HC Deb 26 June 1995 vol 262 cc661-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wood.]

10.2 pm

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

I am grateful for the opportunity to have a short debate on an important subject, which I am sure the Minister would agree is a matter of concern.

It is important that hon. Members should recognise the level of concern that is now abroad, not just in Scotland but elsewhere—witness the reaction of the official Opposition, who have recently produced a paper on the subject. There is increasing concern that criminal, anti-social behaviour by a minority of tenants and some others on council estates in Scotland is now beginning to get out of hand.

I do not want to exaggerate the extent of the problem. I am sure that the Minister will agree that the absolute number of which we are talking may be relatively small. It is, however, now impossible to ignore the effect on law-abiding citizens and their families when they are confronted by wilful, continuing, deliberate harassment by neighbours.

Family life can be almost totally destroyed in some cases. Reputations of streets and entire housing schemes can be prejudiced by the criminal fraternity, who persistently thumb their noses at the police, the courts and housing authorities. I believe that tenants who are so afflicted have the right to expect better protection than they currently enjoy. Urgent steps need to be taken. The law, in my submission, is currently inadequate to deal with the problem. Therefore, additional powers and resources need to be brought to bear to provide some satisfactory remedy.

From time to time, I suppose that it is understandable that households, wherever they are situated, will come across a degree of vandalism, noise, verbal or physical abuse, threats of violence, racial harassment, damage to property, trespass, nuisance from dogs and the like. As isolated incidents, they are part and parcel of normal, modern life. Individually, they are all, when perpetrated with criminal intent, criminal offences. As isolated incidents, they can be much more easily dealt by our citizens.

They are much more difficult to deal with when they are happening through the wall or across the street every night. The intensity and location of such activities compound their effect. The irresponsible minority of tenants who perpetrate such activities terrorise their neighbours and local communities, and something has to be done about it.

I want to make it clear at the outset that I draw a distinction—because a distinction has to be very clearly drawn—between the criminal minority and those households that are in genuine difficulty because of mental illness or some other bona fide reason. There have been cases in which, for example, demented elderly people have created nuisances for their neighbours. There have been incidents involving schizophrenics—schizophrenia is a terrible illness when it affects families—or over-active children.

Those mental and physical illnesses can create difficulties for the families in which they are evident but they can also have an impact on neighbours. Such cases can be difficult, and must be handled in the light of the clinical conditions.

It is extremely important, in my view, that the development of care regimes in the community—there are many modern and interesting examples of care in the community for people who have clinical conditions of the sort that I have just mentioned—should not be restricted by or confused with the activities of people who are caught continuously intoxicated by drink or drugs, or who are simply motivated by unprovoked evil and malice.

I have said that existing local powers are completely inadequate. Local authorities are effectively unable to make eviction actions under section 74 of the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987 stick. In my experience, that is mainly due to lack of corroborating evidence. For that reason, the powers are very rarely used. It would be useful for the current debate if the Minister could tell the House how many successful eviction actions have been brought in the recent past. If that is too short notice, I understand, and I will seek to table a written question to solicit the necessary information.

A number of remedies have already been canvassed by the Government and other people. We need a strong signal from the Government that more political energy and some financial resources are going to be devoted to the resolution of the problem. For example, more resources are needed to develop further a culture where antisocial neighbours are actively discouraged. In that regard, tenants associations, with the vital role they play in many communities, come to mind. I also think that conditions in tenancy agreements need to be examined and to be made tougher in terms of sanctions against anti-social tenants.

More could be done to encourage multi-agency approaches, including social work, the police and school authorities. All those services could be developed and given more powers. In addition, mediation services are under-utilised, but, of course, more resources are required if they are to be set up and conducted in a proper and meaningful way. Finally, and some would say most important, court proceedings need to be toughened and streamlined. Better witness protection is now essential in prosecutions under section 47 of the 1987 Act.

I am aware that the Government have commissioned several pieces of research, and I am pleased to hear that. I know that the Institute of Housing is examining various aspects of the problem. I am, of course, also aware that the Government have produced a document on probationary tenancies, and that the consultation process has been put in hand. That is welcome as far as it goes, but the consultation document outlining the Government's plans for a probationary period for new tenants is extremely disappointing and weak.

As it stands, the consultation document will be irrelevant, and of absolutely no value to local housing authorities, because it applies only for an initial period and is restricted to new tenants. There is a crying need to deal with anti-social tenants who are already secure tenants under Scottish housing legislation.

The Government must bear in mind the fact that an important opportunity is approaching, and must be used to make significant progress. Next April, as the Minister knows, Scottish local authorities will become unitary authorities, which means that they will amalgamate the processes and duties of housing and social work functions in one authority under one roof. That provides an opportunity for much greater co-ordination of the two functions and departments, and I hope that that opportunity will not be missed.

