|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, yes indeed, but I am never content to let the matter rest there. The noble Earl referred to my manuscript amendment, to which I should like to speak so that we may explore the point a little further. I should perhaps say now that I shall not be moving Amendment No. 88A. Amendment No. 87A seeks to amend subsection (4) of the new clause set out in Amendment No. 87 and to add at the end of that subsection:
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, perhaps I may move Amendment No. 88 and speak to the others in the group, including the substantive amendment, Amendment No. 87. I should like to explain that when we pressed this in Committee and talked about the two in three-year rule, what we were not seeking to do was to have a short-cut, in the phrase the Minister used again tonight, into "long-term housing". Certainly from my own knowledge, local authorities who use their own stock as temporary housing use hard-to-let housing, which is unattractive and very often unacceptable to those on the waiting list. Homeless families going into that hard-to-let housing are not in competition with families on the waiting list.
There may be exceptions to that, but that is generally done. I hope that the Minister accepts it from us so that there are no more suggestions that we are somehow trying to subvert the Bill, make short-cuts, queue-jump and the rest of it: we are not. We are saying that, where there is hard-to-let housing, local authorities choose to use it in such cases, possibly because there is a shortage of private rented housing. Those people who are allocated such housing should not come within the two in three-year rule. They are not in competition with those seeking permanent housing from the waiting list.
However, it is indeed true that we welcome the Government's modest concession, following the debates that we have had. We on these Benches are pleased that the Government recognised that there was a black hole, so to speak, for a few--I hope only a few--hard-to-house families. It means, in other words, that the local authorities will no longer be required to evict from their own temporary housing a hard-to-house family which has not yet come to the top of the queue in two years.
There are a couple of points which I hope that the Minister will be able to answer. The first concerns the working of the extension by one year. The Minister has said that it could be three years out of four, or four years out of five: in other words, each and every extension would have to be negotiated with the Secretary of State. We are grateful to the Minister for having made the position clear. However, I should like to ask the Minister why he is binding himself in primary legislation so unnecessarily. Our amendment would remove subsection (5). I would actually be happy with a more modest amendment, to which we might return on Third Reading: to leave out the words,
It seems to me, if I understand it correctly, that the regional office will have to consider each and every case, each and every family and examine each and every case file before permitting local authorities to house that family for an additional year in their own hard-to-let housing. Really? Let me put some figures to the Minister. I could be wrong, but somewhere between 10 per cent. and 20 per cent. of homeless families will not come to the head of the waiting list in two years: 60 per cent. of those are likely to be in London and they are not usually housed in the local authority's own stock, simply because the pressure in London is so much greater than outside. But outside London for the 40 per cent. most local authorities will use their own hard-to-let housing as temporary accommodation for homeless families apart from bed and breakfast accommodation. I calculate that between 5,000 and 10,000 individual families--it may be the lower figure--will need to have an exemption offered to them by the local authority, if it is thought reasonable. To get that exemption the local authority will have to seek consent from the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State--or the regional DoE officers--will have to assess between 5,000 to 10,000 case histories a year in addition to the normal workload. They will become assistant housing managers.
Is this a sensible use of officer time at regional DoE headquarters? How do the Government expect to find efficiency savings if they throw 5,000-plus extra cases each and every year at the DoE? There may be up to 1,000 at each regional office. Are the regional offices so overstaffed that they can absorb that work without difficulty? Where will the Government find efficiency savings? It is daft to ask regional officers, acting as untrained surrogate assistant housing managers, without the necessary skills and qualifications and possibly all the case notes before them, to do this on a case-by-case basis for up to 10,000 homeless families each and every year. It is an absurd waste of highly trained expensive official time. These officers will be doing something for which they are not qualified.
I believe that what is required is either the amendment that was narrowly defeated in this House, which would leave the matter to local authority discretion, or the ability of individual local authorities to make application to the Secretary of State in the light of local circumstances for a general dispensation. If a local authority has a general problem it needs a general dispensation. That should be granted by the Secretary of State. He should not bind himself in primary legislation by limiting that discretion to one year only. We wonder whether the Government understand the caseload implication of the amendment as it stands, unless there are category exemptions as opposed to individual case history exemptions. The workload is more than that which is dealt with by two or three average local authorities in a year.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I speak to Amendment No.87, which I welcome. There does not appear to be much commonsense in putting someone out of a hard-to-let property which is not needed by anyone else. It is not desirable to move people unnecessarily from such a property. I strongly support the Government's view that there should not be yet another way to enable people to jump the queue by a loophole of this kind. I and other noble Lords feel strongly about this. No doubt the Minister will say whether or not the words of the amendment mean exactly what I believe they mean.
