Homelessness Bill

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Margaret Moran (Luton, South): I am sure that my hon. Friend accepts that the problem is not particular to London or the south-east. It can be important in areas such as my constituency, where large households live in severely overcrowded conditions. For example, many Muslim families, because of their religion, face acute problems when both sexes live in one room. I have many other examples similar to those given by my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North. Does the Minister accept that such families are in an untenable position? Large numbers of people—perhaps six—often live in one or two-bedroomed accommodation while waiting for four-bedroomed accommodation that, because of local authority transfer policies, will never arrive. Those families are in a no-win situation; they are irredeemably sentenced to a life of overcrowding.

The Chairman: Order. I remind the hon. Lady that she should make interventions, not speeches.

Ms Keeble: Thank you, Mr. Gale. I am aware that the problem does not only exist in London. The regulations apply nationally and impact on different communities in different ways. They impact on large families and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North said, there is a problem for small families. The regulations therefore affect quite a number of different sizes of family.

Many people live in unacceptable conditions and we are familiar with the problems faced by people in temporary and bed-and-breakfast accommodation. The Government have made a start on dealing with those problems with a range of measures to improve the supply and quality of housing. I have already mentioned those, so I will not go through them all again. However, taken together they will bring social housing up to a decent standard by 2010 and improve the supply of affordable housing in areas where it is most needed. They will also promote sustainable home ownership and a healthy private rented sector. None of that will happen overnight, but we are making progress.

Amendment No. 13, if accepted, would strengthen the duty on local authorities. However, it would not increase the supply of suitable accommodation; the Government's other measures will do that. As such, it would not have the effect that the hon. Member for Bath wants. I recognise the problem. The solution must be found through the real resources that the Government are devoting to the problem.

New clause 3 was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North. In conjunction with other provisions in the Bill, it would mean that any household that fell into the priority need category—families with children, for example—and lived in overcrowded accommodation and made a homelessness application would have to be secured suitable short-term accommodation until an alternative home could be found.

In the London debate, I undertook to review the overcrowding provisions, which are outdated. As I said, it is unacceptable that families in overcrowded accommodation should have to resort to converting airing cupboards into bedrooms. I cannot predict the outcome of the review, and all hon. Members will be aware of the tensions and pressures. The Government are determined to tackle poverty in all its manifestations.

As my hon. Friend said, the current room and space standards date from the Housing Act 1935, which was a major step forward. Although some local authorities had already adopted their own standards, national numerical standards had not been laid down until then, but not a square foot has been added since. That is why I have taken a keen interest in the issue and why the standards should be re-examined.

We are investigating overcrowding issues and the effects of the current standards. I will report back to hon. Members when I have considered the options. Therefore, I ask that the motion be withdrawn.

Ms Buck: I welcome the general thrust of the Minister's response and want to make two comments. I support the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) about ethnicity. As we move increasingly into a multicultural society, some recognition is due to specific communities' housing requirements. The concentration of housing problems is certainly spread, with pockets of severe problems across the country, although it is larger in scale in London.

The Minister mentioned the investment in social housing and the commitments made to eradicate substandard housing by 2010. That is deeply welcome, and we are all pleased with the additional investment in the comprehensive spending review. We have yet to convince ourselves absolutely that space is an element in decency of conditions. Substandard accommodation that is overcrowded will continue to be substandard even if the fabric of the building is improved.

Within that context of welcome, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 1

Minor and consequential amendments

Ms Buck: I beg to move amendment No. 16, in page 14, line 3, at end insert—

    `In section 190 (duties to persons becoming homeless intentionally), after subsection (3) there is inserted—

    ``(4) In any case where the local housing authority are advised by a social services authority that a child who is in need within the meaning of section 17(10) of the Children Act 1989 resides with an applicant to whom they have secured that accommodation is available under subsection (2) above, they shall—

    (a) continue to secure that accommodation is available for the occupation of the applicant and any such child for so long as the social services authority advise them that accommodation is required to enable the social services authority to provide services to such a child to promote or safeguard the child's welfare; or

    (b) provide such assistance to the social services authority as shall enable the applicant to secure that accommodation becomes available from some other person.''.'.

