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House of Lords Hansard
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Secure Tenancies (Victims of Domestic Abuse) Bill [HL]
24 January 2018
Volume 788

Committee

Clause 1: Duty to grant old-style secure tenancies: victims of domestic abuse

Amendment 1

Moved by

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1: Clause 1, page 1, line 7, at end insert “the same or”

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My Lords, I rise to move Amendment 1 and speak to Amendment 3, in my name and those of a number of other noble Lords.

The purpose of the two amendments combined is to ensure that the welcome protection this Bill provides to survivors of domestic abuse who give up a secure tenancy covers those who remain in their home and who are granted a new sole tenancy in place of an existing joint tenancy. I am not a lawyer or a housing expert, but I am fortunate in that my good friend Andrew Arden QC is both, and I am grateful to him and his colleague Justin Bates for their help with this amendment.

The amendment addresses a lacuna in the Bill identified by a number of noble Lords at Second Reading. The Minister responded positively with the undertaking to meet to see whether we could find a way forward. True to his word, we met the next day. However, unlike the Minister, the wheels of government move rather slowly and so, while I am confident that we will find a way forward, in the meantime it falls to me to suggest what that way forward might look like.

Before I restate the case, I will say a word again about terminology. First, as some of us noted at Second Reading, while it is true that men as well as women can suffer domestic abuse, women are the main victims, especially of the most serious and sustained forms of abuse; it is thus women who are most likely to have to give up a tenancy because of it. Women’s Aid reminds us of the importance of retaining a gendered understanding of domestic abuse in its various forms. I would like to thank Women’s Aid for all its support on the Bill and pay tribute to its work on behalf of victims of domestic abuse.

Secondly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, rightly observed at Second Reading, the language of victims gives a false impression of,

“passivity in the face of ill treatment”.—[Official Report, 9/1/18; col.139.]

Yes, we are talking about victims of domestic abuse, but these victims are also survivors with agency.

We tend to talk about women fleeing domestic abuse because that is the most common scenario, as a woman escapes a harmful and dangerous situation and tries to find a place of safety, often in a refuge and often in another local authority area—the subject of the next amendments. But there are cases where the perpetrator is removed by the local authority or the police. Indeed, I heard of just such a case last week where the police had removed the perpetrator. Interestingly, it would appear to be government policy to encourage this where it is safe for the woman to remain in the home and she does not want to leave it. This is partly to avoid the upheaval involved in moving home, and—even under the old legislation—a desire not to lose the security of an existing secure tenancy.

Women’s Aid quotes a key worker from Solace Women’s Aid who told researchers that many of the women with whom she worked were reluctant to leave a secure tenancy and that some would take massive risks rather than give it up. Where children are involved, we should not underestimate the impact of frequent moves on them, their schooling, their friendships and their general sense of security and belonging. The policy to encourage removal of the perpetrator, where safe to do so, is also motivated by a desire to prevent him from benefiting from the abuse by driving his partner from the home, as spelled out in the recent consultation document, Improving Access to Social Housing for Victims of Domestic Abuse. This concern was raised by my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours at Second Reading, when he talked about possible “unintended consequences” where a perpetrator might remain in the home. I suspect it is a situation that might become more common, even if we are talking at present about a very small minority—and even if it is a small minority, minorities matter.

Where it is the perpetrator who leaves the home and there is a joint tenancy, I am advised that it is usual practice for a new sole tenancy to be granted in the name of the survivor. As I pointed out at Second Reading, this make sense, because otherwise the perpetrator could give notice to quit and terminate the joint tenancy at some future date, thereby depriving his victim of both her rights and any real sense of security. And what if she dies? This would enable the perpetrator to move back in and continue as an old-style secure tenant, which would make a mockery of this law.

It was clear at Second Reading that this would be a totally uncontroversial amendment, which would have the support of all parts of your Lordships’ House. I hope, therefore, that the Minister—who has throughout been most supportive on the issue—will be able to give the House an assurance that he will be able to bring forward his own amendment on Report. I beg to move.

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My Lords, I remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I reiterate our strong support for the Bill from these Benches, in the expectation that the Government will be willing either to accept these amendments or to bring forward their own on Report. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, referred to these amendments representing a solution to a lacuna in the Bill. I think that she is entirely right and I support all the points that she has made. Put simply, this has raised the very important issue of what a secure tenancy is. Now we will be in a position—assuming the Government do come back on Report with their own amendment—to ensure the right of victims to stay in their existing home, in the case of a joint tenancy, in addition to being able to move home, which is provided for in the Bill. So I declare our support for both Amendments 1 and 3.

