Homelessness Bill

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Mr. Waterson: Who am I to argue? I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5

Provision of accommodation for persons not in priority need who are not homeless intentionally

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Waterson: I am slightly in your hands, Mr. Griffiths. Although we have no amendments to debate, a modest stand part debate will be helpful. I am happy to open that debate, but it might make more sense if the Minister speaks first, so that I can respond to what she has to tell us about the wonders of clause 5. Would she be willing to consider doing that?

Ms Keeble: I am happy to do that.

The main provisions of the Bill are designed to strengthen the safety net for people who become homeless through no fault of their own and who have a priority need for accommodation. That is right, as many of those people are among the most vulnerable individuals in our society.

However, less vulnerable households also find themselves homeless, or are threatened with homelessness, through no fault of their own, such as single people and couples who do not have dependent children and, therefore, do not fall within the priority need categories. The duty owed to such people by a local housing authority is limited to the provision of advice and assistance to help them to secure accommodation. Provisions elsewhere in the Bill will strengthen that duty, but I shall not deal with them now. Clause 5 will give authorities more flexibility to provide assistance for homeless applicants who do not fall within the priority need categories: they will be able to use their discretion, so far as their resources allow.

Clause 5(1) will give local housing authorities a new power to secure accommodation for applicants who have become homeless unintentionally, but who do not fall within a priority need group. It will enable authorities to provide their own accommodation, to secure accommodation from another landlord, or to provide advice and assistance to ensure that accommodation becomes available. In fact, they can pursue any of the options that they can use to discharge a duty to secure accommodation for priority need applicants. We intend that it should be an especially effective provision in areas of low or mixed demand for housing.

Clause 5(2) provides a further power for local housing authorities to take reasonable steps to prevent households that do not fall within priority need categories from becoming homeless when they are faced with the prospect of homelessness within 28 days through no fault of their own. It will enable authorities to take steps to prevent homelessness for applicants who do not fall within priority need categories similar to those that they can take to discharge a duty towards applicants who are in priority need, and who face the threat of homelessness through no fault of their own.

The provisions in clause 5 will allow local authorities to be more flexible in their approach to helping applicants who do not fall within priority need categories and who are homeless, or are threatened with homelessness through no fault of their own. The extent to which individual authorities use those powers will be at their discretion—there will be no additional burden. However, through guidance, we shall encourage authorities—particularly those with the scope and resources to do so—to put those new powers to maximum use to assist homeless people who do not fall within priority need categories.

In the regulations that are intended to follow the Bill, the definition of people in priority need will be broadened.

Mr. Waterson: I am grateful to the Minister for that contribution, and I hope that she does not feel that I took her by surprise. It is an important provision and, although we are discussing the legislation for the second time, it would be wrong not to debate it.

Organisations such as the Local Government Association are broadly supportive of the measure, because it gives local authorities more discretion and allows them to take a more strategic approach, by looking at the matter from the point of view of prevention rather than cure. Clause 5 would amend section 192 of the Housing Act 1996. At present, the duty towards people who do not fall within a priority need category is only to provide appropriate advice and assistance to them in their attempts to secure accommodation. The new measure will give local authorities a wider power to prevent such people from becoming homeless in the first place.

I do not wish to re-run an earlier debate, but I remind the Committee that this is a minor victory for the Opposition. The hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) tabled an amendment about the advice that is available to people in that category and the requirement that should be laid on local authorities in that context. She did not demonstrate the courage of her convictions—unlike the hon. Member for Stafford a moment ago—because she did not support her amendment when we pressed it to a vote. However, a signal victory was achieved, because the then Minister for Local Government, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) was prepared to make concessions on the issue—partly, I am sure, because of the support that we were prepared to give to the hon. Lady's amendment.

In the Committee, the Minister referred to

    ``the variable, inconsistent and sometimes inadequate quality of local authority advice and assistance.''—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 30 January 2001; c. 343.]

