Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. It probably covered more or less the same ground as previously, except for Amendments Nos. 20 and 21 where I was seeking to put on to the face of the Bill the categories of people affected. I accept more or less what the Minister has said. I can see the difficulties and perhaps the lack of necessity for these amendments.

I felt more stroppy about Amendment No. 24 until I heard what the Minister said. I wanted it to be absolutely clear within the scope of this legislation that the local authority has the right to adjust the make-up of its housing estates. I am very anxious about sink estates. I am very anxious about far too many people with priority needs being, perhaps, lumped together. I hope that people will not misunderstand what I mean by that. That is always the effect of having vulnerable people all together who cannot support each other. I think I have the Minister's assurance that the Bill will state that it will be the local authority's responsibility and that it will have the right to adjust its lettings to ensure that that does not happen. If I understood the Minister correctly in that, I shall not press Amendment No. 24. I beg leave to withdraw Amendment No. 19.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

15 Jan 2002 : Column 1016

[Amendments Nos. 20 and 21 not moved.]

Baroness Maddock moved Amendment No. 22:

    Page 11, line 1, after "any" insert "deliberate, wilful, or negligent"

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the group of amendments deal with housing allocations. Amendment No. 22 deals with a tenant's suitability. I shall speak to that amendment later. However, I turn briefly to the other amendments in the group. Amendments Nos. 23, 26 and 27 are about information and review. The Government have tabled Amendments Nos. 25 and 28, which cover the matter, and put their name to Amendment No. 26. I warmly welcome the Government's amendments and their action. When we raised the matter in Committee, the intention was for the onus to be on local authorities where unacceptable behaviour was found, and the amendments achieve that.

I return to Amendment No. 22. The draft guidance that I have seen on the matter is rather weak. A pre-consultative draft relating to the clause circulated in October 2001 states only:

    "housing authorities can take into account the applicant's behaviour (or that of a household member) in relation to suitability as tenants. This can include serious or wilful rent arrears, deliberate unacceptable behaviour or deliberately creating unsatisfactory living conditions in pursuit of a quicker route to rehousing".

I am grateful to Shelter for providing evidence of how the policy and practice of some local authorities and registered social landlords currently means that people in housing need are denied access to social housing.

I emphasise that the amendment is designed to promote consistency and to ensure that the Government's policy intentions are met. In paragraphs 9.15 and 9.16 of the Green Paper, the Government clearly set out their policy intentions in the allocation of social housing. They state:

    "Any decisions to suspend applications would need to take account of the circumstances of the household in order to safeguard vulnerable groups such as those with mental or behavioural problems, or the children of the families concerned. We would expect suspensions to be exceptional and that other ways of managing problems or risk may be more appropriate in many cases".

But the key sentence is:

    "Meeting housing need remains the priority for lettings and transfer".

I raised that matter in Committee.

Under the Bill as drafted, local authorities could reduce priority because of rent arrears or for other reasons. That is common under current arrangements. In reality, in many parts of the country, a decision to reduce an applicant's priority effectively means that he or she will not be housed. Current practice shows all too clearly how important it is to get the legislative framework right in that area. Despite strong guidance to the contrary, it is common under current legislation for local authorities either to suspend or exclude people with rent arrears or other debts. Those arrears are sometimes trivial and, in many cases, caused by the failure of the local authority to administer housing benefit payments.

15 Jan 2002 : Column 1017

Research for the previous Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions found that more than one in 10 authorities and registered social landlords that responded to a survey took account of council tax arrears when considering rehousing eligibility. That was despite the fact that draft guidance says that authorities should not take account of such factors. There is much other similar evidence. I therefore hope that the Minister will make it clear that housing need should be the main factor in deciding the priority of an application. I hope that he will emphasise the sort of behaviour that should not lead to an applicant being given a lesser priority—especially rent arrears caused by housing benefit problems and council tax arrears. I beg to move.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, this returns us to an issue that the noble Baroness raised in Committee. Amendment No. 22 would ensure that an authority could take account only of deliberate, wilful or negligent behaviour that affected the applicant's suitability to be a tenant when determining the priority and preference to be given to an applicant who falls within the categories of applicant who must be given reasonable preference.

The provision in the Bill as drafted would allow authorities to take account of both good and bad behaviour which might have been demonstrated by individual applicants. Bad behaviour might include unacceptable behaviour which was not serious enough to make the applicant unsuitable to be a tenant, but was nevertheless a factor to be taken into account in assessing the level of priority deserved relative to other applicants.

For instance—this addresses the issue raised by the noble Baroness—let us consider an applicant who has a history of persistent but minor rent arrears not caused by any problems with housing benefit and another applicant, perhaps an existing tenant applying for a transfer, who has demonstrated that he is a model tenant. All other factors being equal, the authority may understandably decide that the latter deserves a degree more priority than the former.

The issue of what relative priority individual applications should receive for an allocation is a matter for the authority to decide, in accordance with the principles of its published scheme, where the basis for determining priority will have to be set out. It is right that the authority should have discretion to decide whether, and how, applicants' behaviour should be taken into account. The amendment would in effect reduce that discretion on behaviour to those aspects of behaviour that fall within the rubric, "deliberate, wilful or negligent". I should remind noble Lords that applicants will have the right under Clause 15(4) to obtain information about the facts on which the authority has taken its decision, and to request a review of that decision. For the reasons I have given, I ask the noble Baroness not to pursue her amendment.

15 Jan 2002 : Column 1018

As it is in the same group, perhaps I may also speak to Amendment No. 25. I have already spoken at some length about the provisions in Clause 13 that allow an authority to decide to treat an applicant as ineligible for an allocation because it is satisfied that he is guilty of unacceptable behaviour serious enough to make him unsuitable to be a tenant of the authority. Where an authority is satisfied that an applicant is unsuitable to be a tenant of the authority, it may decide to treat him as ineligible, or it may instead decide to consider his or her application but not to give any preference for an allocation.

As the Bill stands, the authority must notify the applicant of a decision to treat him or her as ineligible, and of the grounds for the decision. As regards a decision not to give preference, applicants have the right to ask to be informed, but the authority is not required to notify them unless requested to do so.

In Committee, the noble Baroness pressed for an amendment that would have required authorities to notify applicants about such decisions. Unfortunately, because of its construction it would also have required authorities to notify applicants about routine decisions taken about the facts of their application.

At the time, I said that I thought that the right balance was to leave it to local authorities to decide who to tell and when. I have, however, reflected on what the noble Baroness said. I can see the force of the argument that in areas where pressure on housing is high, a decision not to give preference could, as she said today, have the same practical effect as a decision to treat as ineligible. That is to say, as she put it, it could remove any realistic opportunity of the applicant being allocated accommodation. Moreover, the additional requirement—to notify—should not add significantly to authorities' workload, as I expect that, overall, only a small proportion of applicants will receive such decisions. I understand that the local authority associations support the proposal.

I therefore think that authorities should be required to notify the applicant when they decide not to give any preference because of unacceptable behaviour. Amendments Nos. 25 and 28, in conjunction with Amendment No. 26, will achieve that effect, and I invite noble Lords to support them.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page