I broadly agree with what the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) said about amendment No. 18, which is similar to No. 7. However, I believe that amendment No. 7 is more direct and to the point. He said that there is a real problem with which local authorities must grapple, and I entirely agree. He added that housing need must be given a high priority in dealing with homelessness. A balance must be struck.
In considering the allocation of scarce houses, local authorities should be given a power to consider the previous behaviour of a tenant, and perhaps in the area of another local authority. At present, there is no such power, especially when a tenant has come from a different authority. He may have a long record of antisocial behaviour towards his neighbours; he may have, for example, a long record of bad rental payment. However, a different local authority may not take that record into account as the law stands. Surely it would be reasonable for a system of voluntary recording to be undertaken so that a local authority is able to pass on such information to the next local authority. That would be one of the factors that could be taken into account when considering the allocation of housing. Perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us whether she agrees with that approach and whether she agrees with amendment No. 7.
Mr. Sanders: I support amendments Nos. 19 and 20, both of which are designed to tackle the same problem and the same deficiency. We all want to do something about neighbours who are disruptive, who cause annoyance, disruption, pain and hurt to others, and the need to do so is recognised in many parts of the Bill, but not in the one that we are discussing. For example, an applicant can go through all the eligibility tests, but when it comes to allocation the priority is lost. Amendment No. 20 is designed to correct the procedure where there is a duty to inform the applicant at all stages about the decisions that have been taken, and in those terms it is similar to amendment No. 19. However, there is no such duty at the allocation stage. It is almost as if there has been an omission at the final stage.
Much of the debate so far has focused on giving local authorities discretion not to house antisocial tenants. We agree that local authorities should have the discretion to take into account previous violence, antisocial behaviour and other factors that pose a threat to fellow tenants. More broadly, authorities should have discretion to frame their allocation scheme to reflect local circumstances.
However, proposed new subsection (2A)(b) in clause 15 gives local authorities wide-ranging discretion to take "any behaviour" into consideration when assessing an applicant's priority for accommodation; it does not refer only to antisocial behaviour. Unlike at other stages in the allocation process, no test defines the circumstances in which an authority should apply the provision. That is inconsistent and means that authorities could reduce priority for rent arrears or other reasons. That is common under current arrangements.
In many parts of the country, the decision to reduce an applicant's priority will mean that he or she will not be housed. That is especially relevant at the moment because local authorities suspend or exclude people for rent arrears that have nothing to do with them but have occurred through, for example, delays in housing benefit administration.
Amendment No. 20 makes the important point that authorities should provide information when no priority is given to an applicant. A way forward might be to amend the Bill so that it explicitly states that information about the decision and the right of review should be provided. Guidance for local authorities about decisions to reduce priority should also be given.
Glenda Jackson: I should like to speak against the new clause and deal with the remarks of the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). I am worried that he advocates giving the Housing Corporation teeth to deal with housing associations that work with local authorities. In the borough of Camden in my constituency, the local authority and the housing associations work closely together. However, I am sure that he knows that some housing associations deal with specific minority groupsfor example, single women. They have expressed anxiety, even at this stage, that the teeth that he advocates for the Housing Corporation could threaten their specific services to groups that remain excluded from local authority priority housing.
I share the hon. Gentleman's anxiety about the number of repossessions that have taken place. If they are a direct result of the inequities in housing benefit, I strongly urge my hon. Friend the Minister to speak again to our colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions.
Mr. Don Foster: I understand the hon. Lady's point about housing associations that have been established to serve the needs of specific groups. The new clause takes that into account and states that the housing association does not need to work with the local authority if that would breach the purposes for which it was set up. She is wrong to say that it is easier for local authorities to work with registered social landlords; the figures show that the situation is getting worse after transfers.
I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to speak to our colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions. Although I appreciate that the Government have stated that they do not expect fundamental changes for at least a decade, we cannot wait that long. Far too many people are being punished through no fault of their own, but because of the incompetence of those who provide housing benefit in the area. My borough of Camden has two charter marks for the excellence of its housing benefit service.
I assume that the amendments that the hon. Member for Bath and the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) have tabled deal with bad behaviour. Antisocial behaviour can be enormously destructive, as we all know from experience in our constituencies. However, I was not clear about the point raised by the hon. Member for Bath. Does he believe that the consideration of behaviour should be placed further down a local authority's list of priorities? No one accepts bad behaviour, and I appreciate that local authorities have difficulties in housing families that include one young antisocial member. In such a case, should the whole family be punished?
I am worried about inappropriate lettings, which have happened in the past and will doubtless occur in future. I want to consider the case of someone whose behaviour is not bad but may be perceived by neighbours as antisocialfor example, if an individual with mental health problems allied to alcohol dependency set fire to their flat. Greater consideration of previous behaviour before the inappropriate placing of the individual could have prevented the incident.
I do not support the new clause, and I hope that behaviour will be placed at the bottom of the list of criteria. I accept the point about antisocial behaviour, but the purpose of the Bill is to provide for those who are vulnerable.
The problems of antisocial behaviour are universally recognised as profound for those who provide or manage housing. Transparency and providing information to people who have applied for housing were also discussed.
New clause 5 would place a statutory duty on registered social landlords to co-operate with local authorities in offering accommodation to people with priority under the authorities' allocation schemes when that does not unduly prejudice the discharge of their functions. I accept the point about the implications for housing associations that provide special services.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) for raising an important issue, which we discussed at length in Committee, where I gave an undertaking to consult with the Housing Corporation about his concerns about the co-operation of registered social landlords and local authorities in tackling housing need. My officials have been working closely with the corporation to ensure that its revised regulatory arrangements can make sure that RSLs co-operate with local authorities.
I have already met the chair of the Housing Corporation, Baroness Dean, informally to discuss the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised. I shall meet her again tomorrow to underline the issue's importance and to satisfy myself about the corporation's proposed arrangements. It must take on board the hon. Gentleman's points, and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson). I undertake to mention the point about the number of lettings and to get information about the percentage that go from the Housing Corporation to homeless families.
On repossessions, I understand that the article that the hon. Member for Bath mentioned referred to possessions by housing associations and by local authorities. The figures are not simply those for housing associations. The Department has asked for a breakdown of figures so that we can try to ascertain the percentage that is due to rent arrears and that due to antisocial behaviour. I hope that we can thus begin to find a way forward on a difficult problem. I therefore urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the motion on the assurance that the issues that he has raised will be tackled.