|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
It is essential to have a rapid and sure process of regaining possession. Points have been raised in this debate that the mandatory phrasing is too demanding. That could be qualified in such a way that it is mandatory "unless". It would be wise to make it clearer to the judiciary that the onus is on the giving of the order to grant the vacant tenancy rather than the other way round. Cases have been quoted, and I know of cases, where action was not taken and a lengthy slow process followed.
My noble friend Lord Mottistone mentioned the Schizophrenia Fellowship. I have a great respect for that organisation, which does a marvellous job. There must be ways of wording the process to protect such people. It may be--I refer the Committee to my Noise Bill which is passing through your Lordships' House at the moment--that it is not a question of who is creating the noise or intolerable conditions for the neighbour; it is a question of who is suffering the noise or nuisance. That is a sound principle to be followed in this case.
Today in your Lordships' House a member of the staff asked to have a word with me, being aware that the Housing Bill was before the Committee. The family are living in a block of flats where it is impossible to get any sleep because an anti-social family also live there. I said that they could complain and gave all sorts of advice about what they could do. They said that the trouble was that they would be much too frightened to do that--exactly the point being made. They said that no one in the block would be game or foolhardy enough to front up as a witness against those people because they know the retribution would be swift and unpleasant. I greatly respect the comments made by that person and that person was saying what so many other tenants would say. We have heard the story many times and it is therefore extremely important for there to be protection from intimidation.
I should like the Minister to comment on the position quoted by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, regarding the under-18s. I do not understand what remedy exists in that regard. Does Clause 128 mean that if the tenants are the parents of the under 18 year-old they are evicted because of the behaviour of the young person; or is the young person only asked to leave? What is the position? It seems very unsatisfactory if parents who in themselves are not unreasonable, but have no control over someone young who is living with them, can be evicted. I can see that problems will arise.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, talked about people being run out of town. I recall reading in a newspaper a year or so ago about a family in a village. Everyone in the whole town was so fed up with the damage that they were causing and the robberies that they were carrying out that they were eventually moved out by the pressure of all their neighbours. That cannot be right. There should be a proper and legal process for doing that.
I do not say that I support these amendments in the way that they are worded--many faults have been pointed out--but I support the principles of a rapid and sure process of gaining possession and protection against intimidation. The objective giving of evidence which applies in the Noise Bill means that no witness would have to come to court. The evidence will be given by the officer who measures the noise. Equivalent processes must be available in the form of an environmental health inspector inspecting damage done to the property or something of that kind. It must be possible to have independent, authorised people able to give such evidence. That would be great protection for people against intimidation.
Baroness Hamwee: When the noble Baroness considers the thrust of her amendment after tonight, I ask her to take two procedural but important points into account. The first is to allow the court to make a suspended order which will be effective if the tenant does not comply with provisions for good behaviour. We do not want to add to the problems of homelessness if other measures can assist. Secondly, there is the place of interlocutory injunctions. I am going the other way now. A court can move very quickly, if it wants to, in extreme circumstances. It is possible to order a tenant to leave pending the final hearing.
Lord Lucas: I, too, will read very carefully what the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, has had to say. I suspect that there are some points that she made in her opening speech which I shall fail to address. Perhaps that is because I found myself rather taken aback by the beginning of her speech, feeling that I was being outflanked on the right by the noble Baroness. After a while I realised that she was just being a great deal more authoritarian than I feel comfortable with and, as the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said, that is becoming quite a feature of new Labour in various pronouncements. It is something which shines out of Peter Mandelson's book as a key part of the party's vision of community. I do not believe that it is part of the noble Baroness's make-up to be that way. I hope
I turn to the subjects of these amendments. Clearly, we share the anxieties that she has expressed. But we believe that we have better solutions to them. I turn first to Amendment No. 263ZAC. Clause 128 amends Ground 2 of Schedule 2 to the Housing Act 1985. That schedule sets out the grounds for possession of dwellinghouses let under secure tenancies. The clause strengthens in several ways the existing ground for possession based on nuisance and annoyance to neighbours so that it applies to behaviour in the locality of the tenant's property. It covers behaviour by visitors to the property and the situation where the tenant, a person living with him or a visitor, has been convicted of an arrestable offence in the locality of the house or flat.
But the key part of the clause for the purposes of this amendment is that it will also make it possible for local authorities to evict a tenant for behaviour likely to cause a nuisance or annoyance, so that the victim of the behaviour may not have to give evidence. Instead, that might be provided by a professional witness or local authority officer.
