HC Deb 30 June 1981 vol 7 cc750-8

'It shall not be competent for a housing authority to refuse to class a non-entitled spouse as homeless for the purposes of section 1 of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 solely on the grounds that he or she has failed to enforce his or her rights under this Act, nor shall a housing authority hold a non-entitled spouse to be intentionally homeless because of such failure.'.—[Mr. Dewar.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

7.13 pm

Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)

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

The new clause deals with the impact of the legislation in the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. It is a matter of real importance and something that we touched on in Committee, although it was not debated at any great length. The Under-Secretary of State will be the first to agree that there is a real social problem with the adult single homeless in Scotland. It is one which causes considerable anxiety to a number of organisations that have special responsibility for housing in Scotland.

Before I come to the details of the new clause, I invite the Under-Secretary to say a word or two in his reply about the impact of the legislation on the number of single homeless adults in Scotland. As he will be aware, under the 1977 Act a general duty is laid on local authorities to deal with homelessness, but, unless a person falls into one of the priority categories, it is difficult for them to get satisfactory housing in many local authority areas.

The record of local authorities varies greatly. Some attempt honourably to address themselves to the problem. I am told by interested groups that my district council of Glasgow takes a sympathetic view and makes a particular effort to deal with the problems of single adults in hostels and lodging houses. However, there is a substantial and continuing problem. The provision of one-apartment and two-apartment accommodation in Scotland, which is particularly suitable for the adult single homeless, is totally inadequate and is likely to become less adequate as the years go by if the housing policy of this Administration is followed to its conclusion, as foreshadowed in the White Paper on public expenditure up to 1984.

A code has been issued to local authorities by the Scottish Office, somewhat reluctantly and late in the day, but the guidance is not adequate on this issue. The Under-Secretary is looking deeply offended, and I always hesitate to offend him. If there is difficulty about dealing with the adult single homeless, perhaps he will consider whether more guidance to local authorities would be welcome.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

I looked offended because the hon. Gentleman had the nerve to suggest that the Government produced the guidance code reluctantly. The Labour Government consistently declined to issue a code, even though they were asked by almost everyone. As soon as we came to office we said that we intended to provide a code, and the fact that we did so was warmly welcomed.

Mr. Dewar

That may be the hon. Gentleman's gloss on the circumstances, and I shall not argue the toss with him.

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman should ask his hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown).

Mr. Dewar

I constantly ask my hon. Friend for advice and help and shall continue to do so.

It has been represented most forcefully to me that there is a problem about the single adult homeless, and perhaps the Minister will say a word about that in his reply.

The intent of the new clause is clear, and I hope that it will commend itself to the House. It seeks to guard against a situation in which a non-entitled spouse—in the most likely scenario a wife—does not wish to go to the courts to enforce her rights of occupancy under the 1977 Act. Let us assume for the sake of argument that the matrimonial home is a council house of which the husband is the sole tenant. Perhaps there is no family. Let us assume that the wife does not wish to ask under clause 13 for an order transferring the tenancy to her. It would, therefore, be conceivable that the local authority may take the view that she had failed to enforce her rights and was to that extent intentionally homeless. As the Minister is aware, if a person is classed as intentionally homeless, any chance of being given priority under the 1977 Act comes to a sharp end.

The Minister may say that the new clause is unnecessary. Is he satisfied that the failure to go to the courts and attempt to implement an occupancy right will not give local authorities the opportunity to class a non-entitled spouse as intentionally homeless? To be more positive, will the Minister confirm that a person is homeless even if he or she does not attempt to enforce the rights in the way that I have described? If he cannot give that confirmation, the new clause must be necessary.

I recognise that many local authorities are making honest efforts to meet the requirements of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act. I also recognise that many of them face great difficulty because of a lack of resources and of accommodation. However, in the areas where the approach has been less flexible, it would be tragic if a failure to go for a section 13 order or if a failure, in other circumstances, to go for a declarator of occupancy under section 3 were to allow an intentionally homeless classification to be made. It would be equally tragic if the person in question did not qualify as homeless under the 1977 Act. That would be a sad and unintended consequence. New clause 2 has been tabled to meet that situation.

Dame Judith Hart (Lanark)

I am concerned that the purpose of the new clause should be met. As the Minister knows, I had discussions with him as a result of my anxiety about the Bill's consequences. Although I did not serve on the Committee, my anxiety has been reinforced since then by what was said there. Tonight the Minister must give us a complete reassurance. If he does not do so, we must ask him to accept the new clause.

