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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: These amendments all relate to the availability of accommodation for occupation and to whether it is reasonable to continue to occupy those premises. In deciding whether or not to accept a person as homeless, a local authority takes account of the quality of the accommodation that the person is occupying. If it is not reasonable for him to occupy or to continue to occupy it, for example because of its physical condition after fire, flood or terrorist action--as in Amendment No. 264AC, which was not spoken to--the authority owes that person a duty under the homelessness legislation.

Fitness is, of course, a matter of degree. The Government would not wish to suggest that authorities should be aiming for anything less than property that complies fully with the fitness standard. Nevertheless, one must be realistic. Being unfit in one particular regard does not necessarily mean that the property is not "reasonably suitable for accommodation". For example, in an early case on this subject it was held that a broken sash cord on one window of a property led to statutory unfitness, although it was not suggested that the property should be abandoned as a result. In 1991, there were around 1.5 million properties that were in some way statutorily "unfit".

This amendment would, if accepted, place local authorities under much more severe restraints on the sort of accommodation they could use for discharge of duty and oblige them to use more expensive alternatives. Clearly, this would result in an impossible situation, with considerable knock-on effects. For example, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, has reminded me on one

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or two occasions that this is not a perfect free market in terms of supply. If this amendment were accepted, local authorities would face a very difficult situation. More broadly, local authorities are, and will continue to be, required to provide suitable accommodation which must take into account the state of repair of the building.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I hope that the Minister will forgive me for interrupting him. The law on this matter is quite clear. A house may be unfit if it does not meet the eight-point, 10-point standard, 16-point standard, or whatever. The test is whether the property can be made fit at reasonable expense. In the example that the Minister gave of a broken sash cord, clearly the property could be made fit at reasonable expense and therefore that would not be an issue.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I was not exactly praying that case in aid as a fundamental defence of my position in not accepting the amendment. I was just illustrating some of the problems that could arise in discussing whether a property was fit or unfit.

The point to which I was turning when the noble Baroness rose to speak was that local authorities would continue to be required to provide suitable accommodation which must take into account the state of repair. The word "suitable" is defined in Clause 183 of the Bill, which includes order-making powers. There is a considerable amount of case law as to what is defined as "suitable".

Amendment No. 264CC relates to proceedings for possession. The homelessness code of guidance makes clear that authorities should not require applicants to fight possession orders where there is no chance of success before accepting that a household is being threatened with homelessness. The Department of the Environment's recent study on evaluating the code found that almost all--something like 94 per cent.--authorities would take a notice to quit or notice of seeking possession as evidence of impending homelessness. There are, however, many different forms of tenancy and of grounds for possession. There are also many defences which can apply in particular cases. Given that existing arrangements are shown to be working well and can be re-enforced in new guidance, the Government do not wish to introduce a new requirement which at the margin in a difficult case would require the local authority to anticipate the decision of the courts.

The Housing and Planning Act 1986 amended Section 69 of the Housing Act 1985 to require authorities to have regard to the parts of that Act which deal with slum clearance, overcrowding and houses in multiple occupation. The new order-making powers in Clause 183 will allow the Secretary of State to specify further circumstances in which accommodation is or is not to be regarded as suitable for someone, and matters which are to be taken into account or disregarded in determining whether accommodation is suitable for someone. The appropriate place for further defining the suitability of accommodation is in that order, not on the face of the Bill. I do not think that Amendment No. 264CC is desirable.

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My noble friend Lady Gardner asked me a question, on which I find it difficult to comment in terms of the particular case she has raised. Broadly speaking, local authorities have a duty to take action in respect of properties in their area which fail the test of fitness for human habitation. Under provisions of the 1985 Housing Act, to tackle an unfit property an authority may require the owner to carry out the repairs (as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said in her intervention) or, in extreme cases, require closure or demolition. Another possible option is a compulsory purchase order. I am not an expert on housing policy and law, and I do not wish to go any further than that this evening. However if my noble friend wishes to give me further details I will consider the points that she has raised and write to her.

To return to the amendments, I have drawn the attention of the noble Baroness to Clause 183 and the position therein. I have explained what I hope is the present reasonable position and is likely to be in the future. I hope that those involved in these three amendments will feel able to withdraw them.

10.15 p.m.

Lord Monkswell: Before the Minister sits down, will he copy the letter that he might be sending to his noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes, because I, too, am interested in how someone who is apparently operating a business illegally can walk away with £1 million for his troubles when the council feels that the business should be taken over and run properly? A number of us will be interested in the Minister's answer to that.

Lord Swinfen: Before my noble friend sits down, is there any possibility that the case raised by my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes could be sub judice?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I should have to look at that before I replied to anyone.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Try parliamentary privilege!

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I doubt whether parliamentary privilege covers a letter from me to my noble friend or even the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, to whom I shall happily copy the correspondence.

Baroness Hamwee: I am not entirely sure whether, in referring to this ubiquitous guidance, the Minister is indicating that he goes along with the thoughts which I have expressed. In particular, is Clause 183, which deals with suitability of accommodation, an appropriate reference when one is dealing with an applicant who faces repossession and has no defence to that? I am not immediately persuaded that the two clauses interlink in a way which is as effective as I should like to see.

The Minister referred to 94 per cent. of local authorities apparently following the section of the code of guidance which I quoted. I am not sure whether he is suggesting that that should be reproduced and that the other 6 per cent. should be persuaded that they should

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take the same attitude. I do not know whether the Minister can give me any further indication that he has, at any rate, sympathy with the points that I am making.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I see the point that the noble Baroness makes. Shortly after I talked about the 94 per cent. which would take a notice to quit or a notice seeking possession as evidence of impending homelessness, I said that there were different forms of tenancy and different grounds for possession. We would not wish to introduce a requirement which, at the margin in difficult cases, would require a local authority to anticipate the court's decision. Of course, we could use an order under Clause 157 in relation to possession orders if we wished to.

Earl Russell: When John Locke in 1681 drew up the first Whipping lists for this place, he classified noble Lords of the day under V for vile, W for worthy, and in more extreme cases, VV and WW; and in the most extreme cases VVV and WWW. Listening to the Minister's reply to my noble friend Lady Hamwee, I wonder whether we should classify properties as unfit, very unfit, and very, very unfit. But I shall not follow the Minister any further into that thicket.

The amendment formally before the Committee at the moment is my Amendment No. 264AC. I put it down solely because I hoped to hear the Minister say that it was unnecessary. He did. I should like to thank him for doing so, and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 157 agreed to.

Clause 158 [Whether it is reasonable to continue to occupy accommodation]:

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 264B:

Page 94, line 12, after first ("from") insert ("or to").

The noble Earl said: In the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and with the leave of the Committee, I should like to speak briefly to the amendment and with it to Amendment No. 264C which is practically the same amendment. The amendment seeks to amend Clause 158(1) which in its present form says a person cannot be required to occupy premises if their occupation will lead to violence from some other person residing in it. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, has sought to add the words "or to" after the word "from". The effect would be to extend the protection offered by the clause to people who have been victims of ouster orders under Clause 4 of the Family Law Bill. Members of the Committee who have followed that Bill know that this is a very necessary power and will welcome it warmly.

However, it is an extreme power and if, after men have been subject to ouster orders and have had to leave, they are then to be found to be intentionally homeless one might think that that had something in common with double jeopardy. The campaign against domestic violence is necessary and I am glad to say that it is gathering steam. However, if it is to be successful it must be pursued with concern for safety and justice.

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It must not be allowed to become vindictive. That is why the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, tabled these proposals. I am glad that he did so. I beg to move.

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