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Treasure Bill

The Earl of Perth: My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Therefore, unless any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.

Moved, That the order of commitment be discharged.--(The Earl of Perth.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Housing Bill

3.10 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Ferrers, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.--(Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House again in Committee accordingly.


Clause 142 [Allocation of housing accommodation]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 263ZAGF:

Page 88, line 29, leave out ("a secure or") and insert ("an").

The noble Baroness said: The first of the amendments in our alphabet soup of amendments today is Amendment No. 263ZAGF. We now turn to Part VI of the Bill, which deals with the allocation of housing accommodation. The amendment is quite a small one with which to start today's Committee stage of the Housing Bill. Nevertheless it is an important amendment. It seeks to delete from subsection (5) (on page 88, line 29 of the Bill) the provision that this part of the Bill applies to a secure tenant.

The purpose of the amendment is to provide that a local authority shall have a duty to give reasonable preference in its allocation scheme (under a clause to which we shall come later) to its existing secure tenants who may fall within priority categories--for instance, people who are living in unsatisfactory housing conditions.

Under the current allocation provisions which this Bill will replace, case law has stated that the duty to give reasonable preference in the allocation of tenancies extends to a local housing authority's existing tenants. Bearing in mind that one-quarter or thereabouts of households are in the local authority sector, concerning also the severe state of disrepair of many such dwellings and the fact that many existing tenants are living in overcrowded conditions and have been on the transfer list for many years, it seems unfair to deprive a large section of the advantages of the Bill while removing the rights that they already have.

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Many authorities already operate transfer lists under the present provisions. Therefore, I hope that no problems will arise as a result of the amendment, which will effectively take that provision into the current Bill. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: As we start Part VI of the Bill, perhaps I should introduce it. It is concerned with access to social rented housing. In selecting new tenants, the provisions in Part VI will require local authorities to take into account not only the physical housing conditions experienced by applicants for social housing, but also their social and economic circumstances--the factors that are likely to contribute to a long-term need for a local authority or housing association tenancy.

Once within the social rented sector, applicants will have passed the test of "social need". Provided that they keep to the terms of their tenancy, they can expect to remain within the social rented sector for life, without the need for further tests of eligibility.

There are a number of good reasons why transfers of existing tenants should be treated separately from allocations to prospective tenants. In the absence of a test of "social need", what becomes paramount is the suitability of the household's accommodation. Some of the factors which may be relevant here may also be relevant to the selection of new tenants--for example, overcrowding. However, some factors which were relevant then, such as insecurity of tenure, will no longer be relevant.

Moveover, there are other, equally important factors which have more to do with effective housing management than with assessing housing need. One of the most important factors is the need to reduce under-occupation. By offering tenants incentives to move to a smaller property, an authority can increase its stock of larger accommodation; and that, in turn, can be used to house new entrants.

Transfers of existing tenants should not, in the overall scheme of things, put additional pressure on the amount of stock available for new applicants. Over 1½ million local authority properties in England are under-occupied; nearly half a million of those have two or more bedrooms spare. For every local authority tenant who needs to move to a larger property, there are eight who could move to a smaller home.

By seeking to bring allocations to existing tenants within the provisions of Part VI, the noble Baroness's amendment would force them to compete with people seeking to enter the system on grounds that were no longer relevant for the people already within the system. We believe that that would be unfair to existing tenants. Clearly, local authorities should balance the demands of existing tenants seeking to transfer against those of people wanting to enter the system; and in issuing guidance on the application of Part VI, we shall remind authorities of the need to do so. We believe that such a balance is best achieved by enabling authorities to deal with transfers outside the allocation scheme.

There is no reason why the provisions in Part VI should benefit existing tenants at the expense of people seeking social housing for the first time. I hope that,

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with the explanation that I have given of why we believe that the words that the noble Baroness would take out should remain in the Bill, she will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Hamwee: The Minister has given the most splendid argument that we have heard during the passage of the Bill for increasing the stock of affordable accommodation. It was far better certainly than any that I have made on earlier provisions when we dealt with the right to buy. That, after all, is the issue. In saying that various groups have competing claims--all quite reasonable claims--he accepts the problem of shortage.

I did not understand a comment in the middle of the noble Lord's speech about it being unfair to existing tenants, but I shall read carefully what he said. He then said that it would be unfair to prospective tenants. I am afraid I do not understand either how that would interfere with providing incentives for transfer. I applaud the schemes that many local housing authorities are putting into place to encourage tenants to transfer to more suitable accommodation and to free up possibly larger units.

I am not terribly satisfied with the Minister's answer but perhaps I can come back at the matter from another direction when we have had further debates on this part of the Bill. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham): I must apologise to the Committee for the inordinate length of my speeches this afternoon. I call Amendment No. 263ZAGG.

[Amendment No. 263ZAGG not moved.]

Clause 142 agreed to.

Clause 143 [Cases where provisions about allocation do not apply]:

[Amendments Nos. 263ZAH and 263ZAJ not moved.]

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 263ZAK:

Page 89, line 27, at end insert--
("( ) They do not apply where a local housing authority, in order to meet local priorities, offers assistance to registered social landlords and voluntary organisations providing temporary accommodation for single homeless people, by securing a quantity of nominations through its own housing stock or that of other registered social landlords which meets the assessed needs of single homeless people identified in the local authority housing strategy.").

The noble Baroness said: This amendment has been tabled in my name and the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. It is an amendment about the silting up--if I may use a slightly ugly phrase--of halfway houses within the homelessness procedure. As the Committee will know, local authorities are required to house those homeless people who are not intentionally homeless and who are also vulnerable. That is a tough test. Only about half of those who apply to local authorities saying that they are homeless come within the local authority's duty. Of those, somewhat less than two-thirds are families--people with dependent children--and the rest, well over one-third, are single people to whom the local authority has a duty.

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Normally, single people would not be a local authority responsibility. However, they are such a responsibility if they are vulnerable or at risk. About whom are we talking? For example, there are children coming out of care; there are former alcoholics, former addicts and ex-offenders; there are those with mental or physical health problems; and there are those suffering disability. One-third of the women have been treated for mental health problems; another third are homeless because of marital dispute. A third of the men exhibit symptoms of schizophrenia according to the 1995 Salvation Army report, The Faces of Homelessness in London.

According to the DoE's own research, back in 1981, one half of such homeless people had spent some time in an institution. From there, too often they had gone onto the streets or into squats. But very many had come into hostels and been reclaimed into the mainstream. After building up their lives again, getting confidence and perhaps being able to secure a job for the first time, such people are ready to move on into independent life. The Salvation Army estimates that something like two-thirds of hostel dwellers are ready to move on into permanent housing and make a new start. But to do that they must be able to move from the hostel to a council flat. Otherwise, those hostels--those halfway houses--silt up (to use the phrase) and vulnerable people who are ready to come off the streets and go into hostels do not get a chance to do so, because those in the hostels do not move on into independent housing.

Many local authorities try very hard to be helpful and arrange for a modest quota of accommodation to be made available to such halfway houses, whether for battered women, ex-offenders, children coming out of care or those with mental or physical health problems. My own authority, Norwich, for example, makes 110 allocations a year to halfway houses--10 per cent. of its quota. Other local authorities act in a similar fashion.

This amendment would ensure that organisations which provide such temporary halfway houses for some of the most battered and knocked about people in our society could continue to do so. It would allow local authorities to help cope with the homelessness of the single and vulnerable by working in partnership with hostels to move such people, when they are ready, and to offer them the opportunity of an independent life. I hope that the amendment will commend itself to the Committee. I beg to move.

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