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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Given the sweetness and light we have had since the supper break, I am sorry to act as something of a block on that at this point and over what on the face of it does not seem to be very much. We have to remember what we are talking about. We are talking about someone putting in an application to the local authority. In all the hours of debate, noble Lords have said that for many people this is a traumatic experience which is very serious for them. I entirely agree with that. However, I really do not think that the answer to the question "Will you consider me under the homelessness legislation?" is the kind of matter one puts behind the clock on the mantelpiece and forgets for a week or two. I really do think that one would do something about it fairly quickly. I am not sure that it is imposing a great burden to suggest that it has to be done within 14 days. I should have thought

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that on a matter of this seriousness 14 days is quite a long time to give people the chance to take any advice they want in deciding what they are going to do.

Lord Northbourne: Does the noble Lord accept that many people in this country now do not speak English? I am thinking particularly of the Bangladeshi community. At Toynbee Hall, with which I am involved, we provide a free legal service, but the lawyers come only once a week. It would be so easy for 14 days to slip by under those circumstances without the person even understanding possibly what the letter was saying.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am not sure that I can accept that. One assumes that the application has been made in a language which the officials understand. I am not sure that we should go overboard in consideration of the fact that there may be a person somewhere with that kind of problem. I hope that there are not a lot of people in this country who cannot speak English because that would be a very serious position.

Lord Northbourne: There are first generation immigrants.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My definition of a "lot of people", in a population of 55 million, is many hundreds of thousands of people. It is a reflection on our education system if they do not speak English. If one is going to live in a country it is quite important at least to be able to find one's way around the language as quickly as possible. That is something of an aside. I want to make some progress on this matter in relation to the generality of cases.

I have tried to suggest that in such a situation 14 days is reasonable. I believe I was asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, how long it takes for a case to be decided. That is at the discretion of the local authority itself. If a person applies and later says that he is going to appeal and will return with the grounds of appeal, a certain amount of time is available. I come back to my point that if the homelessness position is as serious as I have been told it is throughout the day, the person concerned is not going to leave the letter on the mantelpiece for long. But in order to allow progress, perhaps I may do what my right honourable friend in the other place did and say that I shall reflect on the points that have been made to me and consider whether we should extend the period to 28 days.

Earl Russell: The Minister is quintessentially a reasonable man. For that reason he does not quite understand the way shock may affect some people whose reason, if I may so put it, is somewhat less Spartan than that of the Minister himself. There are many people who, faced with a really vital shock, go into something of a fugue and put the letter on the mantelpiece and, very much in the manner of the ostrich, hope that the thing will go away if they do not look at it. I have known that to happen among pupils and friends many times. It is a well-known phenomenon. If the Minister believes that it does not happen then his experience is very different from mine.

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I agree strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, about people who do not speak English. I do not believe that that is necessarily a reflection on our education system. Some of the people have been here for a short period of time; some have had interrupted schooling, perhaps because of homelessness, as we said earlier today. I remember meeting some of them when I was a child in another part of the United Kingdom. Their native language in which they were fluent was Welsh.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: There is another point which may be helpful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, if it is re-emphasised. The Minister speaks all the time as though we are dealing with people who are homeless and effectively roofless. Therefore, not only will they be unable to respond within the 14 days, but possibly they may not have a mantelpiece on which to put the letter. Throughout this Bill we are talking about people who are threatened with homelessness as well as those who are homeless. If one is threatened with homelessness one may be trying to negotiate with a landlord. There may be a question about a pending court case. One may be dealing with arrears and the rest. To seek also to cope with a local authority situation within 14 days may be too much.

I do not understand why the Government are resisting this amendment. I understand that for every 100 amendments which the Opposition may bring forward, the Government may resist about 85 of them because they are ideologically unacceptable or cost too much money. But there is a whole raft of amendments, which may amount to 10 per 100, which matter not an iota to the substance of the Bill and in which there is no macho element involved. There is no need to resist them. They are amendments in which the Opposition Benches have made a real point. But in this case it is too tight a timetable, particularly for those threatened with homelessness who are trying to avert it. It costs the Government absolutely nothing at all to concede the point that in all fairness 28 days (or some other appropriate time) is more reasonable. There is no reason on this earth for the Government to dig in their heels and to resist the amendment just for the sake of it. May I invite the Minister to take it away and then come back and meet us on this point?

9.30 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am tempted to change my mind from the offer that I made three or four minutes ago which I thought might conclude the debate. I am not entirely sure what the noble Baroness was getting at when she said she thought that I was assuming that people were roofless. I know that they are not because I have given the statistics on that previously. The vast majority will still have a mantlepiece on which to put the letter.

