Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

11 p.m.

Lord Lucas: Clause 137 amends Ground 2 of Schedule 2 to the Housing Act 1985. The schedule sets out the grounds for possession of dwelling houses let under secure tenancies.

Clause 137 strengthens the existing ground for possession based on nuisance and annoyance to neighbours in three ways. First, so that it applies to behaviour in the locality of the tenant's property; secondly, so that it covers behaviour by visitors to properties; and, thirdly, so that it covers the situation where the tenant, a person living with him or a visitor has been convicted of an arrestable offence in the locality of a house or flat.

For the purposes of Amendment No. 184A the key part of Clause 137 is that it will also enable local authorities to evict a tenant for behaviour which is likely to cause a nuisance or annoyance. The purpose of this new provision is that the victim of the behaviour may not have to give evidence. Instead, this might be provided by a professional witness.

As I indicated when we discussed a similar amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, at Committee stage, the Government believe that Clause 137 achieves the intention of the amendment that is before us now which is to enable a local authority to secure an eviction on the basis of evidence given by a professional witness, rather than by the victims themselves. We know that some local authorities have already found themselves able to proceed successfully in such cases. Sunderland is a prime example. Other authorities have not fared so well.

Clause 137 makes it clear to the courts that there is statutory backing for the use of professional witnesses to prove that particular conduct is likely to cause nuisance. Ultimately we cannot tell the courts how to deal with individual cases--and that is right. But in the Government's opinion Clause 137 puts it beyond doubt that evidence from a professional witness can be accepted as grounds for eviction.

There are, of course, steps that can and should be taken to protect witnesses. For example, local authorities can apply for a non-molestation order. Where there is an adjournment the authority can ask for an undertaking from the defendant not to harass or interfere with the witness in the meantime. We have included such advice on the protection of witnesses in the Department of Environment's guidance Getting the best out of the court system in possession cases, which was prepared in conjunction with the Lord Chancellor's Department and which was sent to all local authorities in England and Wales in March this year. A number of practical steps can be taken to reassure and protect vulnerable witnesses when they attend the court, such as the use of screens or video evidence, and the provision of separate waiting areas.

The provisions of the Civil Evidence Act 1995 enable hearsay evidence to be admitted as evidence. The weight to be given to the evidence is for the courts to determine and will depend on the facts of each case, but the Act (which is due to come into force in the autumn) does say that one of the matters for consideration is whether

10 Jul 1996 : Column 425

it would be reasonable to have called the witness. Clearly, the likelihood of the intimidation of the witness would be a relevant consideration.

To sum up, we feel that in this Bill and related legislation we have created sufficient new powers to overcome the problems which these amendments are designed to solve. We therefore hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw Amendment No. 184A.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I thank the Minister for what he has said, but I am not totally convinced that all is as clear cut as he suggested. Obviously, there is provision for professional witnesses--I had thought that my amendments would make that clearer--but the phrase, "likely to cause a nuisance", in Clause 137 bothers me. I wonder whether the courts would think that the phrase "likely to cause" is as clear cut as the Minister suggests. It would be up to the courts to decide how to interpret the phrase--and that might not give the whole procedure the clarity and certainty that the Minister has suggested. Certainly, the court would have the discretion to interpret the matter rather differently. I had assumed that my amendments would make the position clearer, both as regards protecting witnesses and using professional witnesses. The phrase "likely to cause" therefore creates some doubt. I wonder whether, with the leave of the House, the Minister could clarify that because I am unhappy lest the consequence be not what he said that it would be.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am not happy that the noble Lord is unhappy. I shall discuss the matter again with my officials and doubtless they will do so with their legal advisers. As so far today I have managed to avoid promising to write to anybody, I hope that they will forgive me for promising to write to the noble Lord to allay his fears about how that phrase will be interpreted.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that, especially as it puts me in the unique position of receiving a letter from him as a result of today's proceedings. This is an important matter and I appreciate the fact that the noble Lord is attempting to be helpful. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 184B not moved.]

Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 185:

After Clause 138, insert the following new clause--

Extension of ground that grant of tenancy induced by false statement

(". In Ground 5 in Schedule 2 to the Housing Act 1985 (grant of tenancy induced by false statement) for "by the tenant" substitute "by--
(a) the tenant, or
(b) a person acting at the tenant's instigation".").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we discussed this with Amendment No. 133. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

10 Jul 1996 : Column 426

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 185A:

