Homes Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): The Minister makes a point that I confess had not occurred to me. How would we know that the authority was entitled to such a possession order had the matter had not gone been tested in court?

Mr. Raynsford: I am coming to precisely that point. We are setting a series of tests that will have to be satisfied. Then we come to the point about review procedures that we debated on Tuesday evening. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased with the provisions that we have made to ensure that any such decisions will be subject to review so that an aggrieved applicant would have the opportunity for his case to be considered.

Let me continue. I was talking about the definition. First, the authority cannot simply apply for a possession order; it must be entitled to it. Secondly, it is extremely unlikely that any review body, let alone a court, would regard the applicant's behaviour as unacceptable if he or she had been evicted for rent arrears that were due to housing benefit delay. It would be a clear case that those were circumstances outside the individual's control and not unacceptable behaviour.

Mr. Foster: The Minister says that such circumstances are absolutely clear, but in reality they are not as clear as he suggests. I am sure that he has seen briefings from Shelter and others giving examples where the case has not been clear.

Mr. Raynsford: It would be absolutely clear to the review body, or the court, that if someone had been evicted because of rent arrears that were caused by the failure of the authority to pay housing benefit, that would not make him unsuitable to be granted accommodation due to unacceptable behaviour. At that point there would be absolute clarity. The hon. Gentleman should remember that the test is not the fact of having been evicted, but the applicant's unacceptable behaviour. That test applies at the point of application, not in the past.

Thirdly, even where someone is evicted for rent arrears only, rather than for other reasons, the background is sometimes more complex. While the hon. Gentleman made the point quite reasonably that the overwhelming cause of possession actions is rent arrears, he will equally be aware that in a number of cases local authorities apply for possession on grounds of rent arrears because it is easier to secure that than to prove antisocial behaviour. If someone has been intimidating witnesses, for example, it may be impossible for the local authority to provide supporting evidence to get a possession order on those grounds. If we had limited the definition to possession on the grounds of antisocial behaviour, we would undoubtedly exclude certain people who have been guilty of perpetrating appalling behaviour, but have been evicted on grounds of rent arrears. That is the reason for choosing the wider framework.

I hope that the hon. Member for Bath and all members of the Committee will recognise that the amendment strengthens the Bill to deal with circumstances in which an individual who had been recently evicted for unacceptable behaviour could apply to the authority as homeless and in priority need and, in circumstances where the authority had little or no pressure on its housing stock, could claim that even if he had low priority the authority should provide him with accommodation. I think that everyone accepts that it would be nonsense to have a revolving door situation whereby an authority was unable to pursue action against someone who was guilty of completely unacceptable behaviour and was terrorising his neighbourhood and then used this mechanism to get straight back into council housing. That would not be an acceptable policy.

2.45 pm

Turning to amendment No. 107, when the Committee met last Tuesday there was a very detailed debate about whether there was a need for applicants to have a right to request a review of decisions made by the authority concerning their application for accommodation. The hon. Member for Bath spoke eloquently in support of amendment No. 75 and proposed new clause 5. Right hon. and hon. Members will recall that I argued rather strongly against the need for a right of review solely around the issue of eligibility for an allocation under part VI of the Housing Act 1996. Some, therefore, may have been surprised that we tabled this amendment. Let me explain.

The effect of amendment No. 75 and new clause 5 would have been to give applicants a right to request a review of an authority's decision that he was ineligible for an allocation of accommodation by virtue of the new provisions in section 160A(3) or (5). I remain of the view that this area of decision-making is largely a question of good administration based on the facts of the case. However, during the debate, the hon. Member for Bath argued very persuasively for a wider right of review in respect of other decision by the authority concerning, for example, the applicant's relative priority for an allocation and any decisions as to the factors mentioned in new section 167(2A), such as financial resources, behaviour affecting suitability, and local connections. Those were not the subject of amendment No. 75 or new clause 5, which would not have extended the review in such circumstances. My remarks concerned the application of new clause 5 and amendment No. 75.

