Ms Buck: I am grateful for the support that I received from my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton, although to echo the Monty Python four Yorkshiremen sketch, I just dream of only one quarter of the people coming to my surgery having housing problems. I am also grateful for the supportive remarks of the hon. Member for Eastbourne, although a little hintette of mischief-making just at the outer margins slightly undermined their generosity. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for his supportive remarks and his recognition of the needs that I outlined. I look forward to seeing the wording of the proposed new amendment that will move us on from the subjectivity of the present definition.
In light of the spirit of acceptance for the first part of the amendment, I will seek leave to withdraw it. I understand why the LGA and others have reservations about the potentially prescriptive powers in the other parts of the amendment, but I stand by the thrust of my comments about the need to iron out some of the worst practice. I hope that the DETR will continue to work with the local government and housing organisations to do what they can to raise the profile of best practice so that we deal with the deficiencies. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Hon. Members: No.
Question put, That the amendment be made:
The Committee divided: Ayes 3, Noes 8.
Division No. 7]
Foster, Mr. Don
Loughton, Mr. Tim
Waterson, Mr. Nigel
Ainsworth, Mr. Robert
Buck, Ms Karen
Hughes, Mr. Ken
Iddon, Dr. Brian
King, Ms Oona
Love, Mr. Andrew
Raynsford, Mr. Nick
Turner, Mr. Neil
Question accordingly negatived.
Mr. Raynsford: I beg to move Government amendment No. 85, in page 12, line 28, leave out `homeless' and insert `threatened with homelessness'.
Briefly, the amendment is typical of the Government amendments, being designed simply to improve and enhance the Bill. It would change ``homeless'' to ``threatened with homelessness'', which is, as all hon. Members will immediately understand, technically the correct drafting in the clause. It has no other significance beyond that.
Amendment agreed to.
The Chairman, being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of the debate on the amendment proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 68 and 89, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.
Question agreed to.
Clause 20, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Abolition of minimum period for which an authority is subject to main homelessness duty
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Loughton: I thought that the Committee should tease a little more detail out of the Minister before accepting the clause, because it represents a significant change to the 1996 Act, in its abolition of the minimum 24-month period and the changes that it imposes on section 193 of that Act.
At the time the 24-month criterion was established, various fallback positions were provided. It was a controversial measure. Under that Act, local authorities are required to provide accommodation for the households they accept as statutorily homeless for a minimum of two years. As long as they confirm every two years that the household remains entitled to assistance, they may provide accommodation on a continuing basis; and if they cease to provide accommodation after two years, the household may reapply for assistance under the legislation. In short, it was not as though familiesor whoeverwere set adrift after the minimum two-year period had expired. Fallbacks and a route for reapplication were built into the legislation.
I have a briefings from two local authorities that state what has happened in practice. The first comments:
``The two-year limit has never really been implemented. In reality, homeless people are not able to find private rented accommodations and local authorities will assist until they can be placed in social housing.''
The other says:
``The two-year duty is to be repealed. However, in practice, in London authorities either deal with cases within two years or continue to deal with them after two years have expired.''
Shelter freely admits
``In practice, most authorities usually provide settled accommodation within the 24-month minimum period set out in the 1996 Housing Act, and continue to provide temporary accommodation where this is not possible.''
Therefore, I query why the Government feel that it is necessary to change the legislative terminology, given that, in practice, the fears expressed by many of their colleagues during the Committee stage of the 1996 Act have not come to fruition, and a number of fallbacks and safety nets were enshrined in that Act. I am genuinely curious to learn what has changed, or how that section of the 1996 Act has gone wrong and so prejudiced people that the changes proposed in clause 21 are necessary.
Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman has a curious way of putting his argument. The first authority he quoted in his defence was someone saying that the two-year duty has never been implemented; if that is true, he should understand that it is entirely appropriate to remove from statute a provision that has clearly fallen into disrepute because more than two years have passed since it came into force. I accept that in many areas it has not been applied because it is inappropriate: local authorities know it is not the right way to handle their responsibilities toward homeless people. Unfortunately, however, in some areas there has been a belief that it is a statutory requirement and therefore the authority has to go through the curious bureaucratic treadmill of reviewing people's cases after a two-year period has elapsed.
Of course, problems can arise. Consider the problems that may surround a family that has been accepted as a homeless family with children if, in the course of two years, the children have passed the age of 16 and are no longer children; the family might have ceased to be regarded as being in priority need. All sorts of things could happen that could have an adverse impact on the individuals involved. In the ``No Place Like Home'' report the LGA makes the point very clearly that:
Reviewing the circumstances of priority homeless households after two years has created additional bureaucracy without uncovering, in the majority of cases, any significant change in the applicants' eligibility for rehousing.
