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Mr. Raynsford: Will the hon. Gentleman accept, once again, my clear and categorical assurance that not only is there no intention to give prisoners a direct priority in housing allocation--a point I have made repeatedly--but there was no leak from the Department on the issue? If the hon. Gentleman thinks about it, he will probably recall that one bout of press speculation followed a press release that he himself put out making that unfounded allegation. When we are thinking about where press stories come from, Conservative central office is probably the answer.
Mr. Waterson: I do not think the Minister can get away with that. First, I have accepted his assurance, but if it makes him feel better, I will say again that I acknowledge that that is not now the Government's intention. Whether it ever was is perhaps academic. We certainly did not think the issue up; it featured in the media, which is why we commented on it. In fairness, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions said in a debate in the House that, if the matter was going to be spun, it was an odd thing for the Government to spin. Sometimes, though, as we have seen in recent weeks, spin doctors get out of control. In any event, we are delighted that, at this point, the proposition does not form part of the Government's proposals. Perhaps we can leave it at that.
We still think, as we did in Committee, that we should not move away from a principle set out in the Housing Act 1996. The Minister will say that this is an opportunity to simplify matters in the light of that Act, which we accept. Under the Act, authorities are required to produce allocation schemes that give "reasonable preference" to numerous categories, including families with dependent children. I say again that I see the argument for making some simplification. However, we take the view that if only one category is to be singled out, it should be families with dependent children. Parliament is entitled to send that sort of message.
I referred in Committee to the useful work of the Catholic Housing Aid Society. I shall not refer to it again in any detail, except to say that, among other things, it shows that, of all local authority acceptances of priority need, nearly 60 per cent. are households with dependent children. That chimes with my mailbag and surgery and is a perfectly legitimate issue which could be included in the Bill.
Amendment No. 17 raises the important issue of so-called neighbours from hell. There was near unanimity in Committee that perhaps the most difficult sort of issue in which we are asked to get involved as Members of Parliament concerns people who behave antisocially. It is often significantly easier to deal with the problem if such people are in social housing rather than in private housing. Having said that, we all face such problems in our constituencies. The Bill should send out a much clearer message that people should not and cannot behave antisocially.
Earlier, we talked about violence and the threat of violence, and the effect that that can have on neighbours. We are now talking about a range of activity from the mildly antisocial through to genuine violence, which encompasses people breaking windows or making a lot of noise and encouraging their children to be noisy and difficult with certain neighbours. Such activity may even involve repairing cars and motorcycles on the front lawn or hanging out washing in a certain area. All those things can make a difference to a neighbourhood and to people's neighbours. There are also problems of racial abuse and other issues, which we have already discussed in relation to a different group of amendments. Such activity is one of the biggest causes of unhappiness in many estates throughout the country.
Schedule 2 of the Housing Act 1988 gives landlords grounds to evict people from shorthold tenancies. Section 162 of the 1996 Act gives local authorities the power to apply for injunctions against antisocial behaviour. The Government have introduced antisocial behaviour orders but, on any view, their use to date has been disappointing. I will not repeat the experience of the Irwell Valley housing association in Salford, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) dealt with it at length in Committee. The association's approach, which involves being tough with antisocial people and trying to reward those who behave as good neighbours, produces high levels of customer satisfaction and low levels of arrears, and so on.
The Committee also discussed a scheme by Wandsworth council--so often the trailblazer in these matters--for contracts between it and its tenants to cut down on criminal and immoral acts in council housing.
Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the difficulty that many local authorities face with the kind of tenancies that he described. There was considerable cross-party agreement on that in Committee. However, does he not accept that the wording of amendment No. 17 is rather woolly and open to interpretation?
Mr. Waterson: Like everything in this Bill or in any other piece of legislation, the amendment is subject to interpretation. We hope that local authorities will apply the measures reasonably. However, the point of the amendment is that we need to give them a steer so that they can--and should--take account of people's previous behaviour.
