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Housing Bill

8.26 p.m.

House again in Committee on Clause 176.

Lord Swinfen moved Amendment No. 268:

Page 103, line 3, at end insert ("unless on completing their enquiries, the authority are satisfied that because of disability, impairment or vulnerability, the applicant would have difficulty in securing alternative accommodation, in which case the authority shall be subject to the duty under section 172.").

The noble Lord said: Under Clause 176 a local authority will not have a duty to secure even temporary accommodation for a homeless applicant in priority need where it judges that there is suitable accommodation available for the applicant's occupation in the district. People who have particular disabilities or who are vulnerable for other reasons are likely to have difficulty in securing such accommodation themselves. Alternative available accommodation is likely to be in the private rented sector.

Accommodation in the private rented sector is often particularly unsuitable for certain disabled or vulnerable people. For example, there is little private rented accommodation especially adapted for people who have particular requirements with regard to physical access. Nor does private rented accommodation offer the support services which might be required by certain vulnerable groups; for example, a warden for older people or support staff for young care leavers. Many private landlords are also unlikely to be willing to offer tenancies to individuals who have disabilities or support needs due to the extra work which may be involved.

Private rented accommodation is almost exclusively let on six-month assured shorthold tenancies, particularly when the tenant is not previously known to

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the landlord. That temporary nature also makes it unsuitable for many disabled or vulnerable people. Those who require adaptations to their homes to enable them to live independently will be unlikely to be able to obtain them in short-term tenancies. In order to apply for a disabled facilities grant to assist with the cost of adaptations, a person must confirm that he intends to occupy his accommodation for at least five years.

Temporary accommodation is also unsuitable for those who may be living independently for the first time, having lived in institutional or group homes. It is an essential part of settling into the community for the person to feel a commitment to his home. That commitment is likely only if the tenant has a sense of security about the tenure and the support he receives.

Vulnerable and disabled people are also likely to have particular needs in order to build up informal and formal support networks; for example, older people may require meals on wheels or home help services. Many vulnerable people rely on friends or family to provide help either with physical tasks or through emotional support. Young vulnerable people living independently for the first time need to build links with the community for friendship, support and employment. It will be much more difficult to develop formal and informal networks of support in temporary accommodation. For older people and those with disabilities, the physical and emotional upheaval of frequent moves which temporary private rented accommodation may require also makes such accommodation particularly unsuitable.

Certain disabled or vulnerable people are also likely to be less able to go through the process of obtaining accommodation in the private rented sector. Most accommodation agencies are not able to cater for the needs of disabled or vulnerable people. Most do not have audio information and many do not have accessible offices. For many vulnerable people it would be physically impossible to obtain accommodation through those agencies. For others, the stress or complexity of the process could have significant detrimental effects, worsening their mental or physical condition.

In order to ensure that vulnerable and disabled groups of people do not have to go through the stressful experience of finding private rented accommodation and coping with the insecurity that living in such accommodation entails, this amendment proposes that for homeless people in those specific groups, local authorities should have a duty to secure that accommodation is available for occupation without the requirement to determine whether suitable alternative accommodation is available.

Before we broke for dinner, I believe that the Minister said that he is inclined to look reasonably favourably upon vulnerable groups and may bring forward a later government amendment. Therefore, I hope that I shall receive a sympathetic response to the amendment. I beg to move.

8.30 p.m.

Lord Mottistone: I strongly support this amendment. I took note of what the Minister said just before we broke for dinner. I believe that he will take in a great

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deal of what we are saying in these amendments. However, I should like to emphasise to my noble friend the particular problems of the mentally ill in this general area of homelessness which he may bear in mind in particular when he brings forward his amendments.

It is extremely important to take on board the fact that all too frequently people who are mentally ill are not capable of looking after themselves. It may be that they are in a state in which, if they have suitable medication, they are kept satisfactorily under control in order to lead a reasonably normal life. But every so often either the medication does not work or they stop taking it and all sorts of things may go wrong. I shall not bother the Committee further with that because we have spoken of it in other debates.

