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Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for not giving me the comfort that I require. Can he say whether a code of practice in draft will be available before the Bill leaves this House.
My noble friend Lord Swinfen raised the question of community alarms and asked that social landlords and local authorities should be able to charge private owners on estates for the cost of providing community alarm systems. I can assure my noble friend that we are aware of the desire to extend the coverage for community alarm services. The issues involved are complex, but we are in touch with interested bodies such as the Association of District Councils. If we can find some practical proposals, we shall bring them forward.
I turn to Part II of the Bill. I believe that we find ourselves in broad agreement with the parties opposite as to the objective we seek to achieve--a substantial improvement in the quality of houses in multiple occupation. However, we find ourselves at a divergence on how to achieve it. I think we can do no more than await the Committee stage to see how that is resolved. We believe that our approach is the best and most flexible. It is clear that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, in particular disagrees.
As regards the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, the Bill proposes new mandatory duties on local authorities to make sure that larger houses in multiple occupation have adequate fire precautions and means of escape. Those provisions are in Clause 73.
Many noble Lords addressed Part III of the Bill. I look forward to an active and contentious Committee stage with contributions from the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and my noble friends Lord Gisborough and Lord Selsdon among others. It is clear that we shall have the benefit of much good advice on the details of this section. I do not wish to waste the time of the House now in going into the nooks and crannies of the Bill. However, perhaps I may reply to a couple of questions raised by my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes. First, the new rights of management and service charges apply even where there is an intermediate lease between the freeholder and leaseholder. Secondly, the leasehold is the only workable form of tenure for flats available under existing English law. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, was concerned with the question of whether we would bring in commonhold. My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor hopes to publish a draft Bill on commonhold this year. I am delighted at the prospect that it will have the support of the party opposite.
I turn to assured shorthold tenancies. One is aware that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, has major concerns in this area. However, I believe that we shall address them satisfactorily in Committee. In response to questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, 70 per cent. of private sector tenancies are already shorthold. Landlords can still grant full assured tenancies--that is non-shorthold--if they wish. If this House were to insist on full security, the simple reaction of the market would be that properties were no longer available for letting.
My noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes asked whether there were problems with extending a shorthold tenancy. Nothing in the Bill prevents a landlord offering a shorthold tenant a new term of any length he wants at the end of, or during, a shorthold tenancy.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, was concerned about our proposals on evictions in cases of rent arrears. The change we propose is modest, taking a month off the time it will take for the case to reach court. The tenant will still have three or four months before he is in danger of losing his home. We believe that this is adequate time to ensure that housing benefit claimants are not put at risk. It would be as well if the party opposite were to look at the other side of the equation sometimes and realise that many small landlords, often with mortgages, are dependent on getting the rent on time.
Part V of the Bill received a general welcome. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said that she would like to see the provision extended beyond local authorities into the private rented sector. This part of the Bill concerns itself with local authorities in their role as landlords and the responsibilities which they have towards their tenants whom we feel have less choice about where they live. Remedies exist under other legislation such as the Environmental Protection Act which can be used for the protection of owner occupiers.
My noble friend Lord Swinfen was concerned about the application of Part V to vulnerable tenants, those who may find themselves at the wrong end of bogus complaints and those tenants vulnerable by reason of having some mental illness whose behaviour is not necessarily anti-social but may be different. Local authorities have long experience of dealing with such problems sensibly. We expect them to continue to give that support to all those who need it. But we shall be issuing guidance to local authorities to emphasise the need for care and sensitivity in the use of these powers.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, was concerned that introductory tenants would be particularly vulnerable to summary eviction. An introductory tenant who receives notice of the forthcoming repossession will be given reasons why the authority is taking that action and will have 14 days in which to appeal to the local authority. This is a sensible safeguard and will give the tenant an opportunity to make his case if there has been any misunderstanding. Eviction is always a matter of last resort. A local authority would far rather score a
The noble Baroness described introductory tenancies as a two-tier system of treatment for local authority tenants. We feel that introductory tenancies are not discriminatory. Introductory tenants will have virtually the same rights as secure tenants. We feel that well-behaved and law abiding tenants will have nothing to fear from the system.
