Consideration of Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee.
New Clause 1
Duty to review cooperation between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland
‘(1) By the end of the period of six months, beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, the Secretary of State must publish a review into the potential for future cooperation between local authorities in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in relation to the provisions of this Act.
(2) The review under subsection (1) must consider how it may be possible to extend the provisions of the Act to ensure that applications for secure tenancies in cases of domestic abuse—
(a) from Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland may be considered by local authorities in England;
(b) from England, Scotland or Northern Ireland may be considered by local authorities in Wales;
(c) from England, Wales or Northern Ireland may be considered by local authorities in Scotland; and
(d) from England, Wales or Scotland may be considered by local authorities in Northern Ireland.
(3) The review must be laid before both Houses of Parliament.
(4) In this section, “local authority” means—
(a) in relation to England, the council of a district, county or London borough, the Common Council of the City of London and the Council of the Isles of Scilly;
(b) in relation to Wales, the council of a county or county borough;
(c) in relation to Scotland, the council of a district or city;
(d) in relation to Northern Ireland, the council of a district, borough or city.”—(Melanie Onn.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 1, in clause 1, page 1, line 9, after “tenant)” insert
“and regardless of whether the qualifying tenancy is in the jurisdiction of another local authority”.
Amendment 2, line 25, at end insert—
“(2BA) A local housing authority which grants an old-style secure tenancy under subsection (2A) or (2B) has discretion to decide whether or not the maximum rent for the old-style secure tenancy should be determined according to regulation B13 of the Housing Benefit Regulations 2006 (SI 2006/213) as amended by the Housing Benefit (Amendment) Regulations 2012 (SI 2012/ 3040).”
Amendment 3, page 1, line 25, at end insert—
“(2BA) A private registered provider of social housing or a housing trust which is a charity that grants a tenancy of a dwelling house in England must grant an old-style secure tenancy if—
(a) the tenancy is offered to a person who is or was a tenant of some other dwelling-house under a qualifying tenancy (whether as the sole tenant or as a joint tenant); and
(b) the provider is satisfied that—
(i) the person or a member of the person’s household is or has been a victim of the domestic abuse carried out by another person; and
(ii) the new tenancy is granted for reasons connected with that abuse and such a private registered provider of social housing or housing trust which is a charity shall be considered a person who satisfies the landlord condition under section 80 for the purpose of granting an old-style secure tenancy in accordance with this subsection.”
We are here to discuss a short but important Bill. It has been introduced by the Government to plug the gaps left by ministerial incompetence in the progression of the Housing and Planning Act 2016. Despite the Opposition’s warnings, the Government failed to listen, so we are here today to remedy the situation as fully as possible for victims of domestic violence.
In Committee, we tabled an amendment to try to secure additional guidance and training for local authority staff who are expected to make decisions about domestic violence cases. In response, the Minister talked about the high quality of Southwark Council’s homelessness team as an example of the Government already providing enough support. I am convinced that Southwark Council is doing an excellent job, but it has taken part in a number of pilot schemes, so surely the Minister recognises that it will not be representative of the whole country, particularly as it has been allocated well over £1 million to deal with the new burdens that have been introduced under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. Although there are good reasons for the extra funding, it allows the council to employ specialised officers who are responsible for specific areas of homelessness and to provide an holistic approach to those presenting as homeless.
However, if we look at another city elsewhere in the country—York—we find that it has been allocated just over one twentieth of the resources provided to Southwark and it does not have enough money even to hire one experienced housing officer, never mind a specified officer to deal with domestic abuse cases. The truth is that the quality of domestic abuse homelessness provision varies massively from authority to authority, and getting the proper care is far too much of a postcode lottery.
Although I am not introducing an amendment on this issue today, I hope that the Government consider the reports from charities such as Women’s Aid about the difficulty that some women face when trying to explain their situation to local councils. There are cases of women being told to go back to the perpetrator or to come back when the situation got worse. I think we can all agree that that is completely unacceptable. The Minister should look into those reports and take steps to improve the quality of advice in boroughs and districts where problems have been identified with the treatment of domestic abuse victims.
I understand the point that the hon. Lady is making, but does she not welcome the fact that the Government are introducing an extra £17 million to help more than 40 local authorities to provide better services? The Government really have made this a priority; does she not welcome that?
As I made clear, we are not tabling an amendment on this, but I urge the Minister to consider the reports from Women’s Aid to make sure that across the country there is parity of service for all victims of domestic violence.
There is obviously consensus that the Bill is a step in the right direction, and we welcome it, but are there not other barriers to secure tenancies—for example, if debt was incurred in the previous tenancy? Will social landlords have to accept these women? A lot of advice needs to be given, and that is why it is important that the extra services and help are provided.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, and I agree: sufficient support should be available across the whole country. Very often, individuals will present with unique circumstances, and legislation cannot provide for each and every eventuality, but making sure that the appropriate training is in place across the country will go some way towards assisting those individuals.
I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend is saying about the postcode lottery. When I raised that on Second Reading, the Minister said that I was complaining about an issue that did not exist, but it has become clear from subsequent meetings with Women’s Aid that different local authorities are applying very different interpretations of the rights in terms of housing allocations and local connections, so I support her efforts to ensure more consistency across the piece.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and concur with his remarks. Other issues raised by hon. Members have prompted assurances during the Bill’s progress, and I take the Minister at her word and hope the Government live up to her words.
New clause 1 would ensure that cross-border travel does not negatively affect the rights in the Bill. People who flee domestic abuse end up in all parts of the country, but an unevenness in legislation means that domestic abuse victims in the devolved nations are subject to different rights and protections. The new clause seeks to protect the rights of domestic abuse victims countrywide and ensure that travelling from one council area in one country to another in another country does not impede the rights of a domestic abuse victim.
Domestic abuse victims often have little time to plan when fleeing an abusive partner and are unlikely to think that a move to their nearest large town or city might change their circumstances as a victim of domestic abuse, yet that is the reality in places such as Chester and Wrexham. It should be unequivocal that the rights in the Bill travel with the victims. In Committee, the Minister informed me that this matter would be brought up at the devolved Administration roundtable last month in the hope of agreeing a memorandum of understanding between the Administrations.
I understand what the hon. Lady is trying to do, but I do not think her new clause does it, because it says that the Government should “review” the situation. What powers would she want the Government to take to override devolved Governments?
The purpose of the new clause is not to override the devolved Administrations, which is why it calls for a review. If the right hon. Gentleman listens to the remainder of my speech, perhaps it will clarify things for him.
I am pleased to see action to improve cross-border collaboration, but I have not seen any such memorandum. In any event, domestic abuse victims need more than a memorandum of understanding, and we have the opportunity to give them just that right now. I am aware of the sensitivities surrounding devolution, so the new clause does not seek to impose Parliament’s desires on the devolved Administrations, but would instead commit the Government to publishing a review of the domestic abuse policies of each Administration and to working towards ensuring that victims of domestic abuse are treated equally when they move from one nation to another.
Has the hon. Lady written to the Scottish Parliament or Administration, or indeed to the Welsh Government, to ask whether they approve of her new clause?
I have relied on the good offices of the Minister, who is in government, to undertake the duties of consultation with the devolved Administrations, which was due to take place, I believe, on 19 April, and we await the distribution of a note on the outcome of those meetings, which was requested but which I have not had sight of as yet.
It was emailed to the hon. Lady and all Committee members this morning.
Just in time!
I thank the Minister.
It is dated 8 May. It was sent over the bank holiday weekend.
That is an opportune time for materials to be sent, as we found out during the urgent questions this morning. I am sorry I have not seen the note. I am grateful that the Minister has provided it, but it is incredibly unfortunate it was not provided sooner, because the information might well have informed the debate. [Interruption.] The Minister may well wish to provide it to me right now, but I am in the middle of my speech and it would be difficult for me to speak and read at the same time—as good as I am at multi-tasking!
