The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Robert Ainsworth): We believe that the amendment is unnecessary and potentially open to abuse. It would allow an authority to suspend the framework for allocating preference and priority to needy groups and to individuals within those groups. In areas of low demand, for example, authorities might find it unnecessary to operate a rigorous and testing prioritising process, but in those circumstances they would be able to offer a home to any eligible applicant whose behaviour or circumstances did not preclude allocation. There is no need to suspend the framework, as it does not affect the allocation process.
Our proposals already allow for the operation of local lettings schemes. Under section 167(2B)(b) of the 1996 Act, authorities are able to allocate particular housing accommodation to persons of a particular description in accordance with schemes known as ``local lettings schemes'', which could include key worker schemes where it might help attract modestly paid but essential staff to high-cost areas. Such a scheme might be used to lower the child:adult ratio on an estate with a high child density. The scheme might also be operated to provide housing for those who do not usually receive high priority on an authority's registeryoung single people, for example.
It is important to keep such schemes under review and to monitor their impact on those who are not part of the local lettings schemes. Local lettings schemes should not override the reasonable preference categories across an authority's stock when taken as a whole. I cannot envisage what circumstances could justify or require the amendment.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) asked about choice-based pilot schemes and his own authority in Eastbourne. Local authorities were invited to bid for funding under an £11 million challenge fund over three years from April 2001. More than 90 bids have been received: about 25 per cent. of all housing authorities have led bids and many more are involved as partners. Bids have come from areas of high and low demand. Almost half of all London authorities have led bids; as have 70 per cent. of metropolitan authorities, 50 per cent. of unitary authorities and 12 per cent. of district authorities. Bids have been received from areas in which full transfer has taken place and from those where the authority is still the main provider of social housing. The value of all the bids currently received is about £33 million and by the end of March we expect to be able to announce which bids have been successful.
Eastbourne has applied
Mr. Waterson: And has no chance.
Mr. Ainsworth: It will be assessed along with the other bids, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Waterson: I am delighted to hear the Minister's confirmation that Eastbourne is on the list and I hope that it will not immediately be discarded on account of my probing amendment. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the matter and I hope that the Minister is grateful for the opportunity to deal with it. On the basis of my rudimentary arithmetic, the scheme is three times oversubscribed, so about 60 local authorities will be disappointed. I sincerely hope that Eastbourne will not be one of them. As a quid pro quo as I know that the Government like a deal, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment made: No. 108, in page 17, line 41, leave out subsection (4).[Mr.Raynsford.]
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 debate on the amendments proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos.68 and 89, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.
Question agreed to.
Clause 27, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 28 and 29 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Minor and consequential amendments
Mr. Raynsford: I beg to move amendment No. 109, in page 24, line 19, at end insert
`. In section 190(2)(b) and (3) (provision of advice and assistance), for ``advice and such assistance as they consider appropriate in the circumstances'' there is substituted ``(or secure that he is provided with) advice and assistance''.
In section 192(2) (provision of advice and assistance), for the words from ``advice'' to ``circumstances'' there is substituted ``(or secure that he is provided with) advice and assistance''.
In section 193 (duty to persons with priority need who are not homeless intentionally), after subsection (3) (as substituted by section 21 above) there is inserted
``(3A) The authority shall, on becoming subject to the duty under this section, give the applicant a copy of the statement included in their allocation scheme by virtue of section 167(1A) (policy on offering choice to people allocated housing accommodation under Part VI).'''.
In section 195 (duties in case of threatened homelessness)
(a) after subsection (3) there is inserted
``(3A) The authority shall, on becoming subject to the duty under this section, give the applicant a copy of the statement included in their allocation scheme by virtue of section 167(1A) (policy on offering choice to people allocated housing accommodation under Part VI)'''; and
(b) in subsection (5), for the words from ``furnish'' to ``circumstances'' there is substituted ``provide him with (or secure that he is provided with) advice and assistance''.'.
We had a very useful debate on Tuesday about the provisions relating to advice and assistance. I agreed that there was merit in strengthening the current duty to move away from the overly subjective requirement for the authority to provide such advice and assistance as the authority considers appropriate in the circumstances and towards a more objective test. To that end I undertook to table an amendment to schedule 2 for consideration today and this is that amendment.
I made the point that the wording
``such assistance as they consider appropriate in the circumstances''
appears in other provisions in the 1996 Act and that it is desirable to have consistency in the wording throughout the legislation. The amendment offers a useful strengthening of the existing duty. In each of the cases where the current duty is to provide
``advice and such assistance as they consider appropriate in the circumstances''
there is substituted
``(or secure that he is provided with) advice and assistance''.
That means that local authorities will no longer be able to turn applicants away without providing any advice or assistance on the grounds that none
``was considered appropriate in the circumstances''.
The amendment will address some of the problems identified in Shelter's study ``Singles Barred'' that we discussed at some length on Tuesday.
I know there are still concerns that authorities may be turning people away without assessing their needs. Where this is the case, then authorities are not carrying out their current statutory duties. Under section 184 of the 1996 Act, where an authority has reason to believe that an applicant may be homeless or threatened with homelessness, it must make such inquiries as are necessary to satisfy itself as to whether the applicant is eligible for assistance and, if so, whether any duty is owed. We will, in the code of guidance, give further advice about how authorities can best respond to that clear existing duty.
We have also taken the opportunity of the amendment to make it clear that local authorities may provide advice and assistance through third parties such as advice centres. That will enable applicants to access best possible specialist advice. I have in mind help with rent deposit schemes, or landlord referral services and possibly referral to social services. It provides a real opportunity for authorities to develop effective, preventive multi-agency working. I know my that hon. Friends and in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Regents Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), were concerned that applicants should be given
``advice and assistance as is reasonable . . ''
that was the wording of her amendmentand that this should be supported by a power for the Secretary of State to specify what constituted ``reasonable advice and assistance''.
I made it clear on Tuesday that I was not attracted to the order-making provision, but I did explore the value of adopting the drafting of
``advice and assistance as is reasonable . . ''.
However, the legal advice that I have received is quite clear that the courts would be likely to take such
``advice and assistance as is reasonable . . ''
to be reasonable in the eyes of the local authority. The conclusion was that the proposed drafting would add little, if anything, to the current wording. The formulation that we are offering in amendment No.109 is stronger. It places a clear duty on local authorities to provide or secure advice and assistance to applicants. It is a substantial step forward, and I hope that the change will be welcomed.
I have covered the changes to sections 190(2)(b), 190(3), 192(2) and 195(5). New subsections 193(3A) and 195(3A) deal with another issue.
Amendment No. 108, which has already been agreed to, removes clause 27(4), which required a housing authority to provide all homeless applicants with a statement of its policy on offering choice. As I have already explained, that was inappropriate because it went wider than our policy intention, which is simply to ensure that those who are entitled to a rehousing obligation receive such information. Inserting new subsections 193(3A) and 195(3A) into the 1996 Act secures the original policy objective.
I commend the amendments to the Committee.