Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Nicky Morgan.)
Before I call the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff), I appeal to right hon. and hon. Members who, however unaccountably, are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly, so affording the same courtesy to the hon. Gentleman as they would wish to be extended to them in similar circumstances. Therefore, the consultation of notes and BlackBerrys and conversations that might be taking place between hon. Members—for example, on the penultimate Government Bench between the hon. Members for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) and for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless)—could usefully cease, so that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green can make progress.
I am most grateful for your assistance in clearing the Chamber, Mr Speaker.
I should like to place on record that the overwhelming majority of staff who work in Birmingham’s housing department are dedicated and provide a caring service for their customers, but the case that I shall describe raises serious questions about certain individuals, as I shall explain.
My constituent is called Nicola Shipley. She is a young lady who is seeking to carve out a career for herself by working in a very demanding job. She lives alone, having bought a house in Jakeman road, Balsall Heath. That road consists of terraced houses. Most of the properties are owner-occupied and some are owned by housing associations. She bought her house in 2006.
Nicola Shipley lived happily in the house in Jakeman road for five years until October 2010. The property next door to her was owned by the Moseley and District housing association, and she had excellent relations with the tenants, as she did with her other neighbours in the multi-ethnic community living in Jakeman road. In 2010, a new tenant moved into the house next to her. The tenant had formerly been a council tenant who had effected a mutual exchange from his former property in Billesley.
Mutual exchanges within social housing are commonplace, as the Minister well knows. Tenants wishing to exchange need the approval of their respective landlords. On the form that is used by Birmingham city council, the tenant is required to provide certain information, and there is a section headed, “For Office Use Only”, where a housing officer carries out a check of the tenant’s housing file to ascertain whether there are, for example, rent arrears or breaches of any tenancy conditions, such as antisocial behaviour. The form is then signed by a housing manager and the tenant is advised of the decision.
Since the new tenant moved into the property next to Nicola Shipley in October 2010, her whole life has been turned upside down. I shall quote from the letter that she sent to me in December 2011, when, in desperation, she made contact with me having tried for a year to get her concerns addressed by the housing association and Birmingham city council’s housing department, which was the new tenant’s former landlord. She said:
“I am a homeowner and had previously lived peacefully and quietly in this respectful family community and neighbourhood for five years. Since October 2010 I have felt unsafe, vulnerable, harassed, intimidated and threatened in my own home. The constant extreme noise from the playing of loud dance band music and intimidatory and anti-social behaviour has severely affected my quality of life and those of my neighbours”.
What is scandalous is that that pattern of behaviour was known to the tenant’s previous landlord—Birmingham city council—but the officers in the housing department who approved the transfer deliberately and wilfully conspired to ignore the council’s mutual transfer procedures and did not tell the housing association about his past appalling record. The council officers knew that the housing association would not have allowed the transfer to proceed had it known—the housing association has made that clear to me on many occasions. In essence, certain officers in the Birmingham’s housing department dumped this problem on the housing association by omitting to tell them the true facts, wrecking the life of a young woman in the process.
As I have said, since October 2010, Nicola Shipley has had to experience constant noise throughout the night until 4 or 5 am. The police have been involved, individuals have been arrested at the property during continuous all-night parties and the tenant has had his children taken into the care of the council. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has been involved with the dogs kept at the property. There have been numerous complaints about the condition of the property’s front and back gardens, but neighbours are fearful of the consequences if they collectively complain or offer themselves as witnesses in court. Furthermore, on 13 July 2011, the individual was sentenced to an 18-month community order and £100 costs for having an offensive weapon and neglecting his two children.
My constituent is left scared and fearful of living in her own home, but she cannot put it on the market for sale or rent because she would be obliged to divulge the behaviour of her next-door neighbour to any prospective buyer or person wishing to rent her property, otherwise she could be sued. These problems were not caused by the young lady and her neighbours. They were caused because certain officers in the council’s housing department, including the housing manager who signed the transfer form, conspired to get rid of their problem by deliberately withholding information about the tenant’s past behaviour, which had resulted in the council taking him to court in August 2009.
