address those concerns.

These include research into the black and minority ethnic sector, which the noble Baroness did not mention but which is a concern to significant numbers of people, on the basis of which guidance is being produced. This guidance is due to be published in January. Whilst the guide and research was primarily aimed at the black and minority ethnic sector, this is predominantly made up of small organisations and therefore much of the content is equally relevant to all small organisations. The guidance is mainly intended for local authorities but also mainstream providers and black and minority ethnic-led providers.

My department, through the supporting people programme, has a contract with the Housing Associations Charitable Trust to disperse grant funds to small organisations. This money is intended to enable small local and community-based housing support agencies to participate in the supporting people implementation process, locally and regionally, by building the capacity of the voluntary sector and enabling support service agencies to participate effectively in the supporting people strategies and plans.

In addition, the supporting people team at the department is currently drawing up a proposal to provide funds for two capacity-building co-ordinators to work with local authorities to assist small organisations to develop their capacity to play an effective role in the provision of services. They will also aim to develop information systems with community organisations so the needs and experiences of their client group can feed into both local and regional supporting people planning processes.

A number of supporting people workshops have been organised to engage the black and minority ethnic sector in the supporting people programme and to encourage them to start preparing for implementation in 2003. Other events are planned for 2002, so there is a good deal of work going on to try to address the specific concerns. The noble Baroness raised the question of what will happen after 2003 but much of the answer to that will depend on what happens in the build-up to 2003. I shall write in more detail as to what the present proposals are in relation to post-2003. If the noble Baroness has particular concerns about what I have said—and I do not ask her to raise them now as it is quite a dense answer—I suggest she raises them with me. I shall be more than happy to have a meeting with her to discuss any particular concerns that arise out of the detail of what I have said in my answer to her important amendment, because the Supporting People programme has a significant impact on dealing with homelessness, in particular in relation to various preventative measures that we hope will become the norm among local authorities.

Amendment No. 7 is the last amendment in the group that I have to deal with. This would place a further duty on a local housing authority when it has formulated its homelessness strategy not only to refer to its allocation scheme in that strategy but also to set out the relative priorities that will be accorded to homeless people and others to whom a housing duty is owed by the authority under that scheme. This takes us well beyond the sensible limits of a homelessness strategy. The principal purpose of these strategies is for the housing authority, with the assistance of social services authorities, and in consultation with other bodies, including RSL and voluntary organisations, to set out how it will tackle and prevent homelessness in its area. This is no small task and it will not be made any easier by an unnecessary requirement to address issues relating to the authority's allocation scheme. However, if an authority thinks it wise to refer to its allocation scheme, it will be more than able to do so in its homelessness strategy.

New Section 167 provides a robust framework for authorities to allocate accommodation. It requires that reasonable preference be given to certain groups, including the homeless; and that the allocation scheme may be framed to give additional preference to particular descriptions of people within the reasonable preference categories; and that the scheme may also contain provision for determining priorities in allocating housing accommodation to people within the reasonable preference categories. I am sure that we shall explore the detail of those allocation schemes later in our deliberations. However, the allocation scheme is the proper place to set out the relevant priorities, not the homelessness strategy. I should also note that authorities are already required to provide information about their allocation schemes under Section 168 of the 1996 Act.

I very much hope that I have answered all the particular points that have been raised in the course of this short but interesting and important debate. I hope to be able to persuade the noble Baroness to withdraw Amendment No. 1.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

I reassure the Minister that I have no intention of asking any questions and, therefore, do not in any way oblige him to rise again but I postponed my remarks until after he had spoken. My remarks will be brief and relate to Amendment No. 1. The noble Lord, Lord Graham, made reference to housing history with which we are all familiar. It has always seemed to me that since owner occupation has so steadily crept up towards 100 per cent, the minority of housing that is not in the owner-occupied sector has received both diminished attention and, to some degree, concentrated attention because of its significance and also because it was falling as a percentage.

In contrast, the underlying description of the problem given by my noble friend Lady Hanham and the Minister concerned the real problem we have now in terms of priority demand on the one hand and inadequate supply on the other. The consequence of that is that, whereas in terms of the general picture the non-owner-occupied sector is a small part of the proportion, in terms of what we are now talking about, those who are homeless constitute quite a large proportion as regards the remaining stock of housing in the country.

Where the demand is very high in comparison to the supply—and there is no question at all that there are parts of the capital and, indeed, of other areas of the country where that is true—that problem is particularly acute. It is, therefore, particularly important for those who are in housing need in those places to understand why it is that they are being denied housing; that is, because the statutorily homeless and those in housing priority need take so much of the stock.

If I may illustrate my point briefly with a local example. A few years after the Brixton riots, the Peabody Trust, under the admirable George Barlow, introduced regulations that removed the principle that had given people who had grown up on Peabody housing estates some priority in terms of continuing to live there on the grounds that there were others in statutory need who had to be put first. That was a severe disadvantage in areas where there was a high concentration of Peabody communities and estates, because they were clearly going to be dissipated and broken down by that and the social coherence of the neighbourhood would be reduced.

My question—this is a rhetorical question and a paving observation rather than a question to which I am seeking an answer—is whether the issue of communicating to the rest of the community why the homeless take up such a large proportion of the available housing should be part of a homelessness strategy or whether it should be addressed from a wider perspective so that it can be positive rather than negative. I dare say we shall be returning to these questions before the Committee stage is over.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister for what he himself admitted was a dense reply. I do not mean dense in the sense of stupid—and I do not believe that he did either. We are talking about weaving our way through the thicket. To some extent that is the result of the way the amendments have been grouped, because they do not necessarily follow on one from the other. We could have had interesting debates if they had been carved up. I shall consider carefully the denseness of the reply before deciding what to do about the amendment. However, I should like to throw up one or two other points that have arisen out of the thicket.

My noble friend Lord Brooke has highlighted a major issue on whether there should be housing strategy that encompasses the homeless review. The more we go through the Bill, the more one sees that very little housing will be available to allocate to anybody who is not on the priority list or vulnerable list of homeless. Somewhere along the line, someone is going to have to prioritise and decide how those priorities are to be recognised. Who is more vulnerable than the vulnerable? I am not sure that that can be done without having some housing strategy that takes into account the amount of housing that is available to any local authority within its own boundaries and externally, now that one can woofle around in other people's housing areas. The requirement must be married up against the actuality. If the housing strategy is not linked to the homeless review, an authority will miss out on what the actuality is. There may be a huge gap in what the local authority will be able to provide or a reasonable match. The one should not be done without the other.

I shall also refer briefly to the Minister's comments about rough sleepers. Like everyone else here, I am well aware that the Rough Sleepers' Unit is doing an enormously good job. I do not dispute that at all. However, I am not so clear that Section 175 covers the situation as was suggested. It says that a person is homeless if he has no accommodation available for his occupation. We all know of rough sleepers who have accommodation. They have left home and the comforts of home. They have walked out on their families. For some reason or another, they have decided to abandon the accommodation that they had. I would therefore be very tentative about taking Section 175 as a rationale or absolutely assuming that rough sleepers' well-being will be taken into account. I should still like to see that included. We have so many categories bobbing up in this Bill now, one or more less would not make much difference and it would be helpful to keep that in for the time being.

On the question as to whether we ask or suggest that the strategic partners are identified, I understand that you can identify some, identify them all or identify some and miss some. As the Bill stands at the moment, Clause 3(3)(a) and (b) touch on the matter but do not help. Clause 3(3)(a) states, by any public authority with functions". Why have that? It does not identify who these other people are. It does not necessarily lead you to housing associations, to other RSLs or to people who are using housing in multiple occupation in conjunction with the local housing authority.

It is clear, as the Minister himself admitted, that many housing authorities now do not have any housing. Some authorities have transferred everything and they are working by influence as well as by co-ordination with other bodies. The matter is pretty vague. Clause 3(3)(a) refers to "any public authority" and Clause 3(3)(b) refers to "any voluntary organisation". Therefore I still hanker after having a little more direction within that.

I would like to go through the Minister's reply closely, but, for the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed to.

4.15 pm

Clause 2 [Homelessness reviews]:

[Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 not moved.]

Clause 2 agreed to.

Clause 3 [Homelessness strategies]:

[Amendments Nos. 4 and 5 not moved.]

Baroness Maddock had given notice of her intention to move Amendment No. 6: Page 3, line 12, at end insert— ( ) In particular, the authority shall have regard to their Supporting People strategy (or shadow strategy, if appropriate) when formulating their homelessness strategy and ensure that, as far as is practicable, each strategy is complementary to and consistent with the other. The noble Baroness said: I thank the Minister for his reply and say that I may come back to him. I shall not move the amendment.

[Amendment No. 6 not moved.]

[Amendments Nos. 7 to 9 not moved.]

Clause 3 agreed to.

Clause 4 agreed to.

Clause 5 [Provision of accommodation for persons not in priority need who are not homeless intentionally]:

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 10: Page 4, line 2, at end insert "provided that the authority are satisfied that the exercise of this discretion shall not significantly reduce their opportunities to offer accommodation to such persons as are mentioned in section 167(2)(c), (d) and (e) of the 1996 Act (allocation in accordance with allocation scheme), as amended The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to Amendment No. 11. Clause 5 brings us, under subsection (1), to the new provision for securing that accommodation is available for occupation by those who are homeless but not in priority need or considered to be intentionally homeless. The provisions go well beyond the duties in Section 192 of the 1996 Act, which are to give advice and help to someone who is in danger of becoming homeless.

By the addition of subsection (3) of Clause 5 to Section 192 of the 1996 Act there is a further category for whom the local authority may potentially have to provide or ensure that housing is available in addition to those under this Bill who will be considered as being in priority need or vulnerable. It starts to beg the question that we have just touched on about how local authorities are to exercise their new discretion so far as this is concerned and balance that alongside those already included later, under Clause 15(3).

The mind boggles as to how local authorities are to begin to ascertain who will have priority under the new provisions because prioritisation there will have to be. Indeed, the Bill is so far silent on how councils will be able to do this.

Amendment No. 10 will amend proposed new subsection (3) to Section 192 of the 1996 Act by giving local authorities some room to decide that to help by providing accommodation to a person who was not on the priority list was likely to put into jeopardy their responsibility to others. Therefore in consequence, there would be discretion as to whether or not they could or should be given preferential help beyond the advice available under the current Act. Subsection (2) of Clause 5 amends the duties owed in section 195 of the 1996 Act to those who are not in a priority category and who are threatened with homelessness unintentionally. The provisions enable a local authority to intervene to help ensure that existing accommodation remains available to the applicant.

Amendment No. 11 would provide some safeguard for the interests of either the registered social landlord or private landlord in the case where efforts are being made to protect such accommodation, since it may be that they have a justifiable reason for trying to repossess the property. However, in any event they must be given an opportunity to be party to any agreement rather than having one forced upon them, which could be construed as being an outcome, under these provisions. I beg to move.

Baroness Maddock

The situation for local authorities—housing authorities—up and down the country is different in different places, which is why the legislation should remain as stated in this Bill. For example, there are places where there is hard to let accommodation that might be suitable for single people. Until now, single people have not been eligible for housing by local authorities or registered social landlords. If we are to make best use of housing in some parts of the country—I recognise that this may not be the situation that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, finds in her area—we should not pass these amendments. In areas of high demand I realise that such provisions will never be enacted unless more affordable housing is somehow made available throughout the country rather than just within specific areas. In some areas, it may be that local authorities could help key workers with their hard to let properties. Some of the properties were built a long time ago, not to the standard that we tend to build today, which is why they are hard to let. Nevertheless, some younger, single people would be grateful for some of the properties I am referring to. I am afraid that I am not mindful—I sincerely hope that some of my colleagues agree—to support the amendments.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

I entirely agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, said. Different conditions apply in different local authority areas depending, as the noble Baroness says, on whether it is an area of high demand, as is the case obviously in the borough that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, knows best. Places such as Knowsley, Liverpool or parts of Manchester present a totally different picture.

Having said that, I appreciate the concern that those who have been accepted as statutorily homeless should not be given undue priority over those in housing need who seek local authority housing, particularly in the case of homeless people who do not have a priority need for housing.

I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, that the new power in Clause 5(1), which she seeks to amend by Amendment No. 10 does not affect the preference or priority which must be given to applicants under an authority's allocation scheme. The new power, which will only be discretionary, will be equivalent to the duty owed to families and vulnerable persons who have become homeless through no fault of their own. It will allow the authority to arrange for accommodation to be made available by another landlord or for the authority to provide accommodation itself. Where the authority chooses the latter course, the accommodation will generally be made available on a non-secure—that is, a temporary—basis. I say "generally" because that is the default position under the legislation whenever an authority provides accommodation in pursuance of a homelessness function, and that will apply equally to the new power in Clause 5(1).

Having said that, it would be open to an authority to decide to allocate a secure tenancy to a non-priority need homeless applicant, as now but, where it did so, the allocation would, as now, have to be made in accordance with the provisions of Part VI of the 1996 Act and in accordance with the authority's published allocation scheme. It does not affect how it operates this allocation scheme, but it gives the local authority a greater power than it has now, and as now such allocations would not in future depend on the new power in Clause 5.

Amendment No. 11 relates to the new power inserted by Clause 5(2). This extends the existing provisions of Section 195 of the 1996 Act. Currently, where the authority is satisfied that the applicant is a priority need and is not satisfied that he became threatened with homelessness intentionally, then the authority is placed under a duty to take reasonable steps to secure that accommodation does not cease to be available for his occupation.

The new power enables an authority to take similar reasonable steps in cases where the authority is not satisfied that the applicant has a priority need and is not satisfied that he became threatened with homelessness intentionally. An authority might discharge this duty or exercise the new power through the provision of mediation in cases of relationship breakdown or in helping resolve delays in the payment of housing benefit where these have led to rent arrears. Where the authority is successful in doing those things, then homelessness is averted, to the benefit both of the applicant and his landlord.

Amendment No. 11 would secure that in a case of accommodation not under the control of the authority, the authority could not exercise the proposed discretionary power unless all persons having an interest in the property in which the accommodation is located are in agreement with those steps.

Where an authority takes the reasonable steps I have just outlined and is able to promote a satisfactory resolution—satisfactory to all sides—then an unnecessary case of homelessness is averted. Having to secure the agreement of all persons having an interest in the property would significantly hinder the authority's ability to avert what would be on the hypothesis identified as an unnecessary case of homelessness. That is why Amendment No. 11 would not be helpful in that respect.

I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, will consider my remarks and not press these amendments at a later stage.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister for his reply. I note the lack of support from Members of the Committee. I am not going to press the amendments, but I want to be quite clear in what the Minister says.

Somebody who owns a property will not necessarily have that property in the private sector. The pressure cannot be put on a private landlord to go against his will. There are situations where people do not pay their rent; they break up the flat; they cause an enormous amount of mischief; and one can well understand why the landlord may say enough is enough. The local authority may step in and, with the powers available in the Bill, say, "Sorry, we have a right to deal with this and under those powers we are going to do so. We are going to make sure that this person stays in your flat or your accommodation". It cannot be right to use those powers in that way. There must be a right of agreement with the landlord and an understanding of the reasons why he might or might not wish to keep that letting available to somebody who is being supported by the local authority. If the Minister can satisfy me on that point, I shall not push the amendment.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

I should make it absolutely clear that nothing in this power enables the local authority to interfere if the landlord has grounds for possession in the sort of example the noble Baroness gave, such as when a tenant is guilty of antisocial behaviour to his or her neighbours, or trashes the flat or house. It is not intended for one moment to provide compulsion on private landlords. It is also worth making the point that if an applicant is threatened with homelessness as a result of his or her antisocial behaviour, an authority can be expected to find that person intentionally threatened with homelessness. The existing duty and the proposed power apply only to cases in which the authority is not satisfied that the applicant became threatened with homelessness intentionally. I hope that reassures the noble Baroness.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister for that and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 11 not moved.]

Clause 5 agreed to.

