HC Deb 19 May 1980 vol 985 cc123-36

In considering an application for admission to a housing list and in the allocation of local authority housing, a landlord shall take no account of any outstanding liability (for payment of rent or otherwise) attributable to the tenancy of any dwelling-house of which the applicant is not, and was not when the liability accrued, a tenant.".—[Mr. Tilley.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. John Tilley (Lambeth, Central)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, we may take new clause 28—Allocation.

Mr. Tilley

I hope that the Government Front Bench, in its new mood of flexibility, will accept the new clauses. They do not represent anything that is separate from the Government's thinking. As hon. Members will realise, the two clauses add up to the gist of clause 25 of the Tenants' Rights, Etc. (Scotland) Bill, which was passed in Committee. Its present form is a result of Government amendments.

In Committee on the Bill before us, Ministers were reluctant to explain the discrepancies between the two Bills, an attitude which was understandable at that stage. But now there is a strong case for hon. Members—especially those representing England and Wales—to know why their constituents who require council housing should have fewer rights than the constituents of Scottish Members.

The new clauses are taken as two separate parts of clause 25 in the Tenants' Rights, Etc. (Scotland) Bill, because there are two separate themes. If the Government are unable to accept both new clauses, we hope that they will accept at least one of them.

New clause 28 removes the possibility of local authorities applying residential qualifications to those hoping to be placed on the housing list. It prevents residents on the housing list being given any degree of priority. Both in the past and at present many local authorities apply such rules. The London boroughs had a rule that there had to be five years' residence in London and one year's residence in the borough concerned before people could be added to the waiting list. That policy clearly discriminated against newcomers, especially immigrants. That was one of the reasons why many Commonwealth immigrants who arrived in England in the late 1950s and early 1960s had to wait many years before qualifying for local authority housing, even though they were living in poor housing conditions.

The other objection to residents' qualifications is that they are strongly hostile to the mobility of labour. Those who wish to work in another town feel that they will not be able to join the housing list, let alone be given accommodation. That is clearly a deterrent against their moving. Above all, removing the residence qualifications is desirable because the current restrictions clearly cut across the idea of a top priority of need being the basis on which housing is allocated.

There may be a family with small children living in squalid and cramped housing conditions that will scar the children for life. Should that family wait longer for rehousing than a family living in better housing conditions, simply because the second family have lived longer in that town or district? That should not be so.

The second set of restrictions removed by new clause 28 concern employment. New clause 28 provides that people can be placed on a waiting list before they live in an area if they are employed there, if they have been offered a job there, or if they intend to find a job there. That is a valuable step forward in terms of mobility of labour. There have been strong calls for a greater mobility in the public sector from organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry. Contrary to our expectations on this side of the House, the Government have done nothing to meet that need for greater mobility of labour, other than to claim credit for an arrangement that local authority associations made between themselves several months ago.

The final reason why new clause 28 should be accepted is that, as it stands now, and with the difference between the two Bills, there is a clear anomaly between England and Scotland. An English resident who wishes to work, or who is working, in Scotland can join the housing list where he or she works, or wishes to work. But a Scot working, or wishing to work, in an English town cannot join the waiting list of that town. The Government should take the opportunity that they are being given tonight to remove that important anomaly.

New clause 28 is concerned with housing lists, allocation, and the cuts that exist in housing provision at present. Being added to a waiting list does not guarantee the provision of housing.

I turn to new clause 8, which should be taken separately because of its greater urgency and greater importance.

Unless new clause 8 is carried, bringing the Bill in line with the Scottish Bill, there will be great injustices immediately and for the future, particularly for divided families—almost exclusively women with small children trying to keep the family going after having been deserted by a spouse or having left home because of violence.

Clause 25 of the Scottish Bill is a step forward because it prevents the widespread practice of local authorities which employ every possible means of reclaiming rent arrears by insisting that the spouse over whom they still have some control—in most cases the wife—should pay all the rent arrears, even when they had been incurred by the husband or the co-habitee and she had no control over whether the rent was paid.