However, it is not fair to expect those people to be able to look after themselves independently in a home unless it is arranged suitably for them. It is extremely important that local authorities should see them as a particular charge. I accept absolutely that that is covered by the Bill, but there are various areas where the powers of the Bill which are provided to ensure that people like the mentally ill are cared for are not sufficiently strong. Some of those have been picked up by these amendments and there are other areas.

I have been relying on the guidelines which my noble friend has mentioned. I am greatly encouraged by the fact that he realises that, in this area, there will need to be some rewording of the Bill. But it is not right to think that somebody who is mentally ill will be able to behave exactly like someone who is not mentally ill. Nor is it right to think that anybody who is showing signs of not being able to cope with life will be able to do so if you quietly tell him to get on with it and encourage him to look after himself.

Therefore, when my noble friend thinks about the amendments which are to be proposed for this part of the Bill, and when he looks again at other parts of it, I hope that he will give special thought to the particular problems of the mentally ill. With the greatest respect to my noble friend Lord Swinfen, people who are handicapped in other ways are at least able to say what they think in most cases but people who are mentally ill quite often do not have that capacity. They need to be cared for in particular.

Lord Dubs: I support this amendment. I should declare an interest as a non-executive director of a mental health trust in South London. As such, I am very much aware of the needs of people who suffer from mental illness and their need for stable housing circumstances as the best way in which to come to terms with their illness.

It is too easy for people to be overlooked in the system when they are mentally ill because they may not manifest themselves as being ill. However, they may not be able to do all the things necessary to prevent themselves from becoming homeless or to secure accommodation for themselves. Therefore, some of them need to be treated with great sensitivity consistent

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with their illness in order that they can be helped into housing and can stabilise their lives. I believe that this amendment would be helpful.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Amendments Nos. 268 and 268ZAA both relate to vulnerable people who may find it difficult to secure accommodation which is available. I welcome the opportunity which has been afforded to me to clarify what the Government's position is on this important issue.

The first, Amendment No. 268, would add to Clause 176(2) a duty for the local authority to secure that accommodation is available under Clause 172 if it determines that the applicant would find it difficult through disability, impairment or vulnerability, to secure alternative accommodation. Amendment No. 268ZAA is more specific in that it defines the groups of people to whom the authority should not have a duty to furnish advice and assistance where other suitable accommodation was available.

In short, these amendments seek to ensure that the most vulnerable people are not simply left to make their own attempts to secure other suitable accommodation but, rather, are treated as special cases and thus eligible for assistance under Clause 172.

It is not the Government's intention that such people should be left to fend for themselves. Instead, consideration is being given to the wording of Clause 176, to put beyond doubt that the level of advice and assistance furnished by the authority should reflect the level of vulnerability or disability of the applicant in each case. Clearly, it would not be reasonable in every case to expect a person who is vulnerable, as defined in Clause 168(1)(c)--which refers to people who are vulnerable as a result of old age, mental illness, handicap or physical disability or other special reason--to be as capable of securing accommodation as a person who is totally able-bodied and fully able mentally. Therefore, it is right that the extent of the advice and assistance given should match the degree of help needed. The Government need to ensure that the wording allows for this. Once it is resolved to our satisfaction, the issue can to a large extent be addressed in guidance. Nevertheless, that guidance needs a firm foundation on which to rest.

The Committee should also be aware that provisions on allocations in Clause 148 also ensure that vulnerable people receive priority or, if very vulnerable, additional priority in the allocation of permanent housing under Clause 6. Clause 148(2) states:

    "The scheme shall be framed so as to secure that additional preference is given to ... (e) households consisting of or including someone ... who cannot reasonably be expected to find settled accommodation for themselves in the foreseeable future".
I believe that on both the homelessness point and the allocations point we have tried to cater for people about whom the Committee is concerned.

It is an important issue and one on which we are determined that the right provisions will be put in place. I listened to the cases outlined by my noble friend Lord Mottistone. They are examples of the kind of situations we have in mind. It is vital that the drafting

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of the Bill secures the right result. I have already said that we are sympathetic to those considerations and will seek to put forward amendments for consideration by your Lordships at Report stage. In the light of that assurance, I hope that my noble friend will be able to withdraw his amendment.

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