We are told in the press—indeed, there may be a statement later this week—that a housing Bill is under consideration for inclusion in the Queen's Speech for the next Session. I appreciate that no one can anticipate exactly what will be in the Queen's Speech, but, if such a piece of legislation is in gestation and if it is not restricted to England and Wales, it will give Scottish Office Ministers the opportunity to look afresh at the framework of laws surrounding anti-social tenants.

After the consultation period ends on 31 July, they should be well placed to introduce new measures. I hope that the Minister may say that, if there is to be a parliamentary opportunity to change the law next year, he will seize it with both hands and propose meaningful changes to stiffen the powers currently available to local authorities.

My message to the Minister this evening is that he must take the opportunity to give local authorities real powers to deal with criminal anti-social tenants and provide resources to set up specialist teams to examine the problem, to set up pilot projects to study individual cases in depth and to produce more research. If he did so, he would be sending an important signal to those who are currently deliberately flouting authority and causing misery to those who live near them.

Subject to the exception of those who are clinically ill, local authorities should be given a statutory power to impose probationary status on any tenants at any time during which they can be shown to the local authority's satisfaction to be acting anti-socially. If they do not improve during the 12-month probation period, an accelerated eviction process through the courts should be considered. If that happened and was successful, any family so evicted would of course be classified as intentionally homeless, and thereby unable to take advantage of the provisions of the homeless persons legislation.

Housing departments, social workers and the police must work together much more closely in order to prevent those terrible situations arising. If and when they do arise, greater powers and resources are needed to provide an adequate response and to restore the Queen's peace on Scotland's housing estates.

I have deliberately avoided arguing the case for change on the basis of emotional case histories. I certainly hope that I have not given any succour to those who deal with nonconformity in any heavy-handed way. I simply want to represent to the Minister my belief that the current situation is profoundly unsatisfactory. Tonight it is within his power to provide statutory relief—or the possibility of such relief in the future—for many households who are blighted by anti-social tenants. All he need do is agree to give urgent consideration to strengthening the law when he replies to the debate.

10.14 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) on introducing a very timely and important subject for debate tonight. He asked about the number of actions on eviction that have taken place. The best way for him to proceed is to put down a barrage of parliamentary questions, and I shall undertake to make available whatever information we have.

He will appreciate that we are now consulting about probationary tenancies, and I shall return to that subject in a moment. What he has said tonight will be borne in mind during that process before we arrive at any final decisions. I think that the hon. Gentleman will accept that it is too late in this parliamentary Session to take immediate action on that matter, but we are looking at it very seriously with regard to the consultation process.

How we deal with disruptive tenants is vital to the hundreds of thousands of tenants who are in their homes in Scotland tonight. I hope that I shall touch upon most, if not all, of the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised. We welcome the recent announcement by the Scottish Affairs Select Committee that its next inquiry will examine housing and anti-social behaviour. We await the Committee's deliberations with great interest.

One of the most basic human needs is to be able to have the quiet enjoyment of our homes. For all people, whether old or young, home should bring a sense of well-being and of belonging. The expression "home and hearth" symbolises all that a home should be in terms of contentment, well-being and belonging. Yet that depends crucially on the actions of our neighbours. We long for them to be good neighbours, behaving responsibly towards others, being considerate, and perhaps being able to help out in a moment of need.

If one were to look for a single word to describe that, I suppose that one would light on the word "community". As we consider disruptive tenants in the debate tonight, I think that it is worth while remembering that there are many places in Scotland where there is a real sense of community, and where people genuinely contribute to the common enjoyment of their housing.

Therefore, it is particularly tragic when people who should be able to enjoy their homes and neighbourhoods are unable to do so because of the activities of their neighbours. I come across that regularly in my visits to housing estates, in my discussions with tenants, officials and councillors, and in the letters I receive.

Tenants expect to be able to enjoy their home and their surroundings. They should not be terrified to go out of their front door; they should not be subject to abuse, whether intermittent or regular; they should not be subject to intimidation; and they certainly should not be subject to harassment. That kind of behaviour is unacceptable, and I have every sympathy with those who face it. Their lives are made intolerable by the actions of a few.

The first point I shall make tonight is that there are a range of powers and sanctions available to landlords to deal with disruptive behaviour. The Housing (Scotland) Act 1987 deals with vandalism. The hon. Gentleman served on the Committee that examined the Bill, and he played a major part in the process. I pay tribute to him, as he worked extremely hard on that occasion. Under the Act, anyone who wilfully, or by culpable negligence, damages a house or any part of a house shall be guilty of an offence, liable on summary conviction to a fine, without prejudice to any remedy for the recovery of the amount of the damage.

