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Lord Lucas: I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is disappointed concerning Amendment No. 98. I believe that he will have to stay that way. As regards the higher residence criterion, we live in an imperfect world and have to provide for that. If we were to let our guard down on that we believe that we would face a lot of fraud, and that is something up with which we should not put.

Lord Swinfen: I thank my noble friend for his remarks on my two Amendments Nos. 94 and 100. I shall be very happy to discuss them further, if he finds that convenient, between now and the next stage. I shall read what he has said about the other amendment with interest between now and Report stage.

Lord Clark of Kempston: Amendment withdrawn.

Lord Swinfen: Is the noble Lord trying to make a decision for me?

Lord Lucas: Certainly, we shall be discussing this with the noble Lord one way or another.

Lord Swinfen: I wondered whether the noble Lord, Lord Clark, was trying to intervene, only he addressed the Committee from a sedentary position. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 95 to 98 not moved.]

Clause 76 agreed to.

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Clause 77 [Entitlement to home repair assistance]:

[Amendments Nos. 99 to 101 not moved.]

Clause 77 agreed to.

Clause 78 [Assistance in respect of house-boats and mobile homes]:

[Amendment No. 102 not moved.]

Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 103:

Page 47, line 13, leave out ("been moored for that period at") and insert ("had as its only or main mooring for that period").

The noble Lord said: This amendment was spoken to with Amendment No. 94. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 78, as amended, agreed to.

Clauses 79 and 80 agreed to.

Clause 81 [Deferred action notices]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 104:

Page 48, line 23, leave out from ("is") to (", they") in line 24 and insert ("in the best interests of the occupants").

The noble Baroness said: In moving this amendment I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 105 and 107. With these are grouped Amendments Nos. 106 and 108. Amendment No. 104 refers to Clause 81, the deferred action notices provision. It seeks to ensure that any decision by a local authority to defer taking action on houses unfit for human habitation will only be made if that is in the best interests of the occupants. Concern has been expressed quite widely as to the "do nothing option" as it has been termed. I do not believe that it can be generally appropriate for authorities to delay action on houses which are unfit for human habitation except in circumstances, which are likely to be quite rare, where that would be in the best interests of the occupants. It cannot be right to expect tenants to live in unfit conditions for longer periods.

Amendment No. 105 seeks to ensure that a council takes remedial action to deal with an unfit house in which children are living. The deferred action notice can be renewed indefinitely. The amendment seeks to ensure that remedial action is not deferred or delayed in respect of an unfit property which is occupied by a family including children. I appreciate that this is perhaps not the normal approach to such matters and is perhaps a little out of kilter with the Bill, but it is intended to be a practical approach to the matter.

Finally, Amendment No. 107 seeks to ensure that an occupier of an unfit house has the right of appeal against a deferred action notice. If an unfit property is occupied, the amendment provides for the occupier to be able to challenge the decision in the county court. I beg to move.

Earl Ferrers: I share the concern of the noble Baroness, which is apparent from these amendments, that in deciding whether to serve a deferred action notice a local authority should have regard to relevant circumstances, including the interests of the occupants of the premises.

The term,

    "most satisfactory course of action",

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used in subsection (1) of Clause 81 follows the standard terminology used for the exercise of notices under the other fitness enforcement options of repair, closure and clearance as defined in the Housing Act 1985. I believe that it is important that we retain that consistency, but I would be concerned if local authorities were restricted in the way sought by these amendments.

Under Clause 85, provision is made for the Secretary of State to give guidance on the most satisfactory course of action in connection with the service of deferred action notices. The Government fully intend to issue such guidance and, by virtue of the terms of Clause 85, it will be guidance to which local authorities will be required to have regard and guidance which will be subject to the usual consultations with the local authority associations and others before it is issued.

That will have the advantage of consistency with the other fitness enforcement options. It also provides for a degree of flexibility that is needed in all areas of fitness enforcement, but a flexibility which will have to be sensibly exercised by local authorities having regard to clear guidance from the Secretary of State. I therefore urge the noble Baroness to be cautious because I do not think that Amendments Nos. 104 and 105 would be successful additions to the Bill.

Amendment No. 107 would broaden the right of appeal against a deferred action notice, conferred under Clause 83, to include any occupier of the premises. The potential effect would be significantly to increase the number of appeals coming before the county courts. That would inevitably increase the burden on already hard pressed courts and on local authorities in dealing with those appeals. I think it entirely right that there should be a right of appeal against any fitness enforcement action. This is why we have included a right of appeal against deferred action notices. But a balance needs to be struck between a right of appeal and broadening it to an extent that could very well impose significant burdens on both the county courts and local authorities.

The right of appeal in the case of a deferred action notice is consistent with that conferred on the other fitness enforcement options. There is, of course, nothing to stop any other occupier of the premises from seeking a judicial review of the service of a deferred action notice. I think that that right, combined with a right of appeal which is conferred by Clause 83, strikes the correct balance, having regard to the burdens which I have mentioned.

