Homelessness Bill

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Mr. Waterson: I hear what the Minister is saying, but I would like to make a few points.

Everyone seems to agree that a fixed period of one, two or even three days is unreasonable. The Minister objects to the amendment on the basis that a minimum can become a maximum, but a minimum is exactly what it says—a minimum. It is also a bit much to balance the period of time in which people must make their decisions against the fact that there are a lot of empty council properties. I do not think that that situation can be blamed on people who fail to make quick decisions and, on reflection, I do not think that the point was germane to the issue.

The Minister said that the matter would be dealt with in the guidance, so I suppose that we must be content with that, but we could happily have dealt with it more briskly—today or in the previous debate—and put a lot of people's minds at rest.

Mr. Don Foster: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman knows whether guidance has the same force in law as legislation and whether it would be possible to challenge a local authority that continues to operate a 24-hour policy on the basis of guidance.

This is a longer intervention than it might have been because I am conscious that some hon. Members are receiving interesting pager messages. I hope that in his response to this intervention, the hon. Member for Eastbourne will tell us the result of the ballot that has taken place.

Mr. Waterson: Just to add to the tension, I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's question about guidance first.—[Interruption.] Ah, it looks as if the result is being circulated anyway. It may be worth recording that the result has made me smile.

There is a difference between guidance and legislation. We are not, after all, referring to the sort of people who would take the council to a judicial review about whether it is reasonable to give them X number of days in which to make a decision.

Ms Keeble: In the exercise of their functions, local authorities must take note of the guidance, so guidance has force in the courts.

Mr. Waterson: I am sure that that is right, but people have to get into the courts first and have the means and desire to do so when they may have more immediate worries on their minds. That is the key distinction here. It is unfortunate that the Government are not prepared to put even a minimum period into the Bill. Having said that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 8

Review of decisions as to suitability of accommodation

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

Mr. Selous: I welcome the clause for its strengthening of applicants' rights to challenge the suitability of accommodation. I especially welcome the fact that it makes the system suit the individual rather than the other way round, as so often with our legislation. However, I wonder what difference it will make in practice to many of our constituents. Shelter expressed the concern about clause 5 that the powers may be somewhat theoretical in nature; I suspect that that could be said of this clause as well.

I want to illustrate my point by means of an individual case. On Saturday morning, a young couple came to see me who described themselves as homeless.

They had two children—a two-and-a-half year old and a nine-and-a-half year old. Yesterday they were offered a property and had only 24 hours to decide whether to take it. In their view it was unsuitable for them for several reasons. It was underneath a stairwell in which people congregated at night, and they thought that there would be a lot of noise when the children were going to sleep and that there might be drug taking. The wife thought that, when she came back with shopping, by the time she had taken her children to the top of the stairs and into the flat her shopping might well have been stolen. The property was a first-floor flat with a balcony, and she was worried that her two-and-a-half year old was likely to be able to clamber over the balcony and that she would not always be able to supervise the child. No doubt under the Bill they could request a review of the suitability of the accommodation and would, I hope, be told that it was not suitable for a family in their circumstances. However, in a local authority such as the one in my area, it is unlikely that further offers of accommodation would be made. How will the clause help such a family?

Ms Keeble: Cases such as that to which the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire refers are familiar to several members of the Committee. The clause was introduced to deal with anxieties expressed by Shelter, which welcomed it. This important provision has been included in the Bill in response to a recent judgment in the Court of Appeal in the case of Alghile v. City of Westminster. That judgment provided a new interpretation of the provisions of the 1996 Act that deal with an applicant's right to ask for a review of the suitability of accommodation offered.

The provisions of the 1996 Act are wanting. They give applicants the right to ask for a review of suitability but do not require that authorities notify them of that right, as they are required to do for all the other aspects for which an applicant can ask for a review.

