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Baroness Strange: Guess what? I have also received a letter from the noble Baroness. I have read it and listened carefully to what has been said. While I virtually always support my noble friend--the daisy-fresh Minister--and what he says, I hope that he will consider accepting the word "may" which would give discretionary power back to those who really know about the local situation. It does not bind anybody to anything. It seems very reasonable and I hope that my noble friend the Minister may have discretion to take it on board.

Baroness Flather: I too have had a letter from the noble Baroness, and I wish to thank her for bringing this point to my notice.

I have spent 15 years in local government, and all of those 15 years as a district councillor I served on the housing committee. During that time I found that gradually the management powers of the council were eroded by central government. This was a big problem for us because we always wanted to do the best we could for the people for whom we catered and who were in our charge. Gradually, we were not able to get rid of the troublesome tenants, or to move them around, or to allocate houses to those who most needed them.

Here is another proposal which will mean that councils' hands will be tied and they will be restricted from exercising their best judgment. I agree with my noble friend Lady Strange that it is merely a discretion. There is merely the possibility of taking the right decision in the circumstances which warrant it. It is important to allow this kind of power to remain in the hands of local government and to return, as my noble friend said, this management ability to the housing committees. I would like to support the amendment.

Lord Weatherill: As noble Lords well know, we who sit on the Cross Benches never issue a Whip, but all of us have received a number of letters, as everyone else has.

I am rather sympathetic to what the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, has said. On a purely sentimental basis this amendment is absolutely right.

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But very few noble Lords have ever, I imagine, had to attend a constituency surgery. The noble Baroness is quite right that week after week people would come into the surgery bemoaning their fate because they were getting lower and lower down the council housing list. This was because of things like the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act which required the local authorities to house newcomers. The resentment of such people was very bitter indeed. Eventually, they probably waited so long that their family had left home and they came off the council list altogether.

On a purely emotional basis, I am in favour of this amendment. I have come into the Chamber to listen to the argument, and I shall be listening very carefully to what the Minister has to say in reply. I would beg the Committee to bear in mind that this is perhaps not so much a matter of sentiment--I think we would all agree with the thrust of the amendment coming from the Opposition Benches--but largely a matter of practicalities.

Lord Northbourne: I rise to speak to Amendment No. 266D and not to Amendment No. 265H, which I confess I do not understand. Amendment No. 266D has nothing whatsoever, as I understand it, to do with the permanent list. It is to do with temporary accommodation. On the face of it, it seems to me completely barmy that any family in temporary accommodation for two years, who have entered their children into school--perhaps I am reiterating what the right reverend prelate said--and who may be coming towards the top of the housing list should be told on a purely arbitrary basis that they have to uproot themselves and move into different temporary accommodation. I shall listen with great interest to what the Minister has to say. But such a situation seems beyond all sense, and extremely damaging to the family, especially the children.

3.45 p.m.

Lady Gardner of Parkes: I have listened to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and I felt exactly as he does. It is common sense that if people are in temporary accommodation the local authority should have the power to leave them there. I have gone thoroughly into this. I originally considered adding my name to Amendment No. 266D, but having gone into the matter carefully, I have a number of answers that indicate to me that it is not quite as simple as it looks.

First, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, explained that local authorities have a duty to provide housing for up to two years. During that time people are queuing for permanent housing. As I understand it, most homeless families are rehoused well within the two years--I see the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, agreeing with that. Two years is, therefore, a reasonably long time. We are therefore considering the people who are in hard-to-let accommodation. That is not accommodation that people on the waiting list will jump at. It is unattractive accommodation. For that reason the housing authority has the power to consider offering that accommodation

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as permanent accommodation to those people at any time up to the two-year date. The noble Baroness is making the case for the people who overrun a few weeks or months because their turn has not quite come.

Surely, it is within the wit of the local authority to decide that this accommodation is not particularly desirable to people on the general housing list; it is not particularly suitable; it is hard-to-let property, but the families are happy with it. My inquiries confirm that that can be determined and secured, or provided as secure accommodation, for the people who are already in it for any period up to the two years. I believe that councils should be capable of assessing a case and saying: "Your turn is coming up in two months' time; we can avoid the terrible situation of putting you out, finding somewhere else and perhaps moving you back again by offering this to one or two families and getting their opinion. It is still hard-to-let property and not attractive to other people, but we confirm you in it as secure accommodation". I would say that in most parts of the United Kingdom that would solve the problem. The Bill allows, as the noble Baroness said, councils to use their own housing for temporary accommodation, and that is not in doubt.

Inner cities have special problems, and the noble Baroness drew attention to that. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, also drew attention to the court decision which pointed out that local authorities in inner cities say there is a particular problem there. It might be useful if the Minister could consider whether there is any way in which authorities, particularly some of the inner city authorities, could be enabled or empowered to enable people to remain longer than two years to match specific situations.

This general, widespread provision which the amendment will cover may create the situation mentioned by my noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes and the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill. The person offered temporary accommodation, having got into the temporary accommodation, has rights for ever and has effectively jumped the queue. If one left such people in properties which were attractive to others who had acquired more points and rights on the housing list, that would be very wrong.

It is an emotional point. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said that people would move every six months. I do not think there is anything to indicate that. I would hope that local authorities, if they are having to move people often, would try to see that they remained within the same school area, and so on. No one would want to see children disoriented by constantly having to move on.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, spoke to Amendment No. 266A, but we are not debating that amendment at the moment. It is going to be discussed later. It is not in the present group.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford explained that this is temporary accommodation for two years, but I have made the point that temporary accommodation can be made permanent, secure accommodation. It is not that people must be evicted when that two-year maximum period has been reached,

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but until that date the accommodation could be available to a family and determined as permanent accommodation. While the amendment is attractive, and I am a great believer in local authority discretion, it would be wrong to accept it if it meant that we were reversing the whole situation with regard to accommodation for the homeless, which has been dealt with in other parts of the Bill.

I heard one of my noble friends say that he had received 40 letters. I have had many more than that. I have stopped reading them; I just count them now. That does not apply to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, of course. There has been an orchestrated campaign from Shelter. Everyone writes saying, "I am writing as Shelter has asked me to, to ask you to support what it wants." Shelter does a great deal of good, but in this instance I do not know whether it is on the right track. Priority for people on the housing list must be considered in terms of general need, and homelessness is just one of many factors.

Baroness Hamwee: Perhaps I may explain the point that I made about the six months. I am sorry if I misled the Committee. I was referring to the private sector where, too often, experience shows that landlords refuse to renew or evict after such a period. I was drawing upon that analogy and the disruption that it causes when urging the Committee not to replicate that situation, or something similar, in the public sector.

Baroness Darcy (de Knayth): I support the amendments. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, can enlighten me. I believe that Amendments Nos. 265H and 266D are directly related and that we are talking in both about temporary accommodation.

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