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Baroness Fisher of Rednal: Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, that most local authorities, especially the larger ones--I know Birmingham in particular--work closely with the housing association movement, which often specialises in one or other disability. I am involved with one which deals only with blind people. For that reason a local authority will normally operate a quid pro quo with the housing associations: "Will you take this one for us, because you have got that kind of facility? We will have one of yours". That goes on continually in the Birmingham local authority. If one is on a housing association list one is placed automatically on the council list. That obviates some of the problems faced by many disabled groups.

Lord Monkswell: Will the Minister address the arguments put forward by my noble friend Lady Hollis of Heigham? One of the points that we need to recognise about the housing market is that once a large number of people who lived in local authority accommodation could sensibly look forward to transferring to more suitable accommodation as they became older. For example, if they were in a three-bedroomed house there was probably a good chance of their being transferred to a ground floor flat or even a bungalow in the local authority sector as they became older or perhaps disabled. Because of the right to buy, many have bought their houses and become householders. They no longer have that route into local authority accommodation which is more suitable for their needs. Their houses may not be worth enough to enable them to sell them and buy suitable accommodation locally

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to meet their needs. To include a specific category for disabled people within the allocation system would provide a route into the right sort of accommodation for their needs. At the same time it would free up their own accommodation which has probably become unsuitable. That would make that accommodation available for a young family.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I thought that I had answered the question asked by the noble Lord's noble friend by pointing to paragraphs (a) and (e) and to the guidance that we intend to issue. His noble friend Lady Fisher explained the current position perfectly well. Where authorities agree on a voluntary basis between themselves and the housing association movement, a common register is one way to do it. The noble Baroness reminded me that the situation that my noble friend envisages will probably require specialised housing. It may be to the sheltered housing association movement or something similar, or to sheltered housing provided by the local authority, that the individual will be looking for housing accommodation. It all depends upon the individual's circumstances and the house.

We believe that paragraphs (a) and (e), especially paragraph (e), cater for and cover the situations which have been mentioned this afternoon. In addition, as I said, we shall be issuing guidance on this matter to local authorities. It is only fair to say that my experience of local authorities is that they are very understanding of such cases.

Lord Swinfen: I am well aware of the position set out by the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher of Rednal, because I am associated with the John Groom Housing Association which deals specifically with accommodation for physically disabled people. Because of that I am fully aware, as will be my noble friend the Minister, that there is currently a shortage of some 330,000 wheelchair-accessible housing units nationwide.

I moved the amendment to ensure that disabled people are not isolated and left to live their lives on a desert island. However, I shall read with care what my noble friend said, and if I feel it necessary to come back at a later stage of the Bill, I shall do so. I said, "if I feel it necessary, I shall come back". My noble friend is looking thoroughly disturbed, as though he may have to listen to me once again. I bore myself at times as well as him. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 264ZA:

Page 91, line 26, at end insert--
("( ) any young person aged 16 or 17.").

The noble Earl said: First, I must offer my apologies to the Committee, and especially to my noble friend Lady Hamwee and those other people who are interested in the business, for not having been here for a number of amendments which were down in my name. That is the result of attendance at a very prolonged meeting of a board of examiners. Attendance at that makes a three-line Whip look trivial. I must apologise also to the Minister, although he may be slightly less distressed by my absence

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hitherto than I might have wished, for having put him to the trouble of preparing answers to amendments which in the event may not have been moved.

The amendment attempts to insert in the list of those to whom local authorities should give reasonable preference in allocating housing people who are 16 and 17. Before saying anything more on the subject, I should like to say how very much I regret the absence of the late Lady Faithfull who has had so much to say on this subject, who has indeed taught me so much about it and done so much to increase understanding of it in all quarters of this place. I miss her regularly, particularly now.

The Minister, I am sure, knows well enough my general opinions on 16 and 17 year-olds and could easily answer them in his sleep. So I am not going to begin by making my usual point. I am going to begin in a way the noble Baroness would have done if she had been here: with the problem of people leaving care.

It has been the general basis of government thinking that 16 and 17 year-olds ought to be at home. But of course people leaving care do not have a home to go to, and judging by what we have been reading in the newspapers recently, in some cases, even if they could go back, it would be the last thing in the world that they wanted. So, they are out on their own.

Practice among local authorities varies considerably. There is a responsibility under the Children Act for which we have to thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, but the actual administration of that is at present rather patchy. A good many local authorities have not been able to give the sort of priority to people coming to them under the Children Act at 16 and 17 that one might have liked.

So one finds, among any group of homeless people, in particular among those who come in at Centrepoint in central London, that large proportions of them are people who have formerly been in care. They are not people who are the best equipped with social skills. They are not the best people to be left unprotected on their own, and they are of course extremely vulnerable to exploitation. They must make a living in one way or another. When honest ways of making a living are not easily come by, there are sometimes others which can be come by which one would not wish them to be forced into. That is one part of the problem.

