HC Deb 27 June 1988 vol 136 cc152-7

`In Schedule 2 to the Housing Act 1985 (grounds for possession of dwelling-houses let under secure tenancies) in Part I (grounds of which court may order possession if it considers it reasonable), at the end of Ground 2 (nuisance or annoyance to neighbours) add— or has committed acts on racial grounds against a person or persons of a different racial or ethnic origin residing within the local authority area within which the dwelling-house is located, and those acts have interfered with that person's enjoyment of the dwelling-house or have been calculated to deter the person from occupying a particular dwellinghouse.".'.—[Mr. Tony Banks.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Tony Banks

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 43—Grounds for possession: harassment'In Schedule 2 to the Housing Act 1985 (grounds for possession of dwelling-houses let under secure tenancies) in Part I (grounds of which court may order possession if it considers it reasonable), at the end of Ground 2 (nuisance or annoyance to neighbours) add— or has committed acts against a person or persons residing within the local authority area within which the dwelling-house is located, and those acts have interfered with that person's enjoyment of the dwelling-house or have been calculated to deter the person from occupying a particular dwelling-house.".'.

New clause 15—Officer to deal with harassment and illegal eviction'(1) All local housing authorities to which this section applies, shall appoint and retain a proper officer, whose functions shall include those set out in subsection (3) below. (2) This section applies to the following local housing authorities—

  1. (i) district councils and London borough councils.
  2. (ii) The Common Council of the City of London.
  3. (iii) The Council of the Isles of Scilly.
(3) The proper officer for the purposes of subsection (1) above, shall investigate any complaint made to the local housing authority, by a person aggrieved, that an offence under this Part of this Act or under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 as amended has been committed within the area of that authority and shall prepare a recommendation in writing for that authority on whether or not that authority shall commence a prosecution or other action against any person arising from these investigations. (4) For the avoidance of doubt, it is hereby confirmed that a person aggrieved under subsection (3) above shall have a sufficient interest in the matter to bring appropriate proceedings to enforce the duties established under this section.'.

Mr. Banks

The new clauses all touch upon racial harassment. New clause 9 relates to schedule 2 of the Housing Act 1985, which sets out the grounds on which a public sector landlord can recover possession against a tenant. I am more than happy to move the new clause, but I wish that there were no need for me to do so. Racial harassment is one of the evils that unfortunately now permeates much of our society, especially within the inner cities. The boroughs of Newham—which is my part of the east end—and Tower Hamlets have found that the problem has reached crisis proportions. I am glad to be able to report that the London borough of Newham has taken a national lead in attempting to combat racial harassment, and the first case of a tenant being convicted on the ground of racial harassment occurred in the borough.

Newham commissioned a report from the Harris Research Centre as part of a crime survey. The survey examined a sample of Asian and Afro-Caribbean residents to determine their experiences and attitudes about racial harassment. A normal sample size of 1,063 people was taken and the findings were very disturbing. It showed that one in four of Newham's black residents had been victims of some form of racial harassment in the previous 12 months. Two in three victims of racial harassment were victims on more than one occasion and 116 victims reported 1.550 incidents of racial harassment. It is really worrying that it appears that only one in 20 incidents were actually reported to the police. When they were reported, 80 per cent. of black victims were dissatisfied with the police handling of the matter. The dissatisfaction largely stemmed from a feeling that the police were apathetic about the problems of black residents.

I am glad to say that, through some very intense discussions with the police, the local authority and community leaders, there has been an undoubtedly successful drive against racial harassment in the east end of London. On behalf of hon. Members on both sides of the House, I commend all those in the east end who are trying their best to stem the rising tide of unpleasantness about which all of us feel ashamed.

I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House deplore racial harassment. Although victim support is an essential feature of any racial harassment policy. we must concentrate our efforts on the perpetrators and the crimes that they commit. We believe that ground for possession is an essential component of that attack on the perpetrators.

The experience of local authorities is that the courts are not willing to evict tenants for racial harassment alone. They have found that a more comprehensive case including a long series of small incidents that are a nuisance or an annoyance is more likely to succeed than a case relying purely on racial harassment. For that reason alone it would be useful for Parliament to send a message to the courts that we intend that racial attacks on tenants or residents should be considered as sufficient grounds for possession. I hope that the Minister will he able to join me in sending that message out very clearly by accepting new clause 9.

