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Lord Pearson of Rannoch: I am most grateful to noble Lords who have spoken, especially to my noble friend the Minister for revealing the result of the consultation process which took place on similar amendments tabled in the other place.

It has given me some pleasure to have produced the harmony that we enjoyed between the noble Baronesses on the Benches opposite and my noble friend on the Front Bench, even if I have to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, that I feel that she was being a little rough on me when she suggested that I was about to put people on the bus to Norwich. I certainly did not intend to do that.

Perhaps I may go back to those who inspired the amendment and consult them. I may bring forward a slightly different amendment at another stage but I hope not to trouble the Committee further. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Nicol): If Amendment No. 267B is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments Nos. 267C or 268.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 267B:

Page 103, line 1, leave out subsection (2) and insert--
("(2) In that case, their duty is to furnish him with such advice and assistance as will secure that suitable accommodation is available.").

The noble Baroness said: This amendment is grouped with Amendment No. 267C. Both amendments are in my name and the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham. I hope not to disturb the peace that has broken out.

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The purpose of the first amendment, which refers to furnishing of advice and assistance, is to strengthen the duty to make advice and assistance sufficient to secure that accommodation will be made available and to remove the discretion that the authority needs to provide only advice and assistance which the authority considers to be appropriate.

The duty under Section 176 is limited. It introduces a high degree of discretion--ironically so, given that a number of noble Lords, including my noble friend and myself, have been arguing for greater discretion in certain areas with regard to the provision of accommodation. However, it introduces a lot of discretion and potential variation between authorities in the assistance that they consider to be appropriate. As we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, they might discharge that duty by providing only a very minimal degree of advice and help. There are no standards by which the duty will be measured.

Of great concern is the fact that an applicant who fails to take up suitable alternative accommodation may be deemed to be intentionally homeless. If the authority has provided fourth-rate advice and assistance, it seems to me that that would be a more than unhappy outcome.

We have already referred to the assumptions on which the advice obligation is based: that local authorities will have a full knowledge of the local market; that accommodation will in fact be available; and that the local authority may be able to provide tangible assistance in the form of rent deposits and rent guarantees. I do not feel it necessary to repeat the arguments used in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, on an earlier amendment. I simply explain that the amendment is to inject a degree of objectivity.

Amendment No. 267C seeks to ensure that advice and assistance remain available for a period of two years. In cases where accommodation does not last for the duration of the duty or where there is insufficient advice and assistance, the applicant can return to the authority and expect further help. If there is no suitable alternative accommodation, the duty to accommodate under Section 172 would arise. I beg to move.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford: I support the amendment which I regard as extremely important. I am concerned that under the clause as it now stands a local authority can do very little--perhaps virtually nothing--yet still claim that it has conformed to the letter of the law.

Clause 176(1)(b) says that the authority must be satisfied that,

    "other suitable accommodation is available for occupation by him in their district. In that case, their only duty is to furnish him with advice and such assistance as they consider appropriate in the circumstances in any attempts he may make to secure such accommodation".
It is possible to envisage a local authority simply putting a list of local accommodation into the hands of somebody and saying, "Get on with it". So far as I can see that would mean that the authority had conformed to the law. I would like to see an appropriate clause

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in the Bill to ensure that the intention of this excellent amendment is adhered to. The amendment says that the authority's duty is,

    "to furnish him with such advice and assistance as will secure that suitable accommodation is available".
I am sure that all Members of the Committee want to achieve that result and secure that suitable accommodation is available. I hope that the Minister will be able to accept this important amendment.

Earl Russell: Subsection (2) of Clause 176 is another occasion where the local authority is judge and party in its own cause. It has only to satisfy itself. Most of us can do that; but we do not always satisfy other people. I am a little unhappy about the weak duty of "advice". One has uncomfortable visions of Dutch uncles. I also see a parallel to one of the most ungenerous provisions in all government legislation with which I have had to deal. The Minister may have been a little surprised to hear my praise for the Social Fund earlier this evening. I can assure him that normal service has now resumed.

The provision I had in mind is the one in the Social Fund provisions covering people who are too poor to receive assistance. The Social Fund has hitherto given them "money advice". That has always struck me as a peculiarly heartless provision. If this subsection were to give the local authority the power to do just about that, then it would join it in the list of the most unfortunate provisions we have had. There must be more duty on the local authority than to satisfy itself. I hope that the Minister can reassure us.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Amendments Nos. 267B and 267C seek to amend the whole purpose of Clause 176. Amendment No. 267B would replace the whole of subsection (2) by requiring the authority to furnish,

    "such advice and assistance [to an applicant] as will secure that suitable accommodation is available",
rather than simply advising and assisting the applicant in his attempts to secure such accommodation. In addition, it re-states the requirement that such accommodation must be "suitable".

