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The new clause proposed in Lords amendment No. 3 has the admirable aspiration of providing protection for children in families who become intentionally homeless. I very much agree with many of the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson), who spoke about the importance of protecting children in such circumstances. However, there will be times when the reasons for a family becoming intentionally homeless lead to significant attention from social services departments regarding the nature of the family and their suitability to care for their children. God forbid that that should happen frequently, but it should necessarily involve close collaboration between social services departments and housing departments.
The essence of what the new clause proposes already occurs in the vast majority of local authorities as a matter of course. Undoubtedly, some local authorities do not come up to scratch but, as one of my local authorities says, "We do it anyway as a matter of course." If there is a problem case, the authority always talks to social services about the issues surrounding it. I should hate an admirable provision to impose an unnecessary bureaucratic burden on the best authorities. I therefore repeat my question to the Minister: what processes will be imposed on housing officers and social services departments to deliver the requirements of the new clause? What specific requirements will she place on officers, and what additional paperwork will they have to deal with? In particular, what burden of regulation, supervision and assessment will be placed on authorities as a result of the new clause?
When the Minister responds to our debate, will she give an assurance that she will not allow the imposition of new processes to make the life of the better local authority officers more difficult than it is at the moment? As we all know, anyone who has any contact with, or knowledge of, local government knows how hard-pressed many of our local government officers are. I should hate a well meaning and well thought-out new clause to be implemented in a way that made matters much worse for them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) rightly said, there are resource implications, which often involve time rather than money. The Government need to be mindful of them as they set about implementing the Lords amendment, particularly in
There are two other specific issues that I would like the Minister to address when she replies, one of which involves the use of the word "assistance". A local housing officer has expressed concern to me. What does the word mean in this context? There is some concern within the profession that in reality social services will be given the right to resubmit an application to the housing department with a heavy lean in favour of it being accepted. That led to the comment, "If that is to be the case, if social services will become the arbiter in these matters, we will not bother to declare anyone intentionally homeless in the first place."
What are the requirements for the housing department in providing not only advice but practical assistance to the social services department in the implementation of these provisions? I focus on that point because it has a resource implication for many small district councils. If a county council's social services department is able to say, "No, these decisions are not right, you need to house these people", when the district council has decreed that the people concerned are intentionally homeless, the district council will end up in some instances funding accommodation, when under current legislation it would not be doing so. The Government should be mindful of that as they push through the amendment.
Secondly, I ask the Minister to be watchful of unitary authorities. The division between unitary and non-unitary authorities is not quite as clear cut as it would seem. An example within my constituency highlights that point. The Preston estate in Tadworth is one of the problem areas of Surrey. It is an area of some deprivation and there are significant social problems. The estate is divided between three different housing authorities. It is covered by a fourth authority, which provides the social services input. The estate itself is controlled one third by the London borough of Sutton, one third by Merton and one third by Reigate and Banstead. Surrey county council provides social services at present.
London boroughs such as Sutton or Merton have the vast majority of their housing stock within their own borders. The small offshoots that for historical reasons they control can often be easily forgotten. I suspect that the Minister would find quite a significant number of unitary authorities that have social services and housing under one roof but which have some property outside their boundaries. As she proceeds to implement this legislation, she will find that there is not always a split between the unitary authority and the non-unitary authority, which is articulated in the new clause. The clause suggests that for a unitary authority everything is under the same roof, but that is not the case.
The Government must be careful about the way in which they frame regulations and guidance notes. They must ensure that areas that do not fall within the boundaries of unitary authorities do not slip through the net because no
I welcome the principle behind the amendment. It is admirable that we should provide proper protection for children. However, I hope that the Minister will take care to ensure that implementation works with rather than against local authorities.
Ms Keeble: I shall try to answer all the queries that have been raised. However, some of them involve quite detailed, complex legal issues. If hon. Members still have concerns after my response, I shall ensure that they are dealt with in writing. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) raised a particular case, and it should be considered in some detail outside this general discussion.
The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) is not right when he says that the issue before us has not been discussed clearly. The general principles and concerns that underpin the discussion have been some of the most hotly contested points in our discussions as the Bill has passed through its various stages.
The central issue is the welfare of families with children, not children on their own. It is about the interrelationship between homelessness legislation and legislation that affects children. At the same time, there is a series of complex issues. The issue was probably first raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) and by Shelter, which held out the prospect that if we got things wrong, or if we got the relationship wrong between responsibility under the Children Act 1989 and homelessness legislation, we would see a return to the days of "Cathy Come Home", when families were split up. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) said, homelessness would be a recipe for children ending up in care in those circumstances. We must deal with the issues that revolve round the family.
The hon. Member for Cotswold and others will remember that we had much discussion on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report about the possibility of amending in part the Children Act 1989. There was also much discussion about the fact that despite the test casesthe ones to which I think my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate was referringand despite various assertions to the contrary, the power remained for social services, in considering the welfare of the family or of the child, also to promote the upbringing of the child by his or her family. During these discussions arguments were advanced by myself and by my noble Friend Lord Falconer in another place.
That was one of the key responsibilities. The knock-on effect of that was that of providing housing for a family, and not only for the individual child. It was the families with children who were intentionally homeless under the Act that did not qualify under housing legislation and homelessness legislation.
We are dealing with one of the most important amendments that we will consider this evening. It puts in place arrangements to make existing powers work properly. It is right that such powers are in place. It is also correct that some local authorities are already doing what we would wish. I stressed in my opening remarks that we have examined best practice and what local
Families that might be affected by the intentionality rules will be, for example, those who have been evicted for rent arrears or antisocial behaviour. The children of such families are vulnerable. I am sure that there are hon. Members who are familiar with such cases from their advice surgeries.
The hon. Member for Cotswold asked about consent and the consent of the child. That is not the issue that is before us. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate was right when she said that we are not talking about specific issues that involve children being taken into care and housed. We are talking about the housing of families with children, and that is made clear in the amendment. If the hon. Gentleman reads the proposed section 213A(1), he will see that it refers to
The issue of consent involves the exchange of information between two different departments or two different local authorities. The new clause deals with that and with the specific circumstances in which the social services or housing department makes an exemption where a child may be at risk. That is perfectly proper and in line with all the standard procedures and legislation affecting local authorities. I hope that that deals with the concerns of the hon. Member for Cotswold.