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Lord Hylton: I was glad to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, mention the matter of children having to change schools. That can be extremely damaging to the whole educational process of the child involved. We know that the Bill is produced by the Department of the Environment. I hope that that department and its Ministers will consult with their colleagues in the Department for Education so as to try to minimise that adverse impact.

I wish to point out the difficult situation that arises in certain parts of London because of the concentration of temporary housing; for example, in Bayswater and certain parts of Paddington. There, numerous bed and breakfast hotels have been taken over or are mainly occupied by people put into temporary accommodation by a whole range of local authorities in the Greater London area. That places undue stress and strain on all social provision within the boroughs where that concentration occurs. If this amendment could be agreed to, it would go a small way to relieve that very unsatisfactory state of affairs.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I have listened with interest to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. The amendment raises an important point of principle and it touches on the basic question as to whether there should be one or two main routes into local authority housing. The noble Baroness seems concerned about the case of a household with nearly enough priority to be allocated housing but which is threatened with homelessness or becomes homeless and which is then rehoused by a local authority under the two-year homelessness duty. Because the householder's circumstances may well then have improved, the applicant could lose some priority for accommodation through the housing register. But, more importantly, I think that the noble Baroness believes that it would be more sensible, regardless of whether a

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person was at that moment at the top of the housing list, if I can use that as my example, that that person should be housed. That is the point she is making.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I believe that is the point that the Minister himself was making in the other place.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: With a little patience I might get to that. Perhaps I may outline to the Committee what we are attempting to do here. The homelessness legislation is designed to prevent people reaching the stage where they are actually homeless. Only a fraction of all homeless applicants--about 2 per cent.--are actually without a roof over their heads when they apply for assistance. As soon as someone is identified as meeting the statutory definition of homelessness and likely to be in priority need, an authority is under a duty to secure accommodation immediately. Under the provisions in Part VII of the Bill, which we shall come to later, an authority will be required to ensure that suitable accommodation remains available for that household for at least two years, and if necessary, for longer.

The noble Baroness would wish to enable such people in such circumstances to be allocated long-term accommodation straightaway. By doing so, they would be bypassing other applicants who had perhaps waited patiently in unsuitable accommodation and who finally had an offer of a council house in sight. I wonder whether that is reasonable. They would also be leap-frogging applicants who had perhaps averted a housing crisis by finding accommodation themselves. Would that be fair on such households if people who had been assisted under the homelessness duty were offered accommodation ahead of them? It is that problem, which occurs at present, which has led the Government to bring forward this legislation in this part of the Bill.

The noble Baroness suggests that this route would only be available to applicants who would otherwise be made an offer of accommodation within six months. I am intrigued to know how this would be tested. For example, what would there be to prevent an authority from finding a way round the provisions of Part VI of the Bill by declaring that all households towards whom they accept a duty under Clause 172 are within six months of being made an offer? Who would be able to challenge that?

Conversely, who would be able to challenge an authority which simply decided that anyone who is made homeless is not within six months of getting to the top of the list? I believe that the purpose of setting out the principles of the allocation scheme in primary legislation, as it is in Clause 148, would be damaged and our desire to have transparency in the system would be undermined if the Committee were to accept the noble Baroness's amendment.

We want to ensure that the procedure for allocating housing is fair to applicants on the housing register, and is seen to be fair by all. The main principles for determining priority in allocations, which are contained in Clause 148, are intended to ensure that priority is

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given on the basis of underlying need. These are important principles. I have no doubt that we shall return to them. I believe that the provisions in Part VI of the Bill will ensure that the needs of everyone on the housing register are assessed fairly, regardless of whether they have become homeless.

In fact, many local authorities provide assistance to people who are threatened with homelessness, either in order to help them find accommodation themselves or to enable them to stay where they are. Indeed, almost two-thirds of authorities operate what are called, "homeless at home" schemes, where they find ways to help keep a homeless person in the house they are in at the moment, in order to give them time to deal with their homelessness problem and reduce the need to provide temporary accommodation. Such schemes could be used, where appropriate, to delay homelessness until an offer of accommodation can be made through the housing register, if it is that near.

If there are compelling reasons why a household should get additional priority, then local authorities will have flexibility to deal with these circumstances. Local authorities can exercise discretion. I suggest that the noble Baroness looks just a little ahead at Clause 148(2) where the priorities are laid out; namely,


    "As regards priorities, the scheme shall be framed so as to secure that reasonable preference is given".
The key wording for the purposes of this discussion is "reasonable preference". It is the same as the wording in Section 22 of the 1985 Act. We are not aware that that has been subject to much challenge. The noble Baroness suggested that it would be subject to challenge, but it is there in the 1985 Act and we are not aware that there has been a problem.

The Bill does allow a certain amount of reasonable flexibility to local authorities. I believe that is the proper way to proceed. Under these new arrangements local authorities will continue to be able to set up and operate schemes to meet their own circumstances, and within that framework they will be able to use their discretion in particular cases. But what it will not do is allow them to give overriding priority to anyone who has been accepted for assistance under the homelessness legislation, but who is not actually at the top of the list when it comes to receiving a council house. I do not believe that there is a great problem concerning this situation.

The argument was put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, that children might have to move school. They may have to do so anyway. That is an issue which is perhaps more properly debated in Part VII of the Bill which deals with homelessness and not allocations. We address the need for settled accommodation in the homelessness code of guidance. We shall be repeating that in the revised code which we shall issue after this legislation is passed.

Perhaps I may sum up. There are a number of ways in which a household accepted as being homeless can go straight into permanent housing, which is what concerns the noble Baroness. First, the household may already be on the register. Three-quarters of homeless applicants are already on the housing register. They may

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have enough priority to be made an immediate offer of accommodation. They may have been made an offer, but they may be waiting for something better. Secondly, the social and housing needs of a household may be so acute that on being placed on the housing register they immediately gain enough priority to go to the top of the list. Thirdly--and perhaps this addresses the specific point--an authority may decide, in the case of a household with almost enough priority to be made an offer of permanent accommodation, to treat that household sympathetically on an exceptional basis. I have explained where the words may be found in the Bill that will give the authority a defence. I believe that this exceptional basis has become known in some circles as the "layered protocol". I hope that Members of the Committee will not ask why, but I understand that is how it is known. It will be for authorities themselves to decide whether to allow flexibility within their allocation schemes for decisions to be made on exceptional cases.

I hope I have explained that there is provision for these exceptional cases to be dealt with by the local authority but, equally, I hope that I have explained that to accept the noble Baroness's amendment with its six months' cut-off point, which would be difficult to define, would begin to run a coach and horses through the principles which we want to bring into the legislation via this Bill; namely, that all people on the housing list, whether they are homeless or not, ought to be treated in exactly the same way when it comes to being allocated the next available local authority house.

3.45 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Can the Minister say whether he is stepping back from the statements made by his honourable friend in the other place, that it was sensible for local authorities to have the discretion, where someone was near the top of the waiting list but a few points short, to be given permanent housing rather than to be churned through temporary accommodation?


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