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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I said that the authority has a discretion to provide interim accommodation where it feels that that is appropriate. Of course, the person appealing may still be in the original premises because a decision could have been made by the authority before the person has left the premises which he knows he will have to leave. As I suggested earlier, that decision is usually made in advance of the person leaving. In those circumstances, the person may not yet have left before the decision was reached. I should not like the Committee to think that in every circumstance the person will be in interim accommodation using the interim powers. However, if it helps the noble Baroness, I am prepared to underline the fact that the authority has a discretion to provide interim accommodation where it feels that that is appropriate.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Does it extend also to the situation in which somebody is appealing in a

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shorthold tenancy, for example, and between the local authority refusing and the appeal being heard, that interim duty may then newly come into play?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: In the circumstances which the noble Baroness has postulated, that the person is in accommodation but loses it, during the course of the appeal the authority has a discretion to provide interim accommodation.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I believe that this matter can be dealt with in guidance in due course. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 265BK:

Page 98, line 15, leave out subsection (4).

The noble Baroness said: To some extent, this is a linked amendment but again I shall try to be brief. For someone who is homeless and in priority need the local authority has a duty to provide temporary or emergency accommodation pending full inquiries into the case. But we are not now talking about the acceptance of a duty but rather the interim period during which a local authority determines whether or not a duty exists under the legislation in terms of someone being unintentionally homeless, in priority need and having a local connection.

I am concerned that the Government are steering local authorities into using suitable alternative rented private accommodation for the discharge of that interim duty. What I fear is that if local authorities send an applicant into private rented accommodation for the interim period while they make inquiries, those inquiries will not necessarily be made. They will regard themselves as having discharged their duty by putting someone into interim accommodation, however inadequate that may be.

While we are worried about this--it is too late at night to begin a full-scale debate on the adequacy or otherwise of the private rented sector to meet the homelessness duties of a local authority--nonetheless it is the case that, first, private rented landlords are fairly reluctant to let to families in these situations, particularly for a short and interim period which may last for only a few weeks. Secondly, evictions from the private rented sector are one of the most significant causes of homelessness. Anywhere between 15 and 30 per cent. of people coming into the homelessness group of the local authorities I have looked at have come out of that same private rented sector the Government are busy sending them back into.

Obviously circumstances differ, but I worry that the Government are expecting or encouraging local authorities to think they have discharged their interim duty by providing a list of addresses for someone who is going back into private rented accommodation. As a result, there will be no full review of that person's need for temporary accommodation other than keeping him in the interim accommodation he currently occupies. As I say, being the private rented sector,

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that may well be entirely inadequate, particularly if he has problems of physical disability; if the house itself is not in a good condition; and if he has problems continuing to pay the rent for it. In the private rented sector--unlike the council house sector--rents are often not met fully by housing benefit. Will the Minister give us some help on this issue and not allow local authorities to avoid taking seriously a temporary duty by fobbing people off with inadequate private rented accommodation in order to meet their interim duty? I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: As the noble Baroness explained, the amendment would remove the "alternative accommodation" provision in respect of the interim duty to accommodate pending inquiries. It would not seem logical to require an authority to accommodate someone itself on an interim basis when there might be a ready supply of accommodation available in the private sector. In accommodating applicants while an application is investigated local authorities may need to find accommodation quickly in an emergency and so make use of different types of accommodation. We would not necessarily regard bed and breakfast hotels as suitable interim accommodation for families except for the first few nights following a crisis, but in some cases such accommodation will offer a suitable interim solution.

Interim accommodation is generally not in use for very long. Local authorities are advised in the homelessness code of guidance that they should regard 30 working days as the maximum limit for completing their inquiries, except in exceptional cases, from the time they accept a duty. Recent research commissioned by the Department of the Environment- -evaluation of the 1991 homelessness code of guidance--shows that on average authorities take 17 days to complete their inquiries. As we intend that revised guidance would continue to offer similar advice to authorities, I hope that the noble Baroness can withdraw her amendment.

As regards the kind of accommodation, interim accommodation must be suitable. We have discussed that situation with reference to other accommodation. I am trying to find my way through the main reasons for homelessness in the fourth quarter of 1995. I think I am right in saying that the end or loss of tenancy constitutes 21 per cent. of those reasons. Therefore I do not think it is quite the biggest factor, as I believe the noble Baroness suggested when she indicated that the loss of tenancy in the private sector was the biggest problem--

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: One of the biggest problems.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I do not know whether 20 per cent. constitutes one of the biggest problems. In fact none of the categories is huge, so I suppose it is one of the biggest problems, even at 21 per cent. I am thinking on my feet. I shall not argue with the noble Baroness on that count.