Baroness Maddock moved Amendment No. 12: After Clause 5, insert the following new clause— PROVISION OF ADVICE AND ASSISTANCE A local authority, in providing (or securing the provision of) advice and assistance under sections 190(2)(b) and (3), 192(2) and 195(5) of the 1996 Act, shall ensure that—

  1. (a) an assessment of an applicant's housing and related needs is carried out, and that the results of that assessment are taken into account in the provision of advice and assistance;
  2. CWH 18
  3. (b) appropriate and timely information is provided about the availability of accommodation in the area; and
  4. (c) information and advice is provided about the applicant's right to a review of a decision under section 202 of the 1996 Act (right to request review of decision)."
The noble Baroness said: The purpose of this new clause is to ensure that local authorities meet basic minimum standards in providing advice and assistance to non-priority homeless people. There is a certain amount of déjà vu in this for me, because I moved an amendment about the same group of people when debating what became the Housing Act 1996.

Local authorities are under a duty to provide advice and assistance to help applicants who are not in priority need and who do not qualify for their main accommodation duty. However, there is much evidence—and I am sure that the Minister has read Shelter's document, Singles Barred—that in some cases authorities fail to provide any advice and assistance to that group and that what assistance is provided is often of very poor quality. For example, it is quite common for applicants simply to be given a list of bed-and-breakfast hostels. Many people—not just me, but others who work in the housing field—are concerned that a lot of very vulnerable people are slipping through the net. Applicants are not getting adequate support to enable them to find their own solution to their homelessness and, ultimately, more people will end up on the streets. We know the Government do not want that.

The amendment would set out a basic minimum standard on the face of the Bill that should he met regardless of the individual circumstances of the client or the local housing market. It would require local authorities to carry out an assessment of an applicant's needs, to provide appropriate information about the availability of accommodation, and to provide information about an applicant's right to review.

That is not a significant departure from the current legislation. However, it would require those authorities that are currently providing a rather poor level of service to meet their responsibilities and deliver what I believe is the intention of the Government in this area.

The Government have said that they do not believe that the law requires further amendment, but if they do not accept stronger duties, they should set out the steps that they intend to take to ensure that standards in this area are raised. If the Minister is not mindful to have that on the face of the Bill as we have put it down, the Government should consider a specific commitment in the national homelessness strategy, which the Government are to publish in the new year, perhaps a new performance indicator under the best value regime to monitor local authority performance in this area and stronger guidance, including a clear statement that this issue should be addressed by the homelessness strategy that will be developed under this Bill.

Let me explain the current situation. In some authorities the quality of advice and assistance is extremely variable and, in some cases, extremely poor. Sometimes people do not even have an interview. I cannot remember where I read that someone was turned away by the security guard on the door of the local authority.

Assessments of vulnerability are not made consistently and there is no doubt that some of them contravene the statutory guidance. Much of the written information provided by authorities is often out of date, such as the sort of information they give on bed and breakfast accommodation. Standards of safety—another issue we will talk about later on in the Bill—are also of concern. Sometimes applicants receive no verbal advice at all; it is only written. It is also clear that some of the people who will find themselves homeless may not be literate, which may be one of the reasons why they are in difficulty.

One of the other areas, to which we will return later in the Bill, is that many applicants do not receive a written notice of the authority's decision and they are not informed of their right to review. If the Government are serious about preventing homelessness, that is something we need to look at. I know the Government in another place responded by bringing forward their own amendment at a later stage to strengthen the statutory duty, but my colleagues and I still have some concerns.

This new clause responds to some of the arguments that were made in another place, and it requires authorities to meet three minimum requirements: an assessment of the applicant's housing and related needs, so failing to interview and assess the needs of applicants who appear vulnerable would be ruled out; appropriate and timely information about the availability of accommodation in the area, and I have outlined the problems we have with the sorts of information that some local authorities think is satisfactory; and information and advice about the applicant's right to review of a decision, which is something we shall talk about at another point in the Bill. That is what we hope to achieve by these amendments and I look forward to the Minister's response. I beg to move.

Baroness Rendell of Babergh

It may be that the provisions in this amendment are already covered in the Bill. But to my mind, the new ones recognise and emphasise that not all local authorities show the right levels of concern and care for clients' needs. They aim to secure basic minimum standards. It is not sufficiently recognised how many applicants suffer from intense vulnerability and confusion. They speak and understand English inadequately. As the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, said, some people cannot read. They are confronted by problems which to us might simply be time-consuming irritants but they can be frightening, particularly to those whose self-esteem is already badly shaken by hardship and humiliation.

I wish to give two examples which come from articles written by sheltered housing advice centres. The first reads: At one London authority Homeless Persons Unit, a 30 year old woman fleeing domestic violence was told by the receptionist that a passport was essential, before he could pass on her details to one of his colleagues. The applicant was also informed that the local authority required a police or doctor's report to prove that it was unsafe for her to remain in her present accommodation. She was told that she was non-priority because she was single, without children and not pregnant. The applicant was left with no choice other than to return home. She was not given any information by the Homeless Persons Unit, other than a customer satisfaction survey to fill out". The other example is, The experience of many of Shelter's advisers in London is that many authorities simply give out Shelterline's freephone number to homeless applicants who are not in priority need. Many callers contact them believing this will secure them accommodation. I could give many other examples but I will not take up the time of the Committee. I feel that the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, is needful and I support it.

The Earl of Listowel

I rise to speak to the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. The Minister reminded the Committee earlier this afternoon of the importance of prevention. The concern that is being raised here is that the needs of non-priority homeless people are not being met. In my experience at Centrepoint I have come across young people with mental health problems who have slipped through the system, and occasionally people with learning difficulties. We know that more than 4,500 families with children are not classed as priority needs because of decisions about their intention with regard to their homelessness. It is hard to decide what people's intentions are. The process is notoriously complex and can be very harsh but we are still dealing with families with children.

Under the current arrangement how can one ensure that there is an adequate service? That is what concerns me. I am not sure whether the amendment or whether further strengthening the duty on local authorities is the way to reach that. There is clearly great inconsistency. I heard only this afternoon from a homelessness agency about young people being given just a telephone number; if they are given a list of hostels it may have the wrong opening times and they may make the journey to the hostel and find the doors are shut, or the information may be out of date. If they make a telephone call to the hostel—and these are now referral only rather than direct access—they have wasted the money on the telephone call. They also feel that they are struggling and it is counterproductive. This is a key area.

Young people are drifting into the centre of London where there are many homeless agencies which are keen to see that they stay, if possible, in their local authority. It is better that the local authority should help them before they come into the centre of town and become subject to all its problems. There needs to be a uniform, high-quality level of assessment, up-to-date advice and, if there needs to be a review, an explanation of why they have been denied priority homelessness and their right to a review of that decision.

There are examples of local authorities that have failed in London. So many young people come from Lambeth but very few from Tower Hamlets. Why is that? They are similar authorities with similar problems, but somehow the homeless persons units appear not to be functioning so well in Lambeth. There clearly needs to be better monitoring, training and support of staff in homeless persons units and the best practice there needs to be disseminated and a consistent service provided throughout.

That job is tremendously demanding, especially in those areas where there is very little accommodation. Those staff have to be very creative in their responses to people. Often this does not happen. For example, a receptionist told an applicant that without identification and a letter providing proof that he was homeless there was nothing they could do for him. In another authority that person met a homeless persons officer who expressed genuine concern for the applicant's well-being. The attitude is very important.

Is the Minister clear that funding for the implementation of the Bill—£8 million, as I understand it—will be sufficient to enable the better dissemination of good practice and secondment between, perhaps, different local authorities and homelessness agencies? The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, mentioned the importance of ensuring that best-value regime applies in a focused way to raising the standards in this area and that there is a strategic goal nationally in the national homelessness policy in ensuring a high standard of service. She also said that there should be stronger guidance in the local authority strategy in relation to the Bill. I look forward to the Minister's response to those ideas.

4.45 pm
Lord Graham of Edmonton

We are dealing with people who are desperate, people who are under attack and people who do not know which way to turn—I am talking about the staff, not the applicants. One of the most wretched aspects of being a local councillor is dealing with housing, and one of the most desperate of desperate situations is trying to give assurances, with no resources at all, to people who are desperately in need of just a modicum of hope.

We are asking the Minister to consider whether he can do anything more than he is already doing in this Bill and in other ways. The Minister has a dilemma in leaving power and freedom to local authorities to determine how they exercise their priorities and their budgets. That will inevitably mean that in some areas there will be a shortfall in what we might think they ought to do. Having been a local councillor, like many Members of the Committee, I know about the competing claims on local authority housing resources.

In common with other Members of the Committee, I have a position with the Local Government Association. All that we and the Minister can do is try to engender a little more understanding and kindness where it does not exist. I do not believe that there are many occasions when there is no understanding of the needs of the desperate homeless or badly housed people. Very often, the officers of a council must be torn and end up being over-sympathetic and perhaps leading people on, assuring them that there is a solution and that if they wait a little longer or do something else, they will get it. The fact is that there is a shortage of accommodation. The right-to-buy legislation has resulted in the stock of housing that was once available to a council drying up over the past 20 years. The remaining stock is diminishing all the time. I do not take kindly to people arguing that certain things can be done, when, by political decision, one—only one—of the weapons that was available has been taken away from the authority.

I have dealt with many wretched circumstances. Many times I left my surgery as an MP and cried outside in the car at the helplessness and hopelessness of some cases. However, that will not solve the problem. Eventually, we need a greater availability of accommodation and an understanding by the people who are homeless or in wretched homes that there are limits and that everything that can be done is being done.

I hear what my noble friend Lady Rendell has told us. We want to hear from the Minister that the aims of the amendment are already dealt with in the Bill. The Minister will be well served if he takes on board the heart as well as the brain of the Members of the Committee. Those of us who live well and are housed well and know about homelessness feel more than anybody else the helplessness of the people who cannot help themselves. When they come to the council, the very least that a council can do is to have properly trained people available.

Rape at one time was treated simply as a crime. It is a crime, but there are ways in which the victim of the rape can be made to feel that at least there is an understanding of their condition. The same can happen for those who are in desperate need of housing. My experience is primarily in the London Borough of Enfield and in Edmonton. Because I am joint president of the Local Government Association I am conscious that even within London there are variations. The Minister has already referred to consultation with council leaders and councils. One of the Minister's priorities, with a short purse, is to ensure that every resource available is constantly tapped and trawled to see whether it cannot be squeezed again. I am delighted that we have on the Committee at the moment the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, who, as we all know, is the Chairman of the Housing Corporation.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

I follow the noble Lord, Lord Graham, and share experience with him, both in London local authority work and as a Member of Parliament. Apart from during evacuation, parts of my education, service in the Army and periods abroad, I have lived in London all my life. Therefore my perspective is essentially a London one. I feel deep compassion for those who have been alluded to by those who have already spoken. That applies both to the indigenous population and, a fortiori, to asylum speakers and refugees when confronted with the problem they have seeking housing in frequently dreadful circumstances.

I tell the following anecdote to illustrate that this is not a simple problem. I will make it totally local. I refer to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and to the City of Westminster. It is perfectly possible for the Royal Borough to put one of its housing cases into Westminster and equally possible that, simultaneously, even on the same day, Westminster is putting somebody into the Royal Borough. An immediate problem arises in parliamentary terms as to who the representatives for those people then are. Do people who have moved into the Royal Borough then look to the Member of Parliament for that constituency and do those who have been moved into Westminster look to the Westminster MP? It is a fact that the first most likely thing that they will want to consult their MP about will be their housing situation and, secondly, if they are asylum seekers, their problems with the Home Office, which, broadly speaking, in the last Parliament gave up communicating with asylum seekers so that all communication was done through Members of Parliament.

In those circumstances, the person who has the problem ideally should deal with the Member of Parliament for the housing authority that has put him or her into a borough other than their own. On the other hand, all the traditions of the House of Commons operate in the opposite direction. When I consulted the Speaker, my Chief Whip and the chairman of the Procedure Committee, all of them said that the matter should be dealt with by the Member of Parliament representing the constituency in which the person concerned lives.

That is all right provided that everybody accepts that principle, but there are 74 London Members of Parliament who tend to act arbitrarily and independently. Therefore on the advice of the Speaker, the Chief Whip and the chairman of the Procedure Committee that we should stick by the existing rule, I acted as a shop steward for the Conservative Members of Parliament and secured agreement that that was what we would do. I then sought, through my parliamentary neighbour, Karen Buck, who was the chairman of the parliamentary group of Labour MPs in London, that we would all agree to do the same thing. It was clear that the system would not work if some of us were using one practice and some another. I pay the greatest possible tribute to Karen Buck, but she was not able to get a definitive answer out of the parliamentary group of Labour MPs before the general election was called, so, for all I know, the problem is still unresolved.

I only tell that anecdote to demonstrate that if Members of Parliament, who are at the sharp end of the problem and who feel the compassion that I have indicated here, are incapable of organising a system among themselves to which they will all subscribe, as the noble Lord, Lord Graham, said, I have the greatest sympathy for the local authority staff who also have to deal with the problem. I have sympathy too for the officials behind the Minister who are trying to run a system when it is so difficult to get common sense to prevail in the way we operate.

Baroness Hanham

Very briefly, if I may address the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. As I see it, Sections 190 and 192 address those who are homeless but are not considered as being priority need, or who are homeless intentionally. They are a specific part of this Bill and the other Act. Those sections already provide an explicit requirement for local authorities to provide advice, to take into account the local housing provision and to ensure that advice and assistance is given to anybody who makes an application to them.

The amendment would have two effects. First, it would slightly widen what local authorities are meant to do, by making them responsible for making an assessment of the person and ensuring that that assessment is taken into account when they give advice. Secondly, it draws attention to the review that is now put into the Bill. That seems sensible. As a member of a local authority, I understand that some councils are better than others. My local authority or that of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, may not need such advice, but others may, so I am not opposed to the widening of the existing wording.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

As the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, has pointed out, the amendment prescribes what advice and assistance local authorities should give to homeless people. I agree straight away with the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, that advice and assistance for homeless people, including non-priority applicants, is an important part of local authorities' housing work. That is why the "satisfactory provision of support"—meaning advice, information and assistance—is specified in Clause 3(1)(c) as one of the areas that the homelessness strategies must cover.

However, we have gone further, as the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, acknowledged, by including other provisions to strengthen the advice and assistance duty on authorities. Those provisions are set out in paragraphs 8, 9 and 11(b) of Schedule 1. Instead of advice and such assistance as the authority considers appropriate in the circumstances, the duty will be to provide or secure the provision of advice and assistance in any attempts that an applicant makes to secure accommodation. The provision is less subjective.

An authority acting reasonably—and they will all be obliged to act reasonably—will have to consider the advice and assistance that it should give in the particular attempts made by the applicant. It will necessarily have to take account of what the applicant needs to pursue those attempts, as well as the extent of any advice and assistance that it can reasonably be expected to provide. The requirement is in effect applicant-specific.

I imagine that the noble Baroness has in mind cases in which, as a matter of form, all that is ever given is a list of names and addresses of landlords and nothing more. It is because the law or the terms of the Bill have been changed to make it clear the duty will be to provide or secure the provision of advice and assistance in any attempts an applicant makes to secure accommodation that the move is made from the general to the specific. The level of detail of the advice and assistance required by the amendment is too prescriptive on local authorities and would not be appropriate or helpful. We will of course cover the issue of advice and assistance in the statutory guidance which will accompany the Bill and we will deal with, all the matters I have gone through. With respect, that is probably the most helpful way to do it, rather than sticking particular provisions in the Bill. What we have done instead, which is much more fundamental, is to change the form of the Bill so that the advice and assistance that has to be given is to secure, the provision of advice and assistance", in any attempt an applicant makes to secure accommodation.

Let me deal with two other points that have been made. A point made by the noble Lord, Lord Graham, was echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke. It was, in effect, that there is a real problem here because there is a great shortage of accommodation and one therefore pities the local authority staff who have to provide advice and assistance.

Housing investment has gone up in recent years. The Housing Corporation's budget for new, affordable housing will double between 2001–02 and 2003–04, with an extra £872 million. An extra £250 million has gone into the starter homes initiative. Resources for local authority investment have gone up from £750 million in 1997–98 to £2.5 billion by 2003–04. About £137 million is going into a new, safer community-supported housing fund. The figures have gone up dramatically over the past four years and will continue to go up, pursuant to spending plans already announced. I do not suggest that there will not continue to be a problem of homelessness but the investment is going upwards. Having said that, it will not be enough to provide for all the needs of homeless people in this country and that is why it is so important to reach a sensible legal arrangement of what the safety net consists of.

