Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, with the leave of the House, if it were not possibly insulting to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, I would say from these Benches that we--as I am sure is the case with the whole House--are delighted to see the noble Earl return. We are also delighted to have the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, with us.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, that was an enormously gracious remark of the noble Baroness. I dare say she is delighted to see me back because she believes that she will get an easier ride than she had with my noble friend.

Housing is always a very sensitive issue, as is homelessness. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, said that we hoped everyone would be housed within two years. He also said that homelessness is one of the forms of housing need.

8 Jul 1996 : Column 19

Let me put this point to him. Homelessness is a fact. If a person is homeless, it is a fact. We have tried to address the causes of homelessness. There could be many different reasons why people are homeless. It may well be that a person is not homeless for any length of time, but only homeless for a relatively short time. But when people are homeless, there is a reason for it. That is why we address the causes in Clause 157.

The purpose of all our reforms is to ensure that the claims of everyone who is seeking social housing are given proper consideration on a comparable basis. That is what the allocation provisions in Part VI of the Bill set out to do. We are considerably modernising the factors--it might frighten some of your Lordships--which local authorities should be required to take into account, because some of them have been in operation since 1935. We are doing so in order that they should reflect both long-term social needs and the present housing circumstances.

We are also maintaining a proper safety net for families and vulnerable people who lose their present accommodation through no fault of their own. That is what Part VII of the Bill provides for.

Part VII, which deals with the homelessness provisions, preserves the essential structure of the current homelessness legislation. It provides that, where a person is losing his existing accommodation and there is no suitable alternative available to him, the local authority must secure that accommodation is available to him for a minimum of two years. That period can be further extended, at the discretion of the authority or on re-application by the individual, if he continues to qualify.

Under the existing legislation, and the way in which it has been applied until now, a person who is owed a duty under the homelessness legislation has generally been rehoused in long-term accommodation in a little over half the time in which someone who is on the waiting list has had to wait. Those people have been put in long-term accommodation within eight months, whereas those who are on the waiting list have had to wait for 14 months. That is the result of a survey conducted by my own department.

The noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, thought that the Housing Bill would allow local authorities to evict people from their own accommodation. The noble Lord is a charming Member of your Lordships' House but sometimes he gets the wrong end of the stick. He has done so on this occasion.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, with the leave of the House--

Earl Ferrers: The noble Lord cannot rise to his feet yet because I have not answered his question. I shall do so in a moment.

The two-year duty to house will recur if the household applies and if the person remains eligible. The local authority will have the power to continue to

8 Jul 1996 : Column 20

accommodate such people for longer than two years. I hope that that satisfies the noble Lord. The noble Baroness wags her head, but she often does that.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I am grateful to the noble Earl for giving way. He will recognise that there is a difference between the local authority having a duty to provide housing or ensure that people are housed for that two-year period and the responsibilities that they may have beyond those two years. The concern of a number of noble Lords on this side of the House, on an authoritative reading of the Bill, is that if local authorities are providing temporary housing for homeless people during that period, they will, at the end of the two years, effectively be debarred from providing housing for homeless people. By law, they will have to evict any temporarily housed persons whom they have under that category. That is our desperate fear.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I was trying to persuade the noble Lord that his fears were groundless. If I may say so, the noble Baroness is putting me off a little because she wags her head in dissent even before I have said anything.

The fact is that the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, is perfectly right. When a person is homeless, the local authority is bound to provide accommodation for him. His case is assessed. It may be that he is given short-term housing. That can last up to two years. At the end of that two-year period, he can apply again if he has not already found other accommodation. That should not be confused with the two in three-year rule to which we shall come later. The local authority will still have a duty to house that person if he has not already found accommodation or, in other words, if he becomes homeless again. We find from research which has been conducted by the local authority associations that, in the great majority of authorities, those who are owed a duty under the homelessness legislation are rehoused more quickly than those who are on the waiting list. I ask whether that is fair. I take the example of the young girl with a baby who lives in bad and miserable conditions. The noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, shakes his head. I congratulate him on his percipience. In fact, he does not know what I am going to say, but he disagrees with me before I say it.

For example, there may be a young lady with a baby living in poor circumstances--bad housing with water running down the walls and so forth; she is on the housing list. There may be another young lady who is expecting a baby but in more convenient circumstances, possibly even comfortable circumstances. However, her mother gets cross with her because she is having a baby and says that she must leave. At the moment that young lady can go to the housing authority and say, "I am being made homeless". She is immediately put on the homeless list and jumps the queue ahead of the girl who lives in far worse circumstances. Which is the more deserving case? Is it the one being made homeless because the mother does not approve of her having a

8 Jul 1996 : Column 21

baby even though she may be living in good conditions, or the one living in bad conditions, sitting on the waiting list waiting to be rehoused?

Earl Russell: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for allowing me to intervene. Does the noble Earl understand that what he describes is not what the amendment proposes? The amendment proposes that local authorities should be able to balance one form of need against the other as seems to them appropriate.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I am coming to that. I was trying to give the noble Earl the picture in case he was not certain what it was. However, he and the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, appear to be certain.

What has happened under the existing legislation is that homelessness has become a short-cut into long-term social housing and somebody who loses his present home can, if he is in priority need, simply require the local authority to rehouse him without taking any steps to avert the crisis or seek an alternative. We are providing that the homelessness duty is to secure accommodation for a minimum of two years. Research shows that over three-quarters of all people who are allocated council housing are rehoused within that period. Not everyone who is accepted for rehousing under the homelessness legislation wants permanent housing. A separate study carried out by my department showed that some 18 per cent. of those accepted for rehousing under the homelessness legislation had found other accommodation for themselves in a little over one year.

