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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I support the amendments and new clauses tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Bath (Mr. Foster) and for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), in so far as they are compatible.
I want to raise a specific point with the Minister, relating to agricultural tied cottages and the effect that the Bill will have on them. A couple came to see me in my constituency surgery in Wincanton last week--my constituency could not be further removed in character from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. Mr. Brice and Ms Parsons came to see me because they had been served notice to quit an agricultural tied cottage. Mr. Brice had previously been made redundant from his post at a farm.
The difficulty in the case is that the landlord is trying to introduce a market rent, having given notice to quit in the interim. The local authority would normally have a duty to re-house the couple as homeless, and there is some urgency about the situation because the lady in question is due to give birth within two weeks. However, they cannot be re-housed because the matter has to be reviewed by the agricultural dwelling homes advisory committee under the terms of the Rent (Agriculture) Act 1976. The notice to quit is not valid until that review has taken place.
That is a conundrum to which the Minister may not have an answer immediately and, if that is the case, I would be glad if he wrote to me on the matter. It seems perverse that a provision intended to give protection to tenants is, in this instance, doing precisely the reverse by preventing the local authority from doing what is clearly necessary--that is, re-housing a couple in need as priority cases because they are effectively homeless. I would be grateful if the Minister gave the matter his consideration.
On the point raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), he will understand that I cannot comment on individual cases but I will look into the circumstances surrounding the issue and write to him.
New clauses 4 and 17--there are some interesting textual problems here--return to an issue discussed thoroughly in Committee. As I said then, I sympathise with the intention behind the amendment to ensure that people accepted as unintentionally homeless and who are temporarily accommodated by a local authority have a reasonable period in which to consider a final offer of an allocation under Part VI. That is important because by making it a final offer the authority will have in effect given notice that they intend to bring the homelessness duty to an end.
Applicants will need time to give the offer careful consideration. If they are not immediately taken with the offer, they may well feel that they want to consult with family, friends or, in some case, their legal advisers. They should be given a reasonable time in which to do so.
As I said in Committee, my genuine fear is that specifying a minimum of three or perhaps five days would make that period the yardstick according to which many authorities might decide to operate. It could, in effect, be construed as a Government-approved maximum period for consideration, which, in my view, would be an unhappy outcome. In some cases, three or five days will not be enough. Flexibility is required, so that account can be taken of the circumstances of individual cases: the situation does not lend itself to narrow prescription.
I shall not comment on the lack of clarity on the part of the Liberal Democrats, who have specified both three and five days. If I had not understood from the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) that he had intended his new clause to refer to a final offer, I would have asked him why he thought it reasonable for a time limit to be placed on a first offer but not on a second or third offer.
New clause 5 requires authorities to notify applicants of a right to request a review of a decision that they fell within an ineligible group, and of the time allowed for the making of such a request. The Bill gives applicants the right to request a review of any decision about the facts of their case. That includes decisions about eligibility based on the applicant's personal circumstances, including immigration status.
I can tell the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) that there is no confusion about the scope of the review. As I made clear in Committee, the eligibility issue is covered. There cannot, of course, be a dispute about circumstances in which someone is validly deemed ineligible, but the basis on which the decision is reached--the facts of the case--will be open to the review.
The hon. Gentleman's proposal would take that two steps further. It would ensure first that when an applicant was made aware that he had been deemed ineligible he would be informed of his right of review, and secondly that a time limit would be imposed on that right. I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's intention, but I would like to consider further whether the ends we both wish to achieve might be better achieved through an
As for new clause 18, I have begun to wonder whether, as a child, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey was ever caught copying at school--and copying rather sloppily too. He and his hon. Friend the Member for Bath seem to agree strongly about some things, but not about everything. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey is clearly keen to assert his independence, and appears to be trying to shift his party's housing policy from the policy to which his shadow Home Office responsibilities relate.
Amendment No. 18 seeks to give applicants a right to be informed when a decision on eligibility has been made, but also requires such a review to be independent. Let me say a little about the conduct of reviews. When undertaking a review, a local authority must provide for a proper or appropriate review in the light of the circumstances. It must take into account the laws relating to human rights and to judicial review; it must pay attention to what rights it is considering, and what procedures are appropriate. Having considered all those matters, it will be able to decide what is right in the circumstances. In his amendment, the hon. Gentleman seeks again to determine the minutiae of arrangements. We think it right to leave the authority a measure of discretion, and I therefore do not propose to support the amendment.