The 1996 Act also provides that the section 193 duty to secure accommodation comes to an end if the applicant refuses an offer of accommodation that the authority considers suitable. However, the Act does not make it clear that the applicant must have the opportunity to ask for a review of suitability and that a review must be carried out before the refusal of an offer can bring the duty to an end.

The effect of the current provisions is a deep lack of clarity. A 1997 High Court decision in the case of Byfield allowed applicants to accept an offer, thus avoiding bringing the duty to an end, and to ask for a review of suitability. That interpretation was overturned in March of this year, when the Court of Appeal ruled that applicants could not both accept an offer and ask for a review of suitability. Currently, therefore, if applicants want to ask for a review of suitability, they must refuse and take a gamble. If they lose and the authority upholds its initial decision that the property offered is suitable, the duty to secure accommodation ends and they will become homeless.

We do not believe that that is right, so we are taking the opportunity to clarify the law and put the matter on a statutory footing. The clause provides that applicants must be informed that they have the right to ask for a review of the suitability of accommodation offered before a refusal of that offer can bring the homelessness duty to an end. The clause also makes it clear that applicants may request such a review regardless of whether they have accepted an offer. Therefore, they can accept the offer and have a review of the suitability of the accommodation.

The clause will restore an important part of the homelessness safety net. It will ensure that applicants can ask for a review of the suitability of accommodation offered to them without taking the risk that the homelessness duty owed to them will be brought to an end if the local authority upholds its initial decision. Crucially, the clause will come into force as soon as the Bill receives royal assent. I hope that this important clause will stand part of the Bill.

Tim Loughton: I wish to probe the Minister about the clause a little further. We are broadly in favour of the amendments that the Minister is proposing to make to the Bill. Anything that increases the choice and suitability of accommodation offered to tenants must be right, although the bottom line is that a choice-based system will amount to nothing unless choice is available. As the hon. Lady said—and as my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire recounted—there are horrendous cases of homelessness.

5.45 pm

During the past three weeks, three such examples have been brought to my attention at my surgery, one of which concerned a female constituent who had attempted suicide. She had been allocated a flat on her own on the fourth floor of a council block, from which she had thrown herself within 24 hours. Fortunately, she was not killed, but she was badly injured. Such accommodation was obviously not suitable for someone who was receiving mental treatment. Several cases have been brought to my attention involving housing blocks that were riddled with damp. One concerned a family with children who have serious asthma problems and who had been moved into a damp flat. Subsequently, one of the children had visited hospital three times with asthma-related problems that were exacerbated by the dampness.

Another more familiar problem concerns the suitability of bed-and-breakfast accommodation, which in many cases is all that is on offer. One constituency case involved a mother who suffered from a complicated medical condition. Her husband was desperately looking for work, but the only work that he had been offered involved night security. The family were unable to be in the bed-and-breakfast accommodation during the day—the terms of most bed-and-breakfast accommodation—as a result of which the husband was unable to sleep. The wife's medical condition made it highly undesirable for her to share bathroom facilities with other families. The family had been offered bed-and-breakfast accommodation some miles away from the school that the children attended and they had already been through a disruptive cycle because they had moved from their base. All such cases highlight the unsuitability of accommodation that may be offered.

How will the review system work? Realistically, on requesting a review, can the Minister maintain that the case will not be prejudiced under the new system? I am referring to ``heavy-handed'' treatment from a housing officer who may suggest that, if a person applies for a review, it will prejudice their chances of receiving a decent property within the terms of the discretion available to various housing officers. I am not saying that that would be a deliberate ploy, but given the desperate circumstances of many housing departments with a lack of available accommodation, it may come into it. Who will carry out such a review and how sure can a tenant be that it has been carried out properly, independently and objectively? If the review is upheld, what is the next stage? How will alternative accommodation be offered? That may turn out to be equally unsuitable. Where will the process end?

While welcoming the strengthening of tenants' rights that the clause is supposed to represent, we should like further information about how it will lead to the improvements to which the Minister referred?

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