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21 July 2008 : Column 609

Mr. Wright: Lords Amendments Nos. 169 to 171 address the concerns that Members of both Houses raised about the adequacy of tenant ballots on stock transfer. The issue was raised on Report by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who mentioned the potential lack of objectivity in the information provided to tenants when stock transfer was proposed, both in his constituency and in other areas. The issue was also mentioned in the other place by my noble Friend Lord Whitty, who reiterated points about imbalance and the timeliness of information. I resolved to have a closer look at the issue on Report; that was the origin of Lords amendments Nos. 169 to 171. They would require the Secretary of State—or Welsh Ministers in relation to Wales—to publish guidance on the consultation process with tenants and the holding of ballots prior to the possible transfer of council housing stock to registered providers. The amendments also require local authorities to have regard to that guidance.

I am keen to put those requirements into the Bill to reflect the Government’s commitment to ensuring that tenants are properly informed about and involved in issues to do with the future ownership of their homes. The amendments will provide a safeguard in circumstances where there is considerable cynicism and scepticism about the willingness to involve tenants effectively or to have due regard to the view of the majority. I hope that the amendments will be welcomed by the whole House.

I turn to the amendments relating to family intervention tenancies. The House will recall that such tenancies are a useful tool to allow families showing antisocial behaviour to be offered behaviour support services to tackle directly the root causes of such inappropriate and thoughtless behaviour. In our Committee considerations, the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) moved amendments to tighten up the general reference to the phrase “behaviour support services” and where they might be applied. The other place expressed similar concern with the definition of “behaviour support services”, particularly about whether it might be too vague. It also thought that there was a risk of families giving up secure or assured tenancies to receive light-touch or irrelevant support services that would not give the family the skills to sustain a tenancy. The other place also echoed the anxiety expressed by Shelter over whether further clarification of the circumstances in which family intervention tenancies could be used was needed.

I am keen to ensure that such family intervention tenancies and related behaviour support services are relevant and effective. I agree with the other place that additional safeguards should be put in place when they are sensible and do not unduly compromise the flexibility of projects to carry out their activities. Lords amendments Nos. 177 to 180 and 185 to 189 therefore ensure that the behaviour support services provided under the family intervention tenancy—the FIT—be such services as are identified in the behaviour support agreement between the tenant, landlord and local housing authority. Behaviour support agreements set out clearly what support will be offered and by whom, and what in return is expected from those families. Before a FIT is entered into, the tenant must be served with a notice that includes those matters set out in the Bill—for example, the reasons for offering the tenancy, the security of tenure of the new tenancy and a statement that the tenant is not obliged to accept the offer.

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Clause 296 provides for a regulation-making power that would enable the Secretary of State to change, add to or remove the contents of the FIT notice. In the light of recommendations from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and the importance of the contents of the FIT notice, the Government tabled Lords amendments Nos. 174, 175, 184 and 185, so that any amendment or repeal of the required contents of the notice would be by affirmative order.

I now turn to the issue of tolerated trespassers, which the House will recall occupied the House during all stages of the Bill’s passage. On Report we amended the Bill to ensure that tolerated trespassers would not be created in future so that people would remain tenants until they left the property or were evicted. Part 2 of schedule 10 will restore tenancy status to existing tolerated trespassers by granting a new tenancy from the date that the provisions come into force on the same terms and conditions as the original tenancy. These provisions have been widely welcomed outside the House.

8.30 pm

In response to concerns raised in the other place, Lords amendment No. 250 was tabled to address the position of tolerated trespassers who have transferred to a new landlord. The amendment includes a power to provide by order that a new tenancy will arise wherever there has been a change in landlord since the former tenant became a tolerated trespasser. It also provides for the order to set out the details of how this would work. I would like to put the House on notice that it is the Government’s intention that those should be kept as close as possible to the existing provisions for new tenancies, as in schedule 11.

