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( ) A local authority, in providing (or securing the provision of) advice and assistance under sections 190(2)(b) and (3), 192(2) and 195(5) of the 1996 Act, shall ensure that—
(a) an assessment of an applicant's housing and related needs is carried out, and that the results of that assessment are taken into account in the provision of advice and assistance;
(b) appropriate and timely information is provided about the availability of accommodation in the area; and
(c) information and advice is provided about the applicant's right to a review of a decision under section 202 of the 1996 Act (right to request review of decision)."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, perhaps I may begin by saying that these Benches warmly welcome the amendments put forward by the Government. They do meet the concerns that we raised in Grand Committee. I should point out that other people supported such amendments; and, indeed, many people gave me support throughout the Committee stage. I have in mind the National Housing Federation, of which I declare once again I am a vice-president, as well as groups such as Shelter and Crisis.

However, perhaps I may press the Minister on one point. I should stress that I do not intend to speak to Amendment No. 10, or to move it. Can the noble and learned Lord indicate how he intends to monitor local authority performance in the area? For example, will it be a matter for the Housing Inspectorate to consider? I ask that question because it is the key to the whole initiative being a success. Having said that, I shall certainly not move Amendment No. 10.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I warmly welcome the amendments put forward by the Government. They are exactly what one would have desired. As this is the first occasion upon which I have had the opportunity to speak this afternoon, perhaps I may mention the general enthusiasm of those agencies working with young homeless people. I have in mind the work of the Rough Sleepers' Unit and its great achievements over the past three years. There is a history here of difficulty that was outlined in Shelter's report Singles Barred. In the past, assessments have been inconsistent between different local authorities; for example, in one metropolitan authority, a 17 year-old man was forced to leave his home due to family breakdown. He was properly assessed by that

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authority and suitable accommodation was arranged for him in a shared house. However, the same man had a different reception from another London authority. On that occasion, he was simply told that, without identification and a letter providing proof that he was homeless, there was nothing that that authority could do for him.

The homeless persons' units have been the Cinderella of local authorities. The Bill will bring them into the spotlight and that, in turn, will improve the service provided, thus preventing people from becoming unnecessarily homeless. I shall give noble Lords an example of another problem experienced by a London charity. Young people were being told by local authority homeless persons' units to go to certain places. However, on arrival, and after having travelled all the way across London, they would find that some of those places were closed. They had been given out-of-date information, and those young people with so many other difficulties were faced with a further problem. Moreover, because of the changes introduced under the new Rough Sleepers' Unit, many hostels that were previously open to emergency cases—that is, direct access hostels—have now become "referral only" hostels. Again, local authorities were referring young people to them despite the fact that their doors were closed.

As I said, I warmly welcome the government amendments. Because of the failures in the past, I wish only to add my support for the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, regarding the importance of monitoring this area. The Minister was good enough to make it very clear in Grand Committee that he, or his successor, would be keeping a very firm eye on performance in the area. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord would be good enough to reiterate that commitment at this stage of the proceedings. I also wonder whether he would be good enough to say what role the Housing Inspectorate might have in the continuance of that monitoring process.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for indicating that she will not be moving Amendment No. 10. As regards monitoring, I can tell the noble Baroness that, as announced before Christmas, a homelessness directorate will be established within the DTLR. Its purpose will be to streamline and co-ordinate all the work carried out on homelessness by central government. In relation to delivering results in the area of homelessness, we recognise that the people in the front line will be those working in the local authority.

The homelessness directorate must have a sufficient relationship with local authorities to enable it to know what is going on in the area, and establish whether or not the measures taken are effective. The provision of advice and assistance pursuant to the terms of this amendment and the wider duties are important matters for the homelessness directorate to consider. Separately from that, noble Lords will know the various means by which local government performance can be monitored. The relevant

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inspectorates, some of which cover homelessness and housing, will also need to consider the level of performance in the relevant local authority.

Finally, one of the effects of the Bill is that a homelessness strategy must be published. Plainly, such a strategy will have to set out how, for example, the provision of this expanded duty would be delivered. Therefore, there are three methods by which monitoring can take place. I repeat: this is an important aspect of dealing with homelessness. It is one that we would expect to see delivered.

On Question, Amendment No. 9 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 10 not moved.]

Clause 7 [Events which cause the duty to cease]:

Baroness Maddock moved Amendment No. 11:

    Page 4, line 40, at end insert ", and states that the offer shall remain available for such period as the authority may determine is reasonable in all the circumstances"

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this is a fairly simple amendment to Clause 7. Its purpose is to provide for local authorities to give homeless applicants a reasonable period of time in which to accept or refuse a final offer of accommodation.

We discussed the issue in Grand Committee. I know that the Government agree in principle with the thinking behind my amendment. However, the Minister argued at that time (at col. CWH 31 of the Official Report) that local authorities were already under a general duty to act reasonably in allowing applicants time to decide whether or not to accept an offer. However, we know that local authorities frequently do not act reasonably in this area. There is evidence that homeless applicants are often given as little as 24 hours, sometimes even less, to decide whether to accept an offer of accommodation. Such a short period of time places those applicants under considerable pressure to accept an offer. I believe that it undermines the intentions set out in the housing Green Paper as regards providing homeless people with a greater choice over the housing in which they wish to live.

Although strong guidance in this respect would be welcome, we continue to believe that current performance in the area and the lack of regard that authorities often have for the guidance mean that a stronger statutory duty is required. My amendment would achieve that aim without interfering with the local authority's discretion by simply specifying that a "reasonable" period of time must be allowed to consider a final offer. The concept of "reasonableness" is used extensively in the Bill, and elsewhere in the Housing Act 1996. I dealt with that aspect of the matter in more detail in Grand Committee, so I shall not repeat my arguments today.

It is worth noting that the Conservatives tabled similar amendments in another place that would have given applicants a minimum period of four days in which to decide whether to accept a final offer of

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accommodation. There are a number of factors that may impact on the ability of an applicant to make a quick decision. Applicants may be working in a different area; they may have children and care commitments; and they often have problems as regards visiting another area if it is different from the area in which their children attend school. People who are homeless find life pretty difficult anyway. Expecting a quick decision is unfair on many vulnerable people.

One in three of those accepted as homeless and in priority need are single people without children who are considered vulnerable. The remaining acceptances are families with children or families including someone who is pregnant. We are talking about very vulnerable people.

The pressure that homeless households are under is compounded by the many other disadvantages that they face when they apply for social housing. Homeless households are likely to get many fewer offers of accommodation and they get less choice over the area in which they live. The previous department—the DETR—produced figures showing that since 1991 there has been a sharp increase in the proportion of authorities operating a policy of one offer only. By 2000, that figure had increased to 75 per cent. We are talking about vulnerable people in real situations.

I believe that I have demonstrated the need for further action. I hope that the Minister can respond positively. I beg to move.

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