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My Lords, as this is my first contribution in Committee, I draw the House’s attention to my registered interests, namely as a councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. My noble friend Lady Lister moved Amendment 1 in great detail. I fully support that amendment and the intention behind it—as I do Amendment 3.

This issue was, as we heard, raised by my noble friend at Second Reading and deals with the situation where a victim of domestic violence has a joint tenancy with the perpetrator but wants to remain in the property and wants some security and to avoid upheaval. They need to be granted a new secure sole tenancy, rather than the joint tenancy that they have at that time. My noble friend highlighted the risk of the perpetrator remaining on the tenancy and the problem of them being able to effectively cancel that tenancy. I hope that the Minister agrees that this is an issue and will say that he will come back with an amendment on Report. I certainly fully these amendments and the intention behind them.

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My Lords, I rise briefly from these Benches to say that I fully support what the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, said. I think that it clarifies the situation for victims and survivors; it is very important that people have a right to stay in the home that they love and where their children are being brought up.

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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, very much indeed for bringing forward this amendment and for her positive engagement on this issue. I also thank the noble Lords, Lord Shipley and Lord Kennedy, and my noble friend Lady Manzoor who spoke in support of the amendment. I absolutely understand and support the intention of Amendments 1 and 3 to extend the Bill to offer protection not just to tenants seeking to escape domestic abuse but to those who remain in their existing home after the perpetrator has left. That issue was discussed at Second Reading. I absolutely support that intention.

Amendment 1 seeks to extend the Bill so that it applies where a local authority grants a further tenancy to a lifetime tenant in the same home. I listened carefully to the debate at Second Reading and I have found this further discussion in Committee very useful. Granting a further “sole” lifetime tenancy to survivors of domestic abuse who remain in their current home would go further than the original purpose of the Bill, which was to ensure that lifetime tenants were protected where they had to leave their home. However, I recognise that there is a strong, indeed overwhelming, case for ensuring that lifetime tenants who have suffered domestic abuse—I absolutely accept that usually these victims are women—and remain in their home are given the same level of protection as those who have been forced to leave. That is logical and sensible. It would safeguard against the perpetrator bringing the joint tenancy to an end—either tenant may terminate a joint tenancy by serving a notice to quit—or returning to the property. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, made a very forceful point in that regard. It would also be in line with the Government’s wider policy of ensuring that victims of abuse and their families are provided with the stability and security that they need and deserve.

As I said at Second Reading, protecting victims of domestic abuse is a priority for the Prime Minister and the Government. However, while I am sympathetic to the intention behind these amendments, I do not think that they would work in practice as they presume that a local authority would be able to grant a secure tenancy where the tenant has an assured housing association tenancy—that is, in a property which the local authority does not own. This is because a “qualifying tenancy” in the Bill includes both secure local authority and assured housing association tenancies. This point is relatively technical but nevertheless important in terms of the amendment.

In addition, the link to removing the risk of further abuse is maintained. This may not be the most appropriate test where the victim remains in the home and the perpetrator has moved out. However, I am able to give an absolute undertaking that we will bring forward an amendment—or amendments, if necessary—on Report that will meet the intention behind these amendments and ensure that, where local authorities offer a new tenancy to a lifetime tenant in their own home, this must be a further lifetime tenancy where the tenant is a victim of domestic abuse.

I am very happy to work with the noble Baroness and other noble Lords to achieve what we clearly all want in this regard. I hope that the commitment I am giving to extend the Bill to include tenants who remain in their homes will give noble Lords and the noble Baroness the reassurance they seek. As I say, I will be very happy to work with noble Lords in this regard. On that basis, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.

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I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in support of the amendment. In particular, I am extremely grateful to the Minister. I am very happy with his reassurance. As I said, I am neither a housing expert nor a lawyer, so I will certainly not argue about technicalities. The Minister has given a very firm commitment, which is exactly what I was hoping for. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.

Amendment 2

Moved by

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2: Clause 1, page 1, line 9, after “tenant)” insert “and regardless of whether the qualifying tenancy is in the jurisdiction of another local authority”

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My Lords, Amendment 2 standing in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, comes back to an issue raised at Second Reading by myself and other noble Lords.

