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My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate spoke about the dissemination of information to local authorities. My noble Friend Lord Falconer and I have repeatedly discussed the powers of local authorities and their responsibilities under the existing legislation, which have not changed, despite the test cases known to my hon. Friend. I hope that we have already clarified the position, but steps will be taken to ensure that the information is properly disseminated. A further issue is the extent to which people know their rights. That comes down to advice and assistance, which we have discussed.
The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) spoke about an amendment under the Adoption and Children Bill. That is a matter for my colleagues in the Department of Health, and I shall not tread on their toes. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there has been a great deal of discussion about the matter. I pay tribute to his own role, and to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North, who has pursued the issue vociferously, because of its importance for her constituency and also because of her concerns about child welfare in general.
The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell spoke again about aspirations and what the process would be. The new clause is all about process. It is all about making sure that the families do not slip between two departments or two local authorities, as often happens. The new clause will make sure that the two departments or the two local authorities communicate. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are some local authorities that do that extremely well, there are cases in which it will require something of a culture change to get two local authorities to talk to each other. The new clause will ensure that that happens, in the best interests of the families and the children concerned.
The hon. Gentleman says that that happens in his local authority, which is excellent, but it clearly does not happen in every local authority, given the anxieties that have been raised by Shelter, voluntary organisations and hon. Members about what happens to children or families when they are batted about between pillar and post. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate said, such families are often afraid that the children will be taken into care, so they are unable to access the kind of housing that is their right.
It would be worth the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell and other hon. Members checking the procedures and protocols in their own local authorities or between the local authorities in their areas, to make sure that such cases are dealt with. There is a small number of cases, but they are difficult.
The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell also asked about assistance. That relates to the various bits of legislation to which I referred earlier. We are not discussing the ability of a social services department to reverse a housing department's decision. The decision taken by the housing department involves intentionality, vulnerability, priority needs and so on, under the housing legislation. There is no question of the social services department saying that the housing department has got it wrong, if the family is intentionally homeless.
Responsibility for housing in that instance rests with social services. Different legislation applies, so the provision for assistance and advice does not mean that the clients get passed from one department to the other. The social services department exercises its powers under the relevant legislation. The issue is how different departments or local authorities work together to realise that. Having completed my reply, I give way to the hon. Member for Cotswold.
Ms Keeble: We are discussing a small group of people, who are not being housed under the homelessness legislation. Because they are intentionally homeless, the powers rest with social services, which wants to promote the upbringing of the child by his family. The aim is therefore to keep the family together. I thought that I had explained that. The new clause sets out in detail how that will be achieved. It specifies the joint protocols and the level of contact and liaison that is necessary between the different departments or local authorities to make sure that that happens. The process is exactly what the new clause is about. It does not mean that one group of people leapfrogs over another on the housing list because it is being catered for by social services.
Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): I apologise to my hon. Friend for not being in the Chamber earlier. I warmly welcome the new clause. Subject to the further underpinning of it, as we have discussed, it shows that the Government have listened and taken note of the problem. One of the ways in which the new clause may be implemented by local authorities is that it will allow a social services department to put time and sometimes a small sum of money into accessing a private tenancy for families who do not have the resources or the ability to access their own accommodation. In that way, social services departments may be able to help, as my hon. Friend said, without such families going back into the housing department system that has already failed them.
Ms Keeble: There are a number of ways in which the powers can be exercised. The main point that I was making to the Opposition is that the powers are exercised by social services, not by the housing department. The procedure is slightly different because it is not under housing legislation. As the housing department and the authority will have responsibility for the homelessness strategy and will know where the housing is, they will be in a position to assist. I am told that they will be able to provide assistance, within the normal meaning of the word, to social services in exercising their powers. I take the point about properties that are located in other areas. Clearly, the issue will have to be taken into account. Of course, when families enter the system, they will be dealt with by social services, as their position will be considered under the Children Act 1989.
Chris Grayling: In a borough that has a housing block in another area, it is conceivable that the natural instinct of the unitary authority will be to turn to its own social services department when a particular problem arises, even though the department covering the geographic area
I think that I have dealt with the details and technicalities of this difficult but extremely important area. I am absolutely sure that the amendment will improve the Bill and the safeguards that are provided. In particular, it will improve the safeguards for one of our most vulnerable groupsfamilies who are intentionally homeless, in relation to whom the interests of the child must be carefully considered and proper arrangements made. I am very pleased indeed that it has been possible to bring the amendment from the other place and I urge all hon. Members to support it.
Lords amendment: No. 4.
Ms Keeble: Amendment No. 4 is a minor drafting amendment. The Bill gives local housing authorities powers to take account of unacceptable behaviour when making decisions about applicants for the allocation of housing. Clause 13 constructs a test of unacceptable behaviour that is serious enough to make the applicant unsuitable to be a tenant of the authority. Where an authority has decided that an applicant is guilty of such behaviour, it will either have power under clause 13 to decide to treat them as ineligible for an allocation altogether, or it may decide to treat them as eligible but not to give them any preference under clause 15.
The policy intention is that the test of unacceptable behaviour should be exactly the same whether it is a basis for treating a person as ineligible or for deciding that he or she does not deserve to be given any preference. The test is deliberately constructed to be a very high one and it incorporates two main elements: first, the authority must be satisfied that the applicant or a member of his household has been guilty of unacceptable behaviour; and secondly, in the circumstances when the case is considered, it must be satisfied either that the applicant is unsuitable to be a tenant or that he deserves not to be given reasonable preference by reason of that unacceptable behaviour.
As I said, clause 13 allows an authority to decide to treat an applicant as ineligible for an allocation because it is satisfied that he is guilty of unacceptable behaviour that is serious enough to make him unsuitable to be a tenant of the authority. When an authority is satisfied that an applicant is unsuitable to be its tenant, it may decide to treat him as ineligible or instead to consider his application but not give any preference for an allocation. As the Bill stands, the authority must notify the applicant of a decision to treat him as ineligible and of the grounds on which it has been made. With regard to a decision not to give preference, applicants have the right to ask to be informed, but the authority is not required to notify them unless it is requested to do so.