HL Deb 15 June 2004 vol 662 cc657-64

(1) At the end of section 199 of the Housing Act 1996 (c. 52) (local connection) add—

"(6) A person has a local connection with the district of a local housing authority if he was (at any time) provided with accommodation in that district under section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 (c. 33) (support for asylum seekers).

(7) But subsection (6) does not apply to the provision of accommodation in an accommodation centre by virtue of section 22 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 (c. 41) (use of accommodation centres for section 95 support)."

(2) Subsection (3) applies where—

  1. (a) a local housing authority would (but for subsection (3)) be obliged to secure that accommodation is available for occupation by a person under section 193 of the Housing Act 1996 (c. 52) (homeless persons),
  2. (b) the person was (at any time) provided with accommodation in a place in Scotland under section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 (c. 33) (support for asylum seekers),
  3. (c) the accommodation was not provided in an accommodation centre by virtue of section 22 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 (c. 41) (use of accommodation centres for section 95 support), and
  4. (d) the person has neither—
    1. (i) a local connection with the district of a local housing authority (in England or Wales) within the meaning of section 199 of the Housing Act 1996 (c. 52) as amended by subsection (1) above, nor
    2. (ii) a local connection with a district (in Scotland) within the meaning of section 27 of the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987 (c. 26).

(3) Where this subsection applies—

  1. (a) the duty of the local housing authority under section 193 of the Housing Act 1996 (c. 52) in relation to the person shall not apply, but
  2. (b) the local housing authority—
    1. (i) may secure that accommodation is available for occupation by the person for a period giving him a reasonable opportunity of securing accommodation for his occupation, and
    2. (ii) may provide the person (or secure that he is provided with) advice and assistance in any attempts he may make to secure that accommodation becomes available for his occupation."

The noble Lord said: Noble Lords will be familiar with the Government's policy of dispersing asylum seekers to appropriate areas around Great Britain in those cases where the asylum seeker is in need of accommodation. These dispersal areas are carefully selected and asylum seekers who, in due course, are granted leave to remain are encouraged and helped to settle in their dispersal area. This is an important policy and, among other things, helps to reduce pressures on social housing and local government services in areas where these are already very stretched, particularly in London and other areas of the south-east. As noble Lords will appreciate, the dispersal policy started with the introduction of the National Asylum Support Service, where in some London boroughs and councils in Kent services were on the verge of total collapse, simply due to people remaining in the areas where they had first arrived. So the pressure has been taken off them and we do not wish for that to return.

Under the homelessness legislation—that is, Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996, which extends to England and Wales—local housing authorities have a duty to secure accommodation for applicants who are eligible for assistance, have become homeless through no fault of their own and who fall within a priority need group. Broadly speaking, the priority need groups include applicants who have dependent children, or who are pregnant, or who are vulnerable in some other way.

Former asylum seekers who have been given leave to remain in the UK will be eligible for homelessness assistance. If they find themselves in a position where they require homelessness assistance, the question of priority need will depend on the individual circumstances of each case. In those cases where the local housing authority is satisfied that a former asylum seeker has a priority need, a duty to secure accommodation will be owed by the authority to the former asylum seeker. An underlying principle of the homelessness legislation is that the duty to secure accommodation for an applicant should rest only with a local authority in whose area that person has a local connection. I am referring to general homelessness, not homelessness relating to immigration, asylum seekers or others—that is the normal homelessness legislation that applies to every citizen in this country. Although authorities are not required to consider the issue of local connection when considering homelessness applications, they have a power to do so. In cases where the applicant has no local connection with the area of the authority to which he or she is applying for assistance, but does have one somewhere else, the local housing authority can refer the case to the local housing authority in that other area—that is, where a local connection is established. A local connection can be established with an area because of normal residence of choice, employment, family associations or special circumstances. It may even be the area of one's birth, so there is no choice in the matter.

When an applicant has no local connection anywhere in England, Wales or Scotland, the authority receiving the application must accept the duty. This means that such a person can effectively choose which authority will owe them the duty to secure accommodation. Earlier this year, the Law Lords, sitting as the Appellate Committee in the cases of Al Ameri v The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and Osmani v The London Borough of Harrow, held that under the homelessness legislation, as currently drafted, residence in an area which is pursuant to the provision of accommodation by the Home Office under Section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 is not capable of establishing a local connection with that area because it is not the residence of choice. That is the matter relating to the dispersal by the National Asylum Support Service.

That clarification was helpful because there had been some uncertainty over the matter. However, your Lordships will appreciate that the current position does not help to achieve the Government's policy, which is that, for the purposes of the homelessness legislation in England and Wales, asylum seekers should automatically establish a local connection with an area when they are dispersed there by the Home Office and provided with accommodation under Section 95 of the 1999 Act. This is to ensure that the local housing authority in the dispersal area has the responsibility to secure accommodation for them, where a main homelessness duty is owed. Otherwise, we risk returning to the pre-NASS situation of enormous pressure on London and other nearby authorities.

