Homes Bill

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Mr. Loughton: We very much support the thrust of the new clauses tabled by the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King). She knows about the subject only too well from her experience in her constituency. The briefings available lead us to be worried about the scale of the problem, which is especially bad in the east end, although places such as Bradford and other metropolitan boroughs are also affected. There have been cases of racial abuse in my constituency, so it is not necessarily a problem exclusively of inner cities and other urban areas.

There are various problems. We must see cases against the perpetrators through to court, as they often do not make it that far because those acting as witnesses fear severe reprisals. The 1996 Act provided some help, as it allowed managers from registered social landlords to appear in court as expert witnesses on behalf of tenants. That does not apply solely to racial cases, but generally to those of violence and antisocial behaviour. I have had experience of bringing the manager of a registered social landlord and tenants who were being terrorised together with the police, and we made successful progress in that way.

As the hon. Lady said, various ameliorative measures were added to the 1996 Act under section 177, but people can be homeless within their own homes because they are terrified of living there. I know of families who have split up because they are so scared that they have to sleep with other relatives. Mothers, fathers and children are split up because of the pressures. I know of people—the hon. Lady mentioned them, as did Shelter in its briefing notes—who have to sleep downstairs because of the fear that people might break in or set fire to the house in the middle of the night. The problem is, as the hon. Lady said, that people use those measures in a vexatious way.

I do not know whether the new clause is practical, although I agree with its sentiments. I hope that the Minister will take it on board and fashion something workable, but we must remember that people will use it as an excuse. If people claim that they are suffering undue racial abuse and that it is impossible to continue living in their house, a proper investigation should be undertaken. Genuine cases should have recourse to remedial action. The analogy that the hon. Lady draws with domestic violence, which was dealt with in the 1996 Act, is right. The Bill's provisions should be put on a par with that.

The law is flawed. Although we support the thrust of the new clause, we are prepared to take soundings from the Minister on the most practical way of carrying those principles forward.

Mr. Robert Ainsworth: I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow for the graphic way in which she brought the problems that face her constituents and people in other parts of the country to the Committee's attention. I also thank the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham for his support of the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend.

I hope that what I have to say will satisfy my hon. Friend and Opposition Members alike. Racial harassment is intolerable in a civilised society. Like my hon. Friends, I condemn it outright. No one of any colour, race, creed or nationality should be put in fear at home, at work or in public places. We all know that racial discrimination is widespread and, more seriously, that racial harassment is a fact of life for far too many people. It is clearly not right that people should be driven out of their homes by such behaviour. Tenants should be able to expect their landlords—especially social landlords—to deal quickly and firmly with the perpetrators.

Ultimately, we are dealing with any sort of violence or threatened violence. The Government take it seriously and are promoting the use of specific ``non-harassment'' clauses in tenancy agreements in the social housing sector. Any breach of a tenancy agreement will render a tenant liable to eviction. That builds on measures already in place to enable landlords to deal with racial harassment on their estates. The Government want those powers to be used more widely. For example, the 1996 Act allows local authorities and other landlords to ask the courts to attach a power of arrest to injunctions taken out to prevent breaches of a tenancy agreement, when violence has occurred or has been threatened. The Act also makes it possible for landlords to evict if a tenant, a lodger or a visitor to the tenant's property has been convicted of an arrestable offence in the vicinity of the property.

In earlier exchanges, I said that we will be extending the priority need categories of homeless people by order under section 189 of the 1996 Act. That will create a new category of applicants who will have priority need if they are vulnerable as a result of having to leave their home, because to remain there would carry a risk of violence towards them or any member of their household. The provision would cover, for example, a risk of domestic violence, or a risk of racially motivated violence.

Under the provisions of part VII of the 1996 Act, local authorities must consider whether it would be reasonable for applicants to continue to live in their current accommodation, before deciding whether they are homeless. If it would not be reasonable, and the applicant has nowhere else to live, then he or she is statutorily homeless. When deciding whether it would be reasonable for the applicant to continue to live in his or her present home, authorities should consider if that would give rise to any risk of violence.

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However, there is a case for reviewing the provisions and making it explicit that violence or acts of violence are grounds on which it would be unreasonable to continue to occupy accommodation. That would include racially motivated violence, and it is our intention to table an amendment to achieve that. Given that undertaking, I ask my hon. Friend to withdraw her new clause. I hope that I have satisfied her on the points that she raised.