I think that the Minister knows the reason for my concern. The Bill sets out to take good and creditable legal steps to protect the victims of matrimonial disputes. Some years ago I was deeply concerned about what would happen if a marriage broke up, for one reason or another, and if one partner, together with the children—that partner is usually the woman, although the children are important factors—was displaced from the family home. I was particularly concerned about the cases that can be more easily controlled—those involving council dwellings. Inquiries were made all over Scotland. The answer to my inquiries was that there was a tremendous mix among housing authorities. More recent information shows that there is still a tremendous mix. Some authorities refuse to rehouse a separated spouse, even though the spouse—usually the woman—has the children, until proceedings for judicial separation or divorce have taken place. That means a delay of a couple of years.

Let us suppose that the spouse with the children is the woman. Indeed, that is usually the case. During that time, the wife and children have to go from pillar to post, living in rooms, lodgings or with relatives. They must carry on doing that until court proceedings are satisfactorily completed. However, some authorities are infinitely more flexible and have a much better attitude. I am happy to say that my authority, Clydesdale, is numbered among them. That may be partly due to the fact that about six years ago I had a full discussion with the authority on this issue. There is no system and one cannot attach labels. That is one of the problems. Legislation cannot systemise matters entirely. One must assume an enlightened approach to the administration of housing allocation.

In my local authority the spouse with the children is housed if the marriage breaks up. The question of who is entitled to the original council house is resolved later. I do not want a local authority's discretion to ensure that the separated spouse and children are rehoused held up merely because the less progressive housing authorities think that they have had reinforced their belief that court proceedings must take place. That is my concern.

I hope that the Minister will give an assurance that a separated spouse with children will not be less likely to be administratively rehoused by the housing authority as a result of the Bill. Despite the Bill's good provisions, it may be argued that everything should go to the courts first. I am concerned about that. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) highlighted that concern in his remarks. I saw and heard what happened in Committee. As a result, I have spoken in today's debate. I should have thought that a complete reassurance would have been given in Committee. As good provisions are being introduced to give legal rights to spouses, I hope that the Bill will not reinforce the reactionary tendencies of some housing authorities. Sadly, some of those authorities still tend to ask themselves which one is the guilty partner. They do not recognise that it is the children who matter. The spouse with the children must be immediately rehoused.

In the more reactionary authorities, demands are made for refuges for battered wives. My constituency does not have such a refuge because we do not need one. In my constituency, a battered wife with children would be rehoused by the local authority. Women's refuges are needed only in reactionary housing authorities. They do not take our liberated, sensible and enlightened approach. I wish to ensure that, although the Bill provides legal safeguards and new provisions, the Government will not discourage housing authorities from taking administrative action to resolve the problem. I hope that the Government will continue to guide housing authorities—as the original guidance of a year or so ago did—about meeting the problem with their own administrative solutions, regardless of whether a non-entitled spouse seeks to go to the courts. The courts must not stand in the way of liberal, administrative arrangements. I want an assurance that that will not happen.

7.30 pm
Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)

I had fully expected the Under-Secretary of State to rise to give the reassurance which my hen. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) sought. I had thought that he would rise immediately to give a positive answer to my hon. Friend. The fact that he did not do so shows that he intends to oppose the new clause or that he will say that there is no necessity—

Mr. Rifkind

The fact is that the right hon. Member for Lanark (Dame Judith Hart) wished to speak. It is normal procedure, when Back Benchers wish to speak, for the Minister to wait until the debate has concluded before replying.

Dr. Miller

I was not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman had been discourteous. It is, however, also usual for a Minister to say immediately that a proposal is good and that he accepts it. That eliminates the necessity for further argument. The fact that the hon. Gentleman did not follow that course might suggest that he opposes what my hon. Friend requests. I support wholeheartedly the remarks of my hon. Friend and also those of my neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lanark (Dame Judith Hart).

The provisions for those categorised as homeless are bad enough now. I have no doubt that many of my hon. Friends, like me, are aware of cases where the spouse, who is usually woman—my right hon. Friend should not have been reticent in saying that it is usually the woman who is the sufferer—is pushed into inferior accommodation. The Bill contains some excellent provisions. I would not like the non-entitled spouse to be deprived of rights that are at the moment far from satisfactory. I shall not follow my right hon. Friend along the track of saving that it is always reactionary or non-progressive local authorities that need accommodation for battered wives. Sometimes a wife needs immediate succour. Sometimes it is necessary to set up a house or a home for that purpose.

