Homes Bill

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Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): I listened carefully to the Minister's reply, although I cannot say I followed it all. I noted the reassurance he gave that decisions of local authorities have to be reasonable. The concern behind amendment No. 83 is about the formulation of the clause, particularly new subsection (2A)(b), which relates to

    any behaviour of a person . . . which affects his suitability to be a tenant.

That gives a very wide scope for authorities to reduce the priority given to people, possibly unfairly, for a wide variety of reasons. The hon. Member for Bath referred to people who have rent arrears.

I seek further reassurance from the Minster that applications will be given less priority only when it reasonable to do so, taking into account housing need.

That is the important part. Will authorities have to take housing need into account before they take that decision?

Mr. Raynsford: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I can give him exactly the assurance that he seeks. It will be inherent in the system that authorities must take account of all relevant factors, including housing need. The specific provision of amendment No. 106 relates to people who have been evicted for antisocial behaviour. We had to ensure that the provision under which authorities will take into account housing need does not override very sound reasons for denying access to accommodation to people who have behaved in a completely unacceptable way and would be likely to make their neighbours' lives a misery if re-housed. That is the very specific and exceptional circumstance provided for under amendment No. 106. It is necessary because, as part of the general provisions, housing need is one of the factors that must be taken into account.

Mr. Love: I had finished, but I thank the Minister for that reassurance.

Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): The Minister has gone some way to addressing some of the concerns that we raised, especially about the review process, which we should also take some of the credit for, however much he may like to keep it all for himself. We certainly flagged up this problem some time ago.

As regards the Minister's account of dealing with unsociable behaviour, this matter has only just come up in his amendment, so we need to look into it more closely. I hope that we shall have the opportunity on Report to debate this matter in rather more detail than we were able to do today, although given the time constraints I fear that may be unlikely. We still contend that our own amendment, which gives rather more leeway for local authorities to decide what is unsuitable behaviour, is a better way to proceed, but given the detail in which the Minister has addressed that problem, we will not press our amendment.

The Minister gave only cursory attention to our other two amendments regarding out-of-district allocation, although I note his support in principle for the amendment that seeks to foster closer relationships between authorities who have a larger supply of housing and those on whom there are the pressures that we all know about. I am not convinced that our proposal should not appear in the Bill, and the case he made was slightly flimsy on those grounds, but again he has acknowledged the principle, and I hope that he will push for such a measure behind the scenes and include it in the guidance that he will issue to local authorities.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) said, the point about bad neighbours is that we should face up to the fact that local authorities should have the right to disqualify people from tenancies if they have an appalling record as tenants. Where I take issue with the Minister is on the framing of the Bill. Our amendment No. 92 says

    ``any record of behaviour of a person''

whereas the Bill only refers to

    ``any behaviour''.

That may be a person's current behaviour affecting his suitability to be a tenant, so the Bill does not empower local authorities to take account of a person's previous behaviour as a tenant, and he may temporarily appear to be all sweetness and light.

Mr. Raynsford: I reassure the hon. Gentleman that, under our amendment, local authorities are able to take previous factors into account, but they must make their decision on the basis of the applicant's current position. They cannot use the fact that he was evicted several years before for antisocial behaviour to debar him from consideration if there is clear evidence that he has improved his behaviour in the meantime. I gave an example in Committee on Tuesday of circumstances in which it would be quite reasonable for someone who had been evicted for antisocial behaviour to be given another chance because of a change of heart and a change in behaviour, and that is what is provided for in this measure.

Mr. Loughton: I take the Minister's point. In terms of the wording of the Bill, however, I cannot see how the record will count pari passu with the rehabilitative process that has led to a former neighbour from hell becoming a model neighbour. In view of the detail the Minister has given, we shall not press the amendment to a vote, but we will want to revisit the issue in more detail when we have had more time to consider Government amendments, on Report and thereafter.

3 pm

Mr. Don Foster: We have had a fascinating debate, which began with the drab Christmas tree of amendment No. 77, on to which a large number of bright lights were subsequently hung by both sides of the Committee. It has shown the valuable work of the Committee in its best light.

As a result of a probing amendment, the Minister has been willing to listen to contributions from Government Back Benchers and from Opposition Members. That has resulted in significant changes to earlier Government proposals. The Minister also referred to a later concession that the Government will make in relation to advice. Again, that was a result of concerted efforts by both sides of the Committee. I shall welcome that change of heart at the appropriate time.

The Minister said that I may be able to take some credit from that. It is important to place on record that every Committee member should be grateful for the way in which each of us have been supported by a range of organisations outside this House. I draw special attention to Shelter—which has been referred to on a number of occasions—for providing all Committee members with extremely good briefing material, which, I would argue, was responsible for the amendments tabled by the Minister today. I am not claiming credit for myself; I was merely able to be the mouthpiece for that organisation in the work that it has done, as were other Committee members.

I am absolutely delighted by Government amendment No. 107. I am especially delighted by the Minister's interpretation of the amendment, as it showed that it will cover the issue of eligibility in relation to clause 25.

The Minister also acknowledged the merits of the amendments tabled by Conservative Members, such as that on relationships to other authorities. Although he was not prepared to accept the amendment, he placed firmly on the record his view that such an inter-authority relationship is valuable and can provide enormous assistance to homeless households.

The main issue raised by the clause relates to the various categories that local authorities can use to reduce the priority of applicants. I acknowledge that Government amendment No. 106, as presented by the Minister, is not a replacement for, but an expanded definition of proposed new subsection (2A)(b). Progress has been made, and I welcome the expansion of the definition and the further interpretation of the definition provided by his remarks, but I continue to have concerns about what he said.

I am mindful of the comments made by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon, who summed up the debate very eloquently when he talked about the need for balance. We should balance our concern about the situation of the homeless with the needs of members of particular communities who may be affected by inappropriate behaviour of people allocated housing in their community. Both sides of the Committee have struggled to find a way of achieving that balance, and I am still not convinced that the Government's amendment No. 106 does so, because there are some quite serious technical difficulties with it.

Mr. Raynsford indicated dissent.

Mr. Foster: The Minister shakes his head, which is not surprising. He obviously believes that everything that he has proposed is correct. That is not the case, as he himself has admitted. He said that he had been convinced that the Bill did not achieve the Government's policy intentions. I suggest to him that amendment No. 106 is in the same category, because it will not achieve his policy intentions. The Minister admitted only a few minutes ago that this is work in progress. I remind him that that was the very phrase that he used during our debate on Second Reading. Amendment No. 106, welcome though it is as an improvement to the Bill, is nevertheless still work in progress.

I shall give just one example to illustrate why I believe that further work is necessary. Amendment No. 106 says in proposed new subsection (2AC):

    ``For this purpose `unacceptable behaviour` means behaviour which, if the person concerned were a secure tenant of the authority, would entitle the authority to a possession order under section 84 of the Housing Act 1985 on any ground mentioned in Part I of Schedule 2 to that Act (other than Ground 8).''

The critical word is ``entitle'': it would ``entitle'' the authority to a possession order. I asked the Minister how anybody would know whether the behaviour would entitle the authority to a possession order without the court having considered the matter. The Minister acknowledged that in 1999 there were 130,000 requests by local authorities for possession orders, and only 23,000 were granted. Surely the test of whether the authority is entitled to the order can be determined only when the court has studied the case.

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