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Housing Act 1996 (Additional Preference for Armed Forces) (England) Regulations 2012

Volume 740: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2012

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Housing Act 1996 (Additional Preference for Armed Forces) (England) Regulations 2012.

Relevant document: 9th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, these regulations, which were laid before the House on 18 October, will ensure that members of the Regular and Reserve Armed Forces and bereaved spouses and partners of service personnel are given priority for social housing if they need it when serving or after they have left the Armed Forces. If approved by this House and the other place, the regulations would come into effect later this month.

The Government are determined to help current and former members of the Armed Forces to gain the housing that they deserve. We have already put in place a raft of measures to deliver on our commitment. For instance, we have already made sure that serving members of the Armed Forces have top priority for all government-funded home ownership schemes, including the FirstBuy scheme, which help families to get a foot on the housing ladder. Former service personnel also have priority for FirstBuy for up to a year after active service and, if they die in service, this priority can be transferred to a bereaved spouse or civil partner. Forces personnel are already benefiting from FirstBuy, with 143 members of the Armed Forces having already been helped to buy a home. In addition, a further 5,500 service personnel have been approved for government support to buy their own home through FirstBuy, shared ownership and the Ministry of Defence’s Armed Forces home ownership scheme.

We are providing support for wounded service personnel through increased funding for home adaptations so that those who are injured or disabled on active duty can live independently or with support in their own homes. Preventing and tackling homelessness among veterans has been one of the priorities of the Ministerial Working Group on Homelessness. However, we are also determined to ensure that service families are not disadvantaged by their service requirements and that they are given proper priority for social housing if they need it. That is why we have already changed the law by regulation to ensure that, when local authorities set the rules that decide who qualifies to go on their waiting list, they cannot apply local connection criteria to disqualify service personnel. This is in recognition of the fact that a local connection rule can disadvantage forces personnel, because the nature of their service requires them to be mobile and often not to have a permanent address. These regulations came into force on 24 August.

The law already ensures that anyone, including service men and women, who has an identified housing need—for example because they are homeless or have medical needs—is given “reasonable preference” for social housing. The statutory reasonable preference categories make certain that, overall, priority for social housing is given to those who need it most and that local authorities take a consistent approach to housing need. Nevertheless, the pressure on social housing in many parts of the country means that even those who have reasonable preference may have to wait for some time before suitable housing becomes available. The regulations before us today will go further and require that, where former and serving members of the Armed Forces are identified as having an urgent need for social housing, they are always given the highest priority—so-called “additional preference”. For other people in urgent housing need, local authorities will continue to have a power to give them high priority but will not be required to do so.

We consulted on proposals to give additional preference to those who had previously served in the Regular Forces and who were identified as having an urgent need for social housing. The consultation closed at the end of March this year. The response to the consultation was supportive of the proposed regulations, but it highlighted the housing needs of those who are still serving but who may have been seriously injured on active service and those of bereaved families. We have decided, therefore, to extend these regulations to apply to: serving members of the Regular Armed Forces who are suffering from a serious injury, illness or disability as a result of their service; bereaved spouses and civil partners of service personnel when they have to leave service family accommodation following the death of their spouse or civil partner; and serving and former members of the Reserve Forces who are suffering from a serious illness, injury or disability as a result of their service

We set out our intention to broaden the scope of the regulations in this way in the summary analysis of responses to the consultation that we published at the end of June. We think that it is right to extend this additional priority to wounded service men and women—not just to those who have left the forces—as we recognise that they may need to move out of military accommodation to suitably adapted social housing before they complete their service. It is also right that we recognise the part that members of our Reserve Forces play, many of whom serve on the front line alongside Regular Forces. I am glad to say that most reservists return safely to civilian life. However, if they are injured on active service, they may find that their current accommodation is no longer suitable for their needs or no longer affordable, or they may have to move to access care or support.

Where members of the Armed Forces have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, we must ensure that we continue to support their bereaved spouse or partner when they are required to leave military accommodation, just as they have given support to their spouse and partner by giving up their independence to accompany them from base to base.