Amendment 1 adds a requirement for a secure tenancy to be offered when domestic abuse victims apply for rehousing in a local authority area different from the one in which they previously had their secure tenancy. In Committee, the Minister said that the amendment was ineffective because the requirement was already provided for in the Bill, but there remains some unease about the current wording. The amendment would provide peace of mind, as prescribed by the Government back in 2016. We must not forget that the sector has been waiting for two years, having been assured by the Government that the requirement would be covered by the Housing and Planning Act 2016. The purpose of the amendment is simply to ensure that we do not end up in the same position again if it turns out that the Bill does not guarantee domestic abuse victims secure tenancies if they end up crossing local authority boundaries.
I am sure that my hon. Friend, like me, welcomes the fact that tenants who have suffered domestic abuse will be offered secure tenancies, but does she share my concern about evidence given to the Work and Pensions Committee that when local authorities apply to the Department for Work and Pensions for benefits to support a victim of domestic abuse, they are frequently told that it will be several weeks before a decision can be made, and victims are returning to perpetrators because they cannot be guaranteed the funds that would secure their secure housing?
That is an important point, and I hope that the Minister will take it on board. The issue needs to be dealt with on a cross-Government basis. The Minister has given repeated assurances that she is engaged in conversation with representatives of other Departments, but there certainly should not be any Government policies that discourage victims of domestic violence from leaving the perpetrators of that violence.
Two thirds of all domestic abuse victims who present themselves at refuges come from outside the local area. We know that housing insecurity is a major reason for the fact that too many victims stay with their partners. The amendment is important, because this issue affects far too many of the domestic abuse victims whom we are trying to help today for us to leave things to chance. For the sake of absolute clarity, I ask the Minister again to accept it. I assure Conservative Members that this is not a matter of policy or politics, but a matter of good practice.
Amendment 2 would ensure that victims of domestic abuse do not have to pay extra charges as a result of the bedroom tax if they are provided with a secure tenancy that incorporates a spare room. There are particularly good reasons why the Government must see sense when considering whether to apply the tax to victims of domestic violence. Victims face all sorts of barriers to leaving abusive partners, and the sad impact is that one in five spends more than 10 years living with an abusive partner. That statistic applies only to women who are able to leave: as we all know, countless women never manage to leave their abusive partners, and every week two women are killed by a partner or ex-partner. That is why we need to knock down as many of the barriers as possible.
The amendment would help to remove some of the financial pressure on people fleeing domestic violence, and will ensure that no one who is considering leaving an abusive relationship has to worry about the extra burden that the bedroom tax could add to their costs. It is a vital amendment, because domestic violence victims often have limited means, and may not be able to take jobs that would enable them to provide for themselves and their families. Many domestic violence victims have been subject to financial abuse, being forced to quit their jobs and give their money to their abusive partners, and having little control over their own finances. Domestic abuse victims need help, not a cruel and unnecessary tax over which they have no control. I plead with the Government to make an exception to their bedroom tax, and provide the help and support that domestic abuse victims desperately need.
Amendment 3 would ensure that those in housing association properties are given the same rights to secure tenancies as those in council housing. In Committee, I was concerned about the Minister’s seeming lack of appreciation of the variety of council housing available. While I accept that some housing associations fulfil different functions in society from councils providing housing, a number of them represent the sole social housing provision in a local authority. In Committee, the Minister said that
“local authorities and housing associations are very different entities, which are subject to different drivers and challenges.”––[Official Report, Secure Tenancies (Victims of Domestic Abuse) [Lords] Public Bill Committee, 27 March 2018; c. 30.]
If someone is a resident of Wakefield, their social housing is managed by the Wakefield and District housing association, which exists to manage the local authority’s housing needs and assets, whereas my own local authority underwent a full stock transfer, with tenancies transferring as per council tenancies. Many housing associations in this country have extremely similar drivers and challenges to council-managed housing, and many people in areas such as Wakefield still think of their housing association house as a council house. This amendment seeks to ensure that such victims of domestic abuse in areas such as Wakefield and North East Lincolnshire are given the same rights and protections as those in council housing.
The Minister has said that the amendment would result in private sector landlords having to operate two different systems, but the Bill as it stands could create two different sets of rights for domestic abuse victims, depending on how their local authority decided to meet its housing needs. I am sure that everyone will agree that it cannot be right that a domestic abuse victim who ends up in Wakefield is afforded fewer rights under this Bill than one who ends up in Leeds. We must guarantee that the rights of domestic abuse victims do not vary across the country.
Before responding to the specific amendments, I would like to say a few words about a number of the issues that arose in Committee. Also, I am sorry that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) did not get that original letter; I will pass it over to her in a second.
The issue of doctors charging fees for letters of evidence of domestic abuse was first raised in the other place and was raised again on Second Reading and in Committee in the House. In my response, I said that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, had written to the Department of Health and Social Care to raise peers’ concerns about this issue, and following our discussions I can now inform hon. Members that the Department has agreed to include in the remit for the negotiation on changes to the GP contract for 2019-20 stopping GPs charging victims of domestic abuse for the provision of letters or notes of evidence of abuse. This is a negotiation process, so the Department cannot guarantee that the General Practitioners Committee will agree to waive the fee for these services; however, I am sure Members will agree that this is a positive step forward.
I am also aware that concerns have been raised in this House and the other place about a lack of consistency in training for local authority staff to support victims of domestic abuse. I spoke at length in Committee about the new homelessness code of guidance and the emphasis it places on local authorities ensuring that local specialist training on domestic abuse is made available to frontline staff and managers. I also spoke about the funding the Department has provided to the National Homelessness Advice Service and the National Practitioner Support Service over recent years to ensure that such training is put in place. I do not want to repeat myself, but I am very pleased that I can update hon. Members about a new initiative that the Department is funding: the London training academy is being delivered by Southwark Council and will provide training for frontline housing options staff and apprentices; people can apply to go there from any council.
As part of the training, Solace Women’s Aid is providing domestic abuse champions training to 440 housing staff, and that is the figure across London alone. The focus of the training will be on ensuring housing teams understand the impact of domestic abuse, are clear about their roles in supporting victims and survivors, and are able to refer them to the specialist support they need. Again, I am sure hon. Members will agree that this is a very positive development, and that it demonstrates our commitment to ensure that local authority staff are properly equipped to support victims of domestic abuse and to respond appropriately and sensitively to their needs. I am sure, too, that hon. Members will agree that this is really good news and that the London training academy will provide a model, working with Solace, for frontline staff for how such difficult and sensitive cases should be handled. We would like to see that model filter through to all local authorities.
Women’s refuge places across my constituency, and those other places where women go in the first place, are still very difficult to find. Does the Minister accept that if funding is not provided throughout the whole supported housing sector, the Bill will be doomed to fail?
Sadly, I think the hon. Lady has misunderstood what the Bill is about. Funding for refuges and other supported housing will be dealt with by 2020 in a different vehicle.
New clause 1 calls for a review into the potential for co-operation between local authorities in England and local authorities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to include consideration of the scope to extend the provisions of the Bill to apply across the UK. I entirely understand that there will be situations in which someone wishes to escape from one part of the UK to another to get away from an abusive relationship, perhaps to put a safe distance between themselves and their abusive partner, or to move back to where their family and support networks are. I sympathise with the broad intention behind this proposal to increase co-operation between England and the devolved Administrations, and I appreciate that there will be strong support for it. This issue was raised in Committee and also during the passage of the Bill through the Lords. However, I do not believe that this Bill is the appropriate vehicle to achieve that co-operation.
Nor would it be appropriate or necessary to seek to examine the possibility of extending the Bill to make changes to the legislation covering social tenancies in the devolved nations. I do not need to remind hon. Members that housing is a devolved matter. That means that it is for local authorities—or the Housing Executive in the case of Northern Ireland—and social landlords in each part of the UK to decide whether to allow access to social housing and what type of tenancy to grant, in accordance with the law that operates in that country.
