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The noble Baroness said: This is a simple, straightforward amendment that would give a group of electors living in a particular neighbourhood or area a route to make an official complaint. We believe that there needs to be some safeguard, otherwise an individual bearing a grudge might well make repeated complaints. The amendment takes that into account by allowing a certain proportion of local residents to come together and act. It is important that when things
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are being done in their nameas will be done under these clausespeople should be encouraged to become involved in their neighbourhoods and in the state of local housing. I beg to move.
Clause 4 replaces with modifications Section 606 of the Housing Act 1985. That section places a duty on the proper officer of a local authority to make a report to the authority if he considers that a dwelling house or a house in multiple occupation is unfit for human habitation or that an area should be dealt with as a clearance area. It also requires a proper officer, as distinct from the authority itself, to inspect such a property or area in response to a complaint by a justice of the peace or a parish or community council that the property is unfit or the area should be cleared.
We introduced amendments in the other place to set out the meaning of Clause 4 more clearly. In particular, they reduced the prominence that it appeared to give to complaints made through justices of the peace and parish or community councils, and gave more emphasis to the day-to-day responsibility of authorities to determine whether an inspection is necessary. That responsibility arises both in response to complaints and as a follow-up to their reviews of housing conditions in their area under Clause 3.
Clause 4(1) now requires a local authority to consider whether to inspect a property in its area to establish whether or not there is a category 1 or category 2 hazard. A duty to consider arises either from the authority's review of housing conditions under Clause 3 or for any other reason. Under subsection (2), where a proper officer of an authority has received an official complaint from a justice of the peace or a parish or community council that a category 1 or 2 hazard may exist on residential premises, or that an area should be dealt with as a clearance area, the proper officer must inspect the premises or area.
Inspections of premises under Clause 4 must be carried out in accordance with the regulations referred to in Clause 4(4). Where, following an inspection made as a result of an official complaint, the proper officer is of the opinion that a category 1 or 2 hazard exists on residential premises, or that an area should be declared a clearance area, subsection (6) requires him to make a report in writing to the authority without delay, which must be considered as soon as possible.
Amendment No. 14 adds an unspecified number of elected members to those who can make an official complaint. It is not clear who determines what the number will be or what the criteria are. Aside from that, we do not believe that this addition serves any practical purpose. Authorities will generally investigate all complaints as a matter of policy. There is a potentially long list of worthy people we might add to our list.
We admit to other misgivings about trying to introduce a political dimension to the issue. We should trust authorities to exercise sensible discretion when it
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comes to complaints. People will not be slow to use this process, whether they be parish councillors, district councillors or members of the other place. In this case, we do not see the justification for adding Amendment No. 14 to the Bill. Authorities will generally take all reasonable steps to investigate all reasonable complaints as a matter of council policy.
Baroness Hanham: I thank the Minister for his reply. The wording of the Bill is odd. It effectively says that an official complaint can only be made by a justice of the peace or a parish or community council. Any other complaint is presumably not an official complaint, which can therefore be ignored by the health or housing authority if it wishes.
Perhaps this is where the difficulty lies, because if someone makes a complaint, one would expect it to be taken seriously. However, why does the Bill then introduce an official complaint? In order to get a justice of the peace to do anything about it, someone will have to get the justice of the peace or the parish council involved.
The phrasing of the amendment may not be ideal, but an official complaint has to be able to be made by a residents' association or a group of electors. I can think of a house in my borough that was a disaster zone for a number of years. It was not a matter of official complaintscomplaints were falling out all over the place. It is important that people feel entitled to complain. They will, regardless of the Bill, but the wording of the Bill is infelicitous.
Lord Rooker: The language of the clause came from elsewhere. It replaces Section 606 of the 1985 Act. I do not know where that section came from, but I have already referred to a 1969 Act. It is probably old language, because, while there might be 8,000 to 10,000 parish councillors in the country, huge areas of the country are not covered by parish councils. Most big cities are not parishedI think that they ought to be, but they are not. However, that does not stop complaints being made, and any good local authoritydo not forget that local authorities are checked over by the Audit Commission these dayswill have a complaints policy. If they do not, they should, and I cannot imagine a local authority without one.
Complaints that are reasonably made about houses and conditions in their areas will generally be investigated as a matter of policy. I am quite happy to get a note on this matter to the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. The language is probably an ancient throwback to previous legislation, which has been transferred from one Act to another. As I said, parish councils do not cover the whole country, so it would be quite wrong to disadvantage people who might not be able to make a complaint just because they do not have a parish council.
Baroness Hanham: I would be grateful if the Minister would look into it. I do not think that my amendment is correct. I am trying to ensure that anybody has a right to make an official complaint
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while trying to protect against people being awkward and difficult. It may be that subsection (3) needs to be removed unless there is a very good reasonwhich the Minister looks as if he might have.
Lord Rooker: Official complaints, as defined in the Bill and elsewhere, are meant to be rare. Ordinary complaintsthere are several categories, including dire complaints and urgent complaintsare complaints none the less. There is no reason to believe that they will be devalued simply because there is a process for making an official complaint.
The noble Baroness should look at subsection (3)(a), the first part of the subsection that she wants to amend: justices of the peace are all over the place. Although I do not want to encourage people to knock on their doors, there are a lot of JPs in the country and all areas are covered. However, that relates to an official complaint. It is intended that that will be a rarity, as opposed to ordinary complaints. Ordinary complaints are not devalued because they are not official complaints.
Baroness Hanham: I do not wish to prolong the discussion, but the more I look at the clause, the more concerned I get. It includes districts and parishes, but what on earth will happen with boroughs? I declare an interest as a justice of the peace. I do not want people running around making official complaints.
The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 15 is sensible and reasonable, and I hope that the Minister will agree. If a local authority conducts an inspection to determine whether a category 1 or 2 hazard exists and concludes that the area in question should be dealt with as a clearance area, local people have the right to be made aware of such a decision. Perhaps it is just my reading of the BillI would welcome the Minister's thoughts on the matterbut I cannot see how such a decision would be communicated to people who might have a vested interest in it.
Amendments Nos. 53 and 54 are also sensible and reasonable. The essence of the amendments is to provide for greater openness and clarity, and I know that those things are close to the Minister's heart. It would seem rational that, were a local authority to make a slum clearance or demolition order, the grounds on which the decision was made should be made available to any interested party.
The amendments would not compel the authority to make its decisions publicthat might involve additional time and moneybut would make it
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necessary for it to do so on written or oral request. I am sure that the Minister will not disagree with those sentiments. I beg to move.
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