I want an assurance from the Minister that the spouse who is involved in an unfortunate circumstance—an altercation or a dispute between husband and wife which will have serious consequences—should have an automatic right to be rehoused. It is not even going far enough to say that the housing authority shall hold a non-entitled spouse to be intentionally homeless because of such failure". I would like to see spelt out an extra obligation upon local authorities to ensure that the non-entitled spouse is rehoused. In saying "rehoused", I do not merely mean inferior accommodation to which a woman often has to take children for several months. I should like the Minister to state clearly that local authorities will be able to follow some guidelines or a code to satisfy what has been sought by my hon. Friend the Member for Garscadden, so ably supported by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lanark.

Mr. Hugh D. Brown (Glasgow, Provan)

This is, I am sure, a matter of great interest to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because you and I will never forget the famous words "intentionally homeless". My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) has no need to feel on the defensive or apologetic about the fact that the previous Labour Government did not produce a code of practice. Unlike the lot now in power, we tried 1:0 get the agreement of the local authorities and the local authority associations. I regret to advise the House that the failure of housing and social work sub-committees of COSLA to agree in an informal discussion, designed to take people along with Government policies rather than simply putting the boot in, accounted for the fact that it was not possible to produce an agreed code of conduct.

The Minister, to whom I always pay great tribute—not for his knowledge but for his debating skill—has done the cheap thing again. I did not serve on the Committee. I hazard a guess that practical problems could arise from the definition of someone who is intentionally homeless. However, there would surely be an obligation in the type of case mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lanark (Dame Judith Hart), and my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Dr. Miller) to rehouse a woman with children in her care if she was unable to get back into the matrimonial home or did not want to go back. Surely, in those circumstances, there would be an obligation. I think I am right in recalling that violence or the threat of violence by a partner was a legitimate ground for being declared homeless. I should like to hear what the Minister says.

I should like to know whether there have been consultations. It is no secret that when the previous Labour Government were in office the majority of authorities were controlled either by the Conservative Party or by the SNP. I have stated regularly that some Labour colleagues in local government were not the best in dealing with some sensitive issues. However, tremendous strides have been made in the past four years as a result of the Act covering homelessness. I hope that, in the spirit generated by that legislation, no great problem will arise in getting authorities to deal with the natural concern expressed in new clause 2.

Mr. Rifkind

I can give the right hon. Member for Lanark (Dame Judith Hart) the assurance that she sought. There is nothing in the Bill that is intended to remove or reduce the normal responsibilities of local authorities to provide for homeless persons within their own area. I would share the right hon. Lady's concern if am, local authority indicated that a contrary view was appropriate.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown) has said all that needs to be stated about the new clause. It is clearly intended to ensure that, when a non-entitled spouse for some reason did not wish to pursue a potential occupancy right, this should not be a ground for the local authority refusing to treat the non-entitled spouse, normally the wife, as homeless. For the reasons the hon. Gentleman indicated, that course would not be open to the local authority, given the situation that would clearly have arisen in these circumstances.

We are talking about a situation where a marriage has broken up and where, as a consequence, the parties have separated. Normally, the wife has left the matrimonial home either with the children or by herself, depending on the circumstances. In many cases, there will be violence or the threat of violence, which will undoubtedly be a deterrent to the non-entitled spouse wishing to resume occupation in the matrimonial home, certainly at a stage where it would not be certain by any means that an exclusion order might be available under the clause.

Although this Bill was not being considered at the time, these matters were very much taken on board when the code of guidance was provided to local authorities. As the House will be aware, the code of guidance has been widely welcomed not only by the local authorities but also by organisations such as Shelter, the Scottish Council for Single Homeless and other bodies that take a special interest in these matters.

As far as we are aware, the code is working well and provides not only a basis for local authorities to apply the purpose of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act but a welcome uniformity among local authorities, thereby reducing considerably the annoying anomalies and distinctions between one local authority and another about how they previously interpreted the Act. It was for that reason that a code was sought and was welcome once it was published.

