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Injunctions Against Anti-Social Behaviour On Application Of Certain Social Landlords

Volume 407: debated on Tuesday 24 June 2003

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3.30 pm

I beg to move amendment No. 10, in page 10, line 28, leave out 'immoral and'.

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 11 and 21 to 23.

I also hope to be brief in dealing with this small group of amendments. I want to begin, however, by thanking my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for her kind words of welcome, and to reciprocate by congratulating her on her well-merited appointment. It is also a pleasure to be working with my hon. Friend the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety. I congratulate her on her promotion, too. They are two glittering stars in the firmament of the parliamentary Labour party.

Amendments Nos. 10, 11, 21 and 22 deal with the question of immorality. Specifically, it is proposed that the immoral use of premises, as distinct from unlawful use of premises, should be removed as a ground for obtaining an injunction or a demotion. I am grateful to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) for bringing this to the Government's attention in Committee. I am entirely in agreement with him that there is no necessary link between immorality and either antisocial behaviour or illegality, and it is misleading to imply one. Immorality per se is irrelevant to what the Bill seeks to achieve.

We do not think that it is appropriate that injunctions or demotion orders intended to prevent antisocial behaviour should be used to control the use of premises where no illegal activity is taking place and no nuisance is being caused. It is difficult to see what is antisocial in that situation. If illegality or nuisance begins, an injunction under clause 13 or a demotion order under clause 14 can be obtained without the need for any judgments of morality. Amendment No. 23 is a technical amendment to provide consistency in the way that the Bill deals with matters of Welsh devolution. We are deleting subsection (2) of clause 17 to bring it into line with clause 55.

I welcome the new Minister for Housing and Planning. I was remiss in not referring to him in my earlier remarks, and he rightly chided me privately for that. I congratulate him on his promotion—I suppose that that is what it is—and certainly on his new position in the Government. Whether he has as much power as he had as Deputy Chief Whip I shall leave for others to judge. It is ironic, of course, that the previous Minister, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), has gone to the job that the new Minister for Housing and Planning vacated.

I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that the Minister took a sensible approach to the Government's new clauses and amendments. Will he agree, however, that after a period of Trappist silence from the new Minister, which was no doubt put to good effect on behalf of the Government machine, it is extremely welcome that we shall once again hear his mellifluous tones and his gladiatorial approach to political debate?

I am sure that my hon. Friend, with his immense command of vocabulary, has encapsulated the views of many of us. I smile inwardly at the presence on the Front Bench of the new Minister for Housing and Planning, together with the new Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety, whom I assume is pleased that her colleague has not been put in charge of cycling, bearing in mind a faux pas that he made previously in the House, which was probably the cause of the period of Trappist silence to which he was consigned. Clearly, however, he has paid his penance.

I am grateful to the Minister for Housing and Planning for his kind words about the amendments, which, as he said, arise from almost identical amendments that I moved in Committee. I remind hon. Members of the words used in Committee by the then Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), when he spoke to my amendments. He said:
"Currently, I am not persuaded by my own briefing"—[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 13 May 2003; c. 229.]
There were several occasions on which he and the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East made similar statements. The result of the openness and honesty displayed by those Ministers is that several welcome amendments and new clauses, such as those in this group, have been tabled.

I shall not reprise the arguments that the Minister for Housing and Planning made—I made them at slightly more length in Committee. It is wrong to confuse antisocial behaviour with immorality. Immorality is based on a personal judgment and the concept moves with the times. We know from other aspects of legislation that courts have great difficulty defining immorality, so we do not want to bestow that problem on the Bill. The Bill is all about addressing nuisance and annoyance, which are clearly defined in law, so I am grateful that the Government have recognised that those concepts should not be confused with the wholly different concept of immorality.

We want to discuss other issues before the first knife falls, so I shall leave my remarks at that, except to repeat my welcome and obvious support for the Government amendments.

I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning to the Front Bench and I ask him to bear one thing in mind. I am sure that it is a common phenomenon for hon. Members of all parties to talk to people on council estates who say, "You know, the old rent book used to be very clear. The old rent man used to come round and tell us exactly the duties that we had and correct us when the garden was untidy." In a way, the drift of policy to protect private tenants especially, has gone a little too far the other way.

