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Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): I wish to make a brief point. The Under-Secretary will know that I did not have the opportunity to serve on the Standing Committee, and my point--which, I hope, he does not think pedantic--may have been dealt with exhaustively then. As I understand it, new clause 16, which I support, amends section 177 of the Housing Act 1996, by adding the words "or other violence" after the words "domestic violence". It then goes on to define what violence--not "other violence"--means.
Why is it necessary to add those words--I fully agree that the concept should be added--rather than deleting "domestic"? The new clause could just refer to violence, which could be domestic, racial or any other violence. I have a little campaign to try to ensure that legislation is no longer than it need be. In this case, that small point may just help.
Mr. Waterson: May I begin by congratulating the Under-Secretary on what, I think, is his first ministerial appearance at the Dispatch Box? Of course, he was promoted during the Bill's Committee stage--one of the many events that enlivened our debates.
We support new clause 16. There was a debate on the general subject in Committee and there was general cross-party support for the proposal that we should be clear that we are addressing all types of violence. We agree with the Under-Secretary that it is certainly possible to put a narrow construction on the existing wording. As the hon. Gentleman said, it would be quite wrong for people to be disadvantaged in housing priority terms if they were in genuine fear of violence, whatever the cause of that violence was said to be. We heard an eloquent speech in Committee from the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) on the issue.
Whether we represent Bermondsey, Eastbourne or anywhere else, we all know of the problem of violence and the threat of violence in social housing in some parts of our constituencies, and of the fact that people can be systematically terrorised over a long period. We recognise that there are different types of violence and different reasons for it.
The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) noted that the reasons for the violence may be domestic, and that all too often, the flash-point is access to or custody of children, or marital discord. Equally, the reasons may be racial or homophobic, or we may be talking about neighbours who
Antisocial behaviour bordering on the violent, and sometimes turning into violence, is an increasing problem in estates, blocks of flats and so on across the country. We agree that no distinction should be made between different types of violence.
It is bad enough that people may be forced to flee their homes because of violence or the threat of violence, but it would be absurd if they then found themselves at the back of the queue for housing. I doubt whether there are housing authorities that apply the rules so narrowly, but the Minister is right: we should not leave it to chance. We are therefore happy to support new clause 16.
Mr. Hancock: I welcome new clause 16, but I see in it problems that could persist into the future. Those of us who represent large numbers of council tenants have encountered cases involving all types of violence. Sadly, domestic violence is usually one of the easier cases, as it is clear who is perpetrating the violence and who is on the receiving end.
Other types of violence are not so straightforward--for example, the threat of violence from the drug dealer in the block of flats against other tenants. I have a block of flats in my constituency where the Post Office has refused to deliver mail because of the intimidation and the hypodermic needles that are discarded almost daily around the block. It is a scandal that people in the block knew what was going on, but were so frightened to come forward because of the fears of violence that the matter went unattended to for a considerable length of time.
There are many instances in which the threat of violence is a compelling reason for people not to say anything about what is going on, and to allow the criminal elements and the neighbours from hell to continue to make other people's lives a misery.
A further issue is the malicious claim of violence. On more than one occasion, people have come to me with a fairly plausible story about a threat of violence, in the hope that that would be sufficient to get them rehoused. It is extremely difficult to prove such a thing, and the assertion was subsequently shown to be malicious. The people concerned were simply trying to work a scam to get rehoused. People may be desperate, but that is not acceptable.
There should be a mechanism that allows people who have a genuine fear of violence to ask the local housing authority to move them because they are at risk. The housing officer may ask what proof they have and how often the police have been called. In most cases, the mere fact of the police turning up would be enough to ensure that violence ensues--perhaps not that day or the next, but within a short period.
We need to assist local authorities in obtaining proof of what is going on, and we should give them some guidance about how to collect evidence of the violence that has supposedly been threatened. That is a very difficult issue that must undoubtedly be addressed. How right the Government are to have tabled new clause 16, but that will not be the end of the process. Sadly, the problem is going to get worse. On some estates, the threat of violence has become an epidemic, and is an essential part of the way in which those estates are run. We must find a mechanism to free people from the fear of violence.
Any hon. Members who grew up on council estates where violence was the norm will know how awful it is to live with that fear hanging over them. Fear accompanies people on their journey home from school; parents worry about whether their children will arrive home, because of the threat not of abduction but of violence being dished out; people come home late in the evening and are afraid to go upstairs: some go and stay the night somewhere else because they are afraid to enter a block of flats and go up four flights of stairs, because gangs of violent youths are sitting on those stairs. The police cannot respond to every phone call from someone asking to be escorted home. We must find a mechanism to deal with the problem. New clause 16 starts the process but, sadly, does not end it.
Mr. Robert Ainsworth: The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) asked whether other people in a household would be covered by the measure. He will find the definition that he seeks in section 177 of the Housing Act 1996, which the new clause will extend. The present definition includes
(b) any other person who might reasonably be expected to reside with him."
The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) asked why we could not simply use the word "violence", rather than the terms "domestic violence" and "or other violence". The reason is that we have to comply with the requirement for referrals under section 198 of the Housing Act 1996, in circumstances in which it applies to domestic violence. It is far easier to identify the perpetrators of domestic violence--and their places of abode--than other perpetrators of violence, so there is a different procedure in such cases.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) and the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) largely spoke on the same subject. On that issue, we are proposing that a person living in a home where they have been subjected to violence or are clearly under threat of violence--no matter what the reason or motive--can be classified as homeless and given priority if it is necessary to move them from their home.
Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate, will know that a complaint we often receive is that the victims of violence, rather than the perpetrators, have to be moved. Furthermore, there is always an issue of proof. The Government are trying to introduce other measures to deal with those problems. In relation to that, we must consider the adequacy and enforcement of tenancy agreements and the use of antisocial behaviour orders.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South clearly illustrated that it is not always possible to prove allegations of violence. Sadly, it is all too often necessary to move the victim out of the way of the threat because the allegations against the perpetrator cannot be proved.
Mr. Ainsworth: Some of the measures that the Government introduced recently were designed to introduce a working relationship between police and local authorities, to enable third parties to give evidence in many cases of this kind. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.