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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am not sure that the noble Baroness was not supporting my position at the beginning of her intervention. My figures are greater than hers. She suggested that 50 per cent. are already on the waiting list. Many will be high up, I agree, and I shall not knock them down; if they are on the list they get their house. However, my advice is that something like three-quarters are already on the waiting list.
The kernel is not whether such people are on the list but whether they ought to be given immediate preference over other people on the list. If such people had inspected the register, they might expect a house within the next two or three weeks, or a month or two. The position is that they do not get it. The homeless on
To be declared unintentionally homeless accelerates one's ability to obtain social housing. We do not believe that that is fair. It is not that such people should not be housed; they are housed immediately in non-long-term accommodation under the homelessness provisions. They then take their turn with other people in getting access to long-term housing. The proposition that I put forward seems to me to be reasonable and it is in no way damaged by the rather vigorous language used by the noble Baroness in order to pretend that there are armies of people out there on the streets. They are not on the streets: the homelessness legislation prevents that happening. Quite right, too. What we believe should not then happen is that the homeless person promptly receives priority on the housing list so that he or she moves ahead of people who have waited patiently, perhaps in similar circumstances, but have not been declared homeless. I do not anticipate that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment because it is the kernel of the debate between us upon the Bill. Therefore, if we have a Division I trust that my noble friends will support me in the Lobby.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I always regard it as a sign of the weakness of the Minister's argument when he tries to attribute to these Benches arguments or language that they did not use. The Minister has done so repeatedly in his answers tonight. Therefore, I wish to correct the record. He said frequently that the amendment asked that homeless people should jump over those waiting patiently. He obviously enjoyed using the phrase because he repeated it several times.
I never once said and I believe no one else on this side said tonight that we sought that homeless people should jump over those waiting patiently. Had the Minister been listening, he would have known that we made it clear that such people should be given reasonable preference--no more and no less--over any other category. The right reverend Prelate repeated the phrase. Yet the Minister chose to ignore it in order to create an argument that was not being advanced so that he could seek to knock it down. If the Minister had any confidence in his own case, he would not have needed to invent one on behalf of the Opposition. We did not say that homeless people should "jump the queue", that they should go over the heads of those who are more deserving; we said that they should be given reasonable preference along with those who are also in housing need. I hope the Minister accepts that correction in language; that is one of the gulfs between us.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: If "reasonable preference" does not mean that people will get a council house before somebody who would otherwise, so to speak, have beaten them to that council house, then I do not know what it does mean. That seems to be the same,
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: How does the Minister define people in the categories listed in Clause 148? Is he telling us that people under subsection (2)(a)--those occupying insanitary and overcrowded housing--are not jumping the queue on his definition? Are those who occupy housing accommodation that is temporary not jumping the queue? Are families with dependent children not jumping the queue on the Minister's new definition of queue-jumping? Are families in which someone is expecting a child not jumping the queue? The same applies to families with a particular need on medical or welfare grounds? I could go on.
Every argument that the Minister has adduced against homelessness applies to his own Bill. Which will the Minister have? Are people in these categories jumping the queue; or will he accept that what we are asking is that homeless people should be treated as an additional group, along with those in this category, as being entitled to reasonable preference? I ask the Minister to answer that point.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am not responsible for the terminology that the noble Baroness uses. I am clear about my terminology and I am clear about my case. I believe that the preferences outlined in the Bill are the proper preferences. As I said, these preferences will be counted for someone who is homeless. I do not believe the additional factor of becoming homeless necessarily entitles someone to extra points or extra privileges.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: The Minister has now said that those groups who come under Clause 148 are entitled to proper preference, but if there is a more extreme form of housing need--namely, homelessness--people are not entitled to proper preference. Is that what the Minister is saying?
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I shall not indulge any more in this little to-ing and fro-ing. I have made my position clear and the noble Baroness makes hers clear. I do not think we shall ever agree on this matter. I am clear. The qualifications in the Bill are those that we believe a local authority should look at in order to decide the balance as to who has priority. Normally, that is done according to a points system. That is perfectly fair. It is rather silly to ask whether that means that somebody who has children is trying to jump the queue. That is quite a different situation. I am saying that the homeless are housed by the local authority under homeless legislation. I do not believe that they therefore need preference, acceleration or whatever term one cares to use, when it comes to long-term social housing. They should take their place with others who consider themselves equally in need of long-term social housing.
For 20 years the responsibility to house homeless people has rested on local authorities. For longer than that the condition of homelessness has been recognised by local authorities. It has certainly been recognised since the 1870s and 1880s as a condition to which they should pay attention, and since 1945 as one to which they attach particular responsibility. Everybody, except apparently the Minister, recognises that the homeless are at the most acute end of housing need.
The Minister has chosen to wipe the reference to homelessness off the face of the waiting list preferences. The onus is on him, after 20 years in which it has been enshrined in law and 50 years during which it has been enshrined in local government policy and practice, to show why now, suddenly, the homeless should be wiped off the face of the Bill.
Despite the Minister's best endeavours to attribute phrases to us, nobody is saying that the homeless should queue-jump. To wipe them off the face of the Bill and say that a homeless family cannot be considered alongside those in overcrowded housing or those with dependent children for reasonable preference on the waiting list, is deeply indecent. At the core of our argument is that homelessness represents an extra dimension of desperation and need over every one of those listed here.
Nobody is denying that those in the categories under Clause 148(2), in insanitary, overcrowded or insecure housing, do not need reasonable preference. But for every person who needs that, it is even more the case for somebody who is homeless, going from roof to roof, home to home, bed-and-breakfast accommodation to car, back to a family's flat, back to a friend's floor, back into bed-and-breakfast accommodation, each time trailing children in tow. Homelessness is a qualitatively different experience. It is not fully covered by the categories listed. Homeless people should be included in this list.
I am very sorry that the Minister's case is so weak that he has to attribute to us arguments that we have not used. We have said that homeless people should have reasonable preference along with other people in housing need. They should not queue-jump; but they should have reasonable preference. And why? Because homelessness is qualitatively worse than any other form of housing experience. I can only assume that the Minister has not personally experienced it. If he had, he would know that to be the case.