Homelessness Bill

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Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Does my hon. Friend agree that housing authorities often do not want to pass information about bad tenants to other authorities because they want to get rid of them? It is a matter of expediency.

Tim Loughton: That is precisely the point to which I was coming. There are two sides to the issue. To name no names, the boroughs of large urban conurbations near my local authority and, I am sure, those of other hon. Members, face enormous housing pressures. That is true not least of London boroughs, which now send problem tenants to the south coast in particular and fill up bed-and-breakfast and other accommodation, which is in desperately short supply. After six months, the tenants become the responsibility of the host borough.

Housing authorities should have full access to the previous records of tenants, particularly bad tenants. We are not able to set up such a structure under the Bill, but we are trying to include a facility whereby housing authorities can use previous tenancy records from outside their district as ammunition in turning down applications for priority homeless status. They currently have no way of being aware of such records unless they do substantial checking. If they do, it can become clear that families have caused problems elsewhere. It is only fair that such issues be taken into account. It is a question not simply of the person in whose name the tenancy is held, but of the whole household.

I realise the practical implications of that, and the system is not ideal for trying to implement such a measure. We are simply trying to broaden the scope for the judgment of bad behaviour. We want to include not only recent bad behaviour in a district, but a longer history of bad behaviour. That is especially pertinent where serial bad neighbours cause mayhem in one district and are turfed out, only to arrive at the door of a housing authority in a neighbouring district or further away.

That is the intention behind the amendment. It would give local authority housing departments greater powers to say, ``Hold on a minute. We are not going to put you on a housing list on an equal basis with other, more worthy claimants.'' There might be other ways of dealing with the issue, such as stiffer probationary housing terms. If tenants did not get their act together within six or 12 months, it would be easier to move them on to alternative accommodation.

The amendment is intended to add to the way in which the Government have already strengthened the provisions by greater reference to bad behaviour.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble): Clause 15 sets a revised framework for local authorities' letting schemes. It sets out matters that must or may be included in a housing authority's allocation scheme. It also sets out revised reasonable preference categories and provides for authorities to give additional preference to certain groups with urgent housing needs. In addition, it gives important new rights to applicants to obtain information and ask for a review of certain decisions concerning their application.

It is right that applicants should, wherever practical, be offered choice in accommodation. We want to widen the scope for movement across local authority boundaries and between local authority and registered social landlord stock, to promote better use of national stock, but we do not want to be too prescriptive. The right way forward is for local housing authorities and registered social landlords to decide, in the light of local circumstances, how to develop their existing arrangements.

Before I discuss the amendments, I should briefly explain the provisions on assessing priorities and preferences in the light of an applicant's behaviour. Under new section 167(2A) of the 1996 Act, allocation schemes

    ``may contain provision for determining priorities in allocating housing accommodation to people within subsection (2)''.

New subsection (2A) also provides that

    ``factors which the scheme may allow to be taken into account include—

    (a) the financial resources available to a person to meet his housing costs;

    (b) any behaviour of a person (or of a member of his household) which affects his suitability to be a tenant;''

    ``(c) any local connection . . . which exists between a person and the authority's district.''

New subsection (2B) allows authorities to give no preference to applicants—even those who come into one of the reasonable preference categories—if new subsection (2C) applies to them. There are three tests of whether it applies. The first two are the same as the first two tests under clause 13, which allow authorities to treat an applicant as ineligible for housing. Those are, first, that the applicant or a member of the household has been guilty of unacceptable behaviour—these are the tests described by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster)—and, secondly, that the authority is satisfied that the behaviour is serious enough to make the applicant unsuitable as a tenant of the authority.

The third test is that the authority is satisfied that, in the circumstances at the time the case is considered, the applicant deserves not to be treated as someone who should be given preference. I stress that each individual case must be considered on its merits and that the provision does not allow authorities to operate blanket bans on groups of applicants. People guilty of unacceptable behaviour may still be given preference if the authority feels that their situation warrants it.

New section 167(2D) provides that unacceptable behaviour for the purpose in question is exactly the same as unacceptable behaviour for the purpose of deciding that an applicant is ineligible for housing. It cross-refers to the terms set out in new subsection 160A(8), dealt with in clause 13—the fault grounds set out in part I of schedule 2 to the Housing Act 1985.

There are safeguards built into the provisions—the tension discussed by the hon. Member for Bath is relevant here. This is important. New subsection 167(4A)(b) gives applicants the right to ask to be informed of decisions about the facts of their case and decisions that they deserve not to be given preference. New subsection 167(4A)(c) gives applicants the right to request a review of any decision that they deserve not to be given preference or that they are to be treated as ineligible for housing. It also gives them the right to be informed of the review decision and the grounds for it. Those are important safeguards in view of the serious issues, and the decisions that the housing authority would be making.

10.15 am

On amendment No. 9, I assure the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) that the Bill allows for a person's past to be taken into account. Clause 15(3), which inserts new section 167(2A)(b), states that

    ``any behaviour of a person (or of a member of his household) which affects his suitability to be a tenant''

may be taken into account. New sections 167(2B) to (2D) also make it clear that past behaviour can be taken into account. That behaviour may lie in the past, but account must be taken of current circumstances. If there is clear evidence that an applicant has reformed or that the circumstances that led to his or her unacceptable behaviour have changed, then the authority must have regard to that evidence and should assess whether the applicant is likely to behave in an unacceptable manner if allocated housing now.

Part of the argument put forward by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham reminded me of the debate about antisocial behaviour orders. It is important to remember that this Bill addresses a different subject. Given my assurance that past behaviour can be taken into account but must be weighed up, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not press his amendment.

Amendment No. 10 seeks to ensure that, where an applicant's behaviour makes him unsuitable to be a tenant, it will count against him only where the behaviour is deliberate, wilful or negligent. I understand the good intentions behind the amendment, but I am concerned that it would erect a further barrier to local authorities in their efforts to deal with antisocial behaviour. While it is important that those who have behaved in an antisocial or unacceptable way should be given the opportunity to show that they have reformed, it is also important for local authorities to be able to protect the vast majority of law-abiding tenants who wish only for a peaceful and pleasant life.

Local authorities must be given the discretion to make balanced judgments on the basis of their knowledge of individual circumstances. Every time we specify in the Bill further conditions that the authorities must take into account, we limit local authorities' ability to make decisions which, on the basis of their local and particular knowledge, they consider to be in the best interest of the majority of tenants and residents. The amendment would invite argument and potential litigation about each of the words it inserts.

Mr. Don Foster: First, will the Minister confirm that I was correct in saying earlier that the Bill contains no definition of the behaviour that would allow local authorities to make an adjustment of priority? Secondly, will she confirm that, in respect of the removal of all priority or the determination of eligibility, there is a definition of what the priority is, namely that the authority will be entitled to a possession order? Thirdly, if she can confirm both, even if she does not like my amendment, does she agree that it might be acceptable to have some sort of definition where there is currently a huge, gaping hole in the Bill?

Ms Keeble: I am sure that if I make a mistake, a correction will be supplied, and I shall give it to the hon. Gentleman in writing. He is right that there is no definition of the behaviour in terms of adjusting priorities. Measures concerning eligibility have already been discussed. Priority and eligibility are different issues: one is about whether a person is accepted in the first place, and the other concerns his position on the list. I take the hon. Gentleman's points about the need for clear understanding of what is being considered, but that is more appropriately placed in guidance than in the Bill; if it were otherwise, as I pointed out, it would lead to a considerable amount of litigation about priority decisions, which should properly be taken by the local authority. I shall deal with the matter of symmetry a little later, and I shall try to be brief.

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