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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: The new clause tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Meston, is concerned with protecting the interests of those who fail to comply with a suspended possession order from the courts.
The new clause appears to be designed to allow secure and assured tenants another opportunity to make their case to the courts when they have breached the conditions of a suspended order for possession under either Section 85 of the Housing Act 1985 or Section 9 of the Housing Act 1988.
Where a landlord has sought possession of a tenancy under any one of the various grounds where reasonableness has to be proved--for example, certain rent arrears grounds--the county court can decide to suspend the possession order so long as certain conditions are met. In the case of rent arrears, where the landlord's primary interest is in getting the arrears paid and the tenant back into regular rent payment, rather than in evicting him, the condition of the suspension may be that the tenant pays his current rent plus so much per week towards the arrears.
Therefore, if the rate at which the rent arrears are being repaid is such or the monthly rate is such that it is still ongoing after two years, the noble Lord's amendment would build in at that stage another procedural step for the landlord if the tenant decided to stop paying those arrears.
The amendment is unnecessary. The tenant will have had an opportunity to make his case. He will be aware of the position he is in; he will be aware of the agreement that was decided upon in order to suspend possession. The court already has the discretion, under the Housing Acts of 1985 and 1988, to suspend an order for a period which it considers fit, and if the tenant's circumstances change and he finds he is no longer able to comply with the terms of the suspension, he may apply to the court for the terms of the suspension to be varied. But the noble Lord's amendment would actually impose a further burden on landlords, requiring them to seek another court hearing in cases where a tenant breaches the condition of a suspended order just, say, two years and a day after the order has been made.
There must come a point at which a tenancy has come to an end, either when a possession order takes effect or where a suspended order is breached. It is up to the tenant, who has the rights under the tenancy, to ensure that he does not put himself in danger of losing his rights through the possession order taking effect or the suspended order being breached. The tenant will have ample opportunity at the court hearing to explain his position and to put his house in order in order to avoid these consequences. It is almost worth pointing out that if the landlord seeks a warrant of possession it is because the terms of a suspended order have been breached. In those cases the court still has the power to entertain an application by the tenant to suspend the warrant for possession.
It would not be sensible to accept the noble Lord's amendment. We should stay with the position we have at the present time. Perhaps it is worth saying as a postscript on this general subject that I understand that the forthcoming report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, on access to justice will include proposals for the handling of housing possession cases through the courts. Perhaps it would be sensible to await publication of that report so that the Government and others have a chance to reflect carefully on its findings rather than to legislate in the way proposed by the noble Lord.
Lord Monkswell: I am not a legal expert but there seems to be one situation which the Minister did not mention. Perhaps I may put it to him in order to get a response. If the landlord has a suspended order of possession and the tenant breaches that order, which would enable the landlord to take possession, but the landlord does not take possession, does the right of the landlord to take possession at the time of his choosing remain available to him? It would seem to be rather unfair if a tenant inadvertently or almost by agreement with the landlord technically breached the order but the
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am in a little difficulty with the noble Lord's hypothetical question. Perhaps I may make sure that I understand it. He asks about the position where a landlord has a suspended possession. Let us say, for the sake of argument, that it involves paying rent arrears at so much a week or so much a month. Then, before the rent arrears are paid off, the tenant stops paying them. I think I am asked: must the landlord act immediately; and if he does not act immediately--if he lets a week or two elapse--what would happen? Could he let a week or two elapse and then decide to enact his possession? Perhaps he just wants to be sure that the tenant has really meant to stop paying the arrears.
I always find hypothetical questions about legal matters a little difficult. It is the case that if the landlord then decided to activate the situation but the tenant could not respond and the landlord had to get an order for the bailiffs, the court would still have the power to entertain an application by the tenant to suspend the warrant for possession. So before a warrant for possession was granted to the bailiffs, there could at least be an argument in court to allow the tenant to argue the case.
However, I think that much of this depends on the case before the court, if it comes to the court, and the intentions of the parties. There is no doubt that a tenancy can be revived--for example, if the arrears are paid. The situation then continues with the tenancy simply revived. Case law shows that it can revive.
I hope that I have answered the noble Lord's question. I shall read in Hansard what he asked and ensure that I have not misunderstood the question and that I have given him a reasonable answer to the situation he hypothecated.
