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Lord Swinfen moved Amendment No. 267:


Page 102, line 46, after ("accommodation") insert ("which meets the needs of the applicant in terms of affordability and size, and is accessible to, and meets the needs of, any disabled person who might reasonably be expected to reside with the applicant,").

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The noble Lord said: The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that when the local authority discharges its duty to homeless people in priority need by satisfying itself that other suitable accommodation is available the accommodation meets the needs of the household including any disabled member of the household.

The clause allows local authorities to discharge their duty towards homeless people in priority need by satisfying themselves that suitable accommodation is available in the district. It is important that that accommodation meets the needs of the household, in particular any disabled members of the household.

In practice local authorities could satisfy themselves that suitable accommodation is available by being aware that local lettings agencies have vacant properties or that local private landlords have vacancies. Their only duty is to provide the applicant with advice and such assistance as they consider appropriate in the circumstances in any attempt the applicant may make to secure such accommodation. Without some further regard to the needs of the household, in particular those with a disabled member, there could be considerable difficulties.

It is important that local authorities are aware of actual properties which would be appropriate for the real needs of the homeless household. Simply being aware of agencies having vacancies would not be adequate and could lead to homeless households having nowhere to go. A disabled person may well have very specific requirements for housing. Those could include access to the property and facilities within it, safety aspects of the property, location of the property near facilities they attend, and other issues such as access to transport or storage of equipment required because of the person's disability. Many general vacancies which lettings agencies may have are unlikely to meet those requirements. Therefore, the local authority must be aware of and have regard to the particular needs of the disabled person so that it can ascertain whether alternative accommodation which is available would be suitable.

Lettings agencies, or private landlords, cannot be expected to be aware of whether their property in general would be suitable for a disabled person. They will often have little expertise in disability issues and limited comprehension of the housing needs of disabled people. There is no national standard concerning, for example, accessible housing for people with limited mobility. I have been looking recently in London for wheelchair-accessible accommodation as part of my job. I received details of at least 300 units. From most of the particulars I could not tell whether or not they were accessible. Occasionally I could do so from a photograph. From telephone conversations with the agents, I boiled the search down theoretically to one flat in a block of flats which I was told was wheelchair accessible until I arrived to view it. I am sure that the flat was accessible once one got into the building; but there were steps from the street up into the block and so, alas, I am still looking.

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Local authorities must satisfy themselves that suitable accommodation is actually available for the disabled person in order to discharge their duty. Otherwise they will simply be advising disabled people about accommodation which may not be suitable, causing the disabled person to have to spend large amounts of time and energy inquiring about and looking at inappropriate properties. As many disabled people have mobility limitations, and using transport can present difficulties, that is even more problematic than it would be a for a non-disabled person.

As the proposals currently stand, not only could a disabled person spend much time looking at properties which are not appropriate, but in desperation he could accept a completely inappropriate property. In the long run that could have endless consequences not only for the independence and quality of life of the disabled person but also for the duties, responsibilities and costs of the social services.

It is important therefore that the duty of local authorities ensures that the individual requirements of disabled people are taken into account when the local authority is considering whether there is suitable alternative accommodation available for that person. I beg to move.

Baroness Darcy (de Knayth): I support the amendment. I was interested in what the noble Lord said about there not being a national standard; for example, for accessible housing for people with limited mobility. We heard the noble Lord's personal experience. I certainly know of that lack from trying to find a wheelchair-accessible hotel bedroom. One frequently embarks on an interminable hunt.

There are various definitions of an accessible standard. It is defined in a variety of ways by different organisations and government departments. Perhaps it would be a good thing for the government departments concerned and the disability organisations to get together to seek to arrive at an agreed acceptable standard of accessible housing for people of all disabilities. It would then be much easier to match people and property. It would assist us to ascertain what suitable housing is available, how much there is, and where it is.

Earl Russell: I support the amendment. I shall not repeat the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, or the noble Baroness. I agree with them. I could not have put them better.

The point I wish to make is that the local authority may free itself from a duty to house the applicant if it can satisfy itself that other suitable accommodation is available in the district. We have heard about the pressure that local authorities are under. What concerns me is that the local authority may be rather easily satisfied. That is why I think that the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, is vital.

It is material to the amendment to probe the word "district" in line 47 on page 102 of the Bill. The housing benefit authorities, I know, treat Rhyl and Llangollen as being in the same district although the rent levels and housing patterns are very different. If I were disabled

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and living in Llangollen, I should be in some doubt--if offered accommodation in Rhyl--whether it was really in the same district. I should be grateful if the Minister will assist us on the point.

Baroness Hamwee: With regard to that last matter, I had intended to raise the definition of "district" at another point in the Bill and ask how it relates to the ability of the Secretary of State, when exercising his regulation-making powers, to make different provisions in different cases and for different areas. One is accustomed to seeing the term "areas" in connection with regulations, and "district" seems a natural term in connection with housing. However, I wonder how they relate to one another.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I appreciate the concerns of my noble friend Lord Swinfen, the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy (de Knayth), and the noble Earl. This amendment would require that other suitable accommodation which was available in the district (under Clause 176) must meet the needs of the applicant as to affordability and size, and also meet the needs of, and be accessible to, any member of the household who was disabled.

These are of course very proper concerns, and I endorse the underlying sentiment. But this amendment is unnecessary because Clause 176 already provides that that other accommodation which is available must be suitable, and it is well established in homelessness case law that suitability must extend to all the aspects which Amendment No. 267 seeks to address. The Homelessness Code of Guidance already refers to the need to ensure that any accommodation provided meets the needs of disabled persons where necessary, and we shall be repeating that advice in the revised code of guidance that we shall issue after the passage of this Bill.

Additionally, we are taking a power in Clause 183 which will enable the Secretary of State to specify, by order, other matters which must be taken into account in determining whether accommodation is suitable for someone. We have not yet reached a final decision on precisely where we need to use this power, but we would not hesitate to use it to clarify that the type of factors referred to in Amendment No. 267 must be taken into account if it was evident that in practice local authorities were not doing so.

I was asked about "areas" and "districts". The Bill envisages that a local authority would exercise functions across its district. So the "district" is the district of the local authority.

I hope, given that assurance, that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Swinfen: My noble friend has not told the Committee how the local housing authority will make certain that the accommodation is suitable, particularly bearing in mind that the estate agents to which it goes probably will not know themselves. During my career I have been in estate agency. The object of the estate agent when letting property is to act for the landlord and find a tenant as soon as possible. You include all the

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good points. If some aspect is particularly bad, you try not to mention it, but if asked must do so under the Estate Agents Act, put in place by the previous Administration, which in one small aspect, although not yet tested, is defective.

Is the local authority to go round all the estate agents and obtain details of all the properties? How are authorities to satisfy themselves that the property is suitable? That is the wording in the Bill as drafted.


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