Our service men and women are practical, resilient and resourceful. The vast majority of those who leave the Armed Forces will have made arrangements to meet their housing needs, often long before their service comes to an end. Nevertheless, there will continue to be some who, for whatever reason, have no home to go to when they leave. They will often be the most vulnerable. I need hardly say that we all owe a huge debt to those brave men and women in the Regular and Reserve Forces who lay their lives on the line for their country and to those who have lost their loved ones serving on the front line. We must ensure that, when they urgently need a place to live, social housing is available for them. These regulations are intended to do just that. I commend them to the House.

My Lords, all Members of your Lordships’ House would welcome any steps taken to realise the aspirations of the military covenant and to support members of the Armed Forces and their families, who do so much for us all, often in conditions of great danger and often with unhappy results in terms of their own health and well-being. To that extent, of course, we join the Minister in supporting these provisions. They build, to a degree, on actions taken by the preceding Government, who for the first time accorded equality of priority to members of the Armed Forces for housing allocation.

I cannot resist the slight temptation, however, to point out that the Localism Act 2011, which freed councils to determine who should have priority, has to a degree been superseded in this case. I do not dissent from the judgment on that through a requirement that the military should indeed receive the highest priority, but it puts the repeated assertions of the virtues of the Localism Act in a slightly different perspective. However, I suspect that that will not much interest those who will benefit from these provisions.

Housing is a major concern of the military community. There has been a study by the Army Families Federation, from which it would appear that housing remains the most significant issue for members of the military and their families. I cannot forbear to point out that the Government have reduced their budget for providing their own direct accommodation.

Of course, as the noble Baroness has pointed out, there is a great demand for social housing. I repeat that it is right that the military should come top of the list. The fundamental problem, of course, is simply that we do not have sufficient social or affordable housing. Other measures that the previous Government introduced, in conjunction with those that the present Government have adopted, have perhaps made some impact on the access to housing and the various ways in which houses might be purchased. However, affordable housing has very much slipped down the Government’s housing agenda. It looks as though it is going to slip further, because from the recent announcements about the building programme and so on it seems that the builders will not be required to maintain the same proportion—many of us frankly thought that it was too low in any event, even under the preceding Government—of new build in the affordable category, let alone in the affordable rented category. I therefore have some concerns that, valuable though this provision is, against the context of the diminished social housing and affordable housing pools there will be greater stress on those requiring accommodation. I therefore argue for a substantial expansion of affordable housing provision, particularly in the rented sector.

Housing is a key issue for members of the military and their families, but it is not the only issue; I am sure that the Minister would agree with that. Unhappily, veterans are found in greater numbers among those who come before the courts and who suffer from post-traumatic stress and other mental health disorders. In addition to providing adequate, proper social housing places in which people who have served their country in this way want to live, we need to provide the other services that will help them to reintegrate into the community and lead the normal life to which they would aspire.

My authority, on behalf of the Association of North East Councils—I was not personally involved in this—produced a report last year about the position of veterans in relation to health services and other matters. I will ensure that the Minister receives a copy of that. It is not just a matter for her department; it clearly extends to other departments, notably, but not exclusively, the Department of Health. A more holistic approach would complement the priority that these regulations justly provide for those in the community to whom we all owe a great deal.

My Lords, first, I apologise to my noble friend the Minister for missing the beginning of what she said. I was contributing to the debate on the Statement in the Chamber, so I hope that I will be forgiven for being a few minutes late. I declare an interest because I am still a councillor for the London Borough of Barnet, and my comments will take that into account. Of course, I echo the comments about the debt that we owe our veterans. Speaking on defence, as I do, I make these comments about our Armed Forces very often from another angle.

The point that I want to explore is whether local authorities and housing associations are really going to be aware of these provisions. Yes, they will be told, but my experience of local authorities is that there are all sorts of provisions and my guess is that these will not figure very highly unless they are very much promoted with all those local authorities.

