Housing and Regeneration Bill


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New Clause 59

Protection from eviction
‘(1) In the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 (c. 43), after section 3(3), insert the following—
“(4) In this section premises shall be treated as let as a dwelling, or occupied as a dwelling, if the occupier is for the time being residing there, except that B & B accommodation and hostel accommodation shall not be regarded as a dwelling.
(5) In subsection (4), “B & B accommodation” has the same meaning as in the Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) (England) Order 2003 and “hostel” has the same meaning as in section 622 of the Housing Act 1985”.
(2) In the Protection from Eviction Act 1977, after section 3A(9), insert the following—
“(10) Where a person lawfully occupies any residential premises under an excluded tenancy or excluded licence, he shall not be evicted from such premises except following the expiry of a reasonable period of notice.
(11) For the avoidance of doubt, an excluded tenant or excluded licensee shall not be compelled to leave accommodation by the landlord or the landlord’s agents following the expiry of a reasonable period of notice while he is physically present within those premises.
(12) For the purposes of subsections (10) and (11) above, a licence of accommodation in a B & B or hostel shall be treated as an excluded licence.”.’.—[Mr. Love.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
New clause 59 would amend the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 to give the most basic protection from eviction for some of the most vulnerable occupiers of certain types of property. To expand on that, the 1977 Act provides various types of protection to some occupiers by giving them the right to remain in that accommodation until they receive a 28-day notice to quit. It also provides some protection in that the landlord has to obtain a court order for eviction. Of course, not all occupiers have those rights. There is a group of excluded occupiers who do not have the benefits of minimal rights who are not entitled to a formal notice or a court order. The excluded groups include not only occupiers but people living in hotels and hostels, homeless people living in temporary accommodation provided by the local authority, and homeless people living in self-contained accommodation.
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The options for those excluded occupiers are rather bleak. Although they are meant to have some protection in common law, in reality they have virtually nowhere to turn when evicted. Most of those who want access to the private rented sector will have to raise a deposit, and they may have to provide rent in advance. If they have to apply to the social fund, we all know that there can be real difficulties with its administration, and even then they may not get a loan once a decision has been made.
Many will have to turn to the local authority for a rent deposit, and although we are seeing a significant improvement in the coverage of rent deposit schemes, it is still the case, in practical terms, that many people are refused rent deposits. People who have children may then have to apply to the local social services, under the Children Act 1948, but threats are sometimes made to people in those circumstances that the children will be taken into care, often scaring the parents off from approaching the local authority.
The new clause would first extend the groups covered, and those groups will therefore be spared some of the hardship that ensues from being evicted in very short order. As I say, they often find it difficult to obtain suitable alternative accommodation. We want to bring self-contained temporary accommodation within the ambit of the Protection from Eviction Act 1977.
Secondly, I think everyone understands that, for people in bed-and-breakfast, hotel or hostel accommodation, it is not practical to give them entitlement to a court order before eviction. Currently, the common law suggests that they should be given a reasonable period of notice. We know that that is not happening for many people up and down the country. We want to bring that within the ambit of the Bill, so that people in such circumstances will at least have a strengthened possibility of receiving a reasonable period of notice before they are evicted.
Of course, “reasonable” has different definitions in various circumstances. For example, there may be occasions when someone living in a hostel is being very difficult, and the reasonable test would be rather shorter than for someone in real difficulty. I hope the Minister will respond sympathetically, but the essence is to reach out to some of the most vulnerable people. They often do not understand the situation that they are in and find that they may have made wrong decisions along the way, and as a consequence will eventually be evicted. The hope is that by extending some legal rights to them, we will give them the opportunity to find alternative accommodation and to have a little more balance in their lives.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I am a little confused by one element. The proposed new subsection (11) states:
“For the avoidance of doubt, an excluded tenant or excluded licensee shall not be compelled to leave accommodation”—
and so on. It seems to me that that means that an excluded tenant or an excluded licensee can simply squat in the premises and never be compelled to leave. Perhaps I misunderstand the provision.
Mr. Love: I do not think that that is the legal implication. Yes, for excluded tenants or licensees we clearly want to extend the right to remain until they have received a period of notice. However, I do not think that we would extend to them the right to squat in the property for good, as has been suggested.
The reality is that the law is very firmly in favour of the landlord’s right to take their property back into ownership. I do not think that this proposal would upset that in any way other than in the two marginal ways that I have suggested: to provide that people who are in local authority self-contained accommodation have greater rights and, perhaps just as importantly, that people who do not have the right to hostel accommodation should at least be given a period of notice. I commend the new clause to the Minister and ask that he looks on it sympathetically. It would go a long way towards helping people in very difficult circumstances.
Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I know that the Committee needs to make progress so I will be extremely brief. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton for tabling the new clause. It enables us to focus on this very vulnerable group of people who can find themselves in a situation where they experience a lot of panic and hardship in being evicted from temporary accommodation without being able to find suitable alternative accommodation and without being given time to do so.
The new clause would bring self-contained temporary accommodation within the ambit of the Protection from Eviction Act 1977. It would give the evicted person more breathing space to explore possibilities of finding alternative accommodation. It seems like a very reasonable and necessary protection for this vulnerable group. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
Mr. Wright: I have a lot of sympathy with what my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton has said on this issue. As he has mentioned, the principal purpose of the new clause is to extend the protection afforded to people who have been considered under the homelessness legislation, part 7 of the Housing Act 1996, and have been provided with temporary accommodation, but in respect of whom the local authority has no further statutory obligation. That could be because they do not have a priority need for accommodation or because they have brought homelessness upon themselves.
Under the current homelessness legislation, if a local housing authority has reason to believe that an applicant is homeless or is likely to become homeless within 28 days, it must make inquiries to satisfy itself whether any duty is owed under part 7 of the 1996 Act. Key factors would be whether the person is actually homeless, whether their homelessness is through no fault of their own, and whether they have a priority need for accommodation. Those inquiries can take time, but in cases where the authority has reason to believe that the applicant may be homeless and may have a priority need, it has an immediate duty under section 188(1) of the 1996 Act to secure accommodation until their inquiries are completed. At that point, in some cases the authority might find that it has no further duty to secure accommodation, for example, because the applicant does not have priority need. Subject to reasonable notice being given, the authority can end the provision of accommodation.
In other cases, the authority might find that it owes the duty under section 190(2)(a) of the 1996 Act, which is owed to applicants who have a priority need, but have made themselves homeless intentionally. The authority must secure accommodation, but for only a limited period, to provide the applicant with a reasonable opportunity to secure accommodation for him or herself. At that point, no further obligation will be owed and the authority needs to be in a position to end the provision of accommodation, subject to reasonable notice being given.
Although I have a lot of sympathy with what my hon. Friends have said, the Court of Appeal has ruled that temporary accommodation made available in these circumstances does not benefit from the protection provided by section 3(1) of the 1977 Act. In my view, that position is correct in policy terms, and to reverse it could jeopardise local authorities’ practical operation of their homelessness provisions. Because of that, I do not consider it necessary or appropriate to extend section 3 of the 1977 Act to people who have been provided with temporary accommodation under homelessness legislation, in circumstances in which the local authority’s obligation—this is the crucial point—is specifically limited to a short-term period.
Mr. Love: I am listening to carefully to my hon. Friend. There is clearly a balance to be struck: a local authority needs to gain the accommodation that is being made available and does not want to delay the process any more than necessary, but the families involved are often the most vulnerable, moving from pillar to post and perhaps not receiving the best possible advice. Is there no way in which we can negotiate at least some additional time to give them the opportunity to make arrangements for the future, rather than leave them in limbo?
Mr. Wright: Again, I sympathise with my hon. Friend, but I suggest that if families are being moved from pillar to post and there are concerns about their cases, they will already be captured in the priority need for accommodation. I hope that the local authority would see it in that way.
On the basis that I have set out—the local authority’s obligations, and the short-term periods—I hope that my hon. Friend will withdraw the motion.
Mr. Love: I am somewhat disappointed by the Minister’s comments. Often people find themselves subject to an intentionality decision, or they have refused the first offer of accommodation—I have seen many cases of that nature—and the local authority therefore decides that it has no further responsibility to them. They may well have taken their decision for good reasons, but not fully understanding the implications. People often find themselves being evicted quickly, which comes as a complete shock and, because of their limited choice, creates great difficulties for them.
I hope that, after reflecting on that, the Minister will consider ways to ease the real housing difficulties of many vulnerable families without allowing people to effectively squat in a property, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire mentioned. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 61

Domestic violence
‘(1) The Housing Act 1996 (c. 52) is amended as follows.
(2) After paragraph (d) of section 189(i) (Priority need for accommodation) insert—
“(e) A person without dependant children who has been subject to domestic violence or is at risk of such violence, or if he or she returns home is at risk of domestic violence.”.’.—[Mr. Love.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Mr. Love: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
This is a probing new clause, and would amend the Housing Act 1996 to include a new section allowing a person without dependent children who has been subject to or is at risk of domestic violence, including if he or she were to return home, to have priority need.