This is only a probing amendment. I was very grateful for the helpful letter that the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, issued last week. To be clear: the issue here is that victims of domestic violence should be protected and not have impediments put in the way of their feeling safe and secure. That may include wanting to move elsewhere in England or to other parts of the United Kingdom. When the noble Lord responds, it would be useful if he could set out how this provision will work in practice. Different practice applies in different authorities. While they all have the best intentions in this regard, things sometimes go wrong—and that is just in England. Therefore, I would be grateful if the noble Lord would set out how he believes this provision will work and what the Government will do to ensure that there are no unintended impediments or problems for people in a very difficult situation who may seek to move elsewhere in the country. I beg to move.

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My Lords, I support this amendment and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, that it is a probing amendment. I will ask the Minister a specific question about the obligations of housing associations. In a message on 19 January the Minister said:

“In a housing association property the tenancy standard protects social tenants who had a lifetime tenancy granted before April 2012 by requiring that they must be given a further lifetime tenancy if they move to another social rented home”.

The meaning of that is clear. However, what is the position for those granted a housing association tenancy after April 2012 who may be victims of domestic abuse? If they move to a local authority home, again, the situation is clear. But what advice will the Government give to housing associations which will not have the same obligation to give a lifetime tenancy if a tenant moves to another housing association property?

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My Lords, I declare my interest as chairman of the Local Government Association and as the leader of South Holland District Council. I put on record my personal support and the wider sector’s support for the Bill. I am not aware of any council in the country that would want to resist any of the good proposals in the Bill. However, as the Minister said earlier on the previous set of amendments, and as the noble Lord opposite just raised, there is an anomaly between types of landlord. While the Government may not be able to compel registered social landlords to offer like-for-like tenancies, given that most registered social landlords use taxpayers’ money to build those homes in the first place, perhaps the Minister could find a form of words that would give some form of encouragement to anybody who is expecting to get taxpayer-funded properties of the expectation that they would voluntarily put their properties into a scheme that allowed secure tenancies for victims of domestic abuse if they should happen to flee to an area where the council is not the primary landlord.

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I support this amendment. Towards the end of Second Reading I questioned the Minister about this issue during his summing up. He responded:

“The intention is for the legislation to cover that”.—[Official Report, 9/1/18; col. 161.]

Later on he said that,

“it is central to the legislation that we want to cover the Luton-to-Leicester situation”,

that I had referred to. I invite the Minister to say something rather more definitive now, because “intention” and “want” seem to me, as a non-lawyer, perhaps not to give quite the reassurance that somebody in this situation might look for in the legislation. Therefore, if it is necessary to spell it out more explicitly in the legislation, perhaps the Minister could give a commitment to come back on that on Report, or, at the very least, if the legislation covers it now, he could make a more explicit statement at this stage.

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My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have participated in the debate on Amendment 2. I will try to deal with the various points that have, understandably, been raised on this. The amendment aims to ensure that the requirement to offer a lifetime tenancy would apply where the victim of domestic abuse applies to be rehoused in another local authority district.

Before I come on to that specific issue, I will deal with the housing association point that was made. I agree with the summary of where we are at the moment that was provided by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and I take the point he made about the gap. My noble friend Lord Porter also addressed this issue and asked me—kindly exaggerating my powers and talking them up—to come up with a form of words on housing associations. We covered this point to some extent at Second Reading, when I said that housing associations are of course now bodies that we cannot give directions to without compromising the position of being off balance sheet and that therefore the legislation has been designed with that very much in mind. That said, of course the Government are totally sympathetic to that position. If I may, I would like to come back on Report and say something in relation to this issue, but I do not want to hold out the hope of being able to do anything other than possibly indicating what we think is a morally defensible position.

I move on to the very specific and fair point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, in relation to the legislation. My background is as a lawyer and I think I can say without fear of contradiction that this drafting provides for moving from, for example, Luton to Leicester. That is very much the intention and the reality of this legislation. We recognise that in many, although not all, cases that is exactly what somebody will seek to do—they will not want to remain in their local authority area because of the nature of the domestic abuse and the possibility of the perpetrator being in that area, there being difficult memories and so on. Therefore, this proposed provision is totally unnecessary —I will not say ineffective—because that is what the legislation provides for. I want to nail that down and, on that basis, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, to withdraw his amendment.

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I thank the noble Lord for that explanation, which I will certainly read with interest after the debate. With that, I am very happy to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 2 withdrawn.

Amendment 3 not moved.

Amendment 4

Moved by

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4: Clause 1, page 1, line 15, at end insert—

“(2AA) The Secretary of State must by regulations issue guidance as to— (a) the identification of persons entitled to be offered a tenancy under subsection (2A) including the evidence required of domestic abuse, and(b) the training of local authority officials in matters relevant to the exercise of the duties of local authorities under subsection (2A).(2AB) Before issuing the guidance the Secretary of State must consult such persons and the representatives of such persons as he or she considers appropriate.(2AC) Regulations under this section shall be made by statutory instrument and may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.”