It sounds as though the Minister has set her face against amendment 1. Would she consider issuing guidance to local authorities on this issue?
That will certainly be part of the package, yes. I will read out the letter as well, because that is the killer punch.
It is likely that most victims who flee from one part of the UK to another to escape domestic abuse and who are in need of housing would apply to a local authority for assistance on the basis that they were homeless. Homelessness legislation will provide a safety net for victims fleeing domestic abuse, even when they flee across national borders, but Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own homelessness legislation. That means that there may be differences of approach in accordance with the requirements of each devolved area. For example, local authorities in Wales, as in England, may discharge their duty to rehouse using the private rented sector.
The purpose of the Bill is to remove an impediment that might prevent someone who suffers domestic abuse from leaving their abusive situation in England when the provisions under the Housing and Planning Act 2016 come into force. The Act applies only to England. A victim of abuse in another part of the UK will not face the same impediment to fleeing their situation for fear of losing their lifetime tenancy. For example, if someone in Scotland were to flee to another council district within Scotland, the second local authority would grant them a lifetime tenancy if and when they were rehoused.
When I asked the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) whether there was a way of overriding the devolved Administrations, she did not seem to understand the question properly, so I am glad that the Minister is explaining that that cannot be done. It is interesting that the Opposition’s amendment 3 expressly states that it applies only to England; whoever drafted their amendments probably did understand the point that the Minister is making.
Parliamentary drafting is not an easy task, which is why people with greyer hair than mine do the job and I do not. I thank my right hon. Friend for making the situation quite clear.
The commencement of the Housing and Planning Act 2016 does not change the situation. I do not believe that it would be appropriate to include a duty in the Bill—which applies in England only—to consider the potential for amending legislation in other parts of the UK. Parliament has already decided that this area of law should be devolved, so it does not seem right to have an amendment that appears to assume that the Secretary of State has some responsibility for it in relation to the devolved Administrations. Clearly, victims of domestic abuse seeking to move from one part of the UK to another is a common issue in which all parts of the UK have an interest. However, owing to the differences in housing legislation across England and the devolved Administrations, a UK-wide provision in a Bill that is based on an Act that applies to England only is not the correct approach—I am getting to the nub of things now.
During the passage of the Bill in the other place, my hon. Friend the Minister gave a commitment to raise with colleagues in the devolved Administrations the concerns that have been expressed. I can confirm that Lord Bourne met his counterparts in the devolved Administrations on 19 April, and I am pleased to inform Members that he has since written to me to let me know that the devolved Administrations were supportive of the Bill. They have committed to reviewing the impact of the Bill once it comes into force and to let us know about any issues or concerns for victims of domestic abuse should they arise. The letter states:
“I am pleased to be able to inform you that the devolved administrations were supportive of the Bill and could find nothing in it to concern them. This is because they took the view that the Bill had no impact on the ability of social landlords to continue to grant tenancies in their own countries, and they will review the impact of the Bill, together with officials.”
I think that that says it all.
On a more technical note, new clause 1 would not work as currently drafted, because social housing is provided not through local authorities in Northern Ireland but through the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. For that and all the other reasons I have given, I do not consider the new clause to be appropriate or necessary, and I ask that it be withdrawn.
Amendment 1 aims to ensure that the requirement to grant a lifetime tenancy—should a new tenancy be offered—would still apply where the victim of domestic abuse applies to another local authority district to be re-housed. I sympathise entirely with the motivation behind the amendment, and I well understand that victims of domestic abuse may wish or indeed need to put a considerable distance between themselves and their abuser. The Bill is intended to protect all lifetime tenants who are victims of domestic abuse, not only those who need to move from their current home to escape abuse, but those who have already fled from their home. I entirely agree that it is vital that the Bill protects victims who have applied for housing assistance in another local authority district. That is partly why we amended the Bill in the other place to extend it to apply to those who, having fled their homes, may have lost their tenancy or their security of tenure.
We recognise that that may be particularly problematic for those who seek assistance in another local authority area, and I assure the shadow Minister that the Bill has been drafted with that issue in mind. Where the Bill refers to “a local housing authority”, it means that it applies to any and to every local authority in England, just as in the same way it applies to any tenant who has a lifetime local-authority or housing-association tenancy of a dwelling house anywhere in England and who needs to move from that house to escape domestic abuse. That is standard in legislative drafting practice, so local authorities should have no difficulty in understanding what it means. Any amendment to spell that out in the Bill would therefore be unnecessary and redundant.
I welcome the reassurance that the Minister has just given us, but the fact is that different local authorities understand the current legislation and their responsibilities to people fleeing domestic violence in different ways, so what possible harm would it do to include amendment 1 so that there would be no cause for any misunderstanding in future?
The hon. Gentleman is trying to entice me down a road that I will not go down. This is parliamentary legislative drafting, and there should be no reason whatsoever for local authorities to misunderstand the situation, which will obviously also be made clear in guidance. However, I thank him for giving me the opportunity to say it again. We will be issuing guidance to assist local authorities to implement the fixed-term tenancy provisions in the Housing and Planning Act 2016. To manage concerns, we can certainly look to ensure that it explains the provisions in this Bill as well, including making it absolutely clear that it applies where the victim is seeking to be re-housed in a different local authority district from the one in which her existing tenancy is situated.
The Minister is being generous in giving way. Under the 2016 Act, housing associations can choose whether to offer a flexible tenancy. What advice will the Government give to housing associations that will not have the same obligation to give a lifetime tenancy if a tenancy moves to another housing association property?
That is a slightly different clause, which I will come to in a moment. With that in mind, and taking into account the fact that amendment 1 is unnecessary for the reasons I have given, I therefore ask for it not to be pressed.
On amendment 2, I appreciate the concern of hon. Members to prevent further stress and anxiety. Survivors of domestic abuse have already suffered experiences that most of us here can only imagine. However, I do not think the amendment is necessary. The number of households likely to be granted a tenancy under this Bill that would lead them to under-occupy a property, and as a result become subject to removal of the spare room subsidy, is likely to be very small indeed.
Allocating a property that is too big for a tenant’s needs would not be in the interests of the tenant or the landlord. The tenant, if eligible for housing benefit, would see their eligible rent reduced, which would not be in the tenant’s or the landlord’s interest. It would also not be the best use of scarce social housing.
Does the Minister recognise that children who have been through situations of domestic abuse are often severely traumatised and need new secure housing to be able to find their own way again? That might lead them to have problems sleeping at night, and it may therefore be more helpful for the family’s recovery if the younger children have separate bedrooms, not as prescribed in the under-occupancy legislation.
The hon. Lady brings up an interesting fact that was not discussed in Committee. I will address the discretionary powers that local authorities have, which might help her with an answer.
Allocating a property that is too big is not necessarily in the tenant’s interest or the landlord’s interest, and it certainly is not the best use of scarce social housing. Our 2012 allocations guidance clearly recognises that local authorities, when framing the rules that determine the size of property to allocate to different households and in different circumstances, will want to take account of removal of the spare room subsidy.
Where the victim wishes to remain in her own property after the perpetrator has left or been removed, we expect that in most cases it would not result in an under-occupation charge—domestic abuse normally occurs between partners who share a bedroom, so removing the perpetrator would not normally result in under-occupation. Furthermore, if there is any risk it could lead to a victim becoming subject to the under-occupation charge, it will be open to the authority to offer a new tenancy in another, smaller property, or to offer a similar one and take into account the next matter.
In the small number of cases in which, for whatever reason, a local authority grants a tenancy under the Bill in a property that has more bedrooms than the tenant needs, it is open to the tenant to apply for a discretionary housing payment to cover any rental shortfall. Some £900 million of funding for discretionary housing payments has been provided to local authorities since 2011 to support vulnerable claimants, including victims of domestic abuse.
Is the Minister aware that many local authorities put a limit on the amount of time for which discretionary housing payments can be made? Sometimes it is 18 weeks, and sometimes it is as low as 12 weeks, depending on the authority’s budget. Discretionary housing payments would therefore not help families in this situation.