On very simple grounds, the provision is undesirable because it is based on a completely erroneous conception of the nature of homelessness, it is ineffective and it imposes unreasonable bureaucratic burden. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees with the Government that it is high time that it was swept away by clause 21.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 21 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Events which may cause the duty to cease
Mr. Don Foster: I beg to move amendment No. 72, page 13, line 16, at end insert
`and states that the offer shall remain available to the applicant for not less than three working days from the date of the offer, or such longer period as the authority consider reasonable in all the circumstances.'.
The amendment would provide for a minimum period of three working days during which an applicant may accept or refuse a final offer of accommodation from a local authority. That offer may consist of either a council house tenancy or nomination to a registered social landlord.
The purpose of building in a statutory minimum period is to try to end the practices that we know occur in a number of local authority areas, whereby applicants are given as little as 24 hours to make a decision. I suspect that all members of the Committee will appreciate that a 24-hour time limit will, in many cases, not give the applicant enough time even to view the premises, let alone sort out the range of domestic issues that may be necessary to the decision to accept or reject the property; those include the effect on work or the schooling of any children involved.
I welcome Government's clear intention, expressed by part II and echoed in the housing Green Paper, to increase the amount of choice available to the homeless. However, it would be wrong to tolerate other measures that at the same time militated against choice. My argument is that allowing the practice whereby some authorities allow applicants only 24 hours to decide seriously militates against choice.
Mr. Waterson: I am slightly horrified by the hon. Gentleman's words. Can he give us any specific examples illustrating how widespread are such practiceswhich strike me as verging on sharp practice? I cannot imagine any reasonable local authority having a problem with three days or even a few more, if necessary.
Mr. Foster: If the hon. Gentleman will be patient, I will deal with the Department's research on the way people are currently treated. That research has gone some way towards influencing the Government in their determination to find ways of increasing the amount of choice. I am delighted that there is to be improvement.
I am also delighted that the Government are to fund a number of projects around the country where local authorities wish to explore different ways of improving choice. I would say gently to the Minister that my local authority, Bath and North-East Somerset, is anxious to work with the Government to explore ways in which greater choice can be afforded to homeless people. Improving that choice includes being able to give more than one offer to homeless people before considering that the duty to them has been sufficiently exercised. I referred to the research done for the Government by H Pawson and D Levinson. It was published by the Department only a few weeks ago and was entitled ``Local authority policy and practice on allocations, transfers and homelessness''. That research shows that homeless households are likely to get fewer offers of accommodation and less choice of where they live or the type of accommodation. They are also likely to be more heavily penalised for refusing an offer. They might be removed or suspended from the register for longer than other applicants. The research shows that since 1991 there has been a sharp increase in the proportion of authorities operating one-offer only policies. It shows that in 1991, 29 per cent. of homeless applicants were allowed only one reasonable offer and that by 2000, that had increased to 75 per cent. That is very different from the approach to non-homeless households, where very few are restricted to only one offer.
The second issue shows very clearly that, nationally, 79 per cent. of authorities always take into account the area preference of applicants who are not homeless when making an offer. That compares to only 47 per cent. of authorities where homeless applicants' area of preference was always taken into account. The research also demonstrates clearly that homeless households are less likely to have taken into account their aspirations in respect of the type of house in which they would like to live. It points out that one fifth of local authorities currently consider that if an applicant refuses their maximum number of reasonable offers, they are deemed to have made themselves intentionally homeless.
This comes to the point raised by the hon. Member for Eastbourne. In areas where housing pressure is particularly high, the evidence suggests that there is a shorter time limit for homeless households to make their decisions. There is a real difficulty when there is limited time because the homeless household must have an opportunity to view the property. They must be able to see how accepting that property may tie in with work patterns or with any educational requirements that may apply. There is also a problem in that some local authorities do not carry out any repairs and maintenance to a property until the new occupant moves in. The home seeker needs a period of time to get assurances from the local authority that the required repairs and maintenance will be carried out. There is a clear need, for a reasonable period of time to be offered to families before they make a decision.
It being One o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned till this day at half-past Four o'clock.
The following Members attended the Committee:
Stevenson, Mr. George (Chairman)
Ainsworth, Mr. Robert
Foster, Mr. Don
Hughes, Mr. Kevin
King, Ms Oona
Thomas, Mr. Gareth
Turner, Mr. Neil