On 17 August 2009, it was reported in the Birmingham Mail under the very bold headline, “Loud music made Birmingham neighbour’s life hell” that a Birmingham dance fan made his neighbour’s life a misery for seven months by playing loud music into the early hours. It reported that
“the noise coming from Lee Sinclair’s”—
his name is mentioned—
“flat made the victim’s kitchen vibrate and although at one point he found his equipment had been confiscated it did not stop him”.
Mr Sinclair, aged 25, admitted two charges of failing to comply with an abatement notice and was fined £115 plus costs. The magistrate’s chairman, Dr Burton, told him:
“You have caused your neighbour so much stress, anguish and worry”.
The article in the Birmingham Mail details the fact that the first complaint about Mr Sinclair’s behaviour was made by his former neighbour in November 2008, and that the city council obtained an abatement order on 9 January 2009. That had no effect on Mr Sinclair’s playing of extremely loud dance band music and a warrant was eventually obtained by the city council to remove the recording equipment, including a CD player and television speakers. Again, that had no effect on Mr Sinclair’s behaviour, and after the council had investigated further complaints made by his neighbour, another warrant was issued. Mr Sinclair’s newly purchased sound equipment was again taken away.
That is surely clear evidence that the tenant breached his tenancy agreement with the council and that his antisocial behaviour towards his neighbours went way beyond an occasional occurrence and was part of a lifestyle whereby he had no regard for anyone else. Those serious breaches of his tenancy agreement ought to have resulted in Birmingham’s housing department pursuing a course of legal action to have him evicted from his property, but instead it allowed a mutual exchange and kept quiet about his background.
When Nicola Shipley first wrote to me, I pursued the matter with Moseley and District housing association and the city council. I wrote to the director of housing, Elaine Elkington, asking for an explanation of why the mutual exchange was sanctioned and why the housing association was deliberately not told about Mr Sinclair’s case history, which was in the public domain.
Elaine Elkington passed the matter to Sheila Espin, the head of landlord services, who then involved a Tracy Radford, the head of integrated services for landlord services. So began a game of pass the case, which went on until eventually I received a letter from Sheila Espin, dated 1 February 2012, in which she offered apologies on
“how this case was managed,”
and said that she had written to Moseley and District housing association and Nicola Shipley to apologise for the distress caused. There was, however, no explanation of why the mutual exchange had been agreed or who had approved it. The letter also contained a patronising reference to
“a number of learning experiences regarding policies, procedures, systems and Birmingham City Council relationships with external partners regarding such matters”
that Sheila Espin said had been identified.
I then had a meeting with Sheila Espin, Nicola Shipley and the communities manager for Moseley and District on 4 April, at which I was advised that the events leading up the approval of the mutual exchange were still under investigation. However, despite repeated requests, no explanation has been given since that time, over six months ago, of why the mutual exchange was authorised; why Moseley and District was not told about the council’s problems with Lee Sinclair, despite the fact that there was nothing confidential about them; or which officers had discussed the mutual exchange and agreed that it should go ahead without the true facts being made known to the housing association. No one has held up their hands and taken responsibility for what has happened, least of all the person who was responsible for the housing department.
Moseley and District has tried to assist Nicola Shipley by taking the matter back to court. Earlier this year, the court ruled that Lee Sinclair should give up possession of his property in Jakeman road, but that the possession order will not be enforced if the defendant complies with seven conditions and four undertakings. The order lasts for two and a half years, but since that time Nicola Shipley has reported continual breaches of the order. Eight months on, she is still suffering, as are other local residents, who are terrified of the consequences of appearing in court to support their witness statements.
