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House of Lords

Monday, 18 May 2009.

2.30 pm

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Ely.

Housing: Repossession


2.36 pm

Asked By Baroness Scott of Needham Market

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, I share the concern of the noble Baroness about the problem of tenants who are evicted at very short notice when, through no fault of their own, their landlord is repossessed. We announced on 13 May that we intend to legislate to provide additional protection for tenants caught in this situation and we will shortly be consulting on the details.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply. Is she aware of stories from Citizens Advice of individuals coming out of hospital to find that the locks have been changed on their property because it has been repossessed? Will the changes to which she refers include giving courts the power to defer the possession order to give time, particularly for vulnerable tenants, to make alternative arrangements?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I have certainly seen the Shelter report, which has many of the same sort of stories about people who return home to find that the locks have been changed or who are given very little notice to find alternative accommodation. We think that this involves a small minority—about 2,000 people—but that does not make it any less unjust. The problem is that the landlord has not informed the lender that they have sublet their property and so the tenants have no tenancy rights. We plan to legislate at the earliest opportunity for the tenants affected, so that we can ensure that all tenants in this situation get at least two months’ notice if they need to leave their home for any reason. That would put them on the same footing as other tenants. We are now discussing with lenders and the debt and housing advice providers how to change the law to best effect.

Lord Best: My Lords, I declare my interest as chairman of the Property Ombudsman Council, which deals with complaints against estate agents and the managing agents and letting agents of private landlords. I am much encouraged by the Minister’s response, but are the Government addressing the parallel issue of evictions under Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988,

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which allows landlords to evict people who complain? While that provision remains, it is difficult for a complaints and redress scheme to work properly, as the landlord can evict the tenant who complains. Is the Minister aware that in America, where the private rented sector is much further advanced, that problem has been overcome?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I am very interested to hear what the noble Lord has said about American practice; I did not know that. The context for this is the Rugg review, which last week published its report on the private rented sector. It recommended among other things the idea of a lighter-touch national register of every private landlord in the country. That would increase protection both for vulnerable tenants and for good landlords, which is the solution that we are looking for. When the Rugg review looked at this problem, it found not that the problem is widespread but that the real issue is how to raise standards in the private sector. If properties were properly maintained, the problem of retaliatory eviction would not arise. We will look at this in that much broader context.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, as the Minister has said, a lot, if not most, of the problem applies to sub-lessees, many of whom will be on housing benefit. In these cases, will their housing benefit be affected, or will they have to start again with a new claim?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I am not properly briefed on that, but my sense is that their housing benefit would be protected. This would happen through no fault of their own. If the noble Lord will forgive me, I will write to him.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I appreciate that the noble Baroness cannot commit to the date of legislation, but she will appreciate that those who are concerned about the problem are also concerned about having to wait until the Queen’s Speech in the autumn and then for new legislation. Will the Government see whether there is current legislation on to which they can add some of these provisions? In the mean time, will they talk to the relevant parties about the pre-action protocol and steps that the courts may or may not take?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I cannot pre-empt any legislative vehicle, for the reasons that the noble Baroness gave, but we will certainly find the first relevant legislation that we can. We have to consult properly because this is a complicated situation, as she will know, given her experience. Tenancy agreements are very complicated indeed. We have to work—and we are working—closely with lenders, who have been very supportive on this, as have the lobby groups. We need to improve the current practices when an unauthorised tenant is found in the property. We are working to mitigate the impact on tenants whose landlords are in arrears. For example, in April we extended the period of the possession order to seven weeks, which will help. We will try to get as much information as we can to tenants who may be vulnerable, but the difficulty is in finding them.

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Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, is the Minister aware that there used to be a parallel situation with utilities, such as gas and electricity? People would find the bailiffs coming because the man who owned the whole block had not paid his bills or done anything about them. This was resolved with the utilities by agreeing a code of conduct with them, so that they would check whether there were tenants in a property; if there were, the utilities would notify the tenants and, in some cases, accept payment—even the landlord’s payment—directly from the tenant. Perhaps something of that type could be brought in.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I am learning a lot in the course of this Question. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that interesting information, which should go into the consultative process. If there is some way of solving this, we need all the help that we can get.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, is the new legislation to be confined to England, or are Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland also to be kept in tow on this?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, my best advice is that it applies to England only, but I will write to the noble Lord if I am wrong.

