HL Deb 19 June 1996 vol 573 cc319-85

3.10 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish)

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Ferrers, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House again in Committee accordingly.


Clause 142 [Allocation of housing accommodation]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 263ZAGF: Page 88, line 29, leave out ("a secure or") and insert ("an").

The noble Baroness said: The first of the amendments in our alphabet soup of amendments today is Amendment No. 263ZAGF. We now turn to Part VI of the Bill, which deals with the allocation of housing accommodation. The amendment is quite a small one with which to start today's Committee stage of the Housing Bill. Nevertheless it is an important amendment. It seeks to delete from subsection (5) (on page 88, line 29 of the Bill) the provision that this part of the Bill applies to a secure tenant.

The purpose of the amendment is to provide that a local authority shall have a duty to give reasonable preference in its allocation scheme (under a clause to which we shall come later) to its existing secure tenants who may fall within priority categories—for instance, people who are living in unsatisfactory housing conditions.

Under the current allocation provisions which this Bill will replace, case law has stated that the duty to give reasonable preference in the allocation of tenancies extends to a local housing authority's existing tenants. Bearing in mind that one-quarter or thereabouts of households are in the local authority sector, concerning also the severe state of disrepair of many such dwellings and the fact that many existing tenants are living in overcrowded conditions and have been on the transfer list for many years, it seems unfair to deprive a large section of the advantages of the Bill while removing the rights that they already have.

Many authorities already operate transfer lists under the present provisions. Therefore, I hope that no problems will arise as a result of the amendment, which will effectively take that provision into the current Bill. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

As we start Part VI of the Bill, perhaps I should introduce it. It is concerned with access to social rented housing. In selecting new tenants, the provisions in Part VI will require local authorities to take into account not only the physical housing conditions experienced by applicants for social housing, but also their social and economic circumstances—the factors that are likely to contribute to a long-term need for a local authority or housing association tenancy.

Once within the social rented sector, applicants will have passed the test of "social need". Provided that they keep to the terms of their tenancy, they can expect to remain within the social rented sector for life, without the need for further tests of eligibility.

There are a number of good reasons why transfers of existing tenants should be treated separately from allocations to prospective tenants. In the absence of a test of "social need", what becomes paramount is the suitability of the household's accommodation. Some of the factors which may be relevant here may also be relevant to the selection of new tenants—for example, overcrowding. However, some factors which were relevant then, such as insecurity of tenure, will no longer be relevant.

Moveover, there are other, equally important factors which have more to do with effective housing management than with assessing housing need. One of the most important factors is the need to reduce under-occupation. By offering tenants incentives to move to a smaller property, an authority can increase its stock of larger accommodation; and that, in turn, can be used to house new entrants.

Transfers of existing tenants should not, in the overall scheme of things, put additional pressure on the amount of stock available for new applicants. Over 1½ million local authority properties in England are under-occupied; nearly half a million of those have two or more bedrooms spare. For every local authority tenant who needs to move to a larger property, there are eight who could move to a smaller home.

By seeking to bring allocations to existing tenants within the provisions of Part VI, the noble Baroness's amendment would force them to compete with people seeking to enter the system on grounds that were no longer relevant for the people already within the system. We believe that that would be unfair to existing tenants. Clearly, local authorities should balance the demands of existing tenants seeking to transfer against those of people wanting to enter the system; and in issuing guidance on the application of Part VI, we shall remind authorities of the need to do so. We believe that such a balance is best achieved by enabling authorities to deal with transfers outside the allocation scheme.

There is no reason why the provisions in Part VI should benefit existing tenants at the expense of people seeking social housing for the first time. I hope that, with the explanation that I have given of why we believe that the words that the noble Baroness would take out should remain in the Bill, she will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Hamwee

The Minister has given the most splendid argument that we have heard during the passage of the Bill for increasing the stock of affordable accommodation. It was far better certainly than any that I have made on earlier provisions when we dealt with the right to buy. That, after all, is the issue. In saying that various groups have competing claims—all quite reasonable claims—he accepts the problem of shortage.

I did not understand a comment in the middle of the noble Lord's speech about it being unfair to existing tenants, but I shall read carefully what he said. He then said that it would be unfair to prospective tenants. I am afraid I do not understand either how that would interfere with providing incentives for transfer. I applaud the schemes that many local housing authorities are putting into place to encourage tenants to transfer to more suitable accommodation and to free up possibly larger units.

I am not terribly satisfied with the Minister's answer but perhaps I can come back at the matter from another direction when we have had further debates on this part of the Bill. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham)

I must apologise to the Committee for the inordinate length of my speeches this afternoon. I call Amendment No. 263ZAGG.

[Amendment No. 263ZAGG not moved.]

Clause 142 agreed to.

Clause 143 [Cases where provisions about allocation do not apply]:

[Amendments Nos. 263ZAH and 263ZAJ not moved.]

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 263ZAK: Page 89, line 27, at end insert— ("( ) They do not apply where a local housing authority, in order to meet local priorities, offers assistance to registered social landlords and voluntary organisations providing temporary accommodation for single homeless people, by securing a quantity of nominations through its own housing stock or that of other registered social landlords which meets the assessed needs of single homeless people identified in the local authority housing strategy.").

The noble Baroness said: This amendment has been tabled in my name and the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. It is an amendment about the silting up—if I may use a slightly ugly phrase—of halfway houses within the homelessness procedure. As the Committee will know, local authorities are required to house those homeless people who are not intentionally homeless and who are also vulnerable. That is a tough test. Only about half of those who apply to local authorities saying that they are homeless come within the local authority's duty. Of those, somewhat less than two-thirds are families—people with dependent children—and the rest, well over one-third, are single people to whom the local authority has a duty.

Normally, single people would not be a local authority responsibility. However, they are such a responsibility if they are vulnerable or at risk. About whom are we talking? For example, there are children coming out of care; there are former alcoholics, former addicts and ex-offenders; there are those with mental or physical health problems; and there are those suffering disability. One-third of the women have been treated for mental health problems; another third are homeless because of marital dispute. A third of the men exhibit symptoms of schizophrenia according to the 1995 Salvation Army report, The Faces of Homelessness in London.

According to the DoE's own research, back in 1981, one half of such homeless people had spent some time in an institution. From there, too often they had gone onto the streets or into squats. But very many had come into hostels and been reclaimed into the mainstream. After building up their lives again, getting confidence and perhaps being able to secure a job for the first time, such people are ready to move on into independent life. The Salvation Army estimates that something like two-thirds of hostel dwellers are ready to move on into permanent housing and make a new start. But to do that they must be able to move from the hostel to a council flat. Otherwise, those hostels—those halfway houses—silt up (to use the phrase) and vulnerable people who are ready to come off the streets and go into hostels do not get a chance to do so, because those in the hostels do not move on into independent housing.

Many local authorities try very hard to be helpful and arrange for a modest quota of accommodation to be made available to such halfway houses, whether for battered women, ex-offenders, children coming out of care or those with mental or physical health problems. My own authority, Norwich, for example, makes 110 allocations a year to halfway houses—10 per cent. of its quota. Other local authorities act in a similar fashion.

This amendment would ensure that organisations which provide such temporary halfway houses for some of the most battered and knocked about people in our society could continue to do so. It would allow local authorities to help cope with the homelessness of the single and vulnerable by working in partnership with hostels to move such people, when they are ready, and to offer them the opportunity of an independent life. I hope that the amendment will commend itself to the Committee. I beg to move.

Lord Hylton

I should like to support the amendment. It is probably well known that at any one time there are some 50,000 to 60,000 children in care in England and Wales. What happens to those children when they come out of care leaves a great deal to be desired. There is no doubt that many of them later end up in criminal institutions and prisons because of the lack of suitable housing and employment.

In that context I am glad to say that the French system of foyers is beginning to be copied and adapted to the needs of this country. They are institutions where there is not only accommodation, but also opportunities for job training, learning skills and even directly for acquiring employment. The amendment is well thought out and will operate so that there is better co-ordination between institutions, local authorities and other organisations.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

Amendment No. 263ZAK seeks to provide that local authorities are able to offer permanent accommodation outside the allocation scheme and its priorities as part of a strategy to free up temporary accommodation for single homeless people. The noble Baroness used the phrase "silt up", which is rather inelegant but descriptive of the problem.

This matter was raised in another place when the honourable Member for Christchurch stressed the need to ensure that single people who were provided with temporary supported accommodation such as direct access hostels are able to move into permanent housing. If move-on accommodation was not provided, the temporary accommodation would quickly silt up. The Minister for Housing has already indicated his willingness to consider an exemption for that purpose; indeed, we had already proposed an exemption of that sort in a consultation paper in January this year. There are regulation-making powers in Clause 143 to enable us to make further exemptions to the provisions in Part VI of the Bill. I sense that the real question is why this provision should be provided for in regulations rather than on the face of the Bill.

The reason for using regulations is that there is a lot of detailed technical work to be done specifying and setting out the precise circumstances where the provisions of Part VI should not apply. We will need to be careful about the details, such as the reason for the exceptions, the extent of them, and the ability of the housing authority to control entry into its own stock. That is really best done in regulations, which would also allow flexibility to adapt the provisions as circumstances change and new special cases arise. We are fully alive to the important work done by the voluntary sector in providing accommodation for homeless young single people. Indeed, we support that heavily through the rough sleepers initiative and our Section 73 grants programme. We are also well aware of the need to support this provision and prevent the silting up by providing move-on accommodation.

I am not unsympathetic to what the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said and what they seek to achieve, provided it is kept within reasonable limits. But we believe that the problem is better tackled through regulations rather than in primary legislation. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, will be able to withdraw her amendment. We shall be reflecting further on the whole issue in the light of what has been said and also in the light of the consultation exercise I mentioned earlier.

Baroness Hamwee

Before the noble Baroness decides what to do with the amendment, perhaps I can intervene. The Minister says that he is sympathetic to the noble Baroness and the noble Lord and perhaps a little less sympathetic to my point. I shall restrain myself from repeating it whenever we come to the question of regulations.

This is not a Bill which came as a surprise to anybody; it was not drafted in a hurry. If certain exceptions are included on the face of the Bill and if the Government have the sympathy for others that they express—I do not mean to suggest that the Minister does not have that sympathy—then further progress to the detail of those regulations would have been welcome and appropriate. The Bill has gone through another place. It has been a matter of widespread discussion from the stage of the White Paper onwards in the housing sector.

While I understand the point made by the Minister, I want to register, at any rate once today, a protest that we will have to wait for regulations when clearly those regulations were anticipated by the Government.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Before deciding what to do with the amendment I want to press the Minister on precisely the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. If the Minister turns to Clause 148, he will see that the Government specify in great detail on the face of the Bill, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, those people to whom reasonable preference should be given. There are six categories of people set out.

Clearly, the Minister can have no objection to precision on the face of the Bill as such because the Government's Bill carries that precision in Clause 148. We are saying that "reasonable preference" should also be given to groups of people who are single, vulnerable and living in hostels. Can the Minister say what is wrong with the amendment? Why should it not be on the face of the Bill? I can see why it may be convenient to come back later and include the provision in regulations; I can see why the Government may regard it as a bit of a macho test not to take suggestions from the Opposition Benches. But there is no difference of issue between us. We all believe that it is desirable that local authorities make available an appropriate portion of their permanent stock to such hostels. The Minister's only argument for it not being on the face of the Bill is that it is better in regulations. Yet other areas, which are technically more detailed, appear on the face of the Bill. So why not this?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I tried to explain the position. The subsection to which the noble Baroness draws attention, Clause 148(2), outlines the six principal priorities which we are advancing in the legislation. I see the argument of the noble Baroness. It could be pursued for the rest of the afternoon in respect of various categories and items which we believe are better treated by regulation rather than being included on the face of the Bill.

I hoped to indicate our willingness to bring forward the regulations. We are out to consultation. There will be a lot of detail in the regulations; we want to be sure that there is not a neat side door for people to get on to the list if it is not tightly drawn. Equally, as I am sure the Committee will appreciate, the categories can change as different events happen over decades. It seems to us more important that we have the flexibility of regulation for something which may require a little tweaking and a little changing as time goes on. Primary legislation is not always so easy to get and therefore what goes into primary legislation ought not to require changing for some time to come.

I think that the argument between regulation and primary legislation is one that we shall continue to have during the day. However, by and large, if one were to put everything onto the face of the Bill that was in secondary legislation, Bills would be extraordinarily long. I should have thought that the Committee might agree with me that the Bill is quite long enough as it is.

3.30 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

So far as I can gather, the Minister's reply is to be summed up in the sentence, "It should be done by regulation because I say it should be done by regulation". I do not think we heard an argument at any point. The virtue of putting the provision on the face of the Bill, as the Minister has accepted in Clause 148, is that it sends a signal to local authorities as to what the legislation is intended to deliver. However, it is clear that, every time the Minister has something that he proposes to do by regulation, we shall engage in this argument. I hope that in the course of the day the Minister will come up with a better argument than, "I believe it should be done by regulation and therefore it will be done by regulation". He has not given us an argument of any substance.

I am perfectly willing to accept that where, for example, there is an implication that the finances, because they draw on public money, may change every six months, that is properly done by regulation; or, if it is exceedingly technical, it is properly done by regulation; or if consultation is needed, it should be done by regulation. None of those three arguments applies. This is a perfectly straightforward and simple amendment which says that local authorities may house people coming out of hostels on a quota system in the same way as they give reasonable preference to everyone else. The Minister has not given one argument, apart from the fact that he does not want to, why this should not be on the face of the Bill. I hope that the Committee is treated to more substantive objections to subsequent amendments than we have so far heard this afternoon. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 263ZAL: Page 89, line 27, at end insert— ("( ) They do not apply where—

  1. (a) an applicant to whom a duty is owed under section 172 (duty to persons with priority need who are not homeless intentionally) is entitled to be given reasonable preference in the allocation of housing accommodation by virtue of section 148 (allocation in accordance with allocation scheme) below, and
  2. (b) in the view of the local housing authority the applicant would he likely, if this subsection were not to apply, to be allocated accommodation within six months, or such other period as the Secretary of State may prescribe in regulations.").

The noble Baroness said: This amendment seeks to ensure that families who are near the top of the waiting list with points who become homeless should be eligible for rehousing. Most families who become homeless are already on council waiting lists. Seventy-five per cent. was the last figure I saw. They are in either private rented accommodation or they are sharing with family or friends. But, for a few of those families, the ability to wait in shared accommodation or in private rented accommodation breaks down when, perhaps, they have only a couple of months to go before they would be entitled to be permanently rehoused by the local authority. They may have waited two-and-a-half-years and if they could have held out for another three months they would have been housed in permanent housing. But for whatever reason—it may be the arrival of another baby which was the last straw to an overcrowded home—the arrangement has broken down and they become homeless. They have become homeless because they could not hold on for the last couple of months. Yet, under the Bill, such families, which are only a couple of months away from being rehoused in their own right, are required to be rehoused into temporary accommodation and then, three months later, would be rehoused back again into local authority permanent housing. The upheaval means that families with children might have two moves of school within as many months.

At Committee stage in another place the Minister agreed that that situation was nonsense. He agreed that local authorities should have the discretion to house someone who is near the top of the list rather than churn them through temporary accommodation for a couple of months. This discretion or flexibility for local authorities, which we think is sensible, was widely welcomed at Committee stage and outside the House. But the question then remains: how do local authorities deliver the discretion that the Minister has already conceded in Hansard? In the other place Ministers were pressed on how they could exercise that discretion at local level but they were not particularly forthcoming. We hope that the Minister will be more forthcoming today.

In any case, local authorities need some protection because they are apprehensive that, if they follow the Minister's advice and house someone near the top of the waiting list, as would be sensible and decent, but are not protected by wording on the face of the Bill, they will lay themselves open to judicial action from aggrieved people on the waiting list who see someone with fewer points than them going ahead of them in the queue. Local authorities may then be subject to judicial action for doing what Ministers have encouraged them to do but from whose consequences Ministers have not protected them by putting words on the face of the Bill. Hence we have brought forward the amendment.

It follows what the Minister suggested in the other place. It is, if one likes, a government-inspired amendment. I hope the Minister will agree. It makes it clear that local authorities have a legitimate flexibility to avoid pushing vulnerable families through the temporary accommodation system when they are close to being rehoused from the waiting list in their own right. It is a slightly back to front amendment by excluding from the single list an allocation into permanent accommodation of people who are on the waiting list or are entitled to appear on the waiting list because they fall into categories.

The Minister may tell us that there is a more preferable way of enshrining this discretion in the law. We would be entirely happy with that. We are not hung up on these words. But clearly the Government, having made this statement in the other place, now have a duty to protect local authorities, which do as Ministers suggest, from laying themselves open to judicial action because they are not protected on the face of the Bill.

This may well be more appropriately regarded as a probing amendment, but if the words are not acceptable, I hope the Minister will undertake to come back with a more appropriate amendment at Report stage to put words on the face of the Bill to carry out the undertaking and commitment given at Committee stage by his honourable friend the Minister in another place. I beg to move.

Lord Hylton

I was glad to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, mention the matter of children having to change schools. That can be extremely damaging to the whole educational process of the child involved. We know that the Bill is produced by the Department of the Environment. I hope that that department and its Ministers will consult with their colleagues in the Department for Education so as to try to minimise that adverse impact.

