Homes Bill

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Mr. Loughton: We have before us three amendments tabled by the Conservatives, which fall into two separate categories. The first category consists of amendments Nos. 91 and 96, dealing with out-of-district accommodation. I am glad that the Liberals have said that they will support, or are inclined to support, amendment No. 91. In the second category is amendment No. 92, relating to the records of previous tenants.

I am afraid that I cannot reciprocate the support offered by the hon. Member for Bath by supporting the Liberal amendment No. 77. The hon. Gentleman has explained that if the Liberal Democrats cannot have what they want, they would prefer to have nothing at all, but if they did, the result would be to take out any regard whatever for tenants' previous behaviour. Therefore, however ghastly certain tenants have been, however guilty of racial abuse in sensitive areas or of domestic violence to members of a family, and however insensitive to the nature of the neighbourhood, that will not matter and need not be taken into consideration. That is obviously wholly unacceptable.

Mr. Foster: May I place it firmly on the record that, had we not seen the Government's amendments, I would have said clearly that amendment No. 77 was, by its very nature, a probing amendment to allow us to discuss these issues? I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that if we had accepted amendment No. 77 in isolation, without any amendments, that would have been unacceptable, for the reasons that he has given. I share his concerns about amendment No. 77 in isolation. As he has seen, our amendment has brought forth a large number of fruits from the Government.

Mr. Loughton: That being said, the hon. Gentleman did have the opportunity not to move his amendment, in the light of what the Government had proposed. However, I agree with him that the Government's addition is welcome, although late, and does require further discussion. I am sure that Members will be keen to debate the addition on Report and in the Bill's later stages.

I welcome parts of the Government's amendments. Perhaps the Government should propose them first, although I know how they fall in the group, so that we may respond to the proposals. Our amendments, particularly amendment No. 92, depend on what the Government are proposing. We are going to this somewhat blind. However, I welcome amendment No. 107, in particular, with a review process. The absence of a review process was one criticism that I wanted to return to, and the hon. Member for Bath has made a fair point in welcoming that amendment. I am not clear about how prescriptive amendment No. 106 would now be, whereas our amendment is more flexible and gives greater powers to local authorities to determine what is unacceptable behaviour in their area.

I shall deal first with amendment No. 92 on the subject of unacceptable behaviour or, as we all know it, dealing with neighbours from hell. We all know that persistent antisocial behaviour is one of the biggest causes of misery in residential areas. That is a particular problem when it arises in social housing estates. We have all heard about it in our surgeries. I was asked last Friday to visit a group of constituents in a residential area with mixed tenure, where just three households of about 100 are wreaking havoc. Tenants have been beaten up and hospitalised. Their children are being terrorised in school. Spark plugs, stones and mud are being thrown at people, including little old ladies in gardens. Cars are being vandalised. That area had been perfectly peaceful. Many of its residents had been there for 20 years and had no trouble at all until those problem families were moved in.

The problem was accentuated by moving several problem families into the same area; the effect mushrooms. It is obviously absurd for a tenant whose previous record includes having been evicted for antisocial behaviour to be treated on an equal basis with well-behaved tenants or owner-occupiers. Why should neighbours from hell enjoy decent accommodation on a par with others who have a clean slate? Why should they avoid the inconvenience of less favourable or temporary bed-and-breakfast accommodation? One school of thought would contend that problem neighbours are dealt with more appropriately within the private sector. Some interesting work has been done on that.

Schedule 2 of the Housing Act 1988 gave grounds for landlords to evict people from shorthold tenancies, and section 162 of the Housing Act 1996 gave local authorities the power to apply for injunctions against antisocial behaviour. Subsequently, the Government introduced further criminal justice legislation and adopted limited use of antisocial behaviour orders, which should be used more extensively despite their flaws.

The key problem is that the system militates against good neighbours. Many of our housing estates are remarkable for the lack of incentives to promote good neighbourliness. Last year I visited the Irwell Valley housing association in Salford, which has turned the problem on its head. The staff of this association in a previously run-down outskirt of Manchester reflected on why 70 per cent. of their time and 75 per cent. of their resources were spent on only 10 to 15 per cent. of their tenants and homes. They wondered why 70 per cent. of their repair bill was spent on tenants who were either in arrears or had intentionally caused damage to their properties—a fair point.

Legally, housing associations can do little to reward or incentivise tenants who are living peacefully in harmony with their neighbours, looking after their property and putting something back into their communities. The Irwell Valley housing association introduced a gold service, in which the rights of tenants were reappraised. People who signed up to the service undertook to maintain a certain level of behaviour and responsibility. In return, they received preferential repair times, quicker access to better homes, access to training and job opportunities within the housing association's estates, reductions on goods and services and so forth.

