HC Deb 17 November 2003 vol 413 cc517-23

Lords amendment: No. 1.

5.21 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Yvette Cooper):

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 8, 62, 64, 72 and 73.

Yvette Cooper

Many of the amendments are for clarification. The aim of amendments Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 5 is to clarify who is eligible to be protected by injunctions under new section 153A of the Housing Act 1996. The intention, which remains unchanged, is for social landlords to be able to apply for injunctions to protect tenants, leaseholders and anyone else who occupies property owned or managed by a relevant landlord, and to protect staff providing housing management and related services on behalf of the landlord.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the votes cast a few minutes ago by the Liberal Democrats to prevent the Bill from becoming law this Session are consistent with the votes they cast in the summer to prevent it from becoming law at all, and consistent with the votes of the Liberal Democrats on Manchester city council, who voted against the Bill and said that too much antisocial behaviour legislation is already on the statute book?

Yvette Cooper

My right hon. Friend is right. Many Liberal Democrats have opposed a large number of the Bill's most important measures during its passage through this House and the other place. I am sorry to hear that the Liberal Democrats on Manchester city council have taken a similar line. We often find that those working most closely with local people and communities are most strongly aware of the difficulties faced by people who live on local estates where there is severe antisocial behaviour. The strongest advocates of greater action are often local councillors and those involved in the local community.

The amendments also allow social landlords to apply for injunctions to protect visitors engaged in lawful activity in the locality, including the work force, staff or contractors employed by social landlords, and other residents in the area, including owner-occupiers and tenants of other landlords.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

The Minister says that the amendments will protect visitors to social housing. How is that to be done? As the specific reference to visitors has been removed, which parts of the clause will ensure that they are covered?

Yvette Cooper

We think that the issue is covered in clause 13. The specific reference to visitors has been removed because of concerns raised by practitioners that the existing provisions might give the courts leeway to adopt a narrow interpretation and assume that the provisions apply only to visitors. The reference has been removed to ensure that the wide range of people in the area is covered and that the courts do not use a narrow interpretation. We made our intention clear throughout our debates in this House and in the other place, and we decided that it was better and clearer to remove the reference. New section 153A(4)(c) of the Housing Act 1996 deals with the matter. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to pursue the matter further in his remarks, I shall be happy to respond. Practitioners wanted to be reassured that the provisions would cover the full range of people in the area and that their application would not be restricted by decisions made in the courts.

Mr. Paice

I am grateful to the Minister for her reply, but I have to press her a bit further. If I understand her correctly, she is saying that the matter is covered by new section 153A(4)(c), which extends protection to a person employed (whether or not by the relevant landlord) in connection with the exercise of the relevant landlord's housing management functions. I cannot see how that covers all types of visitor—friends, for example.

Yvette Cooper

The hon. Gentleman is right about new section 153A(4)(c), but the overall impact of Lords amendments Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 5 and new section 153A combined is to include everyone who is visiting the area. It is important that, for example, a regular visitor to a particular area who finds himself being intimidated by antisocial behaviour is protected by decisions made by social landlords. The impact of the Lords amendments to new section 153A is to cover those who are visiting as well as those who are already resident in the area, including owner-occupiers and tenants.

Lords amendments Nos. 1 and 2 also ensure that injunctions are available to protect residents in the area, even if they are temporarily absent from their home. If someone has been forced out of their home by racial or sexual harassment, for example, an injunction under new section 153A should be available to protect them if they wish to return.

The effect of Lords amendment No. 4 is twofold: it replaces "locality" with "neighbourhood" and changes "the housing accommodation" to "housing accommodation". Those appear to be relatively minor wording amendments, but they are designed to make it clear that landlords have a responsibility for the protection of the communities who live in and around their housing stock. The new wording better reflects that role.

Lords amendment No. 6 makes it clear that "housing accommodation" refers not to single premises, but to the whole of the landlord's stock in a particular neighbourhood. It also encompasses, for example, the common parts of an estate. Lords amendments Nos. 7 and 8 enhance the use of demotions as a tool to prevent antisocial behaviour. They require landlords to serve notice before issuing demotion proceedings and specify the information that the notice should contain. That is valuable in ensuring that tenants are aware of the sanction that is being applied, and that they are given a chance to amend their behaviour and to have a proper hearing.

Lords amendment No. 72 is designed to ensure that tenants who have the preserved right to buy lose it on demotion. The purpose of Lords amendment No. 73 is to ensure that time spent as a demoted assured shorthold tenant does not count towards the right to buy qualification or discount periods. The existing provisions of the Bill ensure that time spent as a local authority or housing action trust demoted tenant will not count towards the qualifying period for right to buy or the accrual of discount. The amendment ensures that the same rules will apply to time spent as a demoted assured shorthold tenant.

Lords amendments Nos. 62 and 64 apply to the powers of social landlords to seek antisocial behaviour injunctions. There are times when antisocial behaviour will not fall within the responsibility of social landlords. In those cases we want to ensure that local authorities have sufficient powers to tackle antisocial behaviour more generally within their areas.