Amendment No. 267C extends the duration of an authority's duty by requiring it to continue with the duty to furnish advice and assistance under Clause 176(2) until the date that the authority carries out, or could carry out, a review under Clause 173 of its power to secure accommodation.

Clause 176 is an essential part of the Government's proposals for reform of the homelessness provisions. It is in effect a halfway stage between the full homelessness duty and the purely advisory role. It relates to a local authority's duty in cases where other suitable accommodation is available for occupation by an applicant in its district. In that context "suitable" covers a range of attributes, including whether the accommodation is of the right size; whether it is, where necessary, affordable for someone on housing benefit;

25 Jun 1996 : Column 832

whether the landlord is willing to take someone with children; and other points of suitability we discussed earlier.

If the authority is satisfied that such accommodation is available, Clause 176 limits the authority's duty to furnishing the applicant with such advice and assistance as it considers appropriate in any attempts the applicant may make to secure that accommodation. As authorities develop and improve their own private rented sector strategies, they will become familiar with what property is available to let in their area and will know where to direct people. They may forge links with landlords or agencies and may assist people by offering rent guarantees where that is appropriate. We encourage local authorities, through the housing investment programme, to have regard to the contribution that the private rented sector can make. Local authorities also have a general duty under the 1985 Act to consider the condition of housing in their area, including the private rented sector, at least once a year.

In brief, local authorities will already be familiar with the private rented sector in their areas through the rent deposits and rent guarantee schemes; through private rented fora which a number of local authorities have set up in order to forge relationships between private sector landlords and letting agents; through nominations where they enter into deals with landlords, agreeing, in return for nomination rights, to underwrite deposits, sort out benefit claims and so forth; through empty property strategies, operated by over 100 authorities; and through their work with housing associations as managing agents. There are therefore a number of ways in which a local housing authority will have a good idea of what the housing position is in its area.

The fears of the right reverend Prelate that Clause 176 is a way by which authorities can escape their responsibilities are not justified. Clause 176 requires the individual to take some responsibility for arranging his own accommodation. But it also requires the authority to be confident that the accommodation is available in the area. That is the point I was making in relation to how an authority will know what accommodation is available in its area.

Also, the authority must give the individual the requisite support. In context, simply handing out a list of advertisements taken from the local paper would seldom be regarded as sufficient to meet the requirements of the legislation unless the advertisements were extremely extensive and covered all kinds and variations of property in the market. By and large one would expect a local authority to do a great deal more than that. I thought the right reverend Prelate was going to suggest providing a copy of whatever was in the local paper and a handful of 10p pieces in order to phone up the agencies concerned. I can assure him that we would certainly not consider that to be an adequate way to fulfil their advice and assistance responsibilities.

We have already discussed the issue of "suitable" accommodation. The term already appears in subsection (1) and the appropriate definitions are found in Clauses 182 and 183. The term is not therefore needed in subsection (2).

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In summary, under Clause 176 the individual has some say in arranging where he is to live. The clause also allows the local authority to take full advantage of all the housing resources available in its area. Amendment No. 267B would require the authority, rather than the applicant, to secure that accommodation is available. The element of choice is therefore lost to the applicant and the whole duty falls onto the shoulders of the authority.

The second amendment, Amendment No. 267C, seeks to specify that the duty to provide advice and assistance continues until such time as a review may be carried out. That is unnecessary. For the most part, other suitable accommodation is likely to be in the private rented sector on an assured shorthold tenancy. As I have already mentioned on a number of occasions, research shows that, on average, such tenancies run for well over two years and for approaching three years. It will clearly be in the authority's interest to continue to rely on accommodation in the private rented sector for this purpose.

Perhaps I should also make it clear that, if the applicant becomes homeless again from such accommodation and the same considerations apply, the authority's duty under Clause 176 may recur. There is therefore no need to specify the duration of the responsibility on the face of the Bill.

I know that this is not the intention, but the amendments would cancel out the proposals for this halfway stage between someone looking after himself and being considered homeless. I am sure we all want to encourage people as far as they possibly can to take some responsibility for their own housing accommodation. If that means getting some advice and assistance from the local authority on the way to do it, so much the better. It is certainly far better than being considered homeless and having to be dealt with entirely by the local authority. With that explanation, I hope the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

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