I say with the greatest respect to my hon. Friend—I hope that he will consider this although not necessarily react to it at the Dispatch Box—that many councils, including mine, would prefer to have the ability to use a tighter tenancy agreement. In order to achieve that, the Government must stand behind councils rather than continuing what is perhaps a trend of the past 30 years of always looking after the individual rights of a specific tenant. Sadly, people who use their rights are often those who abuse the rights of everyone else in the community. I am not saying that we need to return to a pre-Rachmanite regime, but as the Bill moves to the other place, will my hon. Friend consider the possibility of councils being able to toughen up their tenancy agreements so that they may take speedy action against some of the families that plague all our constituents?

I would add my congratulations to the Minister for Housing and Planning, but I did so during Question Time last week. He is unfortunate to be promoted into his job only to discover that he is midway through two Bills, or even three. Even being midway through one Bill would be unfortunate.

I add Liberal Democrat support to the amendments—we have added our names to them—for the reasons outlined by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and the Minister. We support the removal of the word "immoral". It was inappropriate and had nothing at all to do with a Bill on antisocial behaviour. I think that the word slipped in because such wording has been used in Bills for several years and there is a tendency to keep rolling on with the same set of words. It is just as well that the problem has been brought to book and I hope that that will prevent the wording from being rolled out in future Bills.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 11, in page 10, line 31, leave out 'immoral or'.— [Keith Hill.]

'153D Injunction against breach of tenancy agreement

  • (1)This section applies if a relevant landlord applies for an injunction against a tenant in respect of the breach or anticipated breach of a tenancy agreement on the grounds that the tenant—
  • (a) is engaging or threatening to engage in conduct that is capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person, or
  • (b) is allowing, inciting or encouraging any other person to engage or threaten to engage in such conduct.
  • (2) The court may proceed under subsection (3) or (4) if it is satisfied—
  • (a) that the conduct includes the use or threatened use of violence, or
  • (b) that there is a significant risk of harm to any person.
  • (3) The court may include in the injunction a provision prohibiting the person in respect of whom it is granted from entering or being in—
  • (a) any premises specified in the injunction;
  • (b) any area specified in the injunction.
  • (4) The court may attach a power of arrest to any provision of the injunction.
  • (5) Tenancy agreement includes any agreement for the occupation of residential accommodation owned or managed by a relevant landlord.'.
  • With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government amendments Nos. 13 to 20.

    Amendment No. 75, in page 45, line 39, schedule 1, leave out from 'possession' to end of line 40 and insert

    'if it is satisfied

  • (a) that conduct under section 153A or 153B of the Housing Act 1996 has taken place since the making of the demotion order and
  • (b) that the procedure under sections 143E and 143F has been followed.
  • Amendment No. 61, in page 46, line 9, schedule 1, at end insert—

    'including evidence of further conduct under section 153A or section 153B of the Housing Act 1996 which has taken place since the making of the demotion order.'.

    I again offer my thanks to colleagues on both sides of the House who have given me such a warm welcome. It is good to be back. I hope that we will proceed in the same sweet harmonies that prevailed on earlier Government amendments, but that may not be the case. However, I shall at least endeavour to persuade the House of the merits of these amendments.

    Clause 13 provides social landlords with powers to apply for injunctions to prevent anyone acting antisocially towards their tenants or other residents, staff or anyone lawfully in the locality of their housing accommodation. They are strong powers and may be used against any person including private tenants and owner-occupiers. That includes former tenants who have exercised the right to buy.

    I agree with that expression of support. That aspect of the Bill has not yet received the attention it merits and will receive a warm welcome in council estates up and down the land.

    The measures combat antisocial behaviour that is related to the management of the social landlord's stock. They do not give social landlords a wider role to protect any person from antisocial behaviour by any person in any circumstance. There has to be at least an indirect link with the landlord's management of its housing accommodation, although there does not have to be a link with any one particular premises as required by section 152 of the Housing Act 1996.