Local authorities are now looking to the code to determine whether a person should be classed as homeless and whether the criterion of intentional homelessness has been met. Parts of the existing code more than meet the points that the Opposition have raised as matters of concern. Where the code deals with priority need, it says: In particular, the Secretary of State considers that it would be appropriate under this heading for authorities to secure that, whenever possible, accommodation is available for battered women without children who are at risk of violent pursuit or, if they return home, at risk of further violence. In dealing with intentional homelessness—this is relevant to the new clause—the code says: In the opinion of the Secretary of State, a victim of domestic violence who has fled the marital home should never be regarded as having become homeless intentionally because it clearly would not be reasonable for her to remain. That is on all fours with the circumstances suggested.

On the same page, the code continues: In general, authorities should not treat as intentionally homeless those who have been driven to leave their accommodation because conditions had degenerated to a point where they could not in all the circumstances have been reasonably expected to remain. On page 16 the code states: Authorities should not, however, put pressure on people to return to shared accommodation where this would cause real distress, in particular where a person is seeking refuge because of a genuine fear of violence from another member of the household and there will be an immediate need for alternative accommodation. Those are the sort of circumstances that cause concern to the hon. Gentlemen and the right hon. Lady. I hope that the extracts that I have quoted from the code will assure her and other hon. Members that the code, which will remain relevant once the Bill becomes law, will be clear advice to local authorities of the proper interpretation of the 1977 Act.

Dame Judith Hart

In his last couple of sentences the Minister has more or less reassured me. What I want is clear confirmation that there is nothing in the Bill which reduces the importance of the advice given in the code of guidance in terms of the administrative capabilities of housing authorities.

Mr. Rifkind

As far as I am aware, nothing in the Bill reduces the effectiveness of the code. We are continually monitoring the code. Once the Bill is enacted, if our experience leads to the suggestion that the code needs further amendment to deal with problems that might arise, we shall give urgent consideration to its further amendment. At this stage, there is no reason to believe that that will be necessary. We have the same objectives as the right hon. Lady about the Bill.

Mr. Jim Craigen (Glasgow, Maryhill)

I do not have a copy of the code, but is the Minister satisfied that, in the allocation policies pursued at administrative level, attention is paid to the problem when a spouse does not want to be rehoused near the other partner because of the possibility of domestic violence?

7.45 pm
Mr. Rifkind

That is a consideration that any intelligent authority would take into account. It is clearly not possible to make a statutory obligation to that effect because it would depend on the alternative accommodation that a local authority had available. It is possible that the only vacant houses were in the vicinity and the spouse would have to say whether that was a persuasive reason for her accepting that accommodation or waiting until something better became available. Two kinds of accommodation are available for the homeless. There is emergency accommodation to deal with short-term problems. There is also long-term or permanent alternative accommodation. That is another matter to be taken into account.

The advice given in the code requests local authorities to take into account the circumstances that led to the separation of the parties. No doubt the majority of housing authorities do not want to risk adding to marital discord in the administration of their policies.

Mr. Hugh D. Brown

The Minister is helpful, but can he be more specific? I was not on the Committee but I understand the principles. When he replied to my right hon. Friend the Member for Lanark (Dame Judith Hart) he did not answer her question. We are not discussing the code of guidance. Can he give a satisfactory assurance that the new rights created under the Bill are not in conflict with the definition of being intentionally homeless?

Mr. Rifkind

I can give that assurance because the basis on which the new clause is framed is the suggestion that if a spouse chose not to exert her occupancy rights and not go to court to get implementation of the occupancy rights there is a risk that that would lead to the local authority telling her that she could have sought to impose her occupancy rights if she had wanted to do so. She chose not to do so; therefore, the local authority can consider her intentionally homeless. That would not be consistent with the code of guidance because there might be a series of reasons why a spouse might not wish to pursue her occupancy rights.

Pursuing occupancy rights would not necessarily mean that there would be an exclusion order. Therefore, the spouse might be granted her occupancy rights in the matrimonial home, and she might then be forced to come into contact with the other spouse and might be afraid that she would suffer physical violence unless an exclusion order were part of the occupancy right. I give that as one circumstance which might lead a non-entitled spouse not to seek to exercise her occupancy right.

There may be other reasons but they may not be reasons that the local authority will wish or be able to look into. The circumstances of the code clearly suggest that it would not be appropriate for a local authority to examine motivation. It should be concerned with the objective facts that exist at the time. The basis of the evidence is the basis on which it decides that there is intentional homelessness. In circumstances where the spouse is concerned about physical or mental violence and is unwilling to return to the matrimonial home—if that was considered a genuine, not a bogus, reason—there is no question that that would not be considered as a basis for describing someone as intentionally homeless.