The Public Health (Scotland) Act 1987, the Control of Pollution Act 1974 and the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 all contain provisions which deal with noise nuisance. They are relevant where people suffer noise nuisance from their neighbours and the 1982 Act is particularly useful where people have failed to desist from noise.

Section 49 of the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 deals with annoying creatures—for example, excessively noisy dogs. In addition, many tenancy conditions include a section on the keeping of pets, which is important, since the presence of pets in houses or flats can lead to disputes between neighbours and to anti-social behaviour.

Mediation is one way of defusing disputes and of resolving disruptive behaviour, which is often very successful. It brings the parties together and helps to bring about mutual understanding and respect. Much information is available about mediation, including material issued by the Scottish Office.

Interdicts are a particularly appropriate means of restraining anti-social behaviour by disruptive tenants. They have a number of advantages, but perhaps the most important are that they can be obtained quickly and they have immediate effect. That is important, because tenants who are suffering abusive or other disruptive behaviour want immediate remedy. Interdicts need not apply only to a tenant of a house but can apply to a lodger or co-habitee who may be causing the disruptive behaviour complained of. They can also be applied to owner-occupiers who may be the source of disruptive behaviour.

Action taken under the provisions that I have just described will often be sufficient to stop disruptive behaviour, but where those do not work, as the ultimate sanction tenants can be removed from their houses when landlords, private or public, seek recovery of possession. The provisions governing that are contained in the housing legislation, and are designed to ensure that tenants cannot be removed on landlords' whim.

I am aware that the requirements set out in the legislation can make recovery of possession a lengthy procedure, with a difficult and contested case perhaps taking as much as 18 months from the beginning of proceedings to recovery of possession. As I understand it, however, that represents the more extreme, case in which the tenant or tenants contest the action, and it is important that it is not presented as the norm.

People who seek a change in the law should beware changing the law to suit the exceptional case. Clearly there is a balance to be achieved between being able to evict tenants at whim and giving tenants security of tenure, and between dealing firmly and effectively with disruptive behaviour and evicting tenants whose face simply has not fitted. Getting that balance right is what much of the current debate on disruptive behaviour by tenants is about.

My second main point concerns probationary tenancies, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned and on which we issued a consultation paper one month ago. A number of authorities north and south of the border have suggested that new tenants should be on probation initially, until the landlord can judge that they are able to behave responsibly and are not disruptive.

The proposal for probationary tenancies recognises that a secure tenancy is a valuable asset, giving an individual a home for life. The great majority of tenants behave responsibly, and that is shown in their behaviour towards their landlords and neighbours. They want quiet enjoyment of their homes. Unfortunately, however, there exists a minority whose life style and behaviour is incompatible with that. In the case of new tenants, such behaviour is likely to become apparent quite quickly.

The purpose of the proposals for a probationary tenancy is to give a clear signal to new tenants that anti-social behaviour is unacceptable—so serious that it will result in the loss of their home. That proposal will reassure existing tenants that landlords are able to take rapid action to remove new tenants whose behaviour is disruptive.

Under our proposals, public sector landlords will be able to opt in to a system of probationary tenancies. I emphasise the point about opting in to probationary tenancies, because many public sector landlords in Scotland will not feel the need for a probationary tenancy system.

For those authorities which see a probationary tenancy system as helping to deal with disruptive behaviour, all new tenants will be on probation for one year. Those tenants who complete the probationary tenancy satisfactorily will automatically become secure tenants. Where tenants do not behave responsibly, however, the landlord will be able to terminate the tenancy at any time during the probationary period.

When I first announced that we would be consulting on the matter, I made it clear that I would do so with an open mind. That remains the position, and I welcome comments from any organisation or hon. Member. Thinking has changed somewhat over the years, and what was not a major issue has become one.

Thirdly, there is no simple answer to dealing with disruptive tenants. There is no panacea that will cure the problem once and for all. As I have already said, there is a range of actions that can be taken by landlords and by other bodies. Many in the housing profession would argue that what is needed is not the provision of new powers, or more draconian measures to deal with disruptive tenants, but a wider use of existing remedies.

It might be helpful if I remind the hon. Gentleman that, before 1980, public sector tenants did not have the security of tenure that private sector tenants had. So, before 1980, public sector landlords were able to apply to a court for an eviction order, which was granted more or less as a formality, with no evidence being required, and with no right of defence for the tenant.

The Tenants' Rights (Scotland) Act 1980 changed that by giving public sector tenants security of tenure. Henceforth, tenants could be evicted from their home only when there was good reason, and after certain procedures had been followed. It must be remembered that the calls from some quarters for tougher action on disruptive tenants may require a diminution of those rights. In considering any proposal for dealing with disruptive tenants, we need to strike the right balance and examine the consequences before we take a certain course of action.