    However, a landlord might reasonably want to take action against one of its tenants who had acted antisocially in a wider range of circumstances than if the antisocial behaviour were committed by a non-tenant. It is important that rights and responsibilities are negotiated between the landlord and tenant. Amendment No. 12 allows them to do that. To revert to the observation made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), he will find in the provisions the opportunity to strengthen tenancy agreements. The Government desire that to be a general phenomenon. It only addresses part of the argument that he presented, but at least it is a part. I shall bear in mind his other observations.

    By tenancy agreement I mean any agreement for the occupation of residential accommodation owned or managed by the landlord including, for example, long leases acquired under the right-to-buy legislation. The amendment strengthens the enforceability of such agreements in relation to antisocial behaviour. Many social landlords include specific clauses in their tenancy agreements on antisocial behaviour. Those may go beyond what is covered in clause 13. For example, local authority tenancies may forbid tenants from harassing any member of council staff, in any location, regardless of whether they are employed in connection with the management of its stock.

    Social landlords can already obtain an injunction to prohibit a breach or anticipated breach of a tenancy agreement. The amendment defines tenancy agreement more widely and allows a power of arrest or exclusion to be attached to an injunction if there is actual or threatened antisocial behaviour and the use or threat of violence, or the risk of significant harm to any person. That includes circumstances in which the tenant is allowing, inciting or encouraging antisocial behaviour by someone else. I repeat that these are strong powers and they will not be granted lightly by the courts, but where they are appropriate and necessary, they will significantly enhance the protection of the community.

    I very much welcome the powers and know that they will be well received in constituencies up and down the land. It is a great credit to the Government that they have introduced them.

    The powers allow an injunction to be made and further prosecution if that is breached. One point that I was making to my hon. Friend the Minister was that it would be useful to consider the automaticity—the automatic nature—of a breach of a tenancy agreement so that consequences follow immediately rather than waiting for a document or dossier to be built up that can be taken to court. That would help to avoid the intimidation of witnesses. If it is there in black and white on the tenancy agreement, but someone breaks that agreement, certain things might follow automatically. The provision does not allow for that, but I urge my hon. Friend to see whether the good work in the clause can be taken a stage further.

    3.45 pm

    I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), who has obviously devoted a great deal of thought to these matters. I am interested in the concept of a rolling programme in relation to tenancy agreements. My hon. Friend has advanced a serious proposition, and the Government will give it careful consideration.

    Government amendments Nos. 13, 14 and 16 to 20 are necessary consequential amendments, which give effect to new section 153D of the Housing Act 1996. Government amendment No. 15 is a technical amendment that clarifies the question of who is regarded as the legal owner of a property. It makes it clear that a social landlord is an owner if their original lease of the accommodation was for longer than three years and not, as currently stated, if the unexpired period of the lease is for longer than three years. I found that a matter of some confusion, so it may be for the benefit of the House if I provide brief clarification. Any person who has a lease of three years or more will be regarded under the Bill as an owner. The owner is the landlord—in other words, the person who can take out an injunction. Someone with a lease of less than three years is identified as a business tenant. I hope that that added clarification is as helpful to the House as it was to me.

    My predecessor, the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), to whom I pay tribute to for his excellent work in Committee and in many other areas of government, said in Committee that he would happily look again at the question of whether three years rather than one year was the correct length of time. I have considered that, and am satisfied that three years is the correct length. Even if a social landlord is not classified as the owner of a particular property, they will still be the manager, and hence able to use the powers in clause 13.

    I turn to amendments Nos. 61 and 75, which were tabled by the Opposition and have the aim of undermining the purpose of the tenancy demotion procedure. They would increase demoted tenants' security of tenure, and would remove the benefits of speed and landlord control of the process, which the demotion procedure is intended to provide. They seek to limit the circumstances in which a landlord may seek to end a demoted tenancy to cases where there is evidence of antisocial behaviour after the order was granted. Eviction from a demoted tenancy is designed to be swifter and easier than eviction from secure tenancies, and is modelled on the procedure for local authority introductory tenancies that was recently approved by the courts as being compliant with the European convention on human rights.

