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Lord Swinfen: I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate, which has been useful in eliciting the responses of my noble friend. I am happy with his answer. Undoubtedly, I shall return to my amendment at the next stage of the Bill. I shall be interested to see whether my noble friend tables an amendment on the lines suggested by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 266A:


Page 100, line 4, leave out from ("authority") to end of line 19 and insert ("shall take reasonable steps thereafter to secure that accommodation does not cease to be available for his occupation.").

The noble Baroness said: Perhaps I may refer to this matter as the "Baroness Gardner of Parkes" amendment. It goes further than the amendment that we moved earlier. I believe that the noble Baroness encouraged us to go for this amendment. I hope I may have her support. This amendment seeks to require local authorities to continue to ensure that accommodation for homeless families does not cease after two years. At the moment local authorities have discretion to continue to ensure that housing is available. This amendment would make it into a duty.

That duty would include making provision for a secure tenancy if local authorities thought it appropriate. The government code of guidance, revised as late as 1994, says:


That was the Government's position as of 1994. All the professional housing bodies, the local authorities, the Churches, and voluntary organisations agree. Even the department agreed on the three previous occasions on which it reviewed homelessness legislation under Mr. Heseltine, Mr. Patten and Lord Ridley. Only the current Government, temporarily, do not agree.

Under this Bill we have a situation by which families will live in temporary accommodation for two years or more instead of local authorities being allowed the right not only to continue to provide temporary accommodation, but also to make it permanent accommodation, if they see fit. Children will be unable to put down roots. With the responsibility under the Bill of local authorities to introduce introductory tenancies the Government need have no fear that offering a secure tenancy, subject to the introductory tenancies rule, will advantage, for example, anti-social families or families who fail to pay their rent. Local authorities would still have the right to regain possession. Those families who lost their homes because the man was self-employed and his business collapsed during the recession will be able to get on with the rest of their lives.

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People are faced with so much insecurity, as all the evidence around us shows. In this debate on the Bill in this Chamber we cannot do much about the insecurity of the job market caused by the global economy, but we can do something to mitigate the insecurity that faces people, and their children, when they lose their home. This Bill, as it stands, adds to their insecurity. The Government are creating insecurity through this Bill and they do not need to do so, hence this amendment. We are not saying that all homeless people should be offered a permanent tenancy after the two years if they have not reached a certain point on the waiting list.

With this amendment we are seeking, as the Minister said, to make a distinction between symptoms and causes. It may be that some homeless families are only temporarily homeless, perhaps because their house has been burnt down and they are waiting for insurance money. That was the example that the noble Baroness, Lady Parkes, used on a previous occasion. Such a family would clearly only need temporary housing until they were able to make an independent home of their own.

Where the cause and the symptom are the same, that is to say, that homelessness is a problem by virtue of that family's need for a secure and settled home, this amendment would give that duty to local authorities. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: This amendment is reasonably close, at least in subject matter, to the first amendment that we dealt with this afternoon. However, it goes a good deal further. If one takes out some of the negatives it would appear that local authorities should provide permanent accommodation. The words:


    "does not cease to be available for his occupation"
seem to me fairly close to "permanent accommodation".

As I have already explained to Members of the Committee, a critical part of the Government's homelessness reforms is removing the link between providing assistance in a crisis, when a household finds itself homeless, and allocating life-long tenancies in local authority or housing association accommodation to people on the basis of underlying long-term housing need. If Amendment No. 266A were accepted by noble Lords the whole purpose of the reforms would be unfulfilled.

I am not convinced by the argument about insecurity, and insecurity in the job market. I recommend to the noble Baroness a recent speech by my right honourable friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and some research which shows that this is a much overstated situation in the job market in this country. It is also overstated in the housing market, where the majority of people are in permanent accommodation, either owned by local authorities or housing associations or, thanks to the Government's policy, in homes owned by themselves.

