Homelessness Bill

[back to previous text]

Ms Keeble: On the different cases to which the hon. Gentleman referred, I would not make a decision about whether the accommodation provided by the local authority was suitable. Clearly, it is up to the review to decide such matters, not someone who does not have all the facts to hand. The clause will improve the position in two main areas for those who want to challenge the suitability of the accommodation that they have been offered. They must be told about the right of review, which did not happen before. People cannot be offered accommodation and then left to work out for themselves at some stage further down the line that they could have requested a review of its suitability. The council will conduct the review.

It is particularly important that a person's acceptance of an offer should not prejudice their right to a review of the accommodation's suitability. The hon. Gentleman talked about a heavy-handed housing officer pressuring someone into accepting an offer and then telling them that they cannot question its suitability. The point is that people can accept an offer and then, if need be, have a review of the accommodation's suitability. That represents an important improvement to the rights of people moving from homelessness to permanent accommodation. I hope that hon. Members will therefore support the clause.

Tim Loughton: My point is not that the housing officer will not have to change his ways, because officially what the Minister says is right. However, we know that a housing officer has the leeway and discretion to say, ``Well, if you don't go along with this, you're entitled to a review, but it won't help your case.''

In addition, the Minister says that the council will conduct the review, but could the review panel include the housing officer who made the offer in the first place? Where is the independence and objectivity of the review process?

Ms Keeble: A local authority will have to conduct internal reviews in accordance with the Human Rights Act 1998. It gives effect to the European convention on human rights, which includes the right to a fair hearing, so there are external constraints. I agree that quite a number of tenants or prospective tenants will not be looking to make such a challenge, but we are talking about setting up a procedure that protects tenants' rights and ensures that, in all reasonable circumstances, they can challenge the suitability of their offer. We are also discussing access to information about their rights. That constitutes a substantial improvement to the current situation.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 10

Persons claiming to be homeless who are at risk of violence

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Tim Loughton: My observations relate more to what is not in the clause than to what is there. In Committee on the Homes Bill, we discussed at length the problem of domestic violence leading to homelessness. Opposition Members fully support any strengthening of the legislation and the availability of alternative accommodation for people who are homeless through no fault of their own, but because of violence or the threat of it that does not necessarily constitute making them unintentionally homeless. That includes the threat of violence from neighbours, which may escalate into rather nasty cases of violence. We have all probably dealt with cases of intimidation that lead to violence from antisocial neighbours.

When we discussed the matter previously, the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King), who was a member of the previous Committee, proposed new clause 15, which dealt specifically with racial violence. At the time, we said that she presented her case effectively and forcefully, and we were supportive of it. I responded to the points that she made about her new clause, although she saw fit to withdraw it because the Minister was sympathetic and promised to consider the situation with a view to ensuring that her points were included in the thrust of the regulations, even if they were not in the Bill. However, I cannot see any reference to homelessness caused by racial violence or threats of racial violence in this Bill or in the explanatory notes. Yet, as we have seen in the events of recent weeks, that menace has not gone away and may be more topical now than when we discussed it in January, although the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow gave harrowing examples of racial abuse against her own constituents.

We all know the problems of the hon. Lady's east London constituency, in which residents had missiles thrown at them and burning rubbish and petrol bombs pushed through their letter boxes. I remember her mentioning long-term hate campaigns that may not result in actual violence but that are intimidation of such a high order that people live in fear for their lives, which constitutes racial abuse.

I have encountered cases in my constituency in which people who live in their own home—they are private-owner occupiers—or who live in council or another sort of landlord accommodation leave their home because of abuse that they are getting at that address and not because there is something wrong with the home. Those people will sleep on sofas and floors with friends or relatives but, to all intents and purposes, they are in need of alternative accommodation. The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow gave the example of people who had their own home but who could not afford to pay the mortgage on that and rent another residence. They wanted to do that because they were scared stiff to live in their own home.