Turning to Parts VI and VII, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said that the Bill would add £120 million to the housing benefit cost of homelessness. That is not true. The noble Baroness is repeating a crude calculation by Shelter which ignores one side of the equation where savings may accrue. We expect the measure to be cost-neutral. Our proposals in Parts VI and VII of the Bill allow the establishment of a single route into permanent social housing. They aim to introduce greater fairness into the allocation of long-term tenancies in local authority and housing association homes while retaining a safety net for families and vulnerable people who become homeless unintentionally. They set out the broad framework within which housing should be allocated. Within that framework, local authorities will be responsible for devising their own schemes in order to reflect local conditions.
There is a fundamental political difference between the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and myself on this question. Our feeling is that homelessness as such should not be on the list of reasons for giving people permanent accommodation. Some people--perhaps most people--who are homeless will need permanent accommodation, and they will still get it under the terms of the Bill. Those who do not need permanent accommodation will not get it. We feel that that is right, and I was glad to be supported by my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding.
We are committed to ensuring that anyone accepted for rehousing under the homelessness legislation is provided with suitable accommodation for at least two years. In most areas anyone with genuine long-term housing needs should be offered suitable permanent accommodation in substantially less than that period. A household rehoused under the homelessness legislation would generally attract priority status by being in insecure or temporary accommodation or having a particular need for settled accommodation, in some cases as a result of social or economic circumstances that make securing settled accommodation difficult. I refer to the language of Clause 148(2).
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, raised the question of those who wait until they are in suitable accommodation before they have children. I am sure we all know people who act responsibly in that fashion. The expression in our consultation paper is one that local authorities should take as an aspiration, not as a directive. In that context, it is not unreasonable to ask them to listen.
We agree that there is need for better co-ordination between housing and social services departments. The present homelessness code of guidance to local authorities was written before the Children Act took effect and we shall revise it before the implementation of the Bill.
My noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding asked whether the homelessness provisions in the Bill would strengthen the family. The provisions of Clause 170 should make it more difficult for family break-up to be encouraged by the availability of social rented accommodation. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, referred to the research review. Yes, that review was about how applications were handled. We intend to keep the Bill on that structure.
Turning now to the discharge of duty towards homeless households, I must emphasise that we shall continue to give effective help to the homeless generally, with the exception of some persons from abroad who enter this country on condition that they do not receive public assistance. The same sort of people will receive help under this legislation in the same circumstances as they receive help now. The duty to help them will run for a minimum of two years. That will provide a period of stability within which the household can sort itself out.
The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, was concerned that elderly people should not be subject to the limit of two years. The sort of case the noble Lord refers to would attract priority under the allocation scheme criteria in Clause 148. I believe the cases discussed under the heading of St. Basil's by the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher of Rednal, would also qualify for that.
Many, but not all, of those owed a duty will be looking for permanent social housing and in most cases they will get it within two years through the housing register. Others will find different solutions. Recent research shows that 18 per cent. of those accepted for rehousing under the present homelessness legislation drop out of the system before they are offered long-term rehousing. Others may be able to find accommodation for themselves with assistance from the local authority.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford and the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, were concerned that rehousing of homeless people in the private rented sector would mean their moving every six months. We calculate that the average length of stay in assured shorthold tenancies is over two years. No landlord
The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said that bed and breakfast was bad for homeless families. We wholly agree. The homeless code of guidance states that bed and breakfast should be used only as a last resort. It is now usually used only for short periods in contrast to its much greater use a few years ago. We are committed to keeping its use to a minimum.
This is a Bill we should welcome. It is about opportunity and choice. It gives the opportunity to buy their homes to more housing association tenants in addition to the 34,000 social tenants who last year exercised their right to buy. It gives leasehold home owners stronger and more accessible powers to deal with poor management and intimidation by landlords. The Bill protects homeless families. Local authorities will have a duty to house them for a minimum of two years if they are unintentionally homeless. At the same time, the Bill ensures that those who get a long term council or housing association home are those who need it most. It ensures that council estates can be renewed through private investment alongside public investment in local housing companies. It gives landlords effective powers against nuisance neighbours. It gives local authorities strong powers to improve the quality of multi-occupied housing.