Lord Monkswell: I think the Minister has reassured me. However, perhaps I may clarify my example so that he may find it easier to read in Hansard tomorrow. The situation I envisaged was where a tenant was in arrears with rent and the suspended possession order was given on the basis that the tenant would start paying his rent on a particular date, which would have left some arrears. However, the tenant does not start on that date but starts perhaps a week or two later. The landlord then says, "Okay, I'll let it ride", and then at a future stage the landlord activates the suspended possession order--perhaps quite some time down the road--just because the landlord wants to obtain possession when in fact the tenant would have been an assured tenant if the suspended possession order was not available. That may help the Minister when he is considering tomorrow whether the exchanges we have just had resolve the problem.
The amendment is designed to prevent a possession order limping on for years and being held over a tenant, rather in the way described by the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, or in other circumstances. The Minister criticised it for requiring an extra procedural step. I would prefer to describe it as a safety net. The amendment presupposes that the tenant has complied with the terms of the suspension for at least two years, and it is only in those circumstances that I suggest by the amendment that a landlord should not thereafter be enabled to go straight in and enforce the order without at least going back to the court for the court's sanction to enforce. The Minister said that the tenant is aware of the position. The tenant is, of course, aware of the original position but the court may not be aware of any change of circumstances. The amendment proposes a revision at least by the court of the circumstances of the original order and any developments since then.
The noble Earl said: My Lords, all those of your Lordships about to speak are very well informed on employment matters and on the subject of in-work training. I am particularly grateful, therefore, for that support.
Once launched, yet before they had taken effect, a large measure of confidence had already been placed in the commitments given to full employment in the 1944 Government White Paper. Equally, there was conviction from the start that the Beveridge social insurance system would work well. As with all new schemes, it was also expected to improve with use and to mature through time. The planners did not therefore forecast that the results would be much better over the first 20 years than over the following 30 years. The opposite, in fact, occurred regarding both the control of unemployment
While unemployment is now in decline and the proportion of unemployed people who have been out of work for more than six months is also decreasing, there can be no strong assurance of returning to the lower levels that prevailed before the mid-1970s. One reason is that in recent years new technology has changed the kind of jobs, skills and flexibility required in advanced countries. Another factor is the different attitude which has developed within families towards work since Beveridge's day. Clearly, a job is now seen far less as a career for life. And the man in the family is no longer assumed to be the only breadwinner.
If jobs themselves and attitudes towards them have altered, no doubt a principal task of government is to facilitate training in order to match work which is in demand. This is exactly what the TECs have set out to do. Many of us will agree that they have proved to be both effective and adaptable. As your Lordships are aware, a merger has been proposed between the Scottish qualifications authority and SCOTVEC. This should improve the scope within the Scottish education system for matching teaching and training to jobs in the labour market.
As regards in-work training itself, the current Workstart pilot schemes have undoubtedly alleviated long-term unemployment. Viewed in terms of current national statistics, that is encouraging. Such national figures suggest that of those who have reached two years of unemployment only about 50 per cent. leave within the next year. Your Lordships will be acquainted with the various tests used to assist with the evaluation of pilot projects and to arrive at a judgment on their relative merits. I shall not detain the House with the technicalities. Suffice it to say that, as regards the Workstart pilot projects, if they can be shown to have benefited the long-term unemployed, for that reason alone they must have proved their worth and thus deserve to be a model for further extension.
That brings me to the Government's future plans for in-work training. What modification of the current workstart projects may now be called for in order to improve employment prospects? Given the difficulties, as we know them to be, the Government have surely been wise to proceed cautiously and through pilot projects instead of imposing schemes nationwide too soon and without supporting evidence. Even within pilot projects themselves there is still a need to balance and restrict government intervention in order to obtain a true picture of cause and effect. However, if within a pilot scheme the Government choose to act as employer of last resort they can do so perfectly well without having to compete with other sectors. That was a central recommendation of the recent Employment Committee report of another place. In particular the committee recommended that the Government should experiment with combinations of the Workstart job subsidy programme and the WISE group's intermediate labour market to achieve the delivery of a nationwide
In view of that, can my noble friend the Minister say whether the Government are prepared to extend the existing pilot projects in this way and thus facilitate a right to work for the individual and social cohesion for his community?
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