I wish to point out the difficult situation that arises in certain parts of London because of the concentration of temporary housing; for example, in Bayswater and certain parts of Paddington. There, numerous bed and breakfast hotels have been taken over or are mainly occupied by people put into temporary accommodation by a whole range of local authorities in the Greater London area. That places undue stress and strain on all social provision within the boroughs where that concentration occurs. If this amendment could be agreed to, it would go a small way to relieve that very unsatisfactory state of affairs.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I have listened with interest to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. The amendment raises an important point of principle and it touches on the basic question as to whether there should be one or two main routes into local authority housing. The noble Baroness seems concerned about the case of a household with nearly enough priority to be allocated housing but which is threatened with homelessness or becomes homeless and which is then rehoused by a local authority under the two-year homelessness duty. Because the householder's circumstances may well then have improved, the applicant could lose some priority for accommodation through the housing register. But, more importantly, I think that the noble Baroness believes that it would be more sensible, regardless of whether a person was at that moment at the top of the housing list, if I can use that as my example, that that person should be housed. That is the point she is making.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I believe that is the point that the Minister himself was making in the other place.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

With a little patience I might get to that. Perhaps I may outline to the Committee what we are attempting to do here. The homelessness legislation is designed to prevent people reaching the stage where they are actually homeless. Only a fraction of all homeless applicants—about 2 per cent.—are actually without a roof over their heads when they apply for assistance. As soon as someone is identified as meeting the statutory definition of homelessness and likely to be in priority need, an authority is under a duty to secure accommodation immediately. Under the provisions in Part VII of the Bill, which we shall come to later, an authority will be required to ensure that suitable accommodation remains available for that household for at least two years, and if necessary, for longer.

The noble Baroness would wish to enable such people in such circumstances to be allocated long-term accommodation straightaway. By doing so, they would be bypassing other applicants who had perhaps waited patiently in unsuitable accommodation and who finally had an offer of a council house in sight. I wonder whether that is reasonable. They would also be leap-frogging applicants who had perhaps averted a housing crisis by finding accommodation themselves. Would that be fair on such households if people who had been assisted under the homelessness duty were offered accommodation ahead of them? It is that problem, which occurs at present, which has led the Government to bring forward this legislation in this part of the Bill.

The noble Baroness suggests that this route would only be available to applicants who would otherwise be made an offer of accommodation within six months. I am intrigued to know how this would be tested. For example, what would there be to prevent an authority from finding a way round the provisions of Part VI of the Bill by declaring that all households towards whom they accept a duty under Clause 172 are within six months of being made an offer? Who would be able to challenge that?

Conversely, who would be able to challenge an authority which simply decided that anyone who is made homeless is not within six months of getting to the top of the list? I believe that the purpose of setting out the principles of the allocation scheme in primary legislation, as it is in Clause 148, would be damaged and our desire to have transparency in the system would be undermined if the Committee were to accept the noble Baroness's amendment.

We want to ensure that the procedure for allocating housing is fair to applicants on the housing register, and is seen to be fair by all. The main principles for determining priority in allocations, which are contained in Clause 148, are intended to ensure that priority is given on the basis of underlying need. These are important principles. I have no doubt that we shall return to them. I believe that the provisions in Part VI of the Bill will ensure that the needs of everyone on the housing register are assessed fairly, regardless of whether they have become homeless.

In fact, many local authorities provide assistance to people who are threatened with homelessness, either in order to help them find accommodation themselves or to enable them to stay where they are. Indeed, almost two-thirds of authorities operate what are called, "homeless at home" schemes, where they find ways to help keep a homeless person in the house they are in at the moment, in order to give them time to deal with their homelessness problem and reduce the need to provide temporary accommodation. Such schemes could be used, where appropriate, to delay homelessness until an offer of accommodation can be made through the housing register, if it is that near.

If there are compelling reasons why a household should get additional priority, then local authorities will have flexibility to deal with these circumstances. Local authorities can exercise discretion. I suggest that the noble Baroness looks just a little ahead at Clause 148(2) where the priorities are laid out; namely, As regards priorities, the scheme shall be framed so as to secure that reasonable preference is given". The key wording for the purposes of this discussion is "reasonable preference". It is the same as the wording in Section 22 of the 1985 Act. We are not aware that that has been subject to much challenge. The noble Baroness suggested that it would be subject to challenge, but it is there in the 1985 Act and we are not aware that there has been a problem.

The Bill does allow a certain amount of reasonable flexibility to local authorities. I believe that is the proper way to proceed. Under these new arrangements local authorities will continue to be able to set up and operate schemes to meet their own circumstances, and within that framework they will be able to use their discretion in particular cases. But what it will not do is allow them to give overriding priority to anyone who has been accepted for assistance under the homelessness legislation, but who is not actually at the top of the list when it comes to receiving a council house. I do not believe that there is a great problem concerning this situation.

The argument was put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, that children might have to move school. They may have to do so anyway. That is an issue which is perhaps more properly debated in Part VII of the Bill which deals with homelessness and not allocations. We address the need for settled accommodation in the homelessness code of guidance. We shall be repeating that in the revised code which we shall issue after this legislation is passed.

Perhaps I may sum up. There are a number of ways in which a household accepted as being homeless can go straight into permanent housing, which is what concerns the noble Baroness. First, the household may already be on the register. Three-quarters of homeless applicants are already on the housing register. They may have enough priority to be made an immediate offer of accommodation. They may have been made an offer, but they may be waiting for something better. Secondly, the social and housing needs of a household may be so acute that on being placed on the housing register they immediately gain enough priority to go to the top of the list. Thirdly—and perhaps this addresses the specific point—an authority may decide, in the case of a household with almost enough priority to be made an offer of permanent accommodation, to treat that household sympathetically on an exceptional basis. I have explained where the words may be found in the Bill that will give the authority a defence. I believe that this exceptional basis has become known in some circles as the "layered protocol". I hope that Members of the Committee will not ask why, but I understand that is how it is known. It will be for authorities themselves to decide whether to allow flexibility within their allocation schemes for decisions to he made on exceptional cases.

I hope I have explained that there is provision for these exceptional cases to be dealt with by the local authority but, equally, I hope that I have explained that to accept the noble Baroness's amendment with its six months' cut-off point, which would be difficult to define, would begin to run a coach and horses through the principles which we want to bring into the legislation via this Bill; namely, that all people on the housing list, whether they are homeless or not, ought to be treated in exactly the same way when it comes to being allocated the next available local authority house.

3.45 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Can the Minister say whether he is stepping back from the statements made by his honourable friend in the other place, that it was sensible for local authorities to have the discretion, where someone was near the top of the waiting list but a few points short, to be given permanent housing rather than to be churned through temporary accommodation?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I have given that assurance. It may be that I did not express the matter very well. I explained where the words can be found in the Bill, and that they were already in the 1985 Act. I also explained that those words could be used in the future, as in the past, to allow authorities to have flexibility in the operation of their allocation policies. I know that I am not allowed to read directly from what my right honourable friend Mr. Curry said in the other place, but it does not seem to me to be inconsistent with what I have said.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Nor is it inconsistent with what I have said. Therefore, there is some dispute between us. The Minister's statements in the other place—I hope that I express myself in a way that does not sound derogatory—were clearly regarded as a concession to the very real pressures facing local authorities. The Minister there was not merely discussing the current implications of the wording of the Bill. He was allowing that there were circumstances where it would be reasonable for local authorities to depart from the Bill. When pressed by my honourable friends Mr. Raynsford and Mr. Betts on the point that that would lay local authorities open to action, it was agreed that the Government would seek to clarify, and to protect, the position of local authorities on the face of the Bill.

Clearly, we cannot pursue the point further at the moment, but I suspect that we shall want to return to it on Report. In the light of discussions today, and after consultation with his right honourable and honourable friends, the Minister may realise that in an amendment such as this we are seeking only to embody on the face of the Bill the understandings which the Minister gave in another place which, so far, the Bill does not carry. However, with the leave of the Committee—

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I should not like the noble Baroness to leave the Committee with the idea that my right honourable friend in the other place made a concession from which I am now backing away. In fact, my right honourable friend did not make a concession; he made a clarification. The noble Baroness can find it in the report of the Committee stage that took place down the corridor. He used pretty well identical words to those that I have used: that an authority may on an exceptional basis decide to treat sympathetically a household with almost enough priority to be made an offer of permanent accommodation. Members of the Committee may remember that I said that that was sometimes called the "Laird protocol".

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

We shall obviously want to revisit this matter on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 143 agreed to.

Clause 144 [Allocation only to qualifying persons]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 263ZAM: Page 89, line 39, at end insert— ("( ) Any person to whom an authority owes a duty under section 172 (duty to persons with priority need who are not homeless intentionally) is qualified to be allocated housing accommodation by that authority.").

The noble Baroness said: In moving this amendment, which stands in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, I should like to speak also to Amendment No. 263ZAP, which also stands in both our names. The second amendment is perhaps a stronger version of the first.

The amendments have something of the thrust of the previous amendment, but are not the same. They are intended to give someone who is accepted as being unintentionally homeless the right to be included on the housing register either of the authority to which that person has applied or, if referred to another authority because he has no local connection with the first, on the register of that other authority. The first of the amendments seeks to give the right only to homeless applicants who have priority need; the second would extend that right to applicants who are not in priority need.

Homeless people are a distinct group to whom a duty of the highest order is owed morally and, I suggest, legislatively. It would therefore be appropriate to refer on the face of the Bill to people who are homeless and not leave them to be dealt with by way of regulation, with the natural concomitant that they may lose the right to be included on the register if the regulations were to change. It is appropriate that their housing needs should at least be considered alongside those of other applicants. That is what the amendments are intended to do. I believe that the Minister in another place undertook to consider the matter further, but I am not aware that any further proposals have appeared.

One purpose of the amendments is to find a way through the difficult situation when residential and other local connection qualifications restrict the right to appear on the waiting list. Such restrictions were one of the issues raised in the Government's consultation paper. Many authorities currently require that a person must have lived in its area for a certain time, often 12 months. That is one of the factors which give rise to the current list being thought of as a "waiting list", as if one had only to wait for a certain time, make one's way to the head of the list, and then housing would appear. Sadly, that is not the case.

Homeless people are protected by the present legislation because a local authority has a duty to consider their application. If the local authority finds that the applicant has no local connection, but does have a local connection with another authority, it is entitled to refer the applicant to the second authority. That means that some authority somewhere has a duty to provide housing. However, under the changes proposed by the Bill, homeless applicants could be excluded from any right to permanent housing in the authority to which they apply as homeless if that authority continues to operate a residence criterion. If the housing register is to be the route into local authority and other social housing, homeless people should not be denied access to the register.

I expect that the Minister may again refer to the inclusion of such groups in regulations. If that is to be the Government's approach, it would clearly be helpful to have a response to the wording I have proposed. That means that rather than waiting for the regulations, we can have the debate now as to whether this is the right way in which to refer to those two groups. I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I support the amendment. As the Minister emphasised on the previous amendment, a local authority may house only those people on the housing register. That means that somebody who is not entitled to go on the housing register cannot get housed. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, the amendment would ensure that anyone accepted as unintentionally homeless may be placed on the waiting list. That is essential if homeless families or homeless people generally are to be eligible for local authority housing.

The amendment has another purpose. Many local authorities, particularly rural local authorities, exclude certain categories of people from being eligible for the waiting list. A common test is requiring 12 months' residence in their area. Other authorities have age restrictions, such as requiring applicants to be over 21. I recall some authorities which required single applicants to be over 40 before they could go on the housing waiting list. Such restrictions mean that homeless people in those categories are not eligible for housing. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will support the amendment.

4 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, probably has in mind a similar amendment proposed in the other place by the honourable Member for Greenwich. His concern, like that of the noble Baroness today, was that without such a provision as this, a household to which an authority owed a duty to secure accommodation under the homeless provisions might be excluded from qualifying for accommodation through the authority's housing register. We would not expect this to happen as it would be in an authority's own interest to ensure that it was able to offer a long term tenancy through the housing register to households towards whom it might otherwise have a recurring homelessness duty.

I have some sympathy with the concerns that have prompted these amendments. With reference to Amendment No. 263ZAM, which relates to those with priority need, we are clear that such provision should be made by regulations under Clause 124(2) rather than in primary legislation. In January this year we issued a consultation paper discussing how the main regulation-making powers in Part VI of the Bill might be used. Paragraphs 8 to 14 of the consultation paper discuss this particular power. We suggested that as a minimum a household rehoused by a local authority under the new two-year homelessness duty outside that authority's area should have a right to go on the placing authority's register. That would discourage authorities from "exporting" families towards whom they owed a homelessness duty. We also discussed the case for extending this right to households who were owed a duty under the homelessness legislation. We received over 300 responses to the consultation paper. In the light of our consideration of those responses, we are minded to do a number of things. I hope that this answers one of the questions posed by the noble Baroness. We are minded to give every homeless person over 18 who is given housing under the proposed two-year minimum period of duty the right to have his application considered by the authority that has accepted the homelessness duty towards him. There is an appreciation that some authorities can impose a 25-year limit. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, referred to a 40-year limit. That is what we are minded to do in relation to the age problem. We are also considering whether to extend the entitlement more generally; for instance, to include everyone over 18 who meets certain minimum requirements relating to residence in the area and previous behaviour as a tenant.

One of the important points about regulations in this regard is that they will allow us to go into some detail and deal with various scenarios and, in addition, deal with any that come up in the future. If authorities believe that they have found a new way to limit access to the list, the power of regulation gives us the opportunity to address these problems without trying to find time to come back to both Houses of Parliament with primary legislation.

We believe that in general as wide a range of people as possible should be able to have applications considered, although we recognise that many authorities feel that some restrictions should apply. Any provisions that we make are likely to be detailed, and we will need to discuss these with the local authority associations. We also want to be able to react to anything that happens in regard to restrictions being placed on entry into housing lists in future.

I hope that in the light of that assurance and indication of the kinds of actions that we are considering through regulation, and our reminder of the consultation paper and the discussions set out in that consultation paper, the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Hamwee

I accept what the Minister has said about the intentions of the Government. Taking the issue more broadly than my amendments, on the one hand I am reassured but, on the other, I have become less assured. The clause provides that the local housing authority shall allocate accommodation only to qualifying persons and provides that the Secretary of State can prescribe not only those who qualify but those who do not.

The comments of the Minister about criteria having to be met bothered me. They sounded almost equivalent to rights having to be earned. It is perhaps inappropriate to criticise too much without seeing precisely what the Government intend to do. I am about to break a self-denying ordinance by saying that if we were able to discuss the details of the regulations at this stage the debate might be more helpful. Having made that point, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 263ZAN: Page 89, line 39, at end insert— ("( ) Nothing in subsection (1) above shall render ineligible under this part any asylum seeker.").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 263ZAN and to speak also to Amendment No. 263C. These amendments are similar, in that Amendment No. 263ZAN is narrower, covering asylum seekers; whereas Amendment No. 263C covers all persons who are not unlawfully in the United Kingdom. The aim of both amendments is similar. The aim is to prevent certain groups of people from being excluded from the housing register in order that they may become eligible for local authority housing allocation. I appreciate that some time ago we went over this ground in debating a different Bill, the Asylum and Immigration Bill. But this puts the policy on a permanent basis and therefore is to be condemned even more so for that reason.

I refer first to Amendment No. 263ZAN. The amendment seeks to ensure that asylum seekers are not prevented from being covered by the housing register. The argument is very simple. These people are lawfully in this country. These people may be vulnerable and have no prospects of any other decent accommodation. It is a discriminatory measure which will impose—and, in so far as it has been applied under the other measure, has already imposed—on local authorities a difficult set of choices in terms of whether individuals, who by all other tests are in desperate housing need, will still be excluded from consideration because of the Government's new proposals, whether in this Bill or the other Bill.

My understanding is that at the moment when an individual goes on the housing list in some London boroughs it may take two years or longer for his turn to come up. It may take 18 months in some urban areas outside London. That is a long time. In order to start the process that person has to be accepted on the housing register under the new scheme. Even if an asylum seeker has waited perhaps a year or two to have his or her eligibility to stay here as a refugee settled by the Home Office, the individual has to start the process again, because only at that point will he or she be allowed to get on the housing register. It may take a very long time before people who are vulnerable, and who by all standards ought to be considered for local authority housing, can get into the process at all. Two years may be required to get into the process and there may be another year and a half to wait before any decent accommodation is provided.

I believe that this measure will make life very difficult for asylum seekers. What are they to do? Where are they to sleep? There is a limit to the number of night shelters that can be provided by organisations like the Refugee Council (for whom I used to work). There is a limit to the number of units of accommodation that can be provided by the churches in church halls and elsewhere. What are these people to do? These people have quite properly arrived in this country and applied for asylum and need some kind of accommodation. In other countries there are different arrangements. Hostels or camps may be provided. I do not say that camps are particularly desirable, but I can think of very few West European countries that provide neither hostel or camp accommodation nor the equivalent of public housing. We are saying to people who in other countries would be housed in one way or another—perhaps not very wonderfully—that we do not even consider it at all.

The Minister may say that when the Secretary of State makes the regulations he will provide some opportunity for those asylum seekers who claim asylum at the point of entry. We have considered this argument before. Perhaps that will be his answer for some asylum seekers, but he will be aware of the counter argument that it will still leave others equally in need who, on the basis of Home Office statistics, are more likely to be allowed to stay in this country than those who claim asylum at the port of entry. Those people will still be denied any access to the council housing sector.