This group also contains amendments to remedy the declaration of incompatibility in respect of section 185(4) of the Housing Act 1996. I am pleased to see in his place my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love), who tabled amendments relating to this issue in Committee. I gave a commitment in Committee that the Government would bring forward a remedy as soon as possible, and I would like to take this opportunity to say that we regret the length of time that it has taken to develop a remedy in this particular case. The amendments make changes to the homelessness legislation across the UK. This is a complex area of law, but in summary, the issue at stake is what help British citizens whose household includes members with different immigration status should get if they become homeless. The amendments will ensure that in future, households in those circumstances will be provided with suitable housing, while continuing to ensure that people from abroad with no claim to UK public resources cannot confer entitlement to long-term social housing.

The amendments amend the 1996 Act, the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 and other provisions so that the current requirement that local housing authorities in England, Wales and Scotland, and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, must disregard ineligible household members when considering whether an eligible housing applicant is homeless or has a priority need for accommodation will no longer apply to applicants who are British citizens, European economic area nationals or Commonwealth citizens with the right of abode in the UK. However, where an applicant who is a British citizen, an EEA national or a Commonwealth citizen
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with a right of abode in the UK is owed a main homelessness duty only because homelessness or priority need is conveyed to him by an ineligible member of his household who requires leave to stay and does not have it, or has leave but with a condition of no recourse to public funds—referred to in the amendments as a “restricted person”—the local authority will be required, so far as is practical, to discharge the homelessness duty by arranging an offer of other accommodation in the private rented sector.

Mr. Love: I welcome the fact that the Government have responded to this issue, which has been outstanding for some time, but let me press my hon. Friend on two matters relating to the amendments. First, the basis of the decision by the Court of Appeal on this matter was that immigration control had no legitimate bearing on a British citizen, and the question therefore continues to arise as to whether the amendments respond to that decision. Secondly, there is still a form of discrimination relating to people in those circumstances, because they will have recourse only to the private sector and not to the social sector. How does the Minister respond to those concerns?

Mr. Wright: I understand what my hon. Friend says, and he makes some good points. However, as I am sure he agrees, the amendments are trying to strike the right balance between remedying the incompatibility, maintaining a firm immigration policy and protecting the UK taxpayer. While I accept that British citizens and others with an absolute right to be here must be provided with some form of housing assistance if they become homeless through no fault of their own and are relying on a “restricted person” to convey homelessness or priority need, I do not consider that that assistance should convey priority or entitlement for long-term social housing. The important point that I would make to my hon. Friend is that these people will not be left homeless, as they could be under the current, incompatible, provisions. I hope that he accepts that.

Mr. Raynsford: Let me pose to my hon. Friend a problem that may arise as a result of the new arrangement, which I welcome as an improvement on the existing position, which was clearly incompatible. The restriction in such cases to private rented accommodation, where rent levels are generally significantly higher than in the social sector, may well create a problem whereby the lack of entitlement to public funds on the part of a member of the household means that it is not possible for the household to meet the cost of that private rented accommodation. I understand from his letter that the new arrangement will require the local authority

Is he confident that there will not be problems whereby the authority cannot be satisfied that the accommodation is suitable, because it cannot be afforded, so it is not reasonable for the applicant to accept the offer? I fear that in responding to one problem we may be creating the genesis of another one. I would be grateful for his thoughts on that, either tonight, or at a future stage if he would like to take further soundings on it.

Mr. Wright: I thank my right hon. Friend for those comments; he makes an important point. If he will allow me, I would like to reflect on what he said about
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the question of suitability. His point about cost is appropriate, and I will reflect on it. I take on board his point that by trying to resolve the incompatibility on one issue, we could be creating something else. I would like to consider that further.

Mr. Love: I thank my hon. Friend for his generosity. I want to follow up the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford). My point relates to the view of the Government on people who are here illegally, and those who do not have recourse to public funds. Although I understand that a balance can be struck for those who are here illegally, it seems somewhat perverse to include those who do not have recourse to public funds, especially since, in most instances, they will be children under 16. Following the comments made by others, will my hon. Friend give some more consideration to the matter, and perhaps, shall we say, review it?

