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Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 100:

Page 6, line 43, at end insert ("and whose status has been notified to the housing authority by the Secretary of State").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment I shall speak also to Amendment No. 104. The two amendments are concerned respectively with the accommodation and the homelessness part of the housing legislation. They are concerned with one particular aspect of the difficulties that local authority housing departments will have with the legislation as it is drafted.

In London there are approximately 4,000--possibly even more--families in temporary accommodation. As the Committee knows, that usually means bed and breakfast accommodation. They are awaiting a Home Office decision on their refugee status. That could be a decision on the original application or on the appeal. The average time-scale for an original decision has been of the order of eight months and the average time-scale for an appeal has been of the order of 10 months, although, as we know from previous debates in Committee, the number of outstanding appeals is rising dramatically month by month and presumably that average 18-month figure will be surpassed very rapidly.

As drafted, the clause puts local authorities in a considerable dilemma. They have the duty of determining eligibility status in order to decide what to do to fulfil their statutory duties under the housing legislation. Without going over all the ground that we covered on the previous amendment, the nature of their statutory duties under housing legislation is subject to the possibility, even the probability, of change under the Housing Bill which will be debated at Second Reading next week.

In order to decide how to fulfil their statutory duty and, indeed, what that statutory duty is, local authorities depend on information from the Immigration and Nationality Department of the Home Office. With an average delay of 18 months between the time an asylum application is made and the time it is finally determined, it will be obvious that they are dealing with a considerable number of cases. Of course, some of those people are vulnerable for other reasons than being asylum seekers and therefore do not come into the consideration. Also, some of them have been accepted

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into this country and have then applied for asylum status on the basis that they have sufficient funds to cover themselves. I recognise that those people will not be applying immediately to local authorities for housing.

The dilemma which local authority housing departments face is that, if they accept the duty to house, and it turns out that the applicant is not entitled, then the council tax payers will have paid for something which is not in accordance with the statutory duty of the local authority and will therefore not be accounted for in the revenue support grant. If the local authority takes the decision to deny that it has such a duty, then it could be liable for failing to comply with its statutory duty.

In order to deal with that Catch 22 situation in which they find themselves, local authorities should be aware of the status of an applicant and therefore the Immigration and Nationality Department of the Home Office should give the information to the local authority housing department so that it can make a proper decision.

I am not suggesting that this amendment deals with anything other than a matter of administrative efficiency. It is not an issue of huge principle, but if there are two departments in public life, one being a local authority housing department acting under housing law and the other being the Home Office acting under immigration law, and the Home Office has the relevant information, it should be required to share it with the housing department so that statutory duties can be properly and efficiently fulfilled. I beg to move.

Earl Russell: This amendment is designed as a solution to the problem I raised on the previous amendment: how a local authority is expected to know whether the person concerned is of the class specified by the Secretary of State. I noticed that the noble Baroness shook her head when I said that it would create a burdensome procedure. I invited her to explain how else it should be done. She resisted that invitation. But if the Ministers are to resist this amendment, they will have to answer that question now.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: As was explained, the intention behind these amendments is to require the local authority to apply the housing provisions of the Bill only to those cases where the immigration status of the applicant has been notified to the authority by the Secretary of State, which means in practice by the Home Office Immigration and Nationality Department. I understand the arguments put forward, but do not believe that they provide a realistic solution.

We do not generally require immigrants here on limited leave to live in a particular area, nor do we tail them from place to place. They are free to come and go in just the same way as any British citizen. So there is no practical way that the immigration department could know that a particular immigrant was applying to a given authority for housing or assistance under the homelessness legislation.

The only way in which the immigration department could ensure that housing authorities are aware of the immigration status of anyone approaching them would

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be for the department to send details of all immigrants falling within a class specified by an order under this clause. Given the very large numbers of people who visit this country each year, the vast majority of whom are entirely self-supporting and not interested in seeking social housing, it would be an impossible task for the department to send out such details to around 400 housing authorities throughout the United Kingdom, for authorities to monitor them and for that list to be kept up-to-date.