Indeed. Funding for the years 2018 to 2021 was set out in the summer Budget 2015. Next year, 2018-19, there will be £153 million in the discretionary fund for England and Wales, albeit this is an England- only Bill.
The removal of the spare room subsidy was introduced to ensure that tenants in the social and private-rented sectors are treated on the same basis, to encourage mobility, to strengthen work incentives and to make better use of available social housing. The Government’s policy is not to deal with personal circumstances unrelated to the size of a property by the inclusion of general exemptions to the rules, but rather to take account of a person’s individual circumstances separately, through the process of the discretionary housing payment.
In 2016, the Supreme Court upheld this policy and dismissed a challenge to the removal of the spare room subsidy brought by a victim of domestic abuse on the grounds that it amounted to unlawful sex discrimination. That case involved a victim who was being provided with protection under a sanctuary scheme. The rules on the removal of the spare room subsidy already include an exception for victims of domestic abuse in refuges. We are not minded to provide for any further exceptions.
When local authorities grant tenancies to victims of domestic abuse, they have a choice: they can either ensure that they offer a property that meets the tenant’s needs or they can consider providing a discretionary housing payment. For the reasons I have given, I believe that the amendment is unnecessary and therefore ask that it is not pressed to a vote.
Can the Minister confirm that in areas where rental accommodation is extremely expensive, there is help for those who need discretionary payments in order to make the weekly rental payments? Is this something she is able to do?
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is specifically referring to Northern Ireland or anywhere else—
In Northern Ireland, we have a discretionary payment that sometimes enables provision to be made where rents are higher. Is the system similar on the UK mainland?
Again, I stress that this Bill is England-only, but there are such opportunities. There is a local housing rate and then there are discretionary housing payments that can be made above that.
I come to amendment 3, the final amendment. I fully understand the motivation behind this amendment, which would extend the Bill to housing association landlords—this was the point made by the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), I believe. However, as I said in Committee, we have some fundamental concerns about this amendment. First and foremost, local authorities and housing associations are very different entities. Housing associations are private, not-for-profit organisations which make a significant contribution to affordable housing supply. I am sure Members will agree that we all want to see more affordable homes built. It is therefore vital that housing associations remain in the private sector, so that they can borrow funding free of public sector spending guidelines, to build the affordable housing we so greatly need. For that reason, we must avoid imposing any unnecessary control that might risk reversing—
I am listening carefully to what the Minister is saying. It very much stands at odds with the Conservative party policy announced in the run-up to the general election, when it was going to impose right to buy on housing associations. How is it that the Conservative party is so happy to remove thousands of houses from the social rental sector when it comes to right to buy, but when it comes to legislation to protect domestic violence victims, suddenly the Conservatives feel that the private sector should not be touched?
Clearly, what the hon. Gentleman is discussing is outside the scope of this Bill, but we are talking about a voluntary pilot that is starting in the west midlands and we will see where that takes us.
On election manifestos, does the Minister not agree that this Bill is fulfilling a Conservative manifesto promise and that that should be welcomed by Members on both sides of the House?
I thank my hon. Friend for that very helpful intervention, with which I can only agree.
As I was saying, for this reason we must avoid imposing any unnecessary control that might risk reversing the Office for National Statistics classification of housing associations as private sector organisations. Housing associations grant assured tenancies under the Housing Act 1988, including assured lifetime tenancies, and will continue to have the flexibility to grant lifetime tenancies as they see fit.
This amendment would bring housing associations back into the public sector regime, which they have not properly been part of since 1989, by requiring housing associations to grant secure tenancies under the Housing Act 1985. That goes beyond the very limited circumstances in which they are still obliged to give a secure tenancy—this is limited to those tenants who already have one predating 1989 and want to move, so this is known and in the books of the commercial housing association. Assured and secure tenancies have different rights. For example, secure tenants have a statutory right to improve their property, and be compensated for those improvements, in certain circumstances. To require housing associations to grant secure tenancies for this group of tenants would mean housing association landlords having to operate two different systems, which would be an unnecessary burden over and above the very limited circumstances in which they still manage pre-1989 tenancies, and would introduce unnecessary additional costs and liabilities. As I have already said, that could risk the re-classification of housing associations.
The amendment is also completely unnecessary: housing associations will continue to have the freedom, which they have now, to offer lifetime tenancies wherever they consider it appropriate. When schedule 7 to the Housing and Planning Act 2016 comes into force, local authorities will generally be required to offer fixed-term tenancies, and will be able to grant lifetime tenancies only in the limited circumstances specified in legislation or regulations. That is why the Bill is so important. The purpose of housing associations is to provide and manage homes for people in housing need. The vast majority are charities, and their charitable objectives require them to put tenants at the heart of everything they do. We expect housing associations to take very seriously their responsibilities for people fleeing domestic violence and abuse.
In previous debates on the Bill, I have mentioned the Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance, which was set up by two leading housing associations, Peabody and Gentoo, along with Standing Together Against Domestic Violence, a UK charity that brings communities together to end domestic abuse. The alliance’s stated mission is to improve the housing sector’s response to domestic abuse through the introduction and adoption of an established set of standards and an accreditation process.
I understand that the National Housing Federation, the body that represents housing associations, is actively taking forward work with its membership to tackle domestic abuse, and has recently set up a national domestic abuse group for its membership. The group was set up specifically to raise awareness among housing associations of the steps that they can take to minimise the impact of domestic abuse, as well as of how to spot the signs early and how best to support victims. My officials have been in touch with the NHF, and I am really pleased to say that it has expressed an interest in considering the tenancy issue as part of that work. That is a really positive development, and it adds to the information that I was able to give in Committee. With that in mind, and for the reasons that I have given, I invite Members to withdraw the new clause and amendments. I look forward to more debate.
First, I welcome the Minister’s comments and the Bill itself. It is a good and necessary Bill, and some of the questions that we asked in Committee have been answered, for the most part.
Now, let me shed a bit of light on the reality of what actually happens to a domestic violence victim when they walk into a housing office, and on the very idea that we could not be doing as much as we possibly could with every single fibre of our beings to try to better serve victims of domestic abuse. Mostly, a woman will get up and walk into her local neighbourhood office. I say “walk”, but where I live she has to get four buses because her local neighbourhood office is now shut, so she has gone into the centre of town, in the second-biggest city in the country. Even just five years ago, she would have found something different. In all the local neighbourhood centres in Birmingham—there used to be eight, then there were four in the Quadrants—there would have been a Women’s Aid worker. This was a specialist adviser in a private room where that woman could have gone to speak about her issues and would have been found the most appropriate housing. That scheme won national awards and reduced homelessness in Birmingham by 50%. The biggest reason for homelessness in most cities will be domestic abuse. That scheme massively reduced it, but it is gone now. There is no local authority funding for the Women’s Aid workers in those centres, and there is only one centre where women can go.
The woman will walk into a busy centre where there will be absolutely loads going on. There will be people with their children and people who are homeless— 86 people are declared homeless every single day in the city where I live—and she will wait. She will then go to a small cubicle, with sides at shoulder height. The people next to her will be able to hear every single word that she says.
When I was a Birmingham City councillor, I requested that every single person who came through had to be asked whether they had ever been a victim of domestic abuse or sexual violence. I regretted it instantly. I went to a housing office—when they still existed—with one of my constituents. Next to me, in a tiny unsealed-off cubicle, a woman was sitting at her computer. “Have you got any arrears, love?” she asked. “No.” “Have you ever been a victim of sexual violence?” “Yes, I was raped.” “Have you ever been a victim of domestic violence?” “Yes, my husband has assaulted me a number of times. He has been to prison.” “Okay.” Move on.
