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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Perhaps I may invite the Minister to help us on this. He said on a previous amendment--he has been quoted again by his noble friend Lady Parkes--that where an applicant was near the top of the list local authorities had some flexibility. Will he give us more substance as to what that would mean in practice for a local authority? Could local authorities respond to the situation in the way described by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, as one would hope?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I should rather hear the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, and then perhaps try to round up the debate.

Lord Monkswell: I shall try to oblige the Minister. The difficulty is that the point I shall raise is different

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from the one raised by the noble Baronesses. I thank the Minister for reading out his brief in response to the amendment, but the department has misunderstood the import of the amendment. My understanding of the amendment is that it would require a local authority to ensure that there was accommodation available for the homeless person after the two-year period, not that a local authority should secure the accommodation that the person is currently in after the two-year period.

If the Government can understand that that is the way we understand the amendment--I am glad to receive a signal of assent for my interpretation from my noble friend Lady Hollis--they may have some sympathy with it, although it may not be framed in the best way to achieve what we seek to achieve. A local authority has the responsibility to provide temporary accommodation for a homeless family. The way the Government interpret that is that the homeless family will be installed in temporary accommodation for up to two years. A homeless family provided with local authority accommodation for two years will have little incentive to seek some other form of accommodation, at least for the first 18 months, because, thank heavens, the family has some accommodation and it is secure for two years.

I do not believe that that is the Government's intention. I believe that the Government's intention is to say to homeless families that they will be accommodated temporarily but that they expect the family to find alternative accommodation. As to the temporary nature, it may be better to think in terms of six months or 12 months. There would thereafter be a continuing requirement for the local authority to find the family other temporary accommodation.

The homeless family would not be thrown out on the street after two years from accommodation which, on the Government's interpretation, would be relatively secure. It would not be a case after two years of, "Bang, you are out on the street". It may be better to suggest to homeless families that they have temporary accommodation and that the local authority may move them every six months or every year. That will be a signal to the homeless family that the accommodation is temporary, but that there is a continuing requirement--I believe we would all accept this as a civilised society--to ensure that a family is not thrown out on the street with no where else to go, especially by a public housing authority.

If the Government could accept our interpretation of the amendment rather than what we feel is their erroneous interpretation of it, there might be some coming together of minds on it.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am sorry to disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, but I am afraid that I have to accept what my lawyers advise me is the proper interpretation of an amendment. The proper interpretation of this amendment is the one to which I have spoken. There is the problem of returning, as I believe the amendment would do, to the general position where local authorities would find themselves obliged to house people endlessly in their own stock, if that is how they chose to do it, and therefore de facto it would be secure, long-term accommodation, even if it

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were not actually legally secure. I made that point earlier. People in such circumstances would have accommodation which did not give them proper security and the rights that other local authority housing tenants have, but I do not want to repeat an argument I have already gone over.

I stand firmly on my position. I believe that my noble friend Lady Gardner agrees with me. We do not wish to see people using the homelessness route to fast-track local authority housing.

The problem that I am being asked to address is what a local authority can do in exceptional cases if it sees, for example, someone just about to reach the top of the list. Of course if people come to the top of the list within the two years, their current house can be transferred from being a temporary way to resolve their homelessness to being permanent accommodation. That is fine.

I did say earlier in answer to my noble friends Lady Gardner of Parkes and Lord Swinfen that I would reflect upon the treatment of exceptionally difficult cases. My noble friend Lady Gardner asked me about the exceptional case of someone who was so close to the top of the list that it was clear that he would receive permanent housing shortly after the two years, and what local authorities could do. There are exceptional circumstances which they could take into account.

I refer my noble friend and the Committee back to Clause 148. It provides the allocation principles--if one wishes to call them that--which underlie this matter. Subsection (2) states:

    "As regards priorities, the scheme shall be framed so as to secure that reasonable preference is given",
and so forth, in the kind of exceptional circumstances--I underline the words "exceptional circumstances"--that qualification of reasonable preference would fall to be considered by the local authority.