I turn briefly to Amendment No. 263C which is the wider amendment. It states that, subsection (2) shall not exclude from the class of qualifying persons a person who is not unlawfully in the UK".

That will include asylum seekers and other groups of people, among them those who fail the habitual residence test, which this place has discussed on a number of occasions, and those who may fail the immigration status test.

More people than asylum seekers are affected, but the principle is the same. People who, by any test, would be judged to be in housing need will not be allowed to go on the housing register. That is wrong in principle; it will have undesirable social consequences. We as a country surely do not want people who fail the habitual residence test or who have come here as asylum seekers to be forced to sleep in the streets. Goodness me, one needs only to walk along the Strand or Tottenham Court Road during the early evening. I do not say they are asylum seekers. But we surely do not want to add to the number of people who already sleep in the streets. It is my contention that that will be the effect of the Bill. I beg to move.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

I find the amendments extraordinarily wide-ranging. They seem to include pretty well anyone who is not unlawfully in this country. That is a wide definition. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said that in other countries hostels or camps are provided. That is something we tend to overlook. There are parts of this country where there is spare accommodation; there is no reason why an asylum seeker should have to go where there is an already overcrowded housing list. It may be desirable to have some way of directing them to where space is available.

I wish to ask the noble Lord a question on a point about which I am not clear. When he says asylum seekers, does he mean people granted asylum or just anyone who might apply? I understand that only a small percentage is granted asylum.

Lord Hylton

This country has a long and honourable tradition of accepting and welcoming people from overseas who have suffered persecution or are in immediate fear of it. It is highly desirable that that tradition should continue and continue to be honoured. The Government must make up their collective mind as to how that will be made possible. Either local authorities shall use their system, if not immediately, at least after the appropriate delay, to make accommodation available, or, if that is not to happen, central government will have to take the matter in hand and make provision. There is a choice. The amendments are important. They offer one way out, and I support them.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

The Committee has had an admirable discussion of these amendments from the point of view of asylum seekers and persons who are illegally resident in this country. I express some puzzlement about the drafting both of the clause and of the amendments as they have impact on the clause.

I say at the outset that I realise that my difficulty may be that I am not thoroughly conversant with the Bill, although the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has set me some homework on it, or with the asylum Bill. Having listened to the debates on the asylum Bill, it seems to me that the right to asylum has been abused. On the other hand, the way to deal with abuse is surely not by operation of the housing law.

I turn from that to the structure of the clause. Subsection (1) precludes the local housing authority from allocating housing to persons other than qualifying persons. I put it in the negative way. Subsection (2) gives the Secretary of State power to prescribe by regulations the classes of persons who are, or are not, qualifying persons. The baleful eye of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has understandably fallen on that subsection.

Subsection (3) provides that, subject to the regulations made by the Secretary of State, a local housing authority may decide what classes of persons are, or are not, qualifying persons. One then goes back to subsection (1). The local housing authority may only allocate to persons who are qualifying persons, but it should determine who are qualifying persons. That may be what is intended, but it is not a very neat way of dealing with the matter.

One then comes to the amendments. Amendment No. 263ZAM operates on subsection (1). Amendment No. 263C operates on subsection (2). But neither operates on subsection (3), although the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, may say that that is taken care of by the inter-relationship, which I have tried to describe, between subsection (1) and subsection (3).

The other difficulty is that the second amendment is not in the same terms. It goes very much wider, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, explained, than the first amendment. I suggest that what he has in mind could be much more neatly carried out by one amendment dealing with the whole situation. He may consider it desirable to withdraw the amendment, and proceed, possibly along the lines I have suggested, on Report.

The Earl of Sandwich

I wish to speak to Amendment No. 263ZAN in the form of a question to the Minister. Can he give an assurance that the asylum seekers of this country have not been excluded from this Housing Bill? Surely, under international law, under the UN convention, we have an obligation to house asylum seekers who are coming to this country for the time being or while they are applying for asylum under appeal. Can the Minister give an assurance that they are not regarded as stateless persons living on thin air and therefore not treated equally as citizens of this country?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

Both amendments seek to serve a similar purpose. I shall not enter a discussion with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, other than to say that my advice to the Committee is to save the noble and learned Lord a problem as to where the amendments should go by not accepting any of them.

Amendment No. 263ZAN would remove the Secretary of State's power to prescribe that asylum seekers are not entitled to be allocated housing. Amendment No. 263C would extend entitlement to anyone who is lawfully in the United Kingdom. If we have been around this particular course once we have been around it a fair old number of times. I shall resist the temptation to go back to basics and start the argument from scratch. Perhaps I may recommend to those Members of the Committee who missed my previous outings on the subject a visit to the Library and a reference to Hansard. That will remind Members of the Committee of what I have said on a number of occasions about the problem the Government have with asylum seekers and with the considerable growth in their number. They come to the United Kingdom from various parts of the world, many of them, in my view, perfectly sound and safe places in which to live. By comparison the number of asylum seekers in many of the countries of our European partners has diminished.

I shall not go into that matter in any great detail. Perhaps we shall address it on a number of occasions today and I have no doubt that we shall return to it in our Report stage discussions on the Asylum and Immigration Bill on Monday when we consider two similar clauses in that Bill—a Bill which already contains provisions removing the entitlement to social housing from certain immigrants. The regulations under Clause 144 will carry those restrictions forward into the new legislation and extend them to certain European Union nationals and persons failing a habitual residents' test.

It is our very firm view that social housing is a valuable asset which should go to those people with the greatest long-term needs. I emphasise "long-term needs". There is no case for saying that people who are in this country for a limited period—and on the understanding that they should have no recourse to public funds—should be entitled to such housing. That is the principle that I have stated on a number of occasions and it is the principle which underlines our position on the benefits arrangements.

Perhaps I may say to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, that that is perfectly consistent with our international obligations. I refer to our international obligations as to how we treat asylum seekers from the point of view of the rules by which we arrive at a decision to grant asylum. If asylum seekers apply at the port of entry they will be eligible for benefit and eligible to be treated under the homelessness legislation. However—and this is the important point—they will not be eligible for access to long-term council housing. Frankly, we do not know whether they will have a long-term need. As my noble friend Lady Gardner pointed out, the majority are found to be neither genuine asylum seekers nor to justify being given exceptional leave to remain. Approximately 80 per cent. fail both tests. Therefore, it seems wrong to allow 40,000-odd people, which was the number last year, access to the housing list. It is not 40,000 people spread around the country; it is 40,000 people concentrated principally around one or two airports and perhaps a few pockets around one or two sea ports. The number is heavily concentrated in London simply because of the international airports sited there.

The position is clear. We are saying to the Committee, as we are saying in other legislation, that asylum seekers registering their claim at the port of entry will receive certain benefits inside the UK. They will be eligible for social security benefits and they will be eligible to be considered under the homelessness legislation. That will continue until a first-instance decision is made by the Home Office. If they are granted asylum or exceptional leave to remain they will then be in a position to go on the housing waiting list because, clearly, they will have some long-term rights to be here and therefore some rights to be considered for long-term housing. It would be a little impractical if every asylum seeker were allowed to join the list immediately on arrival. The housing list would become cluttered. The position is clearer if we wait until they have established their long-term right to stay in this country.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, asked where people lived while they sought asylum. He suggested that if we walked down any street in London—for instance, the Strand—we would be stepping over people sleeping out at night. Although he retreated a little, he appeared to imply that they would be asylum seekers. I believe that the rough sleepers initiative has been very successful in reducing the number of people sleeping rough in central London. On the last count—not a government count but a count undertaken by the voluntary sector agencies which work with such people—there were some 270 people sleeping rough compared with estimates of more than 1,000 before the initiative began. There is no evidence that those still sleeping rough in London include many, if any, asylum seekers. Many will be increasingly difficult to place and perhaps some do not want to be placed. However, there is no evidence that they are asylum seekers.

I believe that the position at which we have arrived as regards the benefits system and housing is perfectly fair to asylum seekers. What we are making clear today, and what the amendment would deny us, is that asylum seekers ought not to have the right of access to the list which leads eventually to long-term housing. We believe that that ought to be kept for those people with a long-term right to be here.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

The Minister has helpfully proposed to resolve my doubts about the different widths and separate impacts of the two amendments by rejecting both of them. Would he care to comment about my other point which rests on the structure of the clause? I refer to the oddity of providing under subsection (1) that the local authority may allocate only to qualifying persons but providing under subsection (3) that subject to the regulations the local authority itself will determine whether or not a person is a qualifying person.

If the Minister believes that there may be anything in that point, will he be willing to discuss it with the draftsman with a view to tidying up if necessary at a later stage?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I always listen with care and some trepidation to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, when he makes such points. Of course I will discuss the matter with the draftsman. I may be subject to correction and it may be foolish even to try to give the noble and learned Lord my thoughts on the matter, but I would have thought that one might consider that subsection (1) is the principal provision and that subsections (2) and (3) are the subordinate provisions. However, that is the tentative view of a mathematician.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Dubs

Perhaps I may first comment on the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, in relation to the two amendments which interact with different parts of Clause 144. I agree with the noble and learned Lord that Clause 144 is somewhat circular, and it is difficult to insert amendments into a circle. Therefore, the two amendments deal with different points in the circle. I shall be interested to know what is the outcome of the Minister's mathematical deliberations about the circular argument in relation to subsections (1) and (3).

I turn to the substance of the amendments and what the Minister said. First, it must be stated that only a small minority of asylum seekers is ever eligible for local authority housing. That will be confirmed by one of the later clauses in the Bill. But even present practice will exclude the majority of asylum seekers—single people, couples without young children. That will cover the majority of asylum seekers and, therefore, we are talking about only a small number. The sweeping statements which the Minister makes about all these asylum seekers are at variance with the facts.

I was not making the point that asylum seekers are currently sleeping in the streets. But if they have nowhere else to go, that will be their only option. The fact that more asylum seekers are not on the streets today is because churches, voluntary organisations and other bodies have put themselves out to provide temporary accommodation. It is a tribute to the many groups up and down the country that we do not have asylum seekers, or perhaps only small numbers of them, sleeping on the streets at present.

The Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, asked why asylum seekers do not disperse themselves around the country, particularly to those areas where there is less of a housing shortage than in inner London, for example. Asylum seekers tend to go to those areas where there are other members of their own community. They may be organised through refugee organisations which provide support for them. In case any Member of the Committee is doubtful about that proposition, it should be remembered that when British people settle abroad, not as refugees but in other capacities, the tendency has been for them to congregate together because that provides support, social relationships and all the other factors which make life better.

Because asylum seekers need help and support, in the first instance they seek it from members of their own community with whom they have an affinity because of language, religion and culture. Those are so important that it is members of refugee organisations who have been here longer who provide the support which reduces the responsibility on social services or voluntary organisations. That is why asylum seekers tend to go to those parts of the country where other members of their community happen to live.

In relation to the other question which the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, asked, according to latest statistics, in 1995, 23 per cent. of asylum seekers were allowed to stay in this country, and in the year before it was 25 per cent. That is both with full refugee status or with exceptional leave to remain.

I was disconcerted to hear the Minister say that some of these refugees come from countries which he knows to be safe. The problem with that argument is that government Minister after government Minister makes decisions from the Front Bench in this Chamber or the other place about whether or not people are in fear of persecution without knowledge of individual circumstances. The UNHCR advises that asylum claims should be decided individually, not on the basis of some sweeping statement about which countries are safe. There are many exceptions and I regret that the Minister felt that he had to say that.

The Minister talked about people on the housing register being there because they have long-term housing needs. On the present basis, in view of the time which it takes for asylum claims to be decided and for local authorities to provide housing, accommodation would not be allocated until claims had been decided. But this amendment gives them the opportunity to be considered and treated on the same basis as anybody else. If it so happened that the Home Office speeded up the process of deciding claims, and in the unlikely event that the people involved had to leave the country because they were found to be ineligible, then the accommodation would be available for somebody else.

Finally, the Minister talked about people not being entitled to housing when they had no right to public funds. Surely that argument does not apply to asylum seekers. If asylum seekers come to this country and apply in the proper way, then the public funds argument does not apply, although I concede that it applies to other people to whom the second amendment may refer.

There is a different model for an approach to this problem introduced by the Government. When they agreed to accept in this country several thousand Bosnians, who had been detained in Serb camps, under a scheme which the Home Office introduced and which the Refugee Council and other organisations helped to implement on behalf of the Home Office those people were not even given refugee status, in the main, but granted limited leave to remain. Arrangements were made for them: temporary accommodation was provided, and temporary reception areas were made available before they moved into longer-term accommodation. That is a model of how people can be treated differently rather than having to take pot luck and end up being rejected by local authorities because of what the Government say and being unable to afford housing in the private sector because of financial difficulties. The Government know how to achieve that because it has been achieved in relation to the Bosnians. That is a better way forward. I regret that the Minister feels that he is unable to accept those arguments. Perhaps he would like another opportunity to respond.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I have had more than one opportunity to respond to this argument. But the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, referred to the Bosnians. The situation in Bosnia was exceptional. As we know, many of the people who were given exceptional leave to remain came from Bosnia but are now beginning to return in the hope that they can settle in their own country. That is rather different from the generality of people who come to this country seeking asylum.

Many of the people who obtain leave to come here and obtain a visa do so on the clear condition that they will have no recourse to public funds. They state that both when applying for a visa and at the port of entry, if they do not apply for asylum there. Therefore, it is on that basis that we believe that they should not have access to the benefit system. It is our case also that they should not have access to local authority housing which is by and large provided by the same public funds, funds to which they have said they will not wish to have access. People cannot have it both ways in these matters.

Lord Dubs

I shall respond briefly because, as the Minister said, these matters have been debated already on the Asylum Bill. But I cannot allow what the Minister said at the end of his remarks to go unchallenged. He knows perfectly well that, because of the increasing demands for visas, it is virtually impossible for an asylum seeker to get here at all unless the visa is granted. It will not be granted if it is known that the person wishes to become an asylum seeker. Therefore, that places the asylum seeker in a catch-22 situation. He has to find some way of escaping, whether to Britain or to one of the other European countries where the arrangements are similar to those set out in the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act. The asylum seeker must apply for a visa and he must do so for a reason other than the main purpose, which is to seek safety and freedom from persecution. If that means that he is caught on the recourse to public funds argument that is an inevitable consequence of the other measures which the Government are introducing. I am afraid that that is an extremely unfair way in which to treat people who have no options open to them other than escape by means of a visa granted on the basis of being a visitor. That has happened for a long time. There is nothing new about that. It is the Minister's argument that is new. I see he wants to have the penultimate word.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I want to be clear about this. That may well be an argument which can be advanced about the visa, but it cannot be advanced about the port of entry where they could say immediately they arrive—as many do—that they have come here to claim asylum. However, many of them do not do that; they enter the country first and some weeks or months later they decide to claim asylum.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

As the noble Lord will remember, we have debated all this during the proceedings of the asylum Bill. The point I made was that most of these people who arrive often have letters from friends or relatives here to assure the authorities that they will be totally responsible for those who are arriving, but when they arrive that is not the case.

Lord Dubs

As regards that final point of the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, I think what she is saying is much more applicable to people who come on another basis of immigration than to people who come as asylum seekers. I concede that this Chamber has debated the issue. I think the Minister is wrong. I am sorry that he is not prepared to meet any of the arguments. However, as I said, the Chamber has debated this matter at length this afternoon, and on earlier occasions. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 263ZAP and 263A not moved.]

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 263B: Page 89, line 42, at end insert ("and prescribe that no factors other than those relevant to housing need should be taken into account in the determination of the allocation of housing accommodation.").

The noble Baroness said: On a previous amendment, which I believe was moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, we sought to stop exclusions from the housing waiting list for reasons unconnected with housing need. I think the Minister was supportive of the issue but thought it was more appropriately dealt with by regulation. I refer to issues such as age. This amendment is an extension of the same argument. It seeks to stop exclusions from allocation of housing—as opposed to access to the waiting list—for reasons unconnected with housing need. The problem here is less likely to be residency or age qualifications—which tends to be the waiting list problem—as financial irregularities.

Many local authorities bar permanent council housing to those who have a history of rent arrears or other financial debts, even where—as we discovered in yesterday's discussion—those debts may be due to delays by the local authority in paying housing benefit direct to the landlord. I am not saying that all tenants in arrears are innocent in this matter and that it is never their fault. Clearly it can be their fault and clearly the local authority has a quite proper concern in ensuring that rent payments are made.

Nonetheless, the CAB quotes a case in the North East where a client and wife and child were accepted as being in priority need under the homelessness legislation but were refused housing by the local council because they were held to have rent arrears with another local authority. The client disputes that there were any arrears. It appears that the problem lay with the housing benefit claim which had not been paid expeditiously by his previous local authority. Yet on those grounds that person and his family were denied a home in the new authority to which he was attached. As the CAB rightly argues, it is unacceptable to use housing need as a lever to recover debts which are pursuable through other and recognised legal channels. It could even be a council tax debt, which has nothing to do with a council house as such. If, as the Government insist—as we heard last night—there will be introductory tenancies, the local authority ought not to be at risk from defaulting tenants in this regard. I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to this amendment. I beg to move.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I doubt whether there is much between the noble Baroness and myself on the principal purpose of social housing, which is to meet housing need. However, merely making that general statement does not get us far. We have to define the term because housing need can mean different things in different circumstances. A definition of housing need—if we can call it a definition at all—will emerge through a local authority's allocation scheme. It will, by necessity, be an extensive definition, taking account of a wide range of factors and circumstances, and is not something one would expect to see prescribed in the legislation itself. We shall be talking later about the allocation scheme—I believe Clause 148 is concerned with that—when we discuss the principles which are being set out in legislation which should govern the decisions about priority and allocation.

