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Amendments Nos. 11 to 16 would remove the provisions in the Bill which would give local housing authorities the power to decide to treat an applicant as ineligible for an allocation of housing, if satisfied that he was guilty of unacceptable behaviour serious enough to make him unsuitable to be a tenant, and which would prevent them from allocating housing to such a tenant.
Under the current provisions, section 167(1) of the Housing Act 1996 requires that every housing authority must have an allocation scheme which sets out how the authority determines its priorities for making housing allocations. Clause 15 of the Bill would substitute a new section 167(2), which deals with powers and duties concerning how allocation schemes must or may be framed.
Amendment No. 17 would provide that nothing in new section 167(2) would require an allocation scheme to provide for an allocation to be made to people the authority has decided are guilty of unacceptable behaviour serious enough to make them unsuitable to be tenants, and who, in the circumstances at the time their case is considered, deserve not be given any preference for an allocation.
The hon. Members who have tabled this group of amendments may consider that they would simplify the current provisions in the Bill which allow an authority to decide not to allocate to those who would be unsuitable
Mr. Don Foster: I have listened closely to what the Minister has said. Will she explain how, if a person is denied eligibility based on behaviour criteria, there will be any opportunity for the local authority to consider the issue of housing need?
Ms Keeble: The issue of housing need is, of course, the overriding priority. However, I would underline the fact that those whose unacceptable behaviour is serious enough to make them unsuitable to be a local authority tenant cannot behave in that way with impunity. They forfeit the right to be considered for an allocation or to be given any preference for an allocation. It is right that serious antisocial behaviour cannot be tolerated, and local authorities must have the clear power to decide not to allocate to people who have demonstratedand who continue to demonstratethat they are unsuitable as tenants.
Mr. Foster: I fully understand the Minister's argument. I genuinely believe that she is right to say that local authorities must have discretionary powers to exclude people who have serious antisocial behaviour problems. Nevertheless, before we get to the issue of priority, we must address the issue of eligibility. If the Bill is to allow a local authority to deny eligibility to a family on the grounds of behaviour criteria, when is the issue of housing need to be considered in such a case? Surely the answer is that it is not.
Ms Keeble: The problem with the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Bath is that they conflate the two different issues of eligibility and priority order. It is right that a local authority should be able to make the decision in the first instance, judged by the stricter test of whether a person has forfeited the right, through their behaviour, to be considered eligible for a local authority tenancy.
Therefore, I do not consider that these amendments would improve the Bill, as they would place provisions which deal with local authority decisions not to make an allocation in the context of the allocation scheme. That seems to me to be the wrong place for them. I believe that the existing structure provides a better way to achieve the desired result, as it would give authorities an unambiguous power to decide not to make an allocation to applicants who had demonstrated that they were unsuitable to be tenants. I urge hon. Members not to press amendments Nos. 11 to 18.
Amendment No. 19 seeks to ensure that when an applicant's behaviour made that person unsuitable to be a tenant, that would count against him only when his behaviour was deliberate, wilful or negligent. It is certainly important that those who have behaved in an
Local authorities must be given the discretion to make balanced judgments on the basis of their knowledge of individual circumstances. Every time the Bill lays down further instructions that local authorities must take into account, we limit their ability to make decisions which, on the basis of their local and particular knowledge, they consider to be in the best interests of the majority of tenants and residents.
The existing provision already strikes a fair and proper balance between the interests of applicants and those of authorities and existing tenants, with its references to "serious" behaviour and "unsuitability" to be a tenant, and by linking into the grounds for possession in schedule 2 to the Housing Act 1985. These safeguardsalready included in the Billensure that to attract "no priority", a person must have been guilty of unacceptable behaviour serious enough to make him unsuitable to be a tenant, and which would entitle the authority to a possession order, so that those whose behaviour in the past has fallen short of the best, but is not intolerable, are protected. We have struck a balance which recognises that people can reform, but which also respects the right of the vast majority of tenants and residents to quiet enjoyment of their lives. I therefore ask hon. Members not to press the amendment.
Amendment No. 7 seeks to ensure that a person's previous behaviour, or that of a member of his household, may be taken into account when determining priority for allocation. However, past behaviour may already be taken into account under the terms of the Bill. Clause 15(3), which inserts new section 167(2A)(b) states that
However, account must be taken of current circumstances as well as an applicant's past behaviour. If there is clear evidence that the applicant has reformed or that the circumstances that led to his or her unacceptable behaviour have changed, the authority must have regard to that evidence. In effect, the authority should assess whether the applicant is likely to behave in an unacceptable manner if allocated housing now. I therefore ask hon. Members not to press the amendment.
The Bill gives housing applicants the right to request information about any decisions which have been taken, or are likely to be taken, about the facts of their case and about any decision that no preference will be given because of unacceptable behaviour. Amendment No. 20 would remove the onus from the individual to request information, and would place an obligation on authorities to inform applicants of any such decisions.
I am sympathetic to the thinking behind this amendment. I share the concern of the hon. Member for Bath that the application process should be transparent and accessible, and that applicants should be able to obtain the information that they need to get an indication of the degree of priority their application will receive,
I believe that local authorities should be encouraged to provide as much feedback on individual applications as is practicable, as early as practicable, so that those applying for housing know where they stand and understand their prospects, be they good or bad, and can make plans accordingly. That is particularly important in respect of those households that are being accommodated temporarily under the homelessness legislation while awaiting the opportunity of an allocation to provide them with a more settled home. I can assure the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders), as I have said to the hon. Member for Bath, that that will be reflected in statutory guidance as strongly as possible. It will also be done in consultation with housing authorities.
I recognise also that the Local Government Association and the Association of London Government support the proposal. However, I remain concerned that we do not inadvertently place local authorities in a difficult position by including statutory duties that may not be practical. The provisions have been carefully and thoughtfully drafted. They recognise that, although some authorities may decide to continue to operate what might be characterised as points-based allocation schemes, others are moving to choice-based schemes, which allow applicants more opportunity to exercise their preference for particular properties. The statutory provisions therefore need to be appropriate to both types of scheme as well as any others that local authorities may devise.
The provisions on applicants' right to information about their applications, which amendment No. 20 would modify, are a case in point. Under choice-based schemes, active consideration of the facts of an applicant's case may not occur until he or she makes a specific application for a particular property. Under the provisions as drafted, an applicant has a right to ask about decisions likely to be taken on his application. That right applies at any stage of the process, including from the outset.
If no decisions have been taken by the authority at the point at which an applicant makes a request, the authority must nevertheless consider his application and inform him what the decisions are likely to be. I remain concerned that it would be impractical and onerous for authorities operating a choice-based allocation scheme to have to provide that information as a matter of course for all applicants, whether they require it or not.
I am also concerned about whether, under a choice-based scheme, an application would be considered in such detail. However, I am ready to give the matter further consideration. I shall ask my officials to consult the local government associations so that we can be absolutely sure of the implications involved and sure that we have a sound and practical provision. On that undertaking, I ask hon. Members to withdraw the new clause.