Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Don Foster: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government amendment No. 22.

Amendment No. 21, in schedule 1, page 15, line 23, at end insert—

'16A. For section 210(1) of the 1996 Act (suitability of accommodation) there is substituted—
"In determining for the purposes of this Part whether accommodation is suitable for a person, accommodation shall only be regarded as suitable if—
(a) it is not overcrowded (within the meaning of section 324 of the Housing Act 1985);
(b) it is fit for the number of occupants and it has adequate means of escape from fire (within the meaning of sections 352 and 365 of the Housing Act 1985); and
(c) in the view of the authority it is fit for human habitation (within the meaning of section 604 of the Housing Act 1985).".'.

Mr. Foster: We have had some fairly lengthy debates on the first three new clauses, so you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—and, no doubt, the rest of the House—will be pleased to know that notwithstanding the significant enthusiasm in the House for the Bill, hon. Members from all parties have been fairly restrained in the number of issues that they have sought to raise by tabling amendments for us to deliberate on this evening.

I reiterate what my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) said earlier—that the Liberal Democrats are delighted that our deliberations on the Bill are coming to an end, and that it will shortly pass to another place. Although we wish to make some minor amendments to it, we wish it good speed there, so that it can be implemented as soon as possible.

6.45 pm

As I said, there are several minor areas in which we seek to make improvements. That is why we tabled new clause 4 and amendment No. 21. I am delighted to see Government amendment No. 22 included in this string of amendments, and were there to be a vote on it—I am sure that there will not be—we would support the Government.

New clause 4 and amendment No. 21 deal with rather different issues, so I shall discuss each in turn. New clause 4 concerns people's right to access to justice at all stages of the operation of the homelessness legislation. Unfortunately, that is a complex body of legislation, which includes many different stages in the consideration of a request for accommodation by a homeless person.

At the later stages of the process, the local authority can determine somebody's eligibility for assistance, and at an even later stage, it can determine what priority

22 Oct 2001 : Column 71

should be given to such a person when his or her eligibility has been acknowledged. The Government have already accepted that at those two later stages it is right and proper that the applicant should be able to appeal against a decision that goes against him or her. They have also decided that during the appeal process an applicant should be able to seek to obtain accommodation. If the local authority fails to provide accommodation, the applicant can appeal against that judgment, too.

During our deliberations on that complex issue, the Government accepted that the right court to determine whether someone should have accommodation during the appeal process was not the High Court, because that involves a remote judicial process, but the county court. When they accepted the content of some of the amendments moved by Liberal Democrats, although they slightly amended it, the Government argued that it was appropriate that a local court with knowledge of the area should make the decision.

My new clause suggests that the same procedure should apply at another stage of the consideration of a homeless person's application. In the very early stages, someone has to go to a local authority and seek to be treated as homeless. That precedes all detailed discussions about eligibility and levels of priority.

In section 202 of the Housing Act 1996, there already exists a provision to enable someone whom the local authority is not prepared to treat as homeless to ask for an internal review of that decision. That is not affected by the Bill. Also within existing legislation, the local authority has the power to offer accommodation to such a person pending the outcome of the internal review. Unfortunately, all the research shows that local authorities rarely make use of that power, and many people need to fight a battle for a review while remaining homeless. Nevertheless, a right to seek assistance remains and to have a judicial review of the decision by the local authority not to provide accommodation.

The Government have accepted that, at later stages in the procedure, judicial review in the High Court is an inappropriate procedure. They have accepted that a county court is better placed to make the decision. Therefore, new clause 4 would substitute the county court procedure for the High Court procedure.

It has been argued that the change would mean a significant increase in the number of internal reviews required. Indeed, the Local Government Association misunderstood the new clause and thought it meant that anybody who requested an internal review would be given an automatic entitlement to accommodation. That is wrong. All that would happen is that the individual would have the right to apply to the county court for consideration of the decision not to provide accommodation. The individual would not be provided with accommodation during that time.

It has also been suggested that the change from High Court to county court—some would argue that the county court might be more sympathetic to homeless people—would make it more likely that the decision would go in favour of the homeless person and require the local authority to provide accommodation. That, too, is incorrect, because the county court would be required to use exactly the same test as the High Court.

22 Oct 2001 : Column 72

The new clause is not a charter to ensure that any homeless person will be able to prolong their case in an attempt to obtain accommodation. It merely seeks to change the location of consideration of the issue from the High Court to the county court. The only change would be that justice would be easier to access by the homeless person, and those who have argued differently—such as the LGA—have misunderstood the purpose of the new clause.

Amendment No. 21 is about the suitability of accommodation, especially temporary. The current requirement is that accommodation provided for homeless households should be suitable. However, local authorities must have regard only for housing standards, overcrowding and physical conditions, which does not mean that accommodation has to meet those standards. Therefore, homeless households are often placed in temporary accommodation that is overcrowded or unfit, a fact that the Government acknowledge in several documents, including the most recent, "Homelessness Strategies: A Good Practice Guide". I am delighted that that document could be rushed out in time for our debate today. In it, the Government state, in reference to the most usual form of temporary accommodation, that bed- and-breakfast hotels

Real concern is felt about the quality and suitability of accommodation and the amendment seeks to make it a requirement that such accommodation meets some agreed standards on overcrowding, availability of escape routes and being fit for human habitation within the meaning of existing legislation.

At the end of March 2001, some 75,000 households were in temporary accommodation. In areas with high demand for housing, homeless people can spend many months in so-called temporary accommodation before being offered long-term housing. As a result of the inadequacy of current legislation, including the Bill, many households may continue to be forced to endure poor housing conditions for long periods without a requirement that temporary accommodation meets specific standards.

No doubt the Government will say in response that they have recently established the bed-and-breakfast unit, and that is welcome. The Government may also say that moves to establish standards now are premature, because we will soon have legislation about the licensing of houses in multiple occupation. The Government's response may be to acknowledge the problem and say that the solution may be reached via other mechanisms—the work of the bed-and-breakfast unit and the HMO legislation. I hope that if the Government are not prepared to accept amendment No. 21, they will give the House a clear understanding of how they will, in the near future, end a situation in which so many people live in substandard accommodation. I have raised two separate issues and I look forward with considerable interest to the Government's response.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) will recall that in Committee on 10 July we had a long canter around the course discussing which part of the eligibility and suitability regulations should be capable of being referred to the High Court under judicial review and which part should be capable of being referred to the county court. I have read the reply to that debate

22 Oct 2001 : Column 73

from the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and I am now even more sure that the hon. Gentleman was right to raise the issue. Considerable confusion exists about which judicial route will be available for which part of the priority housing system.

Eligibility for and suitability of housing are both matters that should be determined by the county court. There is an element of overlap and the same court may be asked to adjudicate on both issues, which would streamline the process for the local authority and for the homeless person who is appealing its decision. We all know that the judicial review is a slow, cumbersome and expensive procedure and the homeless person has first to apply to the High Court to be granted leave to seek judicial review. The poor homeless person has to employ a lawyer, possibly without the benefit of legal aid, to prepare a case for his eligibility to apply for judicial review and a High Court judge has to give judgment on that. Some months later, the judicial review itself is carried out. Given the often charged situations in which homeless people live, that is most unsatisfactory.

Next Section

IndexHome Page