He went on to say that he saw merit in strengthening the duty on local authorities. The amendment was lost, but the Government introduced their own amendments to schedule 2 of what was then the Homes Bill, and they have now reappeared as paragraphs 8 to 11 of schedule 1 of this Bill. Although there are no amendments to clause 5—perhaps that is an indication of the breadth of support for what it is trying to achieve—it is important to mark it to remind anyone who has forgotten that that improvement was a victory for the Opposition. That is worth noting.

Ms Keeble: I welcome the Opposition's support. It seems to me that the victory belongs not so much to the Opposition as to my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North, who raised the issue. She is one of several Government Members who have a huge amount of experience and expertise in the area of housing and who have contributed in many ways to the Bill—along with the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), of course.

The Bill will provide help to people who, although not in priority need, none the less face the prospect of eviction and homelessness. As such, it is an important measure, and I am extremely pleased that the hon. Member for Eastbourne supports it, as does the rest of the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7

Events which cause the duty to cease

Mr. Waterson: I beg to move amendment No. 8, in page 4, line 40, at end insert—

    `and states that the offer shall remain open for acceptance for not less than four working days from the date of the offer, or such longer period as the authority considers reasonable in all the circumstances.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 12, in page 4, line 40, at end insert—

    `and states that the offer shall remain available for such period as the authority may determine is reasonable in all the circumstances.'.

Mr. Waterson: We return to this issue, having dealt with it to some extent in the Committee stage of the previous Bill. In case he springs to his feet to try to claim it for himself, let me say immediately that the provenance for the amendment was an amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Bath. [Interruption.] If his relationship with the Minister gets any broader or deeper, we could be talking about the Privy Council—who knows?

We thought that amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Bath, although it had its good points, was overly modest. The issue is how long applicants may take to make a decision on a firm offer of accommodation. We had some evidence, probably anecdotal, that some local authorities—no doubt those with enormous pressure of demand—require a decision within 24 hours. That struck all members of the Committee as being wrong. Clearly, if someone is minded to make a decision that quickly, that is another matter. However, 24 or 48 hours struck us as too short a period. If the hon. Member for Bath does not mind me stealing his thunder, he referred to the London borough of Southwark, which generously set the decision time on a definite offer up to 48 hours.

5.15 pm

Mr. Foster: I rise merely to avoid misleading the Committee. If the hon. Gentleman reads the record, he will see what I said. My understanding is that Southwark's standard practice is to work to 24 hours, but that it will allow a further 48 hours if an applicant requires it. In such cases, the time is brought up to the three-day limit that was in my original amendment. He is right to say that there are other examples of authorities in London and elsewhere where 24 hours is the normal practice.

Mr. Waterson: I am grateful for that clarification. This is a matter in which practice varies widely. At the time, I think that all Committee members felt that applicants should have time to deliberate and talk to their families and advisers—legal advisers even—before making a decision that will affect their lives for a long time. People should not feel pressured into making such decisions in a short space of time. Indeed, the then Minister said:

    ``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.''—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 30 January 2001; c. 356.]

Three days was the period proposed in the Liberal Democrat amendment then before the Committee.

That leads us to the question of allocations, but I shall only touch on the subject because we shall have a much broader debate on it toward the end of the Committee stage. Things have moved on since our previous discussions, because at that time 90-odd authorities had applied for the pilot scheme of choice-based allocation. I am pleased to say that my borough of Eastbourne—as well as Bath, I think—was among those successful in bidding to pilot the Delft or choice-based scheme. We shall see how that works out with the pressures that I have described on available housing stock in places such as Eastbourne. The new development may have a significant effect on the problem.

My amendment is narrow. We have debated it before, and it seemed to be common ground, even with the previous Minister. I hope that this Minister will take the same view that, in the great majority of cases, three days is too short a time in which to expect people to make such a decision. I have plumped for four days. This is a probing amendment and the Minister will be pleased to hear that I shall not press it to a Division. However, the Government should re-examine whether some minimum period should be included so that, allowing for flexibility and those who want to make quick decisions, the people involved, who are often in a vulnerable position, do not feel unduly pressured into making a hurried choice.

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