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Lord Northbourne moved Amendment No. 268A:

Page 107, line 7, at end insert--
("( ) In determining for the purposes of this Part whether accommodation is suitable for a person to occupy with a dependent child or children under the age of 11, the local housing authority shall have regard to--
(a) the suitability of that accommodation for a family with young children and for the upbringing of children under safe and hygienic conditions; and
(b) the availability of safe areas in which young children can play both indoors and outdoors,
and shall ensure that the accommodation is suitably located to avoid disruption to the schooling of the child or children.").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 268A, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 268B. Recently there has been a lot of good research which, at considerable expense to the taxpayers, shows us what any intelligent person would have known in the first place; namely, that unsatisfactory bed-and-breakfast accommodation is seriously damaging to families and young children. It affects health, creates stress and can often lead to family break up. Children need a safe place to play, a settled school life, friends, normal socialisation and security.

A recent Barnardos report states:

Many good local authorities are doing an extremely good job in this respect and take their responsibilities very seriously. But voluntary organisations state that there are a significant number of local authorities which are not and which are using bed-and-breakfast accommodation of an inadequate and unsatisfactory quality as a dump for homeless people. All the

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amendment is designed to do is to bring the standard of all local authorities up to the standard of the best. If the Minister cannot accept the amendment in this form, it would be helpful if he could tell the Committee how that obviously desirable objective could be achieved.

Amendment No. 268B relates to young people leaving care. Approximately 10,000 young people leave care each year. Sixty per cent. of young people leaving care are 16 or 17 years old, whereas the average age of young people leaving home is 20 to 22. Therefore, they are an especially vulnerable group. Furthermore, they have not had the support of a normal family background and sometimes have not been adequately prepared to move out into the world.

Centrepoint's current statistics show that 28 per cent. of young homeless people have been in care. Statistics from agencies outside London--in particular, in a report on Hull--show that 40 per cent. of young people come from care. Yet the population who have been in care represents less than 1 per cent. of the total. Often young people coming out of care need support and encouragement; perhaps a little friendly pressure sometimes to get out of bed in the morning, to settle down, seek a job and look for training. They need someone to replace the family which they do not have.

Section 72 of the Housing Act 1985 requires local authority housing departments to co-operate with each other in discharging their functions relating to homelessness and threatened homelessness. It also requires social services authorities to co-operate with housing authorities in relation to those provisions. However, it does not place a reciprocal duty on housing authorities to respond to requests from social services departments that accommodation be secured for their clients. The experience of the Children's Society shows that too often that co-operation does not exist.

A recent Department of Health research study found that housing departments did not always take account of the housing needs of care leavers even when representations were made by their local social services departments.

The purpose of the amendment is to draw attention to the fact that such young people not only need priority access to accommodation but may also need a certain amount of care and support. That kind of care and support is provided by the Foyer Federation for Youth, by hostels and by other voluntary organisations which sometimes accommodate such young people in flats or houses, guaranteeing the rent in return for the young person entering into a contract in relation to his behaviour. Such organisations gradually wean those young people from a dependence on the children's home and enable them to take on the responsibilities of life in the community. The object of the amendment is to draw attention to the importance of this issue. I shall listen with interest to the Minister's response. I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: We support the amendment warmly from these Benches. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, has proposed very persuasively a pair of amendments which focus on both younger children and youngsters coming out of care who are some of the most vulnerable people faced with

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homelessness. For example, something like 49 per cent. of those the Salvation Army found engaged in prostitution had come out of care. We know that many involved in begging have come out of care. That is often because the arrangements for those coming out of care into independent accommodation have not been managed properly by the local authorities. We should support any provision which will ensure that the various agencies work together to enable those young people to enjoy a free and independent life and no longer to be at risk. I hope that the Minister will be able to support, or give a version of support, to the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal: I add my support for the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. I am involved with perhaps the largest charity in Birmingham which has been in existence for 25 years; namely, St. Basil's scheme for the young homeless. It caters for a large percentage--one-third--of people coming out of care. As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, those children are extremely vulnerable because they have no one to whom they can turn. That is why they have been in care. When they come out of care there is no one to help them. If they are on the streets, that creates a very serious and stressful problem which may have serious effects later on in life.

I seek an assurance from the Minister in relation to those organisations. Last year St. Basil's had 3,000 applications and was able to accept only 125. Young people are with us for roughly 18 months during which time we give them the necessary training in order to take up employment. In Birmingham we are extremely fortunate that the local authority and social services departments work with us closely and with the housing department. In many cases, accommodation is found for the young people. I seek an assurance that that good and effective practice which is taking place is in Birmingham is able to continue so that after the Bill becomes law we can carry on with what we consider is a very important job for young people.