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I hope that what I have said about the need for the accommodation to be suitable and the way in which we hope and intend that the guidance will act will allay the noble Baroness's worries in this regard and show her that it would not be wise to remove the alternative accommodation provision.

Earl Russell: Before the noble Baroness decides what to do with the amendment, perhaps I may ask the Minister to clarify one point.

When he talks about housing being available, what does he mean by "available"? Does he simply mean that the housing exists; or does he mean that it is housing that the person could reasonably be expected to afford?

Perhaps the noble Baroness will forgive me for taking an example that she has already used this evening. A couple cannot find a one-bedroomed flat on the market. Are they expected to take a two-bedroomed flat which is available even though housing benefit does not cover all the costs? Would such a flat be regarded as available within the meaning that the Minister used?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am in some difficulty in that these are details which will be in a code of guidance which will be fairly detailed. I think not, although I should need to study the question and look for the answer in a more detailed way, if the noble Earl does not mind.

The important point is that we are talking about interim accommodation. I mentioned earlier that authorities have a reasonably good success rate in managing to keep people in their existing accommodation while the problem of finding them alternative accommodation for up to two years is resolved. That is one way in which the authorities can deal with the interim position. They can find a way to negotiate or help tenants to stay in their existing houses rather than have them face the rather graphic situation which was referred to earlier of being absolutely roofless as well as homeless.

If the noble Earl does not mind, I shall examine the question and perhaps write to him about it.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Judgment on whether accommodation is suitable can be made only after inquiries have been completed. Yet that judgment is having to be made before the inquiries are completed by the local authority.

If one considers Clause 167 in the context of Clause 168, the interim duty is not the same as for those on the housing waiting list. The local authority has a duty to ensure that interim accommodation is available where someone is homeless--it is virtually the only place in the Bill where the word "homeless" is used--eligible for assistance and has a priority need. The priority need categories are,

    "a pregnant woman...a person with whom dependent children reside or might reasonably be expected to reside; a person who is vulnerable as a result of old age, mental illness or handicap or physical disability ... or threatened with homelessness as a result of an emergency".

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Almost all those categories in a more general sense are people with special needs. They are people for whom standard private sector accommodation is not available. Often it is exactly the type of accommodation from which they have come.

The Minister was not sure whether 21 per cent. was a particularly high figure. I suspect that if he checks the national figures he will find that eviction from the private rented sector is only surpassed as a reason for homelessness by a breakdown in relationship either with family or husband. Those are followed by mortgage repossessions and rent arrears, and one goes on down the list. I am reasonably confident that in all the local authorities I have studied eviction from the private rented sector is usually (although not invariably) not due to rent arrears. One of the largest single explanations for homelessness is that the accommodation is unsuitable for that person's physical condition as listed under priority needs. In the off-the cuff, immediate judgment, the local authority may believe that people come within the category of need. It will have to review the decision and make final inquiries in particular about the local connection. The Minister says that none the less such people must either stay put or go back into the local private rented sector, even though it may have thrown them into the condition of threatened homelessness and the private rented sector is largely unsuitable for the categories of people in priority need as defined in Clause 168.

Given that there is a presumption that by going into interim accommodation such people will go on to enjoy temporary housing, it seems to me that it would be prudent, wise, sensible and humane for the local authority to ensure that the accommodation is available pending the review. Can the Minister help us further?

11.45 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am not sure what I am being invited to explore. The local authority does not have a pool of houses available somewhere which it can promptly use for someone who is homeless. Therefore, there is an effort to match the best possible situation for the interim. I am sure that that is what the authority will do. It will have to do the best it can. No one in their right mind could expect the authority to have available every possible variation in housing that may be required by someone who may become homeless. The authority will have to try to ensure that it is suitable and, I add, the best match it can make in the circumstances. After all, it is a temporary and interim position while the authority examines the case. If it finds that the case is genuine and falls to be considered under the homelessness legislation, it will go on to find more suitable accommodation. If the authority's inquiries show that the needs of the people involved are such that the accommodation found is unsuitable, then it must find new accommodation.

The matter cannot be too easily resolved because it is not an event that is easy to plan for. Local authorities will have to try to do the best they can in

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the interim arrangements to match the family situation of the person with the best accommodation it can find to solve the interim problem. That includes trying to keep people in their existing accommodation until the situation has been resolved.

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