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Mr. Don Foster: Will the hon. Gentleman encourage the Minister also to look favourably on the bid from Bath

7 Feb 2001 : Column 984

and North-East Somerset, where there is a much greater mixture of housing provision than I imagine is the case in Eastbourne?

Mr. Waterson: Before we get to that stage, I recommend that the hon. Gentleman's local council electors do what the voters of Eastbourne have done, and get rid of a thoroughly incompetent, inept Liberal Democrat administration. I shall not go further down that path, as you, Madam Deputy Speaker, probably would not allow me to do so. There are questions about how a choice-based system would work in areas such as Eastbourne. That is the point of the amendment.

I commend our three amendments to the House. As I explained, because of the quirks of our procedures, it is unlikely that we shall press those amendments to a Division. Hence my support--breaking the habit of a lifetime--for the Liberal Democrats' new clause 4.

Mr. Simon Hughes: I am grateful to be called, and I shall speak to the new clauses and amendments in my name.

However, I begin by observing that the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) started his speech by having a go at my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) for speaking for 20 minutes on seven new clauses. The clock shows that the hon. Member for Eastbourne spoke for 20 minutes on three amendments. We must take care not to be over-critical of colleagues doing their job.

On new clause 17, the Minister again sought to make mischief, but I shall disappoint him. Unless the Minister responds positively, I shall happily support new clause 4 moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Bath, and I am glad to hear that the Conservatives will do so too.

New clause 17 is entirely compatible with new clause 4, for three reasons. First, unfortunately--because of my own bad handwriting, I concede--the text as printed is not the same as the text as drafted. It should have read "final offer", not "first offer". We always speak of the final offer in this context, so I hope that the Minister will accept my explanation.

Secondly, new clause 4 refers to a minimum of three days for an offer to be considered. I suggest in new clause 17 that a period of five days should be set. That is not inconsistent. The important thing is that there should not be a 24 or 48-hour turnaround. People are often on a list for a long time, and the offer may come with no warning. They may be away, visiting family or on holiday, so they must be allowed a reasonable period within which to receive the offer and respond to it. That should be at least three days, potentially five days, and possibly longer, if the local authority considers that appropriate, after consultation with tenants.

In many cases, people receive only one offer. The Minister must know from his personal experience that it is entirely unfair to give them a ridiculously short time within which to accept it. I hope that he will be positive and accept the new clause moved by my hon. Friend.

The third specific point that I included in new clause 17--I had seen new clause 4 before I drafted it--allows people to inspect the premises with an independent adviser. It is no good expecting them to accept the offer without looking at the premises, or, if they are allowed to

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go in, to be accompanied only by the housing officer, who will clearly be determined to tell them that the property is acceptable and that that is the only offer that they will get. People must be allowed to inspect the premises, to be accompanied by an independent adviser and then to judge whether the offer is reasonable.

That leads to new clause 18, which would require the local housing authority to inform applicants of their right to request a review, independently of the local authority, if they are told that they are ineligible for housing. One of the great causes of complaint is that people make an application, the local authority decides and that is the end of the matter.

I have tabled four amendments, all of which derive from issues regularly raised by people who come to my surgery and to others. It is often the case that people who experience a relationship breakdown in a home that they rent or, much more frequently, in a home that they own are told that they cannot be housed by the local authority and that they are intentionally homeless.

If, for example, people bought their home under the right-to-buy scheme and the marriage comes to an end, one partner will usually stay in the home. The other partner may leave, possibly with some finance. However, it may not be possible to raise any finance. The partner staying in the home cannot raise it, so there is no money available at that moment.

I ask Ministers to accept that, when the family home can no longer be the family home, the person who leaves should be able to look to the local authority for housing. Such people may or may not have children, but if they are parents, they may want the child or children to stay with them for a weekend, the school holidays or whatever, yet they find that they have nowhere to go. I hope that the Minister will respond positively to those amendments.

7 pm

Amendments Nos. 53, 55 and 60 relate to a later part of the Bill.

