Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, the noble Baroness was kind enough to refer to my speech but said it was "preposterous". If it was quite so preposterous, I am mildly surprised that she did not bother to indicate as much when she replied to the speech that I made on the matter at Second Reading

8 Jul 1996 : Column 83

when, as my authority, I drew on a report by a House of Commons committee. Therefore she rather overstates her case.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I have not seen a statement in any House of Commons committee report which says that the sole reason for the Bill is somehow to fill a gap for the security services and prevent redundancies. If the noble Lord can find such a quotation, I should like to see it.

The Security Service Bill fulfils a very important function. But, in the fight against organised crime--money laundering, drug trafficking and the serious crimes to which we have referred during the course of the Bill--we also believe that bringing the expertise of the security services together with that of the police is a very important measure. We believe that the intellectual validity of the Bill is well understood. It is simply not a way of avoiding redundancies in the Security Service.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, expressed his very real concern about putting on a statutory footing the surveillance work of the police. I repeat, yet again, what I have said on so many occasions: it is our intention to put it on a statutory footing. The noble Lord should not become too exercised about what would happen post-election. First, I expect that we shall still be here as the Government after the election. I know that irritates the noble Lord.

Even given what the noble Lord may be suggesting, I deduced from his remarks and from those of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, that they, too, regard it as very important to underpin police activities by means of legislation. It would be a priority for any of the parties coming into power. We intend that the issue will be addressed at an early opportunity. As I said, work is well in hand, and we will keep faith with that. From remarks made, I believe noble Lords opposite support that approach. I have no doubt that, at the time, there will be arguments and lively discussions about means to an end. However, I hope that we shall now allow the Bill to receive its Third Reading. I commend the Bill to the House.

Bill read a third time, and passed.

The Earl of Courtown: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until five minutes past eight.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The sitting was suspended from 7.36 to 8.5 p.m.]

Housing Bill

Consideration of amendments on Report resumed.

Clause 168 [Duty of local housing authority to provide advisory services]:

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 38:


Page 103, line 20, leave out subsection (1).

8 Jul 1996 : Column 84

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I am sure that the Minister is well aware that appearances are frequently deceptive. My noble friend Lady Hamwee and I have put down amendments dealing with the same point which appear to have opposite effects, but, in fact, are destined to achieve exactly the same end. We are concerned with subsection (1) of Clause 168, which requires local housing authorities to,


    "secure that advice and information about homelessness ... is available free of charge to any person in their district".

We both wanted to know what this clause meant. I approached that by a standard probing device of putting down an amendment to leave out the clause. My noble friend has approached it by the opposite route of laying down a more detailed specification of what it might include. We both wish to know what it does.

When I first saw this clause I must admit that I was reminded of the provision in the arrangements for the Social Fund, which deals with those who are held to be too poor to receive any assistance from the Social Fund. They are, instead, given money advice. I have always wondered what use that provision was to anybody. I am slightly more reassured about that as we have gone through the Bill, but I should like to be reassured that it does mean something a little more helpful than that.

I am reminded of an occasion when I was a first year postgraduate, and I asked for information which was available, as I subsequently discovered, in one of the standard works of reference. My supervisor told me, "There is a book in the Bodleian". It was some time before I discovered that book. Similarly, if one were to tell homeless people, "There is housing available in Tower Hamlets", it might be quite some time before they discovered that housing. That is why I should like to know that something a little more specific than what I was offered by my supervisor is offered to the homeless under this clause. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, instead of allowing my noble friend Lord Russell to act as the curtain-raiser, I wonder whether I should leave it as a sort of one-act show. The purpose of my amendment, Amendment No. 39 in this group, is to highlight the importance of the availability of services being made widely known. I propose that there should be independent and comprehensive advice, which is not only valuable in itself, but often necessary as a check on local authorities--I say that with my local authority background--to tackle the root causes of homelessness. There are many causes and complex inter-relationships of causes. It is a tool for developing a more strategic approach to the problem.