We feel that Amendment No. 263ZAC is unnecessary, as Clause 128 achieves its intention to enable local authorities to seek eviction where victims do not feel safe to give evidence in court, by allowing evidence to be provided by the local authority or its agent, such as a professional witness.
On a related matter, the provisions of the Civil Evidence Act 1995 enable hearsay evidence to be admitted as evidence. The weight to be given to that evidence is for the courts to determine and will depend on the facts of each case. We do not feel at all comfortable with saying that that is something which should be automatically assumed to be reasonable. But the Act, which comes into force in the autumn, provides that in doing so one of the matters for consideration is whether it would be reasonable to call the witness. Clearly, the likelihood of intimidation of the witness would be relevant to that consideration.
I turn now to the large group of amendments to which the noble Baroness spoke. I thought that I heard her refer to Amendment No. 263ZAGDA, which is not grouped with these amendments. I now understand that she did not. That amendment is the subject of a separate note.
Clause 130 substitutes a new Section 83 of the Housing Act 1985 which deals with the notice of proceedings for possession. Most of the clause re-enacts existing legislation. The new provisions in the clause allow the landlord to start possession proceedings at an earlier stage than previously in cases related to anti-social behaviour and to dispense with the requirement to serve the notice in appropriate case.
The purpose of these amendments is to introduce a mandatory ground for possession in cases of serious anti-social behaviour. We do not believe that the loss of someone's home should be made mandatory. To do so
The discretion that the court can exercise will relate largely to the circumstances of the household as a whole. This is important. In some cases the tenancy may not be held by the offender but his mother, for example. She may have no control over an adult son. This point was raised by my noble friend Lady Gardner. In such a case the court will wish to consider whether she should be evicted for the wrongdoing of someone else. Under the present proposal the court would have no option but to evict her. In other circumstances the wife of the offender may be the tenant and may be left with a young family to look after. There will always be case where it is essential that judicial discretion can be exercised; otherwise, the court will be forced to evict those who may have had no knowledge of the criminal activity because the offence is mandatory. I believe that my noble friend Lord Mottistone has underlined the need for the courts to be involved.
We recognise that many local authorities have difficult relations with the courts on these matters. We have published a booklet, Getting the Best out of the Courts, with a view to encouraging better contact between local authorities and the courts. We feel that perhaps there is fault on both sides in getting it right. After that paean of praise for the judicial process, I am sad to see the Judicial Benches empty this evening. It would have been a rare opportunity to see a smile on the faces of noble and learned Lords. On many occasions I have seen the opposite.
There are difficulties at a practical level with some of these amendments. Amendments Nos. 263ZAD and 263ZAE in particular give local authorities two bites at the cherry when seeking an eviction. We feel that cannot be fair. Where a local authority loses its case in court on one ground, surely it cannot be equitable for the court to be allowed to consider repossession on another ground which is so similar. Amendments Nos. 263ZAF and 263ZAG seem to us not to be even-handed. For example, any damage to property in the locality is defined as serious anti-social behaviour. Of course, mindless vandalism must be punished, but we feel that eviction for any damage goes too far.
As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has said, a boy who plays football and breaks a window will fall foul of the clause. Under the proposal a family could be evicted because of that damage. The court could not take mitigating circumstances into account. There must be countless other examples of minor, possibly unintentional, damage that could lead to families losing their homes. That would not be fair to tenants. Our package of measures to deal with anti-social behaviour in the social rented sector is a strong one which is designed to cover all aspects of such behaviour.
I am aware that on occasions judges appear reluctant to grant possession orders, but I do not believe that the answer lies in cutting out the judiciary by giving mandatory grounds for possession; rather, it should be approached in other ways. One of these is the general raising of the profile of the issue, making judges aware of the deleterious effect that all anti-social behaviour can have on a community. More particularly, we are impressed by the work of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, as part of the Commission on Access to Justice, which recognises the unique nature of possession cases on the grounds of serious anti-social behaviour and the need to organise the civil justice system to deal with these matters as effectively as possible when they come before the courts. We expect to hear something from the noble and learned Lord on these subjects next month.
I hope, with the considerable comfort that I trust I have been able to give to the noble Baroness, that we are addressing the problems which she has identified in so far as we can without being unfair to tenants and that she will feel able to withdraw her amendments.
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page