Domestic violence currently accounts for 16 per cent. of all violent crime in this country and is estimated to cost in the region of £23 billion a year. In the latest year for which figures have been taken, more than 100 women and 30 men lost their lives as a result of domestic violence, and it is estimated that it affects one in four women and one in six men at some time in their lives. It is an enormous problem.
We do not want someone to be forced to choose between staying at home in a violent relationship and facing the prospect of street homelessness. If accepted, the new clause would bring England into the same situation as already exists under the Welsh homelessness legislation, and I would commend it on that point alone.
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The current law suggests that people who seek assistance from a local authority have to be homeless, in priority need and not intentionally homeless. It is the difficulty of demonstrating that people are in priority need that we wish to address through the new clause. According to the Homelessness (Priority Need for Accommodation) (England) Order 2002, a victim of domestic violence is a
“person who is vulnerable as a result of ceasing to occupy accommodation by reason of violence from another person or threats of violence from another person which are likely to be carried out.”
That sounds as if it provides protection, but the problem is the accepted definition of vulnerability, which states that someone who has become homeless in such circumstances is
“less able to fend for themselves than an ordinary homeless person”.
That definition of vulnerability gives rise to four problems with the current law. First, the nature of the vulnerability test leads to a number of problems to do with consistency and decision making. One authority may take a decision that is quite at odds with other authorities’ measures, so the leeway in the definition of vulnerability means that consistency is sometimes the first casualty of such decisions.
Secondly, in many cases decisions are resource-driven, and that assertion is not just based on anecdotal evidence from my own local authority area. Indeed, it was echoed by a Lord Justice, who said in Osmani v. Camden that
“decisions are often likely to be highly judgemental”.
That has often been the outcome when such cases come to court, and the new clause would go some way towards address the problem.
Thirdly, victims of domestic violence often find it extremely difficult to provide sufficient evidence of their vulnerability. It is not easy for someone to come forward—victims of domestic violence often do not go to the police or any other authority for help—and when they have to go to a housing authority it is difficult for them to prove that they are victims, which makes it problematic to deal with them under the existing definition. As a consequence, people are often forced, if the local authority is not helpful and if they cannot show the necessary evidence, into a stark choice: do they stay where they are, subject to further violence, which may have serious implications, or do they turn to the streets, simply go to central London and end up in a hostel? One benefit of the new clause is that it would enable us to tackle that great difficulty.
Fourthly, many of those single people—mostly women, but also some men—end up on the street or in a hostel. However, because they cannot prove that they are vulnerable, they are not picked up under homelessness legislation, so they spend considerable periods of time in hostel accommodation before they can move on. That, as we all know, silts up the hostel accommodation and makes it more difficult for other single, homeless people to access it. As I mentioned, the new clause would bring us into line with the situation in Wales, but most importantly it would provide a way out for one of the most vulnerable groups in our society. I mentioned earlier the level of domestic violence in this country and the shocking statistics; we know how violent some of those relationships can be. The new clause would provide an option—a way out—for someone who in those circumstances has difficulty showing that that is the situation. It would allow them to access alternative local authority accommodation, move on and restart their life without the problems caused by their violent partner, so I commend it to the Minister.
Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con): I rise to give general support to the intention behind the new clause, which I think is a very good one. There is definitely a problem concerning the difference between being intentionally and unintentionally homeless, particularly with regard to domestic violence. I suspect that all hon. Members have experience of dealing with constituency cases in which someone is clearly frightened to death by what is going on in their home but is scared to leave, because they have been told, perhaps by someone in the housing department, that if they do so and do not have clear evidence of violence, they will make themselves intentionally homeless, which means that they will not gain access to the services that they require.
Many of us are fortunate enough to have excellent women’s refuges and other facilities in our communities, but inevitably they never have sufficient capacity to deal with the large number of cases. Domestic abuse is very much a hidden problem; it takes place behind closed doors. It is right to consider amending the law to ensure that the balance of proof is pushed just a little further towards people who are suffering domestic abuse.
Margaret Moran: I support my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton, and I congratulate him on tabling the new clause. Speaking about this issue, I have a feeling of d(c)j vu, because I was involved, as I believe he was, in considering a previous Housing Bill, in which we introduced the wider definition of vulnerability. We had a very good debate on domestic violence, and we believed that it would be incorporated by widening that definition. We thought that that would encourage more local authorities to take domestic violence into account when making decisions about homelessness. It was the Government’s intention at that time to incorporate the seriousness of domestic violence into consideration of whether someone was homeless and therefore entitled to be considered for accommodation. It was their intent to recognise domestic violence as a particular category.