I want to make it as clear as I possibly can at this Dispatch Box that that is using the word "exceptional" in its proper dictionary meaning. It is not to be construed as a general green light to local authorities to go back to exercising the policy that many of them felt they had a duty to exercise; namely, to give people who were homeless a fast track to permanent accommodation.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Perhaps I may press the Minister on the implications of his reply. I have two points. He repeated that the circumstance was exceptional when someone was near the top of the list, as though it was a peculiar one-off. What does he mean? Would he say to local authorities that that applies if several families are within one, two or three months of being offered permanent housing? We must have some guidance and I believe that the Government are obliged to provide it. Many of us are concerned about the issue. The Minister emphasised "exceptional". What does he mean?

Secondly, what happens if the authority has hard-to-let property? May it go down the waiting-list as far as it needs to in order to ensure the letting of such

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properties under the conditions of exceptional flexibility? Can the Minister help us before we go further?

Baroness Hamwee: I wish to make similar points. We on these Benches are in considerable difficulty in knowing how far to press the amendment. So much of the Bill is dependent on guidance and on government advice as to how certain provisions are to be interpreted. The point made by the noble Baroness relates to accommodation rather than to people who are to be accommodated. As yet, I do not read into the Bill the possibility for the local authority to be using the accommodation in the best way possible; in other words, making it available.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, referred to hard-to-let accommodation being available because families higher up the list would be likely to turn it down. However, if the local housing authority has a policy of making only one offer that situation would not arise. I believe that the Minister must be clearer in assisting the Committee.

Earl Russell: The Minister continues to use the phrase "fast-track route" to council accommodation. I do not believe that that is accurate. I am not sure whether he was a Member of this House when the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, moved his Motion on bed-and-breakfast accommodation on 24th July 1992. Incidentally, we are still waiting for an answer. Members of the Committee who were present will remember that, in many of the cases which we discussed on that Motion, homelessness was a tragically slow route to council accommodation. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, has given the figures and we need not go into them again.

Though the constant harping on the unfairness to those on the waiting-list highlights a genuine concern, it mistakes the symptom for the disease. Clearly, the disease is the shortage of housing. If the supply is diminished enough there will always be a queue; and that queue will always grow longer. It is as though one were pulling down one block of the seats at Lords each day of the Test Match. It really does make it harder. The Minister, I am sure inadvertently, is not giving the Committee the full picture and I believe that we will get on a little faster if he does.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: As regards the more general aspect made by the noble Earl, I thought that we had that argument for about an hour and a half three hours ago. I am under no doubt that, rightly or wrongly, many local authorities considered that they had a duty to provide permanent accommodation. The powerful interventions of two of my noble friends and the noble Lord on the Cross-Benches (who were Members of another place) which drew on their experience in constituency work, was reinforcement of my argument that it was fast tracking. I can confirm that in my experience a great deal of fast tracking went on. My local authority was most unhappy about it but felt

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that it could do nothing other than what it considered to be the law. I make no apology for using "fast tracking". The fact is that many people who are homeless by their very nature are not accepted as homeless unless there are certain factors in their condition. Many of those factors will appear in their priorities regarding the allocation of housing through the normal list, which your Lordships see in Clause 148. Many homeless people will receive permanent accommodation quickly and certainly well within the two years.

I turn to the other point on which I was pressed by the noble Baroness. Perhaps one of the difficulties of trying to be helpful is that it might be easier to stand firm and not try to be helpful at all. I am being pressed to define something that is difficult to define. I have drawn the Committee's attention to "reasonable preference" which reflects the priorities which appear in the rest of the clause. I have gone back and forth so much with the Bill that I have now lost my place, but I refer to Clause 148. That sets out all the factors and the priority that is given to them. Obviously, it is difficult to give the kind of hard-and-fast definition which the noble Baroness wants. She wants me to give such a definition because she wants to trap me into opening up the whole homelessness issue and giving back to local authorities the right to fast-track people. I am simply not going to do that--

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