Standing Committee D
Tuesday 30 January 2001
[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]
The Chairman: Good afternoon. I notice that the Committee has made rapid progress during my absence, which must say something. I am sure that we shall maintain both the fairness and the pace of the discussion this afternoon.
Events which cause the duty to cease
Amendment moved [this day]: No. 72, in page 13, line 16, at end insert
`and states that the offer shall remain available to the applicant for not less than three working days from the date of the offer, or such longer period as the authority consider reasonable in all the circumstances.'.[Mr. Don Foster.]
Mr. Don Foster (Bath): There will be an argument that my proposal could lead to an increase in the length of time that properties remain vacant. The average void time for local authority properties is currently six weeks. I believe that the amendment would not seriously alter that situation, about which many of us ought to be concerned and which should be addressed.
Amendment No. 72 would allow a minimum of three days for a homeless household to decide whether to accept or reject a final offer. I think that I have made a fairly clear argument. In many cases, a shorter period gives the applicant insufficient opportunity to consider all the factors that may influence his decision. Those factors may relate to the impact on working life or to the education of any children who might be involved. The applicant may need to find out whether the landlord will improve any defects in the property.
As the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) pointed out in an earlier intervention, it would be unfair for any local authority to allow an applicant only 24 hours to make a decision. The hon. Gentleman, who was obviously shocked that such behaviour could exist, asked me to provide him with examples of councils that operated in that way. He will be disappointed to hear that, sadly, there are a number of such authorities. For example, in London alone, the London boroughs of Newham, Lambeth and Waltham Forest operate in that way.
The London borough of Southwark also operates the procedure, but allows the wonderful extension of an additional 48 hours if the applicant requests it, thereby increasing the period to three days. In Southwark, however, three days is the maximum, not the minimum, as I propose.
I could not confirm the precise arrangements, but it is understood that the London borough of Camden usually allows 48 hours and that the Royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea operates a similarly tight schedule.
We can look elsewhere in the country. I have been advised that many authorities in Suffolk and Essex operate a similar procedure and that some give less than 24 hours. In some authorities, the applicant is required to turn up almost immediately. When he arrives, he finds a housing officer on the doorstep with the tenancy agreement form and is required to complete it there and then.
The practice of very short notification does exist, but I genuinely believe that it must be stopped. We need to have a minimum time of three days for the reasons that I have given. That would be fair and right, and would meet the Labour party's specific commitments in its manifesto, in the housing Green Paper and in subsequent Labour party documents. I hope therefore to receive a positive response from the Minister.
I am delighted to see in his place my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake). I was sorry to hear that the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) is not feeling well at the moment; we wish him a speedy recovery so that he can at least join us for the last day of deliberations when, we understand, that both of the Ministers will have at last got their act together as to the name of the constituencies of hon. Members.
The Chairman: Before we proceed, let me say that, in my haste to get proceedings under way apace this afternoon, I omitted two things. First, I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington. We wish him and his new familyand his old familywell. Secondly, I failed to notice that the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth) has moved two paces smartly to his left, geographically of course, not politically. I congratulate him on his elevation; it is a pleasure to welcome the hon. Gentlemen to the usual challenge.
Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): I congratulate this Committee on perhaps being the most compassionate that I have ever come across, issuing more congratulations and condolences than any other that I have served on thus far.
While I would not want to press the amendment to a vote, I would wish to press the Minister to reconsider the issue. In my own local authority of Tower Hamlets, we have a 24-hour deadline for homeless people. As we have heard, homeless households are among the most vulnerable, and often constituents turn down offers because they have only 24 hours to make a decision, and they are unable to get the advice that they need or be reassured that repairs that need to be done to the properties will be carried out.