Nothing changed the way that that woman was approached in the future—nothing at all. I made the person tick a box that they did not want to tick. Now, we can add in another idea. If a woman has come from Walsall, or Dudley or Sandwell or Solihull, or any area that surrounds Birmingham that has nowhere near the level of local housing that Birmingham has—many women fleeing domestic abuse come to our area because the lines on a map mean absolutely nothing to them—we expect those same housing officers, that is, the ones who asked, “Have you ever been a victim of domestic violence, love?”, to now say, “Hang on a minute, actually, you have every right to be in this situation.”
There is a desperate need for training and belief. Part of the problem with this Bill is the same as that with legal aid, which is that the burden is on the victim to prove it. If a woman turns up and says that she is a victim of domestic abuse, that should be enough. It was enough when Women’s Aid was based in our local housing associations and in our local housing offices. That is why we desperately, desperately need a firm hand in this and why we must say that local authorities must do this. I love my local authority. I know that Margaret Thatcher’s favourite council was Wandsworth—I personally think that it is weird that someone has a favourite local authority, but I have not tried them all. However, I have tried lots of them, and I have found them completely wanting when it comes to victims of domestic violence needing housing.
Let us add into the mix people who have no indefinite leave to remain. If they go to their local housing office, they will probably be told—even if they are a victim of domestic abuse—that they will not be housed and that their children will be removed from them, because the local authority does not have to house women who have a poor migration status.
There has been a hideous case in Birmingham recently where the children were threatened with removal until people like me got involved. There is a plethora of problems out there, and, with the greatest respect, the £17 million, which seems like a lot of money, will not put back what has been lost for victims of domestic abuse even in Birmingham alone. That is why we would like to see a bit of mettle in the training of housing officers. Some housing officers are brilliant—there is no two ways about it—but they are up against it. Someone could wait nine hours to see one in Birmingham. We need to ensure that there is a good system that treats these people appropriately. Unfortunately, when an authority has limited resources, its target is not rehouse someone immediately, so there is a definite need for training.
My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) covered the cross-border issue well. Unfortunately, I can see that the Minister does not think it is necessary to include it in the Bill, but I have handled hundreds of cases of women sent across the border. In fact, a woman who lived in the refuge where I used to work took the Government to court on the issue of cross-border living between Sandwell Council and Birmingham Council. The fact that a person no longer has to live in an area for whatever period it was—Birmingham said it was five years—is not thanks to anyone in this Chamber; it is thanks to charities and activists outside who bothered to take us—the decision makers—to court.
On the bedroom tax, it may well seem like a small number of women who will end up in a property that is too big for them. But I have seen many cases—I am handling one now—where women are rehoused and their children are removed from them. In cases of domestic abuse, it is utterly common that children are removed, for whatever period of time. These women then have to pay the bedroom tax, lose their property and end up in a one-bedroom flat. The judge in the family court then says, “You don’t have a house big enough to have your children back. You’re not good enough. We can’t give your children back to you.” That happens a lot. It is not a small number of women who have their children removed in domestic violence cases. The vast majority of cases going through the family courts include domestic violence, and many women end up with their children removed for periods of time that would definitely result in them being affected by this bedroom tax loophole. We should definitely consider what we can do to amend that problem today.
The minimisation of the issue around the bedroom tax seems to be due to the fact that the Bill is predicated on an example of someone with a stable and consistent life. But at the point that these people present at a housing office, their life will not be consistent or stable at all, which is why we need to amend the Bill.
I absolutely agree. If we could get our housing and welfare systems, which have become fragmented—and were never perfect, don’t get me wrong —to work better together, at least people would have a fighting chance of understanding what the hell they were meant to be doing, because it is a bit confusing at the moment. My hon. Friend is completely right that we are talking about people in chaos.
A tiny fraction of victims of domestic violence present as homeless. The vast majority either stay or end up in refuge, and they will likely have help in those circumstances to get them through the process. But we have to do better for those who turn up the housing office. We have to ensure that local authority staff have a much clearer understanding of this cross-border issue, because the triumph of hope over experience has left many people unhoused.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), my fellow member of the Women and Equalities Committee. Of course she speaks with great power on these issues, given her experience. We also heard a great deal from the Minister to give us reassurance about how much work the Government have done to ensure that this Bill is the best that it can be and that it further supports victims of domestic violence—something that this Government have made a huge priority. I congratulate the Minister on all that she is doing to ensure that the situation improves ever further.
I will make some short comments about the amendments, because I think that the Bill generally has cross-party support. A lot of what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley said was, frankly, about training among local authority employees, and whether we should be drafting legislation because of the imperfections in local authorities. It is always a balancing act, but we need to ensure that the legislation is as strong as it can be.
I am concerned that new clause 1 could have a clear unintended consequence of undermining the existing devolved powers by taking new powers in the way set out in the new clause. Parliament is clear, as was the Minister in the other place, that there was not and is not a need for primary legislation in this area regarding cross-border movements. In fact, we could unintentionally erode devolution by acting on new clause 1 in the way in which the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) has outlined. Ministers clarified that individuals will have the support that they need and that we do not need to legislate in this way. It is good to hear that these devolved matters are being discussed across the nations, and that there is nothing that concerns the devolved nations in this respect.
I turn to amendment 1. The Minister set out that there is already protection in the Bill for all lifetime tenants, including those who have fled their homes and lost security of tenure. The Bill is specifically drafted to protect individuals facing that situation. In my experience as a Minister, I remember feeling on a number of occasions, “Perhaps we need a belt-and-braces approach here. We really need to spell it out in the Bill.” And what always came through to me in those circumstance was the fact that, in trying to do the very best we can to be as clear as possible, we can actually create confusion by not following the usual protocols. I urge the hon. Member for Great Grimsby to consider that for a moment. As the Minister said, local authorities should have no problem understanding their duties. Indeed, adding to the Bill in the way that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby is suggesting could, because of the redundancy of her new clause, create the opposite of the clarity that she wants.
I have a brief point on amendment 2. As the Minister said, allocating a house that is too big would not be in the best interests of the victim, but specific circumstances might require flexibility. I remember looking particularly at the role of discretionary housing payments when I was a Minister. Such cases fall squarely into the list of examples of why we have these payments. One of the reasons for having such an immense amount of money in this fund—£150 million or so a year—is to be able to give local authorities the flexibility that they need to be able to deal with local circumstances as they see fit. I think that it is better to trust local authorities to get that right than to create specific exceptions that might run the risk of not being used in the way in which the primary legislation requires.
I understand the reason behind this set of amendments. I particularly understand why the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley has spoken with a great deal of passion. One question that I would really like the Minister to answer is: how do we work even harder to ensure that local authorities provide the same support for victims of domestic violence, whether they are in Basingstoke, Birmingham, Yardley or anywhere else?
I hope that my right hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that this summer, for the first time ever, the Government are undertaking an audit of all domestic abuse support services right the way across England. We have done a deep dive in Essex, just as a trial. In the county of Essex alone there are over 1,000 different ways of finding help for domestic violence. That is incredible. We need to find out where the domestic violence support services are across the whole country. This is the first time that the Government have ever done this.
I thank the Minister for those comments. These interventions are driven by that inconsistency in provision of services and by Members of Parliament wanting to get the best for the people they represent. The Minister is entirely right. By knowing how we can better provide a more equal service across the country, I hope that we will provide reassurance to those who support these amendments.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the hon. Members for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) and for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) have made powerful points about family break-up and the role that the legislation could play in all that? Is not this a case where discretionary payments are very important because if the family can be kept together or brought together again, that would surely be where we would want discretion exercised?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. That discretion at local level is so important. I have had one or two cases where the local authorities have not necessarily been on the front foot in the use of local discretionary housing payments. Perhaps the Minister could urge local authorities to understand their duties, particularly to families that have broken up and that are at risk of domestic violence, and to really understand the importance of delivering services using these payments.
I thank my right hon. Friend for mentioning that, because it gives me the opportunity to say that there is no limit to the length of time over which discretionary housing payment can be made; it could be one-off time-limited or it could be indefinite.