Nevertheless, as the hon. Member for Bath has probably already guessed, I had already come to the view that there should be a right for applicants to seek a review of the interpretation of facts taken into account by a local authority in determining their applications. That should cover decisions about whether they must be given reasonable preference; whether they merit additional preference; and whether any other factors, including those set out in section 167(2A), should be taken into account.

Mr. Foster: As this is an amendment to clause 27, can the Minister confirm that the right of review that he describes does not apply to the issue of eligibility, which we discussed at some length, where eligibility refers to two different categories? One is immigration control and I have forgotten the correct term for the other, but it is used in immigration legislation. I draw his attention to clause 25(2) and the proposed new clause 160(5) which introduces another set of categories of ineligibility in addition to those that we discussed earlier, which the Secretary of State can introduce by regulation, so we do not even know what they are likely to be. Would they be covered by the review?

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman has jumped slightly ahead. I was going to give him some good news. If he will bear with me, I will come to all those points.

The amendment provides that allocation schemes must be framed so that an applicant will have the right to request a review of any decision about the facts of his case, which is likely to be, or has already been, taken into account in considering whether to allocate housing accommodation. Those are all the facts of the case whether they are relevant to matters covered by the legislation, the code of guidance, or the regulations that may be made by the Secretary of State.

I hope that I have answered the first of the hon. Gentleman's questions. No doubt he will seek to take some credit for the amendment. My team can work very fast, but not that fast. The hon. Gentleman acknowledged that the amendments were tabled only a few hours after our debates on Tuesday afternoon. The proposed change was already in the pipeline, and work in progress was well advanced. However, I will give the hon. Gentleman credit for persuading me to reconsider whether decisions on eligibility should be included in the right of review. The right of review provided by the amendment will extend to such a decision, which will have to be the first decision that an authority makes in the process of deciding whether to allocate accommodation to an individual applicant. I hope that the amendment gives the hon. Member for Bath what he wants, and justifies the e-mail that he intends sending. It also helps to ensure that allocation schemes must be as clear and transparent as possible and therefore help to deliver the Government's policy aims.

Amendment No. 108 changes an aspect of the Bill that currently does not achieve the intended policy. As currently drafted, subsection (4) requires that when a housing authority notifies a homeless applicant of the results of its inquiries into his application under part VI of the 1996 Act, the notice must be accompanied by a copy of the statement of the allocation scheme about the policy for offering choice to people allocated housing accommodation under part VI. The provision ensures that homeless applicants who are accepted as being owed a main duty—and who, consequently, must be secured temporary accommodation by the authority until a settled housing solution can be found—are clear about what they can expect in the way of choice.

Clause 24 as currently drafted does not completely achieve that policy aim. It requires authorities to provide such a statement to accompany the statutory notice that it must give to all homeless applicants about the outcome of their application. That includes not only those who will be secured temporary accommodation pending something more settled, but applicants who are found to be not homeless, and those who, although homeless, are owed only a duty to provide advice and assistance. Such a wide obligation is unnecessary, and would be unduly burdensome on authorities and confusing to applicants.

To put matters right, amendment No. 109 will insert provisions in schedule 2 that will place a more limited requirement on authorities to provide a statement about their policy on choice in respect only of applicants who are owed the main rehousing duty under sections 193 and 195 of the 1996 Act. We are not dealing with amendment No. 109 now, as it also covers another issue and has been placed in a subsequent group of amendments, but I thought it was right to explain the effect of amendment No. 108.

The framework set out in the clause is robust and fair. It provides a transparent and systematic set of arrangements for assessing need, preference categories and priorities. The Government amendments will bolster and strengthen that framework. On that basis, I ask Opposition Members to withdraw amendments Nos. 77, 91, 83, 92 and 96, and I commend amendments Nos. 106, 107 and 108 to the Committee.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 1 February 2001