Turning to Amendment No. 108, I can understand the desire to have information on the extent to which deferred action notices will be used. On could say the same thing about the other repair, closure and clearance fitness enforcement options. But it is not thought right or consistent to have one requirement on the face of the Bill for deferred action notices when the other options are not covered in the same way. On the other hand, to require local authorities to produce and publish a report in the depth sought by the amendment of the noble Baroness for all the fitness enforcement activities would be an unreasonable and unnecessary burden.

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Statistics on local authorities' fitness enforcement activities are already collected by the Department of the Environment and are produced as part of the Government's statistical service. That comes within a publication called Housing and Construction Statistics which is published annually. Future editions of that publication will cover deferred action notices as part of the statistics which the department gathers from local authorities on action that is taken against unfit dwellings. Although they may not cover everything in the amendment, I can assure the noble Baroness that as a minimum the statistics will indicate the number of unfit dwellings against which deferred action notices have been issued.

With that explanation, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel that the Bill is best left as it is without the amendment that she proposes.

Baroness Hamwee: I am grateful to the Minister. I take seriously the point that legislation needs to be consistent with earlier parallel provisions, or provisions that might be looked to. I will wish to consider that further. One does not want to add to the burden on the courts, but I am not sure that judicial review as a remedy in place of action that adds to the burden on the hard-pressed county courts wholly advances the argument. However, I do not seek to press the point at his hour. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 105 not moved.]

Clause 81 agreed to.

Clause 82 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 106 not moved.]

Clause 83 [Appeals against deferred action notices]:

[Amendment No. 107 not moved.]

Clause 83 agreed to.

Clauses 84 and 85 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 108 not moved.]

Clause 86 [Unfitness for human habitation &c: power to improve enforcement procedures]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 109:

Page 50, line 20, leave out ("shall") and insert ("may").

The noble Baroness said: Clause 86 is headed "Power to improve enforcement procedures". It provides that the Secretary of State has power to make an order that a local housing authority shall act as specified in the order. I emphasise "shall" since the amendment seeks to replace that word with "may". The amendment seeks to give local authorities a discretion as to whether or not they make an informal approach before taking action in regard to houses that are declared unfit for human habitation.

There is a danger that this clause, rather than improving the procedures, will make enforcement more difficult by adding another step in the process before the formal issue of an enforcement notice. I am also aware of the flexibility available to local authorities to which the Government have referred on a number of occasions tonight. The Audit Commission, in its report on healthy

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housing, found that an informal approach is often ineffective in any event. The amendment gives local authorities the choice as to whether or not to make use of the scheme introduced by the Secretary of State under the clause in the light of their own practical experience. I beg to move.

11 p.m.

Earl Ferrers: Amendment No. 110 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, is grouped with Amendment No. 109. Perhaps I could speak to them both.

Formal enforcement action--I believe that this is something with which we all agree--should always be looked upon as a last step resort. Modifying the procedures of the fitness enforcement options in the way provided for by an order under Clause 86 will help local authorities to reach sensible decisions in consultation with owners and thereby help to ensure formal enforcement action is taken only when necessary.

I therefore see it as important for local authorities to be under a requirement to follow the actions specified in Clause 86. That apart, I cannot see the wisdom in the Secretary of State making an order with local authorities being left to decide whether they follow its provisions.

The concern of the noble Baroness which is apparent in her Amendment No. 109 may not be dissimilar from that apparent in Amendment No. 110 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Williams; that is, that there will be circumstances where a local authority will need to take immediate enforcement action and where it would not be appropriate to follow the sort of actions specified in Clause 86(1) to (5). Clearly a local authority should not be precluded from taking immediate action. That is precisely what Clause 86(6) makes provision for. It is cast deliberately in wide terms so that a local authority is not precluded from taking immediate enforcement action in any case where it appears to it to be necessary. We think it only right that local authorities--as the on-the-ground enforcement agents--should have flexibility in this particular instance.

I can see, to quote an example from Amendment No. 110, that imminent risk to the health and safety of occupants might well be a case where a local authority might consider it necessary to take immediate enforcement action. An order under Clause 86 would not preclude a local authority from taking such action if it appeared to it to be necessary; nor, indeed, the other example cited in Amendment No. 110. But there are likely to be other equally important exclusions arising in particular cases which, if the logic of the amendment were followed, would deserve to be included, but whose codification in legislation would prove very difficult as well as inflexible and inappropriate.

26 Mar 1996 : Column 1692

I believe that the better approach lies in giving local authorities flexibility in this particular area, as provided for in Clause 86(6). In that way we provide the flexibility needed without removing the value of requiring local authorities to follow the actions specified in the rest of Clause 86. I hope that that explanation will satisfy the noble Baroness.

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