The present homelessness provisions were intended to provide a safety net for vulnerable people who become homeless unintentionally. A safety net cushions someone from a bad experience, and allows them to pick themselves up and get on with their life. Homelessness can be a temporary experience, the result of a

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confluence of unfortunate circumstances, perhaps temporary unemployment or the break-up of a relationship. By no means everybody who happens to become homeless at a particular point in time needs to be provided with accommodation for life, which is what is meant by getting permanent local authority accommodation.

For many years the present provisions were interpreted by the courts as imposing a duty on housing authorities to secure permanent accommodation for people accepted as statutorily homeless. This meant that acceptance could provide a fast track into a permanent social tenancy for life, often as I explained earlier, at the expense of people on the waiting list. Since the homelessness route offered such a valuable prize, it is perhaps not surprising that the number of people using it increased sharply.

Removing the unfairness of the fast-track proposals is a key aim of our reform proposals. The Awua judgment has clarified that the present provisions do not require housing authorities to secure permanent accommodation for people accepted as homeless. This illuminates one aspect of the duty but begs another question; what exactly is the present duty? This uncertainty in the wake of the Awua judgment needs to be addressed.

The provisions in Part VII, the homelessness part of the Bill, mesh with those in Part VI, the part dealing with allocation. Part VI provides a single route into social housing allocated by local authorities for everyone. Everyone's underlying needs should be assessed fairly and on the same basis. The allocation of long-term social housing should be considered separately from the emergency housing needs of people who find themselves in a temporary crisis and unintentionally homeless. Local authorities' duties under the homelessness legislation should be to provide assistance for a reasonable period to help people to make a fresh start. The two years provided for in Clause 172, coupled with the priority that such people are likely to receive on the housing register through Clause 148, is surely enough to achieve this.

This amendment goes directly against the intention of Part VII of the Bill, and I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, will not press it.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: I must enter into the debate on this amendment, but I certainly should not have done so had not the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, described it as being my amendment. Nothing could be further from my wish. Either she misunderstood something I said earlier or we are at cross-purposes. When she talked about her previous amendment my view was that in no way would I want to see it mandatory for local authorities to continue to find accommodation for homeless people beyond a certain period. I thought that in that period they would either have moved on to accommodation they had found themselves or the local authority would have found secure accommodation for them. When I spoke earlier I made the point--I certainly make it now--that a local authority already has the power to convert the temporary accommodation that people occupy into secure

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accommodation if they are approaching the top of the list in terms of points. The noble Baroness shakes her head, but I raised that point and I asked that question of the department. I have had that answer from it.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I should welcome it if the Minister would clarify the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Parkes. When we argued it the other night, the Minister said that it was a remote possibility but that there might be the occasional exceptional case. But if, as the noble Baroness has argued, local authorities can use their discretion to turn a temporary tenancy into a secure tenancy within a two-year period, then that family will not need to be evicted, because it is fairly close to being housed in the usual way--I hope I am putting the point fairly. If the Government were able to say that they accepted that reading of the Bill, it would go some way towards meeting our concerns. I ask the Minister to confirm whether the position put by his noble friend, which is one I would welcome, is shared by the Minister.

6 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: Perhaps I may clarify that we are talking about the cases to which we referred in an earlier debate--those people whose points mean that they are just about to reach the top of the list. The other side of the argument on that amendment was that if undesirable accommodation were offered to people with more points, they would probably refuse it and, therefore, the people occupying it would be given it. When I put that question to the department, I was informed that local authorities have an element of flexibility, and could act in that way if someone were close to the top of the list. I did not hear that from my noble friend the Minister but from the department. He, too, may need to check that point.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, might have been confused, because earlier I asked my noble friend the Minister to give a commitment to make some special arrangement or concession to help authorities which were in an especially difficult situation. He gave an undertaking to look at that point rather than at the general, overall, blanket situation. I support the Part VI allocation system where homeless people earn points as does everyone else, which are the basis of the allocation. I cannot support the noble Baroness on this amendment.


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