Homelessness Bill

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Dr. Whitehead: We can take considerable heart from the fact there is agreement in the Committee. As the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) underlined, the clause is an important attempt to ensure that balance is kept between the discretionary power that a local authority has and the proper rights of those who are subject to its discretion. The hon. Gentleman has emphasised the LGA's view and the agreement with that view that is present in the clause; that is, that it is proper that local authorities have that discretionary power. They should have the right to exclude unacceptable tenants because of their previous or current behaviour, or because they have treated properties unacceptably.

New section 160A(7) states that local authorities cannot exclude someone just because of a record of unreasonable behaviour. It is a redemption clause; they must take into account whether a prospective tenant—even one previously deemed ineligible under the clause—has made any improvement, and whether he or she is a suitable tenant. The clause balances discretion and description and it will be welcomed by both the LGA and local authorities. Those who live in areas where such tenancies are granted reasonably require their neighbours to behave. The whole Committee welcomes the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 15

Allocation schemes

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I beg to move amendment No. 10, in page 11, line 1, after `any', insert `deliberate, wilful or negligent'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 9, in page 11, line 4, at end insert—

    `(d) any record of behaviour of a person (or a member of his household) which has affected the terms of a previous tenancy he has held.'.

Mr. Foster: During the Committee's second sitting, Mr. Gale, in your absence Mr. Griffiths made a heroic attempt to match your legendary firmness and fairness in the Chair. He heard me deploy an argument never used before; we might call it argument C. I sought to persuade the Government that if, in one set of circumstances, they adopt approach X rather than approach Y, it would be perverse of them to adopt the previously rejected Y in another similar set of circumstances. The Government were not persuaded of the merit of trying to achieve symmetry in legislation, or of taking a constant approach in similar situations. I hope that it will not try either your or the Committee's patience, Mr. Gale, if I try again.

On this occasion, I suggest that it is perverse to adopt one approach for only two out of three circumstances, and to use a different one for the third. We have had a helpful, albeit brief, debate, in which the Minister and the hon. Member for Eastbourne discussed how to deal with what the latter described as

    ``the problem of . . . so-called neighbours from hell''.—[Official Report, 2 July 2001; Vol.371, c. 46.]

They both acknowledged that it is vital to balance the different approaches; on the one hand, what the hon. Member for Eastbourne calls the Shelter argument, and on the other, the LGA argument.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne is correct to say that we must get the balance right. I agree with him and with the Minister that the Bill adopts a sensible way forward. In the legislation, there are three stages at which an authority can take into account the behaviour of an applicant. The first is in determining the eligibility of the applicant to be treated as a homeless person, the second is in adjusting the level of priority, and the third is in the ability to remove all the priority. The behaviour that we discussed can be taken into account at those three stages.

The first appears in proposed new section 160A(7) and (8) of the Housing Act 1996, which is in clause 13(2). Under it, the authority will be able to decide that an applicant's behaviour is

    ``unacceptable . . . enough to make him unsuitable to be a tenant''.

That is even before housing need has been taken into account. The provision has been added since the Homes Bill left the House of Commons. The test to determine suitability will be whether the authority is entitled to a possession order under section 84 of the Housing Act 1985.

The third stage to which I referred is covered in proposed new section 167(2)(b) to (d) of the 1996 Act, which is in clause 15(3). That will allow the authority to remove all preference from applicants, irrespective of their need. Again, the provisions were added by the Government in the Standing Committee on the Homes Bill, although they have been amended since that Bill left the House of Commons. To have all preference removed, an applicant must be guilty of unacceptable behaviour serious enough to make him unsuitable to be a tenant. The same test—the authority's entitlement to a possession order—will be applied.

In two of the three stages, what we understand by unacceptable behaviour is specified precisely, as is the test. I am delighted about that, as there is clear symmetry in the Government's proposals. However, there are three points at which behaviour can be taken into account, the other one being the adjustment of priority. That is covered in proposed new section 167(2A) of the 1996 Act, which is in clause 15(3). Once the authority has determined whether an applicant falls into the category of housing need that entitles him to be given reasonable preference, the priority given to him will be adjusted according to his financial resources, his connection to the locality and

    ``any behaviour . . . which affects his suitability to be a tenant''.