New clause 15 seeks to give teeth to the Government's proposals drafted to give effect to their manifesto promise to strengthen the law against harassment and unlawful eviction. Here is a case in which the Opposition are only too happy to try to strengthen and support a Conservative party manifesto pledge. I am sure that the Minister will welcome that support.

We believe that legal protection is useless without effective enforcement machinery. New clause 15 seeks to ensure that every local housing authority has an officer called a tenancy relations officer or harassment officer who will receive complaints alleging harassment or unlawful eviction. I know that the Minister feels very strongly about these matters and I hope that he will say how delighted he is to accept the Opposition new clauses.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I associate myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) with new clauses 9 and 15. It is clearly important to ensure that people who are often the minority community are as secure, and feel as secure and protected by the law, as people in the ethnic majority.

One of the most disconcerting and upsetting things that can happen is for people to feel that they are perpetually persecuted even when they are behind their own front doors, in their homes. They know that they can have no escape from that. That has often been remedied only by suggesting that the victims move. It does nothing for good race relations, let alone good education and tolerance in a just and fair society, to suggest that those who are persecuted must get out of the way to allow the bullies to continue to bully. I hope that the Government will respond positively to the new clauses.

New clause 43 is in most respects similar to new clause 9, except that it deals with harassment generally, as opposed only to racial harassment. I can illustrate my point with one short tale. There was living in my constituency about one and one half years ago a lady of 79, who found that there were illegal occupants in the flat above hers. They were a large family of travellers and they lived an extremely unruly life. As the days went by, she felt herself increasingly persecuted and intimidated by them.

They caused a din all the time and she found that she could not sleep. They often damaged her property and the surrounding area and were generally a nuisance to the community. The sad truth is that six months after they moved in, she died. I can testify to the fact that, having been a strong, healthy and robust pensioner, she was forced to her grave by being harassed to death. That was not a question of racial harassment, because the family concerned was the same colour as she was. There might have been a slight racial difference in that they were first generation Irish immigrants, but they were white. She was a long-standing local resident of Bermondsey.

Harassment of whatever kind is entirely unacceptable. Normally, a local authority will offer assistance if the victim takes the matter to court. In reality, a pensioner of 79 is in no fit state to take the part of the principal moving against others who cause harassment. It is vital that tenants in that predicament are secure in the knowledge that their landlord will uphold their rights and will meet his obligations to his tenants, in ensuring that they have quiet enjoyment of their tenancies.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

I agree with my hon. Friend, but does he not acknowledge that the problem is compounded and accentuated by the number of people who, through the care in the community programme, have been dumped in places where vulnerable people already are living?—[Interruption.] In my constituency, there are examples of elderly people having been left in flats and of others having been dumped alongside them without any proper follow-up care. Local allocation committees do not always provide protection from the kind of harassment that my hon. Friend described.

Mr. Hughes

Some hon. Members should have listened more attentively to my hon. Friend's intervention. [HON. MEMBERS: "He has not been here."] My hon. Friend has been in and out of the Chamber throughout the whole of today, and he has voted on all the amendments. He was entitled to make his very valid point.

Those responsible for allocating housing often do so without giving due thought to the consequences for existing neighbourhoods of accommodating people who, through no fault of their own, may not be best placed there. I am sure that all hon. Members have received complaints from constituents who find unacceptable the lifestyle of somebody who may be mentally sick, but who is perfectly entitled to a home. However, such a person should not reasonably be housed together with an elderly couple, who may then find themselves persecuted as a result of that inappropriate allocation.

It is vital that tenants are protected, and it is not good enough that they should be expected to defend their own rights when they are themselves vulnerable and unable to do so. Local authorities must take the responsibility for protecting the quiet enjoyment of all our citizens. The new clauses are intended to achieve that, and I hope that the Government will be responsive to the general problem and to the new clauses in particular.