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My Lords, this amendment seeks to ensure that, after consultation, the Government issue guidance to local authorities about, first, the identification of survivors of domestic abuse entitled to a new old-style secure tenancy under the Bill, including appropriate evidence requirements, and, secondly, the training of local authority officials who will be responsible for the exercise of the duties contained in the Bill.

The amendment is tabled jointly with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who I do not think is in her place today but to whom I am grateful for her help with its drafting and for her general support on the Bill. It is tabled also with the support of my noble friend Lord Kennedy of Southwark.

Our aim in tabling it was to enable a proper, focused discussion on two issues raised at Second Reading by a number of noble Lords: evidence requirements and training. These are concerns raised by Women’s Aid, which, although giving the Bill a warm welcome, nevertheless has warned that, for its goal to be achieved, it is crucial that new guidance is issued to local authorities on these two matters.

Our focus is mainly on the question of evidence but I repeat the point that I made at Second Reading: that the poor treatment of some domestic abuse survivors by housing officers—sometimes, according to research, portraying victim-blaming attitudes—indicates that, despite what the Minister said in his helpful letter to Peers, there is still some way to go to ensure that all officials exercising such responsibilities are adequately trained. That is particularly the case given the welcome wide definition of “abuse” in the Bill, as concepts such as controlling behaviour and emotional, financial or psychological abuse are, I believe, still not widely understood. Such training for relevant professionals is, after all, required by Article 15 of the Istanbul convention.

Turning to the question of evidence, at Second Reading the Minister responded to concerns raised by pointing out that identifying survivors of domestic abuse is something that local authorities are doing already and that this legislation does not alter that. In his letter to Peers, he repeated the point and referred to the updated homelessness code of practice, which, he said, will provide extensive advice to help local authorities to handle cases that involve domestic abuse, including on what sort of corroborative evidence might be appropriate. However, unless I have missed something, as far as I can see, the draft homelessness code, on which the Government have recently consulted, simply says that housing authorities may,

“wish to seek information from friends and relatives of the applicant, social services and the police, as appropriate. In some cases, corroborative evidence of actual or threatened violence may not be available, for example, because there were no adult witnesses and/or the applicant was too frightened or ashamed to report incidents to family, friends or the police”.

I do not consider that extensive guidance, and it comes nowhere near what Women’s Aid is recommending.

Women’s Aid’s experience and research suggests considerable inconsistency in how local authorities exercise their current responsibilities towards survivors of domestic abuse. In a small number of cases in a study which tracked 404 women unable to access a refuge space in 2016-17, the housing authority did not consider domestic abuse to be a significant risk factor meriting a homelessness application. Women’s Aid cites examples of women being told to return to the perpetrator or to come back when the situation got worse. It argues persuasively that it is crucial that there is clear national guidance as to how to apply this legislation.

A key area is what constitutes appropriate evidence. In particular, Women’s Aid argues that such evidence should not be confined to that arising from interaction with the criminal justice system because most women experiencing domestic abuse do not report to the police and may have little or no contact with the criminal justice system. As I suggested at Second Reading, the revised evidence requirements for the legal aid domestic violence gateway offer one possible model, as it has been significantly widened to include evidence from health professionals, domestic abuse services and refuges. However this is not exhaustive, and in a note on evidence requirements which I have passed to officials, Women’s Aid provides a list of other possible sources of evidence which could be included in guidance, but again emphasises that these should not be presented as prescriptive or exhaustive.

The amendment also provides for there to be consultation prior to the issue of such guidance. This should go beyond the usual written consultation document seeking responses to a set of written questions. It would be useful, too, for officials to sit down with those who work with survivors of domestic abuse, such as Women’s Aid. Ideally, it might also be helpful to hear from survivors who have had experience of trying to prove they have suffered domestic abuse. Increasingly there is recognition of the value of listening to what is sometimes called “experts by experience”.

As I have said, although the Minister initially responded that he did not believe additional guidance was necessary, I welcome the fact that he has an open mind on this. In his letter he said:

“We will certainly consider whether it would be helpful to provide further guidance in the context of this Bill”.

I hope that today’s debate will persuade him of the case for doing so and that he and officials will find it helpful when considering such further guidance. I beg to move.

