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Earl Russell: In supporting the amendment, I should like to speak also to Amendment No. 266B which stands in my name. The word in both amendments is "suitable"; the difference is only that they purchase on different parts of the Bill. In my opinion the Bill needs both amendments because they achieve the same thing in different contexts.
The amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, relates to the duty to secure accommodation, as he has explained. My amendment relates to the fact that if a local authority has made a single offer to a person and the person has refused it, the duty on the local authority ceases. That encapsulates what has been the practice of some local authorities, including my own, for quite a long time. There have been cases where a local authority has not wanted to house certain people. For a while that applied to victims of domestic violence who came from another borough. Local authorities did not like that. It has been the practice of certain local authorities to deal with people they do not particularly want to house by giving them the most unsuitable offer of accommodation that they can find. The duty then ceases because the people refuse the offer.
I recall a particular case of a discharge from a local refuge. That woman was offered a place on the most violent estate in Brent. The property had no bath; it was broken to smithereens. There was no lock on the door. If you have been a recent victim of domestic violence, you do not regard a place with no lock on the door as "suitable" accommodation. Moreover, that woman had received just that day on discharge from the refuge a community care grant of £600 from the Social Fund--I am glad to be able to acknowledge that on occasion the Department of Social Security can be generous. As she had no bank account, she was given the money in cash. On her very first evening in that new accommodation, which she had accepted for fear of being ruled to be intentionally homeless if she refused it, every single pound of that money was stolen. Naturally, the Social Fund did not feel like giving it a second time.
That is the sort of thing that can happen if the local authority is not under an obligation to make sure that the offer is "suitable". That is an actual case. I admit that it is unusual, but such cases can happen and if they have happened once, they can happen again.
In passing, perhaps I may agree strongly with what the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, said about transport to schools. One does not always want to ask young children to cross very many busy roads, especially coming back from primary school. It is particularly important, especially for people who work unsocial hours, to have accommodation in a place from which they can work. If you have to be at work at 5.30 a.m. or have to leave work at the sort of time that we left this place last night, you need to be within travelling distance or have a car. Most of the people with whom we are dealing do not have a car. That is why I think that "suitable" accommodation must mean accommodation from which you can work.
Lord Mottistone: As the Committee probably knows, I am advised by the National Schizophrenia Fellowship. I should like to support both amendments, and particularly the speech of my noble friend Lord Swinfen. Perhaps I may give the Committee one brief example of why it is particularly important that schizophrenic people should not be offered housing which is unsuitable. After four months in hospital, a person with schizophrenia was discharged back to a 16th floor high-rise flat where the gas and electricity had been disconnected and everything was in chaos. His family did not want him to return there and hoped that he would stay in the hospital until more suitable accommodation was available because his friend with a flat on the 21st floor of the block had committed suicide by throwing herself from it. Five weeks after being discharged, the schizophrenic person about whom I am talking did exactly the same and was killed.
That is just one example of many such occurrences. It seems to me that including the word "suitable" where suggested is sensible. It is a fact that the Government themselves have included the word "suitable" elsewhere in this part of the Bill, such as in Clause 169(1), twice in Clause 170(4), and in Clause 176(1), so it is not entirely unknown for the Government to include "suitable" in suitable places. I apologise for the pun. I hope that my noble friend will listen to what we have said and that he will perhaps gently accept the amendment.
Lord Northbourne: We have heard moving speeches from the noble Lords, Lord Swinfen and Lord Mottistone, and from the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy (de Knayth), about people with various disabilities. I welcome the amendment because it would help certain categories of families, particularly families with children and particularly those with many children, as well as many other categories of disadvantaged people.
What worries me about the amendment is that it seems so sweeping that I fear that the Minister will turn it down simply because it will include too many categories of people and impose too heavy a demand on local authorities. If the Minister cannot accept the amendment--I urge him to do so--will he perhaps give us some encouragement to frame another amendment which would be slightly more limited to those who are genuinely in need?
My question on the amendment is: who determines suitability? Over the years that I have shown people accommodation, I have found that many people say, "Oh no, I would not live in that block because I am waiting for the new one up the street". There would have to be an objective assessment of "suitable". Other wording might be, "accommodation deemed by the local authority to be suitable". It must not purely be a matter of whether or not you like a property and whether the view is what you want. That is why I feel that the word "suitable" may be a little risky.