At a time when a woman is trying to cope with the emotional problems of separation and the financial problems of bringing up children on her own, it is wrong for a local authority to say that she cannot have a tenancy until she has paid the rent arrears left by her husband.

The second circumstance that the new clause would meet is the point that has been raised with many hon. Members by the National Women's Aid Federation, Rights of Women and the Women and Housing Group, who say: Women's Aid Refuges frequently take in women compelled to leave home by a violent spouse. By the time they have obtained an injunction to exclude the spouse from the accommodation, they may well find arrears of rent have accrued. At this point a woman seeking an immediate transfer in order to protect herself and her children from the possibility of further violence may find that she has to pay off the debt before she can be considered for a transfer. If the tenancy is held solely by the husband … or if jointly held, many local authorities will insist that the woman clears alt the arrears of rent before allowing a transfer. In the first instance this is unreasonable as the woman has no legal liability for the arrears anyway. Even in the case of a joint tenancy where technically the woman may be legally liable for the arrears, it is unreasonable to attribute them to her if she has not been in a position to pay them. The new clause seeks to deal with the case where a woman has not been a joint tenant and has no legal liability for the arrears. A council should not have the power to hound her for the money as a condition of giving her decent housing.

Many Labour Members fear, as do the Government in relation to Scotland, that, if the new clause is not included, the growing refusal of many women to face and tolerate domestic violence and to try to find a better life for themselves and their children will be overshadowed by the fear that there will be no alternative housing available from the local authorities. Therefore they will stay in a violent home, to their detriment and that of their children.

In two extremely reactionary housing Bills, clause 25 of the Scottish Bill is the only progressive measure. The least that the Government can do is to ensure that it applies to England and Wales as well as to Scotland.

7.45 pm
Mr. Dobson

I support new clause 8, which is intended to outlaw the practice of certain local authorities in England and Wales of using a deserting spouse's rent arrears to harass and oppress a deserted spouse into paying the arrears, which she had not accrued, before allocating housing or giving a transfer.

The new clause is identical to clause 25 in the Tenants Rights, Etc. (Scotland) Bill. Much of the progress that led to the inclusion of that clause in the Scottish Bill was the result of the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes), who has been pursuing the matter for many years in Scotland, and in England and Wales, in an effort to stamp out such practices.

It is not coincidental that in 1978 the Scottish Law Commission recommended that explicit statutory provision should be made to clarify the matter and to ensure that such practices were not continued, because one spouse does not have legal responsibility for the other's rent arrears if there is not a joint tenancy.

Progress has been made in Scotland, and it has been suggested that there may be proportionally more reactionary housing authorities in Scotland than there are in England and Wales, but there is clear evidence that such policies apply in England and Wales as well.

I should like to quote the report of the local government Ombudsman on a complaint against the Forest of Dean district council two or three years ago. The report stated: The complainant's husband was the tenant of a council house occupied by the couple and their four young children. During 1975 arrears of rent accumulated until £172.93 was owing in August 1975 when the complainant's husband left her. The complainant applied for supplementary benefit which together with family allowances gave her an income of £28.50 a week out of which she has since August never paid less than the full rent of £1588 a fortnight. Her complaint is that in November 1975 she was asked to appear before a Sub-Committee of the Housing Committee of the Forest of Dean District Council (the Council) at which meeting she was told that she must clear her husband's arrears or be evicted; as a result of this pressure she agreed to pay off £1 a week. The complainant alleges that she was subjected by the Sub-Committee to unfair treatment amounting to harassment. The Ombudsman found in that woman's favour and the council, unlike one or two others, took action and repaid the money that it had improperly taken from her. The new clause has been put forward in an effort to eliminate that sort of activity by councils in England and Wales. If my advocacy is not sufficient, I can do no better than to quote the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who said during the discussion of the identical clause in the Scottish Bill: There is at the moment the tendency on the part of a minority of local authorities … when a tenancy has been vacated with rent arrears outstanding to refuse to consider the spouse of the tenant who may subsequently apply for rehousing until the rent arrears which may have been accumulated by her husband or the person who was the tenant have been paid off. Most people would consider this an unreasonable action on the part of the small number of authorities which act in this way, and it is right and proper that this should not be allowed."—[Official Report, First Scottish Standing Committee, 13th March 1580; c. 1225.] I hope that hon. Members will agree with those sentiments.