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My noble friend Lady Hamwee has put her name to this amendment but at present she has to be elsewhere in the House.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, that this is an important amendment. It is important that the Government consult on how local authorities should collect evidence and on how their officials should be trained. The two issues are closely related.

Perhaps I may give an example of a problem that could arise if procedures are not properly understood by staff in a local authority. Consider the case of a housing association tenant in one local authority area moving to another local authority area—possibly some long distance away—and having to request rehousing by that other local authority, not by a housing association. This raises issues of the collection of evidence and an understanding of the statutory responsibility of that new local authority to give assistance. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, has explained the issue clearly and I hope the Government are prepared to consult widely to ensure that the guidance is better than it might otherwise be. It will be crucial in assisting local authority officers to fulfil their statutory duties.

In terms of the training needed on what evidence is required, housing officers will need to understand that victims of abuse may have difficulty presenting essential evidence. The ability to listen and to obtain relevant information will be very important. For that reason, I have been thinking about how the training might be organised. I would suggest that local authorities should not try to do it all by themselves. Given that there are many local housing authorities in England, would it not be better if they were brought together to organise training in this area across boundaries? There are two benefits in that. It would lead to better and more professional training, and it would enable staff from different councils to meet each other, as well as enabling the staff of local authorities and housing associations to do so. That informal communication will help in a case that is particularly difficult or complex.

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My Lords, I am sympathetic to and fully support the sentiments tendered by the two noble Lords who have spoken. During the years I spent as a judge, I often came to the conclusion that violence could eat like acid into the mentality and the heart of a lawful society. What we often forget is that although we are horrified by the idea of violence taking place in the open street—fights with knives, bicycle chains and so on—so much of it takes place behind the closed door of the ordinary home. That is why we should concentrate as much as we possibly can on this aspect.

There is often a cavalier attitude on the part of police officers, although only among a minority, and in local government. I came across the phrase, “It’s a domestic matter”, as if it were somehow or other beyond the pale of respectability and therefore not to be taken all that seriously. The fact that it is often a one-to-one situation and that no third or fourth party is present does not mean that it ends there. If we think about it, the vast majority of rape cases are one-to-one situations. If we were to demand that there should be a third or fourth party present, most rape prosecutions would never get off the ground at all. You have to do the best you can by sifting and analysing the evidence on the basis of a one-to-one situation. Of course sometimes there will be corroborative evidence by way of injury or something of that nature, but there is nothing inherently wrong in a one-to-one situation where you have to decide whether a serious charge being made by one person is in fact true in the circumstances. If I speak the obvious, I apologise for that, but more often than not worthy complaints are dismissed in this way.

There is a fundamental reluctance in the weaker party, who inevitably in most cases is the woman, to take the matter further. Sometimes that is out of consideration of the children and sometimes due to the fact that she wants to remain in the home. It can be because of her total economic dependence on the man. In many cases, the odds are stacked against her and therefore anything that can be done to ease her path to a just and proper settlement is very much to be commended.

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My Lords, Amendment 4, moved by my noble friend Lady Lister of Burtersett and supported by myself and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, puts a requirement on the face of the Bill for the Secretary of State to issue guidance to local authorities on the implementation of the policy. As with the previous amendment, it seeks to get some consistency into the process by providing guidance on identifying, recognising and supporting the survivors. The guidance must also address the issue of training because there can be an inconsistency of approaches between local authorities.

During the debate at Second Reading, I spoke about my visit to the domestic violence unit at Greenwich police station. I was really impressed by the work that the officers were doing, but also horrified by some of the terrible things I learned that people can do to others. What I found out was really horrific. The abuse can take many forms. It can be physical, sexual, emotional, financial, controlling, or coercive. The housing officers dealing with the victims have to have the knowledge and expertise to recognise the abuse and then be able to respond effectively to it. This is too important and too serious to leave without proper training for the housing officers who will be assessing each case. The point of the amendment about consultation is again very important. We have to get this right. I certainly fully support the amendment. I look forward to the noble Lord’s response.

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I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and other noble Lords who have participated in the debate on this amendment, which relates to evidence and training. I understand what has motivated the amendment. I will deal with where we are at the moment and then what I propose to do in relation to it.

Local authorities are used to making decisions when people apply for social housing that require them to identify whether the applicant has been a victim of domestic abuse. While the Bill includes important protections for victims, it does not require local authorities to make decisions relating to domestic abuse, which may be qualitatively different from those they already make. We have ensured that the definition of domestic abuse in the Bill is on very similar lines to the definition in the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. This should help to ensure a consistent approach by local authorities. I appreciate that this is not the main point that has been made on consistency, but there is an issue here that it is important to address.