Other housing associations are reflecting on what that interesting experiment achieved. The results of the scheme included a 12 per cent. reduction in the average level of arrears; rising customer satisfaction with 65 per cent. of tenants receiving a radically enhanced service; a 27 per cent. reduction in security costs; void turnround times reduced by almost 30 per cent.; and re-let times reduced by 18 per cent. The upshot was that savings were ploughed back into providing more and better accommodation and services. Everyone was happy.

When I visited the housing association last year I met many tenants who spoke in glowing terms about what had happened. Good tenants and good neighbours had been rewarded. The reverse side of the coin is the housing association's tough policy for dealing with neighbours who choose not to sign up and to flout the rules or to sign up but still flout the rules. That association probably has one of the toughest eviction policies allowed within the law, but it has one of the lowest eviction rates of any equivalent housing association in the country. It is interesting that being tough and providing incentives for people who play by the rules makes everyone behave better.

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Another school of thought says that people who are in the most desperate circumstances and in most need of a home should be the best behaved tenants, because they have the most to lose. However, that needs to be reinforced by schemes such as the one that I have described, which highlight the rewards for being a good neighbour and the risks of not being a good tenant. Such schemes are being considered.

Wandsworth has come up with a scheme to produce contracts between the council and its tenants in order to cut down on criminal or immoral acts by people who fail to control their children, cause noise and disturbance, dump rubbish and so on. There are interesting examples to follow. It is right that local authorities should have powers to use their resources to clamp down on people who do not have a track record of being good neighbours and specifically on those who have been highly disruptive—whether through criminal or highly antisocial activities—and who are likely to replicate those activities in a new home.

I realise that organisations such as Shelter have raised concerns, and I agree that such stipulation should not be used lightly. The clause should not provide an easy option to be used against people who go into rent arrears, often because of the force of their domestic circumstances or the failure of the benefits system to pay their housing benefit on time. In no way does that constitute antisocial behaviour. I want to make it clear that we are talking about antisocial behaviour, not financial difficulties. There is a clear distinction. I therefore welcome Government amendment No. 107, which provides for a review procedure, so that tenants who feel that they have been wrongly classified as antisocial neighbours for what is not antisocial behaviour have a right of appeal.

Surely the underlying principle is that people who play by the rules and get on with their neighbours should not suffer at the hands of a minority of neighbours from hell. That is why I propose the rather more flexible amendment No. 92. I want to hear what the Government have to say. It is a key subject to raise on Report.

I shall deal more briefly with amendments Nos. 91 and 96, which represent an attempt to give some legislative weight to the increasing instances of reciprocal allocation arrangements between different local authorities. There is an increasing number of such arrangements in London. Westminster has arrangements with councils in the north of England. I believe that Camden has an arrangement with Kirklees council about passing on people who are low on the homeless list. One local authority might be able to offer certain housing conditions, whether in terms of type, number or both, that are not available in another. That is pertinent to London and the rest of the south-east, with the pressures that have often been discussed.

There is another point to the amendments. Such inter-council arrangements can offer a way out of the trap into which many people fall. They may be far from home, in miserable conditions, perhaps with no roof. The arrangements enable them to make a fresh start, among friends and family, in a part of the country with which they have some previous connection. They may have no hope of doing that as the Bill currently stands.

In the past year I have visited many inner-city areas in metropolitan boroughs in the north and in the midlands. I stood for a seat in Sheffield in the 1992 general election. My first photo opportunity there was on an estate in Brightside. It was a mass of empty, boarded-up council houses; the road was full of weeds, and there were dumped cars. I was told that those houses were going to be demolished. I have been back to Sheffield many times since then, but I went back to that estate last summer. I had another photo opportunity in the very same road, in front of the same houses. The only difference was that a few more houses were boarded up, a few more roof tiles were missing, and it was difficult to distinguish the tarmac from the weeds. That is a great waste, because those houses are perfectly liveable in, and could be renovated. The reason for that waste is largely to do with 50 years of misery under Labour in Sheffield, which I fear has not been reversed by the past 12 months under the Liberal Democrats yet.

My point is that 40,000 households are temporarily accommodated by London boroughs, including over 5,000 in bed and breakfasts. There are 40,000 local authority homes and 10,000 housing association properties in northern England standing empty at the current time so I have a great deal of sympathy with calls for a national housing scheme, which I know that councils such as Westminster, among others, are proposing.

The purpose of the amendments is to stop us losing sight of the fact that we should not just place responsibilities and obligations on local authorities within their own districts. There is far more scope for addressing homelessness by encouraging local authorities to look beyond their boundaries and come up with reciprocal arrangements with councils in areas where there is not such pressure on housing, particularly in the north of England.

 
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