Earl Russell: Perhaps I may help the noble Baroness briefly. Normally the word "suitable" gives rise to a negotiation and once people know that they have to negotiate, they tend to become a bit more reasonable. If they do not, ultimately it is a matter for the courts.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I very much support the amendments. If the Minister is unable to accept Amendment No. 266, what he is saying in effect is that a local authority could discharge its duty by offering unsuitable accommodation. Clearly, that is not within the spirit of the legislation. The test of suitability can relate to the state of the property, particularly in terms of its physical repair. If a property is damp, it will be inappropriate, particularly for children with asthma or for an elderly person with a bronchial condition. A property might also be unsuitable in terms of space, given the age of the children, who might need separate bedrooms. It may be a question of affordability. We shall return to that point later. All of those can be important tests of suitability, but even more important is the fact that disabled people need to have ease of physical access to a property.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, said that it may just be a question of the view. The point about including the word "suitable" is that the local authority would have been expected to offer a property which was "suitable" in the view of a reasonable person. That means that if a local authority offered a property that did not fit those requirements in terms of its physical condition, the number of bedrooms, or ease of access for somebody with a disability, it would be subject to judicial review. If a word such as "suitable" is not included the person at the receiving end is totally in the hands of those who make the offer, whatever it may be. If it is unsuitable and the person refuses it he or she will be deemed to be intentionally homeless and the local authority will have discharged its duty towards that person. I am sure that that is not intended by the Minister. I very much hope that the Minister can accept the amendment moved by his noble friend.
The amendment of my noble friend Lord Swinfen deals with the issue of suitability of accommodation. I believe that that is covered perfectly adequately by Clause 182. That clause deals with the discharge of functions by local authorities under the homelessness provisions in Part VII. Clause 182 states:
My noble friend referred to access to schools. That is something that everyone must take into account in deciding where to live, whether it be under the homelessness legislation or, as in the case of the great majority, on their own account. It is not unique to those who are homeless. But the code of practice points to the need for good access to schools and other facilities. The current code already does that, and that point will be reiterated in the revised code.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, gave an example which I believe he had already referred to in this Chamber. I agree with the noble Earl that it would be wrong for a local authority to attempt to discharge its duty in a manifestly hard-to-let property of the kind to which he referred. We will cover that matter in the guidance. I apologise for giving the same answer again. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, suggested that this amendment was too radical and something less radical was possible. Certainly, something less radical will appear in the guidance that we intend to issue.
Perhaps I may try to think up a question that has not yet been asked. It may be that your Lordships will ask about the status of the guidance and suggest that local authorities will ignore it. That point has already been made to me by the noble Earl. Of course, guidance is a general statement about how the statute should be applied. I believe that local authorities who ignore it do so at their peril. The local authority risks challenge in court where the guidance can be legitimately quoted by a person aggrieved by what the local authority has done in furtherance of its responsibilities under the homelessness legislation.
The amendment of the noble Earl seeks to amend Clause 172(7)(a). In considering this amendment, regard should also be had to subsection (7)(b) of the same clause. This provides that the duty ceases if the applicant refuses an offer of accommodation and the authority is satisfied that it is reasonable for him to accept it. The Government are inclined to the view that the test of reasonableness in that subsection is sufficient to ensure that the offer should be of accommodation which is suitable for the applicant to occupy. However, the Government are considering further the implications of subsection (7) to ensure that the element of reasonableness is carried through as intended. If as a result of that further consideration the wording is found to be inadequate, we intend to table the appropriate amendment at Report stage.
I hope that I have persuaded my noble friend Lord Swinfen that, reading Clauses 182 and 183 together and with the guidance that is to come, his amendment is unnecessary. In the light of my assurances, I hope that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment. As far as concerns the amendment of the noble Earl, I hope that with my assurances in relation to subsection (7)(b), and the fact that we are looking at that subsection as a whole to ensure that it does what we intend it should do, he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
Earl Russell: I am most grateful to the Minister for the care he has taken in responding to this amendment. I take his point about Clause 182 and am reassured by what he has said. I am not as reassured by what he has said about subsection (7)(b). I have no objection to the test of reasonableness. The problem is that it is the local authority which has to be satisfied as to reasonableness. The local authority is here made judge and party in its own cause. We have heard today from the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, how intense the pressure can be on a local authority when it is short of housing stock. That point was made most forcefully in the judgment of the Court of Appeal. The tensions which gave rise to that case going to court arose largely from lack of stock.
A decision may appear to the local authority to be reasonable but it may not necessarily appear reasonable to anyone else. In the case that I mentioned--I am grateful to the Minister for his comments about guidance--it appeared to the local authority to be reasonable. In reply to representations the local authority insisted that it was reasonable. It did not wish to house
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