As the noble Baroness set out, the current 2014 statutory homelessness guidance recognises that local authorities may wish to seek information from a range of sources, including friends and relatives, social services and the police, but it also recognises that corroborative evidence of actual or threatened violence may not be available. That is a point that the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, made—I was going to call him my noble friend; he is my friend, but not my noble friend—that corroborative evidence will often not be available, for example, because there were no adult witnesses and maybe because the applicant was too frightened or ashamed to report incidents to family, friends or the police. These are issues that I recognise do exist.

As the noble Baroness again pointed out, we have had a consultation on an updated homelessness code of guidance. It finished on 11 December last year. It will cover the Homelessness Reduction Act duties, integrate separate documents published since 2006, and update and streamline guidance on existing law. The consultative draft provides extensive advice to help local authorities handle cases that involve domestic abuse, including on what sort of corroborative evidence might be appropriate. This final code of guidance will be published in spring this year. I will of course ensure that noble Lords who participated in the debate will receive a copy of it as it is made available.

In addition, I was very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, for drawing my attention and that of the House to the domestic violence gateway for legal aid during Second Reading and for forwarding me a document prepared by Women’s Aid on evidence requirements regarding victims of domestic abuse, which I consider very helpful. In addition to the consultation and the evidence brought forward on the responses to it, I am ensuring that we consider the documents supplied by Women’s Aid with the other responses. I will be taking a close personal interest in the development of the code, as will the Minister in the Commons, my honourable friend Heather Wheeler, who is responsible for policy in this area.

The consultative draft of the homelessness code of guidance also advises local authorities about the need to have appropriate policies and training in place to identify and respond to domestic abuse. It advises that specialist training for staff and managers on domestic abuse will help them to provide a more sensitive response and to identify, with applicants, housing options that are safe and appropriate to their needs. In addition, the Government already provide funding to the National Homelessness Advisory Service to provide training on homelessness. This includes training specifically on domestic abuse.

We have provided funding to the National Practitioner Support Service to provide domestic abuse awareness training for front-line housing staff in local authorities in 2016, resulting in the training of 232 front-line housing staff across nine English regions. I recognise the point made, inter alia, by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, about the need for consistency in ensuring that we have a national approach. I will ensure that that is fed in to the consultation.

In addition, a number of local authorities used funding from our 2016-18 £20 million fund for specialist accommodation-based support and service reform to meet the priorities for domestic abuse services to provide training programmes for their front-line staff. Much of the training is collaborative.

I do not believe that it is necessary to issue formal guidance to local authorities to support them to implement the Bill, but, as I have said, I accept the point about the need for consistency in training and will want to see that reflected in the guidance. It would not be helpful for local housing authorities to have different pieces of guidance on domestic abuse; we need to bring them together, as we are doing in this case.

With the undertaking to ensure that the Women’s Aid document is considered in relation to the guidance—I will also ensure that our debate in Committee is available as a further document in relation to the guidance— I respectfully ask the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment. Although very good points have been made in relation to it, I remind noble Lords that this legislation has a laser-like focus on specific issues. Nevertheless, the department finds input on this very valuable and I will ensure that it is carried forward in relation to development of the code.

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I thank all noble Lords who have spoken and made helpful points to amplify the case that I put forward. I am grateful also to the Minister for engaging with the points made, as is his wont. I do not think that anyone is saying that there should be two separate sets of guidance—obviously, it makes sense to put them together—but what we are saying is that the existing guidance does not go far enough. It would need to go further anyway, but this Bill has helped point to that fact.

I am pleased that the Minister will look at what Women’s Aid has submitted. It would be helpful if at some stage officials could sit down with members of Women’s Aid to talk through some of the issues, because you can get a lot more out of face-to-face conversations than from something simply in writing. Perhaps the Minister might like to respond on that.

Given that later this year—no one quite knows when—we will see not just a domestic violence Bill but policy around it, thought might be given to how central government monitors the effectiveness of the current domestic violence legislation in relation to housing to make sure that the evidence requirements and the training are going well. At present, there seems to be a big gap between the theory of what local authorities are supposed to be doing and the practice. All of us want to see that gap narrowed. We should not have to rely on Women’s Aid, which has very few resources and probably fewer in future, to do that kind of monitoring. Although the Minister cannot obviously give a commitment, he might at least say that that would be considered.

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My Lords, I am certainly very happy to meet with Women’s Aid, as I have in the past, and other organisations such as Refuge, Imkaan and so on. It is an open agenda, and this could well be on the agenda. Officials would as a matter of course be at the meeting as well.