I should have preferred the new clause to be drafted more widely, to have made it illegal for a local authority to exploit in any way the fact that a spouse had left home, leaving rent arrears. If we considered all the ways in which a housing authority can exercise discretion, either in favour or against the tenant, we could bet our boots that somewhere in England and Wales we would find a mean-minded housing director or housing committee that would exploit the position to the disadvantage of the deserted spouse.

In an effort to ensure that the Government would accept the new clause, there was considerable discussion between my hon. Friend the Member for Lambeth, Central (Mr. Tilley), myself and a number of interested groups. We agreed to stick to the wording of the Scottish Bill, so that no one could claim that we were trying to extend the scope of the provision.

If the clause is good enough for Scotland, why is it not good enough for us? I understand that the previous Parliament spent a great deal of time discussing the "West Lothian" question. That concerns Scotland and its relations with England. I should like to pose a new question, which could be called the " Holborn and St. Pancras, South" question. If it is necessary to eliminate this nasty practice in Scotland, why is it not necessary to eliminate it in England and Wales?

Further, if the Government do not accept the clause, what they are doing is tantamount to saying that this practice is all right. The limited number of mean-minded authorities are likely to take their rejection—if they reject it—as the nod to go ahead with this sort of harassment. I hope that the Government will bear that in mind. Labour Members regard this clause as a limited step forward in helping people, some of whom are in the absolute depths of distress at the time at which this sort of action is taken. We look forward at least once during this debate, to some sort of humane response from the Government, and we hope that they will accept the clause and outlaw this Dickensian and degrading practice.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

I am pleased that these clauses are being dealt with separately, because they raise different problems and principles. I agree with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Lambeth, Central (Mr. Tilley) on new clause 28. This clause seeks to impose on local authorities ways in which they should allocate their council houses. I am against an imposition of that kind, as I am against the Government telling local authorities that they must sell their council houses.

This clause raises the important question of mobility. One of the biggest factors working against the mobility of labour is housing. A few years ago, a shipyard in my constituency was short of skilled workers. There was no unemployment—simply a shortage of skilled workers. It advertised in the North-East, North-West and other parts of the country for skilled workers. A number of skilled workers came to Southampton and were employed with Vosper Thornycroft. They then had to face the problem of housing. Because of the rigidity of the system, many of those workers, after having lived in Southampton for six months or so, with their families still living in Newcastle or Clydeside, had had enough, and they went back to their part of the world because they could not find a house in which to live and to which to bring their families.

The price of housing in the South is high. Those workers could not have afforded to buy even if they had had a house to sell in the area from which they came. An equivalent house in my area would cost almost twice as much as a house in the North-East. Those workers could not get on the housing list. There is a waiting list of more than 4,000 because our dearly beloved Tory council, which has had control for the last five years is not building any houses. It is not only selling existing council houses; it is not building any to replace them. The waiting list is getting longer, and only the occasional house is being built for the elderly.

That is one of the problems of rigidity and of areas with a housing shortage. The real answer is to build more houses and not to impose from the centre a pattern of the way in which local authorities should allocate their housing.

New clause 8 falls into a different category. It raises fundamental legal principles. My local authority will not rehouse anyone who has a debt, even if that debt was incurred in the private sector. If a tenant has a debt and is evicted because of rent arrears, he cannot necessarily expect to be rehoused. I understand that. Many of such cases result from the break-up of marriages. When there has been trouble in the home and the marriage breaks up, it is possible that debts will accrue. In my constituency there are many cases where debts have accrued and the husband has left home. The council has told the wife that she cannot have the tenancy until the debt has been paid off. A woman who is left with three children is suddenly faced with having to find £200 or £300 before she can have a proper house for herself and her three children.