The noble Baroness's Amendment No. 263B suggests that these regulations may prescribe that local authorities should address no factors other than housing need in determining entitlement. While I agree that the allocation of social housing should be made essentially on the basis of housing need, there may be some wider concerns which some local authorities might want to take into account when deciding who should have access to their housing registers. They may, for example, want to take account of the applicants' ties to the area, their age, or their behaviour. Last night the noble Baroness embarked on an interesting discussion about tenant behaviour. That is something about which we are all concerned. My noble friend Lord Lucas replied to that discussion for the Government and we concluded that that issue was extremely real but extremely difficult to resolve. I believe that local authorities ought to be able at least to take some account of behaviour when they allocate property. I do not honestly believe that the record of rent payment can be ignored by a local authority.

Many rural authorities are keen to impress on us the importance of being able to set some residency requirements in order to prevent local communities from being broken up. We acknowledge that such requirements could be harmful if taken to extremes. I have already mentioned that we have regulation-making powers—provided that the Chamber decides to give us those powers—to enable us to act against an authority or authorities which decided to take those matters to extremes. We believe that some flexibility is required in these matters.

As regards rural housing, we had a long discussion at an earlier point in the Bill about the sale of housing association properties. We all agreed that there was a serious argument to be made for rural areas being exempt from the right to acquire provision. That is why there is an exemption for rural communities with fewer than 3,000 in a settlement from the right to acquire provision. Earlier in the Bill we all agreed and signed up to the proposition that rural communities should have some protection as regards housing. I believe that the same argument applies to local authority housing and a council's attempt to try to address the requirements of its local community and those people who reside in it.

I fully accept that the noble Baroness could tell us some horror stories about authorities acting in an extreme way as regards the criteria for their "entry gates". If it is any help I should tell the noble Baroness that we shall be issuing guidance on those matters and on the element of discretion which local authorities ought to be able to have. If we suddenly find that some local authorities have found a clever wheeze to limit people whom we all feel should be on the list, we have the powers and regulations to do something about that. I explained earlier about the consultation paper we issued and about the kind of thoughts we had as a result of the consultation and our further considerations, as regards what we may include in the regulations.

Amendment No. 264ZE seeks to restrict housing allocation schemes to considering only housing needs. I think that most of the arguments I used with regard to the previous amendment I would use as regards this amendment. I believe that allocation schemes should focus on the characteristics and needs of the individual household, as set out in the consultation paper. We should not be prepared to go wider than that.

I fully accept that the noble Baroness might be concerned that a perverse authority might skew its allocation schemes by taking wildly irrelevant factors into account. I wondered this morning whether Scottish local authorities, which are not covered by the Bill, might decide, in the light of England's failure to keep out the Holland goal, that people from England should not be allowed on their housing lists! As time elapses, that might be seen as a perverse decision. While it may be jocular, I am sure that I could make up rather more serious racial and ethnic reasons why housing authorities could be tempted down a road of which none of us would approve. The power and regulation has to be in place to ensure that that does not happen.

In conclusion, there are issues, apart from pure housing need, which we believe local authorities should be allowed to take into account. We believe we can be confident that with the safeguards in the Bill and in the regulation-making powers available to Government, local authorities, as they almost inevitably do, will operate the system with a great deal of care and sensitivity.

Having heard my explanations, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Lord Hylton

Before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may put to him that he is simply not comparing like with like when he attempts to equate the rural exemption to the right to buy with access to the register of a local authority, which forms the starting point for an individual to be housed by a local authority.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I am sorry to disagree with the noble Lord. The underlying argument that leads people to come to conclusions in both those cases is the same. The rural communities wish a certain amount of protection for their own community where there is a limited amount of housing. That was true on the right to buy and housing association property. It can also be true as regards local authority social housing. I may be missing some point in my logic, but I do not see that the arguments are all that different.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, is entirely correct; I believe that they are quite different.

As regards the amendment, I suspect that there is little difference between the Minister and these Benches on the fact that housing which is in such short supply for the reasons that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, gave earlier should go to those in housing need. The difference between us may be that the Minister appears more concerned about goals, in particular those scored by England or Holland. We on this side are rather more worried that he is allowing local authorities to change the goalposts, hence this amendment.

The Minister stated that local authorities might wish to take into account such issues as behaviour, loyalty, living in the locality or age. I had thought that we had covered those elements. A waiting list is likely to involve a period of a year, two years or more for a family, and perhaps longer for a single person. By coming through the list those persons have identified themselves as residents of the community. The Minister accepted that on a previous amendment. The Minister also accepted that local authorities should not restrict by age. He said that he would cover that by regulation.

The Minister is right: we believe that severe anti-social behaviour on estates should not be tolerated. It is the Minister who is pressing for introductory tenancies. They would ensure that no local authority would have to continue to house a tenant whose behaviour was severely anti-social, that anti-social behaviour having become apparent in the first year.

The Minister's objections to the amendment are not well founded. He either agrees with us, or his points are covered by his own legislation through introductory tenancies.

Given the remainder of today's agenda, this is not a major issue. The Minister says that he is happy to cover these points through guidance. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 263C and 263D not moved.]

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 263E: Page 90, line 1, leave out subsection (4).

The noble Baroness said: On behalf of my noble friend Lord Russell, I beg to move Amendment No. 263D which deletes the subsection which provides that, An authority's housing register shall contain such information about the persons on it as the Secretary of State may prescribe by regulations".

I have not discussed the amendment with my noble friend. I imagine that he believes it appropriate to probe the Minister about what the regulations will contain. It seems a wide power. We have already heard the Government's view that housing need is not to be the only criterion. Therefore, perhaps the Minister will say that the information will enable the authority to apply the criteria which the Government will share with the local authorities when the Government bring forward the regulations. It will be worth hearing what is in the Government's mind. Can the Minister tell the Committee when the regulations will be published? When might they be implemented? I have already commented today on my concern about not seeing the detail of the regulations. There is an additional concern that the Government propose to "wait and see" before getting on with the regulations. I am not entirely certain what it is they wait to see. Perhaps the Minster will assure the Committee as regards timing. I beg to move.

Lord Monkswell

I support the amendment moved by the noble Baroness. The subsection is curious. It has the effect of preventing a joint tenancy for a husband and wife where one of the parties lived outside the area prior to marriage. I am sure that that is not the Government's intention. However, that is why we question the clause; that could be one interpretation. Newly married people often have difficulty in obtaining suitable housing. A subsection which debars them seems rather curious. In his response, perhaps the Minister will explain how the subsection would be used. We may need to consider how it can be redrafted to ensure that the scenario that I describe does not occur.

Baroness Hamwee

Having made that impassioned speech, and having asked a set of questions on the wrong clause, perhaps those arguments can be taken as read when we discuss Clause 145. The Minister may wish to answer the noble Lord. I shall not withdraw the amendment at this moment, given that the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, has raised a point.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I was a little puzzled. I thought that I had lost my place in my notes. Some noble Lords may think that that is not an unusual event.

If I am right in thinking that we are discussing Clause 144—I must establish fundamental principles in these matters—it establishes who may qualify to be allocated housing. It requires local housing authorities to allocate housing only to persons who qualify.

The second subsection allows the Secretary of State to prescribe in regulations classes of persons who are, or are not, qualifying persons; and we have discussed that. Subsection (5) allows allocation to two or more persons jointly, provided that one or more of them qualifies.

I have not puzzled over the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, but I said that one or more may qualify. A man may qualify because he meets all the qualifications. If he marries a woman who does not qualify I imagine that a joint tenancy could be arranged. They fulfil the qualification that one or more can qualify. I hope that that helps the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Aberdare)

I am in a muddle. I have called Amendment No. 263E, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, spoke. We now seem to be considering the question of whether Clause 144 should stand part of the Bill. Is that correct?

Lord Monkswell

Perhaps I may explain. My understanding is that we are debating Amendment No. 263E, which would delete subsection (4). The Minister referred to subsection (5), which appears to contradict subsection (4). The first subsection provides that two people may not have a joint tenancy if one is not eligible; the other subsection provides that two people can have a joint tenancy if one is eligible. The two subsections appear to be contradictory and perhaps the Minister needs to look again at the subsections.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I was trying to be helpful to the noble Lord. However, rather than try to resolve his dilemma—if it is a dilemma—between the two subsections while I am on my feet, I shall reconsider the provision to ascertain whether there is a contradiction. I believe that I have given the noble Lord the answer.

I now turn to the amendment. When considering it one must ascertain what the regulations are likely to accomplish. I remind the noble Baroness that the regulations made under the clause can work in two ways. In either case, they would limit local authorities' discretion as to who may appear on the housing register. They can either give prescribed groups the right to go on a housing register or they can ensure that other prescribed groups cannot appear on the register. We have been discussing that. Subsection (4) and this amendment relate to whether or not the latter group may be granted joint tenancies.

I have explained specifically the position in relation to husbands and wives. In the terms of subsection (5) the Government wish to encourage joint tenancies. They are an important part of efficient housing management. But subsection (4) is important because, without it, a prescribed person from abroad could be allocated social housing via another member of his household. That would open a back door into social housing. It would be at odds with the Government's policy in relation to persons from abroad who are in this country.

The point to which we return is the problem of people who have no long-term right of residence in this country and whether they can qualify for consideration for a council house. That is a little different from the wife from the next parish.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Is the Minister saying that an asylum seeker while waiting for his case to be determined, may marry a British citizen in this country whose ability to be here is not in dispute? If the wife is on a housing waiting list and the husband is a prohibited person, does it mean that he prohibits her from being housed? Alternatively, if she is eligible can she include him with her on the housing list?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

If I understand correctly, regardless of whether it is a man or a woman, if one of the partners is eligible he or she can be on the list. However, if the other partner is not eligible because he or she is from abroad and, for whatever reason, has no settled right to be here in the long term, then that person cannot be considered for joint tenancy. I made that point about a back-door method of getting on to the housing list someone who would otherwise not qualify because that person would be in a prescribed class. But that does not exclude the person from the next parish who has a long-term right to be here from becoming a joint tenant.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Is the Minister saying that in the example I gave the tenancy would rest solely with the person who is entitled to be here, although that person's husband or partner could live with them? It would mean that there would not be the customary local authority practice of a joint tenancy. The Minister indicates assent. I thank him.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

I may have missed the point. Will the Minister explain why subsection (4) applies to subsection (2) but not to subsections (1) and (3)?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

Not instantly on my feet. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord will allow me to study his question and write to him.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

The case being put is that most local authorities put "Mr and Mrs" on the rent book, or other record of payment. Both parties are secure tenants and if the marriage breaks up the local authority has to find a home for the one who moves out, whether it is the husband or the wife, so they always have a joint tenancy. The case being put is of someone who was never a joint tenant because that person was not a husband or a wife.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I do not believe that that was the case being put. It was that they were husband and wife but, for the reasons I explained, one might not have been eligible to become a joint tenant. The noble Baroness is quite right that in most cases husband and wife can easily qualify to be joint tenants. Then if something goes wrong with the marriage, the problem raised by the noble Baroness arises.

Lord Monkswell

I wish to clarify in my mind what the Minister says. Is he saying that if someone eligible for social housing and on the housing waiting list—in other words a qualifying person—marries someone from abroad, the latter will be prohibited from being offered social housing because it is the Government's intention that if a British citizen marries a foreigner they should not live together?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham


Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

We are now getting into tangled territory. That is not at all the intention. The case concerned joint tenancies. People can live together without having joint tenancies. Indeed, these days they do so without even being married.

Baroness Hamwee

I apologise for having opened up the debate which was, perhaps, useful. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 144 agreed to.

5 p.m.

Clause 145 [The housing register]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 263F: Page 90, line 15, leave out subsection (4).

The noble Baroness said: I spoke previously in support of the amendment on behalf of my noble friend Lord Russell. I wish to ask for details of the information which the Government anticipate is to be prescribed by regulations. Will the Minister explain to the Committee, first, when the regulations which the Bill anticipates will be published; and, secondly, when they will be implemented? I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

Perhaps I may explain what the regulations in Clause 145 are intended to do. I believe that that is what the noble Baroness wishes to ascertain via her amendment.

The information contained on the housing register is important, both for the authority and for the individual. The housing register is the document that records an individual's application and the priority accorded to him. Clause 147 provides that he is entitled to see the entry on the register relating to him. The regulation-making power would ensure that information is kept on the register in the first place, so that the applicant can then have access to it.

The regulations are likely to cover matters of detail: for example, the applicant's name and address and details of members of the applicant's household which it would not be appropriate to set out in primary legislation.

In the course of the summer we shall be consulting local authority associations and the housing profession about the form and content of the regulations in regard to basic information about the applicant and his position. We need to be able to do that by regulation. I believe—although I could be wrong, since earlier I confused this discussion with a previous one—that so far as these regulations are concerned, we hope to consult during the summer, to produce the regulations in the autumn and, equally, that they will come into force in the autumn. I hope I am speaking about the correct regulations.

Baroness Hamwee

Is it therefore proposed that the various regulations may be implemented at different times?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I am not sure about that. I shall have to look into it. Logically, in regard to regulations which are tied together and which deal with largely the same matters I should expect us to attempt, if we can, to do the work at the same time. Clearly, as the noble Baroness has already said, there are a fair number of regulation-making powers in the Bill. I am pretty certain that the department will not introduce them all in one grand slam on the same day.

Baroness Hamwee

Will it be possible for the Minister to share with noble Lords before we reach Report the details of the proposed timetable? It would be helpful if we could know so far as possible what the timetable is likely to be. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 145 agreed to.

Clause 146 [Operation of housing register]:

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 263G: Page 90, line 21, at end insert— ("( ) A local authority shall undertake an assessment of the housing needs of a person who is to appear on their housing register and where it appears that the person or a member of his household is vulnerable or in need of support, the local housing authority shall co-operate with the social services authority and, where relevant, voluntary organisations, to ensure that they have a comprehensive assessment of the person's housing and support requirements.").

The noble Baroness said: I hope that this amendment will command the support of the Committee, especially those who have a particular interest in what are loosely called special needs groups of people.

The amendment standing in my name and in that of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, would require a local authority to assess whether people on its waiting list are vulnerable and in need of support. The housing department of that authority should then co-operate with other relevant local authority departments, such as social services, and with local health authorities as well as with relevant voluntary organisations, to see that those needs are met. Such an amendment is especially important in relation to those housing authorities in district councils only for which, unfortunately, housing and social services remain splintered and for which there is a very real problem of co-ordination.

To whom are we referring? For example, there is a growing number of young people who are coming out of care but are still vulnerable. Social services responsibility may under certain clauses in the Children Act run until such young people are 21. They may enter local authority housing from the age of 18 or even earlier with social services support. We must ensure that such support is in place, and that the housing department can expect it to be in place in order that such young people make a successful transition from institutional care.

Last night we discussed anti-social behaviour. The noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, was anxious to protect the situation of applicants who, for example, had schizophrenia. He was concerned to ensure that any applicant who had physical or mental health problems or learning difficulties should be in a situation whereby he or she received support as well as having a roof over his or her head in order to ensure that conflict was not created with neighbours and other residents.

We appreciate that Section 47 of the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990 already provides for joint housing and social services assessment. But in practice the two-tier structure of local government means, regrettably, that too many vulnerable people are not recognised as having special needs. They are rehoused, sometimes without the support that they may need, and because of their somewhat eccentric behaviour they appear to be a nuisance to neighbours, who may then seek to have them evicted. I recall the example of the elderly man who crammed his flat full of newspapers, which then became a fire risk. Another example involved an elderly woman who turned her back garden into a menagerie for dozens of cats. That was regarded as a health risk to the neighbourhood. There was another gentleman with learning difficulties who did not always turn off the gas tap. These were tenants who should have received more support than was given to them in order for them to enjoy their home and allow others to enjoy theirs. Without such assessment, and without appropriate support, too often inappropriate behaviour can lead to pressures on the local authority for eviction and rehousing.

In replying to this amendment the Minister will tell us whether, as a result of physical or mental health problems, such people will be regarded as having made themselves intentionally homeless and will then find themselves living on the streets, perhaps reduced to being bag ladies or other people who are vagrant? Perhaps in that situation some of the hostels might then recover them; but clearly we should prefer that situation to be avoided in the first place. If the Minister could tell us that such guidance as he will be issuing will emphasise that point, that may begin to meet the concerns.

Will the Minister also respond to a very serious point raised in a debate last night? If a tenant has mental health problems which give rise to such bizarre behaviour that the local authority is required to seek his or her eviction, will that person be regarded none the less by virtue of mental health problems as making himself or herself unintentionally homeless so that the local authority will continue to have a duty of support? I should be grateful for the Minister's comments on both those points. I beg to move.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

In this amendment the noble Baroness seeks to require local authorities to co-operate with social services departments and voluntary organisations in assessing the needs of vulnerable applicants.

Although I share the aims of the noble Baroness, I submit that these are not best achieved through legislation. I agree that local housing authorities should work closely with social services departments in addressing the needs of community care clients and vulnerable people. However, co-operation is a matter of good practice; it is not achieved simply by prescription. I am mindful of the remarks of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Templeman, in the Northavon case, who observed that the law is not the way to obtain co-operation. Co-operation is, by definition, a two-way process. What this amendment seeks to do is to place the burden of responsibility on housing authorities.

