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Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I warmly congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment. My cup runneth over at the thought that one so great as he should be willing to draw on my advice. It would be very helpful if he would flesh out the way in which statutory teeth will be given to the Government's welcome intentions towards the victims

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of domestic violence. Will he confirm that people will not only not be obliged to return to the homes in which the violence was committed or threatened but will not be obliged to return to the area where they are at risk?

Mr. Byers: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words on my appointment. I am pleased that his cup runneth over—although I know that it is a very small cup—and I shall try even harder, because I am pleased to confirm that his broad point is covered in the Bill.

Many of us will have come across exactly this problem in our constituencies. An example was given to me by Shelter, which I am pleased is warmly supporting the provisions in the Bill. Shelter recently assisted a pregnant young woman living in a small privately rented flat who had suffered persistent racial harassment by a neighbour, culminating in her being physically assaulted and the police being called.

Despite evidence from the woman's GP of the distress that the harassment was causing her, and its potential impact on her pregnancy, the local housing authority insisted that it was reasonable for her to continue to live where she was, and would not accept that she was homeless. The Bill will ensure that that could not happen again and that others suffering such violent harassment will, in future, be dealt with as homeless.

Mr. Hancock: When we discussed this element of the Bill in the previous Parliament, in which it failed to get through all its stages, the issue of violence was raised. We never got a satisfactory answer on who was to arbitrate on whether a case was genuinely one of violence. On large council estates, there are often allegations of threats of violence, but the local authority says that it cannot accept them as true until there is proof—that is, until someone has been assaulted or the police have become involved. If we are placing that responsibility on local authorities, we have to have a clear definition of what proof would be needed to justify someone's being moved on grounds of violence.

Mr. Byers: First, let me stress that local authority decisions can be reviewed. This will be a fruitful matter for discussion in Committee. Hon. Members will be aware that the Government intend to issue guidance to cover all such matters, on which we will want to consult. I know that guidance has been discussed at some length, and I am waiting for the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), who I understand is a real anorak on this issue, to intervene.

Mr. Bercow: All Liberals are anoraks.

Mr. Byers: There is a great danger of my agreeing with the hon. Gentleman yet again.

Clause 8 will make it clear that applicants can ask the housing authority to review the suitability of accommodation that is offered to them without having to take a risk that the homelessness duty might be brought to an end as a consequence. That is important, as it will correct a serious weakness in the provisions of the Housing Act 1996, compounded by a recent judgment in the Court of Appeal in the case of Alghile v. City of Westminster, which seriously undermined the position of

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homeless applicants. As the law now stands, following the Alghile judgment, applicants cannot both accept an offer of accommodation and ask for a review of suitability. If they want a review, they must refuse the offer. The 1996 Act provides that the duty to assist them as homeless comes to an end if they refuse that offer. So homeless applicants have to take a serious gamble if they wish to ask for a review of the suitability of the property that they have been offered.

The Bill will put that right, and we intend clause 8 to come into force as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent. Applicants will also be better placed when they wish to appeal to the county court against a decision on homelessness. The Bill will give the court the power to extend the 21-day period for making an application where there is a good reason for doing so.

The court will also have the power to require an authority to continue to accommodate an applicant pending such an appeal, where that is necessary to ensure that the individual concerned can continue to pursue the appeal. It is obviously right for the greatest protection to be available to families and other vulnerable groups with priority need, but the Bill also strengthens the duty to provide advice and assistance for those who become homeless unintentionally but do not have a priority need. Authorities will have greater flexibility to assist that group, through a new power to secure suitable accommodation for them.

As I have said, the Bill will ensure that local authorities offer everyone in priority need who is unintentionally homeless somewhere suitable to live until they obtain a settled home.

Tony Baldry (Banbury): I am not clear what new duties local authorities are being given to provide accommodation in the private sector. Local authorities have a finite amount of their own housing stock and housing association stock. Is the Secretary of State saying that local authorities will now have a duty to help people find suitable accommodation in the private rented sector? Will he flesh out a little further what new obligations local authorities will have? There is a danger that the Bill will raise applicants' expectations, but that those expectations will be unfulfilled.

Mr. Byers: I want the local housing authority to work in partnership with the private rented sector. There are now some good examples of that happening, and it is benefiting individual tenants, but I am also mindful of the fact that in some parts of the country that partnership is not operating. We need to send out a clear message from Government that we expect people to work together with a real sense of partnership—and some of the investment to be made available will benefit the privately rented sector as well as the local authority sector.

We shall not solve all the problems overnight. As hon. Members know, the number of people who are homeless or in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has increased, so there are real problems that we have to tackle. I believe that the Bill, combined with the additional investment that is coming through, will begin to make a real difference—but that will not happen overnight, or even in a matter of months; it will take years to remedy the problems.

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However, improvements are taking place, and if people can work together—in particular, if local authorities can work with the private sector—we shall begin to see real improvements.

The private rented sector has responsibilities as well, and must recognise that it has a role to play. Increasingly, housing difficulties are resulting from problems being caused in certain parts of the country by landlords who fail to discharge their responsibilities. I am thinking in particular of those who receive housing benefit directly from social security offices, but do not pay proper attention to the condition of the buildings for which they are responsible.

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central): As ever, my right hon. Friend has my good wishes. On that point, will he recognise that there is nothing in the Bill to reinforce good practice in the private rented sector by, for example, introducing at last the licensing of houses in multiple occupation, or including the proposals for registering all private landlords in defined areas, which were in the housing Green Paper?

Mr. Byers: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words on my appointment. He makes an important point about houses in multiple occupation and he is right to say that we have clear commitments in that area. During the lifetime of this Parliament, I am confident that measures will be introduced through this House. However, we can take some steps now, and we will do so by improving the provisions that are currently available.

My hon. Friend raises a second point about houses in multiple occupation that goes beyond the powers we currently have. We had a welcome opportunity to discuss that point on Friday, when he drew my attention to the need to consider the introduction of licensing schemes for private landlords generally, which will tackle some of the issues that have arisen in various parts of the country.

I had the opportunity to consider the point over the weekend, and I can inform my hon. Friend that later this year my Department will issue a consultation document on proposals to give local authorities in such areas powers to introduce licensing schemes for private landlords generally. I hope that that will tackle some of the issues about which my hon. Friend is especially concerned. I hope that when that consultation document is published we can have a debate on the right way forward and reach a solution for which we can legislate, if necessary, to tackle a growing problem that is affecting far too many areas.

The Bill includes measures to give improved rights to new applicants for local authority housing and existing tenants in the social sector who are seeking a transfer. It is, however, vital to ensure that the measures we introduce cannot be abused by those who would seek to disrupt communities through antisocial behaviour. People who are unsuitable to be tenants because of a history of unacceptable behaviour will not benefit from the provisions of the Bill. Clearly, someone who has a history of causing deliberate and serious nuisance to neighbours, and who has refused to reform in any way, would be regarded as unsuitable to be a tenant.

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The Bill will also encourage local authorities to introduce letting schemes that give new applicants—and existing tenants who wish to transfer to another property—more say in choosing where they live.

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