The second point I should deal with is whether there should be a new performance indicator in the best value arrangements in relation to the provision of advice and assistance. In the context of local government arrangements, the Government have made it clear that it is unhelpful to have a huge range of targets with which local authorities have to comply. There is always a temptation, in every area, to want a best value performance indicator in relation to that because, in every area, one thinks that would be the way to improve standards. All the views that we receive from local government are to the effect that the quantity of best-value performance indicators is not necessarily the way to drive up performance. It is far better to target those best-value performance indicators on a small number of areas to have the desired effect. It may well be that, in particular local authority areas, it would be sensible to have a best-value performance indicator, chosen in effect by the local authority as an appropriate course to take—which they can do. Nationally, however, I do not think it would achieve the effects that Members of the Committee hoped for.

I hope I have dealt with the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. The way that the arrangements have been changed mean that we are dealing with a fundamental point. Prescription on the face of the Bill is not the way forward. We will deal with many of the points in the guidance. Best-value performance indicators may not be the panacea in every area that people think and one should be more sensible about where one targets them.

5 p.m.

The Earl of Listowel

I thank the Minister for giving way. On that point about best value targets, will the Minister undertake to keep a watchful eye on that? I suppose that it would be possible for those local authorities that are already doing a good job in this area to set best-value targets in this particular area, and for those local authorities that are already failing in this area not to set the best-value targets. Just in case there is a danger of the proposal slipping by, would the Minister keep an eye on the matter and perhaps come back to it at a later stage? I hope that he will do so in a year's time or whatever, and not in the Bill.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

I undertake to keep a watchful eye on that, personally and on behalf of the department so that it continues beyond.

I have considered the question of best-value performance indicators before it was raised and I broadly take the view that this particular best-value performance indicator would be going much too far. If we had to have a best value performance indicator for this type of thing, we would have to have a great many, which ultimately would not be sensible or effective. However, I certainly give the undertaking that the noble Earl sought.

Baroness Hamwee

Before my noble friend responds, can the Minister help on this? He pointed us to the current legislation, as has the whole debate, referring to advice and assistance which a local housing authority considers appropriate and presumably reasonableness has to be imported into that. He reminded us of the change in the schedule which will take out the subjectivity. Is there in fact such a difference between the legislation as it now applies and as it will apply when this schedule comes into effect? Am I right that there has to be imported that degree of reasonableness into what a local housing authority considers appropriate? If so, does it make any difference what the guidance says in either of those two circumstances? Is there not the same problem? From the Minister's face it would seem that I am not making myself wholly clear!

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

I understand entirely what the noble Baroness is saying. Three points: first, there is a change because the provision, for the reasons I stated, is now less subjective, as the noble Baroness acknowledges. Secondly, it is applicant specific. Thirdly—and this is not a change in legal principle—the authority is obliged to act reasonably in the context of Wednesbury reasonableness; it would have had to have done so before but the obligation is different.

The final question was about the guidance. The guidance is not part of the statute but if a local authority acts flagrantly against the terms of the guidance, it would be relevant material in considering whether or not the local authority had acted Wednesbury reasonable.

Baroness Maddock

I thank the Minister for his long answer. Various people have pointed out that good advice is key to the prevention of homelessness, which is one thing on which we can all agree. We can all also agree that there are many authorities that provide very good advice and a good pattern that we would like everybody to follow. The fact, however, is that they do not. We have heard examples this afternoon of authorities giving people poor quality advice—and I could offer many more if the Minister wants.

This is not about the amount of accommodation that local authorities have available. It is merely about a basic minimum standard of advice to people. I remind Members of the Committee that there are three minimum requirements: an assessment of housing and related needs; appropriate and timely information about the availability of accommodation in the area; and information and advice about the right to review.

The Minister said that this is going to be in guidance but the fact is that guidance has a much weaker legal status than what is written on the face of the Bill. That is why so many people in the housing world are very concerned. They are the people who pick up the pieces when the legislation does not work and that is why they are concerned to see something rather better on the face of the Bill.

I shall look in more detail at what the Minister said and we may return to it at another time. I still have concerns but I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 6 agreed to.

Clause 7 [Events which cause the duty to cease]:

Baroness Maddock moved Amendment No. 13: Page 4, line 40, at end insert ", and states that the offer shall remain available for such period as the authority may determine is reasonable in all the circumstances The noble Baroness said: We have just had a discussion about reasonableness. The purpose of this amendment is to provide for local authorities to give homeless applicants a reasonable period of time within which to accept or refuse a final offer of accommodation. This issue was discussed in the last Housing Bill and in this Bill in another place. Homeless people are often given 24 or 48 hours to make a decision—not always, but I must emphasise that we are dealing here with where things do not go well rather than where people do give a reasonable time—and a homeless person is not always in the best frame of mind to make a quick decision. If one has children one has to make decisions about where they are to go to school, and if one has relatives that need to be cared for there are quite a lot of things that need to be taken into account. It is important that we try to make sure that local authorities are genuinely reasonable in the amount of time that they give to applicants when they are offered accommodation.

I suspect that when the Minister comes back there will be discussion about whether it is reasonable to talk about reasonableness in legislation. I point out that there are three other places in the Bill where reasonableness is mentioned. In Section (7F), when making an offer of assistance to a homeless applicant, the authority must be satisfied that it is "reasonable". In Clause 13(10), notification of allocation decisions should be made available by the local authority, "for a reasonable period". Section 177(1) of the Housing Act 1996 states that a person is homeless if it is not reasonable for them to continue to occupy their accommodation. We have already had that discussion earlier this afternoon.

I do not intend to speak about this for long but it is important that we make sure that it is not acceptable for local authorities to give a short period of time to homeless people when they are considering offers. I beg to move.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

It is a reasonable point I want to make. In the context of giving advice to a person who is about to get accommodation, what is reasonable notice? I have an example of someone who was rung up one day, regrettably by the Westminster council, and who was told that they must accept the accommodation the next day. That is most unreasonable. I do not say that that happens only in Westminster; there could be other examples as well. The dilemma that the Committee and the Minister have is that if one day's notice is unreasonable, what is reasonable? Is it seven, 14 or three days? When the Minister replies, will he tell us whether thought has been given to that, or whether the councils will simply be told that they must be more reasonable than some of them have been in the past. In that context, we should also understand the problems that the noble Baroness has mentioned. In the example I gave it involved a single person and the question of children and work did not come into it. Nevertheless, the atmosphere in which such events occur is, "Take it or leave it". When the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, replies, I should be grateful to know what she considers to be "reasonable" in this context.

Lord Fearn

I support the amendment put by my noble friend. Following what has already been said, it is essential that the staff, who should be fully trained, although at times they are not, should find out the state of health of the person who comes. The applicant fills in a form and speaks to one person or maybe two. There is no follow-up regarding the health side. As a previous MP, I have tackled many cases in my surgery where I realised that people were schizophrenic and not always able to act on their own but able to fill in the form at the time. However, their health circumstances had never been investigated by those who were supposed to be trained in housing matters with the homeless. Will the Minister say whether the time limit of one, two or three days takes into consideration the health status of that person, especially when that involves a young, single person who has not declared his state of health at that time?

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

It was not the reference to Westminster by the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, that has brought me to my feet. In fact, the very point to which he was alluding had already struck me during the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock.

The amendment states, reasonable in all the circumstances". That, by definition, implies reasonableness in the context of the applicant but also in the context of the local authority. However, the manner in which she spoke to the amendment suggested that she was thinking of "reasonable" as applying to the applicant. I did not intervene during her speech but it would be interesting to know whether she had in fact also taken into account the local authority.

The reason why I say that and would be hesitant about agreeing to her amendment, is because—as she reminded us in response to an amendment that was moved by my noble friend Lady Hanham, we are dealing with national rather than regional or local legislation—the circumstances will be very different from the point of view of local authorities around the country. If, as in Westminster, 80 per cent of vacant housing stock is needed for the statutory homeless or those in statutory priority need in the course of a year, that would mean running the rest of one's housing policy with 20 per cent. The pressures to get an answer from an applicant will be different from an authority where all its local authority housing is empty and it has all the time in the world.

I have a nervousness about the word "reasonable" in any case. The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, herself put up an amulet against the charge. The definition of an act of God in Blackstone's Law Dictionary as an act which no reasonable man would expect God to commit has always seemed to me in a sense to concentrate the mind on how sensible it is to use "reasonableness" as the basis for a judgment of that sort.

I warmly commend Amendment No. 15 which I am sure will be spoken to in a moment by my noble friend Lady Hanham; it is quite astonishingly sensible. When I consider in the light of the words which the Home Secretary spoke yesterday—they appear to have got him into some trouble with some parts of the community—that there are people coming up to housing benefit appeals four years after they have arrived in this country and are not able to speak the language and would therefore presumably not be able to read the document which is being referred to here, the fact that there should be an allowance for having it read to him or her seems to be eminently sensible.

5.15 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

Two amendments in this group appear in my name—Amendments Nos. 14 and 15—and I want to discuss them briefly. On Amendment No. 14, one of the significant aspects of this legislation is the removal of any time limits on temporary accommodation or on the acceptance and provision of acceptable permanent accommodation. Proposed new Section (7C) seems to compound the difficulties that will be faced by housing authorities in this regard by local authorities being able to reject, seemingly without constraint, any number of qualifying offers without any provision for judging whether that is a reasonable or lawful response. For the moment, the deletion of this provision seems the best way of providing those constraints. We may have a better opportunity to think about how to rephrase it.

The amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, should be taken within the context of the fact that there are unlimited qualifying offers. When the final offer is made, somebody has run out of steam. Either the applicant has finally accepted the accommodation or the local authority has run out of ability to help them. We need to set the matter against that.

On Amendment No. 15, as my noble friend Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville has already said, there should be no question that somebody has understood the words relating to the qualifying offer. I know it is common practice in Parliament to suggest that somebody should sign in relation to what they have read and understood. In relation to the world in which we are trespassing at the moment—those who are homeless and many of whom are vulnerable—it would be correct not to assume that they could have read. Indeed, somebody should have ensured that they understood the matter and that, if they could not read, it was read to them and in a manner in which they could understand it. If that means that they have to be read to in another language, so be it. That is what the amendment should cover.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

First, I turn to Amendment No. 13, which is about the time in which the applicant has to consider the final offer of accommodation. It is very important that, when making that offer which will bring the homelessness duty to an end, the applicants have adequate time to consider the offer. The specific period of time necessary to allow this to happen will, inevitably, be different in different cases, depending, as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, said on the circumstances both of the applicant and of the local authority. The circumstances of the applicant which are potentially relevant to that consideration will, to deal with the point of the noble Lord. Lord Livsey, include the health, both physical and mental, of the applicant.

What is the right period of time? Under the law as it stands at the moment, local authorities must already give people a reasonable period to consider offers. The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, is not suggesting a specified period of time and I believe she is right in relation to that, because the moment you put a specified period of time on the face of the Bill as a minimum period, that becomes the operational period. What she suggests we say is already the law. That deals with the point raised by the two noble Lords to whom I have referred. Should it be put on the face of the Bill? If you put it on the face of the Bill, the very real danger here is that such a provision would be interpreted as meaning that a reasonable period must be allowed for considering final offers but need not be allowed in respect of any other offers. That would not be an acceptable outcome.

I suggest the right course in relation to this is that—it having been made clear in the remarks I have just made which I shall be happy to make again on Report—the law as it stands must already give people a reasonable period to consider offers. The only additional protection that is then required and is sensible is that that should be spelt out in statutory guidance and, of course, I give a commitment to this Committee and thence to the House that this will be done. Authorities must by law have regard to such statutory guidance in exercising their allocation functions under Part 7 of the 1996 Act. Where they do not have regard to it, or they have regard to it but choose not to follow it, they are liable to have to justify their position to the courts, if challenged. I hope that deals with the specific point raised by the noble Baroness under Amendment No. 13.

Amendment No. 14 was dealt with by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, in her most recent remarks. That would cut across the main aim of the Bill, which is to strengthen the protection available to families with children and vulnerable people who become homeless through no fault of their own. The current provisions in Part 7 of the 1996 Act contribute to the uncertainty faced by such households. Even though they may have a priority need for accommodation, if the housing authority knows that privately rented accommodation is available in the district, it can do no more than offer assistance to the household regardless of how vulnerable it may be. Even where the authority has a duty to secure accommodation, that duty is limited to just two years.

One of the aims of the Bill is to remove that uncertainty. Authorities will have an obligation to ensure that suitable accommodation is available until a more settled housing solution can be found. Not only is the experience of homelessness traumatic but the experience of making an application under the homelessness legislation is not always a pleasant one, particularly in hard-pressed areas where the demand for housing is high. With pressures as they are, the household may have to endure a fairly lengthy period in temporary accommodation which may, all too often now, include a spell in bed and breakfast accommodation.

So those turning to local authorities for help will normally be in pretty desperate straits. Many households who experience homelessness do so because of a number of underlying problems and difficulties, which means that they are likely to be vulnerable to homelessness again unless they can be found a home which is settled, affordable and secure.

The Bill has removed the time limit on the duty to secure accommodation for those who are unintentionally homeless and in priority need. That does not mean that it is a duty to secure permanent accommodation; it is a duty to secure accommodation until a more settled solution can be found. For many applicants that solution is likely to be an allocation of a social tenancy under Part VI of the 1996 Act.

There are other solutions and the authority should and no doubt will explore those other options. The Bill makes specific provision for the homelessness duty to end if the applicant accepts an offer of an assured tenancy. It also makes provision for the duty to be capable of being brought to an end by an assured shorthold tenancy, recognising that the private sector has a role to play here. An assured shorthold tenancy is not, however, going to be the right solution for all applicants.

The accommodation may be technically suitable but many tenancies are for a limited period only and may not be capable of offering the long-term form of security of tenure that some vulnerable homeless households need. Those authorities in the vanguard of best practice in meeting the needs of homeless families will already be carefully considering which of their homeless applicants will be capable of sustaining an assured shorthold tenancy in the private sector. They will not press those who are less well equipped to do so.

The new Section 193(7)(c) of the 1996 Act inserted by Clause 7 of the Bill will provide a safeguard which ensures that those applicants who do not consider that an assured shorthold tenancy would provide them with a settled housing solution would not have to accept it. That is the right position to adopt; it is entirely consistent with the theme of the Bill, which is to provide more protection for families and vulnerable people. I urge the noble Baroness, when the opportunity arises, not to press this amendment.

Finally, Amendment No. 15 seeks to protect the position of applicants who, for whatever reason, would be unable to read a statement from the local housing authority about the qualifying offer. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising this point. I give an undertaking to consider it and come back with some form of solution to the problem at Report stage because a solution is clearly required. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, who is not here, but also, more importantly, to the noble Lord, Lord Fearn, who is.

Baroness Maddock

That was going to be my first point. I am grateful to the Minister for his lengthy reply and also to the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. It reflects on some of the reasons as to why it is unsatisfactory for people to make hasty decisions. I should apologise to Members of the Committee: I thought it would take up too much time to explain why this was necessary and I should perhaps have outlined the sort of circumstances I had in mind.

The reason for not putting a specific time on it was to reflect that it will be different in different places. I am thinking mostly about the people who are homeless, admittedly, but as I said earlier on, different authorities are naturally in different positions to make offers. I was thinking about situations where, for instance, a family is offered accommodation that simply does hot meet its needs—it may be too small or in the wrong place. Those are the sort of things I meant.

Another situation that often arises is that a homeless family will be told that it has a local authority offer—it may be a local authority empty property, an empty property that the authority plans to use in the private sector or a registered social landlord's empty property—but the applicant is not in fact told that the authority will do the repairs and so forth. A family may think that it cannot possibly live in such accommodation without realising the full circumstances, which is why sometimes it is important that there is a little time to go into the questions that are in people's minds about a particular property. If somebody is in work, they may have to go a long way to view the property. I have already explained the problems of carers' duties and schools. That is a little wide of my thinking on the amendment, but I am grateful to the Minister for going into it in detail. I will look at what he has said in due course.

Similar amendments were tabled in another place by the Conservatives, because this is an issue that concerns people. As with previous amendments, we all know what we want to happen, but we have to work out how to make the legislation work on the ground and not leave loopholes for those who do not want to help people. That is the aim of the amendment. I shall look more closely at what the Minister said and we may return to the subject. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

5.30 p.m.