Again in her inimitable style, the Minister has answered another of the points that was raised earlier. I recognise that there are potentially time limits attached, and she is right to put on the record that that is entirely outwith any rules or regulations coming from this place.
This Bill helps to improve the lives of victims of domestic violence. That is a priority for this Government and a priority for this Prime Minister. I really applaud the Government’s work in trying to make the lives of victims of domestic abuse better. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley is absolutely right that we should use every sinew in our body to make their lives better, and the Minister is doing a good job in that respect.
I would like to start where the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) finished. I agree entirely about the importance of this Bill, which the Minister herself described as being so important. It behoves all of us to consider why somebody who has been through the appalling domestic violence that many of our constituents have experienced would then be willing potentially to stay in that relationship if their security of housing tenure was in danger of being lost. What does it say to all other housing tenants that something so crucial should be glibly given away by Government in their case? The fact that this Bill is so important makes a really vital point about the need for secure tenancy much more broadly.
The hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) said that this was a Tory party manifesto commitment. I did not realise there were any Tory party manifesto commitments still standing, so if it was indeed that, I welcome it. I do not remember the part of the general election campaign where the Tories told us that they were going to take away secure tenancies for all other council housing tenants, so I do not entirely understand how they committed to ensure for domestic violence victims something that they had not told everyone else they were going to take away from them.
I support the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn). On amendment 1, recognising local connections within the Bill is incredibly important. There is real inconsistency not just in the way that different local authorities view their responsibilities towards domestic violence victims but in the provision of refuges. I was shocked to hear from Women’s Aid that Devon County Council not only has no provision for refuges but gives no money towards refuges that Women’s Aid provides. In Chesterfield, we are so well served by the refuges provided by the Elm Foundation that we often provide for domestic violence victims who are coming from other areas. Many of the people who are going to use these services will not be local people. It therefore behoves all local authorities everywhere to make provision on behalf of domestic violence victims.
Where there is that inconsistency of provision, the areas with the greatest provision of refuges end up taking more people on to their council house waiting list and then providing that housing, and so those who are best at providing refuges also see the greatest pressure on their housing services. That is a real disincentive to local authorities in making this provision.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point, but he will have heard the Minister say that she will be undertaking the first ever audit of local authority provision. Does he not wonder, as I do, why that has not happened before?
I welcome the audit, but the question is what happens afterwards. I would like this to be a statutory service with a responsibility on local authorities to provide it. Will there be any move by the Government towards that? Having the information is one thing, but the next thing is what the Government do with it.
On amendment 2, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) made an incredibly powerful point about the bedroom tax, describing the circumstances where domestic violence victims might lose their children and then find that they are moving into a small flat and are told by the family courts that they do not have appropriate accommodation to get their children back. I was not at all convinced by what the Minister said about why the amendment was not relevant. I urge my hon. Friend to press it to a vote, because we cannot talk about straining every sinew and still have a barrier of that kind in the way of domestic violence victims.
There is a broader need for us to recognise the threat to refuges that exists not only because of local authority funding cuts but because of proposed changes to housing benefit. We must look at the impact that that could have on refuge provision. I urge the Government, if they are serious about supporting domestic violence victims, to make every possible representation to the Department for Work and Pensions with regard to implementing those housing benefit changes. I support the Government on this important Bill. However, I urge Members to support all the amendments, particularly amendment 2, because they will add further powers to the Bill.
This is an important Bill. I think that we all heard the passion with which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) spoke about this subject, which really underlined how important it is.
I have sat in this Parliament for a long time, and it has always struck me that short Bills, specifically to the point, are far more powerful in supporting people’s rights than the Bills that we sometimes see, with clause after clause. We know how complex housing issues are, and that is why guidance is the key. We put the right into primary legislation, and then we have the guidance to deal with the problems. Victims of domestic violence are often in a chaotic situation because of the nature of what is happening in the home. The best way of dealing with that is through guidance.
The Department consults very widely on guidance. A vast raft of housing charities and women’s rights charities can give their views, and then we have a Committee upstairs. I must admit that having Committees upstairs that simply note what has been discussed always seems slightly odd, but the consultation gives Members an opportunity to raise a lot of points. Indeed, if the Opposition want to pray against something, it sometimes comes to the Floor of the House for a vote. There are mechanisms for ensuring that the guidance is comprehensive and right and it was probably written by the same experts in the Department who were trying to deal with this difficult and complex problem under the Labour Government.
I have seen the passion that many Members have expressed on this subject, and I understand that because this is about people’s lives, but I also listened very carefully to the Minister. She talked about training; that is good. She talked about audit; that is good. She talked about various money pots; that is good. She talked about pilots, which means that the Department is open-minded about how we should go about solving some of these very important problems. Providing that the pilots and the audit are done properly, we can get a better service to those who face the real and great tragedy of domestic violence and the consequences that has for them, their children and the family.
I think that the Government are on the right track. I understand the passion that people feel about this. However, it is not about what is in the Bill; it is about what is in the guidance. There is a big debate to be had on that, but today we need to get on with supporting the Bill and getting it on to the statute book. I therefore support the Minister in resisting the amendments. Let us consult on the guidance, listen to what the experts want us to do, and have a listening Government who will try to ensure that we have a fit-for-purpose policy that will deal with people who are facing great misery at home because of this problem.
Before coming to this place, I served on my city council, where for a number of years I had responsibility for Nottingham’s efforts to tackle domestic abuse and to support survivors. I learned many things during that period, but one thing has particularly stuck with me ever since: when a survivor—usually a woman—makes the decision to leave their abuser, the state must be there to wrap around that person. There can be no grey areas and no “I’ll call you back on Monday”. It must be immediate and comprehensive. Whether it is housing, support for children or fostering for pets, it has to be there. It is with that in mind that I rise to speak.
The Bill enjoys support on both sides of the House, as we have heard, and from the charities that work tirelessly to protect women and children fleeing abuse. The intentions behind the Bill are decent, and while we in this place may not directly see the impact of the decisions we take today, those decisions will change the lives of very vulnerable people and allow them to escape their abusers and start to live their life free from fear. Nevertheless, there are some grey areas of outstanding concern that I want to focus on briefly.
The first is reciprocal arrangements, which are covered in new clause 1. The nature of the abuse that a survivor is fleeing means that they might need to leave Nottingham and go to Birmingham or even Cardiff or Glasgow, and it is vital that they are not disadvantaged. I am grateful for the assurance we were offered—not this morning, as the Minister said, but this afternoon, in letter form—that the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish Administrations are relaxed about their abilities to ensure such arrangements. Nevertheless, people change and circumstances change, and that letter will not be of much significance if co-operation is not properly monitored. That is all the new clause asks for, and whether it is accepted or not, I hope that the Government will continue to commit to that.
The Government have stated that the legislation will protect victims who need to move their secure tenancy across local authority boundaries and that amendment 1 is unnecessary because the courts and Government guidance state that the local connection test does not apply in domestic abuse cases. However, those who work on the ground know that that is not quite how it works. The organisations that work most closely with those fleeing abuse have made it clear that, as is so often the case, there is a difference between the best-intentioned Government guidance and the reality of the situation on the ground.
Women often have to flee across local authority boundaries to find safety, and we know that local authorities are at best inconsistent. In 2016-17, local housing teams prevented nearly a fifth of the women supported by Women’s Aid’s “No Woman Turned Away” project from making a valid homelessness application on the grounds of domestic abuse, for reasons including that they had no local connection. It is said in this place that the local connection test does not apply in domestic abuse cases, but it is not always filtering down. That is a good argument for putting that explicitly in the Bill, so that there is no doubt and no grey areas, and on the night or day when an individual leaves, whether they have a local connection or not, the expectation on the local authority is entirely clear.
