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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I have had more than one opportunity to respond to this argument. But the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, referred to the Bosnians. The situation in Bosnia was exceptional. As we know, many of the people who were given exceptional leave to remain came from Bosnia but are now beginning to return in the hope that they can settle in their own country. That is rather different from the generality of people who come to this country seeking asylum.

Many of the people who obtain leave to come here and obtain a visa do so on the clear condition that they will have no recourse to public funds. They state that both when applying for a visa and at the port of entry, if they do not apply for asylum there. Therefore, it is on that basis that we believe that they should not have access to the benefit system. It is our case also that they should not have access to local authority housing which is by and large provided by the same public funds, funds to which they have said they will not wish to have access. People cannot have it both ways in these matters.

Lord Dubs: I shall respond briefly because, as the Minister said, these matters have been debated already on the Asylum Bill. But I cannot allow what the Minister said at the end of his remarks to go unchallenged. He knows perfectly well that, because of the increasing demands for visas, it is virtually impossible for an asylum seeker to get here at all unless the visa is granted. It will not be granted if it is known that the person wishes to become an asylum seeker. Therefore, that places the asylum seeker in a catch-22 situation. He has to find some way of escaping, whether to Britain or to one of the other European countries where the arrangements are similar to those set out in the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act. The asylum seeker must apply for a visa and he must do so for a reason other than the main purpose, which is to seek safety and freedom from persecution. If that means that he is caught on the recourse to public funds argument that is an inevitable consequence of the other measures which the Government are introducing. I am afraid that that is an extremely unfair way in which to treat people who have no options open to them other than escape by means of a visa granted on the basis of being a visitor. That has happened for a long time. There is nothing new about that. It is the Minister's argument that is new. I see he wants to have the penultimate word.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I want to be clear about this. That may well be an argument which can be advanced about the visa, but it cannot be advanced about the port of entry where they could say immediately they arrive--as many do--that they have come here to claim

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asylum. However, many of them do not do that; they enter the country first and some weeks or months later they decide to claim asylum.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: As the noble Lord will remember, we have debated all this during the proceedings of the asylum Bill. The point I made was that most of these people who arrive often have letters from friends or relatives here to assure the authorities that they will be totally responsible for those who are arriving, but when they arrive that is not the case.

Lord Dubs: As regards that final point of the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, I think what she is saying is much more applicable to people who come on another basis of immigration than to people who come as asylum seekers. I concede that this Chamber has debated the issue. I think the Minister is wrong. I am sorry that he is not prepared to meet any of the arguments. However, as I said, the Chamber has debated this matter at length this afternoon, and on earlier occasions. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 263ZAP and 263A not moved.]

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 263B:

Page 89, line 42, at end insert ("and prescribe that no factors other than those relevant to housing need should be taken into account in the determination of the allocation of housing accommodation.").

The noble Baroness said: On a previous amendment, which I believe was moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, we sought to stop exclusions from the housing waiting list for reasons unconnected with housing need. I think the Minister was supportive of the issue but thought it was more appropriately dealt with by regulation. I refer to issues such as age. This amendment is an extension of the same argument. It seeks to stop exclusions from allocation of housing--as opposed to access to the waiting list--for reasons unconnected with housing need. The problem here is less likely to be residency or age qualifications--which tends to be the waiting list problem--as financial irregularities.

Many local authorities bar permanent council housing to those who have a history of rent arrears or other financial debts, even where--as we discovered in yesterday's discussion--those debts may be due to delays by the local authority in paying housing benefit direct to the landlord. I am not saying that all tenants in arrears are innocent in this matter and that it is never their fault. Clearly it can be their fault and clearly the local authority has a quite proper concern in ensuring that rent payments are made.

