HL Deb 11 February 2003 vol 644 cc21-30GC

11.22 a.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I beg to move that the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.

It has been 10 years since there has been any social housing primary legislation in Northern Ireland. It is not surprising, therefore, that the order is a substantial document. There is a package of measures to deal with anti-social behaviour in social housing, which largely mirror provisions already available in Great Britain. It is long overdue. It is easy to overlook the continuing daily distress that anti-social behaviour by some occupiers can cause for neighbours and the general vicinity.

Provision is made in article 6 for introductory tenancies. Articles 9 to 12 and 22 to 25 extend the grounds upon which houses can be repossessed to cover nuisance or annoyance caused by visitors to a dwelling. In article 26, provision is made to enable landlords to seek injunctions against perpetrators of anti-social behaviour.

The order largely replicates the existing scheme of grants to help with the renewal of private sector housing. However, it changes the nature of the scheme to make it largely discretionary and enable more efficient targeting of resources. The Committee will find that in articles 34 to 109.

Accommodation for travellers has been a contentious issue in Northern Ireland for some time. There has been a division of responsibility between district councils and the Housing Executive. It is plain that it would be more appropriate to have one authority with specific responsibilities. Article 125 and Schedule 2 place responsibilities and duties in that context on the Housing Executive.

Article 43 and Schedule 3 require the Housing Executive to prepare a registration scheme for houses in multiple occupation. They form part of the private rented stock and provide accommodation for up to 30,000 people in Northern Ireland, mainly students. The scheme will improve quality and safety standards in such houses.

There are other miscellaneous matters. Under article 131, the Department for Social Development is enabled to make a house sales scheme for registered housing associations. Through article 132, legislative cover for existing extra-statutory Housing Executive schemes is provided to compensate tenants for improvements and repairs that they have carried out. That is a matter of common justice. Other provisions are made to bring Northern Ireland legislation up to date.

This is an important order. Many people in Northern Ireland have waited—rather impatiently—to see its enactment. I commend the order to the Committee.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

Lord Glentoran

I thank the noble and learned Lord for his explanation and repeat my thanks to Northern Ireland officials for the considerable time that they spent in briefing yesterday evening. I must also declare an interest: I am a non-executive director of the National House Building Council and spent 27 years working for Redland in Northern Ireland, supplying the building industry. I have been involved in house building in Northern Ireland for a long time. Recently, I was fortunate enough to have a meeting with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. I know that it is anxious that the Bill—now an order—should become law as soon as possible.

It is an excellent order. A great deal of attention is paid to the social aspects of housing, in particular the problem of those who cause nuisance and annoyance. It gives the Housing Executive and landlords the powers better to manage that problem. The Housing Executive was unable to manage the matter satisfactorily, and it fell into the hands of the UDA and others. That situation was clearly unsatisfactory, and this move is very positive.

This is the first time in Northern Ireland legislation that we have attempted to pay serious attention to the position of the travelling community. Over the years, travellers have been a nuisance and will probably continue to be. However, if they are given proper facilities and opportunities and looked after properly, as the order allows the housing authorities to do, it would be a great plus.

It is also a great plus that the issue of multiple occupation has been considered. We know that there is serious overcrowding in some of the student houses in the university areas. There are health and safety problems and fire risks, so the order is a good move.

By and large, I am positive about the order. However, I want to raise a warning flag in one area. Chapter VI amends the current legislation on homelessness and requires the Housing Executive to provide a scheme for the payment of grants to tenants who are forced to leave their home as a consequence of violence or intimidation. I mentioned that when I was being briefed by officials last night. We had a discussion, and I was assured that the scheme had not yet been fully devised. If we took the provision at face value, it could open the door to every kind of misuse and put the authorities in a difficult position. I want an assurance that great care and attention will be given to the writing of regulations and safeguards, so that the paramilitaries and those who, we fear, would misuse the scheme can be kept out of the action.

Overall, I give the order a warm welcome.

11.30 a.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton

We, too, welcome the order. I should like to put on record the exemplary way in which the Northern Ireland Housing Executive has operated in very difficult times over the years. It is truly one of the great success stories in Northern Ireland, and I should like that to be stressed.