Such people are not only tenants, but owner-occupiers, and are virtually unprotected by current law. We must improve their access to the homelessness safety net. I hoped that the hon. Lady's comments would lead to a beefing up of the Bill, or at least the accompanying notes, or the promise of problem being addressed in the code because otherwise people will fall through the safety net.

The hon. Lady rightly said that under half of local housing authorities have provisions for such racial abuse and violence that affects peoples' homeless status. A similar figure was heard with regard to other conditions this morning.

6 pm

I think that it is correct to raise this matter when discussing clause 10. We concur with the new provisions that deal with violence, intimidation and particularly women fleeing home from domestic violence, but will the Minister address the issues that I raised about the apparent absence of a beefing-up of help for those who are the subject of racial rather than domestic or ordinary violence?

Mr. Don Foster: Before the Minister responds, the Committee should be grateful to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for raising that particular point. During our debate on Second Reading, I referred to the knowledge that all Committee members would have that the Government are consulting on their intentions to extend the homeless priority categories. That would be a welcome extension. The Minister gave me an undertaking that she would make available in the Library copies of that consultation document. I am grateful that she has not only done that, but has sent me a copy of the document.

I note with considerable interest that many concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman are covered in the consultation document and that specific reference is made to cases of racial harassment. My question is technical, because I am slightly confused. Why is the wording in clause 10 so detailed when the issue is still undergoing consultation, in respect not only of people who are at risk of violence but of various other categories? Is it appropriate to have such detail for one category when others are still being consulted on, and when will we have an opportunity to debate some of the details raised by the hon. Gentleman?

Ms Keeble: I welcome the intervention from the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham because it provides an opportunity to place on record some details of the provision and the arguments around it.

The Housing Act 1996 includes provisions that ensure that people who are at risk of domestic violence if they remain in their current home must be treated as homeless on the grounds that it is not be reasonable for them to continue living where they are. Housing authorities are also prevented from referring a homeless case to another local authority if the applicant or any member of his or her family would be at risk of domestic violence in the district of that other local authority. The provisions provide important safeguards for people who have experienced domestic violence or who are at risk of it. Regrettably, the number of people who face such distress is by no means insignificant. Labour Members in particular have substantial experience of working with such people.

However, violence can be motivated by other things and may come from different quarters; the perpetrators are not always members or ex-members of the family. Racially motivated violence in particular can be a depressingly familiar fact of life for far too many people, and the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham referred to some discussions about that. No one should have to live under the shadow of violence, whatever its motivation. There is no rationale for distinguishing between a risk of domestic violence and any other form of violence.

Clause 10 will extend the protection currently provided for homeless applicants at risk of domestic violence to applicants at risk of any violence. Clause 10(1) will amend section 177 of the 1996 Act to provide that it would not be reasonable for an applicant to continue living in accommodation if there were a probability that that would lead to any form of violence against the applicant, a member of his or her family or anyone else who might be expected to live with the applicant. That includes racial violence.

Clause 10(2) will amend the conditions of referral as set out in section 198 of the 1996 Act. They provide the criteria that determine whether one housing authority can refer a homeless case to another. Currently, the conditions are not met if applicants or anyone who might reasonably be expected to live with them are at risk of domestic violence in the district of the other authority. Clause 10(2) will extend that safeguard and provide that the conditions for referral of a homelessness case are not met if applicants, or anyone who might reasonably be expected to live with them, have suffered violence in the district of the other authority and there would be a probability of further, similar violence if the victim returned to that district.

The hon. Member for Bath asked about consultation on the provisions. This Committee and the other processes in the House offer the opportunity to explore the Bill's wording. We will, of course, consult widely on the code of guidance. The explanation given this afternoon provides more detail about the way in which the clause will operate and gives me some reassurance that it extends to racially motivated violence. The clause includes important protections for the victims of violence.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 11

Section 204(4): appeals

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 10 July 2001