Let me conclude. I said at the beginning of the debate that there are many good people working in Birmingham’s housing department. There are also, I regret to say, people who were involved in this case who put their own self-interest and desire for a quiet life before their duties as housing officers and public servants. Those people ought to suffer the full consequences of their actions. However, the fact that no information has been forthcoming about the council’s internal inquiries leads me to the conclusion that senior officers, right up to the director of housing, seem to be more concerned with covering their backs than with seeking the truth of this disgraceful episode and trying to put right the grievous wrong inflicted on the young lady.
Elaine Elkington should have involved herself in the case by taking disciplinary action against those members of her staff who conspired to keep the truth about Lee Sinclair quiet and authorised the transfer exchange. She should have looked at innovative ways to help Nicola Shipley, who is trapped in her own house because she cannot move. Elaine Elkington could, for example, have made the council offer to buy the property and add it to its list of housing resources. She could have authorised compensation to Moseley and District housing association for the costs incurred in management time and for court costs, but she has instead presided over a cover-up, with no one being held responsible and accountable, because Lee Sinclair is no longer a council tenant. Elaine Elkington should take responsibility for what has gone on in her department, and I believe she should go.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff) on securing the debate, although I suspect he wishes it had not been necessary. I bet he wishes that his constituent, Nicola Shipley, had not had to face such appalling antisocial behaviour over so many years. I hope he will pass to her my very best wishes and my hope that she will shortly enjoy the peaceful life she should have been entitled to for many years.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that I am unable to comment in detail on the specifics of the case, but it might help if I set out a few of the areas in which the Government are acting, which I hope will ensure there will be fewer cases of the type Mrs Shipley has had to endure. He will know only too well as a constituency MP that, sadly, all Members have similar cases, albeit that the one experienced by Mrs Shipley was particularly extreme. She has my best wishes for a more peaceful life.
It is important that the Government do all they can to reduce the pain, fear and damage caused by antisocial behaviour, whether it is caused by or inflicted on owner-occupiers or by tenants in the private or social rented sectors. Let me emphasise that antisocial behaviour is not simply a problem that occurs within the social housing sector. The Home Office's White Paper, “Putting Victims First—More Effective Responses to Antisocial Behaviour”, produced in May, sets out what we will do to turn our commitment into practical action, working across Government, but in the end it is the quality of responses locally to antisocial behaviour, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, that will change things on the ground. The White Paper moves us from the top-down, centrist approach of the past and instead takes as its starting point the impact antisocial behaviour is having on victims, how they can best be supported and how they and local communities can best hold local agencies to account.
Equally, local agencies need flexibility and the right tools and support to tackle antisocial behaviour. The White Paper proposes replacing 19 existing powers, some of which have proved slow and ineffective, with six simple, flexible and adaptable new ones. My Department is leading on the proposals in the White Paper that make it quicker and easier for landlords to evict their most antisocial tenants. Eviction for antisocial behaviour should remain exceptional: the loss of one's home is a serious sanction and eviction may simply displace the problem rather than provide a long term solution. That is why eviction for antisocial behaviour is used sparingly: there have been only about 2,000 evictions annually by social landlords in the context of around 4 million social homes in England.
Prevention and early intervention, which would have so helped in this case, should be at the heart of all landlords' approaches to tackling antisocial behaviour. One of the Government's initiatives to reduce antisocial behaviour is the troubled families programme, through which £450 million has been made available to provide expert help to local agencies to turn around the lives of the country's most troubled families and make a positive change to those who live alongside them. We know that up and down the country social landlords are engaged in creative and innovative work to provide diversionary activities for young people, to ensure that tenants understand the need to respect their neighbours and to nip antisocial behaviour in the bud before it becomes a problem. Sadly, that did not happen in this case.
There are many good examples of work that is being done. South Essex Homes, one of the 54 arm’s length management organisations that manage between them about 50%, or roughly 800,000, of council properties successfully uses what it calls community circles to bring together residents, perpetrators and relevant agencies to seek solutions to problems identified by the community in areas where antisocial behaviour is an issue. But we know, and this case illustrates it well, that where landlords turn to possession as a last resort in order to provide respite to neighbours and communities that process can take far too long. Landlords face delays because, for example, defendants do not turn up or turn up unrepresented, because further evidence is required, or because there are difficulties in finding court time for a trial that may last over a day.