Baroness Hamwee: My name is to one of the amendments but from these Benches I wish to support both. The noble Lord drew our attention to a detailed matter which could have been regarded as falling in part within the thrust of my last amendment. He is right to draw to the Committee's attention the issues concerning children and young people. We may hear that it is yet another matter for a regulation-making power, but assistance and support from the Government would be helpful on the issue.

10 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: The two amendments seek to extend the provisions for determining whether accommodation is suitable. I mentioned in the previous debate that we have taken powers in Clause 183 to prescribe when and how accommodation is to be regarded as suitable. My right honourable friend the Minister for Housing has indicated in another place that we shall, if necessary, use the powers to extend further the definition of the term "suitable".

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The first amendment would introduce new tests to determine whether accommodation is suitable for a family with young children. I share the noble Lord's belief that all authorities should aim to provide the type of accommodation he describes. However, I ask the Committee to consider whether it is best achieved through legislation.

The noble Lord's amendment would restrict the type of accommodation which an authority could use to discharge its duty. The authority may be limited as to the type of accommodation it could provide and would be unable to look to accommodation outside a particular area. Such a degree of prescription might leave some authorities, particularly those in areas with a limited supply of accommodation accessible to children's existing schools, unable to discharge their duties. A difficult balance may have come into play here between our desire that the children should be accommodated and homeless persons should get a house to tide them over and our desire that the house should be as suitable as possible. To be too prescriptive about the degree of suitability could reduce the number of houses available for those families who are homeless or about to become homeless.

I remind the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, that the Homelessness Code of Guidance refers to the necessity to take account of the household's needs, including access to schools. I assure him that we will continue to reflect that when we revise the code.

The noble Lord mentioned bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I fully agree that it is not suitable for families, except for short-term reception purposes. I am sure that he will be pleased to hear that the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation has decreased to one-third of the level in September 1991. It now accounts for only about 10 per cent. of all interim accommodation under present legislation. I emphasise the word "interim" because it is the most temporary form of help which the local authority provides. I hope the explanation meets the noble Lord's concern and that he will feel able, having rehearsed the problem which we all appreciate, to withdraw his amendment.

Amendment No. 268B would require the authority to take into account the welfare needs of a young person leaving local authority care when assessing whether accommodation is suitable. I am not sure whether the noble Lord has in mind the quality of the accommodation or whether he has a more general concern about the availability of support for young people in need.

I share the noble Lord's concern that young people in need should have proper access to the care and support they require. The noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, underlined the point quite rightly. However, I do not believe that the availability or absence of such support should be grounds for deciding whether to offer a particular property to an applicant. I suspect that it is the other side of the problem that concerns the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne--that perhaps without the necessary care and support a young person may be unable to sustain a tenancy which he secured under the new duty. Such decisions are best left to social services

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departments, which have the expertise in making such assessments. It would be wholly inappropriate to expect a housing department to make judgments about a young person's care needs. If a housing department believes that an applicant is in need of care, it has the power, under Clause 185, to call on the assistance of a social services department.

The Children Act 1989 makes provision to ensure that support continues for young people leaving local authority care. Section 24 of that Act requires social services authorities to advise, assist and befriend young people when they leave their care. A social services authority may, under Section 27 of that Act, call on the assistance of a housing authority in discharging its duty to that young person; if a request is made, the housing authority is under a duty to comply.

The statutory framework for co-operation between housing and social services departments is already in place. What is needed is the means of making it work. What we are talking about here is the need for a proper partnership between the two functions. As I have remarked before in Committee, the existing Homelessness Code of Guidance was drawn up before the Children Act was fully in operation. I believe that I read out one of the paragraphs which to some extent anticipated the Children Act, referring to the Act about to come into effect. Now that the Act is in force and fully operational, we have several years' experience to draw on. We shall ensure that authorities have fresh guidance on how to operate in the context of the new legislation.

It is right that I should mention two aspects drawn to our attention in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. He mentioned foyers. The Government agree that they can be a valuable means of providing accommodation and training opportunities for young people under one roof. The Government have supported generously the development of several foyers, not least under the rough sleepers initiative in central London. Foyers have also been successful in obtaining Exchequer funds from the single regeneration budget. We see them as a useful development, as the noble Lord mentioned.

The noble Baroness, Lady Fisher of Rednal, mentioned St. Basil's in Birmingham. Again, we are aware of the good work done by St. Basil's in Birmingham. The Department of the Environment pays a grant to St. Basil's as well as to some 150 other voluntary sector organisations throughout England to allow them to continue with their work of relieving homelessness--among single homeless people in the case of St. Basil's in Birmingham. I see no reason why St. Basil's would not continue its work under the new regime for which the Bill provides.

With those reassurances on two important matters, which I much appreciate, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

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