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 14: Page 5, leave out lines 6 and 7. The noble Baroness said: I thank the Minister for what he has said about Amendment No. 14, but I would like to look at it a little further. It may be that my amendment is not correct. Throughout the Bill I am concerned about the lack of time constraints on applicants. There are no limits on how many offers they may turn down. I appreciate that this is a qualifying offer and it is specific under the statute, but applicants will be able to go on refusing offers. That could result in an enormous amount of time being spent on one homeless applicant when there are enormous numbers of others and, as we have already said, limited suitable accommodation. This may not be entirely the right place to raise the subject and I shall withdraw the amendment, but I will come back to it in a different way. I beg to move.

Baroness Maddock

I was so busy thinking of my own amendment when I spoke, but I could have mentioned this one as well. It seems rather draconian and against the principles of this Bill, so I am not minded to support it. However, given my comments earlier I shall obviously be happy to support Amendment No. 15 later.

We cannot write this in the Bill, but we should remember that if you are reading something to somebody, you quite often need to read it twice. Anyone who has held a Member of Parliament's surgery will know that if you do not check what you have said to someone before they walk out the door, you can guarantee that they did not hear what you said. We should remember that reading something to someone does not solve all the problems.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

I have answered the detail of the noble Baroness's Amendment No. 14, so I will not repeat any of that. There is a valid point on Amendment No. 15 and I hope to come back with a solution on Report.

Baroness Hanham

For clarity, I shall withdraw the amendment, but I do not promise not to return to the attack at a later stage with a more appropriate amendment.

I am grateful to the Minister for what he said about Amendment No. 15 and I will reserve my position until I have seen what he does. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 15 not moved.]

Clause 7 agreed to.

Clause 8 agreed to.

On Question, Whether Clause 9 shall stand part of the Bill?

Baroness Hanham

I have yet another priority relating to lists of those who would be considered as homeless. Tonight and on other occasions we shall be concerned about the extra additions to those who are entitled to be considered homeless against the background of the likely inability of people to house all those who have been included on this ever increasing list.

Where, in the 1996 Act, advice and help was to be offered to those for whom the local authority is satisfied that there is suitable accommodation, this whole clause is now to be deleted. What remains is that those who would have previously received advice and help are now to become entitled to be treated as homeless and, while presumably are not to be listed with those who are considered "vulnerable"—because they become a duty on the council for housing—are making it more unlikely that the local authority will be able to house anyone who is not within the "homeless" designation.

I have tried to point out—and will do so again—that there is a real danger that a local authority's sole ability to house will be engulfed by the increasing number of those who are designated as homeless, with less ability to bring even those with a local connection into their view and their housing.

Baroness Maddock

I seem to be repeating words that I have said at least twice this afternoon. If we take this clause out of the Bill, we undo part of the aims of the reforms in the 1996 Act. I sat through about three months of that Bill and I would hate to see this go ahead.

I understand what the noble Baroness is saying. It sounds as though I am not at all sympathetic, but we must make legislation that gives people their rights as homeless people but which does not help us do that because there is a terrible shortage of affordable housing. The noble Baroness, because of the situation in which she finds herself, is in danger of thinking that some of these things must not be included in the Bill because we cannot possibly deal with them since there is a shortage of affordable housing. That is not what we should be about, although I recognise that there are real problems. Therefore I am not minded to support this and I hope that Members of the Committee will be of a similar frame of mind.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

I rise in support of my noble friend Lady Hanham and, wholly incidentally, in contradiction to the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, who was just spoken. I understand the argument of the noble Baroness and have some sympathy with it, but it is not sensible for us to be legislating unless we have some idea of how local authorities will be able to cope with the problem that they will be set.

In terms of the draft order, which, in a way, is occurring in tandem with this, ironically the Government have in a way sought to be less prescriptive in this legislation. In particular they have rejected every amendment advanced by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. In that sense they have shown a willingness to be flexible. I could read the face of the Minister when the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, made the point. He believes that it is at the heart of legislation and that therefore one cannot be less prescriptive. If that attitude is to be adopted, some signal has to be given as to how resources will be provided to enable local authorities to deal with it. Otherwise we will be in a situation where the increase in bed and breakfast accommodation, which is an unsatisfactory provision, will fall on council tax payers. Council tax payers will understandably react against the categories who are being provided with that housing. Unless the Government signal in some way what their intentions are, we are conducting this legislation in mild circumstances of fog.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

I could not disagree more, particularly on this amendment. With the greatest respect, those remarks slightly miss the target. In effect, the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, is seeking to reinstate Section 197 of the Housing Act, which prevents authorities from doing anything more than providing advice and assistance if other suitable accommodation is available locally in the private sector. It prevents a local authority from providing any accommodation that it has available to a person who is vulnerable and in need, simply on the basis that that person might be able to get something in the private rented sector. Far from being prescriptive, the clause removes a restriction from a local authority without imposing any new duties. It unties an authority's hands.

When we took office in 1997 we sought to reduce the restriction on local authority provision by specifying that the private sector accommodation had to be available for at least two years, but now it is clearly time to get rid of it altogether. It is obvious that certain vulnerable households who have experienced homelessness or been confronted with a real prospect of it need a period of stability and certainty to enable them to regain their confidence and equilibrium. The reality is that most tenancies on offer in the private rented sector will be assured short-hold tenancies. Those can provide a solution for some people who have experienced homelessness, but if such solutions are to be sustainable and genuinely suitable they must be provided with the agreement of the applicant. The Bill makes provision for that.

We believe that removing the restriction in Section 197 is right. As the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, said earlier, different circumstances will apply in different local authority areas. Section 197 gives much greater room for manoeuvre for local authorities. I earnestly ask the noble Baroness to reconsider her position before Report.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister for what he has said and I will reconsider. As I read Section 197, it gives a local authority the opportunity to secure accommodation within the private sector for people who are already in the private sector if they seem to be becoming vulnerable. That duty can be carried out in a number of ways, and I readily accept that there will be some who do it better than others and some who will give more time to it. However, removing that section will make those people available for the full gamut of the Bill, because they will be put into the homeless category. I am trying to exert some caution on what is happening in the Bill. We cannot allow ourselves to legislate on a free-flowing basis for accommodation that may or may not be available.

Even the 1996 Act and previous homelessness legislation has put a great deal of pressure on housing authorities and made it almost impossible for people who have a connection with a borough but who are not homeless to be accommodated in it—people who are not priorities, because they do not have a need of homelessness as such, but who have a requirement or need to stay within a specific area.

I am trying to exert a slight brake on what is being proposed. I know that it is not entirely what either the Minister or the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, would want, but we must try to live in the real world. Even if the Housing Corporation is going to be loaded with lots of lolly over the next few years, some of that will be rehabilitation money, some will be improvement money and some will be difficult to spend on new accommodation. I am trying to provide a brake on what has been proposed and to make sure that the list of those who are entitled to be considered as homeless is not so long—the whole thing is completely self-defeating. Section 197 still provides a perfectly reasonable answer in a perfectly reasonable way for dealing with somebody who is either threatened with homelessness or is in accommodation that is not entirely suitable. I would like to consider further what the Minister has said.

Clause 9 agreed to.

5.45 p.m.

Clause 10 [Persons claiming to be homeless who are at risk of violence]:

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 16: Page 6, line 28, at end insert— ; and (c) at the end of subsection (2), there is inserted "and investigation may be made, in considering violence other than domestic violence, of allegations or evidence of collusion between the victim (or a person associated with him) and the other person as mentioned in paragraph (a) or (b) of subsection (1A)". The noble Baroness said: In introducing this amendment, I wish to make clear exactly what it involves. Paragraph (c) would come at the end of proposed new Section (1A). The words from subsection (2) refer to a proposed extension to Section 177(2) of the 1996 Act. If that was understood before I started, I am extremely sorry to have stated it again.

Clause 10 would permit any violence, or threats of violence—currently under the 1996 Act, they are domestic violence only—to provide a basis of the homelessness duty. Given the greater attractiveness of becoming homeless provided by other clauses of the Bill, it would seem sensible to guard against fraudulent or collusive allegations of violence or threats of violence. This is a very wide open category and it could potentially be open to a great deal of abuse. While I accept, without reservation, that there are people who would need to be considered under the Homelessness Bill because of a threat of violence, it is an easy area for people to make up a situation. While I am sure there are not many, there will undoubtedly be those who would take advantage of this section, so there ought to be some caveats, and I see no other opportunity for providing against this within the Bill. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee

I was a little puzzled by this amendment, since most local housing authorities take considerable steps to investigate any allegation or stories that are brought to them. I wonder whether it would imply something that is not at all the case if this provision were simply to apply to allegations of violence. I am not sure that it should be treated differently than any other tale that is taken to a local housing authority.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

I agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has said both explicitly and by implication. Authorities need to safeguard themselves against any claims for housing which are based on inadequate facts or made up facts. That will include any allegation made in relation to violence. Authorities already have the power to make investigations where they have reason to believe that there may have been collusion. Section 184 of the 1996 Act provides that, if an authority has reason to believe that an applicant is homeless or is threatened with homelessness, they must make such inquiries as are necessary to satisfy themselves, among other things, whether any duty—and, if so, what duty—is owed under Part 7; that is, under the homelessness legislation. Where the question of whether the applicant is homeless depends on the possibility that it may be unreasonable for him or her to continue to occupy his or her home because that would lead to a risk of violence, the authority is empowered to make such investigations into that question as may be required. I am quite sure that Amendment No. 16 is well intended but, because it is already covered, and for the reasons given by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I hope the noble Baroness will not feel the need to press it at the next stage.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister. Since that explanation will be recorded in Hansard and thereby available to people in future, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 10 agreed to.

Baroness Maddock moved Amendment No. 17: After Clause 10, insert the following new clause— SECTION 202: REVIEWS After section 202 of the 1996 Act (right to request review of decision) there is inserted— 202A SECTION 202: REVIEWS (1) This section applies where an applicant has the right to request a review of a decision by an authority or authorities under section 202. (2) If the applicant is dissatisfied with a decision by the authority—

  1. (a) not to exercise their power to continue to secure that accommodation is available for the applicant's occupation pending a review under section 188;
  2. (b) in a case where the authority have secured that accommodation is available for the applicant's occupation under section 190(2)(a), to cease to secure that accommodation is so available before the time available to the applicant to bring an appeal under section 204 has expired (or, if sooner, the day on which an appeal is brought by the applicant);
  3. (c) not to exercise their power to secure that accommodation is available for the applicant's occupation pending a review, under section 200(5); or
  4. (d) to exercise their power under either section 188 or 200(5) for a limited time ending before the time available to the applicant to bring an appeal under section 204 has expired (or, if sooner, the day on which an appeal is brought by the applicant) or, in either case, to cease exercising their power before that time,
he may appeal to the county court against the decision, (3) An appeal under this section may not be brought after the time available to the applicant to bring an appeal under section 204 has expired (or, if sooner, after the date on which an appeal is brought). (4) On an appeal under this section, the court—
  1. (a) may order the authority to secure that accommodation is available for the applicant's occupation until the time available to the applicant to bring an appeal under section 204 has expired (or such earlier time as the court may specify); and
  2. (b) shall confirm or quash the decision appealed against,
and in considering whether to confirm or quash the decision the court shall apply the principles applied by the High Court on an application for judicial review.
(5) If the court quashes the decision it may order the authority to exercise any of the powers mentioned in subsection (2) in the applicant's case for such period as may be specified in the order. (6) An order under subsection (5)—
  1. (a) may only be made if the court is satisfied that failure to exercise the power in accordance with the order would substantially prejudice the applicant's ability to pursue the review against the authority's decision in his case;
  2. (b) may not specify any period ending after the time available to the applicant to bring an appeal under section 204 has expired.""
The noble Baroness said: The purpose of this amendment is to increase access to justice by providing homeless applicants with the right to appeal to the county court against a decision of a local housing authority not to accommodate him or her during the review of a decision.

An applicant has a right to request an internal review of a decision made by a local authority concerning their homelessness, as to whether they are intentionally homeless or whether they qualify as being in priority need. The power is available for the authority to provide accommodation during this process. However, despite guidance setting out when this power should be used, it is very rarely operated by authorities, no matter how strong the applicant's case appears to be. This makes it very difficult for homeless people to exercise their legal right of review. If an authority refuses to provide accommodation during a review, the applicant can obtain an order from the court to require them to do so. Currently, however, the applicant must go to the High Court to do this and this new clause would simply transfer this power to the county courts.

The Government have accepted that, at a subsequent stage in the Bill, where an applicant can appeal the review decision on a point of law, the equivalent power to require an authority to provide accommodation should lie in the county court. An amendment was included in the Bill to achieve that. This amendment mirrors exactly the Government's amendments at a subsequent appeal stage.

There have been a number of arguments about this in another place in the passage of this Bill. However, many people feel that an appeal in the county court is much easier to deal with than having to go to the High Court. If one does not have any accommodation, taking an appeal to the High Court is quite a difficult task.

I know that the Minister is worried that, if this is dealt with in a county court, many cases will come forward. I shall not go into this in great detail but there is evidence to show that that is unlikely to be the case. Shelter could provide a good deal of information on that point.

This new clause seeks to provide a similar right to appeal against a decision by a local authority not to accommodate an applicant during a review as that introduced by Clause 11 of the Bill. It would give the county courts exactly the same powers to confirm or to quash a decision by an authority, and order that accommodation be provided as already provided in Clause 11. It sets out the full circumstances in which an applicant may appeal against a decision not to provide accommodation during a review.

This is a technical amendment and it is lengthy because it needs to cover the four circumstances in which an authority may accommodate an applicant temporarily when it reaches an adverse decision on a homelessness application and decides to withdraw accommodation. Those four circumstances are, first, not to exercise its power to continue to secure that accommodation is available for the applicant's occupation pending a review under Section 188. That is a straightforward example of where an authority decides that an applicant is not in priority need and therefore it is no longer under a duty to house the applicant once it has made its decision.

The second circumstance is that in a case where the authority has secured that accommodation is available for the applicant's occupation under Section 190(2)(a), it ceases to secure that accommodation is so available before the time available to the applicant to bring an appeal under Section 204 of the Act has expired (or, if sooner, the day on which an appeal is brought by the applicant). That is where an applicant is found to be intentionally homeless and has been accommodated under the duty under Section 190(2)(a). This duty requires an authority to provide accommodation for a reasonable period (usually 28 days) while the applicant looks for alternative accommodation.

The third circumstance is not to exercise its power to secure that accommodation is available for the applicant's occupation pending a review under Section 200(5). This is where a local authority believes that an applicant has a local connection with another authority and proposes to refer the applicant to that authority.

The fourth circumstance is to exercise its power under either Section 188 or Section 200(5) for a limited time ending before the time available to the applicant to bring an appeal under Section 204 of the Act has expired (or if sooner, the day on which an appeal is brought by the applicant), or, in either case, to cease exercising its power before that time. This mirrors the provision in Clause 11. If we are going to give proper access to justice for people who are homeless, it is important that they should not have to appeal to the High Court.

There are circumstances under which the process might take anything up to three months, and we are talking about three months in which people are trying to get an appeal on a decision made about their right to accommodation and trying to appeal in the High Court.

Evidence shows that this is not an easy thing for homeless people to deal with. The purpose of this amendment is to bring it in line with other parts of the legislation and to avoid homeless people having to apply for judicial review in the High Court. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee

As my noble friend Lady Maddock was speaking, it occurred to me that the Minister, almost above any other Minister on the government Front Bench, would not want to suggest that procedural difficulties should affect an applicant's access to justice. I hope that that argument is one that he will be able to dispose of.

Perhaps it might also be worth referring to access to legal aid. By definition, the people who would benefit from the amendment of my noble friend Lady Maddock would be seeking legal aid, but there would he no different criteria whether the application were made in the county court or the High Court.

6 p.m.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

Every member of the Front Bench is united in their desire that there should not be procedural bars to justice, so I do not single myself out for any particular respect. The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, explained the position very clearly. Can I, with equal clarity, indicate why at the moment we are not minded to accept the proposal made? It may he helpful if I remind Members of the Committee that there are two procedural stages open to an applicant who is dissatisfied with the decision made on his homelessness case.

