HC Deb 30 April 1996 vol 276 cc984-90
Mr. Curry

I beg to move amendment No. 26, in page 60, leave out lines 29 to 33.

The outcome of our discussions in Committee on succession rights for same-sex partners left us with a Bill that faced two ways. According to the amendment that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) moved successfully, a couple of the same sex in an assured tenancy living together in a relationship corresponding to that of man and wife—I think that that indicates a homosexual relationship, which I assume was her intention—enjoy the right of succession when one partner dies. By contrast, a couple in the same position with a secure tenancy—that is. with a local authority—would not have that right, because a parallel amendment to that end failed. Clearly, that is not a sustainable position, and that is why the Government have tabled amendment No. 26, to delete clause 91 and put assured and secure tenants on the same footing.

We have taken that course rather than resolving the matter by introducing a clause similar to clause 91 to cover secure tenants, because we are concerned about the approach taken in clause 91 and feel that there are better ways to resolve the issues.

The law as it stood, before clause 91 was introduced, provided protection to adults of the same sex who planned to share their home on a long-term basis. Under the provisions of the Housing Acts 1985 and 1988, local authorities, housing associations and private landlords have the power to grant joint tenancies, which means that, when one tenant dies, the remaining tenant can keep his home.

That provides a distinct advantage over the rather narrow provisions of clause 91, which relate only to those same-sex couples who live as if they were man and wife. When the tenant dies in such a relationship, the remaining partner can find him or herself in a difficult position. The problem can be no less acute for those left on their own in other types of household.

A person may have acted for a tenant as an unpaid live-in carer, or a couple of elderly women, or men, may live together for companionship, or perhaps for economy. A joint tenancy would mean that a person left in that situation would not, at a time of great grief, have the added burden of worrying about losing his or her home. Clause 91, on the other hand, would deal only with the situation in which the tenant and the remaining resident had had a sexual relationship.

A joint tenancy is the better solution, but there may be situations where a person has been sharing a household with someone else who is a sole tenant but for some reason has not sought to have the tenancy converted to a joint one. When the tenant dies, the other person will not have the right to take up that tenancy. In such cases, if the person had been living with the tenant for the year before the tenant's death, had been looking after the tenant, or had, or accepted, responsibility for his or her dependants, we would normally expect the local authority to grant the tenancy to that person, or find them suitable alternative accommodation.

Another clear advantage in giving local authorities the flexibility to resolve those situations is that it does not lose sight of their primary obligation to meet housing need in their areas by making the most effective and equitable use of all the housing stock at their disposal.

8.15 pm

There has been concern about a lack of uniformity among local authorities in how they respond to such situations. I propose to deal with that by issuing guidance shortly, which will set out unambiguously the Government's view that, taking into account the need to make the best use of their stock, local authorities should normally provide—those will be the words that will appear in the guidance—for the type of cases that I have described by granting either joint tenancies or a further tenancy where a sole tenant has died. That will be unequivocal guidance, and it will not be confined to couples with a sexual relationship. We will pay close attention to the way in which local authorities implement it.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend as what he has said is helpful. May I press him a little further on the guidance? I assume that it will be published guidance to all local authorities. Can he say when we can expect it to be issued?

Mr. Curry

It will be published guidance to all local authorities, and it will be issued before the Whitsun recess.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

My hon. Friend will know that I am new to this matter. I do not see any reference to sexual relationships in the lines that he is proposing to leave out. Is that relationship understood, or is it in some other part of the legislation?

Mr. Curry

My hon. Friend will find that the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate referred to people living in a relationship corresponding to that of husband and wife. I drew the conclusion that that could bear only one interpretation. My concern was not to exclude those circumstances but to widen them, so that people living in the sort of relationships that I have described would also be covered by the scope of my proposals. I am proposing a more inclusive alternative, not an exclusive one.

Ms Glenda Jackson

I am grateful to the Minister, and also to the hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) for forwarding me a copy of the guidance that the Government intend—I presume—to forward to local authorities. I must be honest with the Minister. We have been given that promise before. It was made to the Standing Committee on the Leasehold Reform, Housing and Urban Development Bill in 1993. As we all know, nothing has happened.

Mr. Curry

I repeat here in the Chamber and in a full sitting of the House that the guidance will be issued before this Whitsun recess.

Ms Jackson

I am grateful for that assurance, which will appear in the public record. Even so, such guidance as has been drafted and will go to local authorities causes me concern in certain areas, not least the final paragraph of paragraph 6, which states: the local authority should normally grant a tenancy to the remaining person or persons, either in the same home or in suitable alternative accommodation". This has caused me some concern.

