Homes Bill

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Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): I beg to move amendment No. 81, in page 15, line 19, at end insert

    `and is entitled to apply to a local housing authority for an allocation of housing accommodation.'.

Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider amendment No. 82, in clause 26, page 16, line 36, at end insert

    `, and, accordingly, a local housing authority's allocation scheme shall not be framed so as to exclude any person falling within section 160(A)(2).'.

Mr. Love: These amendments would strengthen the Bill by ensuring that local authorities cannot exclude eligible households from social housing at the point at which an application is made. In some ways, they are attached to amendment No. 83, which we shall be dealing with when we consider clause 27.

Opposition Members have talked in glowing terms of the Housing Act 1996, section 161 of which has a number of stipulations. The first is that authorities have to draw a single housing register, on which only qualifying persons can be placed. Qualification can be related to statute—for example, it can include asylum seekers and those subject to immigration control. The Act also has an explicit power, which allows authorities, under their allocation scheme, to specify whole classes of persons that do not qualify to be put on the register. Local authorities have used this type of exclusion for many years. Since the introduction of that Act, there has been a significant expansion of the number of excluded persons, as a Shelter survey in 1998 confirmed. A favourite form of exclusion—used widely by local authorities in the case of people whom they already house seeking a transfer—is to exclude those in rent arrears. A recent Shelter survey showed that 89 per cent. of authorities exclude anyone seeking a transfer who is in arrears.

Of course there are other mechanisms to exclude people, including criminal conviction, anti-social behaviour—let me come back to that—and even those who have refused offers of accommodation from the local authority itself. Often, these restrictions are not justified by the individual circumstances in which people find themselves. Rent arrears are often caused by the inefficiencies of the housing benefit system.

RSLs concerned about the growing backlog of housing benefit payments are serving notices of possession on their tenants, not in order to scare their tenants but to push their local authority along to provide housing benefit. A consequence of that will be that many authorities will not allow their tenants or an RSL tenant to be re-housed because of the notice seeking possession.

We are also aware that local authorities sometimes use motoring offences as a reason to stop people being placed in housing. Of course, ``antisocial behaviour'' has a whole Pandora's box of interpretations, many of which are unjustified and unproven allegations.

Mr. Waterson: Surely the hon. Gentleman agrees that some of the most upsetting and intractable cases with which hon. Members have to deal are those involving people behaving antisocially towards their neighbours. A track record of significant antisocial behaviour—I am not talking about the odd explicable incident—should be taken into account. We could argue about the mechanism for doing that but it must be done, otherwise another set of neighbours would be condemned to the same problems.

Mr. Love: There is widespread recognition of the difficulties about which the hon. Gentleman speaks. If there is significant evidence of such a track record, perhaps involving a court case arising from antisocial behaviour, action must of course be taken. We would not wish all the neighbours of such a person to be blighted for many years.

Many people who find themselves excluded by those blanket policies are in extreme need. Such policies work against the objectives of the Bill, which is supposed to take a preventive approach to homelessness. According to the housing Green Paper, we should continue to give priority to meeting housing need. Paragraph 9.13 states:

    ``We do not believe that anyone should be permanently excluded from social housing. We therefore propose to remove the power to impose `blanket' exclusions from the housing register.''

Yet that is exactly what is happening. In its current form, the Bill will not effect significant changes to such behaviour, which is extremely widespread. The Shelter survey that I quoted earlier estimated that upwards of 200,000 people were excluded or suspended between 1996 and 1998. Only four of 65 housing organisations surveyed had a completely open register; all the others offered some form of exclusion. Of 74 housing authorities surveyed, a separate study showed that only 25 per cent. of those with an exclusion policy stipulated the length of that exclusion and limited it in any way—meaning that they could exclude people permanently. I agree with the argument in the Green Paper that reductions in priority or suspensions of applications for housing should occur only in exceptional circumstances and be applied individually. The current blanket policies cannot continue.

Clauses 25 and 26 give applicants the right to apply for housing and all authorities must consider applications from eligible households. Under clause 27, individual households can be de-prioritised in certain circumstances. If the Bill is to stop exclusions, we must look closely at the wording of clause 26, which states that applications must be made in accordance with an authority's allocation scheme. The problem is that that will allow an authority to continue to exclude those who may be in genuine housing need. Of course, it is because the Bill also allows a much more permissive allocations framework that it could extend the number of those who could be excluded through the allocation scheme in a blanket form.