I have a little difficulty with one point—the sell-off of housing association accommodation. Northern Ireland house prices have been rocketing at least as much as those in other parts of the UK. I am worried about provision for low-cost housing in Northern Ireland, as I am about low-cost housing in Great Britain. The other day, the Deputy Prime Minister called for a halt to the sale of council houses because the Government's policy is to try to make further provision for low-cost housing for priority public workers. I just hope that we are not, as it were, ships passing in the day, whereby we are selling off a lot of low-cost housing without providing enough of it. House prices in Northern Ireland have, as I said, been rocketing for 10 years or more.

Other than that, we wholeheartedly welcome the order.

Lord Rogan

I, too, very much welcome the order. Again, my only regret is that the legislation must be considered here as an Order in Council rather than as a Bill in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The Ulster Unionist Party particularly welcomes the provisions for tackling anti-social behaviour. We fully recognise the misery and disruption that anti-social behaviour such as harassment, intimidation, vandalism, noise, litter and—particularly in Northern Ireland—graffiti and drugs can cause to individuals. It can also destroy communities and lead to areas of abandoned housing. The establishment of an introductory tenancy regime—a probationary tenancy for a period of one year—was something for which my colleagues in the Assembly pushed long and hard. I am therefore especially pleased to see that provision in the order.

We are keen to ensure that landlords have the means to deal swiftly and effectively with nuisance tenants. The exercise of sanctions is clearly a necessary component in the deterrence of anti-social behaviour and we are very much in favour of legislation to help deal with the problem. We particularly welcome the extension of the grounds that constitute nuisance or annoyance to neighbours to include domestic violence. My Assembly colleagues worked also to gain that provision. It covers married couples, or those living together as husband and wife. However, can the Minister confirm that domestic violence in this context also refers to violence against children, particularly those in one-parent families, as that does not appear to be included in the order?

We support changes to the current legislation to enable the Housing Executive, a registered housing association or certain private sector landlords to take court action against tenants—and others—w hose anti-social behaviour affects their property. We do, however, wish to see these powers to grant injunctions extended to include non-residential premises such as shops or community centres serving the locality. We would also welcome a further extension and tightening of the definition of anti-social behaviour. It should include harassment, alarm or distress to persons not of the same household, and also unreasonable interference with people's rights to use and enjoy their home and surrounding community.

With regard to Part III, on grants, we support discretionary grants targeted towards those who most need assistance. However, can the Minister tell us on what basis grants will be made? Who decides on where need is greatest? We are also concerned that there are insufficient finances available for a mandatory grant scheme. I ask the Minister to give us an indication as to the funds available for this scheme and how it will work in practice.

The Ulster Unionist Party recognises that homelessness is a very serious social and economic problem that must be given priority by the Department for Social Development. We regard the prevention of homelessness as the key principle in developing strategies to deal with this issue. However, we also recognise that the plight of the currently homeless should not be overlooked. In this context, I pay tribute to the work of the Housing Executive and to the commitment of the many voluntary and charitable organisations throughout Northern Ireland in the effort to tackle the complex problems associated with homelessness.

We welcome the distinction made between those who are homeless intentionally and those who are homeless unintentionally. We have campaigned to ensure that a person is designated as intentionally homeless if he or she has deliberately done or failed to do anything that led to the loss of accommodation that was thought reasonable for them to occupy. Can the Minister tell us what special attention will be given to the prevention of homelessness among patients leaving custody and young people leaving care? Will there also be a provision for young people—aged 16 or 17—to be entitled to assistance from the Housing Executive?

We support the development of a clear and cohesive strategy on homelessness to provide a stable and supportive living environment for those who find themselves in the plight of homelessness. I trust that as a result of this order we will see an integrated, interdepartmental and interagency approach. However, can the Minister tell us whether there will be a common code of practice for the Housing Executive and all other organisations dealing with homelessness?

