Homes Bill

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Mr. Don Foster: As the Minister is close to winding up his speech, will he put firmly on record his views regarding the authorities, including Bath and North East Somerset council, which currently operate a 24-hour policy? He has already made it clear that he regards three days as too short, so what does he think about 24 hours? Will the Minister tell us whether it is appropriate to urge those authorities to reconsider their actions?

Mr. Ainsworth: I have already said that in the overwhelming majority of cases three days is unreasonable. The same applies—again in the majority of cases—to the alleged 24-hour deadline. However, it may be appropriate in certain circumstances, and we do not want to put into the legislation a specific limit that could become a standard or a maximum that put pressure on authorities that are behaving far better to lower their current standards.

I hope that, with my assurances about monitoring the pilots and taking any necessary action, the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment. If not, we shall have to vote against it.

Mr. Foster: I thank the Minister for his response and the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow for supporting the principle behind the amendments and for acknowledging that her local authority, Tower Hamlets, operates a similar policy. I was not seeking to hide one authority from another: I provided examples of all political persuasions in London.

The Minister referred to the 90 bids for choice-based letting schemes. He will be aware that the Bath and North East Somerset council is concerned about its current procedures, which is why it is one of the 90. When the Minister reviews his decision on which bids to accept, I hope that he will take my council into account. We have an opportunity, by getting involved in the scheme, to help put right some of the problems that I have mentioned.

I understand the Minister's argument that building any time scale, such as a three-day minimum, into the Bill might lead the vast majority of authorities to regard it as the maximum. However, a maximum of three days—if that is what it became de facto—would still be better than the 24-hour system operated by many authorities; it would be progress of sorts. I accept the Minister's assurance that a 24-hour period is acceptable to the Government only in extreme circumstances. He acknowledged that people often need time for discussions with their friends, families and advisers about issues such as jobs, education, repairs and so forth in order to make an informed and sensible choice.

The amendment is not about all the different offers that might be given by an authority to a homeless family, but about the final offer. It is a serious decision to take in the knowledge that a subsequent appeal might not be successful. Some people have to take that decision with far too little time to reflect on it. Too many authorities adopt that practice. The Minister referred to some, but he was wrong to say that Bath and North East Somerset council is controlled by the Liberal Democrats. Sadly, that is not the case. I can assure the Minister, however, that we are not far short of overall control and that we are working hard to achieve it.

Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): In your dreams.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman should not tempt me. The reality of Bath and North East Somerset council is that the Conservatives can only dream of gaining more than the two or three councillors that they currently have in my area. Over the years, Conservatives have been wiped off the face of the earth by excellent Liberal Democrat councillors.

The Minister referred to councils that operate a 24-hour policy as being on the sin list—his phrase, not mine. I hope that that sin will be widely reported and that relevant authorities, including my own, will be advised to get their act together. The Minister spoke about the importance of taking informed and sensible decisions. I want to come to an informed and sensible decision about whether to take the matter further, and I require at least 24 hours to reflect further on it; therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 22 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 23

Abolition of duty under section 197

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Loughton: Before the clause whizzes by at a rate of knots, I should like to raise a few points to which I am sure the new Minister will be delighted to respond—

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): No, the old Minister.

Mr. Loughton: I see, we are back to old Labour now.

The clause deals with section 197 of the Housing Act 1996. It effectively repeals the local authority's duty not to secure accommodation, but to provide an applicant

    ``with such advice and assistance as the authority consider is reasonably required''

to enable him to secure ``other suitable accommodation'' in the district. That provision will be replaced by a general duty to secure accommodation if nothing else suitable is available.

Shelter has expressed concern that the existing legislation has led to a wide variation in the standards and levels of advice and assistance provided by local authorities. It is very poor in places with applicants sent away with little more than a list of bed-and-breakfast locations. Shelter says:

    ``the quality of advice and assistance is not necessarily dependent on the amount of stock available and there are numerous examples of good practice achieved in areas of high demand.

