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Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for writing to me to elicit my support for the amendment. She knows that I have the greatest respect for her and for her sincerity in these matters. However, if there is one amendment which I could support less than any other amendment to this Bill it is this amendment. In the real world something like 30,000 constituents visit one's surgery over a period of 17 years. Most of the problems raised relate to education and housing. How can one suggest to people who have been on the housing waiting list for between two and four years that other people who have been able to jump the queue for at least two years should do so again? How is that justifiable or fair?
The noble Baroness rightly referred to the type of accommodation that is needed. There may be a need to move from smaller accommodation to, say, four-bedroomed accommodation, which is very rare. However, what about the people in unsuitable accommodation who have been waiting patiently on the housing list for the right kind of accommodation for them? Why should others have priority? The people to whom I have referred have just as much need of that housing. If, as the noble Baroness said, there is no private rented accommodation available for those "two-year" people, it follows that there must be no private rented accommodation available for those who cannot get the three or four-bedroomed accommodation that they would otherwise have been given.
It is perhaps generous to say that the amendment would cost nothing. I think that it could cost a great deal. Above all, however, I stress to the Committee that the amendment would be unfair to those who have taken responsibility for their lives. I accept that many people may not be able to take such responsibility for themselves, but many enter into marriage and have a family without thinking for a moment of putting down their names on the housing waiting list in advance. If the amendment is carried what would the noble Baroness say to those who do take such responsibility?
Lord Milverton: The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, also wrote to me asking whether I could support her on the amendment. My heart is torn because I have never before received so many letters on a single Bill. I have received about 40 letters from different people about this
Baroness Hamwee: My name is to this amendment, which therefore has my support. Before today's debate my noble friend Lord Russell described the amendment to me as "so modest as to be bashful". It is indeed a modest amendment.
With regard to those on the waiting list, I do not believe that anyone who is promoting the amendment or who believes that it is an appropriate response to a difficult situation would suggest that those who are on the waiting list--or rather, on the register because the register is not a list which has regard merely to time--are in any way less deserving. Frankly, whether one deserves housing does not come into this. It is a matter of assessing need.
The amendment proposes that the local housing authority should have discretion. It will have to consider need and to look at the situation in its own area, particularly at the availability of certain types of housing stock within its own area. I believe that the greatest housing need is homelessness, but the amendment does not suggest that a local housing authority shares that view. It proposes that the housing authority should assess a particular situation.
It is a matter of real despair even to look at these issues. To consider who should be housed in what hostels and in what is, by definition, unsatisfactory, short-term housing is to avoid the issue, which is that there is insufficient appropriate housing stock. To restrict families to temporary accommodation for only two years and then to require them to be moved on, perhaps to a hostel, is not even to stick a plaster over the sore of homelessness.
What does it do to a family, particularly to young children, to be told in effect that they will not have any short or medium-term security and that they may have to be moved on every two years? That lack of security is part of the problem with the private sector as it is used now. In some cases families have to move every six months. That cannot be good. It cannot be right. We should be seeking to move away from that situation, not to confirm it. A child who knows that he is likely to be moved within a relatively short time has a sense of insecurity instilled into him--perhaps a message that he does not deserve to be housed. It must affect his education, and your Lordships have frequently emphasised the importance of stability and security if education is to be effective.
The amendment does not advocate a wait for permanent accommodation of more than two years. It draws attention to the need for local authorities to act in a responsible but flexible manner and to react to their situation. If the Government believed that it was possible to provide permanent accommodation swiftly, they would not have had to include a time limit in the Bill. The amendment is an attempt to react to that.
The noble Baroness referred to the constraints, if I may call them that, which surround the amendment. A local authority would have had to have undertaken a review of the circumstances of those concerned. I remind the Committee that those who are most likely to benefit from the amendment will be the most needy and vulnerable. I support the amendment wholeheartedly.
Lord Hylton: The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has gone a long way to answering the impassioned plea of the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes. I would add only this: the key words in Amendment No. 266A are "reasonable steps" and the key words in Amendment No. 266D are "given reasonable preference". These words allow a local authority to make a balanced judgment of a situation. I am very happy to support the amendment.