We are discussing situations in which there have been relationships. When I introduced the amendment, I said that there must have been a stable relationship in the domestic residence for a year—that the rules that at present apply to heterosexual relationships must apply to single-sex relationships. We have been reassured that the guidelines will be sent to all local authorities. The words either in the same home or in suitable alternative accommodation cause me some concern. No doubt relationships will have been established within the community. For example, in a same-sex relationship where both partners are female, there may be children involved, and they may attend the local school. There will be disturbance and disorientation for the children if they are moved to another location. Human relationships are created within a particular environment.

From personal experience, I know that some gay people suffer abuse because of their relationships. The partner who is left may be moved from an area where gay relationships are acknowledged and accepted, and where gay people are not abused, into an area where they are abused—I am talking not only about physical abuse, but about abuse in which their residence is attacked, with bricks thrown through windows and people hammering on doors in the middle of the night. This is something that causes me concern.

Is it possible for the Government to redraft the guideline or for them to be more precise about what they regard as "suitable alternative accommodation"? It has been my experience that, when people have physically to move from what has been regarded as their home—coming, as it invariably does, on the loss of a loved one—it creates extreme difficulties.

I am reassured by the Minister's assurance that the guidelines will be sent to local authorities before Whitsun this year. Is that a categorical assurance?

However, I remind the Minister that I am concerned about the paragraph to which I referred. Are the local authorities required to inform the Secretary of State that they have received the guidelines and that they are proceeding to implement them? Will local authorities be allowed a period before they regard the guidance as absolute in their treatment of these situations?

I understand that it has been the Government's intention for more than three years—even though the present Secretary of State has significantly failed to implement it—that local authorities should not be able to draw out these guidelines. Local authorities should guarantee that they will implement them.

Mr. Ashby

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) on tabling her amendment in Committee, and on bringing it to the attention of the House. It resulted in a flurry of activity, which has produced some guidelines. The guidelines are not just good, they are excellent, and I am grateful for them. It is my experience in local government that local authorities will adhere to them, so that does not worry me at all.

However, I am worried about a number of things. We have withdrawn the transference of a lease in an assured tenancy that is in the private sector. I hate labels, but it seems to me that we are all looking for labels—especially the gutter press, the tabloids, which are always happy to talk about gay rights, and gay this and that. However, we are not only talking about gay relationships. If the gutter press wants to look for labels, perhaps it ought to think more about care in the community, about carers, and about carers who have been carers for a long time.

People start as carers by leaving their home and leaving it empty for a number of months. The work continues, and a year may stretch into two years, so they give up their previous home and live with the person for whom they are caring. Because the person is being cared for, they may survive for 10 years or more. They develop a close relationship. When the person dies, the carer is left bereft and saddened by the loss of what is effectively a partner—they might be the same sex—and they are also left homeless.

I heard about such a case on a radio programme I took part in recently. The person's name was Mark—I shall not give his full name. Mark was in a relationship with a man for 30 years. He had the most tremendous accident 12 years ago that left him a quadriplegic. For 10 years, he was cared for as a total quadriplegic. He died in 1994. Mark has lost the person for whom he cared—his partner—and he is now losing his home. Anyone who heard him speak could not be unaffected. I know that the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) heard the radio programme. He could not be unaffected, as I was not unaffected, by the depth of feeling expressed by this person—the bereavement and the loss, and the prospect of losing the home that they had shared for 30 years. I was very moved by it.

I think that people in this situation have had a pretty raw deal from Governments—not from our Government—over many years. They are judged by moral standards rather than factual standards. We hold ourselves up as great moralists, and we think that we should be able to judge people in this way—I do not know why we should; I certainly do not. I suppose, after the judgement of the jury in my libel action, I cannot. Putting that aside, I will still speak out. I do not care a bit about the press; it can say and do what it likes in tomorrow's papers; I do not care a damn about it.

I ask the Minister to look at a Bill that deals with landlords and tenants to see whether this amendment—an amendment giving fairness, justice and equal opportunity—cannot be put into it. The Conservative party has always stood for fairness and for justice. The Secretary of State said that, if there is one unfairness, it is one too many for him. I agree—one injustice is one too many.

I think we are being unfair—and ours is the party that stands for fairness and justice. I hope that, when we deal with a landlord and tenant Bill—not a social housing Bill, such as this Bill—we can have some sensible measures to deal with the real world in which we live, not a make-believe world. Perhaps we could reinstate some of the measures that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate so properly put forward, so that the Bill covers assured tenancies as well as social housing.

I am content that we have achieved this much on social housing, and I rest on that. I hope that the Minister and his Department can see that, in future, we will have to go for fairness and for justice. This is not only a homosexual matter—it covers carers, maiden sisters, bachelor brothers and all sorts of relationships. It is a comprehensive issue—it does not relate only to the one issue that the tabloid press wants to raise.

