Homelessness Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Foster: I apologise for pursuing the point—I am well aware the Committee is anxious to make progress—but will the Minister explain why the definition of the behaviour that would apply in respect of adjusting priority should be covered in guidance when the Government have already placed the definition of behaviour in respect of eligibility and the removing of priority in the Bill? It does not make sense. The Minister may say that adjusting priority is a totally different matter, but it is not. If people are put low on the priority list, they will not get accommodation. That has the same effect as removing their priority or deeming them to be non-eligible: it fundamentally affects their chances of getting accommodation.

Ms Keeble: I accept the hon. Gentleman's final point to an extent, but by accepting someone onto a homelessness list, the local authority will have judged that it has a responsibility to provide accommodation. That major decision has enormous implications. As the hon. Gentleman knows, regulations will be made shortly to widen the number of people to whom it will be available. The priority that the local authority may give that person is a quite different matter.

Mr. Foster: I accept that the issues are separate; deciding whether people should be put on a list is different from judging what priority they should be given. The Minister's argument takes her down a difficult route, because she will end up having to agree with me. The extreme version of adjusting priority would remove it altogether. Even if people were accepted as eligible, they would have no priority. That is provided for in new sections (2B) to (2D) of clause 15 (3). In those circumstances--the extreme form of adjusting priority--one must say whether people's behaviour meets what is required under the Bill. The Minister's argument is leading her to agree with me that there is a gaping hole in the Bill.

Ms Keeble: If I may, I shall continue; the hon. Gentleman can return to the subject later if he still disagrees.

I understand the impulse to want clear standards to be set out in the Bill. However, I understand also the need to ensure that decisions are taken at the most appropriate level. Although decisions about putting people on the list, or even excluding them, requires knowledge of the details set out in the Bill, decisions about priority ordering are much better taken locally by the local authority or the landlord, because they have to consider all the elements in much more detail. As I said, if the amendment were accepted, we would face the prospect of litigation on each of the words included in the Bill in order to move people up or down the priority list. That would probably benefit no one except the lawyers. The existing provision already strikes a fair and proper balance between the interests of applicants and of authorities and existing tenants with its reference to ``serious'' behaviour and unsuitability to be a tenant and by linking with the grounds of possession in schedule 2 of the 1985 Act.

The two tests, which are symmetrical and specify a high test of unacceptable behaviour, are included in provisions that have a serious penalty. The local authority can decide not to allocate at all or not to give any preference to the applicant. The third test simply allows a local authority to reduce priority to some degree, and that would have to be set out in the published allocation scheme so that it would be clear to those applying for accommodation. The local authority would also have to act reasonably. Its scheme could be subject to judicial review.

Making decisions about housing management and housing allocation is usually about dealing with square pegs and round holes. Many decisions have to be made carefully at local level. The safeguards in the Bill ensure that to attract no priority a person must have been guilty of sufficiently unacceptable behaviour to make him unsuitable to be a tenant and to entitle the authority to a possession order. Those safeguards protect people whose behaviour in the past has fallen short of the best, but was not intolerable.

The clause strikes a balance by recognising that people can reform and that not all bad behaviour is the fault of the individual, and by respecting the right of the vast majority of tenants and residents to quiet enjoyment of their lives. We have also struck a careful balance between what is required to be in the Bill and what is rightly a matter for local discretion. I therefore ask hon. Members to withdraw the amendment.

Tim Loughton: We think that the clause should be more specific, but we are prepared to withdraw our amendment on the assurance that previous behaviour will be taken more broadly into account.

The Chairman: Order. For the benefit of all members of the Committee, particularly new members, only the first amendment in any group is formally moved at this stage, so there is no need to seek to withdraw other amendments. As Chairman, I always try to afford to those who have an interest in a group of amendments the opportunity to speak. Once the formal mover of the lead amendment is called to wind up, nobody else may speak.

Mr. Don Foster: The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham is slightly confused as to why he was called to speak in the first place. I am sure that he was grateful to have made that brief contribution.

I have enormous respect for the Minister, but she has made a rather poor fist of dealing with this issue. It is clear that there is a gaping hole in the Bill. The Minister had an important opportunity to place on record the Government's current thinking on this matter. It is extremely confused thinking. She told us that local authorities will have to act reasonably and that that will be a big test. However, on Tuesday when I sought to insert the word ``reasonable'', I was told that it could not be used as no one would understand what it meant and it could not be tested. We were also told that decisions had to be made carefully by local authorities, and yet the whole point of changing the legislation is to give greater clarity to what the Government and the House believe would be an appropriate form of behaviour in the decision-making process by local authorities. As the hon. Member for Eastbourne and both Ministers have acknowledged, many local authorities do not operate in ways that they consider reasonable. They have blanket exclusion policies and large numbers of people not being given a reasonable degree of priority, even though they have been deemed to be eligible.

The Committee will be well aware of the survey carried out by the Government, which shows that 29 per cent. of local authorities have no policy on the level of rent arrears that can be taken into account and that that is left totally to the discretion of officers. I hope the Committee agrees that that is unacceptable. Despite the tough guidance given to local authorities, there have been all the cases to which hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have referred.

The Minister seems to think that adjusting priority is not a significant issue, but it is and there should be a clearly defined behaviour test as there is for other aspects of the Bill. I do not know about her local authority area, but if someone wants accommodation in mine, they must not merely be somewhere on the priority list. If they do not have the maximum number of points and are not at the top of the list, they will not be allocated accommodation because so little is available. The question of priority is therefore vital, and a decision to adjust priority based on behaviour is significant for individuals. If there is no behaviour test, there is a gaping hole in the legislation.

10.30 am

I genuinely believe that the Government have not thought the issue through, so if I seek leave to withdraw the amendment at this stage I may give Ministers and their advisers an opportunity to do so during the summer. In the hope that the hole in the Bill will be filled at a later stage, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Don Foster: I beg to move amendment No. 11, in page 11, line 37, leave out

    `has the right to request the authority to inform him'

and insert `is informed'.

I am afraid that there is another significant inconsistency in the legislation. As we are all well aware by now, when a homeless person applies to a local authority to be treated as homeless, it must take two decisions. The first is whether they are eligible. The legislation before us makes it clear that once a decision on eligibility has been taken, the local authority is responsible for telling the applicant what that decision is. If they do not like it, they have an opportunity to go through the review and appeal processes. On the test of eligibility, the local authority says, ``Don't call us, we'll call you. Don't clog up our switchboard asking if a decision has been made and if so what it is. Wait and we'll tell you what the decision is.''

Secondly, the local authority must determine priority, which we have just discussed. Clearly, the applicant needs to know what the decision is, but in this respect, bizarrely, the authority says, ``Don't wait for us to call you, because we're not going to call you in a hundred years. You must call us.'' The applicant must constantly telephone the local authority to find out whether a decision has been taken on their priority and if so what it is. The onus is placed entirely on the applicant, which makes no sense.

The local authority tells the applicant about the decision on eligibility, and they either accept it or go through the review and appeal processes. In respect of priority, however, the onus is on the applicant. That is clearly an oversight by the Government, and my amendment would ensure that the applicant was told about decisions on both eligibility and priority. I am sure that the Minister will see that that is common sense and give me the opportunity to send a postcard to Mrs. Foster.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 12 July 2001