Although I am puzzled about why in an urgent situation people should be given 28 days instead of 14 in which to get a review under way on the question of whether the local authority has made a mistake in trying to establish whether or not they are homeless, I have given a commitment that I shall take the matter away

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and reflect on it. Despite the efforts of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, I shall not go any further than that now.

Baroness Hamwee: In thanking the Minister for his offer to reflect further, may I ask him to reflect on two further points? I am not asking him to respond to them now. First, if the timetable for proceeding with the review and for considering the case and the evidence, if I may put it that way, is within the discretion of the local authority, there should be no objection to allowing a local authority to give an applicant more than 14 days in which to start the review process.

Secondly, going beyond the comments made by my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, may I suggest that an applicant who receives a letter which states something like, "Council X has considered your application and determined to notify another local housing authority pursuant to Section 177 of the Housing Act 1966", might well think that that is good news, not bad news? In other words, there is plenty of scope for bureaucracy. A later clause suggests that an authority has a duty to explain those provisions in ordinary language. When we reach that clause I shall ask the Minister whether he can tell me why only one matter is singled out for explanation in ordinary language. Every matter should be dealt with in that way. Does the Minister want to intervene?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: No.

Baroness Hamwee: Having made those points and having been assured that the Minister will take them on board without responding now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 181 agreed to.

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 268ZAE:

After Clause 181, insert the following new clause--

Right to appeal

(" .--(1) An applicant notified by a local housing authority under section 164 above of their decision--
(a) that he is homeless or threatened with homelessness,
(b) whether he has a priority need,
(c) whether he became homeless or threatened with homelessness intentionally and whether they have notified or propose to notify another local housing authority under section 179, or
(d) that suitable alternative accommodation is available in their district under section 176,
may within 21 days of notification appeal to the county court.
(2) On an appeal the court shall consider--
(a) whether the decision by the local housing authority was made in accordance with the law;
(b) any finding of fact by the local housing authority as to the circumstances of the applicant's homelessness, whether as a result of the authority's inquiries under section 164 or otherwise; and
(c) any fact relied upon by the applicant and set out in the applicant's grounds of appeal.
(3) On an appeal the court may make such order either confirming, quashing or varying the decision of the local authority as it thinks fit.").

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The noble Lord said: A local authority has a number of possible different reasons for refusing to treat an individual as homeless or as threatened with homelessness. Those reasons might include a decision that the individual is not in the category of having priority need. The individual might be regarded as having made himself homeless intentionally or it might be that the individual has suitable alternative accommodation in the eyes of the local authority. What powers does the individual have to challenge local authority decisions?

An individual could ask for a review of the decision, as we have just discussed. However, although we have just spent some time trying to improve things, the review is likely to be carried out by the same local authority officer who made the original decision to exclude that individual from the homelessness provisions.

There is a requirement for a better method of appeal than simply an internal review. That is why this amendment is important. Apart from the internal review, the only choice open to an individual is to go for judicial review. However, judicial review has far more to do with the way in which the particular decision is reached than the outcome. It may well be that the individual will win a judicial review hearing. The local authority may be asked to reconsider the case, and it may reconsider it by using more appropriate methods than before but still arrive at the same decision.

For most individuals judicial review is an expensive, clumsy, slow and difficult process. I am sure that the Government do not wish to create a situation where more people feel obliged to have recourse to judicial review. That is where this amendment comes in. The amendment provides that a right of appeal against a homelessness decision by the local authority can lie to the county court. The county court can reverse the decision reached by the local authority. The county court is a much more appropriate way of doing it. It is less costly, quicker and more local than the High Court which at present conducts judicial review hearings. It is generally regarded as a more appropriate venue for such an appeal.

I believe that this amendment will move matters forward and may save the Government money. It depends upon the individual's entitlement to legal aid. It may well be that because of the simpler county court procedures public money will be saved. It may not be government money but local authority money. However, the process would be more cost-effective in terms of public money. It would certainly be more user friendly. The right of appeal to a county court also has the advantage of having been recently recommended by the Law Commission. I believe that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, is preparing his final report on his review of the civil justice system. It is believed that that report will recommend a new route of appeal to the county court in homelessness cases.

The county court process is quicker and more effective than judicial review. To give an individual the right of recourse to the county court will provide that

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essential final safeguard against a decision to refuse to consider him under the homelessness provisions. This is not a light matter; for the individual it can be a very significant and serious decision. That is why this amendment incorporates a proper and effective method of appeal against such a decision if it is adverse to the claimant. I beg to move.

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