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I thank the Minister. I hope that he will also think about or take back the question about monitoring—I do not expect an answer from him now. Given those assurances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 4 withdrawn.

Amendment 5

Moved by

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5: Clause 1, page 1, line 15, at end insert—

“(2AA) A local housing authority which grants an old-style secure tenancy under subsection (2A) 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).”

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My Lords, this simple amendment tackles the issue of what happens when someone becomes liable for the underoccupancy deduction, colloquially known as the bedroom tax, either as a result of the perpetrator having been removed from the household or the victim being allocated a new property which has technically too many bedrooms and qualifies for the underoccupancy deduction. The bedroom tax has been estimated to affect more than 400,000 households. We know that it does not apply to women in a refuge and, following the Court of Appeal decision, that it does not apply when someone has had a panic room installed. However, a problem frequently arises when a new local authority seeks to place a woman, and potentially her children, in new housing.

I agree with Women’s Aid, which considers that a victim rehoused with a secure tenancy because she has escaped or is escaping domestic abuse should not be impacted by the underoccupation deduction if it is set to apply as a result of her no longer living with the perpetrator. Women’s Aid has also received evidence from its member services that the bedroom tax is resulting in challenges in securing move-on accommodation. One refuge that secured move-on accommodation for a survivor, under time pressure from local authority specifications that state that refuges can house women only for four months and so have limited time to source appropriate move-on accommodation, received a note saying she would lose £50 a week because of the underoccupation deduction. Such significant financial losses have a severe impact on the ability of women to secure permanent housing after fleeing abuse and may result in many women choosing financial security over safety.

Will the Minister please reflect on this situation, which is likely to affect only a very small number of households? Even if it could be allowed for a transition period, it could save further misery, and potentially further risk, for victims who have already suffered enough.

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My Lords, I support the amendment and would have put my name to it had I known about it. The noble Baroness has made a very strong case. I will not go into a riff about the bedroom tax and keep noble Lords here for the rest of the night—my noble friend Lady Sherlock and I could do a duet on it. The point is that we could undermine the very good intentions of legislation such as this if women are afraid that they are going to be hit by the bedroom tax if either the perpetrator leaves or they leave. This points to the importance of looking at this across departments and doing something about it. Even if something cannot be done now, can it be taken back and put into the pot of thinking about domestic violence strategy?

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My Lords, I support my noble friend Lady Burt’s amendment. She has made a very strong case and it is an extremely important issue on which guidance, at the very least, will be needed. I think there is a preferable option, which is to put it on the face of the Bill. Whichever approach the Government adopt, I understand there have been suggestions that the Government accept the aim of this policy. I very much hope that they will, but can the Minister confirm that the Government understand the importance, for a limited number of individuals—that is what it will turn out to be—of the Government taking action on this point? It is very important for them.

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My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, moved Amendment 5, on which she makes a very powerful case. The Government need to address this issue. As noble Lords have heard, it would be totally unfair for a victim to be penalised by the bedroom tax due to either the perpetrator having left the property they live in now or the victim having moved somewhere else and finding themselves with one bedroom over the threshold for the tax. That needs to be looked at. It would be wrong if people ended up with additional costs because they are the victim of a crime. As the noble Baroness said, this issue affects very few people, and the Government should address it. I hope the noble Lord will look at it or come back to it on Report.

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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, for raising this issue.

We would expect local authorities, when offering a tenancy under this Bill, to ensure that, wherever possible, this does not result in the tenant underoccupying the property. Let me make that very clear first of all—I am grateful for the opportunity to do so—that it would not be in the interest of either the tenant or the landlord. Not only would the tenant be subject to the housing benefit adjustment, whose object is to remove the spare room subsidy, but it would also not be the best use of scarce social housing.

Our 2012 statutory 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 the removal of the spare room subsidy. However, I recognise that there may be some rare cases—it has been indicated that such cases are rare—where, for whatever reason, the local authority allocates a property that has more bedrooms than the tenant needs. In such cases, which, as I say, I would expect to be very few, it would be open to the tenant to apply for a discretionary housing payment to cover any shortfall.

In 2016, the Supreme Court 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. In that case, the Supreme Court upheld the Government’s policy, which is not to deal with personal circumstances unrelated to the size of the property by the inclusion of general exemptions in the regulations but rather to take account of a person’s individual circumstances separately through the process for discretionary housing payments. The noble Baroness referred to some instances of which she is aware. I would be grateful to have a look at them just to make sure that everything has been done appropriately in those cases.