The code in its present form is satisfactory but it is by no means the final word on the subject. If, in the light of experience, further improvements are thought to be appropriate, we shall look at the effects on the code of the Act once it is in operation. If, contrary to my expectations, problems arise, we shall give serious consideration to further improvements to the code.

Mr. Dewar

I am sorry to detain the House a little longer, but the interventions have shown that this subject is of some interest. A number of my hon. Friends have raised valid points to which the Minister's reply has not been entirely satisfactory, although he has gone some way and I am sure has tried to be helpful.

First, the purpose of the new clause is not merely to cover the problem in which a spouse, presumably the wife, has been the victim of domestic violence. It is true that the code of guidance would cover. the victim of domestic violence who has fled the matrimonial home", to repeat the Minister's quotation. It would be ludicrous if that person were treated as intentionally homeless. I accept that the code of guidance makes it clear that that is not intended, and no local authority would intend that.

I direct the Minister's attention to another potential category which is perhaps less appealing emotionally and is less dramatic.

A spouse might leave the domestic home because she and her husband do not get on. Violence might not be involved. The husband might not be guilty of conduct covered by an exclusion order. The wife might just say "I am sorry, it is better that I leave." She could still apply for an exclusion order, because there is no stigma involved in that, but for good reasons she might not choose to do so. When there is no victim or violence, the spouse might be held by an unsympathetic local authority to be in dereliction of her duty by not enforcing her right and, therefore, she might be regarded as intentionally homeless. I tabled the new clause to protect such a person.

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman's example is valid. It is covered by the code, page 16 of which states: Authorities should not, however, put pressure on people to return to shared accommodation when this would cause real distress. One of the reasons for distress might be physical violence, but there could be other reasons. There might be many occasions when there is a distressing relationship between the parties which does not necessarily involve physical violence. Local authorities are especially enjoined not to put pressure on a person to return to shared accommodation in such circumstances. To say that a spouse would not be rehoused in such circumstances would be to impose exactly the pressure which the code specifically asks local authorities not to impose.

Mr. Dewar

That is helpful. I am encouraged. The Minister has said clearly that the code is not a tablet from on high and that if there is need for further amendment he will examine that possibility. We shall want to consider his words carefully. It is a sensitive and important subject.

I am not sure that the Minister is right to reassure my right hon. Friend the Member for Lanark (Dame Judith Hart) that nothing in the Bill will inhibit the administrative powers of local authorities to deal with the break-up of a marriage in terms of rehousing and perhaps arranging for a transfer of tenancy. Clause 13 will import such an inhibition into the law. Amendment No. 34 is an attempt to deal with that problem.

I do not intend to press the new clause in view of what the Minister said. However, I am anxious that local authorities should not be left room to take an inflexible and reactionary attitude. In a debate on new clause 2 in Committee on 16 June, we suggested that a spouse who had been excluded from a matrimonial home under clause 4 should not be treated as intentionally homeless. The Minister said in no uncertain terms that he could not accept that the spouse would be treated as intentionally homeless, and that the local authority should have discretion. He said that outrageous conduct which resulted in an exclusion order might make a person intentionally homeless. He said that each case should be decided on its merits. He invited local authorities to use their discretion in each case.

I am worried about the reverse of that picture. A wife who is a non-entitled spouse might not exercise her rights and discretion might be used unsympathetically in a way which is not intended under the 1977 Act. I hope that the Minister will continue to monitor the position.

Representations have been made by the Scottish homeless group, the Scottish Council for the Single Homeless and other organisations about local authorities having no statutory obligations to provide homes for homeless people who do not fall within the categories in the 1977 Act.

Groups with a great deal of experience and expertise are satisfied that there is likely to be an increase in the number of single adult homeless as a result of this measure, That is a price that we pay for a valuable social reform. However, we must deal with it. I had hoped that the Minister would be able to say something encouraging about giving priority to the problem, not necessarily within the framework of the 1977 Act but at least by amending the code of guidance. I had hoped that he would say something sympathetic about making resources available to tackle the problem, which marginally, and perhaps significantly, is likely to be increased by the operation of the Bill.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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