New clause 6 provides for circumstances in which a local housing authority has decided that it no longer owes an interim duty to accommodate, and notifies the applicant. It would place a specific duty on the authority to consider continuing to secure accommodation for those seeking a review of the decision.
The current legislation gives authorities powers to ensure that accommodation remains available to applicants pending a decision on a review, but does not place an obligation on them to do so. It is for an authority to consider--on the basis of the facts of the case, and with regard to the resources available--whether to exercise those powers. The authority must exercise its discretion reasonably and with consideration, but the new clause seeks to specify in some detail how it should exercise its discretion.
In Committee we discussed, on many occasions and in different contexts, the need to strike the right balance between giving authorities discretion in the carrying out of their functions and specifying in detail what they must do. It is never easy to draw the line, but our approach in the Bill has been to establish a clear framework in which authorities can make their own judgments, informed by local knowledge--knowledge of the facts of individual cases, in the context of the many pressures that authorities have to balance. I believe that, ultimately, the exercise of local judgment will lead to better outcomes than detailed, inflexible instructions set out in statute.
It is not that the issues for consideration specified in the clause are inherently implausible; they are not. They could be incorporated in guidance to authorities on issues that they may wish to take into account. Important factors have been missed out, however--not least the other
The new clause would also have unwanted and adverse effects. It would perversely encourage appeals against authorities' decisions even when there was no realistic chance of success, simply because that would guarantee a continuation of accommodation for the period of the appeal. It would have resource implications for authorities, which could in some cases result in cases of lesser need gaining priority over those in greater need.
As I have said many times, it is a question of getting the balance right, and we do not believe that the new clause gets it right. It is too prescriptive; it would encourage vexatious requests for reviews; it would add to bureaucracy; and it would take away an important discretionary power from local housing authorities.
New clause 7 seeks to amend the provisions on right of appeal to the county court on a point of law under section 204 of the Housing Act 1996. It would allow an extension of the current appeal period of 21 days. Like new clause 6, it would place a detailed duty on authorities to consider continuing to ensure that accommodation was available to applicants who sought a review of the decision under section 202.
I have just dealt with the issue of consideration, and I believe that the arguments here are the same. Authorities should be given the tools with which to do their job and discretion to make difficult judgments, and they should be accountable for those judgments.
We dealt in Committee with the proposal to extend the appeal period beyond 21 days. As I made clear then, I do not think that the current 21-day period is unreasonable, and it is important for appeals to be dealt with quickly. The new clause, however, raises one point that I think merits further consideration. Part VII of the 1996 Act introduced a right of review of homelessness decisions, and a right to appeal to the county court on a point of law if the applicant was not satisfied with the authority's decision on review. The aim--rightly, in my view--was to allow grievances concerning homelessness decisions to be heard locally by the county courts, rather than the applicant's having to go through the more costly and remote processes of judicial review in the High Court.
My understanding is that in considering appeals against homelessness decisions by a local authority, the county court has powers equivalent to those of judicial review by the High Court in every respect, save the power to require an authority to accommodate the applicant pending the appeal. That means that applicants are required to make a separate claim for judicial review to the administrative court in London, if they wish to seek an injunction requiring their local authority to accommodate them on an interim basis.
New clauses 10, 11 and 12 seek to provide the Secretary of State with the power to give directions to local authorities on the exercise of their powers in relation to homelessness. Again, that raises the question of how to balance local discretion against central policy. I am surprised that hon. Members are so attracted to provisions that give powers to the Secretary of State to determine how local authorities shall conduct their business. I have already referred to one quote from the hon. Member for Bath. I give him one more:
On amendment No. 52, the breakdown of a relationship can be one of the most distressing and traumatic events in a person's life. If children are involved, it may be especially wretched--for each partner and, above all, for the children--but whether, on break-up, either partner is intentionally homeless is surely a matter of particular circumstance. Relationship breakdowns vary in their emotional impact, their financial impact and in the way they impact on each partner. Some can be amicable, but not all are, as we know. That surely is the point. No two cases are alike and there is a need for each circumstance to be assessed on the individual merits of the case.
I do not agree that it should necessarily fall to the local authority to accommodate one of the partners in every case of relationship breakdown, particularly where the relationship may have been a casual one and has not lasted for any length of time, but that would be the effect of the amendment. It would place an unacceptable and unreasonable burden on local authorities and send the wrong signals to people who were experiencing difficulties in their relationships, but were capable of resolving their problems and housing themselves. I hope that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey will accept that the amendment is not appropriate.