One constituent told me that, when he went round to view a property, the body of the previous tenant had only been moved out an hour earlier, and it was on that basis that he rejected it as unsuitable. One can understand the problems that might arise with such haste. While I am concerned about meeting our targets for reducing the numbers of voids, we also have to try to meet our stated aims of increasing choice for homeless people and not having a policy that works through coercion, for want of a better word. If homeless families are to have only one offer, as is the case in Tower Hamlets, they should at least be able to seek better advice.
Shelter's research has shown that 76 per cent. of homeless families are lone parents, and I have many women coming to my surgery saying that they have turned down an offer as being unsuitable because they think it is wrong to have to step over a heroin addict to get to the lift. I have to explain to them that that does not come within the law but, if they are unable to get advice, they cannot make an informed decision. I do not wish to detain the Committee but we do need to look towards having a system that allows informed consent instead of the rush job that many homeless families have to deal with at the moment.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Robert Ainsworth): Thank you, Mr. Gale, for your congratulations and warm words on my geographical move to the left.
I appreciate the intention behind this amendment, which is to ensure that, under part IV, applicants have a reasonable period in which to consider a final offer from a local housing authority. Applicants need time for deliberation, and possibly to consult relatives, friends or advisers on the options available. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) has made some good points in relation to the time that it can take to explore educational opportunities in an area and to secure undertakings on repairs.
Those are important matters that enable applicants to make informed and sensible choices, but we must be careful not to burden the Bill with too much detail, which might obscure its principal purposes. In addition, I fear that the effect of legislating for a minimum period of three days would be to make three days a standard and, in effect, a maximum period as well. That would considerably worsen the situation in many local authorities. In most instances, three days would be too short a period: authorities need the flexibility to adapt to particular circumstances.
We recognise the problems that hon. Members have raised. Some authorities operate in far too restrictive and bureaucratic a way and are totally inflexible in their allocations policy. DETR research has been heavily quoted, but it only highlights the need for the legislation that we are here to discuss.
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): Will the Minister give way?
Mr. Ainsworth: Yes, all right.
Mr. Waterson: The Minister is allowed to say no, although it is not always advisable to do so. Does he agree that the difference between the practices of local authorities depends on the supply and demand equation in that area? If there is enormous demand for a relatively small supply, a short time scale may be appropriate; whereas authorities with lots of supply and relatively little demand can afford to take a slightly more relaxed approach.
Mr. Ainsworth: That may be so and it is one of the reasons for not being over-restrictive. However, in the overwhelming majority of cases, three days is too short a period in which to expect a person to decide on a final offer.
I was saying that local authorities can be too restrictive in their allocation policy, but I would say to the hon. Member for Bath and my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) who expressed some concern, that not everything is negative. More than 90 authorities have bid for funding to operate choice-based letting schemesan excellent response that shows that local government recognises the need for change. We will evaluate the success of those schemes over the next couple of years and disseminate the lessons learned to promote good practice. I am confident that authorities will develop schemes that promote choice, but we will review their performance following the pilots and if progress is not satisfactory, we may have to look at the framework again.
It is also worth nothing that the substantial increases in capital investment that we are making will expand social housing stock in areas of greatest demand. That will make it easier for authorities to operate choice-based schemes, but it will not happen overnight. If the hon. Member for Bath thinks about the parts of the research that he quoted and the period in which it was shown that those restrictive practices had grown, he will see that it coincides with a period of falling capital investment. That is surely a big part of the problem.
The hon. Gentleman quoted from a number of authorities that he suggests are behaving badly, but his approach does not appear to have been totally comprehensive. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow is taking up the issues with her local authority in Tower Hamlets, so I suggest that the hon. Gentleman explores the policies in Bath and North East Somerset, which is controlled by the Liberal Democrats, as are Sheffield, Sutton and Islington. Perhaps the sin lists presented to the Committee should be more comprehensive to improve their credibility.
In making offers, authorities must act reasonably: demanding instant decisions is not reasonable and could be challenged. A three-day minimum, if built into primary legislation, could too easily become a standard or even a maximum. I have already given assurances about monitoring the pilots and taking any necessary action after they have been evaluated.