Homes Bill

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Mr. Loughton: An even worse scenario is when both sides of a dispute arrive at the surgery at the same time.

Mr. Waterson: That has never happened to me, thank goodness, but it sounds like a nightmare.

On a serious note, such appalling situations sometimes blight people's lives for years, yet the police, the local council, the social services and a range of agencies and organisations seem incapable of dealing with a problem. People suffer ill health, mental problems and many other problems. It is no good moving straight on, as Shelter does in its briefing, to talk about social exclusion. If people are simply incapable of living in a social setting with their neighbours, there is a case for social exclusion.

The Government's stated aim was to remove those blanket restrictions. I do not honestly believe, for the reasons that I have stated and the reasons set out in Shelter's background briefing, that the amendments have that effect. Shelter says:

    ``amendment 81 would strengthen clause 25 so that it clearly states that anyone can apply for housing''.

It adds:

    ``amendment 82 would require authorities not to frame their scheme in such a way as to exclude anyone at the application stage, thereby requiring every application to be considered.''

Again, with all due respect to the hon. Member for Edmonton and Shelter, that may be a wholly Pyrrhic victory in terms of helping individuals.

I should like to mention a couple of examples that I found interesting in the background briefing from Shelter. It makes the obvious point that the real extent of exclusions from housing is unclear. It is extremely difficult to get reliable figures. It estimates that as many as 200,000 people have been excluded or suspended from social housing and have developed into what it terms an underclass who simply cannot get housed anywhere. I read in one Shelter publication that the whole problem has been aggravated in recent years by the development of joint registers between RSLs and local authorities, which means that people cannot be excluded by one and find their way on to the other.

Shelter mentions a mysteriously described ``northern authority'', which

    ``in March 1999 had an active rehousing list of over 16,000 households, while over 53,000 were suspended for various reasons . . . The same authority is widely quoted as having a surplus of around 20,000 properties.''

Some authorities have quite strong policies on this subject. Without wearying the Committee too much, I shall quote just two examples from the many that Shelter cites. The first states:

    ``A lone parent with three children applied for housing benefit from her RSL home in February 2000. The local authority lost the claim and refused to accept she had made the claim''—

a situation we have all come across in our mail bags.

    ``She then reapplied for housing benefit in May, but was told that it would not be backdated to February. The claim was processed and eventually paid in September. As over £1,000 of rent arrears were outstanding...the RSL sought repossession. She was not represented at the case and the court issued a repossession notice. She applied to the council as homeless. They refused to accept her as `she made herself intentionally homeless' by not paying her debt. She was not allowed to join a housing register as she had over £100 worth of debt. She sought advice from the local Shelter housing advice centre.''

Eventually, with its help her debts were cleared and she was accepted as homeless. That shows the Kafkaesque situations that people can get sucked into.

Another example states:

    ``An authority in the north east has suspended a women's application for housing from the register due to arrears, despite the fact that she had been accepted as priority homeless as she had to flee violence from outside the home.''

Yes, we support the principle that blanket exclusions, particularly where they produce wholly artificial results, should be looked at again. We do not want to see a situation in which individual cases cannot be taken into account, whether it be individual cases of merit, like the couple that I have just mentioned, or individual cases where there are genuine reasons why people should not be given priority for social housing. That is a wider debate to which we shall return. For all those reasons, not least the first which is that I cannot see that they would make much difference, the Opposition are not minded to support amendments Nos. 81 and 82.

Mr. Raynsford: I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton for raising an important issue and allowing us an opportunity to consider one of the most complex passages of the Bill. The concepts themselves are not difficult, but the way in which the new Bill relates to the existing legislation is necessarily complex. I said earlier, in a private conversation, that it is relatively easy to write legislation from scratch; it is much more problematic to amend existing legislation—which is what we do in this place most of the time. This Bill is no exception to that.

My hon. Friend rightly stressed the importance of giving effect to our Green Paper commitment to end blanket policies that exclude whole categories of applicants, arbitrarily and unfairly, from entitlement to housing. I understood the hon. Member for Eastbourne to concur entirely with that objective, which we all want to secure. The hon. Member for Eastbourne raised the reasonable issue of antisocial behaviour. He asked whether an authority should be obliged immediately to rehouse people who have been evicted for making their neighbours' lives a misery—only to cause misery to others? That is a fair and valid question. I do not want to pre-empt the full discussion that we should have on the issue on Thursday—and incur your wrath, Mr. Gale—but we believe that there are mechanisms for ensuring that authorities deal individually with people who have behaved in such a way and for when it is not appropriate to give priority to rehousing. Safeguards can be provided in individual cases without applying a blanket policy. Our objective is to ensure that there are no blanket bans on whole categories of people.

The problem was brought home to me graphically in a rather shocking case in one of my constituency surgeries recently. A 19-year-old woman told me that she had been debarred from consideration for council housing because she had been evicted for antisocial behaviour three years earlier. I was shocked that she had had a tenancy of a council property at the age of 16, but it transpired that she had been sharing the tenancy with an older person, her partner at the time—someone with whom she was no longer associated—who had behaved in an extremely unpleasant and antisocial way. I am not making a judgment on the individual case, although I felt that that young woman had a reasonable case for consideration, but the obvious question to ask is whether, where someone has been debarred from consideration because of a previous unsatisfactory pattern of behaviour, that mark of Cain should rest with them for ever or whether there is a point at which he or she can be reconsidered.

