Homes Bill

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Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman acknowledged that there was an enormous difference between the number of possession orders sought and the number granted. The use of the word ``entitled'' is to make it quite clear to a local authority when operating these provisions that it cannot merely rest on the fact that it has sought or may seek a possession order in a particular case. To satisfy this test, it must show that it should be entitled to secure an order, which means that it must show that it has sufficient grounds to be confident that it will obtain an order. That is part of the process. We are trying to create a clear, precise definition that will avoid the problems that would otherwise arise if authorities were able to interpret this provision widely and indiscriminately. Without this amendment, someone evicted for atrocious antisocial behaviour could be put straight back into council housing. We do not want that practice to continue. I hope the hon. Member will accept that that is a necessary policy objective, and that we are pursuing the correct approach to achieve that balance.

Mr. Foster: I accept entirely that the policy objective is correct, but the debate about whether the amendment truly achieves it. There are two problems with what the Minister has just said. First, both of us acknowledge that local authorities did not expect to be granted all the 130,000 requests for possession orders, but they thought that they would try. However, surely the Minister does not believe that they did not expect to win the vast majority of them. In the vast majority of cases, the authority expected to win, but could not convince the court of its case. In cases in which authorities thought that they had sufficient evidence but did not secure the possession order, they could not demonstrate that they had a sufficient case. The Minister said that they would have to show that they had sufficient evidence for the entitlement. To whom would they have to show that?

Mr. Raynsford: I made the point previously and am reluctant to extend the debate too far, as we have many matters to cover this afternoon. I stressed that any local authority that took a decision would be open first to a review and secondly to a challenge in the courts. Therefore, any authority that applies will have to satisfy what is of necessity quite a rigorous test.

The hon. Gentleman deals with many such cases and will know that the seeking of a possession order is often a management tool used by local authorities to secure payment. It is used as a means to get people to pay their rent. If they pay their rent, there is no question of the authority being entitled to a possession order, so that could not conceivably apply.

Mr. Foster: The Minister makes the point that other legislation needs to be changed, so that we do not have to waste the courts' time as a cumbersome means of addressing the issue—but that is a separate point.

I am conscious of the time, so I want to make a rather unusual suggestion to the Minister, which may never have been made by an Opposition Member to the Government. The Minister has tabled amendment No. 106 with very little notice. There will be an opportunity to reconsider the issue in a few days' time on Report. Given that I will certainly withdraw amendment No. 77, I ask the Minister to consider whether to give more time for consideration of the issue. He might also be willing to withdraw amendment No. 106, albeit briefly, to give more time for deliberation. Whatever the Minister's response, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: No. 106, in page 17, line 43, at end insert—

    `(2AA) Nothing in subsection (2) requires the scheme to provide for any preference to be given to people to whom subsection (2AB) applies.

    (2AB) This subsection applies to a person if the authority are satisfied (in the light of the circumstances at the time his case is considered) that he is unsuitable to be a tenant owing to unacceptable behaviour on his part or that of a member of his household.

    (2AC) For this purpose ``unacceptable behaviour'' means behaviour which, if the person concerned were a secure tenant of the authority, would entitle the authority to a possession order under section 84 of the Housing Act 1985 on any ground mentioned in Part I of Schedule 2 to that Act (other than Ground 8).'.

No. 107, in page 17, line 34, at end insert—

    `(2AD) The scheme shall be framed so as to secure that a person who has applied to the authority for an allocation of housing accommodation has the right to request a review of any decision about the facts of his case (including a decision as to his suitability as a tenant) which is likely to be, or has been, taken into account in considering whether to allocate housing accommodation to him.'.—[Mr. Raynsford.]

The Chairman: I call amendment No. 108. No, I am getting ahead of myself. I call Mr. Waterson to move amendment No. 97.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): I beg to move amendment No. 97, in page 17, line 40, at end insert—

    `(2C) The authority shall be able to suspend subsections (2) to (2B) where it can reasonably show that to operate its terms would have a detrimental effect on the provision of local housing needs.'.