The provision does not mention the tests set in the other two stages.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne rightly drew our attention to his concern that some authorities use the loose language of existing legislation to exclude people willy-nilly. He gave an example—it might be an extreme case—of one such authority. I agreed with him when he said that it would be wrong for an authority simply to have a blanket exclusion policy, as some do.

My concern is simple. If we have sensibly decided, with much agreement throughout the Committee, that some clearly defined test is needed for such behaviour, it is perverse that the definition is missing from one of the three provisions on the subject. As a result, authorities that choose to exclude people on a low level of testing may have all the problems that the hon. Gentleman described and that the Minister wants to avoid.

I have, therefore, proposed an amendment that would make the level of testing reasonable. For example, it would cover any antisocial, threatening or violent behaviour, as well as applicants who have wilfully refused to pay rent in the past, or who have deliberately caused damage to their own or other people's properties. We want to tackle all those issues. That is why I have included the provision that the behaviour should be deliberate, wilful or negligent.

I hope that this will provide an opportunity to ensure that on this occasion we have symmetry on all three points on which the issue of behaviour can be addressed. Failure to achieve that would mean that the good intentions of the Bill in the other two areas would be completely undermined. Without such provision, a council, in adjusting priority, can simply do whatever it likes, whether it is to be extremely tough or extremely lenient, and will not necessarily achieve the sensible balance that the Government and the Committee have now decided is right.

10 am

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I rise to make a brief comment on the amendment proposed by the Liberal Democrats, but more particularly to propose amendment No. 9, which relates to the issue of tenant records of behaviour. We are pleased that the Bill has been beefed up after its previous outing. It now gives a higher regard to the suitability of tenants—assessed on the basis of their behaviour—who are offered accommodation. The Local Government Association's comments are worth noting, and I concur with them:

    ``it is important that local authorities retain an element of discretion over the use of their own stock. As landlords the local authority must consider the needs and rights of both individual applicants and the surrounding community when determining individual allocations. It would be perverse if an applicant who was evicted for anti-social behaviour or racial harassment then has the right to be offered other council accommodation simply because he has a priority need or because there is no other applicant prepared to accept a particular dwelling. It would effectively make evictions a pointless procedure and would undermine any incentive to such applicants, and to other tenants, to improve their behaviour or pay off their rent arrears.''

The LGA continues by stating that it does not want the terms of the Bill to be weakened in any way. Amendment No. 9 seeks to strengthen those intentions to avoid any confusion later.

We have spoken at length this morning, and previously, about the menace of antisocial neighbours—neighbours from hell. I am sure that all members of the Committee know of numerous such cases in their constituencies. Although there is obviously a degree of duty of care to everybody, there must be a greater duty of care to those tenants of councils and social landlords who play by the rules.

Under the current system, there is little to incentivise good behaviour--if a tenant looks after his or her house, keeps it in a fairly good state of repair, maintains the appearance of the house and the garden, makes sure that the children do not run amok on the estate, is generally a good citizen and pays the rent on time. It is also hard to penalise the tenant who sticks two fingers up at those rules.

When we discussed the matter in previous Committees, we talked about the methods used by housing associations such as the Irwell Valley Housing Association in Salford, which has turned the whole scheme on its head, so that good tenants can opt into a gold service scheme and specifically be rewarded for being good tenants. That so marginalises bad tenants that the reasons for them to be bad tenants almost disappear. The measures that can be brought in against bad behaviour are more effective.

The point about the amendment is the timing. Proposed new subsection (2C)(b) refers to tenants who do not deserve

    ``to be treated as a member of a group of people who are to be given preference''

and states that the assessment of their bad behaviour is limited to the time at which the case is considered. Account might be taken only of a tenant's recent behaviour, but serial bad neighbours often move from one authority to the next, effectively with a clean sheet. There is a weakness in the system in that respect. Conservative Members want there to be a mutual reference scheme so that councils can place on a database details of bad tenants who have been the subject of evictions or criminal proceedings. A council that is taking a new family into its area could do some checking before placing the family on a priority homeless list.

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