5.30 pm

Where antisocial behaviour injunctions are not available, the local authority can use other powers, including applying for an injunction under section 222 of the Local Government Act 1972. Local authorities already use that section to deal with antisocial behaviour, including, for example, the activities of drug dealers.

The purpose of the amendments is to ensure that injunctions that prohibit antisocial behaviour that are obtained by local authorities in such proceedings can be properly enforced. Where the conduct that is prohibited includes violence, threatened violence or a risk of significant harm, we want to give the courts a right to attach a power of arrest to the injunction. The changes that the amendments make are modest, but the practical effect is potentially significant.

Lords amendment No 64 provides that the provision will be commenced in England by the Secretary of State and in Wales by the National Assembly for Wales.

The amendments are relatively straightforward. They attempt to clarify and improve the Bill and I ask the House to support them.

Mr. Paice: >

I am grateful to the Minister for explaining things to the House. I think that she is coming to the Bill for the first time. The two principal issues in this group of amendments, which relate to clarification, are ones that we raised in Committee, when we sought clarification ourselves. I cannot help but note that in Committee the hon. Member for Coventry North-East (Bob Ainsworth) Minister who was then dealing with the Bill—he is now the Under-Secretary of State for Transport—rebutted our concerns and said that the Bill was perfect. I am delighted that the Government have recognised since then that changes need to be made but I am concerned about some of the changes.

In Committee, I challenged the Government about the definition of "visitors", which seemed a broad term. I could see that it was a problem that, as the Minister has said, was open to interpretation by the courts. It could be interpreted narrowly or much more broadly. In Committee, the then Minister said: 'Visitor' means what it says and the meaning is unusually clear in the law."—[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 13 May 2003; c. 241.] It is fine that it is unusually clear in the law, but the fact that the Government have now introduced changes makes me wonder how clear other things are in the law.

The serious point is that the Minister has repeated this afternoon what Lord Bassam said in the other place. He said that part of the objective of this part of the Bill was to protect visitors engaged in lawful activity in the locality."— [Official Report, House of Lords, 11 September 2003; Vol. 652, c. 503.] We all want to protect visitors, but, assuming that the amendments are agreed to, I am perplexed by what the Bill will provide. It seems that protection will be extended to a person with a right … to reside in or occupy other housing accommodation in the neighbourhood of housing accommodation mentioned in paragraph (a)", or to a person employed … in connection with the exercise of the relevant landlord's housing management functions. I accept that effectively the Minister is making it clear in Hansard that she wishes the provision to extend to visitors, but I fail to see how the two criteria of a right to … reside in or occupy or "a person employed" necessarily cover all visitors, and especially the visitors about whom we are most concerned. For example, such visitors may be friends of elderly residents who come round for afternoon tea. They are certainly not occupying and do not appear to be covered.

We are in the final throes of our consideration of the Bill. I shall not take up the time of the House by opposing the amendment, but I am concerned about the implications of the Minister's proposals. I should be grateful if she would be kind enough to write to me, and perhaps put a copy of her letter in the Library, about the way in which visitors are to be protected, given that she is excising reference to them from the Bill. The provision is apparently restricted to people who reside in an area, who have a right of occupation, or who are employed in connection with the exercise of the relevant landlord's housing management functions.

The other significant issue is locality. In Committee, the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) resisted our concerns about the definition of locality, which were shared by our noble Friends in another place and by Liberal Democrat Members in the House. He said: At the moment, locality is determined by judicial discretion in each case. That is as it should be. It is up to the courts to decide exactly what is covered in given circumstances, and we do not intend that it should be defined as narrowly as pertaining to particular residences."— [Official Report, Standing Committee G, 13 May 2003; c. 228.] That is precisely what the Government are doing—they are defining "locality" narrowly so that it pertains to all the residences owned in an estate by a social landlord. I am not going to revisit the arguments that we had in Committee about specifying a distance. We proposed a distance of within 100 m of a particular property, but any figure would have done, as the purpose was to challenge the definition of locality. The Minister has changed "locality" to "neighbourhood", which is defined as the whole of the housing accommodation owned or managed by a relevant landlord in the neighbourhood and any common areas used in connection with the accommodation. That does exactly what the Government said they would not do. They define "neighbourhood" as narrowly as pertaining to particular residences. I emphasise the plural used by the hon. Member for Harrow, East.

I should be grateful if the Minister explained precisely how the Government are defining "neighbourhood". At what stage, for instance, does the neighbourhood cease? If a social landlord owned a cluster of properties and, in the next street, owned another cluster of properties, would that be the same neighbourhood? Would the provision apply to the second group of houses? What sort of boundaries, borders or even horizons have been created to define a particular neighbourhood in Lords amendment No. 6?

