Mr. Foster: I apologise. The Minister made the case that the High Court has a better filtering process than the county court. When I challenged him as to whether he had any reason for believing that the county court's filtering mechanism is different from that of the High Court, specifically referring to the Court of Appeal's judgment in the case of the London borough of Camden ex parte Mohammed, he said that he did not even know the case, which sets out the filtering process that would apply equally to the High Court or county court, whichever is used.
Dr. Whitehead: In fact, I said that I did not have the Mohammed case to handbut a piece of paper has miraculously come into my possession. It talks about the effect of the Mohammed case, which sets out the criteria but does not, and cannot, alter the procedures. I was talking about procedures; there is no filtering procedure in the county court, but applications to the High Court require the permission of the court which, ordinarily, is a paper process. There is therefore a difference in procedure, which remains despite the Mohammed judgment.
Mr. Foster: I am grateful to the Minister; we are gradually getting to the difference between us. It may be sensible for me to take the Minister's advice and offer to withdraw the new clause to allow time for lawyers representing both sides of the argument to look at the issue. However, I shall just leave the Minister with one thought before doing so. If we end up in a situation where there is little difference between the two court procedures, and if the Government have their way and stick with the High Court procedure, we will deny justice to many people, as their only recourse will be a High Court procedure in either London or Cardiff, which is extremely difficult to secure and flies in the face of everything else that the Government are seeking to achieve in making access to justice easier and modernising the court process.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the filtering mechanism that the Minister talked about is coded-speak for denying applicants who are refused continued housing by the local authority access to an appeal? Does he agree that if an applicant were refused leave to go to judicial review by the High Court or, indeed, legal aid, and took his case to the European Court of Human Rights, the Government would almost certainly be forced to alter the procedure?
Mr. Foster: I would not wish to second-guess decisions by the European Court of Human Rights on such complex matters. However, the hon. Gentleman is correct in the thrust of his remark that the clause, if unamended, will deny justice to some people.
The county court can give a decision much quicker than either permission to go for judicial review or, indeed, the review procedure itself. County court judges are used to interpreting the law to decide whether or not somebody has a justified case. I repeat the points made by the Minister: the reasons for going to the county court on the grounds of unsuitable accommodation include points of law which are bound to end up in a higher court in any case.
Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman is taking the issue a step further, to deliberations that may well be made on appeal, rather than in the internal review which we are discussing. We would perhaps be ruled out of order were we to get into those issues.
There is genuine concern about denying some people justice; if jurisdiction stays with the High Court, that makes it much more difficult for people to access. On the more general point made by the hon. Gentleman, it is worth reflecting on the period that local authorities have for internal review. Leaving aside the 21 days that applicants have before they put in their request, there is a subsequent 56 days before local authorities have to make their decision, which is a long time for peoplewho may have a good case and who are denied access to accommodation to help them during the period of requestto remain homeless.
On amendment No. 21, I am delighted with part of the Minister's response. He said, as I suggested he might, that these matters may be best left until a later stage, after we have considered the workings of the bed-and-breakfast unit and have had an opportunity to study the proposed legislation in respect of licensing, not least of houses in multiple occupation.
The Minister might do well to choose his words a little more carefully at times. To suggest, as he did, that standards in relation to overcrowding and so on had been neglected by previous Governments for too long is a rather lame excuse for a Government who have been in power for several years and who should have addressed the matter sooner. Nevertheless, they are now doing so. I accept that their way of going about it is slightly different from the way I would have proposed and preferred, but we look forward to further debates on the matter in another place, when the Government will no doubt be able to give us even more information about their plans. In the light of the answers given and of the continuing need for legal advice to both sides, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
'For section 170 of the 1996 Act (co-operation between registered social landlords and local housing authorities) there is substituted
"Where a local housing authority so request, a registered social landlord shall cooperate in offering accommodation to people with priority under the authority's allocation scheme, if to do so is compatible with their constitution and does not unduly prejudice the discharge of any of their functions.".'.[Mr. Don Foster.]
'(d) any record of behaviour of a person (or a member of his household) which has affected the terms of a previous tenancy he has held.'.
'or allocation to be made'.
'(2D) The only behaviour which may be regarded by the authority as unacceptable for the purposes of subsection (2C)(a) is
(a) behaviour of the person concerned which would (if he were a secure tenant of the authority) entitle the authority to a possession order under section 84 of the Housing Act 1985 (c. 68) on any ground mentioned in Part 1 of Schedule 2 to that Act (other than ground 8); or
(b) behaviour of a member of his household which would (if he were a person residing with a secure tenant of the authority) entitle the authority to such a possession order.'.
Mr. Foster: I begin with an apology to the House. Because of the way in which the Chair has chosen to group amendments for deliberation today, it is inevitable that a number of very different issues have ended up in the same group. This group contains four separate and distinct issues. Instead of my speaking on the entire group, were my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he might give my voice a rest and the House a rest from having to hear it.
When she responds to new clause 5, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), will no doubt remind the House that this is old ground that we have been over on several occasions. For anyone coming new to this "Groundhog Day" event, the issue is simple. Under the Bill, local authorities are required to develop a homelessness strategy, although in its delivery they will be increasingly reliant on various housing associations and registered social landlords.