The Minister will be aware that recent judgments appear to have compromised some of the principles of the Children Act 1989, which places the interests of children first and seeks to keep families together wherever possible. The amendment deal with the effects of such judgments, thereby ensuring that at least some safety net continues to exist for families with children who have intentionality decisions taken against them.

In an application for judicial review, the Court of Appeal found that section 17 of the 1989 Act conferred a power rather than a duty on local authorities to provide assistance to families of children in need. That is often done by financial assistance for a rent deposit, with rent or other help in accessing private accommodation, rather than the direct provision of accommodation. The Court of Appeal also found that the duty to provide accommodation under section 20 of the 1989 Act was a duty to house the child, not the parent and child together. Only a few weeks ago, the High Court applied that judgment and concluded that such decisions of local authorities were not subject to judicial review.

The provisions of the 1989 Act were an important last line of defence for families, so those decisions are worrying and may have caused—we will find out if the loophole is closed—children to be taken into care unnecessarily. That will cause great trauma for the families, not to mention expense. The problem, as Shelter makes clear, is that intentionality decisions are complex and are not infrequently overturned on review. Unfortunately, giving local authorities the power rather than imposing a duty on them to make assessments will allow much greater scope for variation.

Assessments made by authorities whose decisions may be less robust could leave families in a difficult position. Only last week, a family attended my surgery; the man, who was born and bred in Paddington, and his Swedish wife, who allegedly had left private rented accommodation in Sweden, were on the streets in my constituency with a small child. I have no idea whether the local authority's intentionality decision was correct. I am not a lawyer and I do not know whether the child would have been found to be at risk under the Children Act and that action should therefore be taken. However, regardless of whether that decision was correct, the family was sitting in my office in hysterics with nowhere to sleep that night and a six-year-old child attending a school in my constituency had, for the previous few weeks, been moved every night to sleep on a sofa in a friend's accommodation.

We must do everything possible to close the loopholes that allow that sort of thing to happen. Ideally, we would close those loopholes by amending the Children Act, but we cannot do that and amendment No. 16 would not be as effective. However, it would help by replacing the weaker power of local authorities to assist by inserting the word ``duty''. It would thereby ensure that a safety net was always in place.

Ms Keeble: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing that issue to my attention. I share her concerns that social legislation should provide a safety net for those in need. That is why the Bill introduces important new measures to give greater protection to the homeless. The issues raised by my hon. Friend concern the detailed working of the Children Act 1989 and the amendment was prompted by concern over recent court decisions. The courts have considered the nature of the obligation of social services authorities under that Act to provide accommodation and financial support for children in need, particularly if parents are unable to secure accommodation and if local authorities are obliged to help under existing housing legislation.

If a housing authority has decided that an adult applicant is intentionally homeless and if he or she has dependent children, it is common for an approach to be made by such a family to the local social services authority. Social service departments are under a general duty to promote the welfare of children in their area who are in need and to promote the upbringing of such children by their families. The vehicle for the provision of a range and level of services appropriate to the children's needs is section 17 of the Children Act. That allows local authorities to fulfil their general duty by giving assistance in kind or, in exceptional cases, in cash. It does not specify that assistance should extend to accommodation for the family of the child in need, although that is one of a range of solutions that the social services will use if it is considered appropriate in the circumstances.

When a child in need is without accommodation, authorities are under a duty to provide accommodation under section 20 of the Children Act, but accommodation may not be provided if the person with parental responsibility for the child objects and is willing and able to provide accommodation or arrange for accommodation to be provided for the child. That duty to accommodate is clearly a duty to the child and not to the parents of that child. It is most generally used when the children have been abandoned or if their parents are unable or unwilling to care for them.

I admit to no expertise in these provisions; that resides with my colleagues in the Dept of Health. I want to consider with them the issues that form the background to my hon. Friend's amendment before considering whether we need to amend existing legislation, and if so whether an amendment to housing legislation is the way to do it. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree to withdraw the amendment on the understanding that I will consider the issues carefully and report to the House before the Bill is considered in another place.

 
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