The Chairman: With this, it will be convenient to take new clause 2Section 202: reviews
Mr. Don Foster: Mr. Griffiths, you are new to our deliberations, so you will not be fully aware of the importance of postcards written to Mrs. Foster. However, for some members of the Committeenot least myselfthey have become a significant feature of the passage of homelessness legislation. I am delighted that in clause 11 there is--already, before any deliberations have taken placean opportunity for me to write another postcard to Mrs. Foster.
During our deliberations on part II of the Homes Bill, I expressed concern about the availability of accommodation for people seeking to challenge a decision by a local housing authority. At that time, the Government were not minded to accept my amendments; however, I am absolutely delighted to see in the new Homelessness Bill the very wording that I had proposed as an amendment at an earlier stage of our deliberations. Unfortunately, the Government have not gone as far as I would have liked: they covered one part of the amendment but not the other. The purpose of the new clause is to seek to persuade the Government to even the situation out and ensure that both aspects of my concerns are covered. In doing that, I shall deploy the same arguments that were, clearly, very successful.
I apologise to the Committee for the complexity of the new clause. To ensure that it fully meets all the various aspects of the legislation, the new clause has become somewhat complex, although the issue is simple. Let me explain it in a simple way.
When a homeless person or household applies to a local authority, the local authority must make two decisions: first, whether the person is deemed to be unintentionally homelessthe eligibility issue; and secondly, the priority that is to be afforded to a person who has met the first part of the testthe priority issue. If a person is unhappy with the local housing authority's decision, he has two opportunities to challenge it. The first is during the review process, which is an internal review carried out by the local authority itself. We discussed that in an earlier debate. If the person is not satisfied with the outcome of the review, the second stage is the appeals process, in which there is an opportunity to ask the court to decide the matter.
In our earlier deliberations, I argued that, during the review process and the subsequent appeals process, a person seeking to challenge a local authority's decision would be disadvantaged if he or she did not have accommodation during that period. I proposed several amendments that would seek to ensure that, in cases that were likely to be won by the applicant, it would be reasonable for the local authority to provide accommodation.
With regard to the second stagethe appeals processthe Government were not initially prepared to accept my proposal. However, I am delighted that in clause 11(4)(a) the Government clearly state that they now accept that a county court should be able, if it thinks that it is an appropriate course of action, to instruct a local authority to make accommodation available to an applicant during the appeal period.
Strangely, however, the Government have not so far seen fit to accept that the same principle is valid with regard to the internal local authority review process. It is equally true that a person who is going through the review process would be disadvantaged if he or she did not have access to accommodation. The Government will argue that, in such circumstances, accommodation will probably be made available, because existing legislation gives the local authority the opportunity to do that. Indeed, the right of review is contained in section 202 of the 1996 Act, and section 188(3) gives local authorities the power to provide accommodation during the review period.
Sadly, it is the clear experience of many people who have gone through the process that local authorities do not make accommodation available, despite the fact that they have the power to do so. The Government have provided strong guidance to local authorities that they should make that accommodation available. The guidance says that authorities should
``consider the personal circumstances of the applicant and the consequences for him or her of deciding not to exercise their discretion''
I moved amendments to part II of the Homes Bill that sought to make it more likely that local authorities would provide accommodation in such circumstances. The Government respondedperhaps not unreasonablyby saying that, if accommodation was to be made so easily available, many people would seek a review, although it did not stand much of a chance of succeeding, in the knowledge that it would provide them with accommodation for a period of time at least. Thus vexatious requests for reviews would be made, merely to get accommodation.
Although the Government put forward a reasonable point, they had made a similar point with regard to an earlier attempt by me in respect of accommodation during the appeals process. On that occasion, they were prepared, in effect, to say that if one solution does not work, a different solution should be found. Therefore, with regard to the appeals process, it has now been accepted that the county court should be allowed to make a decision on such matters and, if it considers that it is appropriate, to instruct the local authority to make accommodation available.
Therefore, I make a simple appeal to the Committee. Having already accepted my arguments as a way of achieving that end without causing the problems that the Government foresaw initially in respect of the appeals process, I now appeal to the Government to accept exactly the same logic in respect of the review period. Failure to do so would mean that, in the early stage when more people are likely to have their claims tested, they will be put at a significant disadvantage if they do not have that access to accommodation in the event that they have a strong casea strong case which, under my new clause, would be judged by the county court.
My proposal is clear. I am sure that the Government will want to redraft my complex new clause, but I hope that today I shall be able to write at least the first lines of a postcard to Mrs. Foster to tell her that we are getting somewhere. I look forward to the Minister saying that that is the case.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I should like to comment on the serious intention of the hon. Member for Bath, although his speech and his new clause are a long-winded way in which to amend section 202 of the Housing Act 1996. There is a more simple way of doing what has taken him a page and quarter of gobbledegook to do. If the word ``may'' in section 204(4) of the 1996 Act had been altered to ``must'', that would have eliminated the entire need for the hon. Gentleman's new clause. If the local authority had to provide accommodation during the period when an applicant was appealing against its review procedure, that would have had the same effect as the new clause. However, the hon. Gentleman is now about to tell me that I am wrong.
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