    By the time a tenant has been demoted, the landlord and the tenant have both had their day in court. Evidence has been provided, and witnesses have attended. The amendments would effectively require another full-scale court hearing. There would be costs to the landlord and delays for those who are suffering from the antisocial behaviour, and it may not be easy to persuade witnesses to come back a second time. The demotion order allows landlords to give tenants one last chance, but it also allows them to take swift action if the antisocial behaviour is not addressed. The demotion order will give the tenant and landlord the opportunity for rehabilitation work. However, if that last chance fails, landlords should not be required to justify their own actions again at a further court hearing.

    The Minister spoke about what will happen if that sanction fails, but there is nothing in the Bill about failure after a demoted tenancy is granted. If someone is given a demoted tenancy, the landlord can move for repossession at any point without giving any reasons whatever. That is the problem with the Bill.

    That is not the case. The procedure for ending a demoted tenancy is based, as I said, on the procedure for ending an introductory tenancy. The decision is taken by the landlord, following a process that is already statutory, and is followed by a possession order granted by the court. The tenant will have the right to an internal review of the landlord's decision. The arrangements for the termination of a demoted tenancy will mirror the existing arrangements for the termination of introductory tenancies.

    I understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns. I remind him that the landlord will inform the tenant of his intention to terminate the tenancy. The tenant will have the right to appear before a review panel, which it is intended should include a senior council officer not involved in the initial demotion procedure. Ultimately, the tenant will have the right to take the proposed eviction to judicial review, but at the possession hearing, the court will consider only whether the appropriate procedure has been followed, not the facts upon which the landlord's decision was based or the merits of the case. Without those reassurances, the demotion order would be a less attractive procedure and it would encourage more landlords to apply for a possession order at the first opportunity.

    To put the matter in perspective, we are not speaking of random searches of council estates and picking on people. People who have got to this stage have probably been highly disruptive, disturbed the neighbourhood and made their neighbours' life hell. They have already had at least one chance. The problem is not that the process is too fast, but that it may be too protracted. Witnesses who have come forward, often at great expense, bolstered by housing officers, police officers and so on, may be asked to come to court two or three times, have their windows put in, have acid poured on their car and so on. We have lived with such problems, and I am glad that my hon. Friend is moving swiftly to tackle them.

    It is beginning to sound like a love-in between me and my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North. I entirely agree with his observations, which are as perceptive as ever. As he says, we have all been there, as constituency Members of Parliament. In my experience as a constituency Member of Parliament, the landlord is usually extremely reluctant to move to the measures that I described.

    Of course, the landlord is aware of the implications of the ending of any form of tenancy and the implications for the family, but the procedure will prevent precipitate action to move towards eviction. It will offer—I reiterate that in my experience this is the desire of most housing managers—the opportunity for a process of rehabilitation to try to bring the individuals concerned back into civic society. That is the name of the game. We need to restore a sense of civic society, and on occasion we must do that by sanction.

    These are reasonable proposals. They meet the wishes expressed overwhelmingly by the social landlord sector in consultation. The Government have no hesitation in moving amendments Nos. 12 to 20 and in urging Opposition Members to withdraw amendments Nos. 75 and 61.

    I shall briefly refer to the Government amendments, before dealing with the two that we tabled, to which the Minister devoted some time. Government amendments Nos. 12, 13 and 14 and the consequential amendments, as the hon. Gentleman said, are draconian, but they are right and wholly supportable. It is necessary to provide for those injunctions. I will not detain the House further on those, except to reiterate our support.

    I welcome Government amendment No. 15, because as the Minister said, it clarifies who is a landlord. The hon. Gentleman referred to the undertaking given by the now Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), to go away and consider the points that I made in Committee concerning the three-year period. The question that I raised was not whether that period was right or wrong; it had much more to do with the issue with which the amendment deals—whether there were three years still to run. By making it clear that the period was initially three years and that there is no such period still to run, which is what the Bill currently says, the Minister has dealt with the issue. I welcome the amendment, which is obviously another example of the success of my powers of persuasion, for which I shall take credit.

    On amendments Nos. 75 and 61, in the spirit of good will, I say to the Minister that it is a calumny to suggest that the Opposition are trying to undermine the legislation. He is absolutely right to say that antisocial behaviour is a major problem in respect of tenants of social landlords. All of us have encountered that problem to a greater or lesser extent in our constituencies. The hon. Gentleman is also right that action needs to be taken, and there is no difference between my party and the Government on that need, so we do not intend or seek to undermine the Bill.

