HC Deb 23 June 1998 vol 314 cc888-92
Sir Robert Smith

I beg to move amendment No. 83, in page 19, line 20, after 'tenant', insert ', being a person whom the tenant could reasonably be expected to control,'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 84, in page 19, line 20, after 'house', insert ', being a person whom the tenant could reasonably be expected to control,'.

No. 101, in page 19, line 24, after 'house), insert 'and whose commission is likely to have had a material impact on the quiet enjoyment of the home life of a person residing in the locality.'.

No. 85, in page 19, line 29, after 'tenant', insert ', being a person whom the tenant could reasonably be expected to control,'.

No. 86, in page 19, line 29, after 'house', insert ', being a person whom the tenant could reasonably be expected to control.'.

Sir Robert Smith

Amendments Nos. 83 to 86 would achieve the same goal in different parts of the clause, which seeks to widen the powers of eviction available to public sector landlords to include eviction because of the actions of tenants or their visitors to the property. We want to ensure that those powers will be used only in relation to visitors that the tenant can reasonably be expected to control. We are concerned that the clause could allow victims of domestic violence to be evicted because of the actions of their partner, whom they could not reasonably be expected to control.

Since we tabled the amendments, we have received from the Minister the draft guidelines, which have been extremely helpful. Paragraph 5 of the guidelines states: It will be inappropriate for landlords to pursue cases where tenants are genuinely unable to control the activities of regular visitors, and in this connection landlords will wish to ensure in particular that women with violent partners are not placed at risk of unwarranted eviction. I welcome the Government's clarification in those guidelines.

Such clarification is a thread that has run through the proceedings on the Bill, and I hope that, when the Scottish Parliament is set up, pre-legislative inquiry will help a great deal. It seems that guidelines are issued at the end of proceedings on Bills, and to a certain extent issues are resolved. However, there is no formal link between the guidelines and the Bill, and it is extremely important that, as the Bill is implemented, it is monitored to check that what was promised in the guidelines continues to be delivered.

Amendment No. 101 attempts to narrow the clause. If the tenant, visitor or lodger were convicted of any offence liable to imprisonment—although they would not necessarily go to prison—the tenancy could be at risk. We understand what the Government are trying to achieve. The Minister's visit yesterday would have reinforced the concerns of communities about trying to deal with drug dealers and break the cycle of such crime. However, the clause is widely drawn, and some landlords might not want closely to consider the Government's intentions, so our amendment would narrow the clause.

Paragraph 6 of the draft guidelines makes it clear that eviction should be pursued only when an offence has a bearing on the tenancy. I hope that, in further discussions with communities, Ministers may find ways of beefing up the guidelines to ensure that tenants can be evicted for acts that not only result in imprisonment but affect the neighbourhood, rather than society in general. Moving the person on does not necessarily protect the community.

Eviction can be only a small part of dealing with crime. Evicting someone and moving them on merely moves the problem elsewhere. It is important that the whole armoury of actions in the Bill and other legislation is used to tackle the drug menace, because it is far more important to tackle the individuals and their offending behaviour than to deal with where they live. Moving them on from their community should help to break their links with that community, and perhaps help to treat them. It certainly helps to relieve the community.

6.45 pm

The Minister promised research—which, I understand from his letter, has not yet been undertaken—about how the measure has been implemented in England and Wales. It is perceived to have been successful in England, but it is important that we examine how it has worked in practice. That research has not yet been done, but we can try to build for the future. I understand that at present there are no centrally collected statistics on evictions by public sector landlords. It would be fairly easy to collect them, and they would be a useful measuring tool. If we could monitor evictions, we could find out whether the guidelines were being applied correctly, and whether there had been any development.

When the Minister replies, I should like him to deal with the possibilities of strengthening paragraph 6 of the draft guidelines, and of collecting statistics on evictions and monitoring their success. The Scottish Parliament will then be able to monitor the implementation of the Bill, and, if there are any transgressions, ensure that the legislation is reined in.

Mr. McLeish

In view of the desire to expedite business, I shall try briefly and comprehensively to respond to the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith).

The hon. Gentleman was right about monitoring, and that will be an integral part of the measure. We are introducing anti-social behaviour orders, and widening eviction powers for landlords. There is a range of activities that need to be monitored, partly because the information is useful in itself, but also so that we can properly evaluate our measures. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that monitoring will be carried out, and that requires a series of statistics to be compiled by local authorities, landlords and, centrally, the Scottish Office. We concede that point.

I am pleased that the guidance has been of some help. I appreciate that it does not go as far as the hon. Gentleman would wish, but it is draft guidance, and we are happy to listen to the views of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, and take into account their collective wisdom.

The hon. Gentleman said that the clause is part of a wider armoury of measures that we need in any community. There is clearly significant support for attacking anti-social behaviour. This evening, we are concentrating on drugs and crime and the issue of visitors, which the hon. Gentleman spoke about. We are extending powers, and we must implement them with caution.