In conclusion, I very much welcome the order, particularly the provisions intended to tackle anti-social behaviour. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

Baroness O'Cathain

May I ask for a point of clarification on succession on the death of a tenant, which comes under articles 13 and 14? It really surprises me that, A person is qualified to succeed the tenant under an introductory tenancy if he occupies the dwelling-house as his only or principal home at the time of the tenant's death and either—

  1. (a) he is the tenant's spouse, or
  2. (b) he is another member of the tenant's family".
It might seem strange to the noble and learned Lord that I am taking up the cause of those who are cohabiting, in view of our previous arguments. But what would happen if people had been cohabiting? Perhaps I am reading the provision incorrectly, but it seems rather harsh. I dare say that the answer could be a joint tenancy, but many people do not want to get involved in joint tenancies. If they do not want to get involved in marriage, they might not want to get involved in joint tenancies, but then somebody could be left without a roof over their head.

Just as an observation, the noble and learned Lord is absolutely right about meeting in the Moses Room. It is so much better than the last time I used to sit here.

Baroness Blood

I should like to make a few brief points. I may be in a unique situation in that I live in a Housing Executive estate.

I echo what the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran, Lord Smith and Lord Rogan, have said. The Housing Executive has done a fantastic job at a most difficult time, particularly in the area where I live. I welcome the order, which I think is really good. The idea of introductory tenancies, as set out in Chapter II, is rather novel—if people do not fit the criteria after a year they will be moved on. I look forward to that happening.

The provisions regarding travellers in Chapter II are a positive step. Travellers in Northern Ireland have been treated rather badly because it has been a question of how each district council viewed their position. So it is good that there is an overall approach to the problem of travellers.

I have a couple of brief comments about Chapter IV. It refers to anti-social behaviour, and several of my fellow Peers have spoken about that this morning. The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, asked how to define anti-social behaviour. I wonder how enforceable that is. At present, one cannot even get the police to come in to deal with crime in certain housing estates in Northern Ireland. I wonder how far it would be possible to force the police or anyone else to move in to force people out for anti-social behaviour. This is a huge problem in the sprawling estates of Northern Ireland. As the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, has already said, some of those estates have been taken over by the paramilitaries.

I also want to draw attention to Chapter IV of the order, which deals with people who are forced to leave their homes and the fact that grants would be available. The Housing Executive has done wonderfully well in that respect. I live in an area where, two years ago, 300 families were forced to leave their homes within a number of weeks. The local officer dealt well with that. My concerns are: who will say who receives the grants; where does one apply for them; and what is the overall level of the grant? I worry that the situation could be manipulated by people who view it simply as an opportunity to obtain more money.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

There was always a degree of potential for what one might call "rocky relationships" between the department, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the housing associations. However, I believe that that may not have been entirely justified. But, more recently, a central application tenancy list was operated by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. At that stage, I was a board member of a housing association. I was concerned about the possible loss of what one might call "human relationships" and "human touch" in this delicate matter. I believe it is fair to say that those fears, too, were unjustified, although we must be careful now that the unit is bigger—consisting of three instead of two organisations.

I hope that we can be assured that the human touch will not be in any way impaired by what is bound to be a more complicated mechanism as a result of the order. The new arrangements might make for greater efficiency, but I hope that they do not lead to the loss of the customer relationship.

Part II of the order concerns the conduct of tenants—a somewhat thorny issue which brings back many unhappy memories. Such problems were usually dealt with by computer. I am not certain that that is the preferable method because, here again, the hands-on technique is most likely to identify problems long before they appear on the horizon, and that is very important. Once identified, I believe that, at all costs, we should impress upon all concerned the importance of avoiding what I would call "printed paper bombardments". Those are usually far more damaging to relationships—not only to those of the individual tenants concerned but to those far wider.

Lord Eames

I add my voice to those of my colleagues who have paid tribute not only to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive but to the many voluntary housing associations across the Province which have done marvellous work, particularly over the past few years. I also pay a very warm tribute to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, for the sensitivity that he has always exhibited in dealing with the problems of Northern Ireland. That has impressed at least one Peer on the Benches on which I sit.

I want to make two brief points. I believe that the order is one of those unique pieces of business dealt with by the House which has great importance in areas other than those mentioned specifically. The issues in the order cover a wide range of social issues and social problems in Northern Ireland—not least those to which the noble Baroness referred a few minutes ago.

