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7.15 pm

In another place—and, indeed, in this place at an earlier stage—there was pressure for an amendment to require authorities to notify applicants about such decisions. Unfortunately—this is where the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) was misguided—the proposal's construction meant that it would also have required authorities to notify applicants about routine decisions taken about the facts of their application. [Interruption.] I know that the hon. Gentleman is very entertained and is about to say that he was right all along. That is not the case. The Government reflected on the points that were raised in debate about his amendment. We saw the force of the argument that in areas where pressure on housing is high a decision not to give preference could have the same practical effect as a decision to treat an applicant as ineligible; that is to say, it could remove any realistic opportunity of his being allocated accommodation. [Interruption.] Again, the hon. Gentleman indicates that he is right. We have shown simply that the Government are prepared to listen and cherry-pick his amendments so as to take the good bits while still rejecting the wider and totally impractical elements.

The additional requirement should not add significantly to authorities' work load. We anticipate that, overall, only a small proportion of applicants will receive such decisions and our understanding is that the local authority associations support this proposal. The Government have therefore decided that authorities should be required to notify the applicant when they decide not to give any preference because of unacceptable behaviour, but they will not be required to deal with the confetti of decision papers that the amendment of the hon. Member for Bath would have required. Amendments Nos. 5, 6 and 7 will help to achieve those effects. I urge hon. Members to support the amendment.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: We heard a lot in Committee about the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) sending his wife postcards when his amendments succeeded. I have no doubt that his wife will be receiving a postcard in the morning. Tribute where tribute is due: he pushed the matter in Committee and it is now being dealt with.

The official Opposition broadly welcome the amendments. For too long, tenants who have exhibited patterns of unacceptable behaviour have been given

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preference when other people who have behaved perfectly properly are disadvantaged thereby. We welcome the amendments and the fact that the inconsistency between clauses 13 and 15 is being done away with, and the requirement for the local authority to notify people for whom preference has been withdrawn because of unacceptable behaviour.

I have one question for the Minister: what will happen in relation to the Data Protection Act 1998? Will one authority be able to give information on unacceptable behaviour to another authority so that it can judge how to treat people when handling preference?

Mr. Don Foster: May I thank the Minister for accepting at long last the amendments that I tabled many months ago and tidying them up in the way that she has described? I am sure that honour is now satisfied and that at least a brief postcard can now go to Mrs. Foster.

Ms Keeble: I shall be brief, so perhaps it will be just half a postcard. [Interruption.] That is for the hon. Member for Bath and his wife to settle between them.

In relation to data protection, I was trying to envisage the circumstances in which such a situation would arise. As people would normally make applications to separate housing authorities, I cannot seriously think that it is an issue, but I shall check to make sure.

I urge hon. Members to support the amendment.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 5 to 7 agreed to.

Schedule 1

Minor and consequential amendments

Lords amendment: No. 8.

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 12 to 14.

Ms Keeble: The amendments are complex, so I shall introduce them with some care. I hope that hon. Members will bear with me.

During consideration in another place, attention was drawn to gaps in the existing provisions, which give the local authority the power to accommodate certain applicants pending a review by the authority of its homelessness decision and pending an appeal to the county court on a point of law.

The policy that underlies the current provisions is that pending a review by the local authority or an appeal to the county court, the authority should have the power to accommodate applicants who have a priority need for accommodation—that is, those who are most vulnerable. We think that that is the right policy, and it accords with the central thrust of the Bill; that only this group are owed the main homelessness duty to secure accommodation.

An assessment of the current provisions reveals two main gaps in the achievement of that policy, however. The first applies in respect of those applicants who have a priority need, but are considered by the authority to have become homeless, or be threatened with homelessness,

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intentionally and who, for whatever reason, were not provided with accommodation under the section 188 interim duty pending inquiries. That will include, for example, priority need applicants who were threatened with homelessness pending the inquiries and so did not need to be provided with accommodation. Where the authority finds that they became threatened with homelessness intentionally, the applicant may request a review of that decision and may become homeless during the course of the review. However, at present the authority has no power to accommodate in such circumstances.

The second gap applies more broadly to applicants who are pursuing an appeal to the county court. The current provisions—namely, those in section 204 of the Housing Act 1996—leave some doubt as to whether there is a power to accommodate applicants if the authority has not already exercised its power to accommodate pending the review.

Amendment No. 12 will close the first gap and provide authorities with a specific power to assist applicants who the authority have decided have priority needs but have become threatened with homelessness intentionally. The power will allow the authority to take steps to prevent homelessness or, if the applicant actually becomes homeless, to secure accommodation, pending a review of the homelessness decision.

Amendment No. 14 amends section 204 of the 1996 Act and makes it clear that, pending an appeal to the county court, the authority has a power to accommodate the same categories of applicant as it has a power to accommodate pending a review. It includes a specific reference to the new power provided by amendment No. 12. Amendment No. 14 also makes it clear that the power to accommodate an applicant pending an appeal to the county court applies whether or not the power to accommodate pending a review had been exercised.

Amendments Nos. 8 and 13 amend sections 188(3) and 200(5) respectively. Those provisions give authorities the power to continue to secure accommodation for certain applicants pending a review. The concept of being able to continue to secure accommodation limits the scope of power and is unduly restrictive. Amendments Nos. 8 and 13 therefore change that to a freestanding power to secure accommodation.

The change to section 188(3) will clarify in particular that, pending a review, authorities have the power to accommodate applicants who have priority need but have been found to be intentionally homeless. Under section 190(2)(a), such applicants must be secured accommodation for such a period as will give them a reasonable opportunity to find accommodation themselves, but that duty may end before a review of the homelessness decision has been completed. There is currently some uncertainty as to whether authorities have a power to accommodate that category of applicant during the period after the section 190(2)(a) duty has ended and until the review is completed. That is because there is no explicit provision giving a power to continue to accommodate under section 190, and it is questionable whether the power to continue to accommodate under section 188 should apply in a case where the applicant is being accommodated under section 190.

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I should add that the local authority representative bodies were consulted and are content with the thrust of the amendments. They do not add new burdens or provisions, but largely clarify, rationalise and consolidate powers that currently exist in a variety of different places.

I hope that hon. Members agree that the amendments close the current gaps and achieve the right policy, and I commend them to the House.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I challenge the Minister to repeat what she just said without notes.

Ms Keeble indicated assent.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: As she says, these are technical amendments. Although they are complex, we broadly welcome them. They clarify the powers that are available to local authorities to accommodate applicants pending review or appeal of the homeless decision, and they respond to concerns raised by the Housing Law Practitioners Association.

As this is the last time we will be able to speak on the Bill, I crave your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to say that the official Opposition wish the Bill good speed and hope that it will be placed on the statute book with all possible alacrity. It is needed, because homelessness is a pressing problem that affects people in the greatest need of help in our society.

I press the Government to bring forward their homelessness strategy and to introduce the statutory instrument on priority need and a Bill licensing houses in multiple occupation. Those are all essential strands of the Government's strategy for dealing with this ever- increasing problem.

Finally, I pay tribute to all those who have provided the Opposition with assistance and advice, especially Shelter, which has provided invaluable advice and has made our debate much better informed—which has, I hope, contributed to a much better Bill.

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