Lord Bates: My Lords, is not the scale of this problem growing dramatically, with repossessions rising by 50 per cent in the first quarter of this year? Are there not two simple further methods that the Minister could use? The first would be to ensure that the tenants have a right to appear at a court when a repossession case is being heard against their landlord. The second would be to allow tenants to remain in a repossessed property under licence, pending the sale of that property.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, those are two interesting suggestions, which I will refer to the consultative process. As for where we are with houses that are being repossessed, it is quite interesting that the CML, which suggested that there would be in the order of 75,000 repossessions this year, is phasing its figures down. In the first quarter we saw only 12,000 repossessions. That is still a significant number, but maybe not as many as we thought.

Immigration: Sangatte


2.44 pm

Asked By Lord Naseby

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): My Lords, since the closure of Sangatte camp in 2003, the United Kingdom

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and France have worked together to create one of the most secure border crossings in the world at Calais. This is achieved through the rigorous searching and screening of lorries, exchanging information on the changing nature of the threat and by sharing high levels of border-control expertise. Last year, we detected and prevented more than 28,000 individual attempts to cross the channel illegally.

Lord Naseby: My Lords, while those figures undoubtedly sound very impressive, why are so many people under 18 getting into the United Kingdom? Apparently, we do not deport them with the adults who also get in. Secondly, is not the whole thing made even worse by the fact that Her Majesty’s Government have not paid back to Eurotunnel the amount, which runs into several millions, that it has spent on security? Even today, I am told—I inquired yesterday—about 10 Afghans a day attempt to get into the United Kingdom. Does that not suggest that Her Majesty’s Government’s policy on Afghanistan is somewhat lacking?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, that was really a series of rolling questions. I do not accept that very large numbers of people under 18 are coming into the country. There is no doubt that some are, and it is quite difficult almost by definition to know exactly how many get in illegally, but we have been very successful at picking up the ones who manage to get through the very strict border controls. We deal with the under-18s very specifically and carefully to ensure that we comply with all the safeguards that are there for people of that sort of age. I will look at the question about Eurotunnel and get back to the noble Lord in writing.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, under Clause 57 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill, the UKBA and the contractors who work for it have to safeguard the welfare of children under their control, but only in the United Kingdom and not at the juxtaposed controls that are referred to in the Question. Will the Minister say what the logic is of applying different standards to the treatment of children according to whether they are in Yarl’s Wood or Sangatte? Will he also say why such a duty would prevent the authorities handing over a child to the French or the Belgians, where the child is refused leave to enter or is found to be at risk, as they do at present? What will be contained in this duty that will stop them doing that?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Lord is well aware that we had a long debate on these issues during the passage of the BCI Bill through this House, and I do not intend to go into the detail of that again. We liaise very closely with the French and with the International Organisation for Migration in dealing with people who we think might be under 18. France signed the convention in May 2006. The cases of unaccompanied children who seek asylum are considered by the French authorities. We co-operate daily with the French authorities. Clandestines under the age of 18 are handed into their care and control, and we are content that they deal with them appropriately.

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The Countess of Mar: My Lords, there are reports in the press that people who find the French crossing too difficult now pay to fly to Ireland and come in from that direction. If those reports are true, will the Minister say what discussions he has had with the Irish Government to prevent this happening?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Countess raises an important point. We have real concerns not just about the attempted entry of illegals into the CTA through Ireland but about serious crime and other issues. That issue was raised in our debates on the BCI Bill, and we discussed it. We have had a lot of debates with the Irish Government on this issue. They want us to strengthen our border controls, and they have already gone about strengthening their own.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, am I right in assuming that these gentlemen who wish to come in from Afghanistan or Kurdistan are illegal immigrants into France when they are in France? If I am right, can someone explain why the French do not send them back to Afghanistan rather than just leaving them to us to send back if they get over?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I would like to say easily that anyone would rather live in this country than in France, but I dare not say something like that on the Floor of the House. There is no doubt that if someone is genuinely fleeing persecution, they should claim asylum in the first safe country that they get to. If they are not in need of protection, we and the French expect to return them home. There are complexities in French law, but we are dealing with the French very closely. The new Minister, Eric Besson, has been in dialogue with my honourable friend Phil Woolas about this. There is a lot of work to do. The French genuinely want to help, but they have real difficulties. It is very complicated, but absolutely anyone who comes should be taken in the first country that they get to. This is a real problem.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, how many people over the past year or two have the French found to be illegally present in France and deported to their country of origin? Do the French still tolerate this class of people they call people without papers—personnes sans papiers? They are left there, wandering around like lost souls. That does not seem to comply with the undertakings they have given about the treatment of those seeking asylum.