During our consideration of these provisions we heard a great many complaints about people who are owed a duty under the homelessness legislation being accommodated in unsatisfactory accommodation, or being required to move from one short-term letting to another. I should like to be able to reassure your Lordships on both counts. The accommodation which the local authority is required to secure under the new two-year duty must be "suitable"; we will return to that concept later. It is sufficient to say now that poor quality accommodation will not be acceptable.

Concern was also expressed that local authorities may not be able to find sufficient stock in the private rented sector for the discharge of the two-year duty. It was in recognition of that concern that, when the Bill was being considered in Committee in another place, my honourable friend the Minister for Housing announced that we would consider a revision of the arrangements which govern the leasing of private rented stock by local authorities.

I can confirm that, from 1st April 1997, local authorities will be able to take out leases for up to 10 years on property owned by private landlords in order to provide accommodation for those who are owed a duty under the homelessness legislation without being required to provide capital cover. There will be no restriction on their taking out further leases on property which had been the subject of an earlier lease. Those measures will ensure that local authorities have the

8 Jul 1996 : Column 22

ability to provide suitable and stable accommodation for all those to whom they owe a duty under the homelessness legislation.

The noble Baroness's amendment seeks, possibly unintentionally, to continue to make the homelessness legislation a direct route into long-term social housing. That is not what we wish to do. The noble Baronesses, Lady Hollis and Lady Hamwee, ask that local authorities be required to assess whether a household which has been accommodated for two years under the homelessness provisions should be offered accommodation through the allocation scheme within two years. If not, they propose that the local authority be required to assess whether the housing needs of that particular household are greater than others on the register. If that is the case, the authority would be required to give that household additional preference with a view to ensuring that it obtains permanent accommodation within two years of its first being owed a duty under the homelessness legislation.

There are technical reasons--and more substantive ones--why the amendment is not acceptable. At a technical level, I do not see how an authority can compare the housing needs of people who are on the housing register, which will include the person who is owed the homelessness duty, and on the same basis and, at the same time, make a separate assessment under the proposed provisions in the new clause of the housing needs of the person who is owed the homelessness duty. The noble Baronesses are mistaken in suggesting that the application of the new clause should run for two years from the time at which accommodation is provided as a result of the duty under Clause 183. The authority may seek to maintain the person who is threatened with homelessness in his present accommodation either for a few more months or, in some cases, indefinitely.

Therefore the requirements imposed by the clause could continue to be in place almost indefinitely. The real point is that the noble Baronesses are seeking to ensure that, once a family has been accepted for rehousing under the homelessness legislation, it should--even after it has been accommodated for two years and even if it is no longer in priority need--still be entitled to a degree of preference over others who may be living in wholly unsatisfactory accommodation but who are patiently waiting their turn on the housing list. The family who would gain will have been provided with perfectly reasonable accommodation for two years. The family who would lose could be living in damp conditions with poor sanitation and with no prospect of improving those conditions except through an offer of a tenancy through the housing register.

Social housing is intended for people with real long-term needs. It is generally taken up by people who cannot secure accommodation for themselves in the housing market in a way in which the majority of the population can. I suggest that it is wrong to suppose that social housing should go to people who could provide for themselves in other ways. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said that the homeless family cannot wait, while those on the waiting list can; its need is more urgent.

8 Jul 1996 : Column 23

The noble Baroness misses the point. The family accepted as homeless is given suitable accommodation for two years and families on the waiting list may be in much worse accommodation. I am sure your Lordships agree that they are the ones to be given priority. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred to a family which had been moved 34 times. I agree that that is a distressing case and is unacceptable. Indeed, the homelessness code of guidance already states that and it is precisely to avoid such situations that we are giving the authorities a two-year duty to provide suitable housing.

Clause 157 requires local authorities to adopt a broad set of allocation criteria which will ensure that everyone with long-term housing needs receives fair consideration for the available stock of housing. If households who are owed a duty under the homelessness legislation have long-term needs which are greater than those of others who are on the housing register--and many of them will have--they can be confident that they will be offered permanent social housing through the register.

Homelessness is of course regrettable. However, it is a fact and not a cause. We want to address the causes which lead to people becoming homeless. When we have done that, we can right the situation. Those who are homeless will receive accommodation, but it should not be a short-cut to advancing in front of those already on the housing register. It is for that reason that I hope your Lordships will not agree to the amendment.

3.45 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, when I came to reply I intended to welcome back the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and say, like her, that we on these Benches are delighted to see him. However, after his assurance that he would be no more accommodating than his noble friend and after the answer that he has just given, I am sure he will understand if our delight has been just a little qualified. Nevertheless, we are delighted to see him in his place.

Perhaps I may use the shorthand used by the noble Earl and the two noble Baronesses, Lady Gardner of Parkes and Lady Oppenheim-Barnes. The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, pointed out a case of fraud, and she was right to do so. I am sure and I would expect that anyone from these Benches and of our political persuasion running a local authority where such a case was presented to them would respond in exactly the same way as the noble Baroness did. I have no more tolerance or patience with fraud or with anyone manipulating the system in a wilful and wrongful way than she has. There is nothing between us on that.

She went on to say--and this is at the heart of the amendment, and I believe I have her words correctly--that if there are genuine cases she expects that they will accumulate the necessary points within two years. I wish that she were right. If she were right this amendment would be unnecessary. It is precisely because, for quite a small number of people, she is not correct that we need this amendment as a safety net. That is my best

8 Jul 1996 : Column 24

information. For example, I am told that at present in Tower Hamlets there are more than 50 families who have been waiting for more than two years for appropriate council housing, having been accepted as homeless and placed in temporary accommodation, including bed and breakfast.

On the argument put forward by the noble Baroness, if she were presented with that information I am sure that she would wish to support this amendment. I agree that genuine applicants should be housed within the two years and should be allowed to acquire the necessary points to do so.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page