Finally, on amendment 2 and the bedroom tax, I was really interested to hear from the Minister. She made it clear that this would happen in a very small number of cases, but I would be interested to hear what the evidence base was for that and what those numbers were. I am certain that none of us in this place would want finances to come into play when an individual is making the very difficult decision to leave their abuser. None of us would want that individual to be punished because the house they were moving into was deemed to have a spare room, because they were waiting to be reunited with their children or because of the way the housing stock we are talking about was structured. In Nottingham, there is not a suite of choices waiting for an individual, with the option of saying, “You’d be suitable for a one-bedroom place,” or, “You might be suitable for a three-bedroom place.” The fact of the matter is that we will be putting them wherever we can. I know that none of us would want them to be financially punished for that, which is an excellent reason for accepting amendment 2, so that we are very clear, because it is in the grey areas that we will struggle.
I am conscious that other Members are waiting to speak, so I will leave it there. I believe that the new clause and the amendments would strengthen the Bill. I do not think that much of their substance has been disagreed with; it is just about whether or not to write them down. I will make this clear argument: let us not leave it to guidance. Let us be explicitly, painfully, to-the-letter clear about the system that we are designing today. The consequences of it are life and death, so it is well worth our putting those words on the face of the Bill.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), who made insightful remarks. Today’s debate has been incredibly valuable and informative. I am so grateful to all Members who have come here to share their experience, including the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips). Often we talk about her passion, for which she is renowned, but she brings to this place the very lucid voice of the women she has worked with and the chaos she has seen, and so often the work we do misses that voice. It is not just her passion for which we should be grateful, but her great experience and her capacity to bring it to us in this place in a way that we can all understand.
I would also like to comment on the hon. Lady’s remarks about children being taken into care as a result of domestic violence. She is absolutely right; the failure to protect so often causes women to lose their children to the care system, and anything we can do in this place to reduce that eventuality has to lessen some of the agony and pain that families go through in these circumstances.
I am really pleased that we are here discussing the Bill. It is testament to the work of many Members that this issue has become centre-stage. I am grateful to the Prime Minister for giving her absolute commitment to tackling the issues of domestic violence and for keeping this manifesto commitment. We are all talking about it today, and that is what we need to do more of.
The Minister has given us a lot of reassurance today. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley will be pleased to know that I previously worked at a Women’s Aid refuge in Wandsworth Council’s area, and I can confirm that the women coming to that refuge were always coming out of borough for the sake of their own safety. I listened to what the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) said about amendment 1, and she was persuading me that I should support it, because I have seen that at first hand and know exactly what she is alluding to. However, we have received some clear and categorical assurances from the Minister, for which I am grateful. I have taken those on board and am very pleased indeed.
I welcome the other important measures that the Government are seeking to introduce, including the £17 million violence against women and girls service transformation fund. I am grateful that the issue has become central to our agenda in this Parliament, not least because in the past 18 months, three women in the Telford area have been killed by partners or ex-partners in their own home or a home they shared with the perpetrator. Sometimes these horrific events can become normalised. We read about it in the Shropshire Star, but nobody even alludes to the fact that it was an ex-partner or that it was domestic violence. We need to talk about it, which is why it is so important that we are all here today.
I do not want to add any further comments to what has been said, other than on training. In my experience, women approaching housing authorities do not always come up against the type of treatment and response that we would like them to receive. I feel that demanding that all councils provide training is not the way forward. Councils have to take this on board and understand that it is their duty to provide a better level of response, and by having this debate, we are making them aware that women who go to housing authorities in these circumstances are not receiving the sort of response that they should expect and that we all want them to receive.
I am very grateful to the Minister for her comments and to colleagues on both sides of the House for the contributions they have made. This is a very important Bill. It is a short Bill, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby said at the outset, but it is a hugely significant one, and that is why I wanted to share these comments.
I am aware that many others wish to speak, so I will be brief. Those who are still left in the Public Gallery have seen today the best of Parliament. This is the complete opposite of yah-boo politics. There has been cross-party discussion about a Bill that generally appears to have cross-party support. We should welcome that and welcome the exchange of ideas and views. That does not always happen in this Chamber, but it has happened today.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Sir Robert Syms) said, this is a short Bill. It is clear and to the point, and it deals with a specific problem. When the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) reads Hansard tomorrow morning, she will see many references to her speech, but let me add one more. The disagreement from Conservative Members with certain points she made was not on the substance of the issue, but on the appropriateness of those points in relation to the Bill. However, I am sure that she, the Minister and others will continue to work on this issue, and I think that Members across all parties appreciate her expertise in this area.
One point in particular is worth making. Labour Members have spoken about the spare room subsidy, which is not really the subject of the Bill, but I want to make the point that it is critical to get more social housing built. For the Bill to be effective, we really need as much social housing as possible to be built. If they take a look at the record, as I have, they will see that roughly 2,900 local authority homes a year were built from 1997 to 2010, while under this Government—about half of that time—over 10,000 local authority homes a year were built from 2010 to 2017. Labour Members must look at their own record on social housing, and realise that a lot of the problems we now face are partly down to the fact that they did not build enough homes when they were in office. I know that the Minister and the Government are working on that.
I finish by agreeing with the Minister and other Conservative Members that I do not believe the new clause and amendments are appropriate in this context, and I shall vote against them for that reason.
I rise to speak to new clause 1, which would have a specific impact on local authorities in Scotland, including in my constituency. I would say at the outset, in relation to the thrust of what was said by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), that I agree about the need for more co-operation across the United Kingdom, and I will come on to that shortly. The difficulty, as shown by the fact that I am the only Scottish MP in the Chamber, is that the Bill is not necessarily the right vehicle to do so, because it cuts across some devolved areas, and I want to go into that in a little more detail.
The Government have a strong record on domestic abuse, and the Bill is a further example of that. We have criminalised coercive and bullying behaviour, and we have made sure that we have domestic violence orders. We currently have an open consultation, which provides the potential for more powers and a greater understanding of other types of crimes, such as economic abuse, that are often unseen. That is certainly the experience of many of my constituents, as many people in public authority have seen.
My knowledge of this matter has largely come from my constituents, as well as from some of my own family experience. Many of my constituents have relationships that span the United Kingdom. Men and women who have had such relationships may have some children in England and some in Scotland, so there is a real need for co-ordination and for a UK minimum standard. I have seen at first hand, in refuges and in my constituency office, the bravery of these women as well as the hardship that they have endured. I know how much of an impact there can be on individual lives, and how much need there is for them to move from one local authority to another, which may not be an adjacent one but a local authority far up the country in Scotland or somewhere in England.
Members have talked a lot about the terrible abuse that women have endured, and we know that domestic abuse has a disproportionate impact on women. It is also important to say, however, that 700,000 men were victims of domestic abuse in 2015-16, and that young people are also victims. When we talk about giving people opportunities in secure tenancies in other local authorities around the country, we need to ensure that we capture everyone, because domestic abuse affects many different types of individual at many different ages.
As I have said, and I will keep my remarks brief, a national minimum is desirable. I very much feel that there are times when we are four nations and many regions, but there are also times when we are one country. On this issue, I believe that having a national minimum would be incredibly desirable. I am very keen to work with Opposition Members, certainly as we examine other pieces of legislation in this place, on having UK-wide frameworks, especially in new policy areas, to make sure that there are UK-wide minimums, even if the services are delivered through devolved Administrations, local authorities or other devolved agencies. I am very willing to help in such a way. Unfortunately, however, as the Bill is targeted at England, making an amendment to loop in what is a devolved area in Scotland—it would have an impact in my local authority and others—this is not the best place to do so. I hope to work with Opposition Members in future to try to develop policies on such minimums.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will continue in the spirit of consultation that she always shows in relation to the devolved Administrations, and perhaps she will consider extending her audit of services elsewhere in the United Kingdom—beyond England to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
I want to assure the Minister that at every stage of the Bill, since I have been involved, I have sought to be constructive in my approach. Having heard the arguments and the Minister’s response, let me say that I do not intend to push new clause 1 or amendments 1 and 3 to a vote. We have made our points as fully as we can—sadly, to no avail—but I do not want to cause any unnecessary delay to the Bill.
