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House of Commons
Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
Homelessness Bill

Homelessness Bill

Standing Committee A

Thursday 12 July 2001

[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Homelessness Bill

Clause 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill

Clause 13

Abolition of duty to maintain housing register

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

9.30 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead): Clause 13 repeals the requirement in part VI of the Housing Act 1996 that local housing authorities must maintain a housing register, provided that other provisions that relate to the register cease to have effect, and inserts new section 160A, which makes alternative provision concerning eligibility for housing allocation.

Removing the requirement to have a register is an important step in facilitating the development by local authorities of choice-based letting schemes that put the applicant at the centre of the decision-making process. We want to encourage authorities to move away from the rigid formulas of an often artificial points-based system, which typically becomes associated with allocation schemes based on the housing register. Removing the existing provisions on qualification will ensure that local authorities cannot continue to operate blanket exclusion regimes.

Clause 31 abolishes the duty on local housing authorities to maintain a housing register and provides for sections 161 to 165 of the 1996 Act to have effect. All those provisions relate to the housing register.

Although no longer required to have a register, authorities will have the power to keep one if they wish. Clause 32 inserts a new section 160A into the 1996 Act, which deals with the eligibility for allocation of housing accommodation. New section 160A(1) provides that local housing authorities cannot allocate housing accommodation to a person who is ineligible for an allocation, by virtue of provisions in new section 160A(3) or (5), or whom the authority has decided to treat as ineligible. I shall explain those aspects further in a moment.

Authorities cannot allocate joint tenancies to two or more persons if any of them is either ineligible or being treated as ineligible. New section 160A(2) provides that any person may be allocated housing accommodation by a local housing authority, subject only to the provisions of 160A(1). In effect, that provides the right to apply for housing for all, except for those who are ineligible or being treated as ineligible. Subsections (3), (4) and (5) of new section 160A broadly reintroduce the provisions of section 161 of the 1996 Act, which deals with eligibility for housing allocation of persons from abroad.

I can assure Committee members that the need to introduce new provisions on eligibility for social housing for persons from abroad is simply the result of removing the requirement for a housing register and the consequent repeal of section 161. There is no change in the Government's policy on the eligibility of persons from abroad. For example, it is our intention that the categories of persons subject to immigration control, who should have access to social housing and would be prescribed by regulation under new section 160A(3), are the same as the categories currently prescribed in regulations made under section 161(2). That would include, for example, people granted refugee status and people given exceptional leave to remain in the UK.

New section 160A(4) provides that the categories of persons subject to immigration control who can be prescribed as eligible under new section 160A(3) cannot include any person who is excluded from entitlement to housing benefit by section 115 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. That broadly reintroduces the current section 161(2)(a) of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, which was inserted by section 117(3) of the 1999 Act. There are some minor drafting changes to clarify the intention that the classes of person who can be prescribed as eligible for housing should be the same as those who are eligible for housing benefit. I trust that everyone is following me closely—[Interruption.] It is important that one should.

Under new section 160A(5):

    ``The Secretary of State may by regulations prescribe other classes of persons from abroad who are (subject to subsection (6)) ineligible for an allocation of housing accommodation''.

That is equivalent to the current section 161(3) and deals with applicants from abroad who are not subject to immigration control—for example, European Union nationals. No change in policy is proposed for the classes of person from abroad who will be prescribed as ineligible for social housing. Those are at present limited to persons from abroad who are not habitually resident in a common travel area—that is, the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and the Republic of Ireland. Overall, the policy remains that eligibility for social housing should align with eligibility for housing benefit. That is the only sensible policy, if housing authorities are to avoid finding themselves with tenants who are unable to meet their rent costs.

New section 160A(6) provides:

    ``Nothing in subsection (3) or (5) affects the eligibility of a person who is already—

    (a) a secure or introductory tenant;

    (b) an assured tenant of housing accommodation allocated to him by a local housing authority.''