That is a fundamental legal question, and not simply a matter of administration by a local authority. To what extent should a wife be liable for her husband's debts? I do not consider that housing authorities should act differently from the way they would if the debt were in another area.

I therefore support new clause 8 and hope that the Government will accept it. It will go a long way towards easing many bitter problems.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

The hon. Members for Lambeth, Central (Mr. Tilley) and for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson) have pointed out that this clause would merely introduce a provision which already appears in the Tenants' Rights, Etc. (Scotland) Bill. That is a fair point, but there are good reasons why it would not be appropriate to include the clause in this Bill. I am not unsympathetic to the intention behind the clause. It is clearly distressing for a wife whose marriage has broken down and is trying to make a new start to be penalised for liabilities under a tenancy held by her husband or for her husband.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South quoted the reports by the local government commissioner which criticised two English local authorities for the way in which they treated the wife in those circumstances. But we have no evidence that the practice which the proposed provision seeks to stop is at all widespread. We have mythology, but no evidence. I believe that local authorities generally have taken note of the Ombudsman's views. Two documents were issued by the Departments under the previous Government subsequent to those incidents. There was a circular on the housing of one-parent families in 1977, and a report from the housing services advisory group in 1978. They both stressed that arrears should not be treated as a reason for disqualification or allocation. We believe that these have further influenced local authorities. We do not wish to legislate without fresh and compelling evidence of abuse. I also think that it is best left to local housing management to decide how particular rent arrears cases should be handled, knowing all the circumstances, rather than imposing a blanket view through legislation.

8 pm

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

The hon. Gentleman said that he would not want to legislate without having new and compelling evidence. How would he propose to get it? He said earlier that the abuse was not widespread. I suspect that it is much more widespread than he thinks it is. Does his Department collect any statistics? If not, how will he get information, apart from the cases sent to him by Members of Parliament?

Mr. Finsberg

That is one of the best ways that we have, and Members of Parliament have not drawn to our attention any evidence of widespread abuse.

Mr. Dobson

Has the Department considered the evidence assembled by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes), which, as far as I understand, covered both Scottish housing authorities and housing authorities in England, if not in Wales?

Mr. Finsberg

I am afraid that, without taking advice. I do not know whether the report of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) went wider than Scotland. My preliminary advice was that it was confined to Scotland and resulted, as was pointed out, in the Scottish Law Commission making certain proposals. But again I have to say that we have no evidence that this is a widespread practice in England and Wales.

I remind the House that the Bill deliberately does not interfere with local authorities' allocation procedures—a point made by the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Mitchell) in his vehement opposition to new clause 28, with which I shall deal in a moment. To include the proposal of the hon. Member for Lambeth, Central would be the Bill's first incursion into that area. The Scots, on the other hand, are importing statutory rules about eligibility for allocation of housing, and start with a reasonable context for their amendment. We have no such context. We believe that it is right that the local basic responsibility for this sort of allocation should be that of the local authority.

It is right also not to underestimate the fairly large volume of law that already exists to deal with the matrimonial home. There are the Matrimonial Homes Act 1967, the Matrimonial Clauses Act 1973 and the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act 1976. Under the provisions of these Acts as extended to secure tenancies by the Bill, where necessary it is possible for one spouse to occupy the matrimonial home on behalf of the other, when that other is the tenant, to take part in possession proceedings commenced against the other, and to apply to the court to have the tenancy transferred on divorce. Thus the position of the spouse is protected under this legislation.

Mr. Tilley

Does not the hon. Gentleman realise that the legal processes he has described can take a very long time, certainly months and often years, and that what is needed is for the local authority to be flexible enough and compassionate enough to take a decision which meets the immediate needs of that woman and her children? That is what the amendment would enforce, so that she would not have to wait the very long time that is necessary for the legal processes.

