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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: First, I should like to thank--I think--the noble Lords who took part in the debate. Perhaps I may try to respond to some of the individual points because the debate is central to this section of the Bill.
If I may first respond to the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, I suspect that the gap between us is not very wide. I accept his reproof that there is not, in this amendment, a statutory duty to rehouse, and I will certainly look at it when we come back at report stage because I doubt whether we are in disagreement about this.
If somebody is, as he described in his National Schizophrenic Fellowship briefing, in a severe psychotic state, he believes that that should be a reason for not granting eviction. Again I think that that is the wrong way round. It may be a reason for seeking possession of that particular property which that tenant is inappropriately occupying because of the intolerable nuisance he is causing to his neighbours but--and I think this is where we would be on the same side--I would in no sense wish to remove from the local authority a continuing duty to be responsible for ensuring that that person has appropriate and secure accommodation perhaps in a sheltered environment.
As somebody who was responsible for building sheltered housing schemes for those with learning difficulties and those with mental health problems, I am well aware of some of the issues. So I suspect that the gap between us is not very wide. Perhaps inadequate drafting failed to pick up the point.
I have to say that we only realised the significance of the issue as a result of an earlier debate this evening, and, had that earlier debate, when we were exploring just this issue, come up on a previous day, we might have been able to amend the amendment. So I think we share a common position on this.
If I may comment on the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, he accepts that there is a problem. He worries first that those exhibiting such severe anti-social behaviour--and we are now talking not about those who have a mental health or physical health problem but about those who are simply bloody-minded, if I may use that phrase--who have severe anti-social behaviour will go elsewhere. Yes, I think that that is true by definition. They will go somewhere else.
I say again from my own experience that, particularly where there were dependent children, we were faced with a very real dilemma. You either moved them on knowing that the threshold of tolerance in the average street was about 18 months, after which you then moved them on again, each time interrupting the children's schooling and being extremely disruptive, or you took those children into care, which was even more disruptive for the family. What the "respectable" wanted was a ghetto of such problem-families: out of sight, out of mind, out of there and not here.
If you try to avoid that and integrate such families in the hope that at least the children will not inherit the behaviour patterns of their parents, you are asking other people to accept behaviour which imposes severe strain. We know that one or two such families can very quickly send a street into a declining spiral in the course of a year or two. It may take 10, 15 or 20 years to rebuild a degree of self-respect in that street. From my own experience, we have had to move tenants on every 18 months or so as other people's tolerance breaks down. It is a very difficult problem, but that is not to say that the street on which these families first descend should be asked to bear it for the sake of everyone else. We have to respond in other ways.
The second point the noble Earl made related to the words, witnesses "may be intimidated", as opposed to "been intimidated" and he was very unhappy about that as a basis for law. Perhaps he misunderstood--I am sure not wittingly--the thrust of the amendment. The concern was not for this amendment to seek to establish whether witnesses have or have not been intimidated. The concern was to establish the right of the courts to hear--in fact the requirement that the courts should hear--professional witnesses. And such professional witnesses are going to be people like the police, housing officers employed by the authority, and environmental health officers.
I do not know why any Member of the Committee should think that those busy, overworked, understaffed services would willingly waste their time hanging around and taking cases to court in a vexatious way. EHOs normally only turn out with their machines at one o'clock or two o'clock in the morning after there have been continual complaints or continual telephone calls to the police. Only then will they start to act. The problem is not that they will act in a vexatious or frivolous way, but how long it takes to collect and bring such evidence to court. It may take many months.
The noble Lord's criticism that witnesses may be intimidated, and that we must be sure that they have been intimidated, is irrelevant. The amendment seeks to establish that professional witnesses may be used where
To believe that professional officers are going around trying to catch the unwary who are guilty of the most trivial of offences is not faintly to understand local government and the pressures on its staff.
Earl Russell: Perhaps I may clarify what I was saying. I was by no means questioning the sincerity of witnesses, but sincerity is not necessarily synonymous with accuracy. There must be clear proof that an offence has been committed.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I should have thought that with evidence from the police, professionally trained EHOs and professionally trained housing officers in pursuance of the law, it is not just a question of sincerity, it is a question of their professional integrity. I am sorry, again, that I fail to understand the noble Earl's point on this. Such people will be producing evidence in a professional way through their professional training, and if they fail to do so they will be disciplined professionally.
I cannot believe that any judge would not listen to the evidence of such people and attach to it the weight that it properly deserves. I have to say from my experience that EHOs would not take a case to court unless there were several instances testified to by their environmental noise machines and all the rest.
The third point that the noble Earl made--it was a point made also, to my surprise, by the Minister--was that the net was cast too widely, and that under the amendments the child kicking around a ball that just happened to bang against someone's fence would be grounds for mandatory eviction. When I listen to those worst possible case scenarios, I sometimes wonder in what sort of a world we are living. There is a reference to serious anti-social behaviour. If the judge did not believe that the damage to property amounted to serious anti-social behaviour, the case would not be established and he would throw it out. It is as simple as that.
I do not understand the examples of kids and so forth. The noble Earl referred to the Ku Klux Klan and witch hunts. I am sure that he did not intend any insult to thousands and thousands of elected, serving, unpaid councillors, but they might take what he said as such.
The noble Earl is right--he is ferociously right--to protect the minority from the intimidation of the majority, but I am also worried about the intimidation of the majority by the minority. Perhaps I may remind the noble Earl that John Stuart Mill was equally good on that. The alternative is to send a street into decay.
I welcome the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes. The answers to the questions posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, about a suspended order, are that she may well be right. We would all prefer to see a tenant remain rather than be
I shall have to take advice in relation to interlocutory injunctions. My knowledge of that aspect of the law is not sufficiently secure to respond to that matter. However, my knowledge of the Government's existing social security measures is sufficiently secure to challenge the Minister on his reference to authoritarian policies. That is rather rich coming from a Minister and a Government who are introducing introductory tenancies, on which these Benches have very real reservations, which will remove all rights from tenants in the first year; who have introduced the jobseeker's allowance, including benefit penalties for breaking dress codes when you turn up for interviews, and benefit penalties for not looking sufficiently hard for work which is not there to find; who have introduced tough penalties, including top-slicing of 40 per cent. for a parent with care who is not prepared to name an absent parent to the CSA when she is in fear of violence. I find that accusation of authoritarianism quite extraordinary and of mind-baffling hypocrisy.
Or is it that the Government are willing to be authoritarian when on the side of the Treasury, but are indifferent and accuse others of being authoritarian when they are seeking to protect the right to quiet enjoyment of council tenants? Those people are infinitely more vulnerable to the problems of noise, nuisance and intimidation than is, I suspect, anyone in this room. We live in our comfortable houses with gardens and, in some cases, many broad acres and will never know what it is like to have a noisy neighbour.
It is a pity that more former councillors have not spoken in the debate. I realise that that is because of the lateness of the hour. I do not know whether the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Gardner of Parkes, share my experience of local government, but when I was involved with housing issues, I spent my time chasing repairs and managing transfers. During the last few years, I spent most of my time seeking to manage the problem of anti-social behaviour and neighbour disputes.
These amendments may not be quite the right way in which to deal with the problem. Local authorities need to be able to manage their estates so as to secure for their tenants the quiet enjoyment of their property to which they have every right, just as Members of the Committee have. At this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
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