Such assessments may be more than is needed in the majority of general needs housing applications—that is, assessments by socials services departments. However, the Committee will be aware that Clause 148 requires local housing authorities to give reasonable preference to people with particular medical or welfare needs, and to give additional preference to households who could not reasonably be expected to find suitable accommodation for themselves. We would not expect local housing authorities to carry out those assessments in isolation. Where special needs are thought to exist the assessment is best shared with social service authorities, which have the expertise in this area. We will be advising authorities on the type of arrangements that may be appropriate in these circumstances.

I fully accept what the noble Baroness says: in some cases in England and Wales the same authority looks after both housing and social services. I understood from the flavour of her remarks that she thought that a good arrangement. She might just have told her colleagues in Scotland, who opposed the Government's reforms to Scottish local government last year which brought together the two authorities that were previously separate and dealt separately with housing and social services. Over a large part of urban England, the authority is the same authority. Division between the authority that deals with housing and that dealing with social services occurs more in the counties. Human nature being what it is, it does not necessarily follow that just because departments are in the same authority they work hand in hand together perfectly. Equally, I am sure it is the case that being in different authorities does not mean that they do not work hand in hand perfectly well. Or in both cases they may not co-operate as closely as we would wish.

There is guidance. I have it in my hand. It is a fairly detailed document: the Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities. It was prepared in 1991, before the present Children Act came into being and before the care in the community legislation took effect. So we have to look again at the question of the guidance for co-operation between housing and social services that is issued. We shall therefore issue fresh statutory guidance that will cover this matter before the legislation is commenced. I hope that that will meet the noble Baroness's requirements.

At risk of speaking all afternoon, I could read out the paragraphs in the existing guidance which link housing and social security. Perhaps I should just read out the very first reference in the hope that it will give the flavour of the current guidance and therefore of the guidance that we shall write for the new legislation. Paragraph 1.3 says: The primary statutory responsibility for dealing with homelessness rests with local housing authorities. An authority still has a duty towards homeless people even if it owns no houses at all. The Code is designed for staff in local housing and social services departments and authorities who are responsible for policy on homelessness, or who deal with homeless people". That is the start of the guidance. I can see from the index to the document that there are a fair number of references throughout to the way in which the two authorities will co-operate. I hope that that will reassure the noble Baroness that the guidance that we shall issue will deal with the need for co-operation that she rightly identified.

The noble Baroness asked me a particular question about someone who is mentally ill, creates a disturbance and is evicted. She asked whether he would be intentionally homeless. Such a person would probably be intentionally homeless. Such people have particular care needs and would look to social services departments for assistance. They might approach the housing department for assistance, but the housing department would certainly want to ensure that a proper care package was in place before it provided further accommodation. That is a good example of where the two authorities have to work together. It could lead to many problems for a housing authority if it housed someone who perhaps had a history of mental illness which led him (or her) sometimes to be a difficult neighbour, should there not be a proper care package in place from social services in order to try to deal with the difficulty that that person had so that it would not spill over on to the neighbours.

I hope that, with that assurance and answer, the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Lord Hylton

I very much welcome the Minister's comments about issuing guidance on the subject matter dealt with in this amendment. I wonder whether he could, if possible, ensure not only that his own department agrees the guidance but also that the Department of Health, the Department of Social Security, the Home Office—in so far as it has responsibility for children—and the local authority associations are all in agreement with what will be sent out.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

Speaking in, my strange double capacity on this Bill, it is quite clear that the Department of Social Security is aware of what is in the guidance. The lead department is the Department of the Environment so far as guidance is concerned. But I imagine—I intentionally use the word "imagine"—that where it impinges on social services and health matters, which include care in the community, the department liaises with the Department of Health. I do not expect that much of this guidance will impinge on the Department of Social Security, but for any that does, I suspect that what I might describe as the usual Whitehall paperchase will take place.

Lord Prys-Davies

May I ask the Minister what happens to the homeless person while the two departments are in liaison?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

It is always somewhat difficult to deal with that kind of question when one does not have the case in front of one. So much depends on what the position is. I imagine that the social services people will have a role and responsibility in trying to help deal with the problem of such a person. Undoubtedly, it will talk to the housing department. As the noble Lord will know, later in the Bill—I just cannot remember the clause—we come to the question of an interim duty to accommodate. That interim duty to accommodate may come into play in such circumstances. I use the word "may" because much will depend on the circumstances of the individual case and its severity. If it is very severe, it may well mean that some medical care or hospital treatment is required. It is difficult across the Dispatch Box to make a judgment about a theoretical case.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

Many of the homeless men to be found in large cities are "walking the country" (if I may use that phrase) and going from town to town. Originally, they might have been designated as homeless in, say, London. Then, they have gone on their tracks and might be picked up again in Coventry. At that point, the local authority that had designated them as homeless would have been another authority. Would Coventry—I just use that town as an example—have to agree to put them on its housing register because a London borough had considered that they ought to be on the security risk list of that authority? In other words, if those people are moving around—many of them are—whose is the responsibility? Very often, it is not even a problem for the social security department but becomes a problem of mental health and of the hospitals themselves. That responsibility needs to be quite clearly defined.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I am not sure that it can be all that clearly defined. It is difficult when one is trying to devise a theoretical model and another qualification on the theoretical model is added in order to bring me back to my feet. If, for example, we are talking about someone who used elegantly to be described yesteryear as having an unsettled lifestyle, then thanks to funding from the Department of Social Security there are a number of charitable and voluntary organisations around the country which provide quite excellent facilities for such men. I have been round a few of them because that is one of my departmental responsibilities. I should have thought that in the kind of scene that the noble Baroness has brought to our attention, such a person may well be directed by social services to one of the voluntary organisations which provide the accommodation that he would need and, in the cases that I have seen at least, the support needed as well.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

We all appreciate the Minister's helpful tone. I do not feel that there is any difference between us in recognising the problem. But, as the Minister's replies have gone on, I have become more and more worried by what I now understand to be the situation. I wonder whether he can think about this matter and come back at Report stage. There is now a real set of problems for some extremely vulnerable people and a gap opening up in front of us in the Bill.

It is clear that somebody, by definition of being homeless, comes on to the waiting list and because he exhibits other characteristics, such as mental or physical health problems, or has dependent children and the like, the local authority is required to give that person reasonable preference. That is found in Clause 148. Clearly, for someone to qualify for "reasonable preference" in that situation the local authority will have had to have assessed his mental and physical health. The Minister is right that in the case of someone who has, for example, recently come out of a long-stay hospital or whatever, the local authority would be very unwise (and, in my experience, would not expect) to offer an independent flat in a mixed community without being assured through the social services that that person was capable of sustaining himself or herself in that accommodation. That is all right. There is that protection on that route.

But the problem that is opening up is that when people are on the ordinary waiting list, there is no such review mechanism. Such people will serve their time, get their points and be rehoused. It would be bad enough if, in the course of one, two or three years or whatever, they exhibited bizarre behaviour and evictions resulted. But the Government have attached introductory tenancies to the provision, so that such a person whose bizarre behaviour may be due to physical or, more likely, mental health problems has no protection at court because under introductory tenancies the local authority has the right to gain repossession and—five minutes ago the Minister told us what was not clear last night—that person has made himself intentionally homeless and therefore the local authority has no responsibility to rehouse.

Therefore, somebody coming through the priority route will be reviewed and, we hope, treated suitably sympathetically and supportively. But if somebody coming up through the waiting list is found to have, for example, schizophrenia—that was the case we used last night—which reveals itself in the first year, the local authority can seek possession. The court cannot refuse. It cannot require the local authority to rehouse and, as the Minister said, the person will be deemed to have made themselves intentionally homeless so there will be no ongoing duty.

I believe that we have opened up a hole for some of the most vulnerable people, particularly in the first year of the tenancy. I am not saying that where there are good and supportive local authorities working together between the housing and social services divide, they may not be able to overcome the problem. But when we put all the strands together—the waiting list without a review, introductory tenancies with no rights for the tenant and the fact that they would be deemed to have made themselves intentionally homeless so the local authority has no duty to rehouse them—we have a problem, particularly under community care packages where someone may be coming up through the ordinary waiting list.

I see the Minister has some notes from the Box. If they add to our discussion I shall be grateful. I am worried about the position. Some people with mental health problems are not always regarded as attractive neighbours in a settled street. There will be pressure on the local authority in that regard and we are trying to obtain a balance. If the Minister now says that the local authority has no ongoing responsibility because those people made themselves intentionally homeless, then they lose all rights. Perhaps the Minister can help us.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

We must be careful. The noble Baroness has now moved us back into a different scenario from the one drawn by her noble friend Lady Fisher.

This debate illustrates the importance of doing things in guidance which can set out these matters in detail. For example, the current guidance contains seven or eight references in the index to mental illness or handicap. There is nothing between the noble Baroness and I in that we both wish to deal with these difficult problems, though they arise infrequently. We are looking at the guidance. We are talking to people about what to include in the fresh guidance, and if there are any cases that appear to fall between different provisions, then we shall certainly be interested in hearing of them. We can then consider what we need to do about them.

We will certainly reflect on the various points made this afternoon to try to make sure that they are either picked up in existing guidance and therefore carried forward or are picked up in the guidance that is to come. With the assurance that we will look at the kind of scenarios being portrayed and how we can resolve them, either in the current or future guidance, I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to withdraw the amendment and allow us to proceed.

Lord Mottistone

Perhaps I may add that I have been listening with great care to the debate. I take the point made about the relevance to mentally ill people of what we are discussing.

What puzzled me from the beginning was that the amendment did not seem to provide a solution to the problem before us. What my noble friend the Minister said in relation to guidance makes a lot of sense, in which case there is no need for the amendment. There is a need to debate the issue. But the amendment does not achieve what is needed and the Bill, with the guidance, deals with the problem completely. It therefore does not need to be amended.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I wish that were true. We will only know that there is a problem of the kind I suggested when somebody faces eviction. The amendment would stop us ever reaching that point. It must surely be better to go for prevention of the problem—assessing someone's needs when he or she is about to be rehoused—rather than trying to see what needs should have been met at the point of eviction and, because that person's needs have not been met, he or she is now to be evicted. That is the difference between us.

The Minister says that the Government will look at the issue. Perhaps the Minister or his officials could consult the directors of social services as well as the local authority associations. The guidance will need to spell out the situation, particularly in the context of introductory tenancies and the protection of tenant's rights, and also the situation where medical evidence is discovered afterwards which should have suggested that support mechanisms should have been in place from the beginning but were not. The Minister indicated that he is taking these points very much on board and therefore I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 263H: Page 90, line 31, leave out ("it appears to them") and insert ("they are satisfied").

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 263H stands in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. It concerns the circumstances in which a local housing authority can remove someone from the housing register or, perhaps more accurately, the prompt for it to do so.

If a request is made, then the name will be removed. Under subsection 4(b) of the Bill as drafted, if it appears to the authority that the person in question is not a qualifying person, then it can remove his name. The amendment proposes to introduce a level of objectivity, suggesting that the local authority be "satisfied" that the person is not now and has not been a qualifying person, and to ensure that arbitrary decisions are not made by the authority.

The clause provides that the authority "shall remove a person" in the circumstances set out. There is no discretion available to the authority and yet the applicant must only appear to be non-qualifying. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that somebody could go on and off the register in an unhappy game of tag in those circumstances. I am concerned that the Bill does not provide, for instance, for it to be a decision reasonably arrived at by the local authority, though the Minister may assure me that that is implied.

The criteria for qualification and the bars to qualification are in many cases likely to be complex. There is a lot of potential for inaccurate decision making. As we have already discussed, immigration status and a decision whether somebody is in breach of immigration law are often complex issues. There is the possibility of bad decision making, with local authority housing officers, whose first responsibility is not immigration law and practice, taking different decisions. It is possible for them to misinterpret information contained in passports. The test of habitual residence will depend on a number of factors which can change over a short period and be interpreted in different ways. It is possible, for instance, for there to be a refusal of income support on the basis of failing the habitual residence test but the award of housing benefit when the same test is applied by local authorities.

Those are but two examples of what may be a challenge for local authority housing officers. It is therefore appropriate that they be required to carry out proper investigations to satisfy themselves of an applicant's status before removing that person from the register. I beg to move.

Lord Swinfen

Would not the local authority be considered to be behaving unreasonably if it did not satisfy itself that the action it was about to take was correct?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

If I may turn to my noble friend's rather brief question, I suspect that we may be discussing that point when we come to the next series of amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. They refer to the right of someone who has been refused admission to the register or been removed to request a review. Perhaps that is the point at which I might address my noble friend's question. The areas the amendments cover are reasonably close.

As I may be saying when we come to the next series of amendments, I understand the concern which has prompted this amendment. However, I think that it would place undue restrictions on an authority's ability to form its own view on the matter of whether someone is a qualifying person. It is important to ensure that, in admitting a person to the register, an authority is able to form its own view of his or her entitlement on the best evidence available to it. If the authority subsequently becomes aware of new information that leads it to revise its view, then it should be in a position to remove that name.

When the matter was discussed in another place, it was pointed out that the amendment would impose a stronger test for the removal of a name from the register than is required to place a name on it. There should be symmetry between the two processes. The noble Baroness has not, quite understandably, tackled that problem, but for the sake of symmetry the words used to govern getting on to the register ought to be the same and the test should be the same for being removed from it by the local authority. I therefore hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw the amendment. We can then go on to discuss the question of the potential for review in the case of someone who is aggrieved at either not being put on or about being taken off.

Baroness Hamwee

I am all for symmetry where it is fair. I asked in the middle of my speech the same question as the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, because one should understand whether reasonableness is implied by this provision. I think reasonableness should be implied generally in local authorities' decisions. We are left a little in the dark. I am content for the moment to leave the issue because, as the Minister said, we shall consider the question of review in a few moments. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 263J:

Page 90, line 35, leave out subsection (6) and insert—

("(6) Where a local housing authority—

  1. (a) decline a person's application to be put on the register, or
  2. (b) remove a person from the housing register,
they shall comply with such requirements as to the right of the applicant to request a review as the Secretary of State may prescribe by regulations.").

The noble Baroness said: In moving this amendment, I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 263K which is a fuller version of the same point. As the Minister has already anticipated, this amendment seeks to create a right to request a review of a local authority decision to remove an applicant from the register or to refuse an application to go onto the register.

Authorities have wide powers to remove a person from or to refuse access to the register. Access to the register is access to housing. I believe that the powers should be open to scrutiny through some form of review procedure. A review procedure is proposed in the next part of the Bill for decisions about homelessness. I am suggesting that that should be extended to decisions on access to and removal from the register.

The register is the route to permanent affordable accommodation. Someone who is refused an application or is removed is denied access to housing. I should have thought that as a matter of justice and practicality it is right for an applicant to be able to request a review of the authority's decision and to require the evidence to be taken into account where the person concerned believes the authority has made a wrong decision. Some local authorities will have a review procedure as a matter of good practice. However, given the impact on the individual, it is right that all housing authorities should be directed to have one. It will also encourage better informed decisions and reduce the scope for arbitrary decisions. The more checks there are, the better the practice in the first instance, given the scrutiny that might follow. Housing authorities are publicly accountable bodies. It is right that their decisions should be scrutinised. I beg to move.

5.45 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I support the amendment. The Minister has accepted that the Bill embodies a review procedure for decisions on homelessness in Part VII with regard to those whom the local authority should rehouse. But as the only route to that rehousing is via the waiting list, a similar right of review must apply there. If the local authority makes a mistake at the waiting list point and the individual applicant has no right to have that decision reviewed, he never, so to speak, gets to first base at all. If he cannot get onto the list, he can never be rehoused off it. He cannot make use of an appeal mechanism at the point of allocation of housing if he has not been able to get on the list in the first place and has not been able to have that decision reviewed.

When this matter was being discussed in the other place the Minister seemed to think that the amendment was unnecessary because he thought that "entitlement to be on the register" was based on hard facts. He was quite right. Often that is so. But in quite a large variety of circumstances discretion comes into play; and even where it does not, there may well be faulty information. If a local authority has made a decision on faulty information and that cannot be scrutinised by review, the person will never be rehoused. Their immigration status and the habitual residence test are obvious examples. But someone who has been an owner occupier but is in the process of divorce and in the process of losing the matrimonial home may seek to go onto the waiting list. There may be a dispute again about the hard facts of the situation.

In the name of fairness we should encourage good practice to become required practice and ensure that any person who is not permitted onto the waiting list and will therefore never get access to housing should have the right of review.

Lord Monkswell

In speaking in support of the concept of review, perhaps I may suggest another argument for it. If there is no mechanism for review, the chances are that the applicant will be tempted to go to the law. The applicant will presumably get legal aid because he or she will almost by definition tend to be at the poorer end of society and will probably go for judicial review. I am sure it is not the Government's intention that there should be an explosion of legally aided judicial review cases to do with housing. There are probably enough difficulties with housing without introducing that element. It would be useful to have a review mechanism that would prevent the use by applicants of the courts.

