Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I should be most grateful if the hon. Gentleman explained one simple point: how is a person supposed to understand the offer if he has not read it? Without the amendment, the Bill makes it clear that he has both to read and understand the offer. He should then be asked whether he has read and understood it.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman and I agree that the crucial issue is understanding. Various mechanisms can help someone to understand: the individual could read the document himself; a translation could be prepared for him to read; or the document could be read to him. The amendment proposed by the hon. Gentleman suggests that the person would have read the offer or would have had it read to him.

The Minister went further. She said that a translation would be made available and that there would be an explanatory discussion. That strikes me as a better way of proceeding. All those points will pale into insignificance,

25 Feb 2002 : Column 474

however, unless we make it clear that a variety of strategies will be offered to ensure that the person has understood.

The hon. Gentleman asks me how we shall know for certain that a person really has understood. His amendment does not address that question any more than the Government's proposals. Let us hear what the Minister has to say to reassure us. If we can be assured that there will be strategies to ensure that people understand, we may be able to make some progress.

Chris Grayling: I want to say a few words in support of the amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown). He has articulately set out the problems as regards literacy and the implications for someone who is illiterate or not fully literate in understanding often complex matters. Two further points need to be addressed. Before I do so, I should point out that—as we have been discussing private lettings—I am a small-scale private landlord, as listed in the Register of Members' Interests, although that is not specifically relevant to the detail of this debate.

In the few months I have been a Member of Parliament, my experience—like that of many hon. Members—is that at constituency level housing issues are much more complex to deal with than they first appear. There are always two sides to every argument, debate and discussion: for example, whether someone was allocated an appropriate property; or whether a housing application has been dealt with appropriately.

A stipulation that relies entirely on the use of the word "understand" leaves open a broad area for debate and discussion if things go wrong. Who said what to whom? Was something fully explained? Did the person read the documentation or not? If something goes wrong with a private letting after a few months and the tenant seeks additional help from the authority, matters of dispute in the initial discussion—for example, what was communicated to whom and when, or what was read or not read—could have significant implications for future housing. The Lords amendment, residing as it does entirely in the word "understood", leaves too much room for dispute at a later stage. It would not be prudent or sensible for the House to go forward on that basis.

5.45 pm

The second point is fundamentally important. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) touched on it. It relates to the ethnic community, either people already in this country or those who come to the UK seeking accommodation. Anyone who has been involved with local authorities knows that nowadays they often have to produce documentation in a considerable number of languages.

As many people with housing problems have little or no knowledge of English, how can we be sure that an applicant who does not have a first-rate command of English and is dealing with an English-speaking housing officer is able fully to understand the legal implications of what they are doing? In those circumstances, if the legislation relies only on the use of the word "understood", it will open up a mine field at a later date.

Mr. Don Foster: The hon. Gentleman may have a valid point about relying only on the word "understood",

25 Feb 2002 : Column 475

but his amendment relies entirely on the use of that word. He rightly stresses the importance of translation for ethnic minority groups. Incidentally, such groups include not only people who come to this country from elsewhere, but many people born in this country for whom English is not their first language. That is crucial. After further reflection on that point, does he want to say anything about the new burdens principle and the cost of that translation service to some authorities, including his own?

Chris Grayling: I thank the hon. Gentleman for those comments. Perhaps he did not hear me say that I was not talking only about those people who come to this country but also about people who are English nationals. There is no automatic assumption that people who are either naturalised Britons or who were born in this country have an excellent understanding, knowledge and use of the English language.

It is entirely appropriate for the hon. Gentleman to refer to the new burdens principle. As I said during our discussion of the previous group of amendments, the Government need constantly to be mindful of new burdens. Whether we like it or not, it is certainly true that local authorities already carry a burden of translation as regards vast amounts, if not all, of their official documentation. There would be no exception in the circumstances that we are discussing.

I would like to correct the hon. Gentleman in his remarks on the use of the word "understand". Understanding is part of the amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold and his colleagues. The amendment still specifically provides either for someone to read or to have read to them the documentation relating to their case. There are thus three dimensions, not one.

The Government's amendment relies specifically on understanding alone and casts aside the issue of reading. Surely it is right and proper that anyone entering into a legal agreement should have read it or have had it read to them, and should have clearly understood it. If that is not the case, far too many grey areas will be left open.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: No doubt my hon. Friend, with his local government experience, knows what will happen. Some of the most vulnerable people in our society will be wheeled in and given an offer. According to the terms of the Bill, they will have to sign a statement acknowledging that they have read and understood the offer. By its nature, that whole process is intimidatory. Housing officers are busy people. They are not likely to give the applicant much time, so we need to take the greatest possible care in respect of these provisions.

Chris Grayling: I thank my hon. Friend for that cogent point on which the Minister would do well to reflect.

There are important issues as regards literacy and the grey areas that frequently exist in debates over individual housing problems.

Mr. Love: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is the second Member to speak in favour of the amendment, but unfortunately I am still having some difficulty in understanding it. Even if I asked him to read it out I am not sure whether that would help me to understand it any better.

25 Feb 2002 : Column 476

Surely the crucial point is whether the person has understood the contents of the letter. It is not explanation that is important, as has been suggested. The issue is not about reading but about understanding. If people understand the letter, surely they will be able to make a decision.

Chris Grayling: I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that in the vast majority of cases in our daily lives when we encounter a terms and conditions document, we are supposed to tick a box to indicate that we have read and understood it. I suspect that, like me, he probably never bothers to read the terms and conditions document, and checks the box at the bottom of the page to move on. However, that document has legal force. If it says that one has no right to expect any service whatever from the person with whom one contracts, the law will fall on the side of that person. That is a fundamental issue in relation to the housing of people who are homeless or who are on the verge of becoming homeless. Very often, such people will not have a full grasp of the legal and regulatory issues, and it is surely right and proper that the law should at least ensure that they have read the terms and conditions document, or that it has been read to them, so that they know exactly what they are letting themselves in for.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): The Government have spent a huge amount of money on promoting adult literacy—indeed, there are radio advertisements about literacy gremlins. It is therefore tremendously important that terms and conditions should be read to people with literacy problems. I hope that my hon. Friend will continue to support that approach.

Chris Grayling: I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. Literacy is one of the three fundamental points, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold outlined, which means that to rely simply on the word "understanding" is, legally, too grey. Knowledge of the English language or lack of it affects many of the people who have come to this country or who live in this country, besides many of our ethnic minority groups, which includes many of those who are most affected by the issues in this Bill. There are also those cases that present a potential for a dispute between an applicant and an authority. All those are realities.

The amendment in lieu goes some way to addressing pitfalls down the road for local authorities—pitfalls that are not addressed by the Lords amendment. I hope that the Minister will change her mind and allow the amendment in lieu to be made.

Next Section

IndexHome Page