Ms King: I thank the Minister for the constructive proposals that he has made. I understand that they will give protection to people at risk of violence, including racial violence. Before concluding these brief remarks, I should like to thank the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham for his thoughtful contribution on an area that I wish was less subject to party-political point scoring. This is an opportunity for us to send out a clear message that people who are at risk of racially motivated violence will now get the protection that they deserve. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 18

New form of short term tenure for councils (short social tenancy)

    `. In Schedule 1 of the Housing Act 1985 (tenancies which are not secure tenancies), after paragraph 4 there is inserted—

    ``4A. A tenancy is not a secure tenancy provided that—

    (i) the local housing authority concerned has notified the tenant that the property is not being allocated as a secure tenancy; and

    (ii) the local housing authority concerned has notified the tenant of the reason or reasons why the property is not being allocated as a secure tenancy; and

    (iii) the dwelling has either been designated as unsuitable for a secure tenancy in accordance with regulations made by the Secretary of State or the dwelling has been allocated in accordance with the provisions of a local letting scheme under section 167(2B) of the Housing Act 1996.''.'.—[Mr. Curry.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Curry: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I was not aware that the new clause had been awaited with such breathless expectancy. I am overwhelmed by the enthusiasm for it. It is an important clause, which builds on an element of the 1996 legislation that I piloted through the House—the assured shorthold tenancy. It also builds on the Government's housing Green Paper and on the social exclusion unit's work on unpopular housing. I hope that we can establish at the beginning that the measure is designed to make use of housing that might otherwise not be used. It is also designed to assist in housing people and to contribute to the maintenance of neighbourhoods that would otherwise become run-down, leading to degeneration. Those are the purposes of the clause, and I emphasise that the housing that would be provided would be available to those who come under the social needs category.

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Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

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On resuming—

Mr. Curry: I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Bath back in the Room. because it would have been soul-destroying for him if, after his heroic sacrifice of time, he had not been able to hear what I have to say. Knowing what an ecumenical chap he is, I am sure that he would have found that difficult to bear. I am grateful to him for not moving his new clause, as that enabled us to reach this point.

The purpose of new clause 18 is simply to create a short-term tenancy to allow property to be used temporarily when it would otherwise remain empty. That is the top and bottom of it. It builds on the Green Paper and on the exclusion unit's concerns about undesirable property. It attempts to find a use for property and in doing so to help to sustain neighbourhoods that might otherwise degenerate as the number of empty properties increases.

The housing Green Paper foreshadows the provision. The problem with current legislation is that it makes it difficult for councils to offer short-term and unlicensed property and practically impossible to offer self-contained property—there are limited conditions in the Housing Act 1985—without creating a secure tenancy after 12 months. Once a secure tenancy has been created, various rights are established, including the right to buy, as well as liabilities. Local authorities may find themselves with serviceable stock that they cannot use. I want to provide a way to enable them to use it.

There may be large-scale regeneration projects and local authorities throughout the country, especially in some northern cities, are in the process of demolishing surplus stock. The demographic trend of tenants is such that councils find themselves with more empty stock and part of the answer is to demolish it. That applies in Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle and other great metropolitan authorities, but London and some other areas are entirely different. The problem exists across a wide swathe of large metropolitan councils. Many projects take five or 10 years and demolition will gradually reduce the level of stock in the long term.

If vacancies arises in those properties because regeneration is planned and people have been decanted, the council cannot afford to let them on secure tenancies because they might incur considerable financial liabilities in doing so—it is barmy to repair property that is due to be knocked down—or be unable to secure the premises when they want to demolish the properties. A short-term tenancy would enable councils to use such property a number of times for long-term temporary accommodation for statutory or non-statutory homeless or potentially homeless households until the property is needed for redevelopment. It would certainly provide better accommodation than bed and breakfast or just dossing down, which is often the alternative.

Another potential benefit is the creation of sustainable communities. I do not wish to invoke Lord Rogers too frequently, but current wisdom is for mixed communities and mixed tenures. We know that vital groups of workers find it difficult to find accommodation and the measure might bring the two together. People who do not qualify for support under the homelessness legislation could be given short-term tenancies. They could occupy accommodation and generate an income, which would help the local neighbourhood in terms of a market for services, shops, hairdressing, bus routes, schools and so on, before entering the housing marketplace if that is what they want to do. That would contribute to the sustainability of the community.

Finally, the measure would generate income for the local authority, which would have a rent stream rather than a boarded-up, empty property. We all know that an empty property, as with an empty shop in a town centre, is a debilitating feature of the landscape and damages the whole viability of the community, whether a business or social community. The provision would help to deal with that problem.

I would expect the short social tenancy to be used in well-defined circumstances. It is not intended as a replacement for normal secure tenancies and it is not the same as a single secure tenancy for social housing, to which the Minister is attached and which was one of the main outcomes of the consultation on the Green Paper. However, it would give councils the equivalent of the assured shorthold tenancy and could be regulated in much the same way.

I do not expect the Minister to declare that the new clause is technically perfect in all aspects—he has parliamentary counsel to do the job for him—but I hope that he will agree that the spirit of the amendment is consistent with the Bill and what is, in many respects, a consensual policy on homelessness, inner cities and regeneration. It flows from the 1996 Act for which I was responsible and from actions for which the hon. Gentleman is responsible as Minister for Housing and Planning.

 
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