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After clause 11

A new clause

Lords amendment: No. 3.

Ms Keeble: I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

The issue of accommodation for children in need and their families under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 has arisen repeatedly during the consideration of this Bill, both in this House and in another place. It is an important issue—probably the most important that we will discuss this evening—and will also be considered in relation to the Adoption and Children Bill. Lords amendment No. 3 will address the central concern—namely, it must be clear that social services authorities have the power to provide accommodation for children and their families under section 17 of the 1989 Act. There is also the separate question of ensuring good co-operation between the housing and social service departments in working to meet the needs of such children and their families.

The Minister for Housing and Planning, my noble Friend Lord Falconer, has met a number of social services directors and was impressed by their arrangements to ensure that their department works together with the housing authority—or housing department, in the case of unitary authorities—to find an appropriate solution for the whole family when dealing with families with children who are intentionally homeless or ineligible for housing assistance.

Lords amendment No. 3 would ensure that all local authorities adopt similar co-operative arrangements. The amendment, which would insert a new section, 213A, in the Housing Act 1996, would require housing authorities to have arrangements in place to ensure that social services authorities were made aware when a housing authority was dealing with an applicant whose household included a child under age the age of 18 and had reason to believe that the applicant might be homeless—or threatened with homelessness—intentionally, or might be ineligible for housing assistance. The housing authority would also have to inform the social services department of the decision taken on the homelessness application. These requirements would be subject to the applicant's consent, although withholding consent would not affect the housing authority's ability to alert the social services authority in any case when it was concerned that a child might be at risk of suffering significant harm.

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Lords amendment No. 3 would also place a new duty on housing authorities. They would have to provide advice and assistance to the social services authorities where the latter were aware of a decision by a housing authority that a household that includes a child under 18 was unintentionally homeless, or threatened with homelessness, or ineligible for housing assistance and the social services authority asked for assistance in the exercise of its functions under part III of the Children Act 1989. That new duty would not prejudice the current provisions on co-operation between authorities in section 27 of the 1989 Act.

Lords amendment No. 3 would also place a requirement on unitary authorities to have similar arrangements in place. They would have to ensure that, subject to the applicant's consent, the facts of such cases and the decision on the homelessness application were referred to the social services department by the housing department. They would also have to ensure that the housing department provided advice and assistance, such as is reasonable in the circumstances, to the social services department on request.

As my noble Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning undertook to do in another place, my Department and the Department of Health propose to issue joint guidance to housing and social services departments about co-operative working in the context of the new provisions. The provisions should ensure greater safeguards for families with children and address some of the issues that were debated at some length on Second Reading and Report. I am sure that hon. Members will have no hesitation in endorsing these actions, and I urge them to support Lords amendment No. 3.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Lords amendment No. 3 is a new clause, to be inserted in the Bill after clause 11. On a minor administrative note, I am not sure why it has been inserted after clause 11, which deals with appeals, when it would have been better placed after clause 8 on the review of decisions as to suitability of accommodation. Such an administrative problem arises because this is a new area that was not discussed when the Bill was previously debated on the Floor of the House or in Committee. This provision has been debated in the House of Lords and is now inserted in the Bill in the form of a new clause. Having said that, we broadly welcome the new clause, although we have a number of reservations that I should like to raise with the Minister.

The new clause would strengthen the current duty on housing and social services authorities—housing and social services departments in unitary authorities—to co-operate when a family will not be provided with accommodation under the main homelessness duty and children are involved. Such a situation most commonly occurs when a family is found to be intentionally homeless or when they are ineligible for assistance due to their immigration status.

The new clause specifies that the housing authority must, with the applicant's consent, inform the social services authority about the facts of the case and, at an early opportunity, notify it of its subsequent decision. The new clause also requires the housing authority to provide such advice and assistance as is reasonable in the circumstances in helping the social services authority exercise its function to children in need under the provisions of the Children Act 1989 when requested to do so.

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Such a power already exists in the 1989 Act. Section 20(1) provides:

certain reasons. Subsection (3) provides:

Section 22(1) states:

Given that such a power is already enshrined in law, why is the new clause necessary? It will ensure that social services co-operate with housing authorities, but they already have to do so under the 1989 Act.

Mr. Don Foster: The hon. Gentleman may be able to help me. My understanding is that the Children Act 1989 requires social services to provide housing for the children, not the entire family. That is the nature of the amendment that I understand the Government intend to make.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: That is precisely the point—the new clause deals with the children. As the duties of the local authority are already enshrined in the Children Act, I cannot see the necessity of the new clause. The only reason for it that I can see is that it will make social services and housing departments work more closely together. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that.

It is relatively easy for social services and housing departments to work together closely in a unitary authority. However, when a county authority provides the social services and a borough or district council provides housing functions, two councils will have to have mechanisms for dealing with each other. There will be an awful lot of people producing bits of paper and watching their back in case one or other council are sued.

Something might be fine as an ideal, but once it is enshrined in law, the compliance cost can be significant. We do not think that the Government will allocate sufficient funds to local authorities to enable them to implement the provisions properly and that the burden will fall on council tax payers. Can the Minister give us an idea of the compliance cost of implementing the new clause? What mechanisms will need to be put in place in district and borough council housing authorities and county council social services authorities? What protocols and disciplines will need to be put in place to make the new clause work?

6.30 pm

Having said that, we welcome the Government's recognition of the need to protect children, particularly those intentionally made homeless, and often through no fault of their own. Excellent work is being done by some housing associations in dealing specifically with vulnerable children. I visited the Cirencester young person's housing association the other day, and met a young constituent of mine who had been abused by his

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parents. Through a friend, he secured a place in a little house provided by that association, which is divided into several separate bedrooms for such children. He is obviously flourishing and will eventually be able to move to a flat of his own. Housing authorities are becoming cleverer at dealing with such people, and we need to provide them with more support.

We need to be clear about where the Government will place such people in their list of priority needs. How will that list dovetail with local housing authorities' strategy on homelessness?

Mr. Love: The philosophy at the centre of the Children Act 1989 is that the child should be the first priority. Everyone would assume that, in most cases, the best way for such children to be brought up is for them to remain with their natural parents. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that bringing together social services and housing is the best way to ensure that housing authorities are aware of that priority?

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