My whole life flashed before me for a moment, Mr. Stevenson. It would be a major hole in my life if I were unable to move this amendment, which I now do with inordinate pleasure and suitable humility.

The amendment represents another attempt to make the Bill recognise local variations in demand and supply, particularly in the supply of housing stock. The Local Government Association report to which I have referred says:

    ``A shortage of the supply of suitable accommodation, notably in London and the South East, means that the extension of the right to housing for all non-priority homeless people would present real difficulties within the level of available resources.

    In other parts of the country, however, non-priority homeless people can be allocated quickly to accommodation although this accommodation may not be highly desirable and they may not view it, or treat it, as a permanent home.''

We all recognise that as a cogent description of the regional variations that exist in the real world of housing allocation.

It may assist you, Mr. Stevenson, if I say that I do not intend to speak for long on this amendment, but I may roam slightly generally, which will obviate the need for a stand part debate. It would wrong not to have a canter through the Delft system before we conclude our deliberations.

3.15 pm

The LGA concludes that

    ``Authorities should also be given greater flexibility to develop locally sensitive allocations policies within the broad framework set by the housing register and allocations scheme''

and that

    ``There may be a case for an approach here of considering different approaches at regional or individual local authority level depending on the availability of accommodation in those areas.''

We can probably all agree with that. I repeat the example of my own borough council in Eastbourne where the average wait for a home allocation is currently three to four years. The council will shortly change the rules to allow children to be placed in flats, and it is hoped that that will reduce the wait to two to three years; we shall have to see.

Having spoken to Councillor Mrs. Ann Murray, the lead cabinet member for housing in Eastbourne, I know that the council is also keen on the choice-based system. I do not know how far that has got formally, but it is lining up for one of the Government's pilot schemes. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that in his reply rather than in the stand part debate. I cannot help feeling that it is difficult to see how such a choice-based system, which is often referred to in shorthand as the Delft system, will deliver with any confidence in an area such as mine where there is such an enormous imbalance between demand and supply of housing stock. In a nutshell, the Delft system involves the advertising of housing vacancies almost as if they were private houses for rent in the private sector. It is a system that works well not only in Delft but no doubt in other local authorities in Holland—which are doubtless cheesed off that it is has been called after Delft rather than anywhere else.

Mr. Raynsford: Edam.

Mr. Waterson: Edam is of course known for its cheese. Delft has to be known for something; I seem to recall that it is for some sort of chinaware.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): Yes—it is blue.

Mr. Waterson: I am pleased to hear that, as well as the ducks, there is Delft pottery on the walls of my right hon. Friend's constituency home.

Closer to home, there is a section in the Government document about piloting choice-based systems. It would be interesting to hear the Minister's detailed thoughts on that. A form of pilot scheme is taking place in Harborough, supported by the centre for comparative housing research at De Montfort university—which obviously intends to persist in its name despite the bad press that Simon de Montfort has recently received because of his views on minorities. That scheme is based on the principles of the Delft model of social housing allocation. The emphasis of the Harborough scheme, which has been given the brand name of Harborough home search, is on providing customers with greater choice by advertising. It is hoped to develop the scheme by advertising vacancies on a website—which leads on to the enormously important but not particularly relevant issue of internet access. Customers return coupons for individual properties, and what are called simple and straightforward criteria are used in determining allocations.

One of the scheme's selling points is said to be a high level of transparency—a theme that has washed through many of the debates on other amendments. In its summary of the scheme, the LGA report states:

    ``Particular attention has been given to ensuring that vulnerable households are given additional preference''

and are given a priority registration card and so on. It concludes:

    ``Vulnerable and homeless households are thus given a much greater degree of choice than under traditional systems.''

The Government have said that they intend to establish a small fund to support a number of pilot schemes.

To summarise my arguments, I wish to press the Minister on how far the schemes have gone and raise the conceptual problem of how the Delft system will operate in Eastbourne and other places where demand for housing is high and supply is low.

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