Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Housing Bill

3.10 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Ferrers, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.--(Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 172 [Duty to persons with priority need who are not homeless intentionally]:

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 265H:

Page 99, line 45, at end insert ("and section (Duty where applicant has priority under section 148).").

The noble Baroness said: In moving this amendment I shall speak also to Amendment No. 266D, which is the substantive amendment, and Amendment No. 268ZAF, which is consequential upon it. Under the Housing Bill a homeless family must await its turn on the waiting list before the local authority offers it permanent housing. While the family awaits its turn, and it is not deliberately homeless, it will be offered temporary accommodation by the local authority. The local authority must offer the family temporary accommodation for up to two years while it queues. If the family has not reached the top of the list for permanent housing by then, the local authority may continue to offer it temporary accommodation beyond that period.

Where will such families live while they wait? The Government expect that many of them will live in the private rented sector. That is fine if the property is available, affordable and suitable. But we know that in many rural districts there is very little private rented housing to be had. We know that in many inner cities private rented housing can be in poor physical condition and is often quite small. The landlords prefer to let to childless couples in work and they are not very happy to have as tenants homeless families on housing benefit with large families, for example. We also know that private rented housing is very often quite expensive. The average rent for a two-bedroomed council flat is £39, and it is nearly double that in the private rented sector. Housing benefit does not now pay all of the cost.

25 Jun 1996 : Column 768

But even if there is private rented housing for homeless families to live in, and it is available, affordable and in decent repair, it is often still not suitable for some homeless large families or those which need specially adapted accommodation, perhaps because of physical disability. So the private rented sector has a role to play in housing the homeless, but it can only house a small proportion of them. The stock is not big or suitable enough to house most homeless families, which is why local authorities have used, and the Bill allows them to use, some of their own council housing as temporary housing. While they wait in the councils' temporary housing, homeless families are usually offered the old, unmodernised and least attractive council housing on the least popular estates--what we used to call "hard-to-let properties". Homeless families are not usually allowed any choice, unlike families on the waiting list who can choose where they live. The accommodation may still be on the small side, with three bedrooms instead of four, but it is much better than nothing and much better than what they may get in the private rented sector and infinitely preferable to bed and breakfast in two hotel rooms in a grotty area.

As I have said, local authorities have a duty to provide temporary housing for two years while families queue and, we hope, come to the top of the list and become eligible for permanent housing. If they are on the list, most families will be housed permanently by the local authority within those two years, and we hope that there should not be a problem for them. But not always. If, in the inner cities, there is considerable pressure on the waiting list or if, as in some rural areas, there are relatively few modernised council houses for people on the waiting list, or if a homeless family has special needs such as the need for a three or four-bedroomed house or a specially adapted flat, then the local authority will not be able to rehouse them from temporary housing into permanent housing by the time that the two-year cut off point is reached. From my experience local authorities report that there is only a six months' wait for a one-bedroomed flat; a wait of 18 months for a three-bedroomed house, but three to four years for a four-bedroomed house. Dover is one example out of a dozen that I have checked over the weekend. There is a wait of two-and-a-half years for a four-bedroomed house and nearly a three-year wait for one-bedroomed supported housing if, for example, one has a physical disability.

What happens then? For two years the local authority is obliged to help a person in temporary housing, but one has still not reached the point of permanent housing because one's needs are distinctive. The local authority is not required to continue to house families, but it can use its discretion to do so if it feels, for example, that the family has made an effort to look elsewhere, but there is no suitable accommodation for it. Clause 173 of the Bill makes that very clear.

The local authority can continue to house families temporarily beyond the two years if there is no suitable alternative accommodation except--and this is the nub of the amendment and the argument--if the local authority has offered a homeless family temporary

25 Jun 1996 : Column 769

housing in its own stock. After that two-year period is up, the local authority has to evict the family. No homeless family is allowed to occupy council property as a temporary home for more than two years in any three. A family may be out for one year and then it can come back for another two years and then be out again for the third year. There is no scope for discretion whatsoever. Whatever the needs of the family or the wishes of the local authority, it makes no difference. According to this Bill as it stands the local authority has to evict even if that family is only three months away from being housed in permanent housing; even if, as in some rural areas, there is virtually no private rented alternative housing to be had; and even if a member of the family is in a wheelchair. That makes no difference: the local authority has to evict if it has used its own hard-to-let stock as temporary housing.

Then what? Where does the large family go? Where does the family with special needs live while it waits the extra six months or a year to come to the top of the waiting list? Will it find a home in the private sector? It is unlikely because these are precisely the families that the local authorities housed in the first place because the private rented sector was not suitable for them. So if after two years the family becomes homeless it is not very likely that it will find somewhere suitable. In any case the local authority has only a duty to continue to house the family if there is not suitable alternative accommodation. So where does the family go--back to bed-and-breakfast accommodation again? Does the family start all over again after three years?

This amendment, and particularly the substantive amendment, would put a safety net for that particular problem in to the Bill. It is a modest amendment, but it will save some of the most vulnerable people from becoming homeless again through no fault of their own. The substantive amendment says that the local authority which provides temporary accommodation to a homeless family in a council-owned property is not required to evict the family after two years, but has the discretion--and not the duty--if the local authority believes it reasonable for the family to remain, to allow it to stay in that temporary housing until it has reached its turn on the waiting list for a permanent home. It is a discretion only. If the local authority believes that the family could and should find alternative accommodation in the meantime it will require it to do so. But if from the local authority's own experience it believes that there is no suitable alternative accommodation elsewhere, it has a discretion not to evict the family. It is a discretionary duty which costs absolutely nothing. Indeed, given that the rents in the private rented sector, let alone the costs of housing benefit, are so high, there will probably be a saving on housing benefit. It will not only not cost anything, but there may even be a saving.

The amendment does not undermine the Bill. We are still talking only about temporary accommodation of the least popular and least attractive sort which the local authority is using instead of putting a family into bed-and-breakfast accommodation. However, the amendment would ensure stability for the families affected. It would give them more security, as opposed to uprooting them at the end of two years and forcing

25 Jun 1996 : Column 770

them into temporary accommodation for another six months before rehousing them in permanent accommodation after that, which might mean that a child would have three school moves and would have to break links with friends three times in one year.

The amendment would avoid all that. It would, I hope, affect only a few families; those who had not reached the top of the waiting list for permanent housing after their two-year queue in temporary housing. However, they are the families which local authorities find most difficult to house. By definition, they are large families and families with special needs. They are the families which are least likely to be able to find other temporary housing. Those are primarily the families to which this modest amendment would offer a safety net. I beg to move.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page