I want to ask two simple questions. First, cart the Minister tell us, even at this primary stage, what the Government feel is the best road forward to implement the provisions that touch on anti-social behaviour? I have in mind, in particular, the problems that come to my desk time and time again from my clergy—that is, the whole question of people being forced out of their homes by paramilitary organisations or sinister forces. Such people feel at a loss either to obtain help from the police, as referred to by the noble Baroness, or, in this context, to obtain government and government agency help.

Secondly, I welcome the provisions as regards travellers. That has been a particular problem, especially in my diocese in the border area where a considerable social problem has been promoted by the movement of travellers in large numbers.

Finally, perhaps I may suggest to Her Majesty's Government that this is a wonderful opportunity to pay tribute to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and to the army of civil servants who have briefed us and provided help over the years, both here and in Northern Ireland. It is also an opportunity to say that, if this matter is to be dealt with here in the absence of devolution in Northern Ireland, we must exercise the utmost sensitivity in overlapping these provisions with some of the other social needs to which I have referred.

I greatly welcome the order.

11.45 a.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I am obliged to Members of the Committee for their contributions. This debate has been a model demonstration of how to deal with legislation. I agree with Members of the Committee who have said that this is second best to the Assembly considering such matters, but on this occasion it has been quite a good second best.

The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, asked about article 13. I know the answer to this—that is why I am dealing with it straight away. I am pleased that social advance and social mores have persuaded the noble Baroness that her recent stance on single-sex adoption was misplaced. I understood that to be the burden of her question.

Baroness O'Cathain

I thank the noble and learned Lord but he is not going to get away with that! This matter has nothing to do with adoption; it solely involves cohabiting couples and their right to stay in a house if one of them dies.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

Article 13(b) refers to the spouse and to, another member of the tenant's family". Tenant's family" is defined in article 3(1), which states: For the purposes of this Order a person is a member of another's family if … he is the spouse of that person, or he and that person live together as husband and wife". That partly leads me to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, about domestic violence, which is dealt with in article 23. He asked about the position of children generally and more specifically in one-pa rent families. Fortunately, the position of children generally is now protected. New Ground 2A states that, if domestic violence is proved, sanctions can follow if, one partner has left because of violence or threats of violence by the other towards—

  1. (i) that partner, or
  2. (ii) a member of the family of that partner".
Going back to article 3, "a member of the family of that partner" would include a child. That is very important. It would not be appropriate to evict a single parent who had been found guilty of violence to a child because the child would be left homeless and parentless. The child's rights are amply protected in that context.

I turn to a general point. Historically, we have always overlooked the menace of anti-social behaviour. I do not put it too highly by suggesting that, in some cases, anti-social behaviour, although not itself criminal, is more wounding to domestic peace, harmony and happiness in one's home than some activities that are criminal. We have been derelict as a Parliament in dealing with that. It is a great opportunity to have this matter instituted in legislation pertaining to Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked about emergency grants and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, referred to those who are driven from their homes by intimidation. There are two dangers in this regard. The first is that of not caring for the person's needs sufficiently; the grief of a person who is hounded from his home I find unimaginable. The second danger involves the perfectly valid concern of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, who asked whether it was possible to abuse the scheme and what safeguards there must be.

Article 138 deals with both those points. Emergency grants will be provided and the scheme will have to be drawn up by the Housing Executive. On its behalf, I am grateful for all the tributes rightly offered to the executive. The scheme will set out the circumstances, conditions and conditions for repayment under which a grant may be paid. That will all have to be approved by the Department for Social Development.

In answer to the noble and right reverend Lord, the Housing Executive will monitor the scheme very closely, first, to see that those who are in genuine need receive assistance, and, secondly—a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran—to ensure that the scheme is not abused by those who pretend to have been driven from their homes when that is not the case.

I turn to a number of further questions. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, said that we should look across all departments. I take that point; it is well made. This Order in Council refers only to housing, but I accept that point and the one made by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, about the human touch. In my own experience, it is useful to test public services in anonymity. I do not believe that it is any good to give one's name because Members of this Committee and this House receive preferential treatment, I am told, although I have never succeeded in getting a decent table at a restaurant. I suppose that that is because Williams is such a common name.