After Clause 140, insert the following new clause--

Injunctions against persons under eighteen

(".--(1) This section applies to an injunction granted by a county court or by the High Court--
(a) in possession proceedings;
(b) in any proceedings for breach of tenancy relating to residential premises;
(c) in proceedings brought by a registered social landlord or a public sector landlord as defined in section 80 of the Housing Act 1985 for trespass or nuisance;
(d) in any proceedings brought by a local authority using its powers under section 222 of the Local Government Act 1972;
(e) in any proceedings brought by a local authority for a public protection order under this Act; or
(f) which is a witness protection order granted under the provisions of this Act.
(2) Where a young person is in contempt of court by reason of a breach of any injunction to which this section applies that court shall have the equivalent powers of sentence and punishment which would be available to any criminal court had the defendant been convicted of an offence liable to imprisonment for up to two years.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment relates to young persons under the age of 18 and the use of injunctions against them granted by a county court or by the High Court in possession proceedings or in any proceedings for breach of tenancy relating to residential premises. The purpose of the amendment is to deal with the possibility of imposing sentences of detention on young persons for a period of up to two years. I believe that it is right there should be safeguards against the detention of young persons, although young persons can cause a nuisance and behave towards others living near them in an anti-social way. Nevertheless, young persons are more vulnerable than older ones and it is right that there should be certain safeguards.

My interpretation of the amendment is that the use of custody for those under 18 years of age will be resorted to reluctantly and that the powers suggested for the county court do not affect that: custody should be resorted to only for young offenders who commit serious offences or persistently offend. There would be no change to the nature of the circumstances in which young people might be given custody orders. The county court would have a discretion which it would use in the same way as a magistrates' court or juvenile court. The court would take into account the level of maturity and welfare needs of the young person.

Therefore, the amendment is not out of line with the principles that I have mentioned. Under the amendment, a court would not have power to impose a sentence of detention for up to two years on a 15 year-old unless that could also be done by a magistrates' court or juvenile court in similar circumstances. The provision would therefore act as a constraint. The practice of a magistrates' court or juvenile court would be that which would prevail for the county court or High Court. It is a safeguard. I beg to move.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, this amendment has been moved by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, in substitution for his noble friend Lady Hollis, in the sincere hope that it

10 Jul 1996 : Column 427

will address the problem of young people who make life a misery for others on some local authority housing estates. As I said in response to the noble Baroness in Committee, there is no easy answer to this problem.

The Government do not believe that the answer is to be found in this amendment. The noble Baroness acknowledged this herself at Committee stage, when she said she was stumped as to the best way forward on such an intractable problem. She called for organisations outside and beyond this Chamber to come forward with ideas. The Government, too, would welcome those ideas. As I indicated when we discussed this in Committee, this issue straddles the responsibilities of several government departments: the Department of the Environment, the Home Office, the Lord Chancellor's Department, the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Employment.

The Department of the Environment has made what the Government believe to be a significant step forward in addressing anti-social behaviour on public sector housing estates by the measures in Part V of the Bill. Many of these provisions have resulted directly from working with the local authority associations, and that work will continue. As the noble Baroness suggested, ideas from other sources would also be welcomed. There is more to be done between departments and with the local authority associations before we can offer a comprehensive solution to this problem.

I turn to the substance of the amendment. The amendment would allow the county court or High Court to impose on a young person--a 14 to 17 year-old--who breached an injunction granted by the court in certain types of proceedings any penalty which would have been available if the young person had been convicted of a criminal offence which carried a sentence of imprisonment of up to two years. In effect, a young person who committed such a breach would be eligible for a range of penalties, from a financial penalty to a community or custodial sentence, depending on age. The use of custody is not something which we advocate generally for young offenders. It is reserved for those who commit serious offences or who offend persistently, to reflect the principle that the courts should take into account the level of maturity and the welfare needs of the offender. The amendment does not rest easily with that principle. For example, the county court would have power to impose a sentence of detention on a 15 year-old for up to two years to prevent the escalation of a relatively minor breach of a tenancy agreement.

We believe that there are more appropriate ways to deal with young people. To recap what I said at Committee stage, these are the youth court (rather than the county court), where magistrates can bring particular expertise to bear on the needs of young people, and a wide range of penalties for young people over 10 who commit serious anti-social acts amounting to a criminal offence (for example racial harassment), including fines, community sentences and the binding over of parents to take proper care and control of the child. At the extreme, custodial sentences are available for the serious and persistent offender and the period of detention has recently been doubled from one to two years. A new sentence of secure training orders is to be introduced.

10 Jul 1996 : Column 428

This will be available for the small but significant group of 12 to 14 year-olds who are already experienced and regular offenders and who have failed to respond positively to a community penalty.

This issue goes wider even than how young offenders should be punished. I do not believe that it can be solved here tonight by means of this amendment. I hope therefore that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment, on the mutual understanding that this is a matter which the Government and others--evidently including the noble Lord--are addressing actively. However, sadly, we feel that there is not yet a solution.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page