In many instances, housing departments are where the problems are first reported. It is therefore important that landlords have clear procedures established, so that front-line staff know how to deal with a complaint about disruptive behaviour. Such behaviour will often raise complex issues, and some local authorities have established a specialist team to which complaints can be referred.

Every public sector landlord has a tenancy agreement which new tenants must sign, and many of these contain conditions about acceptable behaviour. Tenancy conditions need to be enforced consistently and firmly, or they will be discredited. When that happens, respect for housing authorities diminishes, too.

Neighbour disputes may begin over a relatively trivial matter, and escalate rapidly into something much more serious. Early action is essential to ensure that that does not happen. We have recently made available a considerable amount of material on neighbour disputes. These are dealt with in good practice note No. 5, published in February by the Scottish Office.

It makes it clear that disputes between tenants may not be clear cut, and that considerable skill is required on the part of housing managers to judge appropriate action. At my constituency surgery recently, one neighbour complained about another. The following week, the second neighbour complained about the first. The hon. Gentleman may have had similar experiences.

The good practice note suggests how landlords can take a proactive approach to neighbour disputes. That could include the provision of a helpline service for tenants, offering advice on action that can be taken in different situations, the use of mediation and arbitration, the use of management transfers to take a tenant out of the situation, and the use of legal action, including restraint—notably interdicts—and repossession.

I believe that the good practice note on tenancy management contains much useful information for landlords, which will enable them to develop a strategy to deal with disruptive behaviour—for example, when there is extensive drug taking and threats of violence.

One of the constant themes recurring in recent work on dealing with anti-social behaviour is the need to adopt a partnership approach, with all authorities concerned working together. Housing departments cannot plough a lone furrow. Apart from the landlord, others who may be involved include the environmental, health and social work departments of local authorities, health boards and the police.

In many instances, anti-social behaviour will involve several of these bodies or agencies, and close working relations will make a great difference in ensuring that the problem is dealt with satisfactorily and quickly. Where a local authority landlord is involved, the housing department staff need to have close contacts with their legal colleagues. I understand that many of the interesting approaches being adopted by the City of Dundee district council are the result of close co-operation between the housing and legal services departments, and I hope that other authorities are able to take note of that.

In the last year or so, the Scottish Office has taken forward policy on disruptive tenants on a number of fronts. Advice was issued on 23 May about the powers available to deal with disruptive behaviour. It is also funding the Chartered Institute of Housing to do work on housing and anti-social behaviour. This will result in a publication which will be generally available to the housing profession and will cover many aspects of anti-social behaviour. It will deal with precisely the issues highlighted tonight by the hon. Gentleman. At the more severe end of disruptive behaviour, we issued advice in 1994 on crime prevention and how it relates to housing and planning issues.

As I close, I should like to say how glad I am that the hon. Member chose this significant subject tonight. Everyone wants to enjoy his or her home, and most people act as responsible citizens, sensitive to the needs of others. There is a minority, however, who are disruptive and cause misery to their neighbours. Everyone has the right to the quiet enjoyment of their home, and the evidence from authorities around the country is that much can he done to deal with disruptive behaviour. Early action will nip problems in the bud, and prevent minor problems and misunderstandings from becoming something more serious.

Disruptive behaviour often spans a number of areas of interest, and consequently those involved—housing departments, their legal advisers, environmental health and social work departments of local authorities, health boards, and the police, as appropriate—need to work closely together. There are various powers available to landlords, as I have described.

I hope that I have demonstrated tonight that the remedies available are diverse, and that much can be achieved when they are used properly. I await with interest responses to the consultation paper on probationary tenancies. I am sure that the Scottish Affairs Select Committee will find its inquiry into housing and anti-social behaviour extremely interesting. I hope that it is able to take our knowledge forward, to help all those who have to deal with disruptive behaviour on a day-to-day basis.

In the last minute and a half, may I say that we have done a substantial amount to tackle the problem, by issuing advice in 1994 on crime prevention, and by taking initiatives in housing and planning matters, on the powers available to deal with anti-social behaviour and the use of mediation as a means of resolving disputes. We are consulting on the effectiveness of neighbourhood noise controls and on probationary tenancies.

We have issued a good practice note. We have funded the Chartered Institute of Housing to prepare a report on housing and crime, and we are providing further funding this year for work on housing and anti-social behaviour. We have welcomed the announcement by the Select Committee that its next inquiry will be on this subject. All this represents a wealth of activity, covering a wide range of activity on disruptive behaviour.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire and I have been active in dealing with housing legislation in the past. It looks as though, when these issues are considered on further occasions, we will both be involved yet again.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to Eleven o'clock.

Back to