Draft Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 2003

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Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North): The provisions that the Minister is outlining for dealing with antisocial behaviour are widely welcomed in Northern Ireland and are long overdue. Will he confirm that repossession or action against tenants will be pursued only when antisocial behaviour is beyond the pale, and that such matters as falling into rent arrears are not covered?

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his clearly articulated support for the order, and for his presence in the Committee, although he is not a member of it. I hope that if he catches your eye, Mr. Olner, he may at some stage make a contribution to the debate, because he has expertise in this area. The other reason why I am grateful to him is that he did the bulk of the work on the policy underlying the order when he was Minister with responsibility for Social Development in Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland should be grateful to him for bringing together this important piece of proposed legislation, which will substantially modernise the housing legislation there, and will greatly benefit a significant number of people. It was under his stewardship that most of the consultation took place, and he garnered and brought together the support for the legislation in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman's point about the scope and intended use of the proposed legislation is well made. Indeed, the Department intends to ensure that the guidance that it will issue to social landlords in Northern Ireland will not be used, for example, to terminate introductory tenancies for rent arrears; it should also ensure that introductory tenancies could be brought to an end only because of such things as antisocial behaviour. That assurance addresses one of the few criticisms of the proposals.

During my time as Minister with responsibility for social development I have made it my business to consult parties in Northern Ireland about the proposed legislation. It would be unfair to some of those if I did not say that there is some concern among people about the potential abuse of introductory tenancies by social landlords. The history of the Housing Executive's management of social housing

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in Northern Ireland suggests to me—indeed, it is eloquent evidence—that it will not seek to abuse that power. That management has unanimous support—almost unique in my experience—from the political parties in Northern Ireland. There is no indication that any of the other social landlords who are buying large housing associations would use the powers other than as they were intended; none the less, as I have already pointed out, the Department intends to use its guidance to ensure that that does not happen.

Opposition to the proposal has been articulated by some politicians, although not consistently by parties, in Northern Ireland and it has to be said that all accept that something needs to be done about antisocial behaviour. It would appear from conversations that I have had with them that all accept, as a matter of principle, that that can be done only by a form of tenancy different from secure tenancy—one that does not require a social landlord to go through the protracted and expensive process of court proceedings, as is presently the case. All see some merit in some kind of probationary or introductory period. It seems to me that there is agreement in principle that there is merit in allowing people less security than a full-blown secure tenancy would allow, and on bringing in some form of probationary period. There has been a debate and a discussion about how that should be done, and some people prefer the use of the term ''probationary tenancies''. In my view, however, if probationary tenancies were used in a similar way, they would be similar to introductory tenancies. My view is that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck. No matter what it is called, an introductory tenancy is just that.

I now move on to another part of the order, which replicates to a large extent the existing scheme of grants that help with the renewal of private sector housing. Such grants continue to play a vital role in helping to improve the standard of accommodation in the private sector, but the demand-led nature of the existing mandatory scheme inhibits the effective targeting of resources on areas of greatest need. Therefore, the order changes the current scheme to one that is mostly discretionary, to allow better targeting of resources. Because of the essential nature of the disabled facilities grant, that grant will remain mandatory with a discretionary option to grant-aid additional facilities.

As with the current scheme, means testing will continue. The means test is an essential tool to allow the Housing Executive to target grant towards those most in need. There have been calls for the disabled facilities grant for children to be exempt from any means test. Any such exemption would seriously undermine the ability of the Housing Executive to target resources on those in greatest need. However, I am setting up a working group to review the means test as it applies to the disabled facilities grant, to ensure that disabled children and their families are not disadvantaged by the means test. That working group will be asked to report before the summer.

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The provision of accommodation for travellers has been a contentious issue in Northern Ireland for some time. A blurring of responsibilities between district councils and the Housing Executive for providing traveller sites has not helped that. It is clear that a single authority should have specific responsibility for providing for all the accommodation needs of travellers. That authority will be the Housing Executive. The order places a mandatory duty on the Housing Executive to provide such sites as appear to it to be appropriate for the accommodation of travellers' caravans. To assist in the transition, existing sites provided and managed by district councils will be transferred to the Housing Executive. There have been calls for the order to include measures to help deal with unauthorised camping sites. Proposals for such measures are still being finalised. They will soon be issued for consultation and will be carried forward in future legislation.

