May I return the Minister to an issue that was raised before she was interrupted by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and ruled out of order? She said that the Government had provided £8 million in compliance costs. Can she confirm that the money has already been used up in preparations for the Bill? Does she agree with the Association of London Government, which estimates the compliance cost for London alone at £20 million? By extrapolation, we can expect the Bill to cost authorities in England and Wales some £40 million. Are the Government likely to give that amount to local authorities, or will it be yet another of the burdens on authorities that the council tax payer will have to fund?
As I have said, £8 million has been allowed for and allocated, but I understand that it has not been used up. Obviously, officials are constantly discussing the costs of implementing this and other legislation with local authorities, and we continue to keep the matter under review; but we are committed to funding new burdens, and that commitment has been recognised in this Bill as in others.
The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) thought that the implications of the amendments had not been thought through properly. Some of us may think that they were thought through for rather too long. Certainly it took an inordinately long time for the proposals in the Bill to be accepted. The hon. Member for Bath laughs, probably because he knows how long the discussions have taken.
I realise that Westminster is experiencing serious difficultiessome caused by the disposal of council houses mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon)relating to homelessness and bed and breakfast accommodation. That is one reason why measures of this kind are so important. Hard though it may be to provide permanent accommodation for homeless people, and to deal with the awfulness of being housed in bed and breakfast accommodation, there is also the category of people who have no housing, who have no priority under the legislation, and who are finding it extremely difficult to find somewhere to live. Those are the people who should benefit from measures such as this, which will enable them to receive advice and be pointed towards accommodation.
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I hope that that deals with hon. Members' queries. It is a small, practical but important provision which will go a long way towards improving what is an already good Bill. I commend the amendment to the House.
Lords amendment agreed to.
Events which cause the duty to cease
Lords amendment: No. 2.
I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
With this we may also consider amendment (a) in lieu of the Lords amendment.
Again, this is a small but important amendment that ensures that people understand the consequences when they are offered accommodation.
At Committee stage in another place, concern was expressed that local housing authorities should not be able to bring the main homelessness duty to an end with a qualifying offer of an assured shorthold tenancy with a private landlord before it was absolutely clear that the applicant had understood the written statement that explains that that person has no obligation to accept the offer and that, if they do accept it, the homelessness duty will end.
The Government had a lot of sympathy with that concern. I think that hon. Members will agree that the crucial point is that the applicant must confirm that he or she has understood the statement. That may involve the person reading the statement themselves or someone else reading it to them. However, it may involve translating the statement into another language, or explaining to the applicant step by step what the effect of accepting an offer would be.
The Government are therefore of the view that it is unnecessary for the Bill to refer to the means by which an applicant must come to understand the content of the statement. All that is needed is the central requirement that the person has understood it.
Amendment No. 2 would achieve that and simplify the Bill. It would have the benefit of emphasising the key requirement that the applicant has understood the statement. I therefore commend amendment No. 2 to the House.
I suspect that we all agree with the Government's aspiration. It is a question of how it is done and what may happen if it is not done correctly, which is why we have tabled an amendment in lieu.
The to-ing and fro-ing that took place in the Lords is very interesting but perhaps I should explain what is in the Government's mind and what is in our mind. New subsection (7B) in clause 7 states:
"The authority shall also cease to be subject to the duty under this section if the applicant accepts a qualifying offer of an assured shorthold tenancy",
It is an important part of the Bill's operation. The moment the applicant has accepted the offer, the local authority will not be under any of the obligations that we have
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talked about: to give advice, assistance and everything else. So it is important that the applicant has read and understood it. For some reason the Government want to take out the words in new subsection (7E) "read and understood". To the contrary, we would like to strengthen this whole matter and insert the words:
"the statement mentioned in subsection (7D), or that it has been read to him, and that he understands it."
We want to be crystal clear that, in accepting the offer, the applicant, who may not be able to read or may be of limited learning, understands what is being put in front of him. We all have constituents who come to our surgeries and articulate what their fear or their particular problem is, but who, if we asked them to put it down in a letter, would not be able to do it. It is thus an important matter.
In supporting the amendment in another place, my noble Friend Baroness Hanham said:
"On amendment No. 15, as my noble friend Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville has already said, there should be no question that somebody has understood the words relating to the qualifying offer."
Those are important words. My noble Friend continued:
"I know it is common practice in Parliament to suggest that somebody should sign in relation to what they have read and understood. In relation to the world in which we are trespassing at the momentthose who are homeless and many of whom are vulnerableit would be correct not to assume that they could have read. Indeed, somebody should have ensured that they understood the matter and that, if they could not read, it was read to them".
We all agree with that, and our fear is that it will not happen.
I do not understand why the Government want to take the words out. One would expect that when an offer was put in front of somebody, he would be askedin a non-intimidatory waywhether he could read it and understand it. If there was any doubt whatever about whether he could read or understand it, he should have it explained to himwith patience, and for as long as it took.
In replying to my noble Friend Baroness Hanham, the Minister, Lord Falconer, said:
"Finally, Amendment No. 15 seeks to protect the position of applicants who, for whatever reason, would be unable to read a statement from the local housing authority about the qualifying offer. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising this point. I give an undertaking to consider it and come back with some form of solution to the problem at Report stage because a solution is clearly required."[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 December 2001; Vol. 629, c. 30-32.]
What is the Government's solution? To take out the words "read and"in other words, to weaken the provisions. Later, on Report in the House of Lords, Lord Falconer moved amendment No. 12, to leave out the words "read and", so the amendment was agreed to in another place. I cannot understand why the Government want to take those words out. [Interruption.]
Does the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) or the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) wish to intervene? Apparently not.
It is extraordinary that the Government now want to weaken the clause. It is a serious matter when a qualifying person is made such an offer, because he could lose all his existing rights. If he has not properly understood that, the situation is serious. I look to the Minister to provide us with a real explanation of why the Government are doing this, so that we can consider whether we want to vote on the amendment.
Mr. Don Foster:
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) for having spent a few
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minutes with me before our deliberations explaining his and his party's thinking on this issue. I listened with great care to what he said, and I note with considerable interest that he shares my concern that the important factor is the understanding. It is vital that the person concerned has understood the question on which he has to make a decision.
I also note, however, that the hon. Gentleman's proposed amendment in lieu would make no change whatever concerning understanding. The words
"and that he understands it"
appear in his amendment, just as the words "and understood" appear in the wording proposed by the Minister. Although I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the crucial word is "understands", neither his amendment nor the Minister's proposed wording gives full details of how it is to be checked that the person has understood, so that is the issue that the Minister must deal with in responding to the debate. I shall listen with great interest to the assurances that she can give the hon. Gentleman and me that procedures will be in place to ensure that the applicant has understood the issue before him.
Inevitably, as one might expect, I have had discussions with Shelter. As I am sure that the whole House is aware, Shelter has played a valuable role in determining on and proposing amendments. I am delighted that on many occasionssometimes after a lot of to-ing and fro-ingthose amendments have been accepted by the Government.
There is no doubt whatever of Shelter's view: "understanding" is the crucial word. Shelter's briefing makes the point succinctly and clearly:
"By omitting the requirement to read the statement, the amendment will ensure that those who are unable to read it are given a proper opportunity to fully understand it by having it translated or read to them."
Those are almost the same words as the Minister used in her introductory remarks, so it is clearly the Government's intention that alternative procedures will be set up to ensure that translation is available and that there are opportunities for someone to read the documentation to the applicant.