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Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I oppose these amendments on the ground that I do not believe they are necessary; also, Amendment No. 74 would place very heavy demands on local authorities. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, quoted a newspaper report from 1995. I hope the case it referred to is very rare. I hope that the case I read in the local paper, the Hampstead & Highgate Express, on 21st June is equally rare. It related to a couple who claimed that they and their six children were homeless and applied to Camden Council. The report is quite lengthy and I shall not read it all. It states:
Alarm bells began ringing when the council contacted the schools that the children were supposedly attending, and there was no record of the children. The council then started to look much more carefully into the case, and it uncovered the fact that this couple had just bought two houses for themselves and were about to buy a third; Mr. Hai was a director of a company registered at Companies House; and only four children were traced. Four children had been born to the couple, but were not necessarily with them.
Apparently the maximum fine was £2,500 for this attempt to defraud the council. When the case went to court the defence's case was that they had been abroad for many years--they had lived in Saudi Arabia for 17 years--and were not familiar with the procedures for claiming council housing, which is the sort of plea I have heard here often. The judge dismissed the defence's case and said that it was not ignorance, but fraud and a pack of lies.
I hope that case is equally as rare as the one that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has just quoted. So many homeless families are genuine cases, and if they are genuine I believe that they will accumulate the necessary number of points within the appropriate time. I believe two years is a good long time. It has been conceded here that during that time most of these people will have been rehoused. The fact that the family quoted by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, had seven children meant that it was a particularly difficult case.
I cannot accept the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, that these people have nowhere to wait, because they are offered temporary accommodation, and they do have somewhere to live. No one is left without a roof over their heads. I think these amendments are too onerous on the local authorities, and I would oppose them.
Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, I would like to agree with every word that my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes has said. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, will know from our little debate at Committee stage, I feel equally strongly on this matter.
There is one point which I would like to pick up, and on which I suspect the noble Baroness is between a rock and a hard place, or so it appears to me. One does not want to appear heartless as far as "homeless" people are concerned, but the noble Baroness went through a list of categories of people who were waiting for housing, who were waiting in hopelessly inadequate housing, often in misery, often in intolerable circumstances, but who had been on the waiting list longer than those "homeless" people may have been. But, as my noble friend said, such people had had housing over that two-year period; they had had a period of respite; and they had had a period of trying to get things together.
I sympathise with the noble Baroness on that point, and I suspect that her real difficulty is that she really wants to say that there is not enough social housing, and she wants to be able to house everybody in this social housing, but she cannot say that because she would be committing her party to a good deal of expenditure that it would not wish to own up to in this place.
Lord Monkswell: My Lords, perhaps I may intervene purely to suggest that I suspect the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, has misinterpreted the Government's plans. I think we need to recognise that we are not talking about a situation now, but a situation that will pertain in approximately two years' time, when this Housing Bill has become an Act and is on the statute book. I believe I heard her correctly when she said that after two years nobody would be thrown on to the streets. Maybe I misheard her. The noble Baroness indicates, from a sedentary position, that that is not what she meant.
It is worth the House recognising that we are, as I understand the Bill in front of us, talking about a situation where a local authority will have a responsibility to ensure that homeless people are housed for a period of two years, but when that two-year period is finished then the local authority will, almost by law, be required to evict that family from any local authority accommodation, because it will cease to have a legal authority on which to house them.
In that situation we could, in two years' time, literally see homeless people being thrown out of whatever poor accommodation they have on to the streets. If my interpretation of the legislation is at fault, then no doubt the Minister, when he comes to wind up this debate, will correct me, but many of us on this side of the House, fear that that is the sort of problem with which we will be faced.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to say that the noble Lord has not misunderstood me. I am well aware that the accommodation is for two years. The point I made was that the vast majority of people are housed within those two years. We have, on previous stages of this Bill, had a discussion on the fact that the council would have a certain flexibility if people had reached almost enough points to be eligible to be rehoused. We have had discussion on those points before.
Earl Russell: My Lords, I do not share the noble Baroness's confidence that everybody gets housed within two years. Even if there were only a few people who did not get housed within two years, those people would have a need which deserved attention. I have listened to the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, who was repeating what has been, in essence, the Government's argument on this ever since the Green Paper.
In effect, the Government argue that homelessness allows people to jump the queue. We do not accept that that is the case, but at least we understand the argument. This Bill has now thrown out the baby with the bathwater. It has gone to the other extreme, and it has not allowed homelessness to count for any points at all in local authority allocation schemes.
Allocation schemes should be on the basis of need. I think we would agree with that in all quarters of the House. We are saying that homelessness is one of the forms of housing need. That is the point that this amendment is designed to establish.
The noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, may remember that I responded to her also in Committee and alleged that this Bill was setting up the system of a revolving door, whereby people go into temporary accommodation, do not get rehoused, become homeless again, go into bed and breakfast, and go round the cycle of temporary accommodation all over again. My noble friend Lady Hamwee offered what I believe is a fairly dramatic example of that, but there are plenty of others. In the research published by Shelter this morning there are numerous cases of this kind of thing happening, although not on such a dramatic scale. Under the existing system people are being moved two, three, four, five and six times in the course of their period of homelessness. The situation will, of course, get worse as the January changes in housing benefit begin to bite. As those changes, in their turn, are followed up by the changes in housing benefit for the under-25s, which the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, I am sure will remember debating with some vigour on both sides of this Chamber, I think this revolving door situation will become worse. It has a very considerable effect as regards interrupting children's education.
In the case which my noble friend quoted just now, the children have had no regular education in five years. The damages award made by the local government ombudsman was in order to meet the cost of remedial classes to make up for lost schooling. That is a very considerable cost to public funds.
We on this side of the House believe that the Government are not nearly careful enough of public funds. This attempt to palm off the homeless on to the private sector, where the average cost of housing benefit will be £118 million a year greater, is a very good example. Average rents in the private sector are £60 a week as against £38 a week in the local authority sector.
What the Government are doing is a very considerable waste of money. People do not have to be housed within their particular local authority district, which means that they cannot take regular jobs--they do not know whether they will be able to get to them. That is one of the biggest ways in which the government system is wasting money. If just a few people can be put through into permanent housing in an area where they can work and where their children can go to school, so that they can start a constructive cycle going again, we shall be very much better off. That is what this amendment would achieve and that is why I hope that the House will view it with sympathy.
The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Earl Ferrers): My Lords, the noble Baronesses, Lady Hollis and Lady Hamwee, will be sorry to find me answering the amendment when previously they had the pleasure of hearing my noble friend Lord Mackay answering. Perhaps I may say that I am sorry too. But I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Mackay who jumped into the breach at Committee stage when I was unable to attend.
My noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes said that she could accept the amendments and my noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes said that she hoped that I would resist them. Perhaps I can satisfy both noble Baronesses. At least we start with a score of two-love. I shall try to assist them as best I can.
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