None of the other amendments in the group causes the Opposition any great concern, so we support them. However, I am extremely concerned about the excision of the reference to visitors and the definition of locality. I support the Minister's desire to clarify the provision, but I am not sure that she has achieved that in the amendments, so I would be grateful if she could comment further.

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

I echo the comments of the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), as I have been reassured by what the Minister has said today but remain doubtful about the effect of the amendments on the Bill. I, too, would be grateful for clarification. On the use of "locality" versus "neighbourhood", we did indeed have a lengthy and, it appeared at the time, unproductive discussion of the issue. I therefore welcome the amendments.

In the other place, Lord Bassam said: We want to support landlords who wish to do more than manage or protect their own tenants and take action to tackle anti-social behaviour more generally in the neighbourhoods in which their properties are situated. He went on to say that there must be a link with the housing management function."— [Official Report, House of Lords, 11 September 2003; Vol. 652, c. 503.] I felt comfortable with that, because it seemed to extend the provision outside the individual residence, but it is still not entirely clear. I would welcome clarification of the matter. If the amendments reflect what was said in the other place, it would be good to put back a link to the local crime and disorder reduction partnership, as there would almost certainly be scope for working together beyond an individual residence. Will the Minister consider that?

One of my greatest concerns remains the amendments to clause 14. A demotion order can move quickly to a loss of property and homelessness. There has been a great deal of debate about that. I welcome the amendment, which requires a notice to be served, so that there is a warning prior to the demotion order. I hope that that will slow down the process slightly, but does the full amendment, including the 12-month limit specified, address the concerns expressed in both places that somebody could become homeless not purely because of antisocial behaviour, but possibly because of a technical knock-out? Once a demotion order was made, a landlord could dispossess people of their property rather easily.

Aside from those points, I generally agree with this group of amendments.

Yvette Cooper

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) wanted me to clarify the effect of removing the reference to visitors. This is a case when the procedures of the House and the way that documents are made available to us, with the Lords amendments on one piece of paper and the original Bill as a separate document, instead of a version that combines the two, mean that it takes longer to understand the proposals.

Let us consider the revised clause, if the amendments removing the reference to visitors were accepted. There would be a revised section 153A(4)(c) under the new wording, although the amendment is to paragraph (b) under the old wording. The new section 153A(4)(c) would read: The second condition is that the conduct is capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any of the following … (c) a person engaged in lawful activity in or in the neighbourhood of housing accommodation mentioned in paragraph (a)". The hon. Gentleman has in front of him the original Bill. Section 153A(4)(b), which currently reads: a person visiting the housing accommodation or otherwise engaged in lawful activity in", would be renumbered (c) and read: a person engaged in lawful activity in or in the neighbourhood of the housing accommodation". Removing the words visiting the housing accommodation", means that the reference is to a person engaged in lawful activity". Someone visiting a friend in the housing accommodation under discussion is clearly engaged in lawful activity. Removing the phrase visiting the housing accommodation puts the emphasis on everybody who is engaged in lawful activity in that area, rather than on those who are visiting or otherwise engaged in lawful activity. Although we do not believe that that has a substantial legal impact on the wording, it ensures that when the courts interpret the measure, we have provided as much clarity as possible. We do not focus too much attention on those who are visiting, and have made it clear that everybody is covered. Visitors would clearly continue to be covered by the new wording.

5.45 pm

The hon. Gentleman's second point was also raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) and concerns the switch of wording from "locality" to "neighbourhood". Again, the impact of the change is small. "Locality" is the word used in the previous legislation. Practitioners raised concerns about the narrow interpretation of case law in particular examples such as the Enfield and Nottingham cases. "Neighbourhood" was added instead to ensure that existing case law was not simply read forward because "locality" had again been used. That has been done purely to try to reassure practitioners while providing as much clarity as possible to the courts.

"Neighbourhood" is just as flexible a term as "locality". It includes the whole area and clearly includes owner-occupied property and property owned by other landlords on multi-tenure and jointly managed estates. Changing the word does not negate any of the earlier discussions about this matter.

The hon. Lady also referred to demotions. I know that Liberal Democrat Members raised that point in Committee. We believe that demotions are a potential alternative to what landlords may currently have to do. As landlords do not have any way of providing a sanction or clear warning to tenants where there is problem antisocial behaviour, they may need to go straight to trying to evict them, perhaps making somebody homeless because of unacceptable antisocial behaviour.

The demotions have been introduced as an alternative sanction for landlords. They allow tenants one last chance to amend their behaviour by responding to the sanction. Notices should be given to ensure that tenants are aware of the threatened sanction and that they have the chance to make appropriate representations and give their side of the story. Equally, we are not discussing changing the overall approach to demotions, which provide an alternative to evictions and give social landlords a sanction to address antisocial behaviour. We know that many social landlords currently feel that they cannot act with sufficient flexibility because there are not enough measures to address that problem.

I have responded to hon. Members' concerns and hope that all hon. Members will support these relatively straightforward measures.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 8 agreed to.

Forward to