The Lord Bishop of Oxford: I am happy to add my name to Amendments Nos. 265H and 266D. Like all noble Lords, I am concerned about the insecurity and vulnerability of those who find themselves homeless, very often through no fault of their own. Unfortunately, the Bill as it stands can only increase that insecurity. I am especially worried about Clause 182 and the effect that it has on the statutory duty of local authorities. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, has pointed out forcefully and eloquently that Clause 182 as it stands prevents an authority from providing any applicant with temporary accommodation from its own stock, except hostels and leased accommodation, for more than two years in three. If a local authority under its Section 172 duty houses a homeless family, for example, in a council flat under a temporary tenancy, even if it intends under Section 173 to continue to provide temporary accommodation, it must evict the family into leased or privately-owned accommodation. That applies even if the family has nearly reached the top of the waiting list, is due to be offered a permanent tenancy within a month or two and is content to remain in the flat that it has occupied under a temporary tenancy.
I believe that this is a modest amendment and that it leaves a discretionary power in the hands of the local authority. It will come into force only after the authority has undertaken a review of the person's circumstances under Clause 173 of this Bill. On the basis of six-month tenancies granted by private landlords, whose antipathy to certain categories of homeless people is well documented, homeless people are already very much at the mercy of others. To allow a local authority to provide temporary accommodation from its own stock for no more than two years out of three adds to that sense of powerlessness. It has been said that perhaps this will work in an unfair way against those who have been on the waiting list for some time. However great their need may be, I do not see how they can be helped by forcing this vulnerable group of people to move out of accommodation after two years, perhaps for
Earl Russell: I do not know whether I should say good morning or good afternoon to the Minister. It seems like only a few minutes since we said good night to each other last night. However, he looks as fresh as a daisy and as relaxed as ever. I congratulate him. Now for the bad news. I see that the Minister was expecting it. He is an old hand. The Minister may be aware that today at 10 o'clock the Court of Appeal delivered another judgment in a homelessness case arising under Section 63 of the 1985 Act. Those are the provisions to be repealed under the Bill. The case concerned a claim for priority need in relation to homelessness by four asylum seekers. The court ruled that, in denying housing to those people because they were not in priority need, the local authority had acted unlawfully. One such judgment may happen to any government; two savours of carelessness. The judgment reached me about half an hour ago. I wish to study it further before I comment on it in detail. But I believe that it will involve serious reconsideration of some of the issues discussed during the progress of Part VI of the Bill. It also impinges on the clause that we are now discussing, which is why I raise the matter.
I listened with interest to the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes. She stressed the shortage of permanent affordable housing. So did the judges in the Court of Appeal and the affidavits of the London local authorities with whom the case was concerned. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness as to that shortage. Our major criticism of the proposals ever since they appeared in the Green Paper is that they do absolutely nothing to meet that shortage. That is the one thing which most needs to be done.
Granted that that is the situation for which we are now legislating--and I agree with the comments of the noble Baroness about the waiting list--there is now a crowd of people entering a revolving door. Under the Bill they are given housing. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, has pointed out, after two years they are thrown out if by then they have not found anything suitable, which very likely they may not have done. They then go back into bed-and-breakfast accommodation and all the way round the circle again. One knows what happens when too many people go through a revolving door. By use of the modest word "may", the amendment proposes to ease the crowd in the revolving door by occasionally allowing just a few people inside the building so that they do not need to go into the crowd any further. That seems to me to be a constructive proposal.
The Minister always invokes the interests of the taxpayer. Last night he made a comment which I believed to be unwontedly ungenerous. He accused me of not putting forward any argument concerning the interests of the taxpayer. I think that he has forgotten the string of Questions I have asked him, which must by now run into three figures. I believe that what is best in the interests of the taxpayer is that there should be more of us: people must get back to work.
Last summer, while travelling on the Underground, I was reading my newspaper and noticed a smart young woman smiling at me from the opposite side of the corridor. Naturally I looked up and recognised a person whom I had known previously as the Big Issue seller at my local tube station. She had saved enough money to get a permanent home. She had a good job, was earning good money and was paying taxes. We all wish that kind of story to be repeated as many times as possible. But if people in temporary accommodation apply for jobs employers do not like it. They do not know where those people will be next. They do not know whether they will be able to make the journey to work or whether they can meet the hours. Children's schooling is regularly interrupted so that the problem passes into the next generation. If we want people to be in employment we need to put them into regular housing. The amendment would ensure that just a few of them will be. I believe that we need to rejoice more over the one than the 99, and this amendment provides that there may at least be the one. I am delighted to support it.
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