Homes Bill

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Mr. Raynsford: The Opposition spokesman quoted Mr. Ashley Horsey of the Empty Homes Agency, who did not refer to ``tiny scratchings'', but welcomed Government action to tackle the problem. As I said, we expect pressure groups to encourage the Government to do more. We understand that: it is politics and life. It is wrong of the Opposition, however, to pretend that the Government are doing nothing. That is simply not the case.

Mr. Waterson: I divine that the Minister may have moved on from asylum seekers, but I remind him of the widespread practice of London boroughs placing people in places such as Eastbourne without reference to the local council or other local agencies. How does the Minister propose to deal with that problem, which is certainly not being dealt with by the Home Office or the LGA? Will any sum from the £25 million find its way to places such as Eastbourne, which has a secondary asylum seeker problem, as I have described?

Mr. Raynsford: Obviously, it is important to encourage good working relationships between the different local authorities involved when people are referred from one area to another. Not all of the areas that face less intense pressure than some of the London and south-east authorities have been wholly supportive or encouraging in helping their colleagues in London and the south-east—I am not talking about Eastbourne. I hope that the Opposition, like the Government, believe that there should be a co-operative approach throughout the country and that authorities should try to help, especially if those that have supplies of housing that are not in great demand. I pay tribute to some authorities that have been especially good at identifying low-demand properties that might be available.

12 noon

The £25 million package announced yesterday is not ring-fenced for any one particular area. It relates to the cost of accommodation, and although it is likely that the bulk of it will be for the benefit of London authorities, because that is where the pressures are greatest, there is no reason in principle why Eastbourne should not also benefit.

The Government accept entirely the other adage used by Mr. Ashley Horsey of the Empty Homes Agency: must try harder. That is what we are doing—the Bill and the clause are all about ensuring more effective work to tackle the problems of homelessness. I hope that hon. Members will recognise the good sense of the clause and that they will agree that it should stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 18 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 19 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 20

Provision of accommodation for persons not in priority need who are not homeless intentionally

Ms Buck: I beg to move amendment No. 80, in page 12, line 20, after `intentionally', insert—

    `(i) for subsection (2) there is substituted—

    ``(2) The authority shall provide the applicant with advice and such assistance as is reasonable in any attempts he may make to secure that accommodation becomes available for his occupation.

    (2A) The Secretary of State may by order specify matters to be taken into account in determining whether advice and assistance which the authority proposes to provide is reasonable and make provision as to the procedure to be followed in the giving of advice and assistance.

    (2B) Before making such an order the Secretary of State shall consult with such associations representing relevant authorities, and other persons as he considers appropriate.

    (2C) No such order shall be made unless a draft of it has been approved by resolution of each House of Parliament.''; and


The amendment returns to the question of advice, which we discussed in connection with an earlier amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Bath. In particular, it deals with standards of service in respect of advice to people who are in non-priority need and to people in areas of higher demand who are unlikely to be able to gain access to accommodation. The amendment is designed to strengthen the current duty, which at present can be discharged according to what the authority considers to be appropriate; it would introduce a greater consistency into the standards of service across the country; and it would bring the worst up to the level of the best by setting a basic standard.

That is important: non-priority applicants are wholly dependent on the quality of advice and assistance that they receive from local authorities and other advice agencies, because there is no realistic prospect of them ever receiving a tenancy from a local authority or housing association. I have received many letters in respect of constituents in the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea and from Westminster carrying the chill words ``We are unlikely ever to be able to consider you for an offer of accommodation.''

The sort of people we are talking about are those who do not fall into the categories of vulnerability that currently give them priority. They are adult children who are being forced out of overcrowded accommodation; or people living in private rented accommodation that they can no longer afford—that recalls our earlier exchange about the cost of accommodation in the private rented sector, which has become wholly unrealistic for anyone on an average income; or people in the private rented sector coming to the end of their assured shorthold tenancy whose landlord is unwilling or unable to renew it. That demand is one of the principle sources of applications to housing assessment and advice in my own area. Such demand also commonly arises from family breakdown. One of the partners, usually the man of the family, leaves home after a relationship breaks down and wants, rightly, to stay within the location so that he has access to the children, but has no means of being able to do so.

Such people are dependent upon the quality of the advice and assistance that they get. They comprise a large group; it accounted for about a quarter of all applicants to housing assessment and advice last year, or around 55,000 people. Of course, that is likely to be a huge underestimate, because the overwhelming majority of people in that category in London and the south-east would not even consider approaching their housing department, because they know the pressures. However, despite the importance of the advice service to such people, quality of service varies greatly across the country.

I pay tribute to the staff in the housing assessment and advice units in the two boroughs that I represent because. They have a tough job. However, in practice, the advice that people in the categories I have listed usually received is about as much use as a chocolate teapot. In Westminster, it usually consists of a piece of paper listing local bed-and-breakfast accommodation, or a note suggesting that they look in the Evening Standard or Loot. That is the sum of the advice that they are given. In addition, extreme pressures on the paucity of other advice services in central London, such as citizens advice bureaux and law centres, they are left extremely vulnerable.

In its report ``Singles Barred'', Shelter found an extraordinary variation in the quality of advice and assessment in different parts of the country that could not be accounted for by high demand. Indeed, some of the best performing local authorities were those in high demand areas—Camden and Ealing were singled out for praise. Local authorities in areas of high demand and in areas of low demand were among those providing extremely poor advice. In some, people were turned away without being given an interview or any advice. Assessments were not made consistently, so that potentially vulnerable people, who might not appear so on paper and would not necessarily fall into any priority housing category, were missed. None of the applicants surveyed received a written notice of decision, nor were they informed of their rights to review.

Such poor service can cause people to lose their homes unnecessarily when they could have been helped to remain in them. Some will fail to get available accommodation, particularly in the private rented sector. Some may have housing benefit arrears but be unaware that they qualify for housing benefit—it is very common for people who are in work to have no idea of the existence of housing benefit as an in-work benefit. Some who face a gap between their rent and their housing benefit payments may not know that in certain circumstances they would qualify for assistance with exceptional hardship payments, or they may not be aware of the availability of assistance through rent deposit schemes. Such provisions would be available to them if the quality of housing advice were consistent.

I am especially concerned about potentially vulnerable people who are missed—a problem I have come across on several occasions. One example that springs to mind involves a young gay man whose partner had committed suicide in his privately rented flat. He was extremely vulnerable and believed that he might be HIV-positive, but had not felt confident enough to be tested. He was experiencing quite severe symptoms of psychiatric distress but because of his age and the fact that he had not been diagnosed as HIV-positive, he did not fall into a priority group. Such people get missed.

The amendment is designed to set a framework of standards. I understand the concern expressed by the LGA about it being too prescriptive, but I think that if authorities are to be made to be concerned about the problem, they must engage with us in dialogue about how to make standards consistent across the country. The sort of standards that I am looking for are those whereby all applicants are guaranteed an interview to ensure that vulnerable claimants are not missed out; all applicants are given accurate and up-to-date information about the options available to them; and people have access to information about where they can obtain benefits and quality advice about landlord and tenant law, for example. In addition, all applicants should receive information and a written decision about the right to review.

My amendment is a probing one, but I hope that I have made the case for its proposals. The issue is a minefield; we must consider what it is reasonable for the Government to prescribe and bear in mind the danger of being too prescriptive in placing duties on local authorities. The quality of advice, especially in areas of high demand, is crucial to people who are unable to gain access to social housing. I look to my hon. Friend the Minister to state what can be done to ensure that the local authorities that provide the worst services are brought up to the standard of the best.

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