We are aware of--and respect--the concerns that a number of authorities and welfare organisations have about the screening of applicants for housing for immigration status and its possible effects on race relations. Indeed, the noble Lord raised this issue and I answered him briefly during the last debate. But that concern can be overstated. In December 1994 the Department of the Environment issued a revised third edition of its Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities, which contained advice on how to screen persons making an application under the homelessness legislation for illegal entrants (who have no entitlement under the homelessness legislation), and for asylum seekers (who have a more limited entitlement). The guidance was prepared in consultation with housing practitioners and the Commission for Racial Equality, and has, we understand, been well received.

The Department of the Environment will build on that experience by issuing revised guidance on how to screen for people without an entitlement to housing when this legislation commences. That will cover both people seeking assistance under the homelessness legislation and those seeking council housing through the waiting list. It will also cover the procedures to be adopted in liaising with the immigration department to establish immigration status.

The Government are sensitive to the concerns expressed about intrusive inquiries and good race relations. But the only practical way of implementing this legislation is through the screening processes of the housing authorities, through which everybody who applies for council housing has to go. We will ensure that procedures are in place to that end before this part of the Bill is enacted.

I hope, with that assurance of how we propose to proceed and a remembrance of the guidance already issued to local authorities, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, will be able to withdraw the amendment.

Earl Russell: The Minister gave us a considered answer. He may possibly be right that this procedure will not work. But it is not incumbent on those of us on this side of the Chamber to put forward a procedure that will work. We do not want this clause working at all. However, it is incumbent on the Minister to put forward something that will work. He has not convinced us that the screening process can work without great labour and a risk of discrimination. Those answers are not enough.

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I hoped that he could say a little more about how the screening process would be used. I fear we are disappointed.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Though I listened carefully to what the Minister said and he knows that this was only a probing amendment concerning an administrative issue rather than an issue of principle, I was a little taken aback by one of his objections to the amendment.

The Minister said that asylum seekers are free to live anywhere they like and that they are not tracked from place to place. I understood the position to be that aliens settled in this country are required to register with the police in the areas where they settle and to notify any changes of address using the green card system. That appears to be in conflict with what the Minister said. I understand that in London aliens register with the Aliens Registration Office. Is it not easier, therefore, to keep track of aliens settled in this country than the Minister suggested in his original answer?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Without going into detail, the point is this. Many people come to this country for a limited time and are allowed in by the immigration authorities--people from all parts of the world with every intention of going back. They create a formidable list of people. To send that list to every local authority would be impossible. It would be difficult to keep track of such people, although one could send a list to the local authority in which they are believed to be living on the offchance that they may apply for council housing.

I understand what the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, is saying. However, it is far better to provide a sensible screening process for local authorities who are used to dealing with these matters rather than, dare I say, implementing the impossible system suggested by the noble Lord.

5 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I do not think the Minister can brush away the problems I have raised by calling them details. I was responding to the precise statement that he made about the inability of the Home Office to track aliens living in this country. My understanding is that it is possible to track aliens living in this country. I think that the Minister's original answer was, of course unintentionally, misleading. I do not think it is wrong for me to press the matter when the noble Lord has responded to the problems I have raised as if they were details.

Of course there are difficulties in what is being proposed here. I am not suggesting otherwise and I was not proposing to press the amendment to a Division. But I wonder whether the Minister would not feel able to think about this matter a little more constructively than he has done so far. If it is not possible for the original notification to be made by the Home Office to all local authorities--I understand the difficulties--is it not possible for the Home Office to have a register that is available on request to local authorities which seek to use it? I can see that there could be civil liberties

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difficulties about that as well. But if the Minister is to approach the matter constructively, he ought to consider alternative ways of achieving the same objective as he appears to accept that local authorities will have legitimate concerns in dealing with these applications.

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