Homelessness Bill

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Dr. Whitehead: The hon. Member for Bath will not have an opportunity to send Mrs. Foster a postcard this morning. [Interruption.] It was suggested from a sedentary position that the modern version is a text message, which the hon. Gentleman might consider.

The amendment is not the elementary piece of common sense that the hon. Gentleman claimed. It would remove the onus from the individual to request information on any decision made by the authority and instead place it on authorities to inform all applicants of all the facts of their cases and of decisions taken on their suitability to be tenants. Although I appreciate the reasons behind the amendment, the Bill should, as has been said in previous debates, strike a fair balance between the rights of an individual and the need to ensure that schemes do not become unworkable.

There has been no oversight, and the Bill provides an important safeguard against poor administration by giving applicants the right to information about how their cases are being handled. In the real world, most applications dealt with by authorities are not contentious, and it would be a massive and unnecessary burden on authorities to require them to advise all applicants on case facts. The Bill provides for applicants to obtain information about how their case is being handled, which is adequate to ensure that applicants are not unreasonably refused accommodation. The amendment would place an extreme and unnecessary burden on authorities and I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it.

Mr. Foster: Mrs. Foster, whether it is through text message, postcard or any other form of communication, will certainly get one from me. [Laughter.] I sat here listening to the Minister and worked hard on that, and I am delighted to have given such pleasure to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham.

For the benefit of the Official Report, I should say that the communication to Mrs. Foster will express considerable disappointment in the Minister. He said that it is vital for local authorities to do unreasonable and difficult work to ensure that applicants know whether they have been deemed eligible. Bizarrely, he is not prepared to force them to do so on the question of priority. He assured me that I was wrong, it was not an oversight and the circumstances were different, but then proceeded to give no explanation.

The Committee will know that applicants deemed eligible for the list who then get a low priority rating do not get any accommodation. At both stages, applicants have the right to review and subsequently to appeal, and they will need all the case details to go through those processes. Local authorities will end up having to provide the details anyway, so it is bizarre that they are not required to inform the applicants about eligibility and priority. I fail to understand why the Government will not move on the issue. Clearly, we all need the summer break to reflect further on these matters, though Mrs. Foster and I will enjoy many other things over that period. I hope that the Government will take the opportunity to think again, and so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon): I am grateful for my first opportunity to speak about this important Bill. I endorse the clause on the need to deal with anti-social behaviour and to support sustainable communities.

In my Aberavon constituency, as elsewhere, there are many examples of anti-social behaviour. Its causes are many and varied. In my constituency—and particularly in communities such as Briton Ferry, Glyncorrwg and the Aberavon ward—the inconsiderate attitude and social irresponsibility of a minority of private landlords is a contributory factor to serial bad behaviour. Longstanding, proud and previously sustainable communities have been blighted and undermined. A greater sense of active and corporate citizenship is necessary and the clause will certainly help in that regard.

I am pleased that the Bill recognises the destructive nature of anti-social behaviour. Will the Minister give an assurance that every avenue will be explored and that by tackling anti-social behaviour and all its causes she will ensure that vulnerable communities are rebuilt into sustainable communities? The Bill is a major step in that direction and I am sure that the National Assembly for Wales will also take a leading role in dealing with these vital issues.

Mr. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): I should like to pick up the hon. Gentleman's point about sustainable communities and ask the Minister whether she agrees that the Bill would be more effective if clause 15 had regard in its priorities to the sons and daughters scheme? Grandsons and granddaughters could also be added. Are not the sheer physical distances that separate families today partly responsible for the breakdown in sustainable communities? I am well aware of the need to monitor estates with a racial mix to ensure that certain groups do not congregate in less desirable areas. However, the Government's aim of building stronger communities could be reinforced by making the sons and daughters scheme one of the Bill's priorities.

As for child care, it is a huge asset if a mother, grandmother, sister or other relative lives close to parents, particularly when the children are very young. Will not the lack of closeness of the family network most hurt the poorest families and those least able to access childcare at their own expense?

Ms Keeble: Clause 15 is designed to revise frameworks for local authority letting schemes and it sets out matters that must be included in their allocation scheme. It also sets out revised reasonable preference categories and makes provision for authorities to give additional preference to certain groups with urgent housing needs. It confers new rights on applicants to obtain information and to ask for a review of certain decisions concerning their application.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) said, the clause deals with local housing authorities' role in combating anti-social behaviour. I agree with my hon. Friend that anti-social behaviour is particularly destructive in pockets where residents find it difficult to move elsewhere because of the generally low demand for housing in those areas. I recognise that that is a significant problem in my hon. Friend's constituency. Unfortunately, his constituents are not alone, because other people living in English constituencies share their experiences. There is no simple way to enforce good behaviour on seriously anti-social individuals, whether tenants or landlords. The problems must be addressed by a range of agencies, including housing providers, social services, education authorities and the police. It might be necessary to provide support to victims and, on occasion, to perpetrators.

In England, we will develop proposals for consultation on selective licensing of private landlords in low-demand areas. The aim is to provide local authorities with the power to deal with private landlords who house anti-social tenants but who do not control their behaviour. We hope to consult on those proposals later in the year. In the case of Wales, such matters are devolved to the Welsh Assembly, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon will liaise closely with them. I do not pretend that our proposals for new powers will provide a complete answer, but they and the Bill will add to the range of instruments that authorities have at their disposal.

10.45 am

We are also committed to the introduction of licensing for houses in multiple occupation as soon as parliamentary time allows. Local authorities and police can, of course, take out anti-social behaviour orders against anyone who causes a nuisance, including tenants and landlords in the private sector. That is a difficult problem for which there are no simple solutions and it must also be addressed by a range of agencies, including housing providers, social services, education authorities and the police. However, I appreciate my hon. Friend's comments about the problems in his constituency.

In relation to the points made by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Mr. Selous), new subsection (2E)(b) contains a provision for local authorities to take account of local connections in the allocation of housing

    ``to persons of a particular description (whether or not they are within subsection (2)).''

In new subsection (2A)(c), there is also a provision for ``any local connection''.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman mentioned the problem of monitoring and the impact on the ethnic profile of particular estates, because that has been a massive issue in some areas. Obviously, the different pressures must be balanced with great care. We all understand the strong urge that people have to be close to family members, particularly if caring responsibilities are involved. However, other issues must be considered as well. It must be handled carefully, and I am extremely pleased that the hon. Gentleman acknowledged that.

In conclusion, clause 15 contains an important reform of the statutory framework for local housing authority allocation.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 16 to 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause 3

Overcrowding and homelessness

    `(1) Section 177 of the Housing Act 1996 (whether it is reasonable to continue to occupy accommodation) is amended as follows.

    (2) After subsection (1) there is inserted—

    ``(1A) It is not reasonable for a person to continue to occupy accommodation if the accommodation is a dwelling which is overcrowded within the meaning of section 324 of the Housing Act 1985, and in any such case the authority shall not have regard to the general circumstances prevailing in relation to housing in their district.''.'.—[Ms Karen Buck.]

    Brought up, and read the First time.

 
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