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 peoplethe hon. Lady mentioned them, as did Shelter in its briefing noteswho 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 landlordsespecially social landlordsto 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.
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.
|©Parliamentary copyright 2001||Prepared 1 February 2001|