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Baroness Hamwee: I take this opportunity to ask a question on the paragraph at the end of Clause 148(2) which provides that,

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in the singular--

    "with a particular need ... who cannot reasonably be expected to find settled accommodation for themselves in the foreseeable future".

I am not sure whether the use of singular and plural in this paragraph represents political correctness or whether the words import more than I had understood in the first instance. Is the Minister able to inform the Committee whether a household can comprise one person for the purpose of this paragraph and, if so, whether the "themselves" can be a "himself" or "herself", as I believe is intended?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am not usually accused of political correctness. I doubt whether this is a case of political correctness. Of course, a household can consist of one person; otherwise, a single person would never be housed if he or she was not considered to be a household. This provision is an attempt to ensure that authorities make special provision for the most vulnerable sections of the community. We have in mind here very vulnerable people such as those discharged from psychiatric hospitals or those with learning difficulties who can manage to live independently with a degree of support but cannot be expected to find their own accommodation. Paragraph (e) is in the clause to address that kind of person. I do not believe that there is any significance in the move from singular to plural. I can assure the noble Baroness that it is not a matter of political correctness on my part. It may be political correctness on the part of the draftsman. I will ask about it.

Clause 148 agreed to.

Clauses 149 to 151 agreed to.

Clause 152 [False statements and withholding information]:

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 264ZH:

Page 92, line 36, at end insert--("unless in either case he has a reasonable excuse.").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 264ZH and speak also in support of Amendment No. 264ZJ. This part of the Bill is concerned with the offence that may be committed if a person knowingly or recklessly makes a statement which is false or withholds information. The purpose of Amendment No. 264ZH is to provide that it shall not be an offence if the individual concerned has a reasonable excuse for giving false information or withholding information. The purpose of Amendment No. 264ZJ is to lower the level of penalty should anyone be fined for committing this offence.

I speak first to Amendment No. 264ZH. On certain exceptional occasions people may withhold information or possibly give false information for perfectly proper reasons in putting their names on the housing register. I shall give a couple of examples, both of which are in my experience in recent years.

I take, first, the example of a woman with one or two children living on a council estate whose husband was convicted of a criminal offence relating to drugs. Some of his friends believed that his wife had given information to the authorities. They made serious threats against her. She left the flat and found temporary

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accommodation in another borough. That woman might, in trying to rectify her housing situation, have wished to withhold details of her whereabouts because she was under threat; she might not give full and proper information.

I also came across an instance where a woman who had been battered by the man with whom she had been living sought safety in a refuge and ended up in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. A woman in such a situation might wish, quite properly, to keep confidential either her identity or whereabouts. In both instances those people have to get their names on the register and may wish to conceal information about themselves and their whereabouts so that they cannot be identified by those who may be hostile to them. I am sure that other Members of the Committee can think of similar examples.

For perfectly proper reasons there may be pressure on the individual in exceptional cases not to give full information, and thereby they commit an offence. As my examples show, these people may be victims of violence or in fear of violence, harassment or abuse. They may also be people who as responsible citizens have given information to the authorities or acted as witnesses in the courts and find themselves under threat. Domestic violence is an obvious instance. Sadly, there are quite a number of such cases. All that is required is a small let-out so that it does not automatically become a criminal offence if one has given false information or withheld information. The examples that I gave were not ones where the offence had been committed with a view to furthering a claim for housing which would otherwise not have been valid but for rather different reasons.

I turn now to Amendment No. 264ZJ. This is concerned with the level of fine that may be incurred if a person is found guilty of an offence under Clause 152. Subsection (2) provides that the fine should not exceed level 5 on the standard scale. That would mean a fine in the region of £5,000. That is the same level of fine which can be imposed, for example, on a landlord who commits an offence in connection with failure to ensure safety in houses in multiple occupation. It would be difficult to suggest that the two offences compare in seriousness. A landlord who endangers persons living in houses in multiple occupation may threaten their well-being and possibly their lives, whereas a breach of Clause 152 is surely not as serious an offence.

The proposed amendment would lower the level of the fine from £5,000 (level 5) to £2,500 (level 4), which is surely sufficient for the gravity of the offence in Clause 152. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Clause 152 is in similar terms to Section 74 of the Housing Act 1985 (re-enacted in Clause 186 of this Bill) to which we will come later which creates similar offences for applications under the homelessness legislation. Social housing is a valuable asset and it is important that people who seek it should not misrepresent their circumstances. That could cause them to receive preferential treatment at the expense of other applicant

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households. One of the essential principles behind Parts VI and VII of the Bill is fairness in the allocation of social housing. In order to deter people from making false statements or withholding relevant information it is important to have some sanction in the form of a fine.

Amendment No. 264ZH would moderate each of the two offences created by Clause 152. It would enable someone to make a false statement, or to withhold relevant information, and to avoid committing the offence by pleading "a reasonable excuse". What constitutes a "reasonable excuse" could lead to litigation.

I do not consider that those offences should be watered down in that way. The similar offences in Section 74 of the Housing Act 1985 have stood the test of time. It is a serious matter for a person to gain a public good by misrepresenting his or her circumstances.

Moreover, an application for social housing through the register is a more complex matter than applying for assistance under the homelessness legislation. It is not merely a matter of establishing whether or not the local authority owes a duty to the applicant. The applicant for social housing may want to persuade or induce an authority to believe, for example, that he qualifies to appear on the register or that he warrants greater priority under an allocation scheme than the authority has given him. In practice, the withholding of information--for example, where someone is afraid to disclose threats of violence--is likely to reduce rather than increase the priority that an applicant might otherwise attract. It is unlikely that someone would be penalised for withholding sensitive personal information in that case.

We should remember that the information given to the local authority is to be kept confidential. We discussed that point earlier today. It should not be disclosed to other members of the public. The authority should be able to have the information. There is no good reason under the sensitiveness heading why the information cannot be given.

If an applicant under duress gave information which increased his or her chances of being allocated the accommodation, I am sure that a court would take that into account. Someone has, so to speak, to pull the trigger on a prosecution. I am pretty certain that the local authority would take it into account. Local authorities, after all, have to make the decision as to whether they should bring in the law in that regard. Obviously they will not necessarily and automatically do so in every case. As I have said, they already have powers, and there are very few prosecutions. Local authorities would prosecute only if they felt that it was a deliberate try-on to gain considerable advantage on the list.

As to the maximum fine, we have picked a fine which we believe reflects the seriousness of the offence. Level 5 is generally the right level of penalty for offences of giving false information or withholding information. If one looks across at similar offences, a level 5 fine is what we find. For example, it applies to offences of failing to disclose information requested by the corporation. The seriousness of the offence derives from the degree of intent rather than the consequences.

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Because the level 5 fine exists, that does not mean to say that, even if the local authority decides that the case should go to court and the court finds the person guilty, the court needs to fine that person at the top of the level. But it means that if the intent to deceive is serious then a serious penalty exists. I hope that with that explanation the noble Lord can withdraw the amendment.

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