Standing Committee D
Thursday 1 February 2001
[Mr. George Stevenson in the Chair]
The Chairman: Before we continue our deliberations, I remind the Committee that we must conclude our proceedings by Five o'clock. I should also advise the Committee that under the provisions of Sessional Order D on programming, at the end of today's proceedings I must adjourn Committee forthwith, without putting the Question that I do report the Bill the House.
PMS and PDS lists
Amendment proposed: No. 77, in page 17, leave out lines 31 and 32[Mr. Don Foster.]
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this it will be convenient to take the following amendments:
No. 91, in page 17, line 34, at end insert
`or another authority's district'.
No. 83, in page 17, line 34, at end insert
`save that the factors may not be taken into account in any case where to do so would be unreasonable having regard to the need of the person or household for an allocation of housing accommodation.'
No. 92, in page 17, line 34, at end insert
`( ) any record of behaviour of a person (or of a member of his household) which has affected the terms of a previous tenancy he has held.'
No. 96, in page 17, line 47, after `accommodation', insert
`which may be available within the authority's district or within another authority's district'
Government amendments Nos. 106 to 108.
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): When we broke up for lunch I was explaining to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) why amendment No. 77 was inappropriate. When I referred to the type of undesirable person who should not have automatic access to council housing, he promptly rose to his feet. Of course, I would not have made any such association.
I should make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that Govt amendment No. 106 is an additional provision and not, as he implied in his comments, a substitution for subsection (2A)(b), which is amendment No.77 seeks to remove. Individuals must face the consequences of their actions. That is essential for stable communities and a safe environment and for bringing home to those who behave badly that their behaviour will not be tolerated. However, I repeat that the provision is not a basis for backdoor blanket exclusions; it relates to the determination of priorities and each individual application will be considered on its own merit. That will involve a careful balancing of factors, including the seriousness of the behaviour and the applicants' housing need.
Amendment No. 91 would seem to be redundant. It would allow an authority to take account of a local connection between a person and another authority's district. One has to ask why. If it is envisaged that reduced priority would be given to those coming from outside the area, that can already be achieved under (2A)(c) by giving increased priority to locally connected individuals. Although they make some bizarre proposals, I do not honestly think that Opposition Members are actually suggesting that we should give higher priority to people without a local connection. I do not genuinely believe that is the purpose of their amendment. Of course, if there is a good reason to do so, in specific circumstances, there is nothing to stop an authority making such provisions. Subsection (2A) already makes specific provision for authorities to specify factors that may be taken into account.
Amendment No. 96 is closely related. I am keen that authorities should work together to enable allocations to be made across local authority boundaries, which seems to be in the spirit of this amendment. People's choices about where to live do not always fit neatly within administrative boundaries and there will be frequently be excellent reasons for seeking accommodation outside the authority in which an applicant is currently situated. Of course, facilitating movement from areas of high demand to areas of low demand areas make eminent good sense. Although I am not against the spirit of the amendment, it does not seem necessary to include it in the Bill. An authority's policy on offering people a choice of housing implicitly includes its policies in relation to its own accommodation and its arrangements with other authorities.
Amendment No. 92 also seems superfluous. Its effect is surely covered by subsection (2A)(b), which deals with behaviour that affects a person's suitability to be a tenant. Although I understand the intentions behind amendment No. 83, which was moved with admirable clarity and brevity by my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner), it does not add anything to the current proposals. In law, local authorities must act reasonably in balancing the factors to be taken into account against the needs of a person or household. So there is no need for the amendment.
We are introducing the Government amendments where we now feel that the drafting of the Bill has not achieved our original policy intentions. I am grateful to hon. Members who have helped identify matters that needed clarification or development. I begin with amendment No. 106. Members of the Committee will recall previous debates about the importance of housing authorities not being able to impose blanket bans on particular categories of applicant. As I have already said, we are maintaining a clear policy on that and I am confident that the provisions of the Bill ensure that there will be no scope for authorities to introduce such bans. However, there is another side to the issue. There may be circumstances in which an authority has reasonable grounds for deciding that it will not allocate housing to a person because that person is unsuitable to be a tenant of that particular authority, or because he or she is unsuitable to be a tenant generally. I am advised that it is inherent in the provisions of part VI that authorities have the power to make such a decision where the circumstances justify that. That is a normal and reasonable function for any landlord.
However, I am anxious to ensure that authorities have the scope to decide not to allocate accommodation when faced with an applicant who has recently been evicted from their home by the courts because of unacceptable antisocial behaviour and there is every reason to believe that their behaviour has not changed and is not likely to change in the immediate future. Such households may well be owed a duty under section 190(2) of the Housing Act 1996 if they have dependent children in their household; that duty applies to applicants who have priority need, but have made themselves intentionally homeless. Authorities must accommodate them for a brief, temporary period to give them an opportunity to find accommodation for themselves, and must also provide advice and assistance. Quite rightly, we have included applicants who are owed the section 190(2) duty in the categories of housing applicants who must be given reasonable preference. Those categories are intended to include everyone in housing need, and there is no greater housing need than actually being homeless.
By no means are all households who have become homeless intentionally likely to be unsuitable tenants of social housing. Some may have acted foolishly, for example, by taking on more than they could cope with: one thinks of a home owner who has over-extended himself on a mortgage, and then lost his home because he could not keep up the mortgage payments. In some circumstances, applicants may be deemed to have made themselves homeless intentionally, although I stress that those who are homeless in consequence of mortgage or rent arrears should not routinely be treated as intentionally homeless. My point is that if anyone were judged in such circumstances to have made themselves intentionally homeless, it would be wholly unreasonable to deny them any preference for housing allocations. We need to remember that all those owed the section 190(2) duty will have a priority need for accommodation, and many will be families with children.
My concern is to ensure that authorities maintain the discretion to decide not to give preference to applicants who have recently been evicted for antisocial behaviour, even if they are owed the section 190(2) duty, and other applicants whom the authorities consider unsuitable because of their unsuitable behaviour. That is what the amendment will provide. The authority will need to be satisfied that the applicant was unsuitable: unsuitability would have to be as a result of unacceptable behaviour on the part of either the applicant or a member of his or her household. A decision on unsuitability would need to be based on the circumstances at the time of the decisionauthorities could not simply refer back to previous unacceptable behaviour without considering whether the circumstances have now changed for the better. The hon. Member for Bath generously acknowledged that that was clearly provided for in the amendment.
As to what constitutes unacceptable behaviour, that will be defined by reference to the forms of behaviour that would give grounds for a possession order being granted in the court against a secure tenant. By way of examples, ground 1 applies where there is significant rent arrears or serious breach of tenancy obligations; ground 2 applies where the tenant or another resident has caused serious nuisance or annoyance to neighbours, or been convicted of using the accommodation, or allowing it to be used, for immoral or illegal purposes, such as drug dealing; and ground 3 applies where the property has been seriously damaged or neglected by the tenant or other residents.
I am conscious of the concerns that have been voiced by the hon. Member for Bath, who has picked up concerns expressed by Shelter about whether individuals who were evicted for rent arrears, possibly in cases where they did not get their housing benefit, might fall into that category. That is neither our intention nor, as I hope to demonstrate, will it be the effect of the amendment. In the first place, the definition makes it clear that we are talking about circumstances in which an authority is entitled to a possession order, not where it has simply applied for one. The courts have considerable discretion. If someone has only a trivial level of rent arrears, it is normal for the courts either not to award possession or to grant only a suspended order to allow him an opportunity to pay the arrears.