I believe that the amendment will address inner city areas, particularly in London, about which I have spoken. As I understand it, there would be no question of the Government or any person having to act as a surrogate housing officer to deal with individual cases. I agree that that would be impossible. I imagine it is intended that local authorities will apply for an exemption--the word "dispensation" has been used by the noble Baroness--either for a category of person or a particular hard-to-let area of accommodation. There would be ways of simplifying the situation rather than having to deal with the 5,000 or 10,000 cases to which reference has been made. It is interesting that when we debated this matter earlier the tiny number of cases then referred to has suddenly grown enormously tonight. When I spoke against the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, which was so narrowly defeated, certainly there was no mention of 5,000 to 10,000 cases. But tonight it seems that that figure suits her and therefore it has come back again. However, I welcome the fact that the two years could become three years in really necessary cases and cases where the accommodation would otherwise be surplus and perhaps unused by anyone. Also, my noble friend the Minister did say that the authority could apply for even further time beyond the three years. That shows great flexibility and sensitivity whatever the situation may be. I support Amendment No. 87.
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes for supporting Amendment No.87. I am glad also that I was able to clear up some concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, about whether we could have three years out of four, or four years out of five. I am glad that she understands that. The noble Baroness asked why we bind ourselves in primary legislation. The purpose of primary legislation is, of course, to set the direction of a policy and not to give the Secretary of State unfettered discretion. Indeed, I do not think that that is what the noble Earl, Lord Russell, wants either.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said that the regional office would have to handle every case. She referred to 5,000 or 10,000 cases and said we must be "absolutely daft" to introduce such legislation. I quite agree; we would be absolutely daft if we had introduced such legislation. I can assure her that we have not. Perhaps I can explain why.
Most local authorities will not need to apply for the extension. If they do, they will apply en bloc for a class of family, not for individual cases. As an example, one might say that they had run out of houses for families requiring four bedrooms. It is those categories that would be applied for. They would be applied for en bloc, not in individual cases.
The direction will therefore apply to categories of household type, where necessary. I remind the noble Baroness of what I said earlier. The waiver would apply to specified types of applicant; for example, large families or people requiring specially adapted housing. It might last for up to a year and would have the effect of extending the two years in three provision to a three years in four provision. If an authority wished to extend the period further it would have to apply for a new direction and demonstrate that it still needed the flexibility which a direction would allow. That would refer, as I say, to classes of housing as opposed to individuals.
I turn to the manuscript amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. As I explained earlier, local authorities should seek to use their older stock, wherever possible, for meeting long-term needs. We believe such needs are most effectively addressed through the housing register. There should be no need for an authority to use its own stock to house people under the provisions of Part VII for long periods. If their needs are of a long-term nature, these should be reflected by their position on the housing register. If an authority consistently finds that people whom it has rehoused in its own stock under the homelessness duty are still there after two years, this could be because it has set aside too much of its stock for short-term use, because it has framed its allocation scheme incorrectly or because it has failed to plan for needs of certain types of household in its housing strategy.
Only if these circumstances do not apply--where, for example, there is a shortage of a particular type of property such as housing with four or more bedrooms--will a direction be appropriate. We believe that the direction-making power should only be used in limited circumstances; for example, in the case of applicants requiring specially adapted housing where an authority would otherwise be unable to carry out its duties effectively. We think that it should be regarded as a temporary measure, subject to annual review, to deal with the circumstances which happen to prevail at the time. It is not intended to provide a general or a continuing exception.
I refer also to Amendment No. 89, which strengthens the provisions governing out-of-area placements. Clause 191 allows authorities to secure accommodation for homeless applicants outside their district should they so wish. We should prefer to see authorities placing people within their own areas but we accept that there are circumstances in which that may not be possible. Therefore, we do not wish to prohibit an authority from securing accommodation for applicants outside its area.
I hope that I have been able to allay some of the fears of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. Even though I have not been able to agree with the manuscript amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I hope that she will understand the reasons why we think that it would not be suitable.