The duty proposed in the Bill does not specify that at least an element of independent advice should be included and the duty of local authorities should not be restricted to advice which seeks to prevent homelessness--although that in itself is important--but should address the strategic problem of housing insecurity by providing comprehensive housing advice. Independent advice is good because it should be accessible to those who need it. I include owner occupiers and tenants in the private rented sector. It is more accessible than perhaps a statutory service may

8 Jul 1996 : Column 85

be able to provide and relevant to those groups--owner occupiers and tenants in the private sector--who may not regard the local authority as a likely source of assistance.

I mentioned the need for a check on the quality of local authority decision-making. That has been the thrust of many of our amendments over the two stages of the Bill. I believe too--again either with the benefit of my local authority background or despite it--that independent advice can often provide very good value for money. It may perhaps lend itself more than statutory advice to the settlement of disputes. We are in an age in which mediation and reconciliation are regarded as more important than perhaps they were some years ago.

I believe that the department supports independent advice. It has funded the national homelessness advice service. The interim report by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, on access to justice recognises the importance of independent advice. In another place the Minister said that an amendment to that effect was unnecessary and would be an additional cost to local authorities. However, although I should like to go along with the underlying notion that all local authorities carry out good practice, I fear, sadly, that that is not the case.

The amendment is based on parallel provisions in the Children Act. It is not clear why the provisions were necessary there, or at any rate acceptable, but here they are unnecessary.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I support both amendments, Amendments Nos. 38 and 39, which are grouped together, using them to make a point that we have not discussed elsewhere in the Bill. It is a point to which we may wish to return on Third Reading. It is the problem of homelessness which faces those owner occupiers in the private sector mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee--those who face repossession for all kinds of reasons but who, by definition, will not currently be on the waiting list. Most other forms of housing need, if one is in private rented accommodation or the like, put one in a position to go on a housing waiting list. No local authority will accept an owner occupier on a waiting list unless there are very strong medical grounds for a change of housing.

It seems to me that we could reasonably ask local authorities to pursue rather more vigorously ways in which they can help someone facing repossession to retain his home, if not necessarily his tenure. That would mean not so much a rent-to-mortgages scheme (as when the Government pushed us so hard in the Leasehold Reform, Housing and Urban Development Bill) but that local authorities should seek to establish wherever possible a mortgages-to-rent scheme. I shall not go into the matter in any great detail tonight. It may be that we shall come back to it at Third Reading. But, given all the alterations in income support arrangements, of which Ministers on the Government Front Bench will be well aware, there is for many, particularly those who are bad insurance risks by virtue of their occupation--insecure; contract; part-time; flexible; based on commission or whatever--real difficulty in being able to retain their home.

8 Jul 1996 : Column 86

I know that mortgages-to-rent schemes are not easy, especially when arrears remain as a debt. But, given the problem of negative equity, the sale of the property is not an easy option either. Also, given that there is not a low income mortgage support scheme, owner occupiers need a route into housing benefit if they are to remain in the same home and there bring up their children.

I understand that there are good examples of mixed tenure--part renting, part owning--in the social housing sector under the Joseph Rowntree Trust and other housing associations. I believe that some building societies, for example, Bradford and Bingley, have an excellent record in helping people remain in occupation of the house through a mortgages-to-rent scheme and making possible staircasing down.

I use the amendment as a hook to raise the issue. It struck me that at no stage in all our discussions have we considered the situation of an owner occupier faced with homelessness who, by definition, until the point of homelessness, was unable to go on the housing waiting list. It is important that local authorities should be encouraged, under the advice and assistance rubric, actively to enter discussions with building societies to see to what extent they can promote mortgages-to-rent schemes in their localities.

8.15 p.m.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I was fascinated to see the noble Earl, Lord Russell, table an amendment to leave out subsection (1) and his noble friend Lady Hamwee put down an amendment to keep in subsection (1) and add a lot of things to it. I do not know whether or not noble Lords on the Liberal Democratic Benches talk to each other but on these Benches we always try, as the expression goes, to sing from the same hymn sheet. Anyhow, they have introduced two amendments which are totally different and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said that she wanted to support both. So she rather indelicately sits astride the hedge and waits.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, tabled his amendment obviously from his frustrated experience as an undergraduate when he was told by his tutor to go down to the Bodleian and find a book there. I suppose that is the way you are taught if you go to Oxford. Some people who go to other places are taught differently. I can assure the noble Earl that times have moved on since 1868 and different practices occur.