First, under Section 202 of the 1996 Act, he has the right to request the authority to review its decision. Secondly, if he is dissatisfied with the decision of the authority on review, then the applicant has the right under Section 204 to apply to the county court on a point of law. Under the current provisions, applicants who wish to challenge an authority's decision not to continue to accommodate pending either a review by the authority or an appeal to the county court must seek judicial review of that decision in the High Court.

Applying to the courts to overturn an authority's decision should be a matter of last resort and should only be considered where it is clear that the authority has not made a proper decision. During the passage of this Bill's predecessor, then the Homes Bill before the general election, the Minister for Housing gave a commitment in another place to consider whether there was a case for giving the county court power to require an authority to accommodate an applicant pending an appeal to that court; that is, at the second stage of the procedural process. He gave that commitment in response to a new clause moved by the Member for Bath. He consulted the Lord Chancellor's Department and decided that there would be merit in providing such a power because of practical considerations involving court administration.

Those obvious considerations are at the second stage of the process. The county court is involved anyway. It is ridiculous to have the county court deciding on the principal point, but to have to go to the High Court to determine whether the local authority is right not to continue to house the applicant pending the consideration of the matter by the county court. In short, the Government recognise that it does not make administrative sense for two different courts to consider different decisions about the same homelessness case at the same time.

The previous Bill fell before the General Election, but a suitable clause, Clause 11, was included in the new Bill. It contained the provision to allow the county court to consider whether continued accommodation should be provided pending the second stage of the process by the county court.

The principle of judicial review by the High Court remains valid where applicants wish to challenge an authority's decision not to continue to accommodate, pending a review by an authority of the homelessness decision. That is at the first procedural stage, because at that stage there is no involvement of any court, so the problem of two courts considering the same issue does not apply. There is a difference between the first and second stages. In the second stage the county court is involved anyway, so it is obviously right for the county court to deal with that issue. The county court is not involved at the first stage and we strongly resist giving it the power to intervene in decisions by an authority not to continue to accommodate at the review stage, because in effect we are completely taking away the discretion from the local authority at that non-court stage to decide what to do while the review is going on. Unlike applications for judicial review, applications for county court are not filtered in any way; there is no permission or leave stage. The amendment would require the county court to consider every application made to it.

If the power to intervene in local authority decisions not to continue to accommodate an applicant pending a review were removed from the High Court to the county court, every case would have to be considered on its merits by the county court. Secondly, there would be a strong likelihood that the court would be minded to require the authority to continue to accommodate in just about every case, until the court had had the opportunity to consider the application properly. Having done that, it is unlikely to want to take any action that would result, directly or indirectly, in the applicant becoming homeless, pending its decision of the case.

Thirdly, the net effect would be a huge incentive for every homeless applicant who received a decision against his interests to ask for a review by the authority and to apply to the court for an order requiring the authority to continue to accommodate him. That would undermine the local authority's discretion to decide whether to exercise that power.

We appreciate the motives behind the amendment. It is different from the second stage of the procedure, where the county court is already involved. It would be likely to result in local authorities being compelled to house every applicant whose case they have just rejected. That would place a significant burden on the local authority in respect of a large number of cases in which it had decided that there was no priority.

While we understand the motives, we are at the moment not minded to accede to the amendment. I hope that the noble Baroness will consider carefully what I have said. It is an important issue, but we have put the procedural position on the right side of the line, because we also have to bear in mind the needs of the local authority and all the homeless people they are trying to house.

Baroness Maddock

I thank the Minister for his very full reply to a rather complicated amendment, although the principle is quite simple. Most of those who practise law in the area of homelessness and housing believe that this would be a very helpful amendment. The main argument that the Minister used towards the end was that we would get far too many cases and that local authorities would be required to house everybody who came up with a request for a review. My noble friend Lady Hamwee has already pointed out that many of the people we are talking about would have to satisfy the test of the Legal Services Commission because they would probably be applying for legal aid. This is a very stringent test, so the situation would not be as the Minister suggested it would be. There is ample evidence to show that the Government are unduly frightened about the number of cases that would come forward. I will look again both at my amendment and the Minister's reply. It is a complicated area; I am still convinced of the rightness of what we are trying to achieve but, given that we are in Grand Committee, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 11 agreed to.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 18: After Clause 11, insert the following new clause— SECURITY OF ACCOMMODATION FOR APPLICANT'S OCCUPATION (1) In section 188(3) of the 1996 Act (interim duty to accommodate in case of apparent priority need), for "The authority may continue to secure that accommodation is available for the applicant's occupation pending a decision on a review." there is substituted— The authority may secure or continue to secure that accommodation is available for the applicant's occupation pending a decision on a review of any decision under this Part. (2) In section 204 of the 1996 Act (right of appeal to county court on point of law), for subsection (4) there is substituted— (4) The authority may secure or continue to secure that accommodation is available for the applicant's occupation— (a) during the period for appealing under this section against the authority's decision, and (b) if an appeal is brought, until the appeal (and any further appeal) is finally determined." The noble Baroness said: I am grateful to the Housing Law Practitioners Association for drawing this amendment to my attention. I mention it in part because it is proposing these changes from its own experience. My noble friend mentioned housing law practitioners during our debate on the previous amendment. However, that did not meet with any favour so it may be a mistake on my part to mention it again. However, the amendment arises from an awareness of problems and experience.

The first part of the amendment is proposing an alteration to Section 188(3) of the 1996 Act. The eagle-eyed amongst Members of the Committee will observe that the difference involves inserting the word "secure". That will add to a power to continue to secure accommodation in the circumstances of Section 188(3). A similar provision is included in proposed paragraph (2) of the amendment, which will substitute for Section 204(4) of the 1996 Act. That would remove inconsistencies in the legislation which mean that housing authorities do not have the power to provide temporary accommodation for some applicants pending a challenge to a decision, whether by way of review or a county court appeal. I hope that the Minister can explain the inconsistencies. They appear to be as follows.

There is no discretion to provide accommodation from new, as it were, only to continue to provide it. If for some reason, therefore—and there must be many reasons—temporary accommodation has not been provided during the period between application and the initial decision, there is no power to provide it pending the review or the appeal. I have already mentioned my wish to see far wider powers in local authorities. The power of general competence seems to be a particular oddity if it is necessary to amend legislation in order to provide it. If it is required, however, let us take the opportunity to do it.

A further inconsistency is that there is no power to provide temporary accommodation pending a review of the duration of accommodation provided to an intentionally homeless household. Moreover, there is no power to provide temporary accommodation for a person who is threatened with homelessness pending review or appeal. I hope that the Minister can say that there is no need for these amendments because the powers are included elsewhere. That would be the happiest answer I might receive. I beg to move.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

I am afraid I cannot give the answer the noble Baroness asked for but there is some substance in the points that have been raised. I shall come back on Report and deal with them. It is not to be assumed that we accept every single one of them but we need to consider them carefully. We also need to consult with the various representative bodies, particularly the ALG. However, there is some substance in what has been said. I shall write to the noble Baroness before then and I hope that she will be able to communicate with the housing law association which we will try to do as well. There is a little more to deal with, and we will do that on Report.

Baroness Hamwee

I am grateful for that response. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Whether Clause 12 shall stand part of the Bill?

Baroness Hanham

I seek clarification of what the clause means. Currently, by Section 159 of the 1996 Act, a secure or introductory tenant … an assured tenant … of housing accommodation held by a registered social landlord, or … an assured tenant of housing accommodation allocated to him by a local housing authority", are excluded from Part VI of the 1996 Act. That means that they are not entitled to further consideration for housing allocation.

By Clause 12, assured tenants of registered social landlords and of local housing authorities are removed from such exclusion and are, therefore, by definition, included in those who may be considered for housing allocation as are those who are secured tenants unless they make an application for a housing transfer, in which case they are to be excluded from this section; that is, they are not to be considered for allocation. So subsection (7) is not to be altered and it allows the housing authority to allocate housing in whatever way it deems appropriate. Potentially, therefore, all those mentioned above could be brought back into consideration.

This intervention seeks to probe what is in fact intended by this clause. What is its purpose? What is to be the effect if statutory tenants already with accommodation are then included in the duties of a council for accommodation? How are those who are seeking a transfer to be considered within this section? Also, what is the relationship between Section 159(7) of the 1996 Act and the new Section 160A(2) proposed by Clause 13(2) of the Bill?

Without wishing to sound in any way patronising, the Minister may want to give me a general reply and, since I have not been courteous enough to give him notice of this question. I would be perfectly happy if he wanted to write to me and the Members of the Committee in detail regarding the relationship of the various clauses one to another.

Amendment No. 21 is also part of this group, and I am sure the Minister would say that this provision is already included elsewhere in other legislation. But the amendment is designed to ensure that other applicants and the authority are protected against the making of false statements in order to obtain housing. The wording of the amendment is based on ground five in Part I, Schedule 2 of the Housing Act 1985.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Fallconer of Thoroton

Dealing first with Clause 12, one of the aims of the Bill is to improve choice for those seeking social housing and remove any barriers which some would-be applicants face. Elsewhere in the Bill there are provisions which give everyone the right to apply for a housing allocation with the exception of those who are ineligible, and everyone will have the right to have their application considered fully in accordance with the authorities' published allocation scheme.

Currently, local authority allocations of housing to their existing tenants, which is one of the specific concerns that the noble Baroness raised, and to tenants of registered social landlords do not fall within Part VI of the 1996 Act and are, therefore, not subject to the priorities and procedures of the authority's published allocation scheme. There is no requirement to consider, for example, whether reasonable or additional preference should be given. There is currently no statutory framework governing applications for transfers. Individual authorities' policies on how they treat applications from these groups can be arbitrary.

Clause 12 will bring those groups of applicants within Part 6 and extend to them the same right to have their application for accommodation considered equitably, along with new applicants for social housing.

Clause 12 substitutes a new Section 159(5) of the 1996 Act and removes existing Section 159(6). The effect of these changes is that allocations to applicants who are existing secure or introductory tenants of the authority and who have requested a transfer must be considered under the terms of the published scheme. Tenants of registered social landlords who apply to an authority for housing must also be treated under the scheme on the same basis as all other applicants.

Clause 12 will therefore ensure that all existing tenants within the social sector who make an application to a local housing authority for accommodation must have their application considered according to their housing needs on the same basis as all other applicants. That will bring greater certainty of fair treatment to existing tenants who, as matters now stand, may not have their applications for transfer given the priority deserved.

At the same time, where local authorities wish or need to initiate a transfer of accommodation for management purposes—for example, where existing tenants of a block of flats have to be moved to other accommodation to allow the authority to effect repairs or renovation work—the necessary allocation of alternative accommodation can be made without being subject to the rules of their allocation scheme.

That important provision will ensure fair treatment for existing tenants within the social sector. I hope that it deals with the specific points raised by the noble Baroness. If not, she will no doubt raise any that I have missed.

Amendment No. 21 would lift the exemption for existing tenants if the applicant had knowingly made a false statement or instigated someone else to make one to obtain his existing tenancy or accommodation. The amendment is unnecessary, because there are already established provisions that deal specifically with that situation.

In the case of a secure tenancy granted by the local authority, the Housing Act 1985 sets out various grounds on which a court may make an order for possession. Those set out in Part 1 of Schedule 2 to that Act are fault grounds, where the court may make an order if it considers it reasonable to do so. Ground 5 says: the tenant is the person, or one of the persons, to whom the tenancy was granted and the landlord was induced to grant the tenancy by a false statement made knowingly or recklessly by the tenant or a person acting at the tenant's instigation. Ground 17 in Part 2 of Schedule 2 to the Housing Act 1988 makes an identical provision in respect of assured tenancies allocated by a housing association. That provides the proper remedy to apply where a tenancy has been granted as a result of a false statement. Accordingly, I hope that the noble Baroness will not oppose the clause standing part and will not move Amendment No. 21 when the time arises.

Baroness Hanham

As the Minister's comments are now on the record, I am content not to press Amendment No. 21. However, I am not quite so content with Clause 12. I have listened carefully to the Minister, and I will have to read his comments again. I find the clause extremely confusing. I am not a lawyer, but I suspect that it will also be confusing in the future. The trouble is that Part 6 is by itself a negation, because it excludes people under Clauses 5 and 6. What is now happening is that those people are being brought back into Part 6, but then, if they are seeking a housing transfer, they are excluded again. I may have completely misunderstood what it is all about, but I would like this to be considered again. I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. I am impressed that he does not need to write to me because he has probably got it all sorted out, but if he does think there is anything more that he could do, I would be grateful.

It is likely that I shall want to return to the amendment, if for no other reason than that it extends once again the number of those who will have to be considered under the Bill. We have now probably encompassed the entire list of anybody who is ever likely to apply for housing under any circumstances. One begins to wonder whether this should be called the Homelessness Bill or whether it is actually the local authority's housing allocation that will come into question. That is really where we all started.

Under the circumstances, although I may return to it at a later stage, I shall withdraw my opposition to the clause.

Clause 12 agreed to.

Clause 13 [Abolition of duty to maintain housing register]:

Baroness Maddock moved Amendment No. 19: Page 8, leave out lines 12 and 13. The noble Baroness said: There is a series of amendments in this group, one of which, Amendment No. 33, is a government amendment. The rest are in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Hamwee.

The purpose of the amendments is to remove the power to disqualify an applicant due to unacceptable behaviour at the eligibility stage of the allocations process, which comes before the allocation. The construction of the Bill means that a number of amendments are required to achieve this. They break down as follows. The first six amendments remove the provisions relating to unacceptable behaviour at the eligibility stage. The penultimate amendment makes it clear that there is no requirement to house an applicant where no preference is given due to unacceptable behaviour, even where there is a surplus of housing.

It is one of the Government's worries that if at the stage of eligibility housing need was taken into account, and somebody was not told that he or she had no rights to anything, when it came to allocation, if an authority had a surplus of housing it would be forced to give an applicant a place, even though it had decided that he was ineligible due to behaviour when his needs were assessed beforehand.

The final amendment inserts the unacceptable behaviour test at the no preference stage. This is only necessary because the Bill currently refers back to the eligibility provisions at this point.

These amendments would ensure that more emphasis was placed on housing need in the allocation process, bringing the Bill more in line with the policy intentions set out in the housing Green Paper, while still meeting the Government's intention that local authorities should have clear discretion not to house applicants in cases of anti-social behaviour.

As the Bill is currently drafted, the unacceptable behaviour provisions arise at two points in the allocations process: at the beginning where eligibility is considered; and later on when preference is removed. These amendments would not remove the provisions from the Bill altogether. They would simply omit them from the eligibility stage, thus ensuring that housing need is considered before decisions are taken not to house applicants. If we are in the business of preventing homelessness, assessing need is the first thing that should be done, whatever else is included in the process. That is the aim of the amendments.

The amendments would retain the unacceptable behaviour provisions at the later stage where preference can be removed and make it clear that authorities have clear discretion not to house applicants in cases of anti-social behaviour.

The unacceptable behaviour test goes much wider than anti-social behaviour and it would allow local authorities to apply it in a wide range of other situations, particularly where rent arrears were concerned. The Minister will know that that is something about which people have been very concerned because sometimes rent arrears are due to the fact that housing benefit claims have not been dealt with within a reasonable time. The Bill would clearly give authorities discretion not to house tenants in circumstances other than anti-social behaviour.

At the eligibility stage no account needs to be taken of housing and support needs. Housing need is considered later in the process. If we are thinking about rough sleepers and those with problematic histories, many of whom may have been evicted from previous tenancies, they would be likely to fall foul of the unacceptable behaviour provision—the very people whom we would probably find sleeping rough on our streets. I believe that this would undermine resettlement work in particular. If we look at other strategies to help people in that position, again this is not in line with those, which is why the amendment is so important.

In addition, it would be possible for an authority to refuse to house a homeless family because of the anti-social behaviour of just one member of that family, no matter how extreme the needs of other members of the family.

It is also important to consider the way in which the provisions will be interpreted and applied by local authority officers. That is something to which we have returned time and again today. In practice, the unacceptable behaviour provisions will be translated into practice notes and forms for allocation officers to use in making decisions. In reality, officers will base their decisions on the guidelines produced to help them apply what is a hypothetical test and the officer must in effect second-guess the court by deciding whether the authority would be entitled to a possession order, because that would be the ground on which the test would be made.

