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Lord Dubs: My Lords, first, a correction. I may have made a point that was not totally accurate in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner. My point was that rent officers do not consider quality of accommodation in setting local reference rents for housing benefit purposes. However, they can consider quality in determining a market rent for an individual property for housing benefit purposes. In the local reference sense, they do not look at quality but take the generality of rent levels in a particular area.

I turn to the Minister's comments. The Government said that they want a lively private rented sector and they have taken steps over the years to try to encourage it. I understand that. However, they have also put in place a number of safeguards to protect tenants against excessive rents. That is why we have rent officers and rent assessment committees. The Government believe that those safeguards are necessary for individual tenants, otherwise they would not have retained them in the Bill. However, I hope that, after my suggesting that, the Government will not immediately rush to take the safeguards out.

We are not talking of a provision which will drive a coach and horses through the Government's proposals in this part of the Bill. All we are saying is that if a tenant has safeguards for six months, is it so outrageous

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that in some circumstances he might wish to make use of the safeguards after, say, eight or nine months rather than six months? That is what the argument is about, not great principles as to whether it will undermine the whole private rented sector. We say that if it is proper and appropriate that a tenant should be able to go to a rent assessment committee after five-and-a-half months, but if for some reason he was not fully aware of all the circumstances, or if he was not impelled to do so, is it so outrageous that he should adopt the same safeguards two months later?

At one level it is a minor point. It is important to an individual tenant in some circumstances. But I hardly think it is a great point for the Government. They could easily concede it without undermining anything else in the Bill.

5 p.m.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, with the leave of the House, perhaps I may reply. I understand the noble Lord's concern, which is that if a person has had the house for six months, why should he not complain about it afterwards? The person might find himself in different circumstances. Perhaps I may give an analogy to the noble Lord because he may understand much better. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is always impeccably dressed. He might go to his tailor and buy a nice new suit and wear it for six months. If he went back to his tailor after seven months and said: "This is a crummy old suit and I do not want to pay you that amount for it", his tailor would say: "You used it for six months and didn't complaint about it. Why complain now?" That is the point which underlies this part of the Bill.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I thank the Minister for the compliment. I was so taken aback by it that I was unable to think of a good counter example. If one wears a suit, it wears out quickly--at least on these Benches. It is hard work bobbing up and down. It seems to me that we are dealing with something rather different from a suit which wears out. We are dealing with the accommodation in which a person lives. If the tenant were to be replaced, the next tenant would have every right, if the rent were the same, to go to a rent assessment committee. The concept is different from the one about the suit getting worn. Therefore it was not good enough to start with.

I repeat the example that I gave, as I did not explain it clearly enough, judging by the Minister's comment. There may be a change of circumstances. I gave the example of an individual who might feel that he had a good job, he was earning plenty of money, the rent was a little high but he was not too bothered. Then after six or seven months he loses his job. At that point he is forced to apply for housing benefit and would wish to challenge the level of the rent. He did not feel it necessary to do so earlier because a little more money did not matter much when he was earning plenty but it becomes critical when he loses his job. That illustrates that there can be ordinary, legitimate changes of circumstances which might make it proper to ease the situation in the way that the amendment suggests.

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The housing market is not a perfect market where if one landlord charges a little more for a flat than someone else, somehow he will no longer be able to let the flat. Given the housing shortage in the whole of London and in other cities, and given the difficulties that people have in finding rented accommodation, not at the top end of the scale but at the lower end, it is not easy for individual tenants to have bargaining power. Therefore, they need the safeguards. It takes time to find out whether one is paying over the odds.

I thought the amendment was so modest that the Government might be sympathetic. We seek no change in the principle in the Bill. I thought the amendment so reasonable that the Government would say: "Yes, there's something in it and there's no harm in accepting it". I am sorry that the Minister feels that he cannot concede the amendment. I beg leave to withdraw it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 130 not moved.]

Clause 100 [Mandatory possession for non-payment of rent: reduction in arrears required]:

The Deputy Speaker: My Lords, if Amendment No. 131 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment No. 132.

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 131:

Page 71, line 7, leave out from ("possession") to end of line 11 and insert ("Ground 8 (rent unpaid for certain periods) shall be omitted.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendment No. 131 deals with the grounds for possession of a flat. As the legislation stands, rent arrears represent a mandatory ground for possession. There is no discretion to say that if an individual has rent arrears, as proposed in the Bill, the individual can find a good reason which would prevent the ground for possession from being exercised. The Government have shortened the period and it seems to me that there may well be instances when an individual has a good reason for being in arrears. I give the example of housing benefit. The Government have changed the regulations somewhat and housing benefit may now be paid in certain circumstances four weeks in arrears. Perhaps I should correct that. Changes in the housing benefit regulations provide for housing benefit to be paid in arrears, leaving certain tenants with four weeks' rent arrears anyway. It is not difficult, therefore, to envisage a situation where a tenant can be eight weeks in arrears, which is the period stipulated.

It seems to me hard on the tenant if housing benefit arrives so late that the tenant is in arrears but he cannot say: "Don't evict me, don't throw me out. I have a perfectly good reason. The local town hall was slow. It made a mess in the procedures and my housing benefit has arrived late. I shall give you the evidence that the town hall has already apologised for the money coming late. In the circumstances would you please not evict me?" All the amendment does is to make that argument possible. At the moment, I understand that no such argument is possible and no matter how good the excuse

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or how many extenuating circumstances, the mandatory grounds cannot be altered. A little discretion would surely represent common sense. I beg to move.

Lord Strabolgi: My Lords, I should like to support the amendment. As your Lordships know, the Bill proposes to reduce the current mandatory grounds for possession for assured tenants from three months to two months. As my noble friend Lord Dubs said, this change is now of even greater concern, given the fact that changes to housing benefit regulations provide for housing benefit to be paid in arrears, leaving certain tenants with four weeks' rent in arrears.

The amendment would enable the courts to exercise their discretion over the merits of the case so as to avoid tenants losing their homes unreasonably, for example, as a result of housing benefit delays. This proposal surely will add to tenants' insecurity, while at the same time the housing benefit amendment regulations provide for payments to be made in arrears. This will surely increase the risk of tenants being made homeless for reasons beyond their control: for example, if the local authority is late in providing the housing benefit, even later than the agreed period in arrears. That may be either through inefficiency--they may have lost the case--or for other reasons. The one who pays is the tenant, who is then faced with eviction through no fault of his or her own.

There is widespread discontent with the way housing benefit claims are processed. Delays continue to plague the housing benefit system. As a result I understand that citizens advice bureaux frequently report clients facing rent arrears and being threatened with possession as a result of delays in the payment of their housing benefit. The citizens advice bureaux report the case of a woman in London who had accrued arrears of housing benefit that was due to her from the local authority which had been allowed to run up to £600. The local authority informed the citizens advice bureaux that the claim would not be paid for a further month. The woman had tried to borrow money to pay her landlord but had been unable to do so. I suppose the poor lady had no security. She had subsequently been evicted through absolutely no fault of her own. I hope, therefore, that the Government will look reasonably on this amendment. I hope they will consider these difficulties and accept it.

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