    The point of the amendments is as follows. As the Bill is currently drafted, and as the Minister obviously wishes to maintain it, once a demotion order is achieved, a landlord will be able to serve proceedings for possession. He will have to give his reasons, and the Minister rightly said—this is set out in the Bill—that the tenant can seek a review. However, he went on to speak about review panels, independence and so on, none of which feature in the Bill. We must make a judgment on the basis of what the Bill contains. As I read it, in the hands of a landlord who wishes to be unscrupulous, a demotion order could effectively be an eviction order, and there is virtually nothing to prevent a landlord from moving from a demotion order straight to eviction.

    All that we are seeking to achieve in the amendments is to provide the second chance to which the Minister and indeed the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) referred, and which we endorse. When a tenant of a social landlord allows or commits antisocial behaviour, they should be hit with a hard sanction, and we accept that demotion orders are a tough sanction. However, they should be given a chance to learn as a result of the action that is taken and not commit such behaviour again, and it appears that the Bill does not currently provide that second chance. All that we are seeking is to ensure that if the landlord wishes to go for possession, he must do so because the tenant has taken no notice of the initial sanction that the demotion order represents.

    That is the simple gist of our amendments and the reason why we have tabled them. I do not want to undermine the Bill and I certainly want landlords to be able to take action against tenants who continue to allow or commit unsocial behaviour. However, I do not want to give free licence to the recognised chance of unscrupulous social landlords using the provisions in a way that neither the Minister nor I wish them to be used.

    I shall try to be brief.

    The Liberal Democrats reluctantly accept that the Government were right to table Government amendment No. 12 and the other Government amendments, but I should like to reiterate the point made by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). Under the Bill as it is currently framed, a couple with an unruly teenage son who has been behaving antisocially may end up with a demoted tenancy, but if the son leaves home and the couple get into rent arrears because one of them has lost a job or for some other reason, they can be fast-tracked for eviction under the demoted tenancy because of those arrears, despite the fact that the problem in respect of which they were given the demoted tenancy has gone completely.

    The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire was right to make that point, which we have also tried to raise, although I accept it has been made in the Conservative amendments. I hope that the Minister will address the issue and ensure that when somebody is evicted after a demoted tenancy has been issued, it is for the same reason in respect of which they were given the demoted tenancy in the first place.

    Let me say to the hon. Members for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and for Ludlow (Matthew Green) that I understand the seriousness of the points that they make. I shall certainly bear in mind the observation made by the hon. Member for Ludlow about the consistency of the basis of a termination of a demoted tenancy.

    4 pm

    Although I understand the concerns about the precipitate action of unscrupulous landlords against tenants, broadly speaking, in my experience, unscrupulous landlords are more often to be found in the private sector than in the social housing sector, but that is a matter for other legislation. The effect of the amendments would be to take cases back to the courts, with all the disadvantages in terms of witnesses, delay and cost implications for the local authority.

    I hope that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire will take it from me that the Government intend that the rules governing the termination of demoted tenancies should be those that apply to the termination of introductory tenancies. The regulations will mirror those provisions. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not press his amendment and that the House will support the Government's amendments.

    Amendment agreed to.

    It being one and three quarter hours after the commencement of proceedings on the programme motion, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour, pursuant to Order [this day.]

    Amendments made: No. 13, in page 11, line 6, leave out '153C' and insert '153D'.

    No. 14, in page 11, line 27, leave out from 'landlord' to end of line 29 and insert

    'for the purposes of section 153D'.

    No. 15, in page 11, line 40, leave out from 'lease' to end of line 41 and insert

    'which (when granted) was for a term of not less than three years'.

    No. 16, in page 12, line 7, after '153C(3)', insert 'or 153D(4)'.

    No. 17, in page 12, line 12, after '153C(3)', insert 'or 153D(4)'.

    No. 18, in page 12, line 14, after '153C(3)', insert 'or 153D(4)'.

    No. 19, in page 12, line 17, after '153C(3)', insert 'or 153 D(4)'.

    No. 20, in page 12, line 19, after '153C(3)', insert 'or 153D(4)'.— [Mr. Heppell.]