That recognises that some existing social tenants will have been allocated housing before restrictions on eligibility were introduced in 1996, and that nothing should prevent such legitimate tenants from being treated in the same way as all other tenants. They should have the right to apply to transfer to alternative accommodation and the authorities should have the power to offer them alternative accommodation, if necessary, for management purposes—for example, where vacant possession is needed to effect renovation of a property.

New section 160A(7) allows a local housing authority to treat individual applicants as ineligible if they meet three tests. First, the applicant or a member of the household must have been guilty of unacceptable behaviour. Secondly, the authority must be satisfied that the behaviour is serious enough to make the applicant unsuitable to be a tenant of the authority. Thirdly, the authority must be satisfied that the applicant is unsuitable to be a tenant because of that behaviour, at the time that his or her application for housing is considered. That will ensure that authorities cannot exclude people merely because of a past record of unacceptable behaviour without taking into account whether they have made improvements or reparation.

New section 160A(8) provides that unacceptable behaviour for that purpose can only be behaviour that will give an authority certain grounds to seek a possession order under section 84 of the Housing Act 1985 if, either notionally or actually, the applicant was a tenant of the local authority. The grounds—with the exception of ground 8—are set out in schedule 2 to the 1985 Act. They are broadly fault grounds that result from behaviour such as non-payment of rent, causing a nuisance to neighbours, allowing the property to be used for illegal or immoral purposes and neglect leading to the deterioration of the dwelling.

New section 160A(9) requires that where a local housing authority decides that an applicant is ineligible for housing accommodation under subsections (3) or (5), it must notify the applicant of its decision and the grounds for it. New section 160A(10) requires that notice be given in writing. New section 160A(11) allows people who are being treated as ineligible for housing to make a fresh application if they consider that they should no longer be treated as ineligible. That provides a safeguard against authorities excluding such people from housing allocation over a long period without considering whether they have demonstrated an improvement in their behaviour.

Clause 13(3) simply provides that where, immediately before commencement, a person is on the housing register, or has made an application to go on the register about which the authority has not made a decision, he or she must be treated as a person who has applied to the authority for housing.

Clause 13 abolishes the requirement that the authorities maintain the housing register and is a key provision in encouraging the adoption of choice-based housing allocation schemes. It removes the rather blunt power that allows housing authorities to impose blanket exclusions and instead gives authorities the power to consider whether individual applicants are unsuitable to be a tenant, taking into account not only unacceptable behaviour, but the circumstances at the time when the housing application is considered.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): We should have a modest stand part debate on the clause, as it is an important provision. I am grateful to the Minister for setting out succinctly what the clause is designed to achieve. As he said, one of its primary functions is to abolish the duty to maintain a register. I understand that if local authorities wish to continue to maintain a register, they can do so.

We all know from our advice surgeries and our mailbag contents that the current points system has become fossilised. Some constituents exhibit a high degree of expertise in how the system works. They know how to obtain more points to receive priority and move up the list.

We welcome the fact that local authorities will have more flexibility. Previously, we had a lengthy debate about blanket exclusions, which I do not wish to repeat. It is right that there should not be blanket exclusions, and organisations such as Shelter expressed concerns that some authorities were excluding whole tranches of people on particular grounds. I am pleased to say that the clause, having been amended in the Committee that dealt with the previous Bill, reflects both our concerns and those of the Local Government Association over the eligibility criteria.

Tension exists between what one might term the Shelter argument and the LGA argument. The former argues that to exclude people from housing creates an underclass who cannot get into social housing. The latter argues that local authorities should retain as much discretion as possible.

New section 160A(7)(a) provides that authorities will be able to consider an applicant to be ineligible if

    ``he, or a member of his household, has been guilty of unacceptable behaviour serious enough to make him unsuitable to be a tenant''.

The definition of that is whether the authority could secure—not apply for—a possession order against a tenant who behaves in that way.

