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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am not sure I understand my noble friend's problem. I do not think local authorities have to go round establishing that every property they might consider is suitable for a disabled person in the generality of cases. I should have thought that when they have a case in front of them in which either the applicant or a member of his family is disabled, in that circumstance they have to satisfy themselves. I do not think that we can ask local authorities to assume that every applicant will require disabled facilities. It is the applicant in front of them for whom they must be satisfied the accommodation is suitable.

I understand the point that my noble friend makes. As a fall-back position, as it were, I indicated that there were powers in the Bill that the Secretary of State could take if we discovered that local authorities were not being at all sympathetic to people who were disabled. I find it hard to believe that local authorities would take that view. However, if they did so, the powers are there. I should have thought it a fairly easy thing to do in what will be a limited number of cases where disablement is a major factor and where the accommodation has to be such that it suits disabled persons. I hope my noble friend will be satisfied with that explanation.

Lord Swinfen: If my noble friend had said when he first replied that local authorities had to make certain that the accommodation was suitable for an individual disabled person, I should have accepted that. He neglected to say so. I am glad I pressed him a little further. He has now clarified the situation. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch moved Amendment No. 267A:


Page 102, line 47, at end insert (", or for authorities in London, in the Greater London area").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 267A, I shall also speak to Amendment No. 268D with which it is grouped and with which it is designed to be complementary. I must apologise to your Lordships for moving amendments to a housing Bill, and hasten to profess that I do not pretend to be a housing expert, as so many of your Lordships are.

The effect of these amendments would be to allow a local housing authority in London to place a homeless person or an asylum seeker in any London borough or anywhere in the Greater London area and not just in that authority's own area. I should perhaps declare an interest as a council tax payer in Westminster, because I understand that these amendments, if accepted, would

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reduce the tax burden in Westminster and perhaps in other London boroughs too. But my remarks are made with Westminster largely in mind.

It seems that Westminster suffers from an unusually high average rent per household, and it also attracts very much more than its fair share of asylum seekers. Average rents per week for temporary accommodation in Westminster seem to be three or four times more expensive than in boroughs outside London and quite a bit more expensive than the rest of central London. Westminster's private rented sector is one of the largest in the country, currently comprising some 35 per cent. of the total housing stock. It has, however, traditionally suffered from a distinct polarisation between the top end and the bottom end of the market. Even at the bottom end, rents are relatively expensive, often above housing benefit thresholds, with tenants consequently experiencing rent restrictions. So although the council is committed to making more use of the private rented sector, it simply will not be able to access sufficient properties in Westminster to meet the needs of the homeless.

So far as I can see, these amendments would not be to the disadvantage of other London authorities or authorities elsewhere, or of course to the homeless generally. I am advised that they would be of advantage also to the social services budget. So I hope that they will be regarded as sensible. I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I am slightly uneasy about these amendments. I know that they have the Westminster situation in mind, but they appear to allow local authorities to discharge their duty under the Bill by pointing to the fact that there may be suitable alternative accommodation somewhere else, outside their area. Why stop at Westminster? Why stop at the London boroughs? If this argument is valid, it is valid for Manchester and Liverpool and for the adjacent authority to my own city of Norwich, South Norfolk. Before 1977, local authorities used to do precisely that. In authorities in what has become North Norfolk social workers would put people on a bus with the bus fare to come into Norwich and tell them that Norwich would house them. That was why we passed the 1977 Act in the first place. The noble Lord's amendment would revisit that situation by allowing local authorities to churn the homeless outside their boundaries and expect some other authority and the resources of another authority to take responsibility for them.

I recognise the problem but do not feel that this is the right way to respond to it. My understanding is that the vast majority of the other London boroughs resist the amendment. They fear that it would simply allow Westminster to export its problems rather than respond to its duties.

Baroness Hamwee: I too have reservations about the amendment. I recognise that it may not just be a Westminster problem. The authorities around an airport will suffer similar difficulties. In the local authority finance regime that we have, it is a matter of assessing the requirements of particular authorities. I believe that that is how the matter is approached. I do not know

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how Bromley, for instance, could know whether suitable accommodation were available in say, Havering or Hillingdon, or authorities in other parts of the perimeter of London. It will be difficult enough for authorities to assess the availability of suitable accommodation in their own areas.

For those reasons and because of the implications for an applicant who could be required to travel immense commuting distances for work and whose children could be required to travel very large distances if their education is to be maintained in the same school or inevitably they must undergo a change of school, I join with those who ask the noble Lord to think again about whether this is the right approach.

7 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: The amendments in the name of my noble friend Lord Pearson seek to amend Clause 176 so that a London borough could apply the test of the availability of suitable accommodation not just to its own area but to the whole of the Greater London area. Amendment No. 268D would amend Clause 189 to provide that, in respect of authorities' homelessness responsibilities under the whole of Part VII, the London boroughs' joint area should be treated as one district. We come back to the definition of "district", about which I was asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee.

Similar amendments were tabled in another place and my right honourable friend the Minister for Housing gave a commitment to discuss them with the local authority associations. That commitment has been fulfilled by discussions at official level, and it is evident to the Government and the associations that we share the view that it is not realistic to treat the London area as one district for the purposes of Part VII of the Bill. So I am afraid that I cannot agree with my noble friend. I do not know whether wittingly or unwittingly he has given me perhaps the one opportunity I shall have this evening to be on the same side of both the noble Baronesses who have just spoken.

It is no small task for a local authority to determine what constitutes suitable alternative accommodation in its own area, as the last debate initiated by my noble friend Lord Swinfen illustrated. It requires a good knowledge of the local market and ongoing monitoring, which is what many good local authorities do.

Amendment No. 267A would, in effect, require London boroughs to determine whether there is suitable accommodation in another borough's area. I do not believe that that is realistic. One could not expect Hillingdon--the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, gave the example, which I reaffirm--to identify such accommodation in, say, Barking.

Amendment No. 268D goes wider and seeks to make all London boroughs areas of one district for the purposes of the homelessness provisions. The same arguments apply to this proposal as to the amendment to which I have just spoken. London boroughs would still need to make judgments about the availability of accommodation in other boroughs.

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In addition to the difficulty of determining availability of accommodation in other boroughs' areas, this proposal would have implications for assessing "local connection", for dealing with referrals and, in short, for all aspects of the homelessness part of the Bill. If it were incorporated into the Bill, a person applying to, say, Westminster, who had previously resided in, for example, Bexley, would be the responsibility of Westminster--or any other London borough to which he may choose to apply. Under this proposal, an applicant could claim a local connection in any or all of the London boroughs if London were to be one district.

While we recognise, as my noble friend outlined, that some London boroughs have particularly acute problems with homelessness, we do not believe that those problems will be solved by simply turning all the boroughs into a single district. We believe that this proposal would render Part VII of the Bill virtually inoperable. I know that that is not the intention behind the amendment. I understand the intention, but I fear that I must say to my noble friend that as a result of the discussions which followed on the commitment given by my right honourable friend the Minister for Housing, clearly the solution proposed here would not be the right one and would pose many more difficulties to authorities than it would provide solutions.

With that explanation, I hope that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw his amendments.


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