Mr. Waldegrave

It is nice to welcome several new speakers to our debate. However, the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) has been present in the Chamber throughout and knows that these issues have been debated on a number of occasions. I join him in sending out from this Chamber the strongest possible message that it is unacceptable to harass people on racial or any other grounds, so making it intolerable for them to use their accommodation. He is right to say that Newham is a borough that has dealt with such matters in a forthright way and has achieved some successes under the present law. However, as he will know, it has also had some failures under the present law, which is schedule 2 of the Housing Act 1985.

The argument between us is whether it is the law that is wrong or, as the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) has said, the force that is put behind the law and the difficulty in getting people to come forward to give evidence. I am sure that all of us with urban constituencies—this perhaps applies to other constituencies also—will know that getting people to come forward is usually the real problem. Therefore, we would argue that schedule 2 to the Housing Act 1985 provides proper grounds and that, in attaching the right importance to the subject, we must be careful not to go so far that we create a potential new double jeopardy or hazard.

New clause 9 states that any act in the nature of racial harassment in the same local authority area could lead to the loss of a property. Such an act would probably be illegal already, and we should not use eviction as an additional form of punishment. However, eviction is rightly used if it attaches to the neighbour problems and to actions which make the use of the property intolerable.

11.30 pm
Mr. Tony Banks

Ground 2 makes racial harassment a nuisance or an annoyance. Obviously, we want to strengthen that and to go all the way by saying that it is an out-and-out crime. When local authorities try to get possession on ground 2, the courts tend not to be prepared to accept racial harassment alone but want other evidence.

Mr. Waldegrave

In the hon. Gentleman's own borough, as well as in Camden and Islington, there have been successes on that ground in such cases. Cases that have failed may have failed not because of any lack in the law, but because of the difficulty of collecting evidence. That is why—I hope that this will help the hon. Gentleman—my Department has recently commissioned some research from Brunel university to look into such matters and to see whether that is the problem or whether we, or experts, can help in giving guidance to local authorities to make such cases stick better.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

If the research from Brunel university shows that there is a need for further legislation in this area, will the Minister undertake that he will be prepared to bring that forward?

Mr. Waldegrave

I cannot guarantee that, but we will take seriously anything that the report, which we have commissioned, recommends. It will be published in the normal way.

I do not want to go as far as new clause 9 or new clause 43 and to lay on local authorities in every circumstance a duty to employ tenancy relations officers. Tenancy relations officers have written to us all to urge that, and I can understand why they did so. I should like to put on record my gratitude for the help that they have given in formulating several of the proposals in the Bill. I do not think that we should lay down the way in which local authorities should carry out their statutory duties, because the range of problems facing local authorities in this area is so great. However, I think that all the authorities with which we would deal would naturally employ tenancy relations officers.

On the basis that there is no argument between us, as there is further work in hand and because there have been some successful prosecutions under the present laws, I hope that hon. Gentlemen will not press their new clauses.

Mr. Boateng

I had hoped not to have to contribute to this part of the debate, but I am concerned by one aspect of the Secretary of State's response. He seems to show undue equanimity about the state of the existing law in relation to harassment, which is not borne out by the research that has already been carried out by the Commission for Racial Equality. I fail to see the need to go to Brunel university to establish what the commission, together with the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, has already established—which is that one of the major causes of difficulty in prosecuting cases of racial harassment is that people are not prepared to come forward to give evidence because they simply do not believe that the law will be effective.

The CRE report "Living in Terror", which highlights the real problems currently faced by communities throughout the country, states: It is important to point out the difficulty of proving cases some months after the incident concerned. There is a tendency by the courts to award suspended orders rather than outright possession and individuals are dissuaded from appearing in court because of its relative ineffectiveness. That is what the Government's own body, the CRE, had to say about that matter.

Why is it now necessary to go to Brunel? What comfort will the Minister's words bring to the Bengali, Afro-Caribbean and Asian families in our cities, who every night go in fear of what may happen to them during the night? Wives and children dare not go out to shop or to school because of the level of harassment on the major estates. What comfort can the Minister give to them? To say that Brunel is carrying out research will not make them sleep any easier in their beds or enable them to lead a full life as equal members of our community.

Question put and negatived.

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