Homelessness Bill

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Mr. Foster: I am grateful for the generosity of the hon. Member for Eastbourne in acknowledging that the provenance of the amendment came from one that I moved in earlier discussions of part II of the Homes Bill. He eloquently and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, succinctly outlined the arguments as to why it is important that we ensure that homeless people are given reasonable time in which to make a decision about whether to accept a final offer of accommodation.

As the hon. Member for Eastbourne rightly said, the Government's intention is to ensure that homeless people are given greater choice about their future housing. Nevertheless, it is well known that homeless people are not given much choice at the moment. For example, local authorities will often give families or individuals who want to transfer several options from which to choose and yet, sadly, a homeless person or family will be given only one choice, not a range of options. The Government are keen to change that and I support their intention. Similarly, a household seeking to transfer will often have its preferences of area taken into account, whereas a homeless household or individual will not. A third issue is the type of housing. Households wishing to transfer often have a much greater say in the type of accommodation to which they move than homeless individuals or households, which are rarely given such a choice.

I hope that Committee members agree that the range of choice offered to homeless households or individuals is far narrower than for other categories of people. We seek to change that. All hon. Members would surely accept that the practice still adopted by several local authorities of giving a homeless household or individual a limited period in which to decide whether to accept a final offer is unacceptable and unreasonable. As the hon. Member for Eastbourne said, in an earlier amendment I proposed a minimum period of three days. The hon. Gentleman now proposes a minimum period of four days. That is a welcome amendment and, were there any likelihood of it succeeding, I would be happy to support it.

I am conscious of the way in which our deliberations and the decision-making process works. During our previous deliberations, the then Under-Secretary of State for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Ainsworth) made it clear that he was sympathetic to the concerns that I expressed then and which the hon. Member for Eastbourne has expressed today. The Minister said:

    ``I appreciate the intention behind this amendment, which is to ensure that, under Part IV, applicants have a reasonable period in which to consider a final offer from a local housing authority. Applicants need time for deliberation, and possibly to consult relatives, friends or advisers on the options available.''

He went on:

    ``The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) has made some good points in relation to the time it can take to explore educational opportunities in an area and to secure undertakings on repairs.'' —[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 30 January 2001; c.355.]

I had several concerns about giving people only a short period in which to decide. I argued at that time and reiterate now that, in considering a final offer, a homeless person will want an opportunity to consult friends and relatives.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): I put it to the hon. Gentleman that the amendment is worse than the one that he moved in our previous debate on the Homes Bill, because it would allow many local authorities to stick to 24 hours.

Mr. Foster: I am grateful for that intervention, but if the hon. Gentleman will bide his time for a moment, I shall come to that point.

In coming to a final decision, people must consider a number of issues: the opinion of friends and relatives; the suitability of schooling for any children involved; the impact of the decision on work that the individual might take up; and whether the local authority would give an assurance that any necessary repairs would be carried out. Many local authorities will not carry out repairs until an allocation has been made.

The hon. Gentleman obviously agrees that a 24-hour period would be unreasonable. I was delighted that the then Minister entirely agreed with that view and he went on to say that, in some cases, three days might be an unreasonable period, which is one reason why he was unhappy with my particular amendment.

Mr. Waterson: I hesitate to interrupt and I have now given the wording to Hansard, but the Minister accepted that in the overwhelming majority of cases, three days was too short a period. I do not want the hon. Gentleman to undersell the case.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman is correct, as the Minister stated:

    ``I have already said that in the overwhelming majority of cases, three days is unreasonable.''—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 30 January 2001; c. 357.]

I entirely agree with that.

In common with other Committee members, I accept that 24 hours is unreasonable and that three days is unreasonable in many cases. We have to decide whether we are likely to persuade the Minister to accept an amendment to four days. My amendment may not be the best way forward, but it offers another way out for the Government. It would allow the period to be ``reasonable''. I chose that word for several reasons: first, because the Minister himself said that there must be a reasonable period of time; secondly, because the word could be challenged in law--[Interruption.]