There is clearly a significant danger that, in practice, applicants would fall foul of guidelines drawn up to assist officers when applying the test. It is important to remember that officers would not have to take any account of the housing need at this point. That is our greatest concern.

I want to say something about the test of being unsuitable to be a tenant the testing authority must apply at the eligibility stage and the "no preference" stage to determine whether an applicant's behaviour makes him or her unsuitable to be a tenant and the applicant must be guilty of unacceptable behaviour. That is defined as behaviour that would entitle an authority to a possession order under Section 84 of the Housing Act 1985; moreover, that behaviour must be serious enough to make him unsuitable to be a tenant and that must still be the case in the circumstances at the time that his or her application is considered.

The Government have argued that this is a high test and they believe that it will be used in exceptional circumstances but that it will provide an important tool to prevent authorities being required to house anti-social tenants. However, the grounds for possession are wide-ranging and include any breach of tenancy conditions and rent arrears, as well as anti-social behaviour or conviction for an arrestable offence.

In 2000, 150,000 possession actions were taken by social landlords, the vast majority of which were for rent arrears. If a landlord takes proceedings as far as the court it can presumably be assumed that he is satisfied that he is entitled to a possession order. However, of those 150,000 cases only 65 per cent resulted in an order being made, of which only 18 per cent resulted in an outright order. So in more than 80 per cent of the cases where social landlords presumably believed that they were entitled to a possession order, the court ruled that they were not. If that is the case, it adds to the argument that we are putting forward for saying that at the eligibility stage housing needs must also be taken into account. Housing needs must be assessed at that stage. Members of the Committee will be able to think of vulnerable people who would fall foul of this stage of the proceedings without having their housing needs assessed. I beg to move.

Baroness Hanham

I wonder whether I may be anecdotal as the noble Lord, Lord Graham, was earlier. I want to test what the effect of the amendment would be against what is in the Bill.

In my borough of Kensington and Chelsea, for a significant amount of time we have had an extreme problem with crack dealers in housing estates. As a result of enormous effort, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 has been changed to make dealing crack a criminal offence.

Once the local authority has evicted a crack dealer from his premises because he has committed a criminal offence, which happens very quickly, why should the local authority spend any more time considering whether that person is entitled to housing? As I understand the amendment, it would move the test further along the line so people such as the crack dealer would have to be considered at a later rather than an earlier stage, when one might quickly draw the line under the consideration of whether they are going to be given housing.

Baroness Maddock

I understand what the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, is saying about crack dealers, but crack dealers have families. We are worried about the families of crack dealers under current legislation. Because of one person, the needs of the rest of the family will not be considered.

Baroness Hanham

Most of the crack dealers we have found have been single, unaccompanied and loaded with other crack dealers in the premises. Some might have families and some may not, but there needs to be some balance between letting things roll on for too long and drawing the line at a much earlier stage. I am sure there are examples other than crack dealers which I cannot bring to mind at the moment. There should be an option to draw the line at the beginning.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

The exchange between the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, identifies the issue here. The Bill as drafted allows local authorities to draw the line at the beginning of the process rather than considering a person's conduct later on at the allocations stage, as the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, wants. That is the issue. What is the right approach?

There is concern in some quarters that the Bill would allow an authority to decide to treat someone as ineligible for an allocation by simply assessing their behaviour and not considering any other factors. I assure the noble Baroness that that is not the case.

[The Sitting was suspended for a Division in the House from 6.33 to 6.47 p.m.]

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

I was acknowledging that there was concern in some quarters that the Bill as drafted would allow an authority to decide to treat someone as ineligible for an allocation simply by assessing their behaviour without considering any other factors. Let me assure the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, who was most concerned about this, that that is not the case. I will briefly go through the provisions. Section 160A(7) gives authorities a power to decide to treat individual applicants as ineligible for an allocation of housing. It applies only where a person—either the applicant or a member of his household—is guilty of unacceptable behaviour serious enough to make him unsuitable to be a tenant of the authority and in the circumstances at the time of the application he is unsuitable to be a tenant by reason of that behaviour. Where a local authority receives an application and has reason to believe that either the applicant or a member of his household has been guilty of behaviour that may make him unsuitable to be a tenant, there are a number of steps through which they have to go.

First, they have to satisfy themselves that there has been behaviour that falls within the definition of "unacceptable behaviour". In others, there has to have been behaviour by the applicant or by a member of his household that would, if the applicant were a secure tenant, entitle the authority to a possession order under Section 84 of the Housing Act in relation to certain grounds. Those grounds are set out in Part 1 of Schedule 2, except Ground 8. They are fault grounds and include behaviour such as conduct that is likely to cause nuisance or annoyance and the use of the property for immoral or illegal purposes.

In considering whether a possession order would be granted in the circumstances of a particular case, the authority will have to consider whether, having established the grounds, the court would consider it was reasonable to grant a possession order. It has been established in case law that, when the court is deliberating, "reasonable" means having regard to the interests of the public and the interests of the parties. So in deciding whether it would be entitled to an order, the authority will need to consider these interests and this will include all the circumstances of an applicant and his household.

That is stage one. Under stage two, having concluded that they would be entitled to an order, authorities will need to satisfy themselves that the behaviour is serious enough to make the person unsuitable to be a tenant of the authority. For example, the authority would need to be satisfied that, if a possession order were granted, it would not be suspended by the court.

Thirdly, the authority would need to satisfy itself that, in the circumstances, at the time of the application the applicant was unsuitable to be a tenant by reason of the behaviour in question. Taken together, those three criteria provide a pretty stiff test.

Only if satisfied in all three aspects may the authority consider exercising its discretion to decide that the applicant is to be treated as ineligible for an allocation. In reaching a decision on whether or not to treat the applicant as ineligible, the authority will have to act reasonably, which means that it will need to consider all the relevant matters before it. Those will include all the circumstances relevant to the particular applicant, whether health, dependants or other factors. In practice, the matters before the authority will include the information provided on the application form.

It is therefore important to bear in mind that it would be impossible for an authority to take a view on whether it would be entitled to a possession order without considering fully all the factors that a court would take into account in determining whether or not it was reasonable to grant an order. In reaching a decision as to whether or not to treat someone as ineligible, the authority must again consider all the relevant factors.

It is important that housing authorities are clear about the implications of these important provisions and, accordingly, I undertake to ensure that those issues are included in the statutory guidance that will be issued to accompany the Bill.

There is agreement that authorities should have the power to decide not to allocate where they are satisfied that the applicant is unsuitable to be a tenant—and there is agreement that the test of that should be the criteria set out in the Bill as drafted.

Let me say again that this has been a difficult balancing act to get right and a great deal of careful consideration has gone into the construction of the provisions in the Bill. I believe we have got them about right. If authorities are to have the power to decide not to allocate—on which there is a consensus—it is appropriate for that power to be framed in terms of eligibility and to be included in the section of the Bill which specifically deals with eligibility.

Where the authority comes to a decision that the applicant is unsuitable to be a tenant and will not be allocated accommodation, then that is not a matter of priority. In such a case, the question of what degree of priority should be given to the applicant does not arise. It would not be appropriate, therefore, for the power enabling the authority to decide not to allocate to form part of Section 167 of the 1996 Act, which deals with the scheme which authorities must have for determining priorities and procedures to be followed when allocating housing.

I hope Members of the Committee will agree that the best way to ensure that authorities act reasonably and look at all the circumstances of the case before deciding to treat an applicant as ineligible for housing is through the undertaking I have given to make this clear in guidance.

I therefore urge the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, not to press her Amendments Nos. 19, 20, 22 to 25, 32 and 34.

Amendment No. 31 seeks to ensure that, in determining the priority and preference to be given to an applicant, an authority can take account of behaviour which affects the applicant's suitability to be a tenant only if the behaviour was deliberate, wilful or negligent.

An authority may have a large number of applicants who fall within the categories of applicants who must be given reasonable preference. In determining which among them should be given priority for an allocation, the authority may take a number of factors into account. The basis for determining priority will need to be made clear in the authority's published allocation scheme. The Bill sets out three factors which, among others, a scheme can include as factors which can be taken into account when determining priority. Those include any behaviour of a person or a member of his household which affects his suitability to be a tenant.

That will allow authorities to take account of both good and bad behaviour which may have been demonstrated by individual applicants. Bad behaviour might include unacceptable behaviour such as persistent but minor rent arrears, which is not serious enough to make an applicant unsuitable to be a tenant hut, nevertheless, is a factor to be taken into account in assessing the level of priority that is deserved relative to other applicants. Another applicant, perhaps an existing tenant applying for a transfer, may have demonstrated that he or she is a model tenant. All other practice being equal, the authority may decide that the latter deserves more priority than the former.

The issue of what relative priority individual applications should receive for an allocation is a matter for the authority to decide, in accordance with the principles of its published scheme. It is right that that discretion, including decisions about how behaviour should be taken into account, should rest with local authorities. I therefore ask the noble Baroness not to press Amendment No. 31 when the time comes.

Government Amendment No. 33 is a minor drafting amendment. The Bill gives local housing authorities powers to take account of unacceptable behaviour when making decisions about applicants for the allocation of housing.

Clause 13 constructs a test of unacceptable behaviour serious enough to make the applicant unsuitable to be a tenant of the authority. Where an authority has decided that an applicant is guilty of such behaviour, it will have the power under Clause 13 to decide to treat them as ineligible for an allocation, or it may decide to treat them as eligible but not to give them any preference under Clause 15.

The policy intention is that the test of unacceptable behaviour should be exactly the same, whether as a basis for treating a person as ineligible or for deciding that he or she does not deserve to be given any preference. The qualification, by reason of that behaviour", which Amendment No. 33 inserts into Clause 15, is essential to ensure that authorities do not have a broad power to decide to treat applicants as ineligible or not to give preference for reasons that are not linked to the unacceptable behaviour. The qualification appears in Clause 13—new Section 160A(7)(b)—which deals with the treatment of an applicant as ineligible for an allocation. However, it was omitted from Clause 15—new Section 167(2C)(b)—which deals with the treatment of an applicant as deserving not to be given any preference.

Amendment No. 33 merely inserts that qualification in new Section 167(2C)(b) to ensure that the provisions on unacceptable behaviour are clear arid symmetrical. I hope that the Committee will feel able to agree to that technical amendment when the time comes.

Baroness Maddock

I thank the Minister for his long reply to many different amendments. As I said earlier, our main concern is that housing needs should remain a priority for lettings and transfer policies. Those are the precise words used by the Government in their housing Green Paper some time ago. I quote again from the housing Green Paper, Any decision to suspend applications would need to take account of the circumstances of the household in order to safeguard vulnerable groups such as those with mental or behavioural problems, or the children of families concerned. We would expect suspensions to be exceptional and that other ways of managing problems or risks may be more appropriate in many cases". That was the intention of the housing Green Paper. We have tried to keep that intention to the forefront.

Other groups, including the National Housing Federation—of which I should have declared that I am a vice-president, although I do not have to do an awful lot in that role—the Local Government Association and Shelter, support the amendments. They have to deal with the situation. At this stage, I have to withdraw the amendment and I shall not be moving the others in the group, but I would be grateful if the Minister could undertake to consult a little wider with those groups, because they are of the opinion that perhaps we should have amendments along those lines. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 22 to 25 not moved.]

Clause 13 agreed to.

Clause 14 [Applications for housing accommodation]:

7 p.m.

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 26: Page 10, line 7, at end insert "and shall be entered in a register complying with the requirements of Schedule (Housing Applications Register) to this Act The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 26 is grouped with Amendment No. 40. There will be no great tears shed at the necessity to keep a housing register of all those who for whatever reason are involved in a local authority's housing. In most cases the register grows as numbers on it grow and those moving off it are of limited extent. It has always been the case, and will continue to be so, that local authorities will have to make decisions on allocations against the background of priority needs. The points system for such allocations is becoming increasingly complex and difficult. Some authorities, however, including my own, have been running common registers between them, registered social landlords and even with private landlords who are working with the authority. These formed a real basis for ensuring that lettings were made on a basis which prevented too many people with multiple social needs being placed together in one small community.

The extension of these priority categories, and the emphasis that will be placed upon them rather than on those who have non-priority requirements, will assist local authorities which still prioritise who receives the limited accommodation available. There must be some statutory requirement to record the allocations made and the decisions implemented. The suggested wording of Schedule 1A, which is included in Amendment No. 40, would provide guidance for that. I beg to move.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

The amendments seek to restore a statutory requirement for housing authorities to have a register of applications for allocation of accommodation. This cuts across the thrust of the Bill which is to encourage authorities to move away from fixed registers and consider more flexible ways of operating their allocation schemes, which can enable them to offer more choice to those who seek a social housing tenancy.

Baroness Hanham

May I intervene? I may not have made myself clear. What I believe is required is not the traditional housing register where everybody went on in date order and the points rammed up. I suggest that for all those to whom the authority appears to have an obligation and whom they are treating as homeless persons or priorities, the decisions that are made must be recorded. It is not a case of keeping a list against which it works but rather one that records what happens, who is treated and dealt with, what housing allocations are proposed and how many offers people receive. That is what I mean by a register rather than the traditional register which concerns housing allocations under the points system.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

That is helpful. It is hard to imagine how a reasonable local authority can operate any housing allocation scheme without proper records being kept. It clearly could not do so and it clearly needs some list or register of applicants and some record of what it has done in relation to the applications. However, it is not for the Bill to specify or prescribe as far as local authorities are concerned what is the best means of administering their housing allocation arrangements. If an authority decides that it would be necessary or constructive to keep a particular form of register it will be for that authority to decide what form or type of register will best meet its administrative needs. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, that there needs to be proper administration but I do not believe that it is right for us to prescribe it in the Bill, particularly having regard to the way the noble Baroness has put her argument in support of the amendment. What we are dealing with when we talk about the register, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, described it in her opening remarks, is a formal sort of register which very few people will mourn. What the noble Baroness is talking about is the record-keeping facilities for local authorities. I do not believe it is right to put that on the face of the Bill. The Bill builds in safeguards to ensure that all applicants must have their applications considered properly, including transfer tenants, and to ensure that applicants can obtain the necessary information that will allow them to assess how long they will have to wait for an allocation. The Bill provides a sensible framework of duties and powers. It is for individual authorities flexibly to construct the detailed administration arrangements as they see fit. Therefore the statutory requirement that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, has in mind is not appropriate.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister for his reply. The sad truth is that not all local authorities are quite as good and rigorous as others. It will be fundamentally important, as we get into the operation of this Bill, that there are no misunderstandings about who is housed and against what criteria.

I am sure that most authorities will do it in a most rigorous way, but if there is not a requirement for those records to be kept then there could be confusion and cause for challenge over a particular housing application.

I hear what the Minister has said. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 14 agreed to.

Clause 15 [Allocation schemes]:

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 27: Page 10, line 19, after "accommodation" insert "(including temporary accommodation) which may be available within the authority's district or within another authority's district The noble Baroness said: In moving this amendment, I shall also speak to Amendments Nos. 28, 30 and 35.

Amendment No. 27 relates to the allocation scheme and the extension relating to those eligible for statutory housing by dint of being homeless and those to whom a duty will be owed. This extends not only the need for permanent but also temporary accommodation. The Bill gives no recognition to the fact that both are going to be difficult to supply—particularly in an over-stretched part of the country such as London. For those authorities in particular, it must be right that they are able to indicate that there are pressures on both permanent and temporary accommodation. They need to give a reasonable indication of the availability of both temporary and permanent accommodation, and the likelihood or otherwise of the need or prospect of choice in either.

The reality is that temporary accommodation is seldom a choice anyway, but there are areas which are so pressed for temporary accommodation that it should be proper for the local authority to indicate that that temporary accommodation might not even be in the borough—indeed, it might not even be in the same part of the country. That should be made clear, together with the permanent housing constraints.

Amendment No. 28 brings us to the nub of the Bill. It refers to those who are to be eligible under the homeless priority categories. My amendment adds a few more categories which I plucked from Section 167(2) of the 1996 Act to the Bill's provisions. However, neither it nor anything we have so far been told covers comprehensively those who will be eligible under the Bill to he considered as homeless.

