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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Absolutely.

Baroness Darcy (de Knayth): I support both amendments and hope that the Minister will look sympathetically upon them. They are enabling amendments to allow local authorities to extend temporary accommodation beyond the two-year deadline. I am thinking in particular of people with disabilities, rather predictably, but we are talking about a few exceptions only to whom local authorities would think of granting this concession. They will, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said, be unlikely to find suitable accommodation in the private sector. They may well take longer to find suitable housing.

If as a wheelchair user you cannot find housing that can be adapted to your needs, it is not being over-dramatic to say that it can limit your independence. It may make you less healthy. It can skew the whole family relationship. You may never get back to leading an effective life as you could otherwise have done.

Lord Swinfen: I believe it is well known that there are some 330,000 wheelchair-accessible housing units short in this country. As I understand it, the amendment would give local authorities discretion to enable someone--for example, a disabled person--to remain in tolerable accommodation to which they might have had

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to move after succumbing to an illness or having an accident before being moved on to fully accessible accommodation. The power is discretionary.

As I understand the amendment, it is designed to be used in rare circumstances only. I suspect that that would be the case. It would be a misuse for a local housing authority to use the power regularly.

There is also the instance of the rare large family. There is little in the way of local authority housing to cater for the type of family that one of the bandsmen in my regiment had when I was serving over 30 years ago. He had so many children that he had to have two quarters. Normally, those quarters adjoined each other. There was considerable difficulty on one occasion when that was impossible. The two quarters were 100 yards apart. With fairly young children that caused considerable difficulty.

The amendment is worthy of consideration. If my noble friend cannot accept it, I hope that he will be able to give a convincing reason. If not, and if there is a Division, I may be tempted to go the other way.

Lord Hayhoe: I am always diffident when seeking to understand the details of amendments, or indeed of legislation, since the words used are often of such an arcane nature that the normal member of the public finds it nearly impossible wholly to understand it. One is accustomed to a Minister--I have had the pleasant duty myself sometimes--saying that of course the amendment does not mean what those proposing it believe it to mean.

Surely the essence of the matter is clear. It is, as I understand it, that the proposal is to replace a rigid, bureaucratic limit by an element of flexibility and discretion. No more, no less. The words may lead us into other areas. If so, I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to accept the nub of the amendment and say that he is in favour of an element of flexibility and discretion rather than the rigid, bureaucratic limit.

Members of another place have the experience of holding surgeries and meeting people who complain about housing. Of course I endorse what has been said on the subject. People had strong views about those they felt were unfairly jumping the queue and getting in front of them on the housing list. It was often the rigid, bureaucratic formula being imposed by the local authority that led to that happening. There was no degree of flexibility and discretion which might have overcome the difficulties.

My plea to the Minister is to consider the nub of the issue. If the essence of the proposal is the replacement of the rigid limit by some flexibility, I hope that if he cannot accept the amendment he will at least give a constructive, positive response which may persuade the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, to withdraw the amendment, in anticipation of something that may come forward on Report with the Government's imprimatur upon it.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal: I follow the noble Lord, Lord Hayhoe, in saying that the amendment provides only a discretion. For seven years I was chairman of

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Birmingham's housing committee. It is easy for us to speak in the comfortable surroundings of this House; it is difficult when people are sitting in front of you. Homeless people are normally stressed out. You do not up sticks with three or four children and throw yourself upon the mercies of local authorities or anyone else and expect them to pick you up. There are normally genuine reasons why people become homeless.

The amendment only provides a discretion. We must recognise that many homeless people have been on housing registers for three, four, five, six or seven years while trying to get out of the accommodation they are finally thrown out of. It is important that we remember that they already have a place on the housing register.

If we move families around, it does not do them any good. It causes acrimony between husband and wife. It causes the children to be ill. It makes it difficult to have close contact with doctors and health services; in other words, if we do not give local authorities discretion, we are just pushing homeless people further and further down the ladder.

Lady Kinloss: I support the amendment, so ably moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, especially with regard to families with young children. If people have to move out of local authority accommodation after two years, where do they move to? If they then have to return to the original housing, that may be very unsettling for young children. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said, they have not only to move house but school as well. The children may be attending two, if not three, different schools during that period. They will miss the young friends they have made and will feel very isolated. That all adds to the stress felt by families, especially if there is a step-parent in the family. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will look at the amendment with sympathy.

