Ninth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Tuesday 11 February 2003
[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair]
Draft Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 2003
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Desmond Browne): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Olner, at this hour of the morning.
The provisions in the order replicate provisions in a housing Bill that had reached Committee stage in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I am sure that members of the Committee will be aware of the Government's commitment at the time of the suspension of the Assembly and the Executive to provide an opportunity in the House for the completion of their business. [Interruption.]
The Chairman: Order. Conversations should take place outside the Room.
Mr. Browne: The order represents one of the last pieces of legislation from the Northern Ireland Assembly. I am not sure whether we have reached the end of the series of 20 or 21 Bills. [Interruption.] A voice near me says that we are coming close to the end of dealing with such measures. I am sure that the hon. Members whose faces I recognise as consistent attenders of our Committees will be relieved, because they have been subjected to significant pressure of work over the past few months. The Government are extremely grateful to them for their level of commitment to the process, which enables us to keep our promise to the people of Northern Ireland that the legislative programme will be completed before the anticipated general election campaign. Members of the Executive and the Assembly can go before the electorate of Northern Ireland and show the fruits of their deliberations.
Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): And our deliberations.
Mr. Browne: Indeed, our collective deliberations.
It is more than 10 years since the last Northern Ireland housing legislation, so it is not surprising that the order is fairly lengthy, as indeed was the Bill. Its 149 articles and five schedules covered a variety of important issues. Some of them will be recognisable to members of the Committee, because to some degree, the order brings Northern Ireland housing legislation up to date. It introduces for Northern Ireland provisions that have already applied for several years in Great Britain, all of which have been the subject of consultation.
Mr. Taylor: Does the Minister agree that 98 pages, 149 articles and five schedules form a substantial legislative measure to be dealt with by a yes or no vote under the statutory instrument procedure? Had the Bill originated here, it would probably have been debated on Second Reading for six hours, and for three, four or more weeks in Committee. It would then have been discussed on Report and Third Reading. It would then have gone to the Lords and been subject to the same stages, and amendments from the other place would have come back to the Commons—yet today we are discussing just such a substantial measure, to which no amendments have been allowed, and whose future hangs on a simple yes or no vote.
Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing out how inadequate this process of legislation is. Throughout the early years of this Government following the election of 1997, and throughout the 18 years of the previous Government, legislation relating to Northern Ireland was routinely passed in this fashion; that is why I, along with other hon. Members, supported devolution.
The hon. Gentleman has a track record of supporting devolution for Northern Ireland, for many of the same reasons. We now find ourselves in a regrettable situation—although I am sure that hon. Members understand why the Secretary of State felt forced to make the reluctant decision he did concerning the suspension of devolved institutions.
There was a consensus in the House that in the circumstances, it was appropriate for the Government and the House to see through the legislative programme. There is no legislative time available for that to be done, other than in this fashion. It is regrettable that it has to be done in this way, but we have to decide whether we will be true to the undertaking that we gave to the people of Northern Ireland; if so, this is the only way in which we can doit.
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): The Minister is making a valid defence of the procedure. Ongoing legislation had to be dealt with, and although dealing with it involves a degree of co-operation, does he accept the fact that we wish things were not like this? If devolution is not restored, new legislation must not be subjected to this sort of procedure in the intervening period. We must find a better way of debating legislation that has never been discussed at Stormont.
Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his consistent support in this programme of legislation over the last few months. The Government do not intend to develop policy for Northern Ireland; rather the Government intend to restore devolution, so that Northern Ireland politicians are answerable to their own Assembly. Then they can develop policies for Northern Ireland and see them through. However, the legislation that I have presented to this Committee, and to other Committees of the House, was developed in specific policy terms by the Executive of that Assembly, and had partly made its way through the Assembly. That is the hon. Gentleman's point.
All the provisions in the draft Bill were widely consulted upon. A considerable majority of those who responded to the consultation exercise in Northern Ireland supported the proposals, and many are looking forward to their enactment. I do not intend to go through each of the provisions in detail, but I
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would like to spend some time on the proposals that have attracted most comment and discussion.
The order contains measures to help deal with antisocial behaviour in social housing. As hon. Members are aware, such behaviour blights the lives of many people today, not only in Northern Ireland but also throughout the United Kingdom. The order gives landlords greater powers to help to deal with the problem, which mirror provisions that operate successfully in many local authority areas in Great Britain.
The measures include provision for introductory tenancies, increased powers to seek possession of dwellings, a power to seek injunctions against perpetrators of antisocial behaviour, and power to treat applicants as ineligible for social housing if they have been guilty of unacceptable behaviour.
Introductory tenancies will last for a trial period of one year, and in all important respects, introductory tenants will have the same rights as secure tenants. After a year, the tenants will become secure tenants. However, if introductory tenants persist in antisocial behaviour during the 12-month trial period, repossession can swiftly be sought through the courts.
The other measures that I have mentioned will enable landlords to take effective action against persistent antisocial offenders. The right to repossess houses on the grounds of nuisance or annoyance is being extended to cover any such behaviour by visitors to a dwelling. That closes a loophole in the present legislation. However, some, including the Assembly's Social Development Committee, have expressed the concern that the provision could result in a person having his home repossessed even though he had little or no control over the behaviour of the visitors. An example would be the case of a separated wife whose husband makes unwanted visits, and during those visits generates a degree of nuisance. I should like to make it clear that there is no question of action being taken to repossess a house when a tenant does not have, or could not be expected to have, control over the behaviour of a visitor.
The provisions will also allow officials such as Housing Executive staff to give evidence in cases in which neighbours might be prevented from giving evidence in court because of intimidation or fear of reprisals. That process and its value will be well known to several members of the Committee. The provision is a simple but valuable extension of the rule that allows hearsay evidence in civil proceedings. I know from personal experience how valuable that type of evidence can be, particularly when seriously violent people intimidate many neighbours, including those who are elderly. People have to put up with that sort of behaviour, and are terrified at the prospect of having to stand in a witness box and give evidence against an antisocial neighbour.
Landlords in the social and private rented sector will be able to seek an injunction prohibiting any person from engaging in antisocial behaviour affecting the landlord's property. The Housing Executive will also be able to treat persons found guilty of unacceptable behaviour as ineligible for an allocation
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of accommodation. That is a perfectly sensible consequence for someone who loses their tenancy because it has been proved in court that they behaved in a fashion that justified the removal of the tenancy. It would be nonsense if that person then turned up as homeless and was thus entitled to be housed again immediately.
Together, those measures will form a strong package of remedies to help deal with antisocial behaviour in social housing. Those who provide social housing in Northern Ireland are looking forward to the measures, which will strengthen their ability to manage housing to the advantage of the vast majority of tenants. Some of the measures may involve severe sanctions, and I make no apology for that. However, repossession is a last resort. Prevention is better than cure, and the main emphasis in dealing with tenants who show such traits will still be on mediation to help eradicate antisocial behaviour early, and avoid the need for repossession.