As hon. Members who served on the Committee know, it is estimated that by 2004 more than 50 per cent. of all social housing will be in the hands of housing associations or registered social landlords. It is therefore agreed in all parts of the House that close co-operation between a housing authority and a housing association is crucial. The question is how we ensure such co-operation.
New clause 5 is one way of ensuring that by writing into the Bill a specific requirement for registered social landlords to co-operate with the local authority, unless to do so would be incompatible with their constitution or would in some way unduly prejudice the discharge of their other functions. The Government have suggested an alternative way forward, by making sure that the Housing Corporation has strong enough teeth to ensure that the
Before the Minister responds, however, may I raise three points which, I hope, will inform her deliberations with the Housing Corporation? First, in respect of the number of lettings currently taking place, there has been a significant reduction in the share of new lettings to homeless households. That has been in decline for the past decade. In 199295, 25 per cent. of new lettings went to homeless households. By 19992000, the figure had fallen to just 11 per cent. I am well aware that there are many complex reasons for that figure, but it shows that the RSL sector as a whole is not doing enough to support the Government's policy objectives. I hope that that will form part of the Minister's discussion with the Housing Corporation.
Secondly, on possessions, recent figures from the Lord Chancellor's Department show that social landlords were granted more than 26,000 possession orders in 2000. That figure is up by 12 per cent. from the previous year and has more than doubled in the past six years. Again, there are complex reasons for that, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the underlying reasons for the increase are the demands of meeting performance indicators on managing rent arrears and delays in processing housing benefit.
There is no doubt that the increased use of possession orders is causing unnecessary homelessness. Of course there is a place for possession orders, but far too often they are used as the first, rather than the last, resort. I note with interest that in the latest edition of "Roof", Shelter launches its "Evictions: who's counting?" campaign to get more detailed information about the problem. I hope that the Minister will look into that matter, too.
Thirdly, we will consider later in this group of amendments the question of suitability to be a tenant. That should form part of the discussions with the Housing corporation. It is important that the new regulatory guidance is consistent with the framework in the Bill for allocating accommodation, particularly in circumstances where applicants can be deemed to be unsuitable tenants. Throughout our earlier deliberations, Ministers have been keen to stress that a high legal test should be applied. A registered social landlord cannot be allowed to decide that it does not like the behaviour of a particular tenant. It is important the guidance produced by the Housing Corporation mirrors the high tests that apply to local authorities.
Amendments Nos. 11 to 18 relate to what has often been called the neighbour from hell. I stress that I do not believe we should take away from local authorities the discretion to take account of antisocial behaviour, nor discretion in factors that pose a threat to fellow tenants. I also believe that local authorities should have discretion to frame their allocation schemes to reflect local circumstances. I accept those matters in their entirety. Many local authorities have a real problem to grapple with, and in so doing they face many challenges. However, the Government were right to state in a number of policy documents that housing need must be given a high level of consideration when dealing with the problem of homelessness. The purpose of the amendments is to remove the issue of behaviour from the decision whether a person is deemed to be eligible. There is no intention to remove the issue of behaviour at later stages when the crucial issue of priority will have to be decided.
It is vital that local authorities are able, as is proposed in legislation, to consider the issue of suitability in terms of prior behaviour when determining priority, or whether there should be no priority. However, that should not happen at the first stage of considering eligibility. If at the first decision-making processthat of eligibilitythe issue of behaviour can be taken into account, it is possible for a local authority to determine immediately that a person is not eligible without having any regard for the housing need of the applicant. It would be especially worrying if that were to happen in circumstances where the applicant is not an individual but a member of a homeless family. Perhaps one individual in the family has behaved in such a way that at a later stage the authority may use it to deny the family priority. At the earlier stage there would be no opportunity for the local authority even to bother to make an assessment of the housing need of every member of the family.
I hope that the Minister will recognise that we are not seeking to water down the clear arrangements that have been put in place following earlier discussions to enable local authorities to take behaviour into account. The tabling of the amendments is a move to ensure that something that is close to the Government's heart and to the heart of Liberal Democrats is taken into account. Housing need must be addressed.
If my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay succeeds in catching your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he will be keen to speak to amendments Nos. 19 and 20. We are concerned that there is inconsistency in the Bill in respect of behavioural issues. It is bizarre that when we come to consider various decisions on the levels of support that are to be given, we find it has been decided that there should be a set of clearly defined strategies for determining whether certain behaviour is acceptable or unacceptable, and what impact that will have on someone's likelihood of receiving support. In determining the level of priorityone small piece of the procedurewe move from having a set of listed criteria to stating suddenly that the local authority can take any behaviour into account. That is flying in the face of the logic that many of us have discussed many times in earlier stages of the Bill's consideration.
Amendment No. 20 raises an issue that the Minister and I have debated on many occasions. That issue is whether, when a decision is made about the priority to be given to an applicant, the local authority should have a duty to notify the applicant of the decision, as it has in
As I have said, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay will wish to amplify one or two of the points that I have raised. I hope that we shall have more interesting responses from Ministers to these amendments than to the previous string of amendments.