The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) suggests from a sedentary position that that is not a sensible way forward. If he believes that, he has many further opportunities to table amendments to the Bill, which changes elements of the Housing Act 1996. I did a quick trawl through one part of the Act and noted that it made use of the word ``reasonable'' in legally challengeable ways in sections 175(3), 176(b), 177(2), 192(1)(a) and 195(2). I have no doubt that it is also used in many other parts of the Act.

My preference is for the amendment of the hon. Member for Eastbourne, because it would insert a firm minimum period into the Bill, but I am offering the Government another way out—by inserting a provision that would enable legal challenges—if they will not accept the hon. Gentleman's amendment. I hope that it is clear that it would be preferable to insert a specific minimum time period into the Bill, but that I am providing a backstop in the event that the hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members cannot persuade the Government to accept his amendment.

Ms Keeble: To place the clause in context, members of the Committee will recall that clause 6 will ensure that the main homelessness duty in section 193 of the 1996 Act continues to apply until brought to an end by one of several possible scenarios. Clause 7 amends those scenarios and provides some important safeguards for homeless applicants to ensure that the duties cannot be brought to an end unreasonably.

Section 193 already provides for the duty to end where the applicant rejects an offer of suitable accommodation—that is, an offer of short-term accommodation rather than a settled home—intended as a discharge of the homelessness duty; where he accepts or rejects an offer of suitable accommodation, which is intended as a settled home, allocated under part VI of the 1996 Act; where he voluntarily leaves short-term accommodation provided as a discharge of the homelessness duty or makes himself intentionally homeless from that accommodation; or where the applicant ceases to be eligible for homelessness assistance—for example, an asylum seeker who receives a negative decision on his or her asylum claim.

5.30 pm

I appreciate the intention of the amendments, which is to ensure that applicants under part VI have a reasonable period in which to consider a final offer from a local housing authority. That is clearly important. Applicants need time for deliberation and possibly to consult relatives, friends or advisers on the available options. Applicants need a reasonable time in which to make informed and sensible choices.

Amendment No. 8 mentions a minimum period of four days. That appears to be a compromise between the three days previously proposed by the hon. Member for Bath and the five days subsequently suggested by his hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) when these provisions were examined in their previous guise as part II of the Homes Bill.

A case could be made for any or, indeed, all of those periods, but I do not believe that they are necessary. Different circumstances will require different periods for consideration, which is why putting fixed numbers into the Bill would be unhelpful. On Second Reading, for example, I referred to a constituent who was in hospital having a baby when her mother came in waving the offer of accommodation. In such instances, a fixed period of three, four or even more days would be unreasonable. The personal circumstances facing an individual and the practical circumstances facing the authority must be taken into account.

We discussed previously the problem of empty properties. For several local authorities, consideration of the number of empty properties will weigh heavily on their minds as they decide what to do about making offers of accommodation and the length of time that applicants have to consider those offers. It makes no sense to specify a fixed period of time. I would argue, too, that there is an inherent danger that a statutory minimum would quickly come to be used as the maximum period to be allowed.

Amendment No. 12 would ensure that the authority provides applicants with a reasonable period in all circumstances to consider a final offer. I am not against the proposal in principle, but the amendment adds nothing to the requirements of general law. Local authorities must in all circumstances act reasonably in the undertaking of all their duties, and that extends to final offers. We must be careful not to burden the Bill with excessive detail obscuring the principal purposes of the legislation.

Hon. Members who raised that point have drawn attention to an important issue. I shall ensure that the relevant considerations of reasonableness are covered in the code of guidance. That will take on board the points made by the hon. Member for Bath.

We are all concerned about the experience of homeless people who are made offers of accommodation and expected to make a quick response, when they might have to live in accommodation that they would not choose for themselves. The shift towards choice-based lettings, which is part of the Government's wider agenda on housing, will be extremely important, along with this legislation, in dealing with many of the worries expressed by hon. Members this afternoon. I ask, therefore, that the amendment be withdrawn.

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