There is one important caveat—it is not the Government's policy that asylum seekers will establish a local connection with an area if they are accommodated there in an accommodation centre. This is because it has expressly been our intention that successful applicants processed through these centres should not be expected to settle in the locality. Accommodation centres will provide a move-on advice service to assist successful applicants with relocation and we are working on procedures to ensure that people receive offers of suitable accommodation, which will normally be in another part of the country.

5 p.m.

Amending the local connection provisions in Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 will have effect in cases where asylum seekers are dispersed to a district in England or Wales but not in cases where they are dispersed to a district in Scotland and, having been granted leave to remain, seek homelessness assistance in England or Wales. That is because, under Scottish homelessness legislation—that is, the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987—asylum seekers do not establish a residence of choice, and therefore a local connection, with a district if they are resident in accommodation provided under Section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999.

Such a difference between the local connection provisions north and south of the Border means that it would not be possible for an English or Welsh housing authority to refer a homelessness case back to a Scottish local housing authority as, under the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987, the applicant would not have established a residence of choice, and therefore a local connection, by virtue of his residence in NASS-supported accommodation. The conditions for referral would be met for the purposes of Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 but they would not be met for the purposes of the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987. That means that the Scottish authority would not be required to accept such a referral.

The proposed new clause seeks to address that by providing that the main homelessness duty in England and Wales—that is, Section 193 of the Housing Act 1996—would not apply in a case where a former asylum seeker had been dispersed to Scotland and subsequently made an application in England or Wales unless he had established a local connection somewhere in England, Wales or Scotland.

Although the Section 193 duty would not apply in England and Wales, the local authority dealing with the case would have a new power to secure accommodation for such a period as to give the applicant a reasonable opportunity to secure accommodation. It would also have a power to provide the applicant with advice and assistance.

Perhaps I may take the opportunity to observe that the duty to secure accommodation under the homelessness legislation can be onerous for local housing authorities, particularly in areas where the housing market is overheated, where there is a shortage of affordable accommodation and where homelessness levels are high. I remind Members of the Committee that the homelessness legislation is not the main route into social housing; the route is via an allocation made under an application for social housing under Part 6 of the Housing Act 1996.

In the cases addressed by subsections (2) and (3) of the new clause, homelessness assistance would be available to applicants in Scotland. In fact, it would be open to applicants to seek assistance from any Scottish district and not just from the district where they had been provided with the NASS accommodation under Section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. And it is open to all former asylum seekers who are granted leave to remain to apply for an allocation of housing under Part 6 of the Housing Act in any district of their choice in England and Wales. Therefore, like any other citizen, they can go on to a council's waiting list.

However, the homelessness route is different in that a local connection needs to be established. The amendment seeks to provide that, where people seek the homelessness route, the local connection will be the one created by the NASS dispersal scheme around the country. People may argue that that is not compatible with other schemes, but it is designed to ensure that we do not return to the policies that existed beforehand under which unacceptable pressures were placed on London, the Home Counties, the Kent authorities and East Sussex. Therefore, to that extent, the amendment seeks to comply with the judgment which clarified the law in the courts. I beg to move.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

I tried to pay great attention to what the noble Lord said. It is a very complicated issue. I read in the press that an asylum seeker who seeks asylum in Scotland will not be able to opt to find accommodation outside Scotland. Is that correct?

Lord Rooker

With respect, I cannot answer a question which is based on something that may have been read in the press. There has been a judgment in the highest court in the land—the Appellate Committee of this House—relating to the local connection. The Scottish Parliament legislated, as it is entitled to do under housing legislation, and that has caused a slight dislocation in the situation between England, Wales and Scotland.

It is not a question of an asylum seeker doing something; it is a question of whether an asylum seeker has been dispersed under the National Asylum Support Service programme. Many asylum seekers have been dispersed to Scotland and to Glasgow, in particular, where they received a very warm welcome. The question is: does the mere fact that they were in NASS accommodation while they were asylum seekers provide them with the necessary local connection to say, if they have permission to remain in the UK, "I now want to claim homelessness because I now have the right to do that". That is not the situation. The local connection is not established because they were living in Glasgow or elsewhere in Scotland in NASS accommodation. They can still be placed on the local authorities' waiting lists anywhere in England, Scotland or Wales, as, indeed, can anyone else who seeks social housing. Here, we are dealing with the homelessness route into housing.

Lord Avebury

I fully understand the reasoning advanced by the Minister that people in NASS accommodation in a particular local authority area should logically seek to avail themselves of the homelessness provisions in that area. But can the noble Lord explain how that will operate in practice? A number of countries became members of the European Union just the other day and the people who had formerly been asylum seekers from those countries and who were living in NASS accommodation were suddenly required to vacate their accommodation. They did not have time to make arrangements for alternative housing and many of them would have become homeless.