4 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I feel a little like the odd man out in that I have not received a letter from the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I will send it to the Minister tomorrow.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Perhaps we were here so late last night that the noble Baroness did not have time to send me a letter this morning. I thank the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for his compliment and return it by saying that he is in as good form this afternoon as he was at 0100 hours this morning. Perhaps the same is true of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. We return to the argument perhaps not on the same grounds as we left it, but certainly on related grounds in that it is on housing.

Before I turn to the details of the amendment perhaps I may say a few words about Clause 172 because it forms the basis of my defence of the Government's position. That clause is at the core of the change which we wish to make in the homelessness legislation. We are quite clear that the existing homelessness legislation,

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which provides an essential safeguard for families and vulnerable individuals, has taken on a role for which it was never intended in that it provides a sure and speedy route into permanent housing for one particular subset of the population; namely, those who have become homeless.

People accepted for rehousing under the current homelessness legislation are, on average, rehoused in about eight months. However, those who are rehoused through the waiting-list--by no means everyone on the waiting-list is rehoused--have to wait an average of 14 months. Undoubtedly, homelessness acts as a fast track when it comes to gaining a council house for which you have been on the waiting-list.

It is interesting that of the three former Members of the other place who have spoken today two have agreed with the proposition that I shall be addressing. At our surgeries people came in in some despair because they were about to reach the top of the list and be given a council house when someone below them on the list was declared homeless and given the house. That happened time and time again in many cases.

I found it indefensible then and I find it indefensible today. If people become homeless, I believe that local authorities should address their immediate needs. However, it ought not to mean that homelessness is a fast-track to a council house. I am pleased that my noble friend Lord Hayhoe agrees with that proposition. It is interesting to note all four former Members of the other place who have held constituency surgeries have reached the same conclusion about one of the real defects in current homelessness legislation.

Under our proposals in Part VII of the Bill, which relates to homelessness, permanent social housing will generally go only to people on the housing register. That is what Part VI was about. When a person is accepted for assistance under the provisions of Part VII he will no longer be homeless because the authority will have helped him. He or she or they in the case of a family ought to resume their normal position on the housing waiting-list, together with all the other people who are in unsatisfactory and perhaps overcrowded accommodation. Often such people are staying with parents who have had more than enough of grandchildren who, dare I say, are very nice in short doses but perhaps not in the long-term.

It is true that in most parts of the country most people with long-term housing needs will have been offered a house on the housing register well within two years. Indeed, in some parts of the country the period is much less than two years. The accommodation which an authority might use for its two-year duty as regards the homelessness legislation could be in some of its own stock, in property provided by a housing association or in the private rented sector. It is the use of the authority's own stock which would be subject to the two year in three rule, which is contained in Clause 182. That is an important provision and is not one that we have dreamed up in order to be awkward.

Clause 182 provides that if local authorities wish they may discharge the duty to secure accommodation for two years by providing housing from their own stock.

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Part IV of the Housing Act 1985 will not apply and tenancies granted under those circumstances will carry no security of tenure as secure, long-term tenancies, which effectively provide security for life, may be allocated only through the housing register in accordance with the principles of the allocation scheme. That principle lies at the heart of what we are seeking to achieve in the homelessness and allocations part of the Bill. Long-term social housing must be allocated on a fair basis according to underlying housing need, not because a situation such as homelessness has arisen as a result of a number of temporary circumstances coming together.

No doubt local authorities will wish to balance the use of their stock between the limited requirements for accommodation in the short term from people who are homeless and the greater requirement for accommodation over the longer term. Social housing is a valuable resource and I am sure that all of us agree that priorities should be accorded to local authority stock which is capable of being let in the long-term and to allocate where possible secure tenancies to give all the rights which secure tenants have.

We should be most concerned if authorities did not do that but simply placed households accepted as unintentionally homeless and in priority need in non-secure tenancies on a continuing basis. Not only would that circumvent the principle of allocating social housing on a fair basis according to the principles of the allocation scheme, which is contained in Clause 148, but it would also deprive tenants of the rights attached to secure tenancies. Not only would they have no security of tenure but they would also be denied the right to buy, the right of succession and the right of transfer, which may be important for people who wish to live nearer to a new job. We are simply not prepared to allow that to happen and I do not suppose that the noble Baroness and other noble Lords who have spoken in favour of the amendment intend such lack of security to be the result. However, that would be the result.

