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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I thank the Minister for giving way. He accused me of trying to trap him into reversing the Bill and returning to where we were. On the contrary. The Minister in the other place used the same phrases which the Minister has used today. There has been no advance and helpfulness. The Minister has continued to reiterate the fact that there will be discretion in exceptional cases, including those people who are virtually at the top of the queue. We are trying to understand what he means by that and, as we are in Committee, we have a right to know what the Minister means by that phrase.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: It is self-evident that "reasonable preference" and "exceptional circumstances" cannot be defined in the abstract from this Dispatch Box, even in response to questions. It depends on the area, the housing list, the other demands and on how fast houses become available. Indeed, it depends on the number of priority points and ticks which the individual person has when looked at against the background of Clause 148(2). That is where the reasonable preference comes in and, frankly, I am not prepared to go any further than that.

I am underlining the point that the circumstance is exceptional. The local authority has to decide whether it is exceptional and whether, when it looks at the circumstances and the person in front of it, the condition of the house and so forth, it can decide that the person has a case which is so exceptional that it should ignore its own housing list. Local authorities draw up the scheme for the housing list according to their own rules provided that it is within the principles laid down in Clause 148(2).

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Given the local circumstances, local authorities may draw up a rule about the parameters and the circumstances in which they consider a person to fall within the exceptional definition mentioned. In some places that may mean a short time but in others it may be a little longer. It depends on the area, the housing circumstances in that area and the circumstances of the person being considered for permanent accommodation. The local authority is asked to consider whether the fact that the two years is almost up and a person is so near the top of the list means that he or she should be granted a permanent tenancy. I advise noble Lords that I am not prepared to go further than that.

Lord Monkswell: Perhaps I could try to achieve some understanding of what the Government are saying. As I understand it, the Minister is saying that one of the big problems that we have at the moment is that certain people are fast-tracking their way into local authority housing. He has homed in on homelessness. According to the Minister, those people who are homeless get a fast track into local authority housing and that is bad. That is what the Minister is saying. It is bad and it must be stopped. Everybody should have equal rights in terms of time on the waiting-list.

However, the Government then point to Clause 148 which lists a number of categories to which the local authority can give "reasonable preference". Am I right in understanding that the Minister is saying effectively that homelessness, as a fast-track way into local authority housing, is wrong but the six categories of preference that are listed in Clause 148 are all right as a legitimate fast-track way into local authority accommodation?

That is further complicated because in subsections (3), (4) and (5), the Government effectively take upon themselves the ability to modify Clause 148. Therefore, the Government are saying that fast tracking into local authority accommodation through homelessness is wrong. They are proposing a different way in which to fast track into local authority accommodation. But they are also taking upon themselves the ability to change that. Is there a hidden agenda for the Government to say, "We don't like this fast tracking; we are suggesting a different sort of fast tracking", so that, at the end of the day, they can turn round and say that there will be no fast tracking at all, whether it be the Government's fast-tracking scheme or the current legal, local authority duty fast-tracking scheme? Is that a correct interpretation of the Government's position?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: We are in Committee and therefore we have every right to try to understand what the Minister intends by what he has said.

Lord Mottistone: That is the second time that the noble Baroness has said that this is Committee stage and we have a right to find out what the Minister means. The Minister has told us countless times what he means but, as far as I can see, that is not what the noble Baroness wants him to mean and she finds it easier to go on saying, "I do not understand". We have been 33 minutes on this simple amendment which I had hoped would be dealt with by two speakers.

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It is the convention of this Chamber that we do not over-press. I have been on the Opposition Benches and I have irritated the party of Members of the Committee opposite when I was sitting on those Benches. But I did not go on and on like the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, have on a particular point. I have taken the view that the Minister has said the best that he can say and that that is it for the time being. There may be other amendments when the subject can be touched upon again. I do not know. But it is not within the convention of this Chamber to press quite so hard. It is rather a pity that we have taken so much time on this amendment.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: This is a very important amendment. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, felt that he had to make the remarks that he has just made. We are dealing with a tiny area of what may be local authority discretion in a Bill which chains local authorities to literal words on the face of the Bill. That tiny error of discretion will produce legal challenge after legal challenge. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, that, if he has seen legal challenges over the past few days in relation to asylum seekers, that is nothing to the number of legal challenges which may arise on this legislation unless we have a clearer understanding of what the Minister is saying.

We have pressed the Minister, as we have every right to do in this Chamber, because he has not departed from his original statement except to say that it may refer to people who are nearly at the top of the queue. I asked an innocent question as to whether that refers to people who are one month, two or three months away from rehousing or whether local authorities will be permitted to use hard-to-let housing which people on the waiting list do not want. That is a perfectly reasonable question to which Members on the Opposition Benches as well as organisations outside and local authorities are entitled to receive an answer. We have every right to expect the Minister to give us an answer. The Minister in another place was pressed on this matter and we are revisiting an issue which the Minister failed to clarify.

Therefore, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, thinks that we are wasting time. I assure the noble Lord that organisations associated with homeless people, including local authority associations, believe that this is a pivotal point. I invite the Minister to define "nearly" and to tell us whether a local authority may go down the waiting-list to let hard-to-let properties, which are not wanted by those on the waiting-list, to homeless families in temporary circumstances. I invite the Minister to tell us what he means.

Earl Russell: I heard the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone. I believe that I may owe the Committee an apology for reintroducing the concept of fast tracking. But in return for that apology, perhaps the Minister will accept that if he tries to persuade the Committee by means of information which I do not believe to be true, he leads me into temptation.

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Beyond that, the point about legal challenge has force. We may save time and public money if we probe the matter further but we shall try to be abstemious.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I say to the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, that I do not define the priorities listed in Clause 148(2) as giving a fast track. Those are normal priorities which should underline the way in which local authorities will run their waiting-lists for local authority accommodation. It is for local authorities, on the basis of those priorities, to draw up their schemes. That is evident and I thought that that was underlined when we discussed Clause 148. That is the point.

The noble Baroness is doing as she did earlier. She is trying to say that her amendment seeks a tiny area of discretion. I have pointed out that a proper reading of her amendment provides a great deal more than that.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: The Minister is putting words into my mouth. I said that the Minister had offered us a tiny area of discretion. I accept that the amendment does not do that. I am trying to find out what that discretion encompasses.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I apologise if I misheard the noble Baroness but I wrote down that her amendment is not a tiny area of discretion. I thought she was addressing her amendment but I shall not fall out about that.

The noble Baroness now accepts that the amendment is one of considerable principle and would change homelessness policy quite radically. Here we are looking at an attempt by the parties opposite to draw from me hard and fast definitions of "exceptional". If I were able to do that, I should not be describing something that is exceptional. That is exactly why the word is used.

I draw the attention of the Committee to the basis on which local authorities could make exceptions to the general rule; that is, the "reasonable preference" which occurs in subsection (2). It is impossible to define it further. If I could do so, I should not have used that word. Local authorities must make the decisions looking at their area, the case in front of them, local circumstances and the circumstances of the person before them. It is their problem to decide what is exceptional. That is where I must leave it.

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