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Dr. Whitehead: I do not have that case to hand. The hon. Gentleman's point about the filtering mechanism is important and I was about to deal with it. If the Government give the county court a power to consider local authority decisions not to continue to accommodate, the county court judges might interpret that policy change as indicating that Parliament has had regard to the Court of Appeal view that applications to the court should be heard only in exceptional circumstances, and has decided that the jurisdiction should be given to a level of court which has no permission stage. In the absence of such a filtering process, there would be no certainty that county court judges would hear only those cases with exceptional circumstances. Although some people in Parliament think that the courts should have the opportunity to intervene in such local authority decisions, almost routinely, the Government are not among them.

The Government do not consider that the filtering process—as it has been referred to—is the same as between applications to the High Court and applications to the county court. There is, for example, no permission stage for the latter. If homeless applicants had a right to appeal to the county court about decisions not to continue to accommodate them pending a review, all such applications made in accordance with the proper procedure would have to be considered by the court. Shelter's experience, according to their briefing on the Bill, is that in most cases local authorities reverse their decision and agree to accommodate at the point the High Court gives permission for a case to proceed and grants an injunction requiring the authority to accommodate. That demonstrates just how effective the possibility of court intervention is. Most authorities will decide that it is not worth the cost of fighting the proceedings—regardless of the merits of the case. I am concerned that the possibility of intervention by the county court in a much larger number of cases would bring similar responses from local

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authorities which will decide that the cost of continuing to accommodate is preferable to the legal costs of fighting the case.

For those reasons, the Government do not consider that the tempting case for symmetry is made. There are substantial differences between the High Court and the county court in the filtering mechanisms, so we cannot accept the new clause.

7.15 pm

On amendment No. 21 and the issue of housing standards, I am grateful to hon. Members for raising the matter. Of course it is true that overcrowding and poor standards are unacceptable, but it will take some time to address those deep-seated problems. Pressure on housing, especially in London and the south, is growing. Many households live in unacceptable conditions.

The Government have made a start in addressing the problems of poor quality housing stock and insufficient supply of affordable accommodation in some areas. We have, for example, doubled the Housing Corporation's budget for new affordable housing from 2001–02 to 2003–04—an extra £872 million. We have set a target over three years of 100,000 new or improved homes for low-cost rent or ownership. We have doubled the programme of affordable housing in small rural settlements, from 800 in 2000–01 to 1,600 in 2003–04. We have increased resources for local authority investment from £750 million in 1997–98 to £2.5 billion by 2003–04. Those increased resources include a new major repairs allowance of £1.6 billion from 2001–02, to encourage efficient management and proper investment in council housing.

Hon. Members will agree that, taken together, those measures will bring all social housing up to a decent standard by 2010—at least, that is the target. They will improve the supply of affordable housing in areas where it is most needed, and promote sustainable home ownership and a healthy private rented sector.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): On the point about costs being borne by local authorities, will my hon. Friend assure us that those costs will be closely monitored? The Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has estimated that the costs will be £8 million. Many London boroughs have reason to believe that the costs will be far in excess of that. I fully welcome the provisions, but I beg my hon. Friend to realise that they need to be funded.

Dr. Whitehead: My hon. Friend's point is well made. Those costs will be closely monitored. It is not intended that there should be arbitrary cost over-runs for no benefit. Certainly, the operation of the process will be closely considered and monitoring will continue. I take my hon. Friend's point. I am sure that she will agree that none of these things will happen overnight, even with our substantial programme of investment and new provision, but we are making progress and we know that more needs to be done.

The amendment would of course strengthen the duty on authorities, but that would not tackle the real problem. It would not increase the supply of suitable accommodation on the ground, and it would make no real contribution to the efforts being made physically to

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improve the standards of existing accommodation. Furthermore, there must be some concern that in the immediate term it could add to the difficulties that many local authorities in high demand areas are experiencing in securing sufficient accommodation to discharge their statutory obligations to homeless people. The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) made that point.

The issues of fitness and decent standards are important, and have been neglected by previous Administrations for far too long. They are real issues, but they must be addressed by devoting real resources to finding real solutions. That is what the Government are doing.

There is consensus that the housing fitness standard in section 604 of the Housing Act 1985 no longer reflects a modern understanding of the health and safety risks within dwellings. I trust that the hon. Member for Bath will hear this point with warmth and approbation. We are planning to replace the standard with a housing health and safety rating system, which will apply a modern, risk-based approach to assessing housing conditions. We have consulted widely on that proposal and we are currently carrying out further work to strengthen the system and ensure its robustness.

We intend that the housing health and safety rating system should apply to all dwellings and that it should underpin our proposed scheme for licensing houses in multiple occupation—a point raised by the hon. Gentleman. We have made a commitment to legislate on that proposed scheme.

We also see provisions to enable the selective licensing of private landlords in areas of low housing demand as being part of such legislation. Those measures, on which we are currently holding consultations, would give local authorities the power to tackle the problem of unscrupulous landlords who will not meet minimum standards of management.

All those reforms will secure better standards of accommodation, and we plan to legislate for them as soon as we have a suitable opportunity.

As right hon. and hon. Members will be aware, the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), has already given an undertaking to review the current overcrowding provisions, which are extremely outdated. As she said on another occasion, it is unacceptable that families in overcrowded accommodation should have to resort to such ingenious but desperate measures as converting airing cupboards into make-do bedrooms. At this stage, I cannot say what the outcome of the review will be, but I can give an assurance that the Government are determined to address poverty in all its manifestations and will take the necessary steps to do so.

On that basis, I ask the hon. Member for Bath to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 22 is a technical Government amendment intended to clarify the right of a homeless applicant to request a review of the suitability of accommodation offered by a local authority. Clause 8(2) was drafted on the basis that, under current law as interpreted by the courts, section 202(1)(f) of the 1996 Act provides that homeless applicants can ask for a review of the authority's decision about the suitability of accommodation offered under part VI of the 1996 Act.

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However, it has subsequently come to our attention that the Court of Appeal ruled that the right to seek a review of such a decision does not flow from section 202(1)(f), as accommodation offered under part VI is not accommodation offered as a discharge of any duty under part VII. The court ruled that, in effect, applicants can ask for a review of the suitability of a part VI offer by requesting a review of the authority's decision on what duty, if any, is owed them under section 193. That will include any decision that a section 193 duty is no longer owed because the applicant has refused a part VI offer which the local authority considers suitable. Under that ruling, the right to request a review in such a case currently flows from section 202(1)(b).

Government amendment No. 22 will clarify the position by explicitly providing that section 202(1)(f) gives applicants the right to request a review of the suitability of accommodation offered under part 6, as well as accommodation offered as a discharge of the section 193 duty. I commend the amendment to the House and trust that the hon. Member for Bath will withdraw new clause 4.

Mr. Don Foster: When the Minister said that he hoped we would withdraw our amendment, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) whispered in my ear and suggested that I say, "We are prepared to withdraw ours if you will withdraw yours." However, we have no desire whatsoever for the Minister to withdraw his amendment; indeed, we support it wholeheartedly.

I found the Minister's comments on new clause 4 and amendment No. 21 as disappointing as the very similar response that he gave several months ago. However, I am delighted that at last he and I understand the nature of the issue that we are tackling in a complex part of a complex piece of legislation; it is simply somebody's ability to challenge the decision of a local authority not to provide housing during the internal review of an original decision on whether or not somebody should be treated as homeless. The difference between us is whether the opportunity to challenge that decision should be granted in the High Court or the county court. The Minister, justifying the only reason why it should continue to be the county court, claimed that the county court has a better filtering process and will filter out more unjust cases than the High Court.

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