Lord Swinfen

I support the principle behind the two amendments. Whether they are the best way of achieving this purpose I am not sure. This is another case where housing authorities can act in an arbitrary manner, as they can, as we were discussing yesterday, with the removal of an introductory tenancy from an individual whom they did not think was behaving properly. I feel that the Minister should look at this point seriously before we reach the next stage of the Bill.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I have listened with care and with a certain amount of sympathy to the contributions of the two noble Baronesses and the two noble Lords on this issue. The argument that they have put forward is that we should establish a formal procedure for requesting a review of a decision to refuse to put someone's name on a register or to remove it.

When similar propositions were made in another place they were to go further and establish a right of appeal to a county court against decisions about access to the register. It was very much with that in mind that my right honourable friend the Minister for Housing said that he could not accept the Opposition's amendments. I believe that the allocation of housing necessarily requires the exercise of discretion and that it would be unrealistic to give every applicant the unfettered right to test that in the county court. However, the noble Baroness has rather cleverly limited her proposal to a right to an internal review. I am grateful to her for that and for bringing out this very real problem.

There are a number of alternative avenues already in existence. For example, a person may go to their local councillor in respect of the decision-making process and not the decision itself. It is often that the process reveals a mistake; for example, perhaps all the facts have not been made available. When dealing with housing cases I often found that not all the facts had been properly addressed and accounted for in the points system that my authority ran. The matter can be taken to the local government ombudsman if the person feels even more aggrieved. The ombudsman handles a large number of housing allocation cases and generally does so very speedily and at little cost to either party. I suppose at the end, if the person feels really aggrieved and knows about these things, as the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, pointed out, he can go for judicial review. Despite there being those avenues which people undoubtedly pursue at present and which they will continue to be able to use, I would like to consider further the points raised by the noble Baroness and others.

In its present form Amendment No. 263J is unsatisfactory since it restricts the scope of the regulation-making power to matters concerned with the review. As drafted Clause 146(6) envisages the regulations extending to matters such as notification of removal of a name from the register. I believe we want that. I yield to temptation in saying that in this case the noble Baroness is quite keen to give me regulation-making powers. I understand the principle. One is happy for the Government to make regulation-making powers when one agrees with what they may do; one is not so happy if one is suspicious of what the Government may do and does not want them to have such powers.

Amendment No. 263K seeks to place on the face of the Bill the requirement to notify the applicant of a decision not to place him on the register or to remove his name from it. I doubt whether there is much between us on the need for a formal procedure for notifying unsuccessful applicants, but I believe that such provisions are better dealt with in regulations rather than by primary legislation. We may, for example, want to consider giving applicants a statutory period in which to reply before their names can be removed. We shall be discussing these matters of detail with the local authority associations.

I hope that the noble Baroness and others who have spoken will feel that I have responded in a positive way to their anxieties. I shall be reflecting on the further points she made. We shall consider bringing forward alternative proposals at a later stage of the Bill. With those reassuring remarks, certainly about the first amendment, I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Hamwee

I am grateful for that response. I would prefer something that is important to be in regulations rather than not to appear at all. I was hoping to tempt the Minister to do something. Perhaps I may pick up a theme which has been running through the debates. If the Government do not feel that they can bring forward an amendment to appear on the face of the Bill referring to a review, perhaps the Minister will give some indication before Report stage as to how the matter might be dealt with in regulations. That would be helpful.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I am happy to give the noble Baroness that assurance.

Baroness Hamwee

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 263K not moved.]

Clause 146 agreed to.

Clause 147 [Information about housing register]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 263L: Page 91, leave out line 6 and insert ("person without the prior consent of the applicant.").

The noble Baroness said: This amendment deals with the divulgence of information on a register to people who have no real business to know it. Clause 147(2) restricts the information by saying that it, shall not be divulged to any other member of the public". I am proposing that it shall not be divulged without the applicant's own consent. Information held on a register would otherwise be available to people who are not members of the public; for example, local authority employees, councillors and organisations which have access to the information but which are not involved in the applicant's case. Information is likely to be sensitive and should be treated as confidential unless there are good reasons to treat it otherwise. Its disclosure, through someone discovering it or inadvertently referring to it, might even put the applicant at risk. For example, an applicant may have fled a violent partner. Her safety—possibly his, but more usually hers—could be jeopardised if her whereabouts became known. I know of a number of cases where violent partners have pursued a person who has left in what seems to rational people to be an extreme fashion. It is not just a question of threats; sometimes extreme violence is suffered.

Another example is that an applicant's housing need may be based on HIV status. People who suffer HIV are subject to widespread discrimination. I do not believe that it is right for that information to be available, for instance, to members of a local authority. In another place the Government indicated that they were willing to reflect on this point. I do not believe that they have yet shared their reflections with others. I ask what they intend to do to safeguard confidentiality. I beg to move.

6 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

The amendment would allow information about an entry on the housing register to be disclosed to another person if the applicant had given his prior consent. By contrast, the clause prohibits disclosure to any other member of the public. There are two concerns which the noble Baroness has brought to our attention; first, that the wording of Clause 147 allows too wide a right of access to the information held on the register, and secondly, and conversely, that it narrows the matter down too much and prevents, for instance, members of the applicant's family legitimately acting on the applicant's behalf. I know that the matter was discussed in the other place and that assurances were given then by my right honourable friend Mr. David Curry and in a letter to the honourable Member for Greenwich, and probably to other Members. If the noble Baroness has seen that correspondence, she is clearly not reassured by it. I hope to give her some of the reassurance that she seeks this afternoon.

I agree with the noble Baroness that applicants for social housing should be entitled to privacy. That is what the clause is about. That is why Clause 147 is cast in terms that would entitle only a person on the register to see his or her entry on it, and to be informed in general terms about the state of the register—to enable him to assess where he stands, in relation to others on the register, as regards priority for the allocation of housing. The question of how long someone might have to wait is a legitimate concern which people on the housing waiting list rightly raise.

There is deliberate intent behind the use of the words other member of the public". We all agree that it is right that information on the housing register should not be disclosed to any old Tom, Dick or Harry, but it may be important that information should be disclosed to official bodies with a proper interest in it. These could include a social services department which is making a community care assessment, for example, or a voluntary body considering whether to refer an applicant to a housing department or a registered social landlord with whom the authority has a nomination arrangement or participates in a common housing register. I do not think that in those circumstances the applicant's consent should be needed to allow such bodies to look at the register.

The noble Baroness asked me a difficult question to which I do not know the answer, so I shall check. I believe that the noble Baroness appreciates that it is right that such bodies, as bodies, will be able to ask to see an individual's application on the register. However, she asked what would happen if a member of one of those bodies sought to do that as an individual. I think that that would make the person, any other member of the public". I am pretty certain that that is the case, but the moment the noble Baroness raised the point I recognised that it was a good and legitimate question. I am sure that I am right in saying that if that person is wearing a "corporate hat", if I may put it like that, he or she comes within the provisions of the Bill. However, if that person seeks to see the register out of nosiness or whatever, I do not think that he or she would have the protection of a corporate hat and would therefore be considered to be any other member of the public", and would not have access to the register. If I am wrong about that—

Lord Swinfen

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, but I wonder what would be the position of a doctor looking after a patient? There are still some doctors in this country who work on their own in a single-person practice rather than a group practice. I am sure that the Minister intends to cover doctors who are trying to help individuals, but I am wondering about the rare instances when an applicant's GP may not be covered although he is trying to help that person.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I can now say that the answer that I have just given to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, is indeed correct, and that the distinction between somebody asking to see an entry in his corporate role and doing so in a private role is as I have set it out. That person would be covered by the legislation if he was "corporate", but he certainly would not be covered by it if he was acting as an individual.

My noble friend goes a little further and asks me about doctors. I am not entirely certain about the circumstances in which a doctor might want to see the register but, as I suspected, I am now advised that when acting in his professional capacity the doctor would be covered by the definition that I have just given the noble Baroness. He would be able to see the register as a professional, but if he was acting out of nosiness, if I may describe it like that, he would not be entitled to see it. Do not ask me the next question, about how to distinguish between the two! I think that it is a pretty clear distinction.

To get back to the serious point, there may be other rare instances when we might all consider that a public body would have a legitimate interest in knowing who was on the register, for example, if that person had a history of child molestation and was seeking accommodation on an estate with a lot of young children, or if he had a history of violence against a former partner now lodged on the estate. Clearly, the social services department would certainly have an interest in such cases. I do not think that any of your Lordships would want to stop such departments having access to the register in such circumstances.

In considering an amendment of this kind it is important to bear in mind that the same kind of proprieties apply to the release to third parties of personal information held by local housing authorities about their tenancies. The Access to Personal Files (Housing) Regulations 1989 and the Data Protection Act 1984 are examples of legislation that is already in place to protect information about individuals.

On the second concern, which comes from the opposite direction—namely, the prohibition on members of the public, and the question of whether that would exclude a friend or relative from acting on behalf of an applicant—perhaps I may advise the Committee that because that person would be acting for the applicant, he or she would not be considered to be a any other member of the public". Therefore, somebody acting on behalf of an applicant would be able to see the register and the entry for that individual. I hope that I have given the noble Baroness enough reassurance on both sides of the argument to enable her to withdraw her amendment and to leave in place the protection and the rights provided in Clause 147.

Baroness Hamwee

I find this a difficult issue. My instinct is that there should be complete confidentiality and that any information which is required to be disclosed should be disclosed through other mechanisms. At the risk of being teased by the Minister, may I ask whether the Government have it in mind to give guidance to local authorities as to any undertakings on confidentiality that are to be signed by those who look at the register when wearing their "corporate hat", as the Minister put it?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I can assure the noble Baroness that we intend to give guidance on Clause 147 and how it should be interpreted. I shall consider the point about how we can validate the hat that someone is wearing when they ask to see the register. Perhaps I may write to the noble Baroness on that.

Baroness Hamwee

I appreciate that the Government are well apprised of the need for a means of enforcing the restrictions. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 147 agreed to.

Clause 148 [Allocation in accordance with allocation scheme]:

Lord Swinfen moved Amendment No. 264: Page 91, line 17, at end insert ("including disabled people occupying inaccessible or unsuitable housing").

The noble Lord said: The purpose of this amendment is to ensure that the allocations criteria for priority in social housing includes disabled people living in inaccessible or unsuitable housing. The Bill sets out clearly in Clause 148 the priorities for local authorities when allocating social housing. Although the new system would give priority to some disabled people, it could result in many disabled people in extreme housing need receiving a low priority. The proposals would give "reasonable preference" to people in six different categories. The first group comprises, people occupying insanitary or overcrowded housing or otherwise living in unsatisfactory housing conditions". Often, that provision would not cover the situation of a disabled person living in inaccessible or inappropriate accommodation. The general term "unsatisfactory housing conditions" covers issues such as disrepair and fitness of the property. Although some disabled people would receive priority under a later category concerning a need for settled accommodation on medical or welfare grounds, it is important that the particular needs of disabled people living in inaccessible accommodation are recognised. That is particularly so as the Government's original consultation document made it clear that the priority categories are cumulative and that the more criteria a person meets the higher the priority.

There must be some mechanism for making a distinction between a person who requires settled accommodation who is currently in reasonable accommodation and a person who requires settled accommodation who is currently in completely unsuitable accommodation. The inclusion of disabled people living in inappropriate housing in the first category would meet these concerns. As the allocation scheme is currently set out, a disabled person would receive reasonable preference only because he had a particular need for settled accommodation. He would receive no greater priority because his current accommodation was inappropriate in view of his disability.

People in many other situations would have a greater priority because of the cumulative nature of these categories. For example, a non-disabled person living in temporary accommodation, who would have difficulty because of his economic circumstances to secure settled accommodation, would receive reasonable preferences under categories (b) and (f). Although he might well have considerable housing need, he would probably be given a higher priority than a disabled person who was living in permanent accommodation which was inaccessible. An example of this would be someone with limited mobility who was living on the upper floors of a property with no lift. That person would receive reasonable preference under (e) only if he had a particular need for settled accommodation on medical or welfare grounds. The additional difficulty of inaccessible accommodation would not be reflected in the allocation scheme for reasonable preference.

If reasonable preference is given to non-disabled people for a variety of reasons, including living in unsatisfactory housing conditions, the same preference must be given to disabled people because they are living in inaccessible housing. The amendment would ensure that the allocation system fairly reflected the needs of disabled people and that the present housing conditions of disabled people were adequately reflected in the priority system. I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I support the amendment, or a version of it, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen. The assumption behind anyone who goes on a housing waiting list, let alone anyone who goes through the homelessness route, is that he or she does not already have secure or settled accommodation. Therefore, one looks at the circumstances in which the accommodation occupied at present is inadequate by virtue of overcrowding, dependent children or the like. What is not covered either by access to the housing waiting list or by being given reasonable preference within it is the situation of owner-occupiers, particularly elderly ones. Their accommodation may well have been satisfactory in the past but perhaps their health has sharply deteriorated and they require different accommodation. If such a person sold his or her house—perhaps a very modest Victorian terraced property—it might not be sufficient for that person aged 60, 65 or 70 to buy a bungalow or a ground-floor flat that he or she needed.

At the moment, it is very unlikely that somebody who is an owner-occupier will have access to the housing waiting list; therefore he or she cannot come up through the register and be housed in that way. Equally, because such a person is in settled accommodation he or she will not have access through the homelessness route and be given reasonable preference. What does the Minister expect local authorities to do when an owner-occupier's health sharply deteriorates and he or she is physically disabled? The individual needs different accommodation from that presently occupied. The need may be acute. He or she may be confined to one room downstairs and be unable to get upstairs, but there is insufficient equity in the property to enable that person to find suitable alternative accommodation. Perhaps the Minister can help us on this point.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My noble friend Lord Swinfen has, as always, spoken eloquently about the needs of people with disabilities for suitable housing. I fully understand his concerns and those raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. It would be odd if any of my Bills went their whole length without my noble friend becoming involved. I should probably welcome him to this one. I hope to be able to persuade him that his fears are groundless and there is no need to add anything to Clause 148 to deal with the problems to which he has referred.

The allocation criteria set out in subsection (2) of Clause 148 are designed to ensure that the allocation schemes established under Part VI of the Bill take proper account of a whole range of housing and social needs. The particular criterion to which my noble friend wishes to apply his amendment is the first one which refers to people occupying insanitary or overcrowded housing or otherwise living in unsatisfactory housing conditions. He would then add the words as set out in the amendment. The words that we have are derived from Section 51 of the 1935 Act. Normally, they are taken to refer to physical housing conditions. Paragraph (e) of subsection (2) refers to priority being accorded to households containing, someone with a particular need for settled accommodation on medical or welfare grounds". This criterion is intended to ensure that just the kinds of people whom my noble friend has in mind receive proper priority. My noble friend appeared to believe that the disabled would be accorded priority only on ground (e). I believe that they could also fall within ground (a). The words "unsatisfactory housing conditions" would cover a disabled person who occupied inaccessible or unsuitable housing. I believe that that answers the point raised by the noble Baroness. She referred to a person who occupied a house which was perfectly satisfactory in every way but, for example, the bedroom accommodation and the toiletry were on separate floors and the occupier could not get up and down; or perhaps the living accommodation was separate. In those situations the person would fall within both (a) and (e).

My noble friend indicated that it was an all-or-nothing priority. Most local authorities would seek to implement the clause via some kind of points system. Therefore, there will be differences of degree within each category. While somebody may well not qualify under very many of the headings (a) to (f), if his or her qualification under that heading is a severe one (if I may so describe it), the individual will perhaps accumulate the maximum number of points available under that heading. The problem posed by my noble friend is usually resolved by the local authority housing allocation points system working in that direction.

Conversely, it would be quite wrong—I am sure that my noble friend does not intend this—to give such priority to the group in which he is interested that people with families and dependent children who occupied temporary accommodation on insecure terms would be placed in a comparatively poor position because the priority had been given overwhelmingly to another group. That is one of the good aspects of a points system. I do not wish to go into the merits of such a system. Although it may sometimes result in rough justice, it is the best kind of justice that I have come across as far as concerns the allocation of housing when the factors in play for one person are often quite different from those in play for another. One has to strike a balance between them.

I believe that many if not all housing authorities already make special provision for disabled people in the way that they run their housing allocation policies. The provisions in this part of the Bill represent a thorough overhaul of the allocation criteria, with the aim of ensuring that everyone with a real need for settled accommodation receives proper consideration wherever they live in the country. Because this represents a more comprehensive legislative framework for the allocation of social housing, later on in this clause we take powers to issue statutory guidance to local authorities on how they should apply the legislation. I can assure my noble friend Lord Swinfen that that guidance will draw the attention of local authorities to their responsibilities towards people with both physical disabilities and other forms of incapacity.

I hope that that assurance about the guidance, and my indication of how the six priorities will operate in favour of a disabled person in the kinds of circumstances presented by my noble friend, will enable my noble friend to withdraw his amendment.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, that most local authorities, especially the larger ones—I know Birmingham in particular—work closely with the housing association movement, which often specialises in one or other disability. I am involved with one which deals only with blind people. For that reason a local authority will normally operate a quid pro quo with the housing associations: "Will you take this one for us, because you have got that kind of facility? We will have one of yours". That goes on continually in the Birmingham local authority. If one is on a housing association list one is placed automatically on the council list. That obviates some of the problems faced by many disabled groups.

