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Lord Swinfen: I am delighted to receive that assurance and, with the leave of the Committee, shall withdraw my amendment. However, I may be tempted to put the amendments down again to ensure that the Minister comes up to scratch. I have not heard it from him, but in the 20 years I have been in your Lordships' House I have heard from other Ministers that they will put down amendments at the next stage of the Bill. Lo and behold, nothing materialises. When I am promised a moon in the sky, I like a moon in the sky and not a dark and thundery night. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

8.45 p.m.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 268ZA:

Page 103, line 3, at end insert--
("(3) For the purposes of this section "suitable accommodation" shall not include a women's refuge.").

The noble Earl said: This is another in the series of amendments which probes what is meant by "suitable accommodation" under Clause 176. It deals specifically with the issue of women's refuges. The amendment seeks reassurance on one narrow point, but I hope that it is in order if I also use it to explore a little further what the position of women's refuges will be under the new legislation.

Before doing so, I must thank the Minister's noble and honourable friends for a good deal of co-operation on the subject since the debate on the Green Paper. I am grateful for it and the position is clearly much improved, possibly even totally improved.

There are certain points on which one wishes to be clear that women who have suffered abuse will be held to be in priority need, either because of their children or because of vulnerability. It should be made clear that they will not be found to be intentionally homeless. We hear a good deal less often of it than we used to, but regrettably it still occasionally happens. We also need clarification that it will once again be made clear to local authorities which find the point particularly difficult that it is an area in which entitlement to help with housing does not, cannot and should not depend on local connection. It is an area where both the immediate temporary refuge and the subsequent longer-term housing often need to be out of reach of the pursuer. In the light of recent cases, however, one has to say that that sometimes needs to be quite a long way away.

The most specific point on which I need to ask for assurances arises from the judgment in the case of Awua. It is a recent judgment of the Appellate Committee of your Lordships' House which has caused considerable confusion in housing law. I have here the report of the judgment in Awua. What worries those concerned with women's refuges is that a local authority

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should not be able to say that because a woman is in a refuge she is in suitable accommodation and therefore need not be the responsibility of the local authority. Apart from any interest of the woman, it would also be a disaster for the refuge because the problem of silting up is acute. Refuges always have to be ready to receive acute emergency cases at any hour of the day or night, so they cannot have people staying long term unless there is an acute medical need. The need to move on is important.

It seems to me that the trouble with the Awua case is that there were too many reasons why the noble and learned judge decided it as he did. It would have been necessary to have several other test cases to establish the extent of the meaning of the case, but since the law is now changing it will not be necessary. For the purpose, I rely on the last paragraph of the judgment, page 226 at letters F and G. I leave out the names and addresses for obvious reasons, not wishing to breach too much confidentiality. The judge said:

    "Section 60(1) does not require that it should have been reasonable for Miss Awua to continue to occupy [the temporary accommodation] for any particular length of time and it is sufficient in this case to say that it would have been reasonable for her to stay there until she was able to move to [the permanent accommodation]".
In that case, the problem arose from her having refused the permanent accommodation.

One can distinguish the cases by saying that a refuge and temporary accommodation are not the same. One can also distinguish the cases by saying that the last paragraph bears specifically on the point on which I ask for reassurance. I hope that that reading of the case is correct. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee: I warmly support my noble friend. I hesitate over the word "warmly" because it is sad to have to consider the subject at all. I should declare an interest. I am a member of the Council of Management of Refuge which provides both refuges and other services for victims of domestic violence. Through my membership of that body, I am well aware of the need for accommodation not only to be kept confidential but, as my noble friend said, frequently not to be local. It is almost a misnomer to refer to it as "accommodation"; it is far more than that. My experience of women's refuges is that good refuge services will provide counselling and advice and specialist help both for the women and the children. As the Committee can imagine, the children often require a good deal of help to work through the experiences that they have had to suffer. It is important that the accommodation and the accompanying services are not clogged up and remain available in the hope that they can be used to enable clients to move on and start new lives.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: This amendment would insert a new subsection (3) into Clause 176. That subsection would provide that a women's refuge shall not constitute "suitable accommodation" for the purposes of that clause. I am able to offer the noble Earl considerable reassurance on the point.

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Clause 176 relates to the duty of the local housing authority where other suitable accommodation is available for the applicant in the district. The concept of suitability was introduced into the homelessness legislation by the Housing and Planning Act 1986 and the provision is to be re-enacted in this part of the Bill.

Noble Lords will by now be fully aware of the Department of the Environment's Homelessness Code of Guidance, which is to be revised in the light of this Bill and brought up to date. It incorporates advice specifically on the use of women's refuges, stating that they, along with night shelters, bed-and-breakfast hostels and direct access hostels,

    "are not designed to be lived in long-term".

In the case of the Awua judgment the accommodation occupied by Miss Awua was not a woman's refuge; it was normal private rented accommodation. If I understand the noble Earl's point correctly, I can assure him that the words of the Awua judgment do not bear on the subject of woman's refuges. To go a little further, Members of the Committee may be aware that case law associated with Sections 58 and 69 of the Housing Act 1985 has established that a person in a "hostel" can be homeless for the purposes of Part III of the 1985 Act. Indeed, recent research on the impact of the 1981 code of guidance found that nearly all authorities--I have the figure of 99 per cent. in brackets, which is almost all of them--would usually consider an applicant homeless who faced violence or the threat of violence within the home. That is looking at it from both sides of the spectrum. When in the house subject to domestic violence she (unfortunately it is largely "she") would be considered homeless if she faced violence or threat of violence. If she went to a refuge then, as I said, she can be considered homeless for the purposes of Part III of the Act.

Our code states that,

    "refuges should be used for the minimum time necessary".
The Government have no plans to change their stance on that. In short, the Government and the guidance recognise that women's refuges should not be regarded as suitable for long-term accommodation.

In the light of that, the Government agree that women's refuges should not be regarded as "other suitable accommodation", although they can clearly provide an invaluable place of safety for those faced with domestic crises or some form of violence or abuse. They do, and will continue to, serve an essential function. Their role will be reiterated in the new guidance and the Government will consider whether there is a need for that to be covered in an order made under Clause 183. However, the definition to be used in any such order would clearly need careful consideration.

I hope that I have managed to persuade the noble Earl and the noble Baroness that there is no need to specify on the face of the Bill that women's refuges are unsuitable or that their use does not constitute the

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discharge of an authority's duty under Clause 176. With all those assurances, I hope that the noble Earl will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Earl Russell: I am most grateful to the Minister for that extremely helpful and careful answer. As we are speaking for the record, to be read by people outside the Chamber, I should be grateful if the Minister could spell out that the new guidance will continue, or strengthen, what the old guidance said on the points of priority need: that victims of domestic violence are not to be taken to be intentionally homeless; and that they frequently need to be housed outside their local authority areas. If the noble Lord will simply confirm that the new guidance will say what the old guidance said, or better, my relief will be complete. I shall be grateful if he can go that far.

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