On the bedroom tax, however, the Minister’s response was not wholly sufficient to ease the Opposition’s concern about the potential for a damaging loophole to be created, which would be to the detriment of domestic abuse victims. As the hon. Member for Poole (Sir Robert Syms) said, we want a fit-for-purpose policy, and that is what we are all aiming for. I therefore request that the House be permitted to divide on amendment 2, but I beg to ask leave to withdraw new clause 1.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn.
Duty to grant old-style secure tenancies: victims of domestic abuse
Amendment proposed: 2, page 1, line 25, at end insert—
“(2BA) A local housing authority which grants an old-style secure tenancy under subsection (2A) or (2B) has discretion to decide whether or not the maximum rent for the old-style secure tenancy should be determined according to regulation B13 of the Housing Benefit Regulations 2006 (SI 2006/213) as amended by the Housing Benefit (Amendment) Regulations 2012 (SI 2012/ 3040).”—(Melanie Onn.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
8 May 2018
The House divided:
Question accordingly negatived.View Details
I remind the House that before Second Reading, as required by the Standing Order, the Speaker certified the entire Bill as relating exclusively to England and within legislative competence. The Bill has not been amended since then. Copies of the certificate are available in the Vote Office and on the parliamentary website.
Under Standing Order No. 83M, a consent motion is required for the Bill to proceed. Copies of the motion are now available. Does the Minister intend to move the consent motion?
The House forthwith resolved itself into the Legislative Grand Committee (England) (Standing Order No. 83M).
[Dame Rosie Winterton in the Chair]
I remind hon. Members that, if there is a Division, only Members representing constituencies in England may vote.
I call the Minister to move the consent motion.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Programme Order, 19 March, and Standing Order No. 83M(5)),
That the Committee consents to the Secure Tenancies (Victims of Domestic Abuse) Bill [Lords].—(Mrs Wheeler.)
Question agreed to.
The occupant of the Chair left the Chair to report the decision of the Committee (Standing Order No. 83M(6)).
The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair; decision reported.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I will be very brief, because I believe the Bill has cross-party support. This short and targeted Bill is an important part of the Government’s wider aims of supporting victims of domestic abuse to leave their abusive situation, and ensuring that they and their families are provided with the stability and security they need and deserve. I am sure all Members agree that domestic abuse is a particularly horrible crime. Its effects are insidious and its impacts are wide-reaching. It has serious and lasting impacts on victims, their families and society as a whole.
The Bill will protect lifetime tenants who have to flee their home, whether they apply for rehousing by their own local authority or to any other local authority in England. It will also protect those who have lost their lifetime tenancy if they have fled their home, and it will protect those who want to return to their home after the perpetrator has left or been removed. It will ensure that in every case, where they are granted a new tenancy by the local authority, they will know that they are able to retain their lifetime tenancy in their new social home.
Lord Bourne was personally very committed to taking the Bill through the other place and I am proud to have been able to do so in this place. He was very grateful for the cross-party support he received from his noble colleagues and I would like to echo my thanks to hon. Members for their support. I know that we have had our differences regarding the detail, but I am sure we are all in agreement on the main aims of the Bill. We can all take credit for ensuring that this small but vital piece of proposed legislation is put on the statute book, but I would like, if I may, to pay particular tribute to Baroness Lister of Burtersett. She has been the mainspring behind the Bill and it is through her persistence during its passage in the other place that it is in such good shape.
I am heartened to know that the Bill has been widely welcomed by the organisations that support victims of domestic abuse, in particular Women’s Aid. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to all those who work so hard to support victims of domestic abuse everywhere, not just Women’s Aid but Refuge, IMKAAN and many more.
Before I finish I would also like to thank the members of the Bill team for their hard work and support in taking the Bill through: Frances Walker, Jane Worthington, Jane Everton, Lizzie Clifford, the parliamentary draftsman Anthony Brown, and finally, from my own team, Emma Andrews.
I would like to start by thanking my colleagues in this House, in particular my hon. Friends the Members for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins), for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), and for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield), and, for her contributions this afternoon, my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George). I also thank Members in the other place for scrutinising this proposed legislation and ensuring that it leaves in a marginally better state than when it arrived. I would particularly like to pay tribute to my colleague Baroness Lister, as her amendment to the original Housing and Planning Act 2016 is the reason the Bill is before us today.
I am disappointed that the Minister has been so reluctant to support any of our amendments, as they would have strengthened the Bill by helping to equalise the quality of care across the country and guaranteeing that domestic abuse victims who move authorities still have a secure tenancy in their new authority. I had hoped that, given that mistakes had been made in this area in the past and such provision had not been included in the Housing and Planning Act 2016, the Government might have listened to some of the concerns from the sector about the ambiguity of the Bill. However, given that we have just divided on the matter, we will support the Bill as drafted.
Despite that, the Bill leaves the House today and it will do a large amount of good for many domestic abuse victims across the country. By guaranteeing a secure tenancy to victims of domestic abuse moving from a secure tenancy, the Bill will remove a key barrier that prevents domestic abuse victims from leaving their perpetrator. There is a clear need for a new radical and credible approach to housing and refuges, but the Bill will provide more security to many domestic abuse victims who are in secure tenancies. We therefore support the Bill.
I welcome the Bill before us today. I also welcome the Minister stating the Government’s wider aim of enabling victims of domestic violence to be able to leave the perpetrator so that abuse can end.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), I was very disappointed that the Government were not prepared to listen, in particular to amendment 2. I urge the Minister to go back to housing benefit and discretionary housing payment practice in local authorities, because even the national housing executive guidance on the gov.uk website states that a discretionary payment will last for a set period of time. That is what happens in practice.
In the last period for which we have information on discretionary housing payment, 121 councils ran out of discretionary housing payment budget. That means time-limited grants that people are able to reapply for, but, in a domestic violence situation, that is another burden and payment cannot be guaranteed. That leads to further insecurity for victims and for their children, in particular in the very distressing circumstances, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), where children have been taken away due to failure to protect. We would all wish to see those circumstances come to an end as soon as possible for such families.
I turn to the wider implications of the Government’s policy on domestic violence, particularly around universal credit, which I have been looking at as a member of the Work and Pensions Committee. I very much hope that the Minister will take her experience of issues relating to domestic violence and to women who seek to flee from their abuser and speak to colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions about the single payment system under universal credit. The Financial Times highlights this issue today, saying that women will not even be able to access the money for a bus, train or taxi fare to leave their abuser. As I mentioned in an intervention, even when victims manage to leave, they need a benefits system that will respond immediately to their needs and guarantee them benefit and support. Some victims are not even able to access a place in a refuge without that support and end up going back to the perpetrator of their abuse. One cannot imagine the additional abuse that they will receive having attempted to leave, and then having to go back again.
Although the Bill is welcome, a lot of social housing providers are very concerned about universal credit in cases when there is a joint tenancy, because when a perpetrator of domestic violence leaves, the payment is split between the perpetrator and the victim of domestic abuse. This means that the victim receives only half the housing element of universal credit and therefore immediately falls into arrears. Evidence that we took on the all-party group on universal credit showed that some victims of domestic violence were already being evicted, because the system meant that their arrears had built up to thousands of pounds.
Although I very much welcome the Bill and the Government’s wider intentions, I hope that the Minister will use the experience that she has gathered on the Bill to talk to other Departments and to look at the overall experience of victims of domestic violence and the support that they get from Government.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, without amendment.
Nuclear Safeguards Bill (Programme) (No. 2)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Nuclear Safeguards Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 16 October 2017 (Nuclear Safeguards Bill (Programme)).
Consideration of Lords Amendments
(1) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion two hours after their commencement at today’s sitting.
(2) The proceedings shall be taken in the following order: Lords Amendments Nos. 3, 1, 2 and 4 to 7.
(3) Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
(4) The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(Kelly Tolhurst.)
Question agreed to.