Nonetheless, the CAB quotes a case in the North East where a client and wife and child were accepted as being in priority need under the homelessness legislation but were refused housing by the local council because they were held to have rent arrears with another local authority. The client disputes that there were any arrears. It appears that the problem lay with the housing benefit claim which had not been paid expeditiously by his previous local authority. Yet on those grounds that

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person and his family were denied a home in the new authority to which he was attached. As the CAB rightly argues, it is unacceptable to use housing need as a lever to recover debts which are pursuable through other and recognised legal channels. It could even be a council tax debt, which has nothing to do with a council house as such. If, as the Government insist--as we heard last night--there will be introductory tenancies, the local authority ought not to be at risk from defaulting tenants in this regard. I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to this amendment. I beg to move.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I doubt whether there is much between the noble Baroness and myself on the principal purpose of social housing, which is to meet housing need. However, merely making that general statement does not get us far. We have to define the term because housing need can mean different things in different circumstances. A definition of housing need--if we can call it a definition at all--will emerge through a local authority's allocation scheme. It will, by necessity, be an extensive definition, taking account of a wide range of factors and circumstances, and is not something one would expect to see prescribed in the legislation itself. We shall be talking later about the allocation scheme--I believe Clause 148 is concerned with that--when we discuss the principles which are being set out in legislation which should govern the decisions about priority and allocation.

The noble Baroness's Amendment No. 263B suggests that these regulations may prescribe that local authorities should address no factors other than housing need in determining entitlement. While I agree that the allocation of social housing should be made essentially on the basis of housing need, there may be some wider concerns which some local authorities might want to take into account when deciding who should have access to their housing registers. They may, for example, want to take account of the applicants' ties to the area, their age, or their behaviour. Last night the noble Baroness embarked on an interesting discussion about tenant behaviour. That is something about which we are all concerned. My noble friend Lord Lucas replied to that discussion for the Government and we concluded that that issue was extremely real but extremely difficult to resolve. I believe that local authorities ought to be able at least to take some account of behaviour when they allocate property. I do not honestly believe that the record of rent payment can be ignored by a local authority.

Many rural authorities are keen to impress on us the importance of being able to set some residency requirements in order to prevent local communities from being broken up. We acknowledge that such requirements could be harmful if taken to extremes. I have already mentioned that we have regulation-making powers--provided that the Chamber decides to give us those powers--to enable us to act against an authority or authorities which decided to take those matters to extremes. We believe that some flexibility is required in these matters.

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As regards rural housing, we had a long discussion at an earlier point in the Bill about the sale of housing association properties. We all agreed that there was a serious argument to be made for rural areas being exempt from the right to acquire provision. That is why there is an exemption for rural communities with fewer than 3,000 in a settlement from the right to acquire provision. Earlier in the Bill we all agreed and signed up to the proposition that rural communities should have some protection as regards housing. I believe that the same argument applies to local authority housing and a council's attempt to try to address the requirements of its local community and those people who reside in it.

I fully accept that the noble Baroness could tell us some horror stories about authorities acting in an extreme way as regards the criteria for their "entry gates". If it is any help I should tell the noble Baroness that we shall be issuing guidance on those matters and on the element of discretion which local authorities ought to be able to have. If we suddenly find that some local authorities have found a clever wheeze to limit people whom we all feel should be on the list, we have the powers and regulations to do something about that. I explained earlier about the consultation paper we issued and about the kind of thoughts we had as a result of the consultation and our further considerations, as regards what we may include in the regulations.

Amendment No. 264ZE seeks to restrict housing allocation schemes to considering only housing needs. I think that most of the arguments I used with regard to the previous amendment I would use as regards this amendment. I believe that allocation schemes should focus on the characteristics and needs of the individual household, as set out in the consultation paper. We should not be prepared to go wider than that.

I fully accept that the noble Baroness might be concerned that a perverse authority might skew its allocation schemes by taking wildly irrelevant factors into account. I wondered this morning whether Scottish local authorities, which are not covered by the Bill, might decide, in the light of England's failure to keep out the Holland goal, that people from England should not be allowed on their housing lists! As time elapses, that might be seen as a perverse decision. While it may be jocular, I am sure that I could make up rather more serious racial and ethnic reasons why housing authorities could be tempted down a road of which none of us would approve. The power and regulation has to be in place to ensure that that does not happen.

In conclusion, there are issues, apart from pure housing need, which we believe local authorities should be allowed to take into account. We believe we can be confident that with the safeguards in the Bill and in the regulation-making powers available to Government, local authorities, as they almost inevitably do, will operate the system with a great deal of care and sensitivity.

Having heard my explanations, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

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