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Page 79, line 13, leave out (or illegal").

The noble Earl said: I cannot help thinking of this amendment as zabaglione. It is only a probing amendment, as, indeed, is Amendment No. 263ZAGB which is grouped with it and to which I should also like to speak.

The amendments cover the phrase in paragraph (i) of the clause which refers to,

I am sure that the Committee will take it for granted that I have no wish to encourage illegal purposes. However, I should like to know quite how widely the clause extends. Obviously, if the dwelling is used to organise a drug pushing racket, that will not do; similarly, if it is used by a den of thieves, that will not do. However, let us suppose that we are talking about the property of a journalist who happens to be unsuccessful in a libel case. I should have thought that such a situation would have been outside our intention as Parliament. However, I would welcome the Minister's reassurance that that sort of situation would not be covered under the clause as drafted. In the sure hope that I will receive that reassurance, I beg to move.

Lord Lucas: Clearly I share the noble Earl's opinion as regards the meaning of the word "illegal". However, rather than chancing my arm by offering a reassurance now at this stage, perhaps I may do so by letter. I do not expect that our answer will be otherwise--nor, indeed, that we would wish it to be otherwise--than the noble Earl supposes.

While I am on my feet, I should like to record the fact that I have been told by my Bill team that another place uses a different method of numbering amendments in Committee which is altogether easier to understand. I must say I find that very hard to believe.

Earl Russell: I share the Minister's scepticism and I welcome his answer, which is everything that I hoped to hear. In the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

10.15 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 263ZAC:

Page 79, line 15, at end insert--
(" When considering whether conduct is likely to cause a nuisance or annoyance under this Ground the court shall take into account evidence provided by the local authority that witnesses are or may be intimidated and possession may be granted notwithstanding that there is no direct evidence that any person has actually caused a nuisance or annoyance and that the only evidence available is from police officers or employees or agents of the authority.".").

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The noble Baroness said: In moving the above amendment I shall, with the leave of the Committee given the time of night, group with it Amendments Nos. 263ZAD, 263ZAE, 263ZAF, the substantive Amendment No. 263ZAG, and No. 263ZAGA. I must say that it is somewhat difficult trying to recite those numbers. I should also like to notify the Committee of something which may be of interest. The amendment almost at the bottom of the groupings list, Amendment No. 263ZAGDA, has failed to get its number printed on the Marshalled List. However, I can assure your Lordships that it will actually be moved, even though it has become temporarily invisible.

The amendments raise the issue of grounds for possession not for those on introductory tenancies but for those on secure tenancies. Some of those arguments have already been rehearsed on introductory tenancies, but perhaps I may try a little bit of scene-setting before turning briefly to the original amendments.

One of the most troubling problems on local authority estates is anti-social behaviour which may be caused by problem neighbours when tenants act against other tenants, perhaps because teenage sons are out of control or perhaps even because daughters may be on the game, with customers lingering outside the dwelling. It can also be caused by thugs and hooligans coming into the estate from outside to peddle drugs, to pick a fight, to break a window or, indeed, to harass a particular family, especially if it belongs to an ethnic minority group or has a disabled member. The perpetrators of such problems may be under 18 and, therefore, the law can do little to control them, even though they may be the worst offenders. They make life intolerable for those living on such estates. We should not tolerate it.

At present, I believe that we would all accept--and certainly the Government do--that a local authority is poorly equipped by law to deal with such problems. As regards its own tenants, a local authority finds it difficult to regain possession of a property. Neighbours and witnesses are intimidated and threatened and are reluctant to give evidence. It takes a long time to bring a case to court--a minimum of 34 weeks, as far as we can tell, and it can be as long as two years--during which time the tenants have to endure continued nuisance and continued intimidation. When such a case finally does come to court, the courts do not always grant possession. In any case the local authority has power only as landlord over its own tenants. It has no powers to regulate the behaviour of thugs or hooligans coming in from outside the estate looking for trouble, and of course it cannot use an injunction on anyone under 18, and they are often in my experience the worst offenders.

We shall move a series of amendments which we hope the Government will seriously consider. I believe that the concerns are shared by noble Lords around the Chamber. I hope, if these amendments cannot be accepted, similar amendments will be supported by the Government, or perhaps even introduced by them at Report stage. The major amendment in this group seeks to give a local authority mandatory rights of possession in defined circumstances against the most severely

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anti-social tenants. There is an amendment to give victims and witnesses protection from threats and intimidation. Without such amendments, the more serious the violence, the less likely it is that it will come to court because of the fear felt by witnesses.

There is also an amendment to bring young people under the age of 18 within the law. They are often the main culprits. There are also some amendments to clarify Section 222 of the 1972 Local Government Act to make it clear that it can be used by the local authority to exclude non-residents from sections of its council estates; in other words, so that a local authority has a public order as well as a landlord power. Finally, there are amendments which provide for information to be shared with the police and to ensure that information does not fall foul of the Data Protection Act.

We believe that this package of amendments will transform the ability of local authorities to check criminal and serious anti-social behaviour on council estates. After all, council tenants, like everyone else in the country, are entitled to quiet enjoyment of their homes. Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in semi-detached or detached houses, or houses which were built long enough ago to have thick walls and enjoy reasonable sound proofing, or who have generous gardens, are not always aware of the nightmare that can arise when one shares a thin party wall with someone else.