Mr. Love: I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's comments on the new clauses and amendments that he has tabled separately from those of his Front-Bench colleagues. Given that there is no Liberal Democrat Whip available in the Chamber at the moment, will he answer the question that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) passed over to him as to why he is tabling a separate set of amendments? Is this another example of Liberal Democrat anarchy?

Mr. Hughes: I knew that I should not have given way to what was clearly going to be a silly intervention.

People are entitled to table amendments from the Back Benches. Our Front-Bench colleagues do their job and all my hon. Friend's new clauses and amendments have my support. However, I represent more council tenants than any other Member of Parliament in England, including all the Labour Members, and I hope that the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) will accept that these issues are of huge interest to my constituents. I have tabled amendments, as the hon. Gentleman could have done, although I notice that he did not.

Mr. Don Foster: Is my hon. Friend aware that, in Committee, a number of amendments were tabled by

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Labour Back Benchers? That seems to be a perfectly appropriate way for all hon. Members to contribute to the debate.

Mr. Hughes: My hon. Friend must have been blessed in that Committee, because I have served on many Committees in which not a peep comes from Labour Back Benchers and they all happily toe the Government line.

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman is entirely right to make the point that it is legitimate for Back Benchers and Front Benchers to table amendments and new clauses. If the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) is unfamiliar with that basic constitutional fact after spending nearly four years in the House, it is about time he became aware of it.

Will the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) at least accept that, while there is a case for the three-day period and for the five-day period, it is stretching a point to say that they are not incompatible with each other? Will the hon. Gentleman, who is rather self-effacing, accept from me that his preference for a five-day period proves that, by comparison with his hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), he is simply more liberal?

Mr. Hughes: Those are judgments that must be made by others.

The Government have a policy that all the Opposition parties find unacceptable. The good thing is that they now have two alternative proposals that they could buy off the shelf. One contains a word that was misread, and the other has the endorsement of those on the Conservative Front Bench. The Minister has no excuse for saying that he has no choice, and I sincerely hope that he will buy one of our options. I seriously look forward to that happening.

The other amendments relate to serious matters, and have been referred to supportively by my hon. Friend the Member for Bath. Some people need personal protection, often urgently. I am trying, with the help of my local authority, to have someone in that predicament re-housed. Indeed, four families who are trying to get re-housed are on the books in my constituency office, having visited my surgery.

I would like it to be the law that, when the police say to a local authority that people must be moved for their own safety, and that their safety cannot be guaranteed where they are because there is a serious risk to their life, the local authority must have a duty to move them within 28 days. That should have an priority overriding other responsibilities. I know that such a proposal would have the support of the police, who get very frustrated in these circumstances, as do local authority officers trying to juggle all kinds of competing priorities.

Amendment No. 60 is linked to that proposal. The issue of people at risk from violence has been dealt with and we have received a positive response from the Minister. However, people whose mental or physical safety is at risk sometimes need to be moved. Those circumstances might involve threats rather than actual violence.

I am dealing with a case at the moment involving a serious assault that took place not far from the Elephant and Castle. The youngster who was seriously injured is not able or willing to give evidence if he still has to live in the area in which he was assaulted. That is perfectly

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reasonable. The family will not support him in giving evidence, and the police understand that. The Crown Prosecution Service's clock is ticking away, and it insists that there is a date by which it will have to decide whether it can proceed. The prosecution will not be able to proceed without the evidence of that individual. My proposal is that, if re-housing is a precondition of someone's being able to give evidence in criminal proceedings, he should be re-housed within the time limit required by the criminal justice system.

Amendment No. 55 relates to the circumstances in which councils have to juggle competing priorities--as they all struggle to do--and requires that they assess the length of time someone has been in a particular category of need, in their list of considerations. They would have to form their own view about that; I am not trying to dictate to them. For example, account should be taken of the length of time someone had been ill, suffering from the after-effects of a stroke, and therefore been unable to go up and down stairs, or of the length of time that a family of seven had occupied a one-bedroom flat.

The amendments relate to practical matters, and I hope that the Minister will give a positive response to all of them. I also hope that he will accept a new clause in the form of--or similar to--that tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bath.

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