We are talking about the vexed issue of neighbours from hell. We have all had to deal with people who—through their behaviour, their unwillingness to look after the property that they have been allocated or a variety of other reasons—cannot live peacefully and amicably with their neighbours.

All hon. Members, with the possible exception of the newest ones, will have experienced situations in which a person or a family has made life an absolute misery for their neighbours. One or two problem families who create all sorts of mayhem can transform a whole estate.

People often do that on a serial basis, but that is not to say that such people do not have their own problems. They are usually receiving the attention of a variety of public agencies, not least the social services. However, either through an inability to cope or through sheer mischief, they are not good neighbours and create enormous problems all around them.

We had a lengthy debate in the Committee that dealt with the previous Bill, when amendment No. 106 was incorporated into what is now clause 13. The then Minister for Housing and Planning, who is now the Minister for Local Government set out the broad reasons why applicants would be denied accommodation. One reason for ineligibility would be if an applicant amassed significant rent arrears. The word ``significant'' is important because it had been suggested that some authorities would exclude people for trivial amounts of arrears. Another reason would be causing serious nuisance or annoyance to neighbours. We are all aware of the sort of behaviour that that encompasses. A third reason would be damaging or neglecting the property that has been allocated.

We received detailed evidence from Shelter, among others. Figures contained in a document from one—unidentified—northern authority mentioned by Shelter reveal that, in March 1999, the authority had an active re-housing list of more than 16,000 households, while more than 53,000 were suspended for various reasons. I find that extraordinary. However, the same authority is supposed to have a surplus of about 20,000 properties. That must be an extreme case—if not the extreme case—but perhaps it is a measure of the problems that many other authorities have faced. Perhaps some authorities have an extraordinarily rigid attitude to those matters.

Another Shelter survey found that 89 per cent. of authorities exclude people seeking a transfer who are in arrears—I assume that that means that they are in arrears to any extent. That could lead to a debate about the housing benefit system and the role that it might play in many arrears cases. If it is the fault of the tenants, rather than the system, people who are consistently in arrears with their rent should not feel automatically entitled to further accommodation from that or any other authority. There was also a suggestion that some authorities use crimes such as motoring offences as a reason to stop people being placed in social housing, as technically they have a criminal record.

9.45 am

The overall case made by Shelter—it is a powerful one—concludes that more than 200,000 people may have been excluded or suspended between 1996 and 1998. I am not sure whether there are more up-to-date figures. That is a large figure, albeit a suspiciously round one. Clearly, there is a problem and, anecdotally, it is growing. Increasingly, problems of that sort land on my desk and are brought into my advice surgeries. That is what I call the Shelter argument; I hope I have not done it an injustice. An awful lot of people are being excluded, some for trivial reasons such as small arrears or for minor criminal matters such as motoring offences. Those people have to live somewhere. They may be moved out of one estate, but eventually they will have to be found accommodation, presumably somewhere where they will have different neighbours.

The Committee, previously, and the Government on reflection, have ultimately followed the LGA argument, which is the view that authorities should retain a discretionary power and should be able to take note of people's previous records. The LGA says in one of its briefings:

    ``It would be perverse if an applicant who is evicted for anti-social behaviour or racial harassment then has a right to be offered other council accommodation''.

As I said, an amendment to the previous incarnation of the Bill granted authorities that right of refusal. On the whole, the right balance has been struck. There is a reasonably high test, which is the ability to get a possession order in those circumstances, and that is right. I think that there is a firm view among all Committee members that authorities should not abuse their discretion, and we have debated—we will not do so again—the right to review the decision.

I entirely endorse the LGA's view that,

    ``at the end of the day the local authority, as landlord, should retain the right to consider the suitability of an applicant for a tenancy, provided that such consideration is carried out in a fair, transparent and reasonable manner.''

That seems an eminently sensible approach, and one that is borne out by the clause.


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