Lord Monkswell

Will the Minister address the arguments put forward by my noble friend Lady Hollis of Heigham? One of the points that we need to recognise about the housing market is that once a large number of people who lived in local authority accommodation could sensibly look forward to transferring to more suitable accommodation as they became older. For example, if they were in a three-bedroomed house there was probably a good chance of their being transferred to a ground floor flat or even a bungalow in the local authority sector as they became older or perhaps disabled. Because of the right to buy, many have bought their houses and become householders. They no longer have that route into local authority accommodation which is more suitable for their needs. Their houses may not be worth enough to enable them to sell them and buy suitable accommodation locally to meet their needs. To include a specific category for disabled people within the allocation system would provide a route into the right sort of accommodation for their needs. At the same time it would free up their own accommodation which has probably become unsuitable. That would make that accommodation available for a young family.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I thought that I had answered the question asked by the noble Lord's noble friend by pointing to paragraphs (a) and (e) and to the guidance that we intend to issue. His noble friend Lady Fisher explained the current position perfectly well. Where authorities agree on a voluntary basis between themselves and the housing association movement, a common register is one way to do it. The noble Baroness reminded me that the situation that my noble friend envisages will probably require specialised housing. It may be to the sheltered housing association movement or something similar, or to sheltered housing provided by the local authority, that the individual will be looking for housing accommodation. It all depends upon the individual's circumstances and the house.

We believe that paragraphs (a) and (e), especially paragraph (e), cater for and cover the situations which have been mentioned this afternoon. In addition, as I said, we shall be issuing guidance on this matter to local authorities. It is only fair to say that my experience of local authorities is that they are very understanding of such cases.

Lord Swinfen

I am well aware of the position set out by the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher of Rednal, because I am associated with the John Groom Housing Association which deals specifically with accommodation for physically disabled people. Because of that I am fully aware, as will be my noble friend the Minister, that there is currently a shortage of some 330,000 wheelchair-accessible housing units nationwide.

I moved the amendment to ensure that disabled people are not isolated and left to live their lives on a desert island. However, I shall read with care what my noble friend said, and if I feel it necessary to come back at a later stage of the Bill, I shall do so. I said, "if I feel it necessary, I shall come back". My noble friend is looking thoroughly disturbed, as though he may have to listen to me once again. I bore myself at times as well as him. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 264ZA: Page 91, line 26, at end insert— ("( ) any young person aged 16 or 17.").

The noble Earl said: First, I must offer my apologies to the Committee, and especially to my noble friend Lady Hamwee and those other people who are interested in the business, for not having been here for a number of amendments which were down in my name. That is the result of attendance at a very prolonged meeting of a board of examiners. Attendance at that makes a three-line Whip look trivial. I must apologise also to the Minister, although he may be slightly less distressed by my absence hitherto than I might have wished, for having put him to the trouble of preparing answers to amendments which in the event may not have been moved.

The amendment attempts to insert in the list of those to whom local authorities should give reasonable preference in allocating housing people who are 16 and 17. Before saying anything more on the subject, I should like to say how very much I regret the absence of the late Lady Faithfull who has had so much to say on this subject, who has indeed taught me so much about it and done so much to increase understanding of it in all quarters of this place. I miss her regularly, particularly now.

The Minister, I am sure, knows well enough my general opinions on 16 and 17 year-olds and could easily answer them in his sleep. So I am not going to begin by making my usual point. I am going to begin in a way the noble Baroness would have done if she had been here: with the problem of people leaving care.

It has been the general basis of government thinking that 16 and 17 year-olds ought to be at home. But of course people leaving care do not have a home to go to, and judging by what we have been reading in the newspapers recently, in some cases, even if they could go back, it would be the last thing in the world that they wanted. So, they are out on their own.

Practice among local authorities varies considerably. There is a responsibility under the Children Act for which we have to thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, but the actual administration of that is at present rather patchy. A good many local authorities have not been able to give the sort of priority to people coming to them under the Children Act at 16 and 17 that one might have liked.

So one finds, among any group of homeless people, in particular among those who come in at Centrepoint in central London, that large proportions of them are people who have formerly been in care. They are not people who are the best equipped with social skills. They are not the best people to be left unprotected on their own, and they are of course extremely vulnerable to exploitation. They must make a living in one way or another. When honest ways of making a living are not easily come by, there are sometimes others which can be come by which one would not wish them to be forced into. That is one part of the problem.

There is of course another part of the problem about people who have left home. It has been, since the days when the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, was Prime Minister, a central point of government thinking that people who left home at 16 or 17 did so because they were adventurers trying to do something interesting. That does not actually appear to be the case. The Government's own MORI report published in 1991 shows that 65 per cent. of those who left home did so because they had been thrown out.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young, in the debates on the Family Law Bill, waxed very eloquent on the subject. However, when one looks at what happens among animals perhaps moralism is not altogether the most useful reaction. The human being has an artificially prolonged infancy. There have always been cases where parents, like birds putting fledglings out of the nest, have tended to believe that people are fit to fend for themselves perhaps a little sooner than they should. It is not all a problem of evil, wicked step-fathers. Much of the problem is that of a relationship being prolonged longer than in the past which is putting considerable strains on many families.

I refer to a case discovered by McCluskey, reported in a book published in 1994. The person was thrown out of the family home as a result of family breakdown. He ended up homeless, sleeping sometimes on friends' floors, sometimes rough and at times using a hostel. Eventually he became involved in drug using and theft. He did not like that much. He went to social services but was told there was nothing they could do.

I have met, passing through Charing Cross station to and from work, people who are in exactly that situation. Recently, one of them told me, "There's nothing I can do now. I'll have to hang around like this until I'm 17." He should not have had to say that. It would have been much better if he could have got a job. But, of course, we all know how difficult it is to get a job if you have nowhere to sleep. As my noble friend Lady Seear once said in this House, we should not expect people to go to job interviews in clothes in which a noble Lord would not garden.

If the Minister invokes the interest of the taxpayers, about which I am as concerned as he is, I say to him that the thing that is most in the interests of the taxpayers is to increase their number. That means that we shall probably do more for taxpayers by giving many of those people a chance to do a decent job of work, as they would like, rather than keep them on the streets where they cannot get up to any good. At best they suffer; at worst they may get up to anything. Giving them some reasonable preference—and reasonable preference is all I ask—in the housing market would give them a chance to get started in the world and become good and useful citizens, as most of them would like. I beg to move.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I welcome the noble Earl to the debate. I was not thinking anything as uncharitable as a feeling of relief that he was not here earlier today but I may change that view in two or three hours. We are discussing 16 and 17 year-olds in whom the noble Earl has taken a great interest. It is fortuitous that he should arrive among us just as we move on to this amendment.

The amendment is prompted by representations from organisations—the noble Earl is in contact with many of them—concerned with the welfare of young people who are forced to leave home. I hope that I shall be able to assure the noble Earl that we do not need the kind of provisions that he proposes and that the problems he raises can be dealt with between the legislation and the guidance.

In assessing priority for housing, local authorities should consider factors which can contribute to a need for a settled, independent home. The fact that someone is 16 or 17 is not in itself an indication of a need for an independent tenancy. For the majority of young people, it would be better for them to live with their parents or with relatives where they can receive the shelter and support they need.

I am concerned that a provision of the kind envisaged in the amendment would do more harm than good. It might send the wrong signals both to local authorities and to applicants themselves and could risk creating false hopes among young people who believe that they might like to leave home, get on to a council's housing list and gain an independent house that way. If that were to be encouraged, other people in greater need might be pushed aside.

What should be at issue is whether a young person is in need of assistance in establishing a settled home. Local authorities should concentrate on helping the minority of young people who are vulnerable and for whom there are no better alternatives. But that is primarily a matter for the social services department. There is a duty of care on social service authorities under the Children Act until at least the age of 18. There is a duty on housing authorities to co-operate where reasonable. There is also provision in Part VII of the Bill for housing departments to secure accommodation for young people if they are vulnerable and become homeless unintentionally.

There are difficulties in providing a tenancy to a minor who neither has the capacity to enter into a contract nor can be liable for his debts. Many people at that age need ongoing support and assistance from the social services department. When we issue guidance on the operation of Parts VI and VII of the legislation we will address such questions. I know that the noble Earl was not in the Chamber earlier when I referred to the code of guidance for local authorities on homelessness which we intend to update. One of the reasons that it requires updating, in addition to the legislation before us today, is that it pre-dates the Children Act. However, even a document made up in 1991 contains a fair number of paragraphs referring to youngsters in exactly the position which causes the noble Earl concern. I do not wish to read out the guidance which exists, but perhaps I may refer him to it. I strongly suspect that he already has the document: he will find clear terms laid out in paragraphs 6.13 to 6.17.

I hope that my assurance that the new guidance will incorporate, perhaps in an updated form, what already exists will allow the noble Earl to withdraw his amendment. I hope that he will feel able to leave the matter to guidance, to a co-ordinated approach between housing and social services and to the fact that the Children Act lays an obligation on social services to deal with those children whom the noble Earl has in mind. I hope that with that assurance, and with my reference to the guidance notes which he can read, the noble Earl will be able to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

One does not want to send out a signal to all 16 and 17 year-olds that they are eligible for inclusion on the housing waiting list and therefore for allocation. However, at present 16 and 17 year-olds are denied benefit, except those who are suffering severe hardship. I believe that approximately 14,000 youngsters are in receipt of severe hardship payments from income support on the grounds that they are not living at home, are not gainfully employed, and are vulnerable, at risk and suffering hardship. Will the Minister consider including in any guidance that youngsters who are suffering hardship and who are at risk will be eligible for inclusion on the housing waiting list?

Baroness Hamwee

Perhaps, before the Minister responds, I may ask a related question. How are these issues linked to the sentence at the end of subsection (2) which refers to someone who needs settled accommodation on welfare grounds? I may have missed a reference to that in his response to my noble friend, but it appears to be a wide provision.

Lord Hylton

It is possible that the noble Earl has tabled this amendment slightly too early in the Bill. It may be that something needs to be written in later on Part VII.

Nevertheless, he has raised some very important points which include in particular the situation of young people emerging from the care of local authorities. We know that the arrangements which exist for them at that point in their lives—when they cease to be in care—are extremely variable. Some are reasonably good. In some cases, voluntary organisations work in with local authorities and provide a kind of bridge into normal adult life. But that does not apply universally across the country.

The second case to which the noble Earl rightly drew attention is to young people who have been forced to leave home, very often because of domestic violence or abuse in their parents' or relatives' home. Those young people leave apparently of their own free will, but in reality they leave under pressure. There is almost no escape hatch or safety bridge for them, hence the importance of the spirit and principle of this amendment which I support.

Earl Russell

I am grateful to the Minister for his reference to the code of guidance. He is right that there are many good things in that code. The difficulty about relying on that is that it merely asks local authorities "to have regard" to it. Some time ago in this Chamber the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, observed that the phrase "have regard to" means almost exactly nothing. While in general terms that may be a slight overstatement, my own local authority, the London Borough of Brent—and I say this regardless of what political control it happens to be under at the particular time—says that it has had regard to the code of guidance and is doing exactly the opposite. Therefore, in cases where it is most needed, the Minister cannot rely on the guidance to provide the answers which we need because it just does not do the job.

I was extremely disappointed by what the Minister said about sending the wrong signals to 16 and 17 year-olds by encouraging them to think that they might like to leave home. That is not what is going on. The Minister has doubtless noticed that hitherto I have exercised great self-restraint in not mentioning the issue of benefits. But in the face of that reply, I cannot continue that restraint because, of course, people in that situation do not have a right to benefits and therefore do not have the opportunity to obtain housing by lawful means which older people have.

The youth training allowance has not been uprated since 1988. I can find no sign that the Department for Education and Employment even thinks about whether or not it should be uprated. I hope that it will be uprated next time, but I do not have great confidence that it will be. That is not something which leaves people in a good position to find somewhere to live while they have food in their mouths.

Now that that issue has been introduced, the Minister will doubtless rely on severe hardship payments. But those are discretionary and temporary. They normally need to be renewed every eight weeks. Therefore, people receiving those payments are not in the same position as homeless older people. Even without challenging the policy on benefits, which is wide of this amendment, it means that those people are likely to be in much greater need than anybody else and in a much worse situation to cope with that need. That is why it would be perfectly reasonable for local authorities to allow them reasonable preference.

The Minister relied quite heavily on the Children Act 1989. I should like to quote some figures. It appears that 25 per cent. of local authorities do not have a policy to assess all homeless 16 and 17 year-olds and 41 per cent. of authorities do not consider rooflessness as a ground for accommodation. That suggests that in the present situation the Minister has relied too heavily on the Children Act, much good though there is in that Act.

Of course, the present situation is not where we shall be next year. It will not have escaped the notice of the Committee that under the asylum Bill and attendant regulations, very large numbers of children will become the responsibility of social services departments because the Department of Social Security has washed its hands of them. So the strain falling on those departments in a year's time is likely, especially in some areas of London, to be immeasurably greater than it is now. Therefore, if they are not coping now, how much less will they be able to cope in a year's time?

I clearly have not made the Minister see that there is a problem. I wonder whether I have been more successful with the Committee. I should like to seek its opinion on the matter.

6.46 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 264ZA) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 18; Not-Contents, 99.

Division No. 1
Beaumont of Whitley, L. [Teller.] McNair, L.
Falkland, V. McNally, L.
Geraint, L. Prys-Davies, L.
Hamwee, B. Redesdale, L.
Harris of Greenwich, L. Russell, E. [Teller.]
Hylton, L. Sandwich, E.
Jenkins of Hillhead, L. Seear, B.
Jenkins of Putney, L. Southwell, Bp.
Kirkhill, L. Williams of Crosby, B.
Ailsa, M. Lane of Horsell, L.
Aldenham, L. Lawrence, L.
Arran, E. Leigh, L.
Ashbourne, L. Lindsay, E.
Balfour, E. Lindsey and Abingdon, E.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Long, V. [Teller.]
Berners, B. Lucas, L.
Blake, L. Lucas of Chilworth, L.
Blatch, B. Lyell, L.
Blyth, L. McColl of Dulwich, L.
Boardman, L. McConnell, L.
Boyd-Carpenter, L. Mackay of Ardbrecknish, L.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Mackay of Clashfern, L. [Lord Chancellor.]
Bridgeman, V.
Butterworth, L. Mackay of Drumadoon, L.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Marlesford, L.
Carnock, L. Massereene and Ferrard, V.
Chalker of Wallasey, B. Mersey, V.
Chelmsford, V. Miller of Hendon, B.
Clark of Kempston, L. Monk Bretton, L.
Coleridge, L. Montgomery of Alamein, V.
Colwyn, L. Mountevans, L.
Courtown, E. Newall, L.
Craigavon, V. Northesk, E.
Cranborne, V. [Lord Privy Seal.] O'Cathain, B.
Crathorne, L. Oxfuird, V.
Cross, V. Pearson of Rannoch, L.
Cuckney, L. Perry of Southwark, B.
Cumberlege, B. Peyton of Yeovil, L.
Dean of Harptree, L. Pilkington of Oxenford, L.
Denham, L. Rankeillour, L.
Denton of Wakefield, B. Renton, L.
Elliott of Morpeth, L. St. Davids, V.
Elton, L. Selsdon, L.
Feldman, L. Shannon, E.
Ferrers, E. Shaw of Northstead, L.
Flather, B. Shrewsbury, E.
Gisborough, L. Skidelsky, L.
Goschen, V. Stewartby, L.
Greenway, L. Strange, B.
Harmar-Nicholls, L. Strathclyde, L. [Teller.]
Harris of Peckham, L. Sudeley, L.
Henley, L. Swinfen, L.
Holdemess, L. Teynham, L.
HolmPatrick, L. Thomas of Gwydir, L.
Inchcape, E. Trumpington, B.
Inglewood, L. Vinson, L.
Jenkin of Roding, L. Wilcox, B.
Kimball, L. Willoughby de Broke, L.
Kingsland, L. Wynford, L.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

6.54 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 264ZB: Page 91, line 26, at end insert— ("( ) persons to whom the authority are, or have been, subject to a duty under sections 169, 172, 176 and 179 of this Act.").

The noble Baroness said: I realise that we are close to the dinner hour but I hope that the Committee will allow me to develop my arguments on this amendment. I believe this is one of the core amendments in this part of the Bill. Clause 148 spells out the allocation scheme a local authority must adopt, and requires that it should be constructed so that reasonable preference is given to those listed in the Bill; that is, those occupying insanitary, overcrowded or unsatisfactory housing and the like, people living in insecure accommodation, families with dependent children, applicants who have medical or welfare needs for permanent housing or those whose economic and social circumstances make it difficult for them to find settled housing.

However, nowhere on the face of the Bill are homeless families as such to be given reasonable preference. Why is there this silence? I suggest that the Government may have two arguments: either that someone who is homeless is already included in the categories of applicants listed—in other words, it is unnecessary to refer to homelessness as such—or that to include homelessness in the categories would encompass additional people whom the Government do not think merit reasonable preference. In other words, the homeless are in some sense undeserving of preference if they do not fit into the categories listed in the Bill. Which argument are the Government using? Do the Government think that reference to homelessness is not necessary, or do they think it is undesirable? Let me assume that the Government think it is unnecessary because it is covered by the other categories. I really believe that that is not true. Earlier this year the Department of the Environment published important research which followed 2,500 homeless applicants from when they first made their applications to a period 18 months later. It was a unique and important study of 2,500 applicants.