Mr. Chris Davies

I welcome the Minister's approach to this matter—his attitude is sympathetic and sensitive—but his proposals about the issue of guidelines are hardly the same as clarifying the situation and giving the approach that will take the force of law.

Local authorities do prepare their own allocation policies; there is a great deal of variance in them, and different interpretations will be applied in different situations. It is suggested that the guidelines will provide that local authorities will wish to be assured of the likely continuance of such a partnership where no joint tenancy has been established, and assured that there are no adverse implications from the joint tenancy for good use of authorities' housing stock or for authorities' ability to continue to provide for housing need.

A homophobic authority could drive a coach and horses through such guidelines, and it would be very difficult for the partner of a tenant who had died to prove to sceptical housing officers, backed up by a local authority unsympathetic to such problems, that the partnership would have been likely to continue. Such guidelines are not strong enough to deal with the problems that, I acknowledge, the Minister understands, and which were well expressed by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Ashby).

8.30 pm

Is there not a conflict with part VI of the Bill? Perhaps the Minister will explain. I understand that part VI says that, unless one is a tenant, one will be housed only from the register. Surely the guidelines suggest that the provisions in part VI would be overtaken by the words of a Department of the Environment circular.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

I stand in solidarity with my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Ashby), who I believe spoke for many in the House tonight. I welcome what my hon. Friend the Minister has said about the guidance, and welcome the time scale he offered to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson). My interest in this matter comes from those who may be in the category of elderly orphans—people who have looked after their parents without moving away from home or who may have moved back—and companions, as well as those who may have had a different type of relationship.

I think that the House is doing well tonight.

Mr. Raynsford

I shall briefly raise two points arising from the Minister's comments. First, he was slightly disingenuous when he said that it was necessary to vote down the amendment that was made in Committee, because it would be inconsistent without a similar provision applying to secure tenancies. The truth is that the Government themselves chose to vote down the parallel amendment that was moved to ensure consistency between secure tenancies on one side and assured tenancies in the private sector, so the problem is entirely of their own making.

Secondly, the reason that there has been considerable scepticism about the pledge of new guidance on this issue is partly to do with the timetable. I remind the Minister that it is now more than three years since Lord Strathclyde gave a written answer, confirming that the Government intended "shortly" to issue guidance on the subject. The Government have been a very long time indeed moving on this, so we welcome the assurance that there will be guidance before Whitsun.

I am also anxious about the contents of the guidance. Without having it before us, I do not wish to draw firm conclusions, but there is a fear that the guidance will not give the same legal rights and the same reassurance.

Mr. Michael Brown

My hon. Friend the Minister was kind enough to meet my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs. Currie) and me last week. We have not been easily satisfied with the guidance. I can assure the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) that the guideline that it is proposed to publish is pretty tough, and I am reasonably satisfied that it meets his points.

Mr. Raynsford

I am pleased to hear that from the hon. Gentleman, who I know has been especially worried about that issue and has spoken forcefully about it in the House. Our scepticism is partly based on the fact that we have not seen the guidance; I am delighted to know that he and some of his hon. Friends have, but we have not. Our scepticism is also partly to do with the difference between guidance and statutory rights. In the absence of a statutory backing, there will be a differential position for same-sex partners as against others; there is an issue of principle there.

Nevertheless, some progress is being made. The Minister has guaranteed that guidance will be issued, so this long fight for justice is at least moving in the right direction. We shall remain very sceptical indeed until we have seen positive and concrete results from what the Minister proposes.

Mr. Curry

Short of carving it on the Dispatch Box, I cannot do more than repeat that we shall issue guidance before Whitsuntide. It will be implemented by the local authorities immediately. I am not holding it back until we issue a general guidance flowing from the Housing Bill.

There is nothing sinister about the idea of suitable alternative accommodation. I had in mind the position when someone wished to move to smaller accommodation—easier to heat, with lower costs—which sometimes happens when someone's partner is deceased. Local authorities will be sensible about that. It seeks to embrace different circumstances.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Ashby) for pointing out that this has a wide application in many circumstances. My hon. Friends the Members for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) and for South Derbyshire (Mrs. Currie) have pressed me on this, as they will acknowledge. I hope that they feel that we have moved sensibly to deal with people in those circumstances, irrespective of what their sexuality happens to be or the specific circumstances in which they find themselves.

I am not interested in categorising certain people; I am interested in trying to deal with the position that exists, and doing so satisfactorily and fairly, in a way that is seen to be humane by the local authorities. We shall ensure that the guidance is implemented in that way.

Amendment agreed to.

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