Therefore, can the noble Lord tell me what the sequence of operations would be when people come to the end of the process, they receive a decision and are then told that they are no longer eligible for NASS accommodation? How much time will they be allowed to find alternative housing? The noble Lord said that the normal route is to put oneself on a waiting list, but that takes a long time. Therefore, will most of the people in this category need to avail themselves of the homelessness provisions?

If that is the case, how will that be dealt with under the requirement in the Homelessness Act 2002 for local authorities to have a strategy which enables them to foresee the likely level of homelessness that will arise over the next few years? Any local authority with NASS accommodation in its area will know that a certain proportion of people will be successful and therefore may require assistance under the Homelessness Act. Yet they could not have foreseen that this legislation would be brought forward when they formulated their strategies in 2003, and they will not have to reformulate those strategies for another three years.

Lord Rooker

With respect, the noble Lord has the issue completely upside down. The amendment is designed to help those authorities and not to put a burden on them. They know that they have NASS accommodation. Let us say that, for example, a northern city—I am reluctant to mention specific towns—has NASS accommodation. The one thing that is certain for local government in London boroughs is that they will not receive genuine, lawful homelessness applications from someone living in that northern town because there is no local connection. If they did receive such an application, they would say to that person, "Sorry chum, your local connection is where the NASS accommodation was". There, the local authority would know that it had NASS accommodation and that would form part of its homelessness strategy.

Every local authority has a homelessness strategy. The beauty of it now is that they have the NASS accommodation but they know that they will not be required to receive homelessness applications from other authorities for people leaving NASS accommodation. That is to the great advantage of housing policy, local government and the housing of former asylum seekers.

Lord Avebury

I did not explain myself very well. In the local authority in the north where there is NASS accommodation, the persons who are successful will ultimately look to the local authority in question either under the Homelessness Act or because they placed their names on the list there. However, in view of the short-term need where they have to vacate NASS accommodation, it will almost invariably be via the homelessness route despite what the Minister said, and the local authority will not have been able to foresee that that duty would be laid on it under this legislation at the time that it formulated its homeless strategy. So, it will have a strategy which does not take into account the particular duty which Parliament is now laying on it.

Lord Rooker

First, it will in due course and secondly, some of our northern towns and cities welcome this because it stops the depopulation of the area.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

I rise briefly to formally support this new clause. I appreciate that there are perhaps difficulties which flow from it, but none so much as will flow from the dispersal policy being completely scuppered. I recognise, as the Minister said, that the Government had to react to judgments in two cases.

My noble friend Lady Carnegy was right to ask for clarification of the position in Scotland, as she did in the previous clause, which may well have to be redrafted. This is not the same position. However, I was glad to hear from the Minister a further explanation of how this clause will operate.

Lord Hylton

It seems to me that the Government may need to rethink the clause heading in Amendment No. 12, which is, "Accommodation for asylum seekers". As I understand it, we are referring to those asylum seekers who have been recognised as refugees and have a genuine right to remain here. There are two particular factors I should like the Government to think seriously about because they affect the integration of recognised refugees into the general fabric of this country. The first concerns language difficulties. The second concerns the effects of the suffering through which these people have passed, sometimes in their own country and sometimes on the way. Often, they are quite severely damaged and therefore likely to have difficulties in establishing themselves here. That will, in turn, affect where is the most suitable place for them to live, whether it be in the place where they have just left NASS accommodation or in another more suitable place.

Lord Rooker

I shall briefly respond to the noble Lord. That is quite right but in some ways the situation should not be too different from what it is now. The amendment has been forced upon us by a judgment of the courts to clarify a degree of uncertainty.

NASS is very careful about where people are dispersed to. There is a lot of experience now compared to when NASS first started, in terms of language difficulties and support mechanisms. I suppose that a more correct heading for the clause would be "Housing via Homelessness" because that is what we are talking about; that is, the homelessness route to housing for former asylum seekers given leave to remain in the UK. It may be that they are on indefinite leave to remain rather than refugees but either way they have leave to remain in the UK. They are not the same classification of people as we discussed in the earlier clause. I fully accept what the noble Lord said about the support systems that are needed, but that is no different from today. We are just clarifying that the route via homelessness gives the local connection legally as NAS accommodation.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

Does the Minister think that it would be a good idea to reconsider the title of this clause? As he has just said, it is misleading.

Lord Rooker

I shall take advice, but I can probably absolve the Home Office from this because as far as I know parliamentary counsel dream up titles for clauses. However, as this issue has been raised, naturally we shall consider it.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

5.15 p.m.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

Before calling Amendment No. 13 I must inform the Committee that the procedure will be the same, give or take, as for the first group of amendments, that is, Amendments Nos. 1 to 11. As soon as Amendment No. 13 has been moved and the question has been put for the first time, the chair will call Amendment No. 14 and, when that has been dealt with, Amendment No. 15 and similarly Amendment No. 16. We shall then revert back to Amendment No. 13.

Lord Rooker moved Amendment No. 13:

After Clause 9, insert the following new clause—