The Minister was kind enough to send me and other Members of the Committee a copy of the consultation paper on the homeless priority needs categories. These are not spelt out in the Bill but unless they are all included at a later stage, they will be introduced by an order subsequently.

It is essential that the categories that have been in consultation, together with all those we have discussed today and which appear in the rest of the Bill, should be included in the Bill so they can be considered before the Bill leaves this House.

As I have said before, I believe that local authorities will have the greatest difficulty in fulfilling their obligations under the Bill, not only because of the increased number of categories, but also because of the limited time which they will have to keep people in temporary accommodation and the unlimited amount of time which can pass before an offer is accepted or reviews can be completed and refined.

Amendment No. 30 is interesting. It must be the first time that any suggestion of means testing has been considered in relation to homelessness legislation. What does it mean? Does it mean that if a person who is deemed to be homeless but who has more than a certain income—I wonder what that income is—he or she will not be helped? Will they be charged for such help? Will they be given more expensive accommodation? Will they have to pay more for whatever accommodation is provided to them? Not even the Explanatory Notes give any help with that and I suggest, therefore, in the absence of explanation, that it should be deleted.

Finally, Amendment No. 35 is a probing amendment, to see what thoughts the Government have on the provision of housing by any local authority to its community, not just to the vulnerable homeless. One of the greatest dangers posed by this Bill is that the only people ever to be accommodated by the local authority in future will be those with other social needs in addition to that of housing. There are no indications as to how priorities are to be judged or what discretion the local authorities will have to try to make allocations of properties in a way which will ensure that they have balanced communities. They particularly need to ensure that they have a sufficient number of ways to support themselves both financially and socially so as to encompass and embrace those less able to do so.

Under those circumstances, a local authority should have a discretion, where it can show a plausible reason for doing so, to cease temporarily to operate under the terms of this Bill and allocate properties to others who may not be governed by it. I beg to move.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Amendment No. 29 is grouped with this section and it might therefore be appropriate for me to speak to it now.

When we last debated the Bill at Second Reading, I raised the matter of same-sex couples, pointing out that homelessness could be created in a situation in which the partner in whom a tenancy was vested died, leaving the remaining partner in danger of being made homeless since the local authority is perfectly within its rights to seek repossession and would be under no obligation to offer alternative accommodation. There have been incidents where that has in fact happened.

The Minister was kind enough to say that he would write to me and has since done so. It seems that the Government are aware that the rights of couples outside marriage are prompting debate within society. It is felt, however, according to the Minister's letter, that the issues are complex and need to be considered in total, which is currently being done. I had intended to table an amendment which would automatically extend tenancy rights in such cases to the remaining partner, in the same way as exists for married couples. However, it would probably not be appropriate in the light of the Minister's letter and the fact that this Bill is about homelessness rather than tenancy rights.

My amendment therefore looks at the problem from a different angle. The point of the amendment is to oblige local authorities, via their allocation schemes, to give preferential treatment to partners from same-sex couples who have been denied succession to a tenancy under the relevant provision of the various Housing Acts. In other words, the amendment directly seeks to prevent homelessness and is thus relevant to this particular Bill. I would very much welcome hearing from the Minister in response.

Baroness Hamwee

I wholly support what the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, has just said. I thank the Minister for the copy of his letter to the noble Baroness, in which he indicates that there is a detailed cross-departmental review of issues which concern same-sex couples arising not just in the housing area. When he responds, perhaps he can say when we might have some more news of that review. Also, if he is going to oppose the amendment, can he say what harm there might be in at least making this small step in a limited area before we have the result of the whole of the review?

7.15 p.m.

Baroness Maddock

I rise to speak to Amendment No. 36, which is also part of this group. The purpose of the amendment is to require an authority to inform an applicant of the decision that their priority for housing has been adjusted due to behaviour affecting their suitability to be a tenant, or when their preference is removed because of unacceptable behaviour.

There are two points in the Bill at which the local authority can deem an applicant's behaviour unacceptable and refuse to house him or her: the eligibility stage in Clause 13 and the removal of all preferences at Clause 15. At the eligibility stage there is a requirement that the authority should notify the applicant of the decision, the grounds and the right to review. That is covered in Clause 13(9) and (10). No such requirement exists at the later stage, where all priority is removed. Instead, the onus is on the applicant. That is covered in Clause 15(4). That is inconsistent.

On Report in another place, the Minister undertook to consider the problem further. How far have the Government got with those considerations? The Minister also undertook to consult the local authority associations. I would be interested to hear his response now, since the matter is still being raised by people who are concerned about it. There seems to be an inconsistency. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

I hope that the Minister will say something about the growing problem arising out of the nexus of asylum seekers. In many parts of the country, there are people whose business is to purchase properties and let them directly to asylum seekers or to act as an agent for the council. I am disturbed at the desperation that councils often feel, believing that they have to use every agency and avenue available, only to find that they are aiding and abetting the exploitation of the market of desperate people who need housing.

When the Minister seeks to put the onus on councils and housing associations, I hope that he will bear in mind that in many circumstances there is a burgeoning market that meets the bill. I shall not use the term "unscrupulous". They are businessmen who invest money and provide a service, but the occupants of their properties are part of the whole nexus of homelessness and need some protection.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

The Minister reasonably rebuffed my last attempts to support my noble friend Lady Hanham. In expiation of any fault in this direction on my part at a previous stage, I shall be entirely content if the Minister says that Amendment No. 27, moved by my noble friend, is not required under the wording of the Bill and is superfluous to requirements.

In case he does not say that, I will put forward what I intended to say. Earlier in our deliberations I described London local authorities criss-crossing London, moving tenants around from one authority to another so that there could be as many exports as imports and vice versa. I took that up with the authority in the constituency that I previously represented. I was told that one reason was that my authority was more particular about where it put people and that it was sorry that accommodation that it had rejected within the City of Westminster was being used by other local authorities.

The cause of my anxiety is that that other accommodation may be cheaper and in circumstances where demand exceeds supply, one would see more of such accommodation being used. Whether that falls into line with what the noble Lord, Lord Graham, alluded to a moment ago, I do not know. I can put on record that, when I was a parent with undergraduate sons, I could not help noticing that the accommodation in three different universities was all being managed from within the same ethnic group. This suggested that there was a degree of what the noble Lord, Lord Graham, described as a nexus at work. However, if the Minister tells me that those words are not required, I can obviously rest easy.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

I hope that I can give the assurance that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, and the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, seek, in relation to Amendment No. 27. That amendment would require authorities to include in their allocation schemes a statement on offering applicants for accommodation choice, not only within the authority's own boundaries but also in other areas also.

I am very keen to see authorities co-operating to allow allocations to be made across local housing authority boundaries, which I take to be the intention of this amendment. The noble Baroness, as a member of a London borough council, will be aware of the London Housing Partnership, which is an excellent example of inter-borough co-operation, and of the London Authorities West and North initiative, which gives London social tenants the opportunity to move out of the capital. I also refer to HOMES—the Housing Mobility and Exchange Services, which operates across the UK.

People's choices about where they want to live do not neatly fit into local authority boundaries, as the noble Baroness, above all, will know. There will frequently be excellent reasons for seeking accommodation outside the authority in which an applicant is currently situated. Of course, facilitating movement from areas of high housing demand to areas of low demand makes good sense.

I say that because I wish to make it clear that I fully agree with the spirit of Amendment No. 27, but I do not believe it is necessary to place such a statement on the face of the Bill. The provisions of the 1996 Act about allocations relate to the selection of tenants of an authority's own stock and nominations to tenancies of accommodation held by other housing providers, whether other authorities or RSLs. An authority's policy on offering people a choice of housing implicitly includes its policies in relation to its own accommodation and its arrangements with other authorities. This is a matter that can best be supplemented by guidance and to put it on the face of the Bill would be superfluous.

One small point on Amendment No. 28. The noble Baroness will recall that Part VI of the 1996 Act is concerned with long-term allocations of secure, introductory or assured tenancies. On reflection, it may be that the reference in the amendment to the choice of "temporary" accommodation is therefore misplaced.

Amendment No. 28 raises a different issue. It would add a number of additional categories of housing applicants to the categories that must be given reasonable preference for an allocation. In fact, it would restore three categories that are currently on the face of the 1996 Act.

I can see the temptation to restore those particular categories. At first blush, it might look as though the Government had cast aside the housing needs of those who would fall within these categories. However, let me quickly explain that we are doing so such thing.

The provisions in the Bill that deal with the allocations framework seek to give effect to the policies that are set out in Chapter 9 of the housing Green Paper. That sets out the Government's view that meeting housing need must remain the priority for lettings and transfer policies. It also suggested that assessments of housing need should in broad terms consider whether the applicant is homeless or threatened with homelessness, living in housing conditions that are intolerable or has a need to move to avoid hardship. The Bill reshapes the reasonable preference categories to give effect to that approach. We are not tinkering; we are setting out to rationalise the allocations framework and trying to ensure that the circumstances of everyone who may have a need for social housing are captured by the reasonable preference categories.

The starting point was the categories in the 1996 Act, but these are flawed to some extent by the policies underlying the 1996 changes—that is, the implication that households accepted as statutorily homeless should have to wait for an allocation of housing. In 1996, for the first time since the homelessness legislation was introduced in 1977, households that were owed a main homelessness duty were removed from the reasonable preference categories. However, in practice, housing authorities still needed to be able to give preference to these groups or they would not be able to move them on and bring their homelessness duties to an end. Therefore the three categories which are the subject of Amendment No. 28 appear to have been introduced as a proxy for these groups, to facilitate them. Virtually all homelessness applicants accepted as unintentionally homeless and in priority need would fall into one or other of these categories but their housing need derives from the fact that they had experienced homelessness and needed a settled home not from their social circumstances. It makes far more sense, therefore, to construct a single reasonable preference category that reflects that fact

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Murton of Lindisfarne)

There is another Division in the House.

[The Sitting was suspended for a Division in the House from 7.25 to 7.35 p.m.]

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

It makes far more sense to construct a single reasonable preference category that reflects that central fact, rather than having three separate categories that do not. The Bill does this.

Looking objectively, the three categories that are the subject of the amendment are based on vulnerability, not on housing need. The fact that someone may have social needs or dependent children or may be expecting a child does not necessarily mean that they have a need for housing. They may be adequately housed already. We are dealing with allocations, not determining whether somebody is homeless.

I understand the concern that households who fall within the three categories in question and who have housing needs should be entitled to be given reasonable preference for an allocation of local authority accommodation. I can assure the Committee that that is achieved by the revised categories of reasonable preference included in Clause 15(3).

Amendment No. 29 would alter the categories of applicant to whom a local housing authority would be required to give reasonable preference in its housing allocation scheme. It would require a local housing authority to give reasonable preference to the surviving partner of a same-sex couple. Such partners do not at present have tenancy succession rights, as they are not considered to be spouses.

The noble Baroness has already made her concern about that clear at an earlier stage and, as she very fairly said, I wrote to her and sent a copy to other interested Members of your Lordships' House.

We have already made a commitment to a full review of the tenure arrangements for social housing. It will be undertaken by the Law Commission, which has been asked to produce a report and draft Bill by July 2003. I believe that that answers the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I am pleased to say that succession issues will be considered in the first phase of the review. Tenancy succession is just one of many issues that the Government intend to review with regard to its effect on couples outside marriage—same-sex or otherwise. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked what harm would it do to deal with it now. We believe that it is appropriate that the issue of same-sex couples should be dealt with as a whole rather than piecemeal, one issue at a time.

Although I understand the concerns of the noble Baroness on this issue, I believe that any surviving partner who is in housing need as a result of the ending of a tenancy to which they cannot succeed will be caught by the provisions of the new Section 167(2) as inserted by Clause 15(3). I ask the noble Baroness to bear that in mind when considering what to do with her amendment when we get to the next stage.

I am rather surprised by Amendment No. 30, because authorities may reasonably wish to lake account of a person's resources in determining the relative priority to be given to those applicants who must be accorded reasonable preference for an allocation of accommodation.

I should stress that the new Section 167(2A) relates only to determining priority between those applicants who must be given reasonable preference. It does not remove that preference but provides authorities with the power to take account of differences between applicants with similar needs. It is surely reasonable that an authority, perhaps in an area of high demand, faced with two families in equally difficult circumstances should consider the resources available to those families in resolving their housing problems. Where, for example, one family had the resources to enter the private sector, perhaps through a shared ownership scheme, but the other did not, the authority is surely right to give priority to the poorer family first. That would obviously not relieve the authority of its responsibilities to those who fall within the reasonable preference categories, including the better-off families. It does, however, allow the authority to prioritise the use of its scarce resources in an entirely appropriate way.

I hope that, on reflection, the noble Baroness will feel that taking account of financial resources is a good example of a factor that authorities may wish to take into account in prioritising claims of those who must be given reasonable preference for accommodation. While Amendment No. 35 is not necessary or appropriate, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for the opportunity to address the important issues it raises.

Subsection (3) of Clause 15 in fact substitutes new provisions in Section 167 of the 1996 Act. Most of those provisions confer discretion on the local housing authority when framing their statutory housing allocation schemes. That is the case with new Sections 167(2A) to (2E) inclusive. Nothing would be gained by allowing authorities to suspend those provisions when the extent to which they use them is, anyway, at their discretion. Furthermore, some of those provisions are particularly helpful in meeting some of the concerns of the noble Baroness.

New Section 167(2), like its predecessor, requires allocation schemes to be framed to give reasonable preference in allocating housing to those who in general terms have the most pressing needs. That is a duty; but the preference required to be given is one which is reasonable in all the circumstances. In determining priority between applicants who fall into a reasonable preference category, an authority may specify factors it will take into account, such as an applicant's financial resources or behaviour. They also allow authorities to ensure that local circumstances—for example, a particular estate—can be reflected in allocation schemes.

Section 167(2E)(b) allows authorities to be able to allocate particular housing accommodation to persons of a particular description in accordance with schemes known as "local lettings schemes". These could include key worker schemes where it might help attract modestly paid but essential staff to high cost areas. In another area, such a scheme might be used to lower the child to adult ratio on an estate with a high child density or the scheme might be operated to provide housing for those who do not usually receive high priority on an authority's register—young single people, for example. It is up to the authority, in consultation with its partners, to draw up a scheme which meets local housing needs and which will support the development of sustainable communities. The provisions of the Bill provide the foundations for that work and, within the statutory framework, wide discretion is given to authorities and schemes can be adapted to reflect local circumstances. It is important to keep local lettings schemes under review and to monitor their impact on those who are not part of any local lettings schemes. Of course, local lettings schemes should not override the reasonable preference categories across an authority's stock when taken as a whole.

Taken together, the provisions of subsection (3) provide a robust framework for authorities. They will ensure that, in general, authorities will allocate their housing to those in greatest need but will also provide flexibility to adapt schemes to local circumstances. In that way, the Bill as drafted meets the principal purposes behind this amendment. I hope that the noble Baroness will not proceed with the amendment at the appropriate time.

I move on to the topic of provision of information. The Bill as drafted gives housing applicants the right to request information about any decisions that have been taken or are likely to be taken about the facts of their case and any decision that no preference is deserved and therefore will not be given because of unacceptable behaviour. Amendment No. 36 would remove the onus from the individual to request information, and would place an obligation on authorities to inform applicants of any such decisions.

I am sympathetic with the thinking that lies behind this amendment. I share the noble Baroness's concern that the application process should be transparent and accessible, and that applicants should be able to obtain the information they need to get an indication of the degree of priority that their application will receive relative to others.

I also believe local authorities should be encouraged to provide as much feedback on individual applications as is practicable—as early as practicable—so that those applying for housing know where they stand and understand their prospects, good or bad. This is particularly important in respect of those households that are being accommodated temporarily under the homelessness legislation whilst they wait for the opportunity of an allocation to provide them with a more settled home. This will be reflected in statutory guidance.

I remain concerned, however, that we do not inadvertently place local authorities in a difficult position. The provisions in the Bill have been very carefully and thoughtfully drafted. They recognise that while some authorities may decide to continue to operate what may be characterised as points-based allocation schemes, we hope that—in response to encouragement from the Government—many other authorities will adopt choice-based schemes that allow applicants more opportunity to exercise their preference for particular properties. The statutory provisions therefore need to be appropriate to both types of scheme, as well as any others that authorities may devise.