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I am not sure of the status of these people as regards papers. I know this was being addressed by their Minister, Eric Besson. It is one of the problems the French authorities have. We are in close liaison with them and we work very hard. I do not know the exact number that they have returned. If I do have that figure, I will get back to my noble friend in writing.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, Sangatte has gone. There were rumours that the Mayor of Calais was going to establish further reception centres. Will the Minister tell us if any discussions have taken place on that and, if so, where we are on this?

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Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the United Kingdom and France remain firmly opposed to any sort of Sangatte reception centre. There has been some confusion because there is a facility within our juxtaposed controls, which is a bit like a portakabin, where we hold people when they have been pulled off these lorries temporarily. We want to construct a better and more appropriate facility to do that before they are returned to the French. I think that is where there has been some confusion. We are in dialogue with the French about that, as we are on a number of issues to do with costs around the port of Calais.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: Is the Minister aware that Sangatte is not the only camp of this sort within the European Union? There is now a camp at Patras in western Greece for people who have got into Greece, overwhelming the islands on which they have landed. As they are allowed off, they get to the western edge of Greece and then do their best to go illegally from Greece into Italy and then beyond.

Incidentally, this is not a French problem, it is a Schengen problem. Malta is similarly overwhelmed. Can the Government assure us that we are now working very closely with the Governments of Malta and Greece as well as that of Italy to cope with the surge of illegal immigrants being trafficked across the Mediterranean, many of them intending to reach either Britain, Sweden or other countries in northern Europe?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, what the noble Lord says is true. There is no doubt that this flow of trafficked people—and also some who are not necessarily trafficked but who are economic migrants—is becoming a flood. The global financial crisis will probably add to that. I am aware that we are in discussion with certain countries about this. I do not know the exact detail of it all. Even three years ago I was involved in discussions with the Maltese about the real problem they have of picking up shipping that is coming across the Mediterranean, very often in sinking condition. They are ending up with huge numbers of these people in their island. It is a real problem. Perhaps I could get back to the noble Lord in writing about what dialogue is going on because I am not sure about what exactly is happening in that area.

Female Genital Mutilation


2.53 pm

Asked By Baroness Rendell of Babergh

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Darzi of Denham): My Lords, female genital mutilation is a cruel and brutal practice that the Government are determined to tackle. An advertisement from an NHS trust appeared on a

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Somali satellite TV station featuring a midwife giving advice about surgical reversal of female genital mutilation. Although a local initiative, the Department of Health is supportive of raising awareness in practising communities to improve access to health services. Since it was aired, 10 women have undergone surgical reversal at the well woman centre.

Baroness Rendell of Babergh: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his Answer. Seeing that the group which produced this advertisement is receiving at least 15 phone calls per week applying for reversals, which incidentally would be done in doctors’ surgeries rather than hospitals, does he think it would be a good idea to put out this advertisement or a similar one in other languages, because female genital mutilation is carried out in many African countries, not just in the east of Africa?

Lord Darzi of Denham: My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct in relation to the carrying out of these procedures in the community. In fact, the example she gives applies to a GP practice, where a midwife does these procedures under local anaesthesia. The Department of Health is supportive of penetrating such communities with whatever tools are available, including advertising and the provision of advice in different languages. The NHS Choices website also provides support for such communities. Let us not forget that we also have 14 specialist clinics in the NHS to treat women and girls who have been mutilated. These clinics have well trained and culturally sensitive staff who offer a range of healthcare services, including reversal surgery.

Baroness Tonge: My Lords, while I welcome the move taken by the Department of Health, is it not more important to catch the perpetrators of this violent act against young girls in the first place? I understand that around 500 girls were subjected to female genital mutilation in the past year and we do not know by whom, despite it being illegal in this country and illegal to take girls abroad for the operation. Surely it is not beyond the wit of the Government, the medical profession or the health service authorities to launch a sting operation to find out who is doing this violent act against these children and who is enabling them to go abroad to have it done.

Lord Darzi of Denham: My Lords, I agree. We need to approach this issue in a number of different ways, including identifying those culprits. Legislation has been through these Houses, including the Female Genital Mutilation Act, which makes it very clear that there can be imprisonment of up to 14 years. We also have a reward structure available. I stress that the evidence base suggests that communities that have employed a process of collective decision-making have been able to abandon this practice. It is most important to tackle some of the cultural issues to ensure that families and communities come to the police to report such incidents and that this change from the social norm is desired at a local level.

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