There are serious concerns about safety standards in houses in multiple occupation. Those houses form part of the private rented sector and provide accommodation for up to 30,000 people in Northern Ireland, many of whom are students. The order requires the Housing Executive to prepare and administer a registration scheme for those houses with the objective of improving their quality and safety. The Housing Executive will carry out further consultations on the details of the scheme as it develops its proposals in that area.

The order also covers a range of miscellaneous matters, including provisions for the Department to make a house sales scheme for registered housing associations—many of which currently have voluntary sales schemes—legislative cover for existing extra-statutory schemes to compensate tenants for improvements and repairs that they have carried out to their homes, and other provisions to bring Northern Ireland legislation into line with legislation now applying in Great Britain.

The Assembly's Social Development Committee was nearly halfway through its consideration of the Bill when the Assembly was suspended. It had recommended two specific changes to the Bill, one of which was to remove the behaviour of visitors from the grounds for repossession set out in article 22. However, that provision closes a loophole in the current legislation and mirrors provisions already operating well in Great Britain. Removing the ability to deal with the behaviour of visitors would seriously diminish the effectiveness of the measures, and this suggestion has not therefore been carried into the Order in Council.

The Committee also suggested that the provisions now set out in article 26 of the order, which relates to injunctions against antisocial behaviour, should be extended to include private sector landlords. That has been done.

Three other amendments have been made to take account of comments that were submitted to that Committee. To clarify the new ground of domestic violence for possession of a house—which is set out in article 23 of the order—the phrase

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    ''while the other continues to occupy the dwelling-house''

has been added after ''is unlikely to return''.

On assistance in respect of mobile homes, article 108(3) ensures that there is no discrimination against members of the Irish traveller community by omitting the residence condition—that a mobile home has to be occupied on its present site for at least three years—which had been included in the housing Bill.

To alleviate hardship, article 137, which deals with eligibility for housing assistance, now includes a provision to enable the Housing Executive to provide temporary accommodation to persons who have a priority need but are not eligible for housing assistance because of unacceptable behaviour.

In taking forward the order, I have met representatives of political parties and voluntary organisations to discuss the proposals.

Mr. Dodds: The Minister referred to the Social Development Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly. There have been statements from members of that Committee that its decisions or recommendations have been ignored. Will the Minister confirm how many actual recommendations or decisions about clauses were made by that Committee in the course of its deliberations? He referred to two, but were there any others?

Mr. Browne: I am grateful for the opportunity that that intervention affords me. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that last week, when I was absent from Northern Ireland, there was some discussion in the printed media, instigated by a member of the Assembly, that the Department had ignored recommendations from the Committee in relation to this order. The precise allegation was that the published explanatory memorandum failed to record the Committee's concern about some parts of the legislation—I think that that does service to the way in which the matter was reported.

I was not able to engage in the discussion because I was absent from Northern Ireland, but I welcome this opportunity to set the record straight to some degree. I have in my hand the minutes of the deliberations of the Social Development Committee on the Bill—I have seven sets of papers. There were two more meetings, but since the minutes of those meetings have not been agreed, I do not have access to them and do not know the detail of what was discussed. I invite hon. Members with an interest in the subject to take the time to read the minutes; it will not take long. They are available on the Assembly's website.

I asked officials for the minutes to be printed out and given to me, and I spent last night examining them in detail. I can see no recommendations from the Committee other than the two to which I have already referred. There is considerable recording of the Committee's agreement to defer consideration of some clauses to a later date. Unfortunately, the Committee did not get that opportunity because of the suspension. However, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the opportunity to put the record straight. There is no evidence in the Committee minutes of issues being decided by the Committee in a way that has not been reflected either in the

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comments that I have already made or in changes to the Bill agreed by the Department and included in the order.

 
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Prepared 11 February 2003