The provisions on applicants' right to information about their application—which Amendment No. 36 would modify—are a case in point. Under choice-based schemes, active consideration of the facts of an applicant's case may not occur until he or she makes a specific application for a particular property. Under the provisions as drafted, an applicant has the right to ask about decisions that are likely to be taken on his application. This right applies at any stage of the process, including from the outset. If no decisions have been taken by the authority at the point he makes his request, the authority would nevertheless have to give consideration to his application and inform him what the decisions would be likely to be. It is right that those applicants who want to have this information from the outset, should have the right to obtain it. However, I remain concerned that it could be onerous for authorities operating a choice-based allocation scheme to have to provide that information as a matter of course for all applicants, whether they require to have it or not.

In light of what I have said, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment in relation to the information divisions. I believe that I have dealt with all of the amendments in this group.

7.45 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

Perhaps I can pick up on the Minister's final point. Does he think that it is particularly important, where a local housing authority is making a decision that is based on the behaviour of the tenant, that the tenant is told very clearly—and with the onus on the local housing authority—why the decision has been made? That is a particular circumstance where, rather than going to the local housing authority and asking why, a tenant is told why as a matter of course—routinely—at the same time as the authority takes the decision? After all, quite apart from the rights of tenants, there is an interest on everybody's part in modifying behaviour. If the tenant knows about it, the tenant may be able to take steps in the future.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

I have considered this point carefully. I continue to see a distinction between the decision to exclude and how it operates in relation to allocations. There will be nothing to prevent an individual authority from notifying applicants at the allocation stage about such a decision if they wish. It will be a matter for each authority to make its decision about that. I do not wish to place an obligation on it to do this. Separately from this, the Bill makes adequate provision for applicants to be able to obtain information about how their application is being treated. As I have said, we will encourage in guidance that authorities make the allocations process as transparent as possible and that they provide as much feedback to applicants as possible. At this stage, we think that the right balance is to leave it to the local authority to decide who to tell and when, but also to give a power to require information.

Baroness Hanham

The Minister has dealt with a number of amendments in his customarily lucid and well directed remarks. However, I remain concerned about the fact that the people who are included in the order, plus all the others who are mentioned in the Bill, do not look as if they will appear on the face of the Bill. We need to consider that. It is a sine qua non that a Bill that embraces homelessness should at least define what homelessness will encompass, particularly the increased priorities. It is broadly covered in Clause 15(3), but I am not sure that that is adequate. We should think about that again and possibly return to it.

The other concern that the Minister has not entirely allayed is the business about being sure that one can maintain a balanced community. I hear exactly what he said, that the local authority is left with discretion, but my fear is that the priorities are so wide and that there will be so many people included in them that the discretion will, by definition, not be there. There will be no possibility to allow discretion within the terms of the Bill.

I will probably return to both of those matters. In the meantime I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 28 to 32 not moved.]

Lord Falconer of Thoroton moved Amendment No. 33: Page 11, line 13, after "deserves" insert "by reason of that behaviour

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 34 to 36 not moved.]

Clause 15, as amended, agreed to.

Clauses 16 to 19 agreed to.

Clause 20 [Short title, extent and application to Isles of Scilly]:

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 37: Page 12, line 29, after "Homelessness" insert "and Housing Allocations The noble Baroness said: The amendment is self-explanatory. It could not be more clear. The aim is simply to make certain what the Bill is about. We have spent as long today discussing allocation as we have spent discussing the homeless. One cannot really take place without the other. Therefore, it would make more sense to make it clear in the heading that that is what the Bill is about.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

I recognise the purpose of the amendment, but it is unnecessary and adds nothing to the substance of the Bill. The current provision allows the short title to be very short indeed, for which we should all be grateful.

The principal purpose of the Bill is to deliver the Government's manifesto commitment to strengthen the homelessness safety net. Other issues have come into the Bill, but the fact that we have spent a lot of time this afternoon talking about allocation does not detract from the fact that one of the Bill's major requirements is that local authorities should undertake homelessness reviews and strategies through the provisions relating to homelessness. While we talk about particular issues, we should remember the overall effect of the Bill. One of its main aims is to improve the way in which local authorities address homelessness. I do not consider that the title is at all misleading.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister for his reply. I am not totally surprised and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment for the time being.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 20 agreed to.

Schedule 1 [Minor and consequential amendments]:

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

I should point out that there is an error at the beginning of Amendment No. 38; it should read, "Page14, line 4", and not line 3.

Baroness Massey of Darwen moved Amendment No. 38: Page 14, line 3, at end insert— In section 190 (duties to persons becoming homeless intentionally), after subsection (3) there is inserted— (4) In any case where the local housing authority are advised by a social services authority that a child who is in need within the meaning of section 17(10) of the Children Act 1989 (c. 41) resides with an applicant to whom they have secured that accommodation is available under subsection (2) above, they shall—

  1. (a) continue to secure that accommodation is available for the occupation of the applicant and any such child for so long as the social services authority advise them that accommodation is required to enable the social services authority to provide services to such a child to promote or safeguard the child's welfare; or
  2. (b) provide such assistance to the social services authority as shall enable the applicant to secure that accommodation becomes available from some other person.""
The noble Baroness said: I shall be very brief. This amendment seeks to address the important issue of children of homeless families being separated from their parents. I realise that the amendment is not perfect but I would like to highlight again the problems in legislation regarding homeless families who have children.

I am grateful to the Minister for the interest he has shown in this issue, and for distributing relevant information and documentation. I also realise that children's rights go across several pieces of legislation and that discussions have occurred in another place in relation to the children and adoption Bill, also in the Standing Committee of the Homelessness Bill, and in an adjournment debate, so it is being well discussed. I understand also that an amendment to the Children Act is outside the scope of the Bill and so we must work with what is possible.

Local authorities need to have joined-up thinking about homelessness and housing and many do. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, said, there are inconsistencies and variations, and these may impinge negatively on children.

I would like to emphasise what I said during the Second Reading debate; namely, that the Children Act places the needs of children as paramount—and I emphasise the word "paramount"—in offering council services, but that there have been cases where children and their parents have been separated.

Shelter continues to collect evidence from its housing aid centres. In the cases it has presented as snapshots, there are no apparent child protection issues involved. The parents have been able to care for the children but the only problem was that the families were homeless. In one case, the Court of Appeal found that Section 17 of the Children Act conferred a power for local authorities to provide assistance, rather than a duty, and that the duty to provide accommodation under Section 20 of the Act is a duty to house the child, not the parent or parents, and the child is thus taken into care.

Shelter considers that the judgments made in that case, and another, are likely to have a significant impact on homeless families with children in need and will inevitably result in social services authorities providing assistance in far fewer cases.

In the adjournment debate in another place, the honourable Member for Regents Park and Kensington North spoke of experiences from her caseload, which indicated that strict adherence to the letter of the law may find households intentionally homeless in "circumstances that appear unjust", for example, if a family has unexpected financial problems and is forced to sell their home.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health, in her reply, rightly pointed out that striking a balance in relation to housing and social services is important, and undertook to look at the judgments I referred to again and to examine the implications. There is a clear concern from the Government about this issue. I recognise that this is complex but, if children's welfare is being put at risk, we must act. I beg to move.

Baroness Maddock

I rise to support this amendment, having put my name to it. I raised this at Second Reading too. There is considerable evidence that there are some pretty awkward and difficult cases where children have been taken away from their parents. There is a good deal of evidence which Shelter can provide, as I am sure others can too.

The Minister shared our concern about this and said he would consult a little more widely. I hope that, by supporting this amendment and giving him a chance to tell us how far he has got with those endeavours, we will at least hear something which shows that we are looking at this matter.

I recognise that this is a difficult matter. What the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and I are looking for, is a firm commitment from the Minister that, whatever he does, he will try to take some kind of action to ensure that the sorts of cases we have heard about no longer happen.

The Earl of Listowel

I should like to speak briefly to the amendment in the names of the noble Baronesses, and to express my deep concern about the current situation. This was brought home to me in a recent conversation with a housing allocations manager in a London authority, of 30 years' experience. He described how he had started, enthusiastic and there to help people and now at the end of each day he was depressed because there was no housing to provide people with. We all recognise that some local authorities are under tremendous pressure.

I also spoke with the manager in Barnardo's for families in temporary accommodation. He understands what is happening and his perception is that families are being threatened with their children being taken into care, not because it is a realistic proposition—it would cost local authorities £300 to £400 or probably more to look after such children—but because there is such a shortage of accommodation and they regularly use this is a means to put families off applying any further pressure to gain accommodation. They hope that they will stay with in-laws or find some other means. That can lead to families being in poor accommodation, and they can disappear from sight. Shelter has described case histories in which we learn that so-and-so is happening to a family but after that we do not know what happens to them.

I welcome the fact that at the latest meeting that we attended the Minister brought up this matter unprompted. It clearly weighs heavily on his mind and I look forward to his response.

8 p.m.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

I said on Second Reading that we were in the process of investigating whether there had been any change in practice in the way that local authorities provide assistance for families with children who are homeless. We regard it as a very important matter and we need to get to the bottom of what is going on. Subsequent to that debate, there has been a further legal development in that one of the two cases, A v. Lambeth, has been heard and decided by the Court of Appeal, which has simply brought further confusion to what the legal position is. My colleagues and officials and lawyers at the Department of Health are studying the implications of that latest decision. It goes without saying that the more confusing the law becomes, the more one's concern about the matter rises.

In addition to discovering the detail of that recently decided case, I have seen—I said that I would do so—the social services directors of a number of local authorities, some unitary and some two-tier. The social service directors who I saw all had arrangements in place to ensure that the social services departments work together with the housing authority—or housing department in the case of the unitaries—to find an appropriate solution for the whole family when dealing with families with children who have made themselves intentionally homeless. Concern arises in relation to intentionally homeless families.

The authorities that I saw were therefore authorities in which the process was joined up between housing and social services. I have asked my officials to work closely with their counterparts in the Department of Health to see how we can ensure that this kind of sensible and co-ordinated approach is adopted much more widely. We need to see whether amendments to the law are required. What I said on Second Reading was that I would come back with a conclusion in relation to this while there was still time for the House to do something about it. That means that I will try to let noble Lords know what the position is before Report and that on Report at the latest I will say what conclusion has been reached.

It is plain that we are still at the development stage, so I have nothing definite to offer Members of the Committee today. However, I reaffirm my commitment to report back to the House before it is too late for something to be done.

On the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, it has been put forward on the basis that it is a means of raising the issue. She should hold that in the hope that we will be in a position to say that anybody who is intentionally homeless and who has children shall thereafter he treated as if they were unintentionally homeless. As everybody rightly says, a balance has to be struck. We must try to ensure that there is an arrangement in place where local authorities and social services and housing departments are motivated to work together to find solutions for families as a whole. I will report back in correspondence to those who are interested, and certainly at the latest on Report.

Baroness Massey of Darwen

I thank the Minister for his concern and for his clear explanation. I am still concerned that the notions of "intentionally homeless" and of "unintentionally homeless" are sometimes very blurred. In the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Maddock moved Amendment No. 39: Page 15, line 23, at end insert— For section 210(1) of the 1996 Act (suitability of accommodation) there is substituted— (1) In determining for the purposes of this Part whether accommodation is suitable for a person, accommodation shall only be regarded as suitable if—

  1. (a) it is not overcrowded (within the meaning of section 324 (definition of overcrowding) of the Housing Act 1985 (c. 68));
  2. (b) it is fit for the number of occupants and it has adequate means of escape from fire (within the meaning of sections 352 (power to require execution of works to render premises fit for number of occupants) and 365 (means of escape from fire: general provisions as to exercise of powers) of the Housing Act 1985); and
  3. (c) in the view of the authority it is fit for human habitation (within the meaning of section 604 (fitness for human habitation) of the Housing Act 1985).""
The noble Baroness said: I am conscious of the hour so I shall not say as much on this issue as I intended. The purpose of the amendment is to require accommodation to meet minimum physical housing standards in order for it to be considered suitable for homeless applicants.

Under the current requirements for accommodation provided for homeless households to be suitable, local authorities need only to "have regard to" housing standards on overcrowding and physical conditions. That does not mean that they have to meet those standards.

We all know that homeless households are often placed in temporary accommodation that is overcrowded or unfit. Accommodation will usually only be unsuitable for a household if it can be proven that, for example, disrepair or overcrowding will be harmful to that particular family. This amendment seeks to strengthen the definition of suitability, so that temporary accommodation for all homeless households has to meet the same minimum standard as that applying to all other households.

The Government are and have been trying to ensure better standards in all our housing, including houses in multiple occupation, and the Government have also just consulted on proposals to replace the fitness standard with a more modern standard based on risk assessment.

One of the other interesting areas is overcrowding and this amendment would have two effects. First, it would make the requirement that accommodation should meet minimum housing standards; but, secondly, it would specify the standard with which the accommodation would have to comply.

The legislation on the overcrowding standard is very much out of date and has remained virtually unchanged since the Second World War. The amendment would at least ensure a prohibition on the use of overcrowded accommodation for homeless households. One of the issues I was concerned about is that people sometimes have to make quick decisions and sometimes they are offered accommodation for which there would clearly be overcrowding. If this provision were passed, that would be one matter I would not be so concerned about.

It seems inconsistent that local authorities have the power to enforce standards in their area, but they do not have to meet those standards when they are accommodating homeless households. I hope the Minister will look favourably on this. This may not be the way to do exactly what we are asking, but I hope that he will understand the point I am making. I believe it is in line with the Government's desire in other areas of housing to improve housing standards in Britain. I beg to move.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising the issue of housing standards. Overcrowding and poor standards are unacceptable; but it will take, as she interestingly acknowledges, a long time to address those deep-seated problems. Pressure on housing, particularly in London and the South, is growing. Many people live in unacceptable conditions. We have made a start in addressing the problems of poor quality housing stock and insufficient supply of affordable accommodation in some areas, and I listed earlier some of the measures that we have taken.

Taken together, our measures will bring all social housing up to a decent standard by 2010; they will improve the supply of affordable housing in areas where it is most needed and promote sustainable home ownership and a healthy private rented sector. However, as everyone in this room knows, none of that will happen overnight. We are making progress. We know that more needs to be done. Amendments that strengthen the duty on authorities would not tackle the real problem. They would not increase the supply of suitable accommodation on the ground and would make no real contribution to the efforts being made physically to improve the standards of existing accommodation.

There must be real concern that, in the very immediate term, the amendments could add to the difficulties which many local authorities in high demand areas are experiencing in securing sufficient accommodation to discharge their statutory obligations to homeless people. The issues of fitness and decent standards of accommodation are very important and have been neglected by previous administrations for too long. They are real issues, but they must be addressed by devoting real resources to finding real solutions. That is what this Government are doing.

There is a general consensus that the housing fitness standard in Section 604 of the 1985 Act no longer reflects a modern understanding of the health and safety risks in dwellings. We are therefore trying to replace the standard with the housing health and safety rating system, which will apply a modern, risk-based approach to assessing housing conditions and will apply to all dwellings. We have consulted widely on this proposal and we are currently carrying out further work to strengthen the system and ensure its robustness.

We are consulting on proposals to legislate to enable the selective licensing of private landlords in areas of low housing demand. These measures will give local authorities the power to tackle the problem of unscrupulous landlords who will not meet minimum standards of management.

All those reforms will secure better standards of accommodation, and we plan to legislate for them as soon as we have an appropriate vehicle. However, the Homelessness Bill is not the appropriate vehicle.

As Members of the Committee may know, my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary in another place has given an undertaking to review the current overcrowding provisions, which are very outdated, as the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, has said. At this stage, I cannot say what the outcome of the review will be, but I can give an assurance that the Government are determined to address poverty in all its manifestations and will take the necessary steps to do so.

I hope that that provides the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, with some reassurance and that she will not press her amendment.

Baroness Maddock

It is quite late. I shall look at what the Minister has said in more detail. I remain particularly concerned about overcrowding. If families who are under pressure because they have been homeless are then put into overcrowded accommodation, I suspect that they may become homeless again, which is why I thought that it was relevant to raise this issue in the Bill. We may be able to look at that in some other way at a further stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule I agreed to.

[Amendment No. 40 not moved.]

Schedule 2 agreed to.

Bill reported with an amendment.

The Committee adjourned at thirteen minutes past eight o'clock.