If people have a record of bad behaviour, rent arrears or whatever--we went into that in detail in Committee, as the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) will remember--that could and should be taken into account. That does not mean taking into account a criminal conviction such as a speeding fine, as some councils do. It means taking into account the fact that there are genuine grounds for concern that tenants who have behaved badly vis-a-vis their neighbours in the past may well do so again.
Mr. Bercow: It is right that my hon. Friend should focus, as the Committee did, on obviously antisocial and, in some cases, even criminal behaviour. In that context, will he take the opportunity to distinguish between behaviour which, we all agree, should be denounced and counteracted by public agencies--and, possibly, be the subject of police investigation--and cases of honest disagreement and dispute between neighbours? On the latter, would he not commend the important contribution to the resolution of those conflicts that can be made be mediation services, of which there is an excellent example in Aylesbury?
Mr. Waterson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. There is another excellent example in Eastbourne. We discussed in Committee--and I am sure that this will have wider resonance across the House--the problem of receiving one set of neighbours at one's advice surgery one week and then, to one's horror, seeing on one's list of appointments the next the people about whom they were complaining. I am sure that my hon. Friend shares my experience: we are seen as arbiters of these problems, which are extraordinarily difficult to resolve.
Mr. Waterson: Indeed. We should set aside the situation in which two perfectly respectable and responsible sets of neighbours, neither of whom are behaving criminally or particularly reprehensibly, simply do not get on with one another. Whatever they do, there will always be a dispute about something--whether an overhanging tree, an uncut lawn or a badly parked car. We all know of such cases--I certainly have experience of them--which have gone on for years, blighting the
Finally, I wish to speak briefly to amendment No. 20 which, on the face of it, would provide a dramatic power for an authority effectively to suspend the operation of a certain provision when it can show that continuing to operate it would have a detrimental effect.
I explained in Committee, but perhaps I should do so again, that we have in mind the clear distinction that exists between authorities that have an excess of supply over demand in respect of social housing, and those where the opposite is the case. I understand that there are parts of the country, particularly but not exclusively in the north, where someone looking for a new flat or house will go to the local council and be shown two or three nice options that afternoon.
I discussed the situation in Eastbourne recently with Councillor Mrs. Ann Murray, who is the lead cabinet member for housing under the new and highly successful Conservative administration of Eastbourne borough council. The average wait in Eastbourne can be three to four years, which is phenomenal. When people contact me and come to my surgery, it is extremely depressing to write off to the housing department knowing that one will get a letter back stating that those people will have to wait three to four years.
The council hopes to reduce the waiting time to two to three years, which may not seem like a great leap forward, simply by changing the rules so that children can be put into council flats, which has not been allowed so far.
May I take the opportunity to remind the Minister that Eastbourne is one of the 90-odd authorities that have applied for the pilot scheme for choice-based allocations? As I recall, the arithmetic was rather depressing. It seemed that only about a third of those that had applied would be eligible for the scheme. None the less, it is an interesting concept. We had a longish discussion in Committee about the so-called Delft system. Closer to home, Harborough is ahead of the game, having undertaken a particular pilot scheme.
My only comment--and this is the point of our amendment--is that a choice-based system is all very well and up-to-the-minute and trendy, but how is it to operate in a place such as Eastbourne, where there is a vast excess of demand over supply? I can see that it would make a difference in some cases. That is why I am particularly keen that Eastbourne should be successful in becoming part of the pilot scheme and getting some of the dosh out of the Minister--we get precious little else in Eastbourne.
It will be fascinating to see how the scheme would work in such places. If I were the Minister trying to decide on a wholly dispassionate basis how to allocate the resources for the pilot schemes, I would consider Eastbourne a particularly good example of one end of the scale, where there is great demand and a thoroughly inadequate supply. I hope that the Minister will look warmly and encouragingly on the Eastbourne bid, although there is a more serious general issue at stake.