I hope that the Minister will reflect on that and reinforce the Government’s intention. Despite our best intentions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton said, it is still a postcode lottery as to whether someone who is a victim or survivor of domestic violence receives assistance from the local authority. It is very much down to the discretion and the definition of each local authority in deciding what vulnerability means. It is extremely difficult to categorise, so survivors—women predominantly—who flee domestic violence are in a predicament based entirely on where they live and whether the local authority is sufficiently sympathetic to their situation. That is what determines whether they can flee from repeat violence.
In my previous life, I ran a housing association. We were the only housing association in London specifically for women, and we were the only place where single women without children, or women without children generally, could find accommodation. That provision was tiny and wholly inadequate to meet the need. I refer the Minister to a recent report by Crisis. We know that in those circumstances either women become street homeless or, more likely, they spend years and years in a series of temporary arrangements, such as sleeping on people’s floors, that eventually fall to pieces. Very often, their lives fall to pieces, because without a permanent, settled home, they are unable to sustain working and other arrangements. At the end of the day, that also costs us.
Some women are successful in fleeing their home and go to a Women’s Aid refuge, but that organisation has repeatedly told me that those refuges are silting up. There simply is not sufficient accommodation for those women. Again, we know that the availability of such refuges is a postcode lottery. We wish that it were not—we should have decent refuges everywhere in the country, but that is not the case. My hon. Friend the Minister and his Department need to get a grip on the problem, because those limited places are being silted up. Places must be held for those women, because they have nowhere else to go. They do not have the prospect of a local authority or housing association home to go to.
That costs the Government a lot, as does the problem of dealing the many other victims who cannot get a place in a refuge. It would be infinitely more sensible if we did in the Bill what we intended to do in the Housing Act 1996, and ensured that domestic violence is recognised as a priority category of homelessness. My hon. Friend gave compelling evidence. Given that women in Wales in the same situation are a priority for accommodation, it is deeply inequitable that women in England should not have the same rights.
Mr. Wright: I am disappointed that my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton was disappointed with the last discussion, so I shall do my best to make amends. As he mentioned, the principal purpose of the clause is to bring those persons who have been subject to domestic violence or at risk of such violence within the category of persons who are given priority need under the homelessness legislation.
Under the current legislation, people who do not have dependent children have priority need if they are vulnerable as a result of leaving their home because of violence—not only domestic violence; it could be from another person—or threats of violence that are likely to be carried out. The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield used the phrase, “intentionally homeless”, but the concept of intentionality is not the issue. The issue is more about whether the victim is vulnerable as a result of their circumstances, and therefore has priority need. I stress that applicants must be in priority need to be given the main homelessness duty and secure priority. However, there are other examples, including vulnerability as a result of old age, mental illness and mental and physical disability. People aged 21 or over could be vulnerable as a result of having been in care, and people who have been in custody and former members of the armed forces could be classed as vulnerable.
Other categories of applicant have priority need that is not conditional on their vulnerability. For example, people whose household includes a dependent child or pregnant woman, and young people aged 16 or 17. It is accepted that people in those circumstances, or at least a member of their household, could be vulnerable in such circumstances, if not in all cases. I cannot stress enough the fact that the Government take extremely seriously the issue of protection for people at risk of domestic violence. I know that there is some disquiet that, in practice, not all people who are classed as vulnerable because they have had to leave their home because of violence are accepted as being owed the main homelessness duty, and I fully take on board what my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton said about the apparent differences between England, Scotland and Wales.
I am therefore prepared to consider whether any changes to the legislation are necessary. I ask my hon. Friend to withdraw his new clause, and I pledge to come back on Report and inform the House further about what we plan to do. With that commitment, I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured. I hope that I have wiped out his disappointment over the earlier discussion, and that he will withdraw the new clause.
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Mr. Love: My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South and I remember the discussions that we had and the extra categories that we created when we discussed the Housing Act 2004. We thought that we had provided the level of protection necessary for the different categories that were included in that statutory instrument, but, as we have said, practical experience has shown that the vulnerability test is subject to wide variation in its application. It is a bit of a lottery, depending on which local authority one ends up with, because one local authority may be much less sympathetic than another.
Similarly, as we all know, especially London Members and Members from urban areas with acute housing difficulties, such decisions often have a component that relates to the level of housing stress and resource considerations, if I can put it in the terms used by a judge. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for recognising that. I hope that he will take that into account and recognise what the new clause attempts to do, which is to provide the additional protection that was intended in the 2004 Act but has not yet been delivered. The situation should be the same as in Wales, and I hope that he can achieve that. I look forward to what he will say on a future date, and on that basis I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.
 
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