HL Deb 10 July 1996 vol 574 cc305-9

(" In Section 89 of the Housing Act 1985 (succession to periodic tenancy), for subsection (3) there shall be substituted—

"(3) Where there is no person qualified to succeed the tenant, the tenancy ceases to be a secure tenancy when—

  1. (a) it is vested or otherwise disposed of in the course of the administration of the tenant's estate unless the vesting or other disposal is in pursuance of an order made under section 24 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 (property adjustment orders in connection with matrimonial proceedings), or
  2. (b) it is known that when it is so vested or disposed of it will not be a secure tenancy.".").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving this amendment, I should like to speak also to Amendments Nos. 125 and 126 standing in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Dubs. These amendments are, I accept, rather complex and address issues which we have not discussed before. They should therefore be seen in the nature of probing amendments to elicit a response from the Government.

Amendment No. 124 has as its purpose to remove an anomaly in the present drafting of Section 89 of the Housing Act 1985 which allows that when a secure tenant dies, the tenancy may remain secure for a period after his death even though it is known that there is no successor. Section 89 applies where a secure tenant dies and the tenancy is a periodic tenancy. Subsection (3) provides that: Where there is no person qualified to succeed the tenant and the tenancy is vested or otherwise disposed of in the course of the administration of the tenant's estate, the tenancy ceases to be a secure tenancy unless the vesting or other disposal is in pursuance of an order made under Section 24 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973". The wording of the subsection implies that the tenancy remains secure after the death of a secure tenant until the tenancy is vested in the manner described. That seems to us to have certain defects. We contrast it with Section 90 of the 1985 Act which deals with fixed-term tenancies and in which rather different rules govern what happens when a tenant dies without a successor. My amendment would import a similar wording into Section 89. The effect, without any significant diminution in the rights of secure tenants, will be to ease the task of the local authorities in gaining possession of dwellings left vacant by the death of secure tenants without affecting any rights. In our view, that would allow more effective use of the housing stock and would reduce the number of empty local authority homes.

Amendments Nos. 125 and 126 seek to protect those who were living with the tenant when the tenant died. As it stands, the Bill would prevent an obvious successor to the person who has died from taking up succession if the person who had died was himself a successor. The amendments attempt to tackle that anomaly. As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is aware, these provisions were discussed in another place and I hope for some sympathetic response from the Government. I beg to move.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, secure tenants enjoy the right of succession. This means that their spouse, or a close relative who has been living in the home for the previous 12 months, may succeed to the tenancy on their death. There can only be one succession under the law as it stands.

Amendments Nos. 125 and 126 would have the effect of granting succession in perpetuity by allowing more than one succession. I do not believe that that is necessary; indeed, I would go as far as to say that it would be undesirable.

There has been considerable discussion of succession rights both in this House and in another place. Examples were cited of unfortunate cases where the close companion—or indeed the adult child—of the tenant would not have the automatic right to inherit a tenancy. As a result my right honourable friend David Curry gave an undertaking to issue unequivocal advice to local authorities on how they should deal with such cases. The guidance was issued on 14th May. Circular 7/96, Local Authority Joint Tenancies, addresses the same problem as the amendments—the case where a member of the household dies and there is another member of the household who does not have the right to succeed, but in the context of local authorities' general role in ensuring effective use and fair allocation of their stock. Local authorities' first priority in assessing need is the provision of housing for families with children, and vulnerable individuals, who are trying to cope with wholly unsuitable accommodation. In our view, it would not be right to hamper the difficult decisions that have to be made by local authorities by tying up properties for generations.

The circular advises that where a member of the household dies and there is another member of the household who does not have the right to succeed, the local authority should, if certain conditions apply, normally grant a tenancy to the remaining person in the same home or in suitable alternative accommodation. The circumstances must be that the remaining person has been living with the tenant in the year before the tenant's death, or had been looking after the tenant, or had accepted responsibility for the tenant's dependants.

We therefore believe there is no need to extend statutory succession rights in the way the amendment suggests because of the substantive advice offered by the circular which has been well received by local authorities. A person left in a home after the death of a tenant who has no right of succession will be quite clear as to what he might expect the local authority policy to be and will be in a position to draw the Department of the Environment's advice to the authority's attention.

I think that that is quite enough of a disagreement to have with the noble Lord, so I am happy to be of a brighter mind when it comes to Amendment No. 124. We sympathise with the concerns expressed by the noble Lord on the subject but, as he has no doubt observed, this is an intricate piece of legislation and we should like to consider the matter further. If it should prove necessary to have an amendment to achieve what the noble Lord has in mind, we shall bring one forward on Third Reading. I hope that that gives the noble Lord sufficient comfort to enable him to withdraw his amendment at this stage.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, with the leave of the House, before the noble Lord sits down, I wonder whether he can clarify something he said. I thought I heard him say in the earlier part of his remarks that someone would have security of tenure if their mother or father died and if they had been living in their home for 12 months. The noble Lord said later that there would be some security of tenure and that the local authority could allow continued tenure if that person had been living in the house within those 12 months. There seems to be a clash there. On the one hand the Government appear to be saying that you need to have been living in the house for at least 12 months; on the other hand they are referring to "within a period of 12 months".

While the Minister is looking for the answer, perhaps I may give an example that I have come across of a son of a tenant who had grown up in a house, left home and gone to live elsewhere but the circumstances of his living elsewhere broke down and he went back to live with his mother who then died within 12 months. In practice, the local authority allowed him to assume the tenancy and within a few years he had moved on and the house had become available for re-letting. I wonder whether the discretion that local authorities enjoyed a few years ago is still available. Obviously, such a discretion would be useful in such human circumstances, as I am sure the Minister appreciates.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, one of the many virtues of guidance is that it allows local authorities to exercise some common sense in such situations. The circular refers to a person who has been living with a tenant for a year before the tenant's death, or who has been looking after the tenant, or who has accepted responsibility for the tenant's dependants. Clearly, if that period lasted for 11 months and 20 days there is nothing in the guidance to impose a strict cut-off and the local authority would be able to treat that period as if it had been a year. The guidance is merely there to give guidance, not to set strict rules which would result in silly decisions.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I am grateful, as always, to the Minister for responding to the amendments. On Amendments Nos. 125 and 126, I fully accept the fact that there is guidance, but if the Government accept the principle of further successions in the circumstances described in the circular I fail to see why that should not be written into statute. The principle seems quite clear as explained by the noble Lord. So if it is included in a circular, why not in statute? I cannot see any impediment to that.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving me the assurance that he will look again at Amendment No. 124 to see whether it is necessary to produce a government amendment on Third Reading in order to clarify what is at the moment a rather obscure situation. In the light of that assurance, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 125 and 126 not moved.]

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 126A: Before Clause 95, insert the following new clause—