But my own experience is that, even if the request cannot be met fully, a smile from the counter is just as important by way of therapy for people who are feeling downhearted. I believe that immediately after 1945 a famous Minister in the Ministry of Labour, as it was called in those days, used to put on his cap, muffler and old coat and go to the labour exchange to see how he was dealt with. That would be a useful task for some of us to carry out, although, of course, I shall not apply it to religious organisations.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, asked about young people. Persons with priority need will be provided with accommodation. That includes those under the age of 21 who may be in danger, families with children or disabled persons.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blood, made an important point about anti-social behaviour, and general questions were raised concerning the lack of a definition. We have left that to the courts. They are well used to dealing with concepts such as nuisance, harassment and so forth. There is a danger of over-prescription because social conditions change, and we would rather give the courts the flexibility which they are well used to deploying.

Concern about evidence was also raised. If a person has been subject to harassment or anti-social behaviour, he will probably be afraid to give evidence. The provision in this order allows other persons, such as Housing Executive officials, to give evidence about the nuisance or annoyance. That is a very important step forward. In that way, secondary evidence, as it were, can be given both of behaviour and of consequence.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, the department will issue guidance to social landlords to ensure that all provisions are operated reasonably. The point about university students is very well made. I declare my interest as Pro-Chancellor of the University of Wales. It has always struck me that those who are students for a short period of time are among the least protected tenants and are inadequately protected in terms of health and safety.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, also raised the question of the funding of grants. The main grants will be aimed at remedying unfitness and they will be means-tested. Therefore, people on particularly low earnings will benefit significantly from those grants. Where a property requires improvement but is not unfit, owner-occupiers on low incomes will be able to apply for help from the home repair assistance grant. That is means-tested, but the elderly and disabled may well be exempt from that test.

The question of anti-social behaviour raised by the noble Baroness was also touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Rogan. I believe that I have dealt with that point.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith, asked about housing association sales. There is a common waiting list for Housing Executive and housing association properties, and prospective tenants may be housed in accommodation provided by either. We wish to ensure that any schemes that follow reflect a need to retain the levels of specially adapted homes available in the social rented sector. I believe that the noble Lord's wider point is very well founded—that is, one does not want, simply in the rush for sales, to leave a gap in the market which cannot be filled.

I believe that I have dealt with all the points raised by Members of the Committee. I shall review the transcript carefully. The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, in particular, asked a number of very detailed questions. If I have not dealt with them, I undertake to write to the noble Lord. Of course, I shall copy the letters, as I always do, to all Members of the Committee who have shown an interest in these matters. I am very grateful. I believe, and hope, that we have done our work well on this occasion.

Lord Glentoran

I forgot to mention one other item. The order also contains a power for compulsory purchase. I have tested that proposition on the officials, and I should like that to be recorded. I understand clearly why and in what circumstances the power will allow compulsory purchase—when the Housing Executive wishes to carry out a scheme but is blocked because of derelict buildings. It is an excellent part of the order. I want to make it clear that we have taken note of the provision and questioned it.

Lord Smith of Clifton

If I may, I should like to assist the punctiliousness of the noble and learned Lord and protect the prefix of the noble and most reverend Lord, Lord Eames. Being an Archbishop, he is most reverend, not right reverend.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

Interestingly, there has been a debate in Hansard about this. Whatever adjectival and deeply respectful description I apply always turns out to be wrong; but Hansard—being the excellent institution that it is—always corrects me.

Lord Eames

I shall not respond to the remark of the noble Lord, Lord Smith, but simply say to the noble and learned Lord that the best way to ensure one's anonymity, to which he referred, is not to wear one's clerical collar.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I am grateful for that moment, which has been given to me. I am not entirely certain whether the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, was referring to article 128. No, I think that that is a misapprehension. I think that he was asking about compulsory purchase generally. I wonder if the Committee will allow me to write to the noble Lord and to copy it in the usual way? I am grateful.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

The Grand Committee adjourned at three minutes before noon.