We accept that there will be a few cases in which households rehoused under the homelessness legislation find at the end of two years that they have not been offered permanent accommodation. However, that must be seen in the context of the housing register as a register of need. If social housing is not going to households which were owed a duty under the homelessness legislation two years' ago, presumably that will be because other households in the locality have a greater need and are higher on the housing waiting-list. That was the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, and my noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes and assented to by my noble friend Lord Hayhoe. As I said, that is a situation which we have all seen.

A great deal has been made about temporary accommodation and I understand the concerns. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford and other noble Lords drew attention to it. Temporary accommodation is not how one should properly describe assured shorthold lettings. Temporary accommodation

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refers to bed-and-breakfast hotels, for example, and we certainly do not expect local authorities to use such premises for the discharge for their two-year duties.

To equate shorthold tenancies with temporary accommodation, ignores the facts. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, did so again today as she did during the previous day in Committee. On average, such lettings run for just under three years. Therefore, it is not fair to portray accommodation in the private sector on six-month tenancies as temporary. In fact they may be quite long-term and on average run out at just under three years.

Perhaps I may say to the noble Earl that I do not see that people with shorthold assured tenancies would find it difficult to obtain work because they have temporary accommodation. That does not recognise the very fact that I made about the length of tenancy. The Government certainly applaud the example which he gave of the young lady who had been a seller of the Big Issue. The Department of the Environment gives the Big Issue a grant to help it because we appreciate the excellent work that it does.

One of the other points made about this whole question of waiting is that people with a large family may have a long wait for four-bedroomed housing. Great play was made of that. But if Members of the Committee turn to Clause 148, it can be seen that families with dependent children are one of the priority groups laid out in subsection (2) as, indeed, are households whose social and economic circumstances are such that they are having difficulty in securing settled accommodation.

From my experience of housing lists, I would say that having a multiplicity of children is a good way of obtaining housing very quickly and not the reverse. I am not for one moment advocating that people should follow the example of the friend of my noble friend Lord Swinfen. But it is certainly not my understanding that having a lot of children inhibits a person from obtaining a house because, with the points system, having three or more children means an allocation of more points than having two children, and so on. Therefore, I do not believe that that is much of an argument. Large families will find themselves reaching the top of the waiting list and obtaining accommodation moderately quickly. Therefore, there is no really good argument in that.

One must also consider the needs of such families against other families which are perhaps not very well housed and living in an overcrowded situation who are also on the waiting list. We must ask whether one family should have precedence over the other just because at some stage the family has been dealt with under the homelessness legislation and has been fast-tracked into long-term accommodation.

The clause proposed by the noble Baroness would have the effect of exempting from the two in three years rule those households which were owed the homelessness duty under Clause 172 and which were also entitled to reasonable preference in the allocation through the housing register. That would undoubtedly ensure that authorities would be placed in a position in

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which people in such circumstances would find themselves accelerated into council housing in preference to the other people on the list. I do not believe that that is the right way for local authorities to be asked to look after their council house list and their stock.

I recognise that the means that we have adopted to prevent such a situation may appear to be rather inflexible. We have considered different solutions to this problem. We have invited Shelter and the local authority associations to do the same, and without success. Amendment No. 266D provides that the exemption should be only for those households which are entitled to reasonable preference under the allocation scheme. But we have made sure deliberately that all categories of persons put forward in the priority needs group in the homelessness part of the Bill, for the very factors that give them preference in that part of the Bill, will also be entitled to reasonable preference under the allocation part of the Bill. In other words, the effect of the amendment would be to exempt just about every household accepted as statutorily homeless by a local authority. We would be back to square one.

Therefore, do not be tempted by the noble Baroness's description of this as a modest amendment. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the right reverend Prelate also used those words. But my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes indicated clearly that it is not a modest amendment. It would simply put us back to where we currently are, which is in a position where people can fast-track themselves into local authority housing if they are declared homeless and those who sit patiently on the waiting list remain sitting patiently on the waiting list.

My noble friend Lady Flather is keen that people in the greatest need should get housing. That is the whole point of the allocation part of the Bill; namely, to make sure that council housing is allocated on a basis of priorities which give housing to those in greatest need. The priorities are clearly laid out in Clause 148. I say again to the Committee that I do not believe that it is right that people who have all those priority needs should find themselves overtaken by people with perhaps fewer priority needs but who have become homeless. That is not fair. Those of us who have experience in this field know jolly well that it causes a great deal of bitterness and heartache on the part of those who find themselves continually bypassed.