There is of course another part of the problem about people who have left home. It has been, since the days when the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, was Prime Minister, a central point of government thinking that people who left home at 16 or 17 did so because they were adventurers trying to do something interesting. That does not actually appear to be the case. The Government's own MORI report published in 1991 shows that 65 per cent. of those who left home did so because they had been thrown out.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young, in the debates on the Family Law Bill, waxed very eloquent on the subject. However, when one looks at what happens among animals perhaps moralism is not altogether the most useful reaction. The human being has an artificially

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prolonged infancy. There have always been cases where parents, like birds putting fledglings out of the nest, have tended to believe that people are fit to fend for themselves perhaps a little sooner than they should. It is not all a problem of evil, wicked step-fathers. Much of the problem is that of a relationship being prolonged longer than in the past which is putting considerable strains on many families.

I refer to a case discovered by McCluskey, reported in a book published in 1994. The person was thrown out of the family home as a result of family breakdown. He ended up homeless, sleeping sometimes on friends' floors, sometimes rough and at times using a hostel. Eventually he became involved in drug using and theft. He did not like that much. He went to social services but was told there was nothing they could do.

I have met, passing through Charing Cross station to and from work, people who are in exactly that situation. Recently, one of them told me, "There's nothing I can do now. I'll have to hang around like this until I'm 17." He should not have had to say that. It would have been much better if he could have got a job. But, of course, we all know how difficult it is to get a job if you have nowhere to sleep. As my noble friend Lady Seear once said in this House, we should not expect people to go to job interviews in clothes in which a noble Lord would not garden.

If the Minister invokes the interest of the taxpayers, about which I am as concerned as he is, I say to him that the thing that is most in the interests of the taxpayers is to increase their number. That means that we shall probably do more for taxpayers by giving many of those people a chance to do a decent job of work, as they would like, rather than keep them on the streets where they cannot get up to any good. At best they suffer; at worst they may get up to anything. Giving them some reasonable preference--and reasonable preference is all I ask--in the housing market would give them a chance to get started in the world and become good and useful citizens, as most of them would like. I beg to move.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I welcome the noble Earl to the debate. I was not thinking anything as uncharitable as a feeling of relief that he was not here earlier today but I may change that view in two or three hours. We are discussing 16 and 17 year-olds in whom the noble Earl has taken a great interest. It is fortuitous that he should arrive among us just as we move on to this amendment.

The amendment is prompted by representations from organisations--the noble Earl is in contact with many of them--concerned with the welfare of young people who are forced to leave home. I hope that I shall be able to assure the noble Earl that we do not need the kind of provisions that he proposes and that the problems he raises can be dealt with between the legislation and the guidance.

In assessing priority for housing, local authorities should consider factors which can contribute to a need for a settled, independent home. The fact that someone is 16 or 17 is not in itself an indication of a need for an

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independent tenancy. For the majority of young people, it would be better for them to live with their parents or with relatives where they can receive the shelter and support they need.

I am concerned that a provision of the kind envisaged in the amendment would do more harm than good. It might send the wrong signals both to local authorities and to applicants themselves and could risk creating false hopes among young people who believe that they might like to leave home, get on to a council's housing list and gain an independent house that way. If that were to be encouraged, other people in greater need might be pushed aside.

What should be at issue is whether a young person is in need of assistance in establishing a settled home. Local authorities should concentrate on helping the minority of young people who are vulnerable and for whom there are no better alternatives. But that is primarily a matter for the social services department. There is a duty of care on social service authorities under the Children Act until at least the age of 18. There is a duty on housing authorities to co-operate where reasonable. There is also provision in Part VII of the Bill for housing departments to secure accommodation for young people if they are vulnerable and become homeless unintentionally.

There are difficulties in providing a tenancy to a minor who neither has the capacity to enter into a contract nor can be liable for his debts. Many people at that age need ongoing support and assistance from the social services department. When we issue guidance on the operation of Parts VI and VII of the legislation we will address such questions. I know that the noble Earl was not in the Chamber earlier when I referred to the code of guidance for local authorities on homelessness which we intend to update. One of the reasons that it requires updating, in addition to the legislation before us today, is that it pre-dates the Children Act. However, even a document made up in 1991 contains a fair number of paragraphs referring to youngsters in exactly the position which causes the noble Earl concern. I do not wish to read out the guidance which exists, but perhaps I may refer him to it. I strongly suspect that he already has the document: he will find clear terms laid out in paragraphs 6.13 to 6.17.

I hope that my assurance that the new guidance will incorporate, perhaps in an updated form, what already exists will allow the noble Earl to withdraw his amendment. I hope that he will feel able to leave the matter to guidance, to a co-ordinated approach between housing and social services and to the fact that the Children Act lays an obligation on social services to deal with those children whom the noble Earl has in mind. I hope that with that assurance, and with my reference to the guidance notes which he can read, the noble Earl will be able to withdraw the amendment.

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