Homes Bill

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The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): Amendment No. 76 seeks to ensure that letting schemes would have to give additional preference to particular descriptions of people within the reasonable preference category, in effect, requiring local housing authorities to identify the categories of people that it would treat as in urgent housing need. Some local authorities, particularly those in high demand areas, may well need to do that, but it would be wholly redundant to require others to do so when they have adequate accommodation to offer everyone social housing. I hope that the hon. Gentleman realises that it is much more sensible to leave the decision to local authorities and to allow them to use their good sense to exercise additional priority where appropriate, but not require them to do so where it is not.

At first sight amendment No. 93 seems reasonable, but a brief examination shows it to be flawed. Where there is need, the provisions of the Bill will enable it to be recognised and met. Homeless families with children are already, as the hon. Member for Eastbourne pointed out, in the priority needs categories and account for a substantial proportion of those households who are assisted. Having children is not of itself an indicator of need. Many families with children are living in perfectly adequate accommodation—including many members of the Committee, who would not for a moment suggest that we should be given priority over others for allocation of council housing. We have perfectly adequate homes of our own—[Interruption.] I am sorry if the hon. Member for Eastbourne is not adequately housed, but on his salary I am sure that he can make adequate provision for himself. I am sure that he would not want his needs to be put ahead of those of low-income households who have no other option. That would be the consequence of his amendment.

At our last sitting the hon. Gentleman argued strongly the case for elderly people and highlighted their needs, as did his hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham; elderly people constitute a significant proportion of their constituents. Their amendment would enable families with children always to take priority over elderly people, irrespective of need. That cannot be right. I hope that they recognises that although the amendment sounds attractive, it would have a perverse consequence.

Mr. Brake: I hear what the Minister says about areas of low housing demand. I represent an area of high housing demand where the local authority has to define urgent need. However, I am realistic and I understand that whatever the merits of our amendments my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) and I are slightly outnumbered here today. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

10.30 am

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I beg to move amendment No. 77, in page 17, leave out lines 31 and 32.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following: Amendment No. 91, in page 17, line 34, at end insert `or another authority's district'.

Amendment No. 83, in page 17, line 34, at end insert

    `save that the factors may not be taken into account in any case where to do so would be unreasonable having regard to the need of the person or household for an allocation of housing accommodation.'.

Amendment No. 92, in page 17, line 34, at end insert—

    `( ) any record of behaviour of a person (or of a member of his household) which has affected the terms of a previous tenancy he has held.'.

Government Amendments Nos. 106 to 108

Amendment No. 96, in page 17, line 47, after `accommodation', insert

    `which may be available within the authority's district or within another authority's district'.

Mr. Foster: As you are not to be with us at our final sitting this afternoon, Mr. Gale, I shall take this opportunity to thank you for the good-humoured way in which you have chaired the Committee. I note that we have not had recourse to your golden, silver, crystal or other balls—indeed, the only reference to them was made by you. I am delighted that they were not needed and I genuinely thank you for the way that you have chaired our sittings.

We are now moving back to some of the issues that we debated on Tuesday afternoon and beginning to look at the question of the determination of priorities for housing allocation. The Government, at short notice, tabled several additional amendments that have a significant impact on amendment No. 77. I hope that Government amendment No. 107 will give me an opportunity to communicate with my wife, albeit perhaps by e-mail rather than in a detailed letter. None the less, there is cause for celebration. I said in our previous sitting that

    ``New clause 5 would introduce a right of review of a decision to give low priority to an application''.

In response, the Minister said he hoped that there would be opportunities for reviews; however, he said:

    ``I first make some general points. It is difficult to achieve the balance between securing robust rights to review and ensuring that review of arrangements do not become too unwieldy, protracted and costly. We want a framework that allows unsound or borderline decisions to be reconsidered effectively but does not provide perverse incentives to request reviews that have little prospect of success. That is not easy—there are no perfect solutions.''——[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 30 January 2001; c. 376-379.]

The Minister did not believe that new clause 5 would provide the perfect solution, but it took him only a few hours to find such a solution, embodied in amendment No. 107. I assure the Minister, with alacrity, that Liberal Democrat members of the Committee will support it, as it provides the right of review sought in my amendment.