Mr. Wright: Again, I appreciate what my hon. Friend is saying, and I respect his views on the matter. I reiterate the point that I made earlier: we need to strike the right balance between remedying the incompatibility, providing a fair immigration policy and protecting the UK taxpayer. The important point is that, as a result of the amendments and the attempt to remedy the incompatibility, the people in question will not be left homeless, as they would have been under the current, incompatible, provisions. I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured by that.

Grant Shapps: Following the interventions that the Under-Secretary has just taken, I wonder whether, in his current reflective state, he might think about what happens to someone from one of the A10 accession countries to the European Union who was here legally and does not have recourse to public funds. I am reminded of a visit to the Upper Room at St. Saviour’s in Hammersmith last week. Its primary concern is a large group of people from the A10 countries who would have no recourse to public funds, and would presumably fall within the consideration that the Under-Secretary is now giving to the subject.

Mr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point in connection with the A10 countries, and I will look into it.

To conclude, the amendments remedy the current incompatibility, and to repeat the point I made earlier, they will strike a fair balance between the rights of migrants who come to this country with no claim to public funds and the interests of UK taxpayers.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): Lords amendments Nos. 169 to 171 allow local authorities to hold a ballot as soon as a notice is served, but also call on them to have regard to guidance given by the appropriate person. Where a local authority has already had a ballot, and tenants have voted against a transfer, would the guidance from the appropriate person allow local authorities to hold ballot after ballot after ballot until they get the answer that they want, or would those authorities’ ability to re-ballot be restricted?

Mr. Wright: I do not expect that the guidance will prevent a local authority that has had a ballot on stock transfer from having another one at some point. I think
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that it will say that a reasonable amount of time would have to elapse between a ballot and any subsequent ballot, to allow people to reflect and to consider. It would not be right for us to say that because one ballot had taken place, a local authority area could not have another one.

Let me conclude by briefly mentioning Lords amendments on the right to buy. They include several minor and technical amendments to the right-to-buy clauses, and are necessary to ensure that the provisions work effectively. They are important amendments, especially in terms of remedying the incompatibility that I mentioned earlier. I hope that my comments reassure hon. Members, and I commend the amendments to them.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: I congratulate the Under-Secretary on his epic, marathon handling of the Bill in the past few months. Unfortunately, I was unable to be with him in Committee—I obviously missed something—but he has handled the measure well. We have faced each other on many occasions in Westminster Hall in the past few months.

Earlier, family disputes were mentioned. Something of a family dispute occurred in the Labour party on Report. As the Under-Secretary knows, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and several other hon. Members, including Liberal Democrat Members, such as the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), took issue over the governance of tenancy ballots. I personally believe that the Under-Secretary was right to point out in the letter that he sent to hon. Members last week that changes were unnecessary because there was no evidence, on Report or subsequently, that there is anything wrong with the current guidance on overseeing and governing tenancy ballots. The dispute, and the need to table an amendment on the subject, owes more to internal Labour party politics about housing policy than anything else. I recollect that on Report the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) was on the receiving end of some robust interventions from other Labour Members on this matter, and on the housing revenue account, on that evening in March.

Lembit Öpik: As the hon. Gentleman says, the issue for my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) and others is housing policy. Whatever structures we discuss, if policy is manipulated in a specific way, the Government can ensure a specific outcome—on this occasion, the dogmatic assumption that stock transfer is preferable to local authorities holding on to stock. That vexes my colleagues, and perhaps some Labour Members.

Mr. Jackson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. However, other hon. Members and I previously made the point that none of us had a vested interest in anything but clear, transparent and democratic debate and discussion before large groups of tenants make decisions. I speak largely from my experience, and I know that my predecessor as Member of Parliament for Peterborough supported the tenants’ decisions. A proper debate, discussion and ballot took place, and I believe that the right decision was made to transfer the stock. We therefore have no objection to the
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Government’s change of heart, other than to be slightly cynical about the reasons for it, especially as in the letter of 17 July the Under-Secretary dismisses the need for it, but states that he was required to take a closer look. There is, therefore, some confusion, and he may wish to comment on that. However, it is important to regularise the procedures for stock transfer ballots. That is the right way to give the process some support and integrity.