As happened in this case, the court may decide to grant a suspended rather than an outright possession order, meaning that the landlord has to go back to court yet again if the terms of the suspended order are broken. The possession process itself is likely to come after many months and sometimes years during which neighbours and communities have suffered from continued antisocial behaviour. So we are proposing to legislate to provide a faster route to eviction for the most serious criminal or antisocial behaviour, to bring relief to victims and communities more quickly.
Currently, when a landlord seeks possession for antisocial behaviour, the court has discretion in deciding whether or not to grant possession. We are proposing that where serious, housing-related antisocial behaviour or crime has already been proven by another court, the landlord could instead choose to apply for possession on an absolute ground. Where they do so, the court will be required to grant possession, provided the landlord has followed the correct procedure and, in the case of public sector landlords, subject to considerations of proportionality. The discretion of the court to suspend or postpone a possession order would also be limited.
We think this new absolute ground for possession has the potential significantly to expedite the eviction process in the most serious cases of antisocial behaviour. Instead of leading to a potentially lengthy trial, perhaps following adjournments many months after initial hearings have taken place, an absolute ground should significantly increase the chance that the case can be determined quickly in a single hearing. The court will need to establish only that the criteria for awarding possession are met, rather than having to undertake a fuller consideration of the case.
Although we think the absolute ground for possession should help speed up the eviction process, I want to make it absolutely clear that it is not our intention to increase the number of evictions—nor do we think it will do so. Consultation responses to our proposals received from landlords support the view that the availability of a faster, more visible sanction might have a positive effect on changing behaviour, thus reducing the antisocial behaviour or nipping it in the bud. Of course we need to respect the rights of those faced with losing their homes, but we need to focus more on the rights of those victims whose neighbours’ behaviour has made their homes places where they live, as Mrs Shipley did, in distress and fear. We must, as the White Paper says, put victims like Mrs Shipley first.
We also need to do more to identify vulnerable victims earlier, assess risks and provide joined-up responses. Some good work is already going on. Community harm statements are being used by a number of social landlords as a way of better demonstrating to the court the damage that the antisocial behaviour of an individual is having on those living in the neighbourhood.
Across the country there are examples of landlords doing good work to support victims and witnesses before, during and after the court process. In Newham, for example, a charter setting out minimum standards for witnesses has been agreed between the local partners, including 22 local housing providers. I am aware that Moseley and District has a witness support group that works with affected residents. Although there is a lot of good practice locally and although we are ensuring local agencies have better tools and powers to tackle antisocial behaviour effectively, we also need to ensure that when they do not take action, victims and local communities can hold those agencies to account and secure redress. The hon. Gentleman has shown the need for that very clearly.
That is why the White Paper includes proposals for what we have called a community trigger. The trigger would give victims and communities the right to demand that agencies that had ignored repeated complaints about antisocial behaviour take action. The duty could be activated by the public when their complaints reach a certain threshold—I suspect that threshold would have been met many times over in the case raised by the hon. Gentleman—although we think it right for that to be determined locally and not nationally.
Relevant authorities at district council level or above will be required to decide and publish the thresholds, criteria, processes—including a single point of contact—and the reporting mechanism they intend to use locally. The police and crime commissioner will have a role in ensuring that there is democratic accountability. Local pilots to test the trigger on the ground are taking place in Manchester, West Lindsey and Boston, Brighton and Hove and Richmond.
I hope that my remarks have given the hon. Gentleman a sense of what the Government are doing with the aim of ensuring that fewer people and communities have to endure the type of antisocial behaviour that his constituent endured over such a long period. More particularly, I hope that as a result of the highlighting of this case and the hon. Gentleman’s advocacy on Mrs Shipley’s behalf, effective action will be taken locally, very soon, to bring the misery that she has been experiencing to an end.
Question put and agreed to.