Now that there is a right of review, we must ask whether we are happy with clause 27 as amended, because of the circumstances that can be taken into account when deciding to give low priority to applicants. Amendment No. 77 was tabled because we were deeply concerned about the criterion in new subsection (2A)(b), which states:

    ``any behaviour of a person (or of a member of his household) which affects his suitability to be a tenant''

and gives a local authority carte blanche to stop anyone they choose from having a high priority. That would be especially worrying if there were to be no right of review, but the Government amendment introduces that right. However, the question remains: does the local authority have too much scope? Amendment No. 77 would remove that new subsection, but the Government have decided to replace it with an alternative, more detailed description of the circumstances. The Committee will have to decide whether to reject amendment No. 77 and to accept the Government amendment.

I am delighted that the Government recognise that the proposal as drafted is insufficient, but I am not convinced that they have the details right. I hope that the Committee will reject Government amendment No. 106, although I acknowledge that because of the opportunity for a review, something is needed in its place. I hope that we shall consider the Government's alternative formulation at a later stage.

The Government's proposal is unacceptable, although it is better than the Bill as drafted. I am anxious that in spite of the amendment many people may have their priority for housing removed, even if they are homeless. The Government's amendment sets out in much more detail than the Bill the circumstances in which an applicant will not be given housing priority. It will allow priority to be removed from an applicant if the authority is satisfied that he or she is

    ``unsuitable to be a tenant owing to unacceptable behaviour''.

The key point is that that decision can be made regardless of the applicant's housing need, which is the nub of our concern.

New subsection (2AA), set out in amendment No. 106, allows an authority to remove priority from people who fall within new subsection (2AB), which includes those who do not attract preference because the authority is satisfied when it considers their cases that the person involved is unsuitable to be a tenant, perhaps because of rent arrears or antisocial behaviour some time ago. The relevance of those factors should be considered in the light of the applicant's current circumstances.

The proposal is a welcome addition in one key respect: it ensures that the circumstances must be relevant at the time of the application. An authority could not remove a person's priority merely because of something that happened long ago. The amendment defines unacceptable behaviour as that which

    ``would entitle the authority to a possession order...on any ground mentioned in Part I of Schedule 2''

to the Housing Act 1985. Those grounds are very wide-ranging and they include the following: rent lawfully due from the tenant has not been paid or any other breach of the tenancy agreement; conduct causing or likely to cause a nuisance to anyone in the locality, or when a person has been convicted of an arrestable offence in or in the locality of a dwelling house; and the tenant having by neglect or default allowed the condition of the home or of any furniture provided or the common parts of the building to deteriorate.

The question is whether those are appropriate conditions to be considered when seeking possession. In 1999, 130,000 possession orders were sought under the 1985 Act, but of those only 23,000 led to an outright possession order being made; the vast majority were rejected, 70,000 cases led to a suspended order, and most of the orders made were for rent arrears. As the Minister will be well aware, there is much concern within the Committee that very often those rent arrears arise as a result of failures of payment of housing benefit.

I genuinely believe that the proposed arrangements are far too wide and, above all, do not fully take into account the key issue of housing need. Even with the welcome review process, they could still cause a very large number of cases to be brought by local authorities.

10.45 am

It is clearly important to acknowledge that cases of proven antisocial behaviour should be taken into account. Nevertheless, that should be the case in exceptional circumstances only. That is clearly the Government's view. In the Green Paper ``Quality and Choice'', published in April 2000, the Government say:

    ``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 families concerned. We would expect suspensions to be exceptional and that other ways of managing problems or risks may be more appropriate in many cases''.

My concern is that, even with the welcome amendments that the Government have introduced, we may have a situation in which local authorities, on far too many occasions, fail to take genuine housing need into account, and that they will rely on the aspects of the Housing Act 1985 to which I have referred.

The group of amendments contains several others. I particularly draw the Committee's attention to amendment No. 91, tabled by the hon. Member for Eastbourne and his colleagues. It would provide an opportunity, as no doubt the hon. Gentleman will say in a minute, for other local authorities to help out in cases of housing need. We believe that that is a sensible and welcome amendment, and were the hon. Gentleman or his colleagues to press the amendment to a vote, he could be assured of our support.

Amendment No. 77 seeks to completely remove the issue from the face of the Bill. The Government have sought ways to improve what is on the face of the Bill without its complete removal. At the moment I remain unconvinced that the improvements go far enough, except those in amendment No. 107 in respect of the review. I look forward to hearing the Minister persuade me that I have got it wrong and that his amendments go far enough. I want to place it on the record that I hope that we can discuss the issue in greater detail on another occasion, not least because I believe that we are rushing into it, as the Government have only just tabled the amendment. The Committee should have longer to reflect on it during its consideration of the Bill.

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