On Government amendment No. 47, one of the Bill's aims is to facilitate the development of allocation schemes that can be framed so as to give more choice to applicants. That should include, wherever possible, more choice about the properties that they wish to apply for, and more choice to make a trade-off between holding out for a more desirable property and opting for something perhaps less desirable, but more easily available.
For applicants to be in a position to exercise that choice, letting schemes will need to offer as much transparency as possible. People in the housing queue, particularly in areas of high demand, should be given an idea of how long they are likely to have to wait for particular properties in particular areas.
To facilitate that, it will be important that authorities provide as much feedback as possible about the level of priority and length of waiting time of successful applicants. That will help others to make a judgment about how long they may have to wait for a similar property. Such feedback can, of course, be couched only in the most general terms. It is essential that there are safeguards against the release of confidential and sensitive personal information.
As drafted, clause 26 does not quite achieve that policy. That amendment will allow authorities to let applicants have general information about those households who have been successful in their application. It will not, however, allow authorities to divulge the fact that someone is currently applying for accommodation. The Data Protection Act 1998 will ensure that authorities cannot divulge sensitive personal information.
At first sight, amendment No. 16 seems reasonable, although a little thought rapidly shows it to be flawed. It seeks to give additional preference to families with dependent children. Its effect would be always to place the needs of families with dependent children above those of the elderly, the disabled or other groups. In Committee, we heard the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) make an eloquent plea for the needs of elderly people to be met. In the House, we have heard the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) make a passionate plea for the needs of people with disabilities to be met. We recognise the wide range of needs. I hope that they will recognise that, if we give additional priority to one group, by definition, it downgrades the others. Many families with children are not in need. Many affluent families with children would not deserve priority over a poor or disabled household. Therefore, it is not appropriate to pursue the amendment.
I am sympathetic to the intention behind amendments Nos. 53 and 60, which are to ensure that authorities respond quickly to the immediate rehousing needs of people whose personal safety may be at risk. However, the Bill already facilitates that. Clause 27 requires that allocation schemes must be framed, so that reasonable preference is given to people who need to move on welfare grounds. That will include people who need to move to alternative accommodation because they are at risk or are under police protection. The clause also gives authorities the power to give additional preference to particular descriptions of applicants who fall within the reasonable preference categories.
The provisions will ensure that authorities continue to be in a position to respond promptly to requests for housing assistance from the police. I would be very concerned if an authority did not respond positively to a formal request from the police to assist in the rehousing of someone whose safety was known to be at risk, whether as a result of agreeing to testify in proceedings, or otherwise. From my experience in my constituency, there was close and quick collaboration between the police, the local authority and the Home Office to rehouse the families whose identity was unintentionally and unfortunately revealed in the annexe of the Stephen
Amendment No. 21 addresses the case of an applicant whose behaviour is so unacceptable that an authority, taking account of the rights of other residents, refuses to allocate accommodation. I make it clear that the Bill, as amended in Committee, already provides authorities with the right to refuse an application in such circumstances. Section 167(2A) to (2D) will make it clear that such a person need not be awarded any preference whatever. Therefore, there is no need for any further amendment.
Amendment No. 17 seems superfluous. It proposes that account be taken of any record of behaviour that has affected the terms of a previous tenancy. That is already covered by subsection (2A)(b), which deals with behaviour that affects a person's suitability to be a tenant.
Amendment No. 55 seeks to place further statutory prescription on allocation schemes. It would add a fourth factor to the three already specified in the Bill. We know that unsatisfactory housing conditions or medical or welfare considerations are currently taken into account a great deal by local authorities, which already consider the length of time that applicants have been waiting. It is probably one of the most common factors used by housing authorities throughout the country. Because of that, it is not necessary to make particular provision to make it clear that that factor may be incorporated by local authorities. It is already widely known by authorities that they may do so.
Amendment No. 20 is unnecessary and, if accepted, would be open to abuse. It would, in effect, allow an authority to suspend the framework for allocating preference and priority to needy groups and to individuals within those groups. I am not sure that that was the intention in tabling the amendment--I sincerely hope it was not. Although some authorities in high-demand areas face real challenges in managing applications, all are still able to allocate some housing through the register. Under the Bill, transfers within the authority will be handled through the provisions of the allocations or lettings schemes. I cannot think that hon. Members want to remove that sensible framework. Therefore, we cannot support the amendment.
I apologise for the length of my response, but the number and detail of the amendments made that necessary. I hope that hon. Members recognise that the amendments are unnecessary and that none should be accepted, with the one exception of Government amendment No. 47, which I commend to the House.