That is the nub of the individual rather than the blanket approach. A blanket approach makes it quite likely that people will be debarred, not necessarily for ever but for a long period of time, without taking account of changes in attitude, behaviour and circumstances that would justify reconsideration of the case.

Mr. Waterson: Does the Minister accept the other side of that coin that, to encourage better tenant behaviour, consideration may be given to individual cases where there are genuine concerns about people's behaviour? The problem on some estates is often that the system seems to rush to help people who behave badly, while abandoning those who are responsible and do their best.

5.30 pm

Mr. Raynsford: I agree wholeheartedly that it is absolutely right that all those involved in the management and delivery of housing services should be extremely vigilant about supporting honest, reasonable members of society who find themselves the victims of antisocial behaviour. We introduced the new provisions of the antisocial behaviour orders to give additional powers to local authorities to enable them to take action against people making their neighbours' lives a misery. I wholeheartedly concur that action should be taken.

However, that is slightly different from the point that I was trying to make—perhaps not as well as I should have done—that people involved in antisocial behaviour at one stage in their lives can change, reform and become law-abiding citizens who should be eligible for consideration in future. The danger of a blanket exclusion is that it might prevent consideration being given to such people. I think that we all agree that it is right, as a policy objective, to try to ensure that local housing authorities cannot operate blanket exclusion policies. That is our intention and I shall not say any more about why we seek that.

That is not to say that there will never be circumstances where an authority will have grounds for refusing to allocate accommodation to an applicant, even though it might have vacant properties. Each application must be assessed on its merits. There may be cases where an applicant's previous behaviour and current unwillingness to reform make an authority's refusal perfectly reasonable, but that is an individual consideration, Such decisions require careful consideration. All relevant factors must be balanced, including the degree of housing need, the hardship that will be suffered if accommodation were refused, and the applicant's past and likely future behaviour. Blanket bans preclude such a process, undermining an elementary principle of justice.

Amendment No. 81 seeks to provide all eligible applicants with a right to apply. Such a right arises necessarily from the changes that we are making to part VI of the Housing Act 1996 and is expressly recognised in the terminology of new section 166(1)(a) inserted by clause 26. My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton will recognise that the terminology refers to the right to make an application. That is explicitly recognised in the new Bill. But that provision, like the proposed amendment, only goes so far. What is essential is that any application should be given proper consideration, and that is secured by the new section 166(3), also inserted by clause 26.

My hon. Friend asked about new section 166(3) and I shall try to answer my hon. Friend's concern by quoting the clause and interpreting it to the best of my ability. New section 166(3), as inserted by clause 26, states:

    ``Every application made to a local housing authority for an allocation of housing accommodation shall (if made in accordance with the authority's allocation scheme) be considered by the authority.''

There are two points to stress. First, that places an obligation on the local authority to consider every application, and that is part of the framework that prevents blanket bans. Secondly, it ensures that the authority can require people to apply in accordance with a particular arrangement, for example, filling in a form. If someone has not provided the authority with the necessary information by filling in a form, it is released from the obligation to consider it until the person has provided that information. That is the purpose of new section 166(3). It prevents a blanket ban on an individual, or groups of applicants, from being imposed via the back door. It is a procedural arrangement to enable the authority, perfectly reasonably, to require a certain amount of information to be provided upon which it can properly assess an application. To use new section 166(3) as a vehicle for prescribing classes that could be excluded would be entirely unjustified, would be challengeable and would be likely to be struck down as unreasonable. That is all part of the complex process of interpreting the provisions.

That brings me to amendment No. 82. Hon. Members are concerned that new section 166(3) and its requirement that applications must be made in accordance with an authority's allocation scheme might be used by an authority to frame its schemes in such a way as to operate a blanket exclusion. On first hearing that argument, I shared their concern, and I asked my officials to consider it carefully. As a result of further advice and detailed discussion, I am now reassured and satisfied that that is not possible. I shall try and take the Committee through this necessarily complex subject to try to satisfy everyone as to why it cannot be used as a vehicle for operating a blanket ban.

I start with the current position. Some authorities are operating blanket bans and that is made possible by section 161(4) of the 1996 Act. That is repealed by clause 25 of the Bill. Once that repeal is effected, there is nothing in part VI of the 1996 Act, as amended, that empowers authorities to make blanket exclusions. Only that provision enabled them to do that. A section 167 scheme is about determining priorities and procedures for allocations. I am advised that new section 160A(2), which provides that anyone can be allocated accommodation, and new section 166(1) and (3)—the implicit right to apply and the right to consideration—when read together with section 167, as amended, which is the framework for preferences and priorities, do not permit local authorities to operate blanket exclusions as part of their allocation schemes. An application by an eligible person has to be considered on its merits. He may be accorded greater or lesser priority, but he cannot be excluded from consideration completely. Of course, he may fail to be allocated a property, particularly if authorities adopt provisions such as that in new section 167(2)(a) of the 1996 Act, but that, of course, is a different question.

Nevertheless, in view of my hon. Friend's concerns, and bearing in mind the complexity of the issues—I confess that it took me a little time to get my head round them—I am more than happy to look once again at the Bill, in the light of what has been said this evening, to ensure that authorities cannot operate blanket exclusion policies under part VI of the 1996 Act as amended by the Bill. If I am not satisfied, I undertake to bring forward Government amendments to secure that result. However, I hope that, even if the intellectual process was somewhat tortuous, I have shown that there are good grounds for feeling confident that our new provisions achieve our stated policy to prevent blanket bans. With that, I ask my hon. Friend to withdraw his amendment.

 
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