HL Deb 25 July 1997 vol 581 cc1612-4

1.26 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman) rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 26th June be approved [5th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in our manifesto we promised to restore a proper safety net for families and vulnerable individuals who are made homeless through no fault of their own. These regulations are the first step towards fulfilling that undertaking. The provisions in Parts VI and VII of the Housing Act 1996, which limit the protection that could be given to homeless households, were a matter of grave concern in your Lordships' House when they were introduced in 1996. These regulations would ensure that households owed a homelessness duty receive proper priority for rehousing in long-term social housing.

The policy framework we are now putting in place to deal with homelessness consists of three elements. One is the introduction of new resources. We covered that in the debate in this House this week on the Local Government Finance (Supplementary Credit Approvals) Bill. The second is the fostering of partnerships between all organisations that deal with the homeless. The initiative that we are taking to deal with the problem of rough sleepers is an example of the partnerships that we are trying to foster. The third is genuine and regular consultation. That consultation preceded the regulations that are before us today.

These regulations are necessary because, under Part VII of the 1996 Act, a local housing authority may be obliged to secure suitable accommodation for a homeless household, but only for a period of two years. When that period ends, the authority may, in certain circumstances, decide to continue to secure accommodation for the household, although it cannot use its own stock for more than two years out of any three-year period.

This principal homelessness duty, limited as it is, does not even apply where an authority is satisfied that there is other suitable private sector accommodation available in the district. In those circumstances, an authority's only duty is to provide advice and assistance. We have, to some extent, addressed this lack of security by making an order under Section 210 of the Act which provides that other accommodation shall not be regarded as suitable unless the authority is satisfied that it is available for occupation by the household for at least two years.

The overall effect of these arrangements would nevertheless be to leave a homeless household in a continuing state of uncertainty. That adds to the considerable disruption and misery that they would already have experienced. That is why it is necessary that these regulations are made.

The existing position is that under Part VI of the Housing Act 1996 there is a single route into long-term social housing through an authority's housing register. Section 167 of the Act sets out certain categories of household to whom "reasonable preference" must be given within an allocation scheme. These are households in overcrowded, insanitary, temporary or insecure accommodation; persons with a particular need for settled accommodation on medical, welfare, social or economic grounds; and households including a pregnant woman or dependent children. There is no place in the list for households defined as owed a principal homelessness duty. In including these households in these categories receiving preference, the Government is making very clear to local authorities the importance that they attach to the experience of homelessness in determining priorities for long-term, stable housing allocation.

The regulations add to the list in Section 167 various new categories that cover everyone who is unintentionally homeless and in priority need. They include those people to whom the main duty is owed both under the existing and the earlier homelessness legislation and people who have within the previous two years been referred to other suitable accommodation in the private sector in discharge of the homelessness duty. Households owed a homelessness duty would thus be rehoused more quickly, reducing the often heavy financial burden on authorities of having to secure and finance temporary accommodation for them.

There is one other point I should bring to the attention of the House. The regulations also remedy an oversight in Section 167 as drafted. 'Additional preference' is to be given to households which consist of or include someone with a particular need for settled accommodation on medical or welfare grounds where they cannot reasonably be expected to find settled accommodation in the foreseeable future. As currently expressed, the entitlement applies only to individuals. Regulation 3 extends the entitlement to all households falling within the medical category which cannot be expected to find settled accommodation. This would enable authorities to take account of other cases in this group—for example, where the household includes a carer who has to provide around-the-clock care for the person in his or her charge.

These regulations will begin to restore hope to homeless families and vulnerable individuals who have become homeless and I commend them to your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 26th June be approved. [5th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Hayman.)

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I do not propose at this time on a Friday to rehearse the many arguments we had across the Dispatch Boxes on this subject so very recently. I think we had an honourable disagreement of principle as to whether it was right to include homelessness in the Bill—as the noble Baroness now proposes to do in effect—and thereby to continue, as we saw it, the iniquities of queue-jumping or whether it was better to do as the noble Baroness now proposes and have it as an added factor which can be taken into account. We have to accept that the Government are going to try it their way.

However, I should be very grateful if the noble Baroness could write to me and say how she proposes to measure the success of the policy change. What statistics does she wish to see improved and in what way in the future? I do not expect an answer now but I would appreciate a letter.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I will certainly undertake to write to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and I might even be tempted to tell him how wrong he is to think that this measure will encourage queue-jumping. I hope that we shall not see the number of homeless families in this country increase during the lifetime of this Administration as they did—to more than double—during the lifetime of the previous administration.

We believe that the housing needs of individuals and households who will have been found by local authorities to have become homeless through no fault of their own and to be in priority need—I agree with the noble Lord that we had a disagreement in principle on this issue—will be as severe and as genuine as those of any other household on the housing register and it is right that their needs should be addressed by local authorities through this measure. I commend the regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.