    Likewise, there are authorities where, despite low housing demand, the level of assistance provided is poor.''

I share Shelter's hope for a more uniform and uplifted level of service for homeless people across the country.

How does the change in duties tally with the strategic multi-agency approach—according to the Government, the rationale for part II—particularly if other agencies within the strategic partnerships have access to accommodation? How does the new measure tally with the enhanced strategic advisory role that we debated in our proceedings this morning? How does it tally with efforts to reduce empty homes more logically and undogmatically? How does it work in districts where there is no local authority housing? Surely the key is to secure suitable housing for homeless, or potentially homeless people by whatever means possible. Might the measure not restrict that? Perhaps the old Minister would comment on some of those concerns.

5 pm

Mr. Raynsford: I, too, take the opportunity to extend my congratulations to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington and welcome him back to our discussions.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) asked a number of pertinent questions about how clause 23 tallies with the other measures in this part. The purpose of the clause is to remove section 197 of the 1996 Act, which was heavily criticised at its introduction and has subsequently proved problematic. To some extent, the hon. Gentleman conceded that in referring to the Shelter report, which highlighted the wide variations in the assistance provided by local authorities, which we fully accepted in the debate this morning.

Therefore, it is necessary to ensure there is an effective duty on local authorities towards people who are homeless, in priority need and not intentionally homeless. That duty is to secure that they obtain accommodation, or, if they are threatened with homelessness, that they do not cease to have accommodation.

The relationship with the multi-agency approach is clear. An individual who is threatened with homelessness can be assisted in a variety of ways, including through advice and assistance from a range of different agencies. Someone who is experiencing difficulty in budgeting may be helped by a welfare rights or money advice centre. I think of some of the examples that the hon. Members for East Worthing and Shoreham and for Eastbourne discussed, where individuals, possibly with a history of mental illness, are located in a block of flats where they could cause difficulties to neighbours. Good advice and support from social services may make it possible for such a tenancy to be sustained, which otherwise could be problematic.

That tallies well with the wider multi-agency approach, but it contains a long stop that ensures that the local authority has to secure accommodation and cannot simply say, ``We think that there may be enough alternative accommodation available. We will give you a list. Go out and find something for yourself.''

That is not a satisfactory solution.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham asked how the measure would help to tackle the problem of empty properties. It will act as a further incentive to local authorities to explore effective means of getting every property available to them back into use. It will also encourage them to liaise with other providers in the area, such as registered social landlords and the private sector, on where lettings might be available. It will require an assured tenancy, not an assured shorthold tenancy. We will make some technical changes to subsequent clauses to give effect to that. Nevertheless, it is still possible for someone to be housed on an assured shorthold tenancy on an interim basis and then to transfer to an assured tenancy. The whole purpose of the policy is to secure permanent accommodation for homeless people, so that they are not caught in a revolving door of repeated homelessness, which can be extremely traumatic.

I apologise to the hon. Member, but I cannot recall his third question. If he reminds me of the content, I will happily try to answer it.

Mr. Loughton: What about districts in which there is no local authority housing?

Mr. Raynsford: I thank the hon. Gentleman. In cases where the authority has transferred its housing stock to another landlord, there has to be, as part of the transfer, an agreement with the receiving body, the registered social landlord, to accept nominations to enable the authority to meet its homelessness obligations. That contractual relationship between the local authority and the large-scale voluntary transfer authority—in some cases, the relationship could be with a number of other RSLs—is the mechanism by which the authority can refer homeless applicants to such accommodation.

Certainly, as part of their homelessness strategy, which is dealt with in one of the earlier clauses of this Bill, it is obviously necessary for local authorities to ensure that they have good relationships and arrangements, whether contractual or simply a voluntary understanding, with registered social landlords in their area to enable them to have access to the necessary number of premises and to meet their obligations.

I hope that the Committee will accept this sensible clause .

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 23 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 25

Abolition of duty to maintain housing register

 
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