I am afraid that this amendment undermines completely the provisions that we have set in place to ensure that secure tenancy regimes introduced at the beginning of the 1980s are not bypassed by local authorities which wish to place homeless households in their own stock on a continuing basis regardless of the consequences for other people on the waiting list.

My noble friends Lord Swinfen and Lady Gardner and the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy (de Knayth), asked about very exceptional cases. My noble friend Lord Swinfen referred to wheelchair users. I suspect that the problem of disabled people is best addressed by Clause 148 which ensures that people who cannot be expected to find accommodation for themselves in the

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foreseeable future should have additional priority in the allocation scheme. That brings me back to the importance that we place on the allocation scheme.

I shall certainly reflect on the point made by both noble Baronesses about very exceptional circumstances to see whether I can find a way in which to be helpful. But the problem is that if one moves from very exceptional circumstances to the more broad-brush approach of the noble Baroness then, as I said, we are back to the position from which the Government wish to get away; namely that people are allocated long-term council housing other than through the allocation list and through the priority reasons laid down in Clause 148 and carried out by most local authorities through a points system.

Allocation of council housing is not an easy matter as every Member of the Committee who has been a member of the other place or a member of a local authority will know. It is not easy. It is quite difficult to achieve fairness. I believe that the use of the allocation list and its exclusive use for moving people into long-term accommodation is the fairest possible way. What we have had for some years through the homelessness legislation has acted extremely unfairly for many people. I commend the clause as drafted and I hope that the Committee will not agree to the noble Baroness's amendment. If she divides the Committee, I trust that my noble friends will support me in the Lobby.

4.15 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: First, I apologise to Members of the Committee to whom I have not written. Perhaps I should apologise even more fervently to those whom I have pestered with a letter. I do not know which is the more grievous offence. However, I am very grateful to all those who have taken the trouble to read the letter and think about the matter. Whether or not they were persuaded, nevertheless I believe that it has allowed us to have a very interesting and informed debate. I am grateful to all Members of the Committee who have listened and taken part in it.

The crux of the argument of the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, and the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, has been that this substantive amendment is unfair to people on the waiting list because--I use the Minister's words--it would take us back to where we were because it would give people a fast track into permanent council housing. That is not the case. We are talking about temporary housing.

Nothing in the amendment in any sense challenges the central thrust of the Bill which is that allocations to permanent housing may only be made from the waiting list. People must wait in temporary housing until their time on the waiting list is up before they can go into permanent housing. That remains unaffected by the amendment. The substance of the Bill is unaltered; the amendment is modest. It states that people in temporary housing should not be evicted for the sake of it. They will not go into secure accommodation. If local authorities use their own stock they will use insecure, temporary housing which is hard to let: upper floor flats without a lift, maisonettes on unpopular estates. That is exactly the kind of property that families on the waiting list tend to reject when they have the choice. That is why local authorities

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use it as temporary housing. In parts of the country, they have even demolished that housing, but many local authorities continue to use it as temporary housing.

All the amendment suggests is that local authorities would have the discretion--no more, no less--to continue to use that unpopular, unattractive, unmodernised property that no one else wants for temporary housing if the authorities believe that there is no suitable alternative accommodation for a family in which to wait while it comes to the top of the list for permanent housing, as the Minister rightly said.

It is no fast track. Families must wait. All we are concerned with is in what accommodation they wait until their time has come. That is the only difference between us; where they wait until they get permanent housing. It is not a fast track to anything. They wait, and it is a matter of where they wait. The Government have accepted that local authorities may use their own stock for two years. The Government have accepted that local authorities can continue to help homeless families after two years except that they deny local authorities their own stock in which to do so despite having conceded that the authorities may and should.

The amendment involves discretion. As it stands, the two-year inflexible rule which applies makes it a lottery for families. If they have a large number of children, they will probably not be at the top of the list where, under the Bill, they must rightly wait. If they have special needs for disability housing, they will not have reached the top of the list. They will have to wait. All we ask is that while they wait in this unpopular, unattractive, temporary housing, they should not have added to that the trauma of yet more evictions, with all the disruptive effects on the family.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, asked whether local authorities could get round the problem and offer permanent housing. If we had gone along that route, such an amendment would genuinely subvert the Bill. It is far more radical than anything we propose.


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