Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Hylton: I very much welcome the Minister's comments about issuing guidance on the subject matter dealt with in this amendment. I wonder whether he could, if possible, ensure not only that his own department agrees the guidance but also that the Department of Health, the Department of Social Security, the Home Office--in so far as it has responsibility for children--and the local authority associations are all in agreement with what will be sent out.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Speaking in my strange double capacity on this Bill, it is quite clear that the Department of Social Security is aware of what is in the guidance. The lead department is the Department of the Environment so far as guidance is concerned. But I imagine--I intentionally use the word "imagine"--that where it impinges on social services and health matters, which include care in the community, the department liaises with the Department of Health. I do not expect that much of this guidance will impinge on

19 Jun 1996 : Column 355

the Department of Social Security, but for any that does, I suspect that what I might describe as the usual Whitehall paperchase will take place.

Lord Prys-Davies: May I ask the Minister what happens to the homeless person while the two departments are in liaison?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: It is always somewhat difficult to deal with that kind of question when one does not have the case in front of one. So much depends on what the position is. I imagine that the social services people will have a role and responsibility in trying to help deal with the problem of such a person. Undoubtedly, it will talk to the housing department. As the noble Lord will know, later in the Bill--I just cannot remember the clause--we come to the question of an interim duty to accommodate. That interim duty to accommodate may come into play in such circumstances. I use the word "may" because much will depend on the circumstances of the individual case and its severity. If it is very severe, it may well mean that some medical care or hospital treatment is required. It is difficult across the Dispatch Box to make a judgment about a theoretical case.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal: Many of the homeless men to be found in large cities are "walking the country" (if I may use that phrase) and going from town to town. Originally, they might have been designated as homeless in, say, London. Then, they have gone on their tracks and might be picked up again in Coventry. At that point, the local authority that had designated them as homeless would have been another authority. Would Coventry--I just use that town as an example--have to agree to put them on its housing register because a London borough had considered that they ought to be on the security risk list of that authority? In other words, if those people are moving around--many of them are--whose is the responsibility? Very often, it is not even a problem for the social security department but becomes a problem of mental health and of the hospitals themselves. That responsibility needs to be quite clearly defined.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am not sure that it can be all that clearly defined. It is difficult when one is trying to devise a theoretical model and another qualification on the theoretical model is added in order to bring me back to my feet. If, for example, we are talking about someone who used elegantly to be described yesteryear as having an unsettled lifestyle, then thanks to funding from the Department of Social Security there are a number of charitable and voluntary organisations around the country which provide quite excellent facilities for such men. I have been round a few of them because that is one of my departmental responsibilities. I should have thought that in the kind of scene that the noble Baroness has brought to our attention, such a person may well be directed by social services to one of the voluntary organisations which

19 Jun 1996 : Column 356

provide the accommodation that he would need and, in the cases that I have seen at least, the support needed as well.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: We all appreciate the Minister's helpful tone. I do not feel that there is any difference between us in recognising the problem. But, as the Minister's replies have gone on, I have become more and more worried by what I now understand to be the situation. I wonder whether he can think about this matter and come back at Report stage. There is now a real set of problems for some extremely vulnerable people and a gap opening up in front of us in the Bill.

It is clear that somebody, by definition of being homeless, comes on to the waiting list and because he exhibits other characteristics, such as mental or physical health problems, or has dependent children and the like, the local authority is required to give that person reasonable preference. That is found in Clause 148. Clearly, for someone to qualify for "reasonable preference" in that situation the local authority will have had to have assessed his mental and physical health. The Minister is right that in the case of someone who has, for example, recently come out of a long-stay hospital or whatever, the local authority would be very unwise (and, in my experience, would not expect) to offer an independent flat in a mixed community without being assured through the social services that that person was capable of sustaining himself or herself in that accommodation. That is all right. There is that protection on that route.

But the problem that is opening up is that when people are on the ordinary waiting list, there is no such review mechanism. Such people will serve their time, get their points and be rehoused. It would be bad enough if, in the course of one, two or three years or whatever, they exhibited bizarre behaviour and evictions resulted. But the Government have attached introductory tenancies to the provision, so that such a person whose bizarre behaviour may be due to physical or, more likely, mental health problems has no protection at court because under introductory tenancies the local authority has the right to gain repossession and--five minutes ago the Minister told us what was not clear last night--that person has made himself intentionally homeless and therefore the local authority has no responsibility to rehouse.

Therefore, somebody coming through the priority route will be reviewed and, we hope, treated suitably sympathetically and supportively. But if somebody coming up through the waiting list is found to have, for example, schizophrenia--that was the case we used last night--which reveals itself in the first year, the local authority can seek possession. The court cannot refuse. It cannot require the local authority to rehouse and, as the Minister said, the person will be deemed to have made themselves intentionally homeless so there will be no ongoing duty.

I believe that we have opened up a hole for some of the most vulnerable people, particularly in the first year of the tenancy. I am not saying that where there are good and supportive local authorities working together between the housing and social services divide, they

19 Jun 1996 : Column 357

may not be able to overcome the problem. But when we put all the strands together--the waiting list without a review, introductory tenancies with no rights for the tenant and the fact that they would be deemed to have made themselves intentionally homeless so the local authority has no duty to rehouse them--we have a problem, particularly under community care packages where someone may be coming up through the ordinary waiting list.

I see the Minister has some notes from the Box. If they add to our discussion I shall be grateful. I am worried about the position. Some people with mental health problems are not always regarded as attractive neighbours in a settled street. There will be pressure on the local authority in that regard and we are trying to obtain a balance. If the Minister now says that the local authority has no ongoing responsibility because those people made themselves intentionally homeless, then they lose all rights. Perhaps the Minister can help us.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: We must be careful. The noble Baroness has now moved us back into a different scenario from the one drawn by her noble friend Lady Fisher.

This debate illustrates the importance of doing things in guidance which can set out these matters in detail. For example, the current guidance contains seven or eight references in the index to mental illness or handicap. There is nothing between the noble Baroness and I in that we both wish to deal with these difficult problems, though they arise infrequently. We are looking at the guidance. We are talking to people about what to include in the fresh guidance, and if there are any cases that appear to fall between different provisions, then we shall certainly be interested in hearing of them. We can then consider what we need to do about them.

We will certainly reflect on the various points made this afternoon to try to make sure that they are either picked up in existing guidance and therefore carried forward or are picked up in the guidance that is to come. With the assurance that we will look at the kind of scenarios being portrayed and how we can resolve them, either in the current or future guidance, I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to withdraw the amendment and allow us to proceed.

Lord Mottistone: Perhaps I may add that I have been listening with great care to the debate. I take the point made about the relevance to mentally ill people of what we are discussing.

What puzzled me from the beginning was that the amendment did not seem to provide a solution to the problem before us. What my noble friend the Minister said in relation to guidance makes a lot of sense, in which case there is no need for the amendment. There is a need to debate the issue. But the amendment does not achieve what is needed and the Bill, with the guidance, deals with the problem completely. It therefore does not need to be amended.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page