What that research of the Department of the Environment showed is that being homeless constitutes an additional pressure and strain over and beyond all the other factors involved in unsatisfactory housing. It is not just that accommodation is temporary and insecure—that applies to any six months shorthold tenancy—but that the people concerned are usually living in someone else's home and can be thrown out at 10 minutes' notice after a row. That is the degree of insecurity which a homeless family may experience and which someone living under a shorthold tenancy would not experience.

Nor is it just a matter of homeless people experiencing overcrowded and insanitary conditions. Often an entire family of three or four people might have to share one bedroom in a friend's house. Nor is it just that their economic and social circumstances make it difficult to find alternative accommodation, because if they have no fixed home they have no job, and if they have no job they can get no fixed home. It is not even simply that they are unsettled. As the DoE research has shown, many will have made something like six or seven moves between long-suffering family and friends in a couple of years, spending two months here, three months there, with all the stress that that imposes on children and family.

I seek to argue tonight that the experience of homelessness, and of having nowhere to call home, is worse than any situation—short possibly of violence—that anyone else in the categories listed in the Bill will experience. If an applicant in the categories listed in the Bill is living in a home, however poor, overcrowded or temporary, at least it is a home of some sort or other. I suggest that being homeless is qualitatively worse and qualitatively different from any other housing experience and therefore should be included, on its own grounds in Clause 148. How can the Government ignore the fact that homelessness is different? I emphasise that I do not seek to say that homeless families should jump the queue. I suggest merely that they should be listed with those who have other forms of housing need to whom reasonable preference must be shown.

I fear the Government will resist this key amendment not because homelessness is already covered in the categories but precisely because it is not. Precisely because it is such an extreme and desperate situation any reasonable authority would use its best endeavours to offer such a family a permanent home immediately. They would then—in my view rightly—take preference over other groups in housing need, thus undermining the Government's insistence on a common waiting list. My argument is that they simply cannot wait. Hence the Government's insistence that they must be parked in temporary housing, and their needs then assessed along with others. Rather than allowing local authorities to meet their needs and build more housing, the Government require local authorities to construct a conflict between different victims of the housing crisis.

In another place, the Minister called this distinguishing between the symptoms and causes of housing need. That is a distinction without a difference. The symptoms are one and the same: the absence of a home.

Let us remember to which homeless people local authorities will still be obliged to offer temporary accommodation: those who are unintentionally homeless through no fault of their own; those who have children; those who have been in care; or those who have mental and physical health problems. Those people have tried to help themselves. Two thirds of the homeless have made efforts to help themselves, as the DoE's research indicates. Even so, more than any other category, the homeless listed in Clause 148 have been buffeted from pillar to post. They have lived out of suitcases and on the charity and tolerance of friends. They cannot be sure that they will even have a home for their children next week. Why refuse them access to the waiting list? Why visit on them even more misery for the sake of ideology? Why cannot we respond decently and allow such people to be included in the local authority's allocation scheme. I beg to move.

7 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Southwell

Although it may be argued that the subject of homelessness is covered elsewhere, in particular in regulations, nevertheless, in drawing up their register according to agreed criteria, there is a need to ensure that local housing authorities recognise that homelessness is one of the criteria that should be considered when reasonable preference is being determined.

The Government's 1989 review of the homelessness legislation stated: There is little doubt that [homeless] people would and should expect to have priority in any system of housing allocation based upon need". The amendment does not ask that homeless people should have automatic priority but that, alongside the other criteria, homelessness would be acknowledged as a legitimate factor to be taken into consideration when assessing reasonable preference.

The allocation of housing and the determining of priority needs will be helped by the register, but only if it reflects a consistent and adequate list of the variety of needs and circumstances affecting people in need of housing, as well as a full picture of housing accommodation currently available within the authority. The objective is to ensure as far as possible that the allocation is fair and open and that those with the most acute problems are assisted.

I believe, as do many involved within the Church and voluntary sectors, that the amendment recognises that homelessness is a legitimate factor to be taken into consideration when compiling a list of criteria to ensure that the local authority allocates housing accommodation in a manner that reflects the true priorities of those who are homeless. I support the amendment.

Baroness Hamwee

From comments that I made earlier, it must be obvious that I, too, support the amendment on the simple grounds of fairness and reasonableness.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

Amendment No. 264ZB seeks to give reasonable preference in the allocation of housing to people who are owed a duty under the homelessness legislation. I do not think that the noble Baroness will be in the least surprised when I tell her that I do not find her amendment appropriate. It goes to the very kernel of our proposals to change the current position and to try to bring into being a housing allocation system which is even-handed between those people waiting patiently on the housing list and those who have become homeless.

It is our firm view that the needs of homeless households are not necessarily the same as those of people who require long-term housing. But having said that, I would point out that something like three-quarters of those people who become homeless are already on the housing register. We do not believe that just because they become homeless they should then jump over the other people waiting patiently above them on any list in order to gain the next available house. For those people who become homeless, the overriding need is for accommodation to be made available immediately.

The noble Baroness painted her usual lurid pictures, quite oblivious of the fact that some time ago I pointed out that only some 2 per cent.—a very small number—came into the homeless category on a roofless basis. Therefore, the proposition that people were being put out at 10 minutes' notice may be good dramatics but it does not accord with the great bulk of the cases that come to local authorities as homeless. They come because they foresee that they will become homeless.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Given the number of local authority acceptances for homelessness, will the Minister tell the House the number of people that that figure represents?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I do not see the total number on my piece of paper. I cannot answer. It is not insignificant—

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

How can the Minister tell the Committee that it is a trivial number if he does not know the figure?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

When one considers the range of people, 2 per cent. is trivial in terms of the total number of people applying. I should have thought that that was perfectly clear. There is a huge divide between us. I have no doubt that the noble Baroness will wish to divide the Committee on this issue. I shall, therefore, continue.

We are talking about 2,400 people in total. That is 2 per cent. of all the people who present as homeless. Therefore, the picture painted by the noble Baroness is not one which applies to the great bulk of homeless people. That is the point I made; and I think that it is a fair point considering the noble Baroness's suggestion that almost everyone who became homeless was thrown out "at 10 minutes' notice". That is simply not the case.

People who are about to become homeless can be dealt with in a number of different ways. In a significant number—a good deal more than 2 per cent.; in fact the figure is 10 times greater—an arrangement is made by the local authority to keep those people in their current accommodation until an alternative can be arranged. The scheme is called Homeless at Home. Various other methods are used in order to find people temporary accommodation up to at least two years' duration if that is what is required. Under our proposals anyone who is given assistance under the homeless legislation will receive that assistance for up to two years in the house to which they go. I do not think that that adds up to a huge army of people who will be insecure once they become homeless.

Once these medium-term needs have been met and those people have been found accommodation by the local authority, the nature of the requirement changes. Whether they have been homeless or threatened with homelessness is no longer an issue. They have been provided with accommodation under the homelessness legislation. That seems perfectly reasonable. What is then at issue is their present and future needs for long-term housing compared with those other households on the housing register and the extent to which their present accommodation meets these needs.

Part VI of the Bill is intended to establish a single consistent route into social housing so that all applicants—homeless and non-homeless—can be sure that their needs will be assessed fairly. It has always been our view that such assessments should be on the basis of an applicant's present and future needs. What has happened in the past should not influence their priority for housing.

Clause 148 goes into detail on the priorities that ought to be sought when people are being considered for social housing. We have discussed some to date and I believe they cover in a reasonable and broad way the people who require long-term social housing. Part VI of the Bill will ensure that the needs of everyone on the housing register are assessed fairly, regardless of whether they have become homeless. A formerly homeless household may receive a degree of priority under the allocation scheme on a number of grounds. These could, for example, include insecurity of tenure or the fact that the applicant has dependent children or has a pressing need for a settled home on medical or welfare grounds. In many cases, formerly homeless households will get priority because of the limited economic opportunities available to them. If the applicant is in greater overall need than other households on the register, then he or she will get priority accordingly.

The noble Baroness seeks to suggest that homelessness of itself should give people priority. Therefore, if someone becomes homeless they should be able literally to jump the housing queue over other people whose needs are every bit as great but who are waiting patiently. They may have tried to arrange their own accommodation in which to wait until they reach the top of the council's list. Their position may be every bit as serious as that of the person who has been declared homeless. Once that person is homeless—

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He said that people would jump over the heads of those whose needs were as great or even greater than those on the list. Can he tell me whose needs would be even greater than those of a homeless family?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

The noble Baroness once again predicates the position where the homeless person is roofless, out on the streets, with nowhere to go. As I tried to explain, but clearly failed, under the homelessness legislation the local authority will have attended to that person's immediate needs. It will have found that person accommodation of some kind and ensured that he or she is properly accommodated, so there will not be an immediate pressing need any greater than for the person waiting at home, perhaps with parents. There might be a young married couple, living with parents and waiting to reach the top of the list and get a house. The needs of the homeless person may be no more pressing than those of the young couple, with or without children, who may be in the same position.

The noble Baroness tries to pick a totally artificial argument. People who are homeless will not be camping in the street; their needs will be dealt with. Their position with respect to long-term housing will be considered in exactly the same way as other people in the community who are waiting patiently for the same long-term housing. I wish to make that important point again and again. The noble Baroness tries to lull the Committee into believing that homeless people will be so totally disadvantaged that they should be given absolute priority over everyone else waiting patiently on the list and who may have taken the precaution of not becoming homeless because they made arrangements. They may live with their family or in rented accommodation which is not entirely suitable. That is the kernel of the change we are making.

I ask the Committee to consider this. Is it right to give priority to applicants just because they have become homeless and are now being looked after temporarily but perfectly well over other people who are in exactly the same position but have looked after themselves and found their own temporary accommodation? Is it right that one group should receive priority on the housing list over another? I do not believe that it is. Their position in the housing list will not be disadvantaged because they are homeless but we do not believe that it ought to be advantaged. That is the difference between us.

7.15 p.m.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

I followed what the noble Lord said, but he was talking about getting to the top of the housing list. It is not just one list. Different people need different types of property. I come from the City of Birmingham. There, 50 per cent. of the people who are said to be homeless may have been staying at the houses of relatives and friends. Fifty per cent. are on the housing register and have been on it for a long time because they have nowhere to live. Some may be quite high on the register.

It is a big problem. Last year in Birmingham 11,879 people put themselves forward as homeless. When they went through all the interviews, 1,717 were declared not to be homeless. That left the local authority with 10,162 families who were homeless. In that way, some housing goes to people who are perhaps not the most deserving, as suggested by the noble Lord. Furthermore, nearly 2,000 of those declared homeless had left home because of violence from their partner in marriage. Obviously one must deal with those cases quickly.

I am seriously worried about the Housing Corporation. Far more money is given to it than to local authorities, yet it is not being called upon to take on the homeless. That is important. The Bill concerns the responsibilities of local authorities. I hope that at a later stage the Minister will put forward actions that the Housing Corporation must take regarding social housing.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I am not sure that the noble Baroness was not supporting my position at the beginning of her intervention. My figures are greater than hers. She suggested that 50 per cent. are already on the waiting list. Many will be high up, I agree, and I shall not knock them down; if they are on the list they get their house. However, my advice is that something like three-quarters are already on the waiting list.

The kernel is not whether such people are on the list but whether they ought to be given immediate preference over other people on the list. If such people had inspected the register, they might expect a house within the next two or three weeks, or a month or two. The position is that they do not get it. The homeless on the waiting list have their position accelerated. The waiting time for those rehoused who were on the waiting list averages about 14 months whereas for those rehoused as homeless the period is more in the region of seven months.

To be declared unintentionally homeless accelerates one's ability to obtain social housing. We do not believe that that is fair. It is not that such people should not be housed; they are housed immediately in non-long-term accommodation under the homelessness provisions. They then take their turn with other people in getting access to long-term housing. The proposition that I put forward seems to me to be reasonable and it is in no way damaged by the rather vigorous language used by the noble Baroness in order to pretend that there are armies of people out there on the streets. They are not on the streets: the homelessness legislation prevents that happening. Quite right, too. What we believe should not then happen is that the homeless person promptly receives priority on the housing list so that he or she moves ahead of people who have waited patiently, perhaps in similar circumstances, but have not been declared homeless. I do not anticipate that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment because it is the kernel of the debate between us upon the Bill. Therefore, if we have a Division I trust that my noble friends will support me in the Lobby.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I always regard it as a sign of the weakness of the Minister's argument when he tries to attribute to these Benches arguments or language that they did not use. The Minister has done so repeatedly in his answers tonight. Therefore, I wish to correct the record. He said frequently that the amendment asked that homeless people should jump over those waiting patiently. He obviously enjoyed using the phrase because he repeated it several times.

I never once said and I believe no one else on this side said tonight that we sought that homeless people should jump over those waiting patiently. Had the Minister been listening, he would have known that we made it clear that such people should be given reasonable preference—no more and no less—over any other category. The right reverend Prelate repeated the phrase. Yet the Minister chose to ignore it in order to create an argument that was not being advanced so that he could seek to knock it down. If the Minister had any confidence in his own case, he would not have needed to invent one on behalf of the Opposition. We did not say that homeless people should "jump the queue", that they should go over the heads of those who are more deserving; we said that they should be given reasonable preference along with those who are also in housing need. I hope the Minister accepts that correction in language; that is one of the gulfs between us.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

If "reasonable preference" does not mean that people will get a council house before somebody who would otherwise, so to speak, have beaten them to that council house, then I do not know what it does mean. That seems to be the same, putting it in rather more common language, as saying it is "jumping the queue". That is how people waiting patiently think of it.

Baroness bolus of Heigham

How does the Minister define people in the categories listed in Clause 148? Is he telling us that people under subsection (2)(a)—those occupying insanitary and overcrowded housing—are not jumping the queue on his definition? Are those who occupy housing accommodation that is temporary not jumping the queue? Are families with dependent children not jumping the queue on the Minister's new definition of queue-jumping? Are families in which someone is expecting a child not jumping the queue? The same applies to families with a particular need on medical or welfare grounds? I could go on.

Every argument that the Minister has adduced against homelessness applies to his own Bill. Which will the Minister have? Are people in these categories jumping the queue; or will he accept that what we are asking is that homeless people should be treated as an additional group, along with those in this category, as being entitled to reasonable preference? I ask the Minister to answer that point.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I am not responsible for the terminology that the noble Baroness uses. I am clear about my terminology and I am clear about my case. I believe that the preferences outlined in the Bill are the proper preferences. As I said, these preferences will be counted for someone who is homeless. I do not believe the additional factor of becoming homeless necessarily entitles someone to extra points or extra privileges.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

The Minister has now said that those groups who come under Clause 148 are entitled to proper preference, but if there is a more extreme form of housing need—namely, homelessness—people are not entitled to proper preference. Is that what the Minister is saying?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I shall not indulge any more in this little to-ing and fro-ing. I have made my position clear and the noble Baroness makes hers clear. I do not think we shall ever agree on this matter. I am clear. The qualifications in the Bill are those that we believe a local authority should look at in order to decide the balance as to who has priority. Normally, that is done according to a points system. That is perfectly fair. It is rather silly to ask whether that means that somebody who has children is trying to jump the queue. That is quite a different situation. I am saying that the homeless are housed by the local authority under homeless legislation. I do not believe that they therefore need preference, acceleration or whatever term one cares to use, when it comes to long-term social housing. They should take their place with others who consider themselves equally in need of long-term social housing.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

We entirely agree. I should be delighted to have the homeless considered along with others who are in need of long-term housing as listed in Clause 148(2). That is all we ask—that they be listed alongside those people, just as the Minister said, unless the Minister wishes to withdraw his words.

For 20 years the responsibility to house homeless people has rested on local authorities. For longer than that the condition of homelessness has been recognised by local authorities. It has certainly been recognised since the 1870s and 1880s as a condition to which they should pay attention, and since 1945 as one to which they attach particular responsibility. Everybody, except apparently the Minister, recognises that the homeless are at the most acute end of housing need.

The Minister has chosen to wipe the reference to homelessness off the face of the waiting list preferences. The onus is on him, after 20 years in which it has been enshrined in law and 50 years during which it has been enshrined in local government policy and practice, to show why now, suddenly, the homeless should be wiped off the face of the Bill.

Despite the Minister's best endeavours to attribute phrases to us, nobody is saying that the homeless should queue-jump. To wipe them off the face of the Bill and say that a homeless family cannot be considered alongside those in overcrowded housing or those with dependent children for reasonable preference on the waiting list, is deeply indecent. At the core of our argument is that homelessness represents an extra dimension of desperation and need over every one of those listed here.

Nobody is denying that those in the categories under Clause 148(2), in insanitary, overcrowded or insecure housing, do not need reasonable preference. But for every person who needs that, it is even more the case for somebody who is homeless, going from roof to roof, home to home, bed-and-breakfast accommodation to car, back to a family's flat, back to a friend's floor, back into bed-and-breakfast accommodation, each time trailing children in tow. Homelessness is a qualitatively different experience. It is not fully covered by the categories listed. Homeless people should be included in this list.

I am very sorry that the Minister's case is so weak that he has to attribute to us arguments that we have not used. We have said that homeless people should have reasonable preference along with other people in housing need. They should not queue-jump; but they should have reasonable preference. And why? Because homelessness is qualitatively worse than any other form of housing experience. I can only assume that the Minister has not personally experienced it. If he had, he would know that to be the case.

Despite the Minister's remarks, I shall not press this amendment to a Division tonight. However, I promise him that we shall return with it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Lucas

I beg to move that the House be now resumed. I suggest that the Committee stage begin again not before half past eight.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.