The level of advice and assistance that is available to a person who may be experiencing, or is about to experience, a housing crisis varies throughout the country. Some authorities already provide good advisory services, but recent research that we commissioned showed clearly that provision is patchy overall.

We want to ensure that people are properly informed and to do that we must ensure that they have access to proper advice. In that way we can help prevent people becoming homeless in the first place. Research shows that timely housing advice can prevent homelessness by enabling a particular problem to be tackled in good time or an alternative housing solution to be found before a crisis develops. This new duty will ensure that people everywhere have the benefit of a good advisory service.

8 Jul 1996 : Column 87

It will be for each authority to decide the precise issues and areas that the services should cover. Different areas will require different types and levels of service. The revised Homelessness Code of Guidance to Local Authorities when it is issued will cover that matter, but we would not want to dictate from central government exactly how the services should be provided.

Authorities will not have to provide the advice themselves, although they may if they want to do so. They can invite other agencies to act as the provider. In many areas there will already be established organisations which provide housing advice services, and the authority may want to harness existing expertise to provide the service which is required under the new duty.

Amendment No. 39, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, seeks to insert a new subsection into Clause 168, requiring authorities to publish and disseminate information about services they provide, either directly or indirectly, and to take steps to ensure that those who might benefit from the services receive that information. I understand the concern of the noble Baroness in tabling this amendment. However, I do not believe that it is necessary. The imposition of a specific requirement to publicise and disseminate advisory services would be burdensome on local authorities. Moreover, it would require the Government to be prescriptive about how it should be done. We would have to tell them what to do and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, would not like that--he does not like the Government telling people what to do. We do not wish to be prescriptive: we wish to retain flexibility, so that authorities may decide what is appropriate in each case.

It is clearly in an authority's own interests to ensure that its services are brought to the attention of people in its area, in particular to help reduce the number of homelessness applications. But we do not believe it is necessary to put the requirement on the face of the Bill. We have repeatedly made clear that the revised guidance will cover advisory services, and I believe that is the right vehicle by which to persuade authorities of the benefits of publicising their services.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked whether the advice should be independent and whether it should extend to owner occupiers and private tenants. It is for a local authority to decide what to do. Many will support independent advice either by grant or by contract. There is no reason why the advice should not extend to owner occupiers and tenants and why it should not be independent. That, too, is a matter for local authorities.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, raised the question of mortgage-to-rent schemes. It is important, if unnecessary repossessions are to be avoided, that borrowers who are in difficulty should have access to sound advice and good counselling at the earliest possible stage. It is often the fact that borrowers in difficulty have multiple debt problems; it is not just the borrowing, there are other problems as well. The advice that they are given often needs to reflect a

8 Jul 1996 : Column 88

wide range of problems as well as the procedures, benefit entitlements and possible escape routes. There is therefore a need for co-operation and co-ordinated action by the main agencies involved in order to ensure that the borrowers who are in difficulty receive effective advice and the support that they require to meet their needs.

A joint working group of the Council of Mortgage Lenders and local authority associations found that that co-ordination can be achieved through local arrears fora which are set up by the local authority and can include representatives of mortgage lenders, local advice agencies and the benefits agencies. A number of local authorities have already set up those fora and the Government recommend that other authorities should follow suit.

The noble Baroness mentioned in particular mortgage-to-rent schemes. Those are one of a range of measures operated by lenders with the help of housing associations, local authorities and others in order to avoid repossessions. Mortgage-to-rent schemes have been used successfully, notably by the Bradford & Bingley Building Society. I agree with the noble Baroness that those schemes and other mortgage rescue operations should be welcomed. Local arrears fora, which are run by local authorities, are well placed to assist with that.

To encapsulate my response: the amendments are unnecessary.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page