There are currently loopholes that prevent anti-social and criminal acts committed outwith tenanted properties and the activities of visitors from being taken into account when considering whether a tenancy should be continued. The extended grounds for eviction in clause 23 will close those loopholes, but they will not open floodgates. We hope and expect that, by increasing the deterrent effect of a threatened eviction and, for persistent abusers, who are fortunately small in number, allowing swifter action against them, the new measures will help to produce more harmonious communities.

In framing our proposals, we have been guided by the consideration and conclusions of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee. Its landmark report in December 1996 serves as the platform for many of the measures, be they legislative or administrative, that we are now promoting.

For those unfamiliar with the Select Committee's findings, I inform the House that it considered the addition of new mandatory grounds of eviction, and concluded against that course of action. We support that conclusion, and the proposals in clause 23 are to extend the discretionary grounds for eviction.

That is an important distinction. The discretionary grounds are referred to as such because, in considering the evidence laid before them when landlords seek a repossession order on one of the discretionary grounds, sheriffs must apply a general test of reasonableness. Thus, eviction can be granted only when the sheriff, taking into account all the circumstances of each case, believes that it is reasonable for eviction to be ordered. In practice, therefore, the courts have a very wide discretion to take into account any relevant feature of the case, such as the likelihood that a tenant could control a violent or anti-social nuisance.

I reassure the House that nothing that we are proposing in clause 23 affects the existing requirement for sheriffs carefully to weigh the evidence presented, and to consider whether it is reasonable in all the circumstances. That is as it should be, and that, as a fundamental feature of the laws of eviction, provides a powerful safeguard against the type of abuse that hon. Members have described.

Points have been raised about the impact that the Bill may have on domestic violence and on women generally. The Government have pursued a very tough line on that issue since we were elected. We would do nothing to place women in very vulnerable circumstances in jeopardy. We intend to tackle crime, drug dealing and abuse generally, but certainly there will be safeguards—as I believe we said in the guidance—for women in vulnerable domestic situations.

It follows from what I have said that the spirit behind all the amendments in the group is not unwelcome. The aims very much echo our intentions, and if amendments such as Nos. 83 to 86 were needed to offer protection to vulnerable tenants, especially women, I would not hesitate to accept them. However, in my view, the general test of reasonableness, which I mentioned earlier, renders these very specific caveats unnecessary, and in some cases undesirable.

Our guidance to landlords will make it clear that the new grounds are intended to tackle serious anti-social conduct. Even if landlords choose to disregard the guidance which we have in place when the measures take effect, the courts will be required to apply the same test of reasonableness as currently applies.

In our view, amendment No. 101 confuses the two separate grounds for eviction which are we are extending, and it is therefore undesirable. Housing legislation currently holds separate the ground for eviction based on a criminal conviction and that based on anti-social behaviour. That separation is maintained in our new grounds, and we wish to retain it. It is not necessary to provide in this way that the offences must impact on the quiet enjoyment of home life; the sheriff's general test of reasonableness already effectively requires the courts to take into account the nature of the offence and its bearing on the tenancy.

I firmly believe that, in the clause as drafted and the guidance that we shall issue, we are setting out our intentions clearly and promoting extended grounds for eviction which will be clear and limited in their application.

Yesterday, I visited Easterhouse in Glasgow, and I visited Cranhill. That community lives in fear of the menace of drugs. I was alarmed to hear the comments by the group of mothers I met. Although there are important civil liberties issues, and although it is important that landlords do not use the legislation irresponsibly, there are also very powerful arguments for saying to the women in Cranhill, "Yes, we need solutions to your problem." I think you know of their situation, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Given that situation in Glasgow, they want action.

Although it is not the solution to pass a problem from one part of a town or city to another, it might give the local residents a respite from the dealing, the pushing and the fear that children live in. The House would be remiss if it did not take those arguments seriously. I know that those feelings are shared by Opposition Members. I believe that we have achieved a balance; I hope that the guidance will ensure that that is the case.

Sir Robert Smith

I thank the Minister for his reply. On the subject of Cranhill, he has made the valid point that, if one removes a person from a community, thereby breaking their links and their network in that community, although one will have moved them into another community, at least it will take them time to build up their network, and then one might use other avenues to deal with them.

As with everything, no clause of the Bill should be oversold as the magic bullet that will solve the problem. However, if we have these clauses and then provide the resources to those on the ground, if communities are willing and in a mood to make use of them, and if we can build that momentum and keep it going, we may turn the tide of anti-social behaviour and remove some of the menaces that confront us. I especially welcome the assurance on reasonableness, because that is an excellent word, which probably defines things better than we possibly could by amending clause 23.

In light of those reassurances, the guidelines, the monitoring, and especially the gathering of statistics, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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