The first amendments I wish to address seek to give the local authority mandatory grounds for possession against tenants guilty of serious anti-social behaviour. Since 1985 council tenants have enjoyed security of tenure. To get possession a local authority has to prove to the courts that one of 16 possible grounds for possession applies. The grounds range from anti-social behaviour of the tenant to regaining a house that is tied to a shop or a school, or perhaps because the property needs to be demolished for whatever reason. When dealing with anti-social behaviour as the ground for possession, a local authority has to show that there has been a breach of tenancy, nuisance or annoyance to neighbours or damage to property. I remember vividly having to seek possession against one tenant who burnt his floorboards to keep warm until he was restricted to a fairly narrow area of the house in which he could move around. In all possession cases local authorities must give four weeks' notice to tenants. Courts in all but a few cases have discretion to grant or refuse possession to the local authority. In all cases so far where possession is mandatory, the local authority is required to rehouse the family.

The second group of amendments to which I am speaking would do three things. First, they would allow a local authority to have a fast-track procedure for serious cases of anti-social behaviour. A serious case would involve violence, threats of violence, damage to property or drug dealing. In that situation the local authority could go to court without first serving four weeks' notice on the tenant. Why is that necessary? Let me give one example. One local authority served a notice in July, 1993, following complaints of harassment including fire bombing. Between October 1993 and

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October 1994 the defence failed to serve a certificate of readiness to proceed to trial despite several requests that it do so. The local authority had to request the court to proceed to trial and the case was eventually heard in February, 1995, 18 months after the fire bombing incident. In all that period the tenants who were the victims were living in real fear of what might next happen to them. Therefore the amendment would grant a fast track.

Secondly, the granting of possession would be mandatory if, but only if, the judge were satisfied that the new grounds for possession exist--that is, serious anti-social behaviour including violence, threats of violence or drug dealing. If the local authority cannot establish that such serious anti-social behaviour exists, the judge would not grant possession. But if the local authority has established it to the judge's satisfaction, then the judge must grant possession.

Again, why? Let me give another example. During 1994 one local authority received a litany of complaints against the 17 year-old son of a tenant, including excessive noise, chopping up the neighbours' fences, throwing bricks and scaffolding at windows, threatening neighbours with an air rifle which he occasionally fired off, directly threatening a disabled witness, and damaging the disabled witness's car to the extent of £2,000 worth of damage. In August 1995 an injunction gained no improvement in behaviour. At the possession hearing in December 1995, by which time he was over 18, the court would grant only a suspended possession order.

In another case the local authority detailed 110 cases of nuisance involving drunkenness, violence and excessive noise. When the case came to court the judge intervened after only one witness had been heard, even though many witnesses had summoned up the courage to bring evidence, and gave a suspended possession order. When that was breached, possession was finally secured in April, 1995, 15 months later. Through all that time the witnesses, including disabled witnesses, were harassed and threatened.

The second part of the amendment would establish that where serious anti-social behaviour had been established to the judge's satisfaction, mandatory possession would be granted. Thirdly, in these circumstances, the local authority would not be required to rehouse.

Such a group of amendments to some degree fetters judicial discretion. But the experience of local authorities represented by associations across the country suggests that when local authorities take possession proceedings in very serious circumstances--possession proceedings are relatively rare given the difficulties of obtaining evidence, of persuading witnesses to take the stand and of securing charges against those under 18--it is a matter of utter chance whether or not they gain possession, especially when the case depends on the willingness of neighbours who have been intimidated and threatened.

If neighbours know that following their evidence, and establishing that such violence has occurred--we are talking about virtually criminal violence--the local

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authority will be granted possession, they are more likely to give evidence. At present--I exaggerate not at all--the most serious offenders are never brought to court because neighbours are frightened to give evidence. Other noble Lords who have been councillors will know that time and again they have been given information but the people giving that information have begged to be kept anonymous because their house, windows, car or children would not be safe if their name were mentioned, if they were brought into the matter, or if they were asked to give evidence.

Finally, Amendment No. 263ZAC offers a protection for victims. I repeat that it is difficult for neighbours living in a nextdoor flat, or in the flat underneath or above, to give evidence against a threatening or violent neighbour knowing that it may take at least six months before the case is finally heard in court; and that even then the judge may not grant the local authority possession and they will have to continue to live with such violence and intimidation.

In some cases local authorities have tried to protect tenants by using professional witnesses, including their own rent officers, environmental health officers on grounds of noise, and the like. But some judges, I am sorry to say, have refused to accept their evidence and the cases have been dismissed.

I shall give another example. A local authority began to receive complaints of very loud music, shouting, swearing and the slamming and kicking of doors at all times of the night and day. The authority used its power under the Environmental Protection Act to seize equipment. The problems continued, but the neighbours were too frightened to give evidence. The noise was frequently witnessed by environmental health officers and the tenant was prosecuted again for contravening a noise abatement notice. However, the local authority was unable under the law to issue possession proceedings and evict the tenant in the absence of evidence from at least one resident witness. The resident witnesses were too terrified to give evidence. The professionals, such as environmental health officers, who could and would have given evidence were not permitted to do so.

Amendment No. 263ZAC allows grounds for possession to be sought where a person is guilty of serious misconduct causing, or likely to cause, a nuisance to people other than immediate neighbours. That would permit the use of evidence from other than resident neighbours.

It is clear that a judge will be able to give such evidence proper weight, knowing that it is not from a resident witness and not hearsay evidence but evidence from a professional witness. It would allow such cases to come to court and avoid neighbours, often frail, elderly and disabled, being afraid that such a case will never be pursued. The whole cluster of amendments leads to the ability of local authorities, with, I hope, the support of noble Lords on all sides of this Chamber, to

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begin to tackle effectively the problems of serious and severe anti-social behaviour within the framework of the law. I beg to move.

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