It is important to support the amendment that deals with family intervention tenancies, because it is about supporting local autonomy, among tenants, landlords and local housing authorities, in respect of support contracts. We certainly believe that on some occasions it is appropriate to go down that avenue, in order to reduce the scourge of antisocial behaviour and the massive impact that a small group of families can have on the quality of life in a local estate. Anything practical and appropriate to prevent that is to be supported.

8.45 pm

Again, however, having 717 amendments to the Bill since Second Reading does not make for particularly good scrutiny, as my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) have pointed out. We could have had more time to debate the issue on Report, but we went off on something of a tangent, discussing the minutiae of the housing revenue account and its funding. It bears repetition that that is not a satisfactory situation.

On the third issue that the Minister mentioned, about eligibility for housing assistance, the point has been well made by both the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich and the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) that the decision the Government have come to with the relevant amendment—their prognostication—has taken a significant amount of time.

We should remember that professionals in housing authorities at the local level regularly have to deal with such issues. In London boroughs in particular, as well as in areas such as mine in the east of England, including Boston, Breckland, King’s Lynn and Peterborough, the problem is an everyday issue, and a resource-intensive one, too. Housing officers are being asked to make value judgments that have a significant effect on families who are vulnerable for various reasons. I have dealt with a significant number of families who are, frankly, at the end of their tether, not just because of housing but because of other areas of public provision, and who are looked after under the auspices of the Red Cross.

My plea to the Minister is to think carefully about how he proceeds, particularly given the pertinent point made by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich that we might still be in some difficulty, notwithstanding the final paragraph of the Minister’s letter, over the suitability and reasonableness of the accommodation offered in the private sector and the ability of the family or families to accept the offer. The proposal is a sticking plaster; it is not a panacea. We congratulate the Minister on trying to regularise the situation and clarify the discrepancy between the two pieces of legislation and the European convention on human rights, but that is not the end of the road, nor is it a definitive resolution of the issue.

On tolerated trespassers, I commend the Minister for having listened to key stakeholders in the housing sector,
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including Shelter. We certainly support the Government on that subject. In general, despite one caveat—a slightly partisan caveat, I admit—about tenancy ballots, we support the amendments in the group.

Lembit Öpik: May I, too, say that we feel some frustration that we cannot really consider the amendments in the group in detail, given the timetable? However, it would be churlish of us not to say that, with this group, the Government have, albeit under duress, taken on board the recommendations made in another place, which were also the subject of extensive conversation in Committee. The Minister has again demonstrated his genuine commitment to trying to make improvements, even when that means humbly taking on board recommendations that originated in opposition parties and organisations outside Parliament.

On this specific group of amendments, we support the improvement in tenants’ rights during stock transfer. On the question of ballots, I have said before that anything can be achieved if one uses the financial incentives and disincentives that are abundantly obvious to anyone who looks at the Government’s approach to stock transfer. To be blunt, it is obvious that this Government—for some dogmatic reason—think that transferring stock out of local authority control is something actively to be promoted. It hardly comes as a surprise, therefore, that colleagues in my party—and in the Minister’s party—are unhappy about the fact that there is such a financial disincentive not to transfer stock. Having said that, there have been improvements in the process. While the structural improvements are welcome, we will have to return on another occasion to the policy obstacles that local authorities regularly meet when facing the unenviable dilemma between unwillingly encouraging the transfer of stock or accepting the economic hit of keeping it under local government control.

Family intervention tenancies are overdue, and will become even more important in the difficult economic times ahead. Tightening up the definition of behavioural support services is useful, but those services must be properly resourced, and simply putting them into a Bill will not be enough to ensure that the money is available to make them work.

Tolerated trespass was a subject that occupied a lot of our time in Committee, and it is good to see some improvements in regard to the restoration of certain rights. This should now work better, but we might have to return to the issue if, in practice, the application of the tolerated trespass legislation is not achieving its goals. People are very inventive, and if they find ways to achieve their goals that go against the spirit of the legislation, this might be a useful subject for a statutory instrument. Let us hope for the best, however.

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