If we want authorities to change the way in which they act, the Bill should be more tightly drafted. Amendments Nos. 81 and 82 to clause 26 will provide some of those safeguards. For example, amendment No. 81 clarifies the fact that anyone can apply for housing, strengthening that particular part of clause 26. Amendment No. 82 will require authorities not to frame their scheme in such a way that anyone will be excluded at that stage in the application.

I believe, and I hope the Minister will look very carefully at these amendments, that they will prevent people from being excluded at that initial application stage, but not prevent the authority, through clause 27, from being able to de-prioritise or suspend someone individually in exceptional circumstances, where the evidence clearly shows that that should be allowed.

Mr. Waterson: Curiously enough, my remarks on these amendments start where the remarks of the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) finished, which is on the question of how much difference the amendments would actually make. Looking at our friends from Shelter's excellent, detailed brief on these amendments, looking at the last paragraph before I read the middle paragraph, Shelter make the very point which the hon. Gentleman has just made. That point, as Shelter and I understand it, is that the amendments relate only to the point of application, so there is nothing to stop an authority, even with these amendments incorporated in the Bill, from de-prioritising or suspending applications from an individual applications, once that application has been considered—whether on the basis of antisocial behaviour, rent arrears or anything else.

Mr. Love: I said at the start of my contribution that amendment No. 83 to clause 27 would strengthen the limitation on the way in which people could de-prioritise or suspend applicants, so we should look at amendments Nos. 81 and 82 in conjunction with amendment No. 83. Together, they provide the safeguards to ensure that housing applicants are not treated as they have been up to now.

Mr. Waterson: I am grateful for that and I know you would not wish me to go too far down to the question of amendment No. 83, Mr. Gale, as we will certainly come to that and the major issues to which it relates when we debate clause 27. At least the hon. Gentleman and I agree that, taking amendments Nos. 81 and 82 on their own merits, that seems to be their effect. It is certainly the effect claimed or disclaimed for them by Shelter in its briefing. Having said that, Shelter says, as the hon. Gentleman has suggested, that the amendments are there to strengthen the Bill:

    ``to ensure that local authorities cannot exclude eligible households from social housing at the point at which an application is made.''

In a sense, the debate on the amendments is circular, because an authority that has a strict policy on de-prioritisation could still apply it on the basis of these amendments without prejudice to amendment No. 83, to which will return to on another day.

``Quality and Choice: a Decent Home for All'' makes clear the Government's intention to:

    ``remove the scope to impose blanket restrictions preventing groups of people from applying for social housing.''

We all have sympathy with that. In any walk of life there is a lot of perceived unfairness if people feel that their individual circumstances have been caught up in some blanket restriction, whatever the true situation may be. Shelter's concern, which I suspect is what brought us to the debate and the amendments, is that clauses 25 and 26 would allow local authorities to continue to have a sort of blanket exemption along the lines that the hon. Gentleman described in proposing the amendments. Shelter thinks that the amendments will ensure that households cannot be unjustifiably excluded again at the application stage. It dwells on four particular areas: outstanding rent arrears, criminal convictions, allegations of antisocial behaviour, and refusing an offer of accommodation from the housing register.

5.15 pm

If we focus on the first three, we can all agree that substantial rent arrears, or a history of them, with no good reason, such as a problem with the housing benefit system, should be taken into consideration. With regard to criminal convictions, no one would defend a system, as quoted by the hon. Gentleman and by Shelter, where a fine for speeding would count against someone when being housed. Antisocial behaviour is an issue in itself, which will be dealt with in detail under clause 27. Suffice it to say that there clearly can and must be justification for taking account of antisocial behaviour to a certain degree in allocations policies. If people have a serious track record of anti-social behaviour, making their neighbours' lives a misery, they should not simply be moved on to make another set of neighbours' lives a misery. That leads inevitably to the question of what happens to such people, who clearly have to be housed somewhere. However, we cannot simply forget about antisocial behaviour. The Shelter briefing, as one might expect, talks about what it calls ``entirely spurious reasons'' being put forward. Again, one cannot disagree with that. It goes on to say:

    ``Many authorities operate blanket policies to exclude people with criminal convictions.''

It refers to one authority that can rely on motoring offences. It also talks about households being excluded for what it calls

    ``entirely unproven and unjustified allegations of anti-social behaviour.''

Again, in our daily and weekly work as Members of Parliament, we all come across such disputes, whether between neighbours in social housing or owner-occupiers in rather smart streets. They can be equally problematical, and it can be difficult to get at the real truth. Having seen one party to a dispute in my surgery one week, I dread seeing the other party on the rota the following week. Given that we all have to face re-election from time to time, that adds a completely different dimension to arriving at a kind of Solomonesque solution to such problems.

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