Mr. Finsberg

That is precisely why we believe that it should be left to the authorities, because we have no evidence, since the two Ombudsman's reports, that this is a practice being carried out by other local authorities. For the reasons that I have already given, I cannot advise the House to accept new clause 8.

With regard to new clause 28, I can hardly speak in stronger language than that of the hon. Member for Itchen. It would make a mockery of local authority freedom. It would give preference to people coming from outside. It would put them on the same basis as that of those seeking internal transfer. That would not be a good thing. We believe that it would be better that local authorities should continue to follow a sensible line on this question. It would make local authorities tailor their allocation policies not to their own local needs but to some centrally devised plan. We believe that local authorities should be in a position to give preference to local people where they feel that it is deserved. It shows, in our view, a basic distrust of the ability of local authorities to make their own allocation decisions in a way which best suits their own local needs.

I have noticed that Lambeth has a residential qualification which must be met before anyone can go on its list, so that the hon. Gentleman has not yet persuaded his own authority to get rid of the residential qualification, although he may have tried very hard. I should be interested to know when he achieves success.

Mr. Tilley

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend are not suggesting that they are not aware that I am not the leader of Lambeth council.

Mr. Finsberg

I shall not even say that it would be an improvement. All I can say is that when the hon. Gentleman led the neighbouring local authority it got itself into such a mess that, when the voters had their opportunity, they changed the political control there.

In Committee, the hon. Gentleman quite fairly chided us and told us what he was trying to persuade Lambeth to do. All I am saying is that he has not yet persuaded the authority that his view is right. I agree with Lambeth that to abolish the residential qualification would not be at all helpful to local people. It would almost certainly not achieve the result that the hon. Gentleman wants. A local authority could very simply get round it by changing the criteria under which it operates its own internal transfer for its own tenants, so that those were made more onerous; and those conditions would, according to the new clause, apply to people from outside. It would simply be making life much more difficult for a council's own tenants, who would find it more difficult to obtain their own transfer.

The clause is misconceived and virtually impossible to enforce. We believe that it is much better to follow the voluntary co-operation method which my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction announced in the Committee. We think that that would be better than a bureaucratic mess of regulations which can take no account of local housing needs. For that reason, when we come to clause 28, I hope very much that the hon. Gentleman will decide not to move it. If he does, I hope that the House will reject it.

Mr. Dobson

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I am now rather confused by his response to new clause 8. As I understand the position, he has argued that it is unnecessary because this sort of abuse does not happen. But unless my ears have deceived me, he went on to say that it is a matter which should be left to local authorities to decide in the light of local circumstances. It is the clear view of the House as expressed in the Tenants' Rights, Etc. (Scotland) Bill, that this is a wholly improper process and that it should not be followed. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that that is the Government's view—that any use of a spouse's rent arrears to stop someone from being allocated or transferred is wrong?

Mr. Finsberg

I can only repeat what I said to the hon. Gentleman and the House earlier—that the particular issues, as they affect the Scottish Bill, are for Scottish Members, because the circumstances are different. I said that, in regard to the English legislation, apart from the two local Ombudsman's reports, we have no evidence. The previous Government felt that it was right to issue two circulars, and we believe that local authorities have heeded the advice given. But there is no evidence that this practice is now being indulged in by English and Welsh local authorities. Therefore, I cannot advise the House to accept new clause 8.

Mr. Tilley

Is the Minister glad that the local authorities have heeded that advice? He seems to want to stand back from saying whether the purpose of the clause is desirable. He merely suggests that it is something for the Ombudsman and the local authorities to discuss among themselves. Will he say that the Government support the advice given by the Ombudsman and that they do not think that it is desirable for local authorities to use rent arrears that a woman has not incurred herself as a reason why she should not be rehoused?

Mr. Finsberg

I repeat that I am not unsympathetic to the intention behind the clause. However, in the light of two Ombudsman cases, followed by two circulars from the previous Government, we do not believe that statutory control is needed. I really do not believe that there is any justification for legislating without evidence.

Question put and negatived.

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