How will these provisions affect those local authorities that have little housing stock? Only this week I have been dealing with someone who has a brain tumour, three children and a husband partially in work, and they have been graded only at grade 2 rather than grade 1; they were evicted on Monday and I have been concerned with finding them some accommodation. I use that as an example of how in the London boroughs, certainly in north-west London, there is a great lack of housing, and to put this additional strain on them is going to make it even more difficult for people such as this woman. I think that I have got her into a house, but they are still dealing with the void and getting it into a state for her to go there. It has taken me since March, knowing that she was going to be evicted, to do this. How do we house the veterans and people whom we need to?

Another point is how the claimants decide in which geographical area to seek to exercise their claim. If you have been in Germany or Afghanistan or wherever and you do not really have a base other than a military base at, say, Colchester, where do you go to exercise your claim on a local authority? There are some places in the UK where there is spare housing but, in the places that I know, this does not apply.

Have the Government consulted veterans’ associations? Our veterans’ associations in the UK are nothing like the veterans’ associations in the United States. There is a good argument for consulting them and perhaps trying to tie in with these regulations previous debates that we have had on the Armed Forces covenant over how we deal with housing for members of the Armed Forces. With the return of service personnel from Germany and Afghanistan, and the fact that they are going to be based more permanently in garrison towns, there was talk during consideration of the Armed Forces Bill of encouraging members of the Armed Forces to purchase property in the area in which they would now live more permanently—previously they were not living permanently anywhere—so that when they retired or were invalided out there would be a house or a flat nearby that they owned. We are trying to encompass within social housing a large group of people for whom there is not enough social housing. I hope that when the Government consider this they will think outside the box about how, looking in the longer term, we can encourage people in the forces to acquire properties in their own right that they can then live in in their retirement or disablement, rather than trying to squash people into an area of social housing that does not exist in many parts, particularly in London.

My Lords, I thank the two noble Lords for their contributions. To start with the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, the veterans’ associations have been consulted. It was largely because of their response that the changes were made following that consultation to ensure that the Reserve Forces were included in this, and also serving members. When the regulations started, they were for those who had left the Army and were not serving at the time. These changes have been made as a result of that.

I appreciate that the noble Lords, Lord Beecham and Lord Palmer, said that there is not a huge excess—if I can put it that way—of social housing. These regulations are very specific and put to the top of the pile those who have been injured and have to leave their place in their barracks, or wherever they are, and who have nowhere else to go and need adapted or new property. It is not clear at the moment how many this will amount to. However, it is perfectly clear that the able-bodied who are leaving the service will either have made their own provision, which I suggested they would have done before they leave, or will have to make it subsequently—they will not be at that top priority level. We are looking particularly at those who are most vulnerable. Members of the Armed Forces are of course already within the top priority for housing as far as regulations are concerned. This just takes them out of that top priority and puts them one higher. Local authorities have always had to have some form of priority and, although the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, is right about localism, I think that they will accept this as an edict that they will not complain too much about.

As for guidance and whether anybody will know anything about it, we have produced new guidance that has made it clear that these regulations are being put forward. We will also be writing to local authorities when the regulations finally come into force to draw their attention to that. I am sure that the noble Lord’s authority will be well aware of them; if not, I am sure that he will draw them to its attention.

It will be up to anybody claiming a local connection to decide where they want to go. If somebody comes back wounded from Afghanistan in need of housing accommodation and decides that they want to go and live in Sheffield, to Sheffield they will go and they will go to the top of the list. If they want to come to the noble Lord’s borough, they will do the same. The local connection, which applies to practically every housing matter other than this, including homelessness, does not apply.

Those are the main points. I am not going to open up the debate on affordable housing, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, was tempting me to do. I will say only that he and I know that great efforts are being made to ensure that there is more affordable housing. If we can get the Ministry of Defence to release quite a lot of its property and land, we may be able to move that on. I hope that, with those explanations, noble Lords are happy for these regulations to be agreed.

Motion agreed.