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Earl Russell: My Lords, I believe that we badly need this amendment because of the effect of Clause 157(8) of the Bill. That provides that a local authority shall not allocate housing accommodation except in accordance with its allocation scheme. If there is no provision for exceptions the words of Clause 157(8) will prove extremely inconvenient. One does not want a world that is made up of nothing but exceptions. As was said in this House by the first Earl of Strafford, the prerogative is to be used as God doth His omnipotency--upon extraordinary occasions. But there must be prerogative if there must be extraordinary occasions. There are plenty of extraordinary occasions. One can immediately

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think of many categories where, to avoid a considerable degree of social harm, it may be necessary to allow a local authority on occasion to give an additional priority.

Take, for example, children leaving care. They are some of the worst treated people in the whole of society. The problems created are likely to be with us for the rest of those people's lives. We are likely to pay heavily for them. There are the problems of those cared for in the community who may be discharged from medical or other accommodation when their needs are exceptional and who are not altogether fit to cope with the housing market. I take as an example a person who regularly can be seen on the route that I take to the tube station in the morning and who harangues every passer-by with unintelligible imprecations. Such people are not necessarily fit for the amount of freedom they have been given. If there is no exceptional freedom to provide for them tragedies of many kinds may result.

Take the example of women who leave refuges after they have been victims of domestic violence. Ever since publication of the Green Paper there has been intense concern among those involved in refuges about the danger of urgently needed places silting up because people cannot be rehoused. Being able to exercise a reasonable preference in cases like that may be vital to avoid severe problems. People who have been through that experience need a new permanent environment in order to get back on their feet again. To stand on one's own two feet is all very well. But, generally, one needs ground underneath one's feet before one can do it.

Amendment No. 4 takes its wording from the Children Act. It is my understanding that Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 are grouped together. That draws attention to the fact that we are perpetually passing on problems from housing to social services. There must be a two-way traffic; if not, there will be a traffic jam. I am happy to support the amendments.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the noble Baroness explained the reasoning behind the amendment, for which I am grateful. I am amused by the company the noble Earl, Lord Russell, keeps when he goes to the tube station every day. I believe that he is very generous to take a person who perpetually harangues everyone in sight--but evidently not the noble Earl, Lord Russell. I presume that if he harangued the noble Earl he would not get a lift the next day.

I should like to address the amendment by explaining what Clause 157 does. It sets out the factors to which each local authority must give reasonable preference in framing its allocation scheme. Those factors take into account a broad range of housing circumstances and social conditions. That is all that the legislation says about the way in which an authority must allocate its stock. It is for each authority to decide the details of the scheme it wishes to adopt for its area, subject to any principles that the Secretary of State may prescribe on matters such as the involvement of elected members in individual cases and how it operates the scheme.

This means that the authority has considerable discretion as to how to interpret the factors to which it is required to give reasonable preference. The expression

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"reasonable preference" appears in the provisions governing housing allocations contained in the Housing Act 1985. Indeed, the same term is found in earlier legislation dating back to 1935.

The amendment seeks to address the question of what would happen to a household which, for example, had been on the waiting list for some time and was perhaps living in poor conditions. The household might be nearing the point where it would be allocated a house. It may be that a fire occurs, the house is burned down and the household suddenly becomes homeless. The household is rehoused under the new two-year duty, possibly in a house which is in better condition than the one which has been burned down. Because the accommodation provided under the two-year duty must be suitable within the meaning of Clause 192, the household will lose at least some of the points which it had on the waiting list because it had been in poor accommodation. No doubt many of your Lordships will feel that that is unfair since the household will have to wait longer for permanent rehousing than it would have done had the house not burned down.

We are not setting out in legislation the way in which an authority will operate its allocation scheme in relation to individual cases. That must be a matter for its discretion. We do not wish to specify how each local authority handles such a case. An authority must apply the principle of reasonable preference in setting up its allocation scheme. Within its scheme, which must reflect the criteria set out in Clause 157(2), it has discretion to make provision for special cases of this kind and to move them directly into permanent housing if it feels that the particular circumstances justify it. Clearly, the authority can use this discretion only within the limits of that which is reasonable in a particular case. But if the Bill were to contain a general provision on this point, it would run counter to the authority's duty to give reasonable preference to the classes of person mentioned in Clause 157. Some local housing authorities already exercise their discretion in particular cases in just this way under present provisions. Since the key phrase in the legislation, "reasonable preference", appears in both the existing and the new legislation I see no reason why authorities should not continue to do so.

I draw the attention of the House to the provision which follows the list of allocation criteria in Clause 157(2):


    "The scheme shall also be framed so as to secure that additional preference is given to households ... consisting of someone with a particular need for settled accommodation on medical or welfare grounds who cannot reasonably be expected to find settled accommodation for themselves in the foreseeable future".
That would enable an authority to give additional preference to someone with a need for long-term housing on medical and welfare grounds if he could not reasonably be expected to secure accommodation for himself. I believe that that would meet the cases of most concern to your Lordships.

The amendment of the noble Baroness seeks to formalise the extent of a local authority's discretion. That may be a contradiction in terms in that it is quite difficult to formalise a discretion. I believe that that

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would be a pity. The amendment seeks to set out in specific terms what the Bill already provides for in the construction of Clause 157. So I hope that the noble Baroness will not think I am churlish if I say to her that the Bill would be better without the amendment because that which the noble Baroness wishes to see incorporated in the Bill is, in fact, already incorporated.

4.30 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, with the leave of the House, before responding to the debate I would like to ask the Minister a question that follows from what he was saying.

One of the issues that I think has not been clarified at any stage during the debates is on what the points system is based. I had assumed from what had been said in the other place and at earlier stages in this Bill by the Minister's noble friend Lord Mackay--but obviously I do not want to put words into his mouth--that the number of points allocated to a homeless person when he went into temporary accommodation depend on the condition of homelessness existing when he went on to the waiting list rather than on the quality of the temporary housing offered to him. In other words, by accepting temporary accommodation, he would go back down the list--the snake effect. If that were so, I can see it would be very difficult for local authorities. Applicants would then say "Well, I don't want good temporary accommodation even for two years if that means that I won't get permanent housing for another four or five. I would rather take my chance in poorer temporary housing and not lose my points score, and then get my entitlement to permanent housing in due course".

Will the Minister clarify that point which is absolutely pivotal to our understanding? I had understood that the situation from which homeless families came determined their points score: that they waited in temporary accommodation and that whatever the nature of the temporary accommodation it did not affect their points. But something that the Minister said seemed to suggest that the eligibility for permanent housing would depend on the points obtained from the temporary housing in which they were subsequently housed. He used the case of somebody whose house was burnt down. In that case, as I said, there would be major problems for people trying to calculate whether they should accept this temporary house rather than another according to the points it would carry with them for their family. I am sure that that is not a route that local authorities would want to go down.

That point is so pivotal that it would be very helpful if we could have an answer. It may be that the Minister would prefer to wait a moment or two and come back with it, but we really do need this clarified. I am happy to wait and go on to some other points if that would help the Minister. It is a major point for us, and I am trespassing on the indulgence of the House.


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