Since 2011, the Government have provided £900 million to local authorities in funding for discretionary housing payments to support vulnerable claimants, including victims of domestic abuse. There are no plans to withdraw funding for discretionary housing payments; funding for 2018 to 2021 was set out in the Summer Budget 2015. Funding for next year, 2018-19, will be £153 million for England and Wales.

The removal of the spare room subsidy was introduced to bring parity in treatment between the social and private rented sectors, encourage mobility, strengthen work incentives and make better use of available social housing. The rules on the removal of the spare room subsidy already include an exception for victims of domestic abuse in refuges. We do not intend to provide for any further exceptions, but I would be grateful to look at the cases to which the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, referred, to ensure that correct process has been followed.

That said, I have been asked to ensure that this issue is put in the general domestic violence pot, as was referred to, and I am very happy to give that undertaking. I appreciate that there may be a small minority of cases that deserve particular attention, and it is for that reason that I want to look at those cases and pass on any information to the Department for Work and Pensions, which leads on this issue, as the noble Baroness on the Front Bench and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, will know.

With that, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for bringing this issue forward. We want to ensure that vulnerable people are not taken advantage of in this regard and that local authorities are doing what they should be doing in relation to the allocation of housing stock. I would therefore be grateful for that further evidence. I respectfully ask the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.

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I am very grateful to the Minister for his comments and his partial reassurance. In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, the Minister talked about meeting Women’s Aid, and I think it would be delighted to bring him some examples. For instance, where there is great urgency to place a family and a local authority is not in a position to offer exactly the right size of accommodation, perhaps a transition period could be accommodated.

I am very grateful to the Minister for his very constructive comments, and I note what he said about the discretionary housing payments, which I hope are working. However, when he meets with Women’s Aid and other organisations face to face, that will give him a clear picture. Given those assurances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 5 withdrawn.

Amendment 5A

Moved by

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5A: Clause 1, page 1, line 15, at end insert—

“(2AA) The person making the application for an old-style secure tenancy under subsection (2A) must not be charged for obtaining any evidence of domestic abuse if this evidence is required to make the application.”

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My Lords, Amendment 5A addresses an issue I raised at Second Reading—namely, that victims are victims and need to be protected and helped. As part of gathering evidence to satisfy a housing officer that they are a victim of domestic violence, they should not have to pay a fee. That is just wrong. One profession where this is an issue is GPs. We all respect doctors and GPs. They provide a vital service in their community, but some GPs charge for writing letters or notes that are outside their contract with the NHS, and for signing forms and things. Most GPs do not, but some do. Charging to sign letters to confirm that someone is a victim of domestic violence is unacceptable, whether it is to enable the victim to provide evidence to the housing department or to access legal aid. It is just wrong. At this stage, this is a probing amendment, but I hope the Minister agrees that this is not a practice we condone. Perhaps we can have a meeting with officials at the Department of Health and Social Care or elsewhere to see what advice and guidance they could provide to health professionals to make it clear that in these cases they should not be charging anyone for letters to confirm that they are the victim of a crime.

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My Lords, I rise to support the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. It seems a sensible and reasonable way to proceed. It seems inherently wrong that a woman who has been abused and subjected to domestic violence, who may be financially distressed because she has no money, and who finds it very difficult, has to pay a professional or any other organisation to say that she has been abused. I support this amendment and hope that my noble friend will look at it in a favourable light. If he cannot agree to this wording, perhaps there can be other wording on Report.

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I add the support of these Benches for this amendment. This seems to us an extremely important issue. Charging in these circumstances would be unacceptable to us. I hope that on Report, or through regulations, the Minister will say something about how the problems that would be caused by charging can be prevented.

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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for bringing forward this issue, which he raised at Second Reading. I also thank other noble Lords who participated in the discussion on this amendment.

I agree that charging a fee to a victim of abuse who is seeking evidence of their abuse to access services is, let us say, far from an ideal situation. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, set out the issue very fairly. Although the amendment is drawn more widely, and does not mention doctors, the point is valid in relation to doctors, for example: as has been the case under Governments of all persuasions, doctors may charge for anything outside the contract relating to NHS services. That is why we are in this position, and obviously policy responsibility rests with the Department of Health and Social Care.

However, I think I have some good news for noble Lords who participated in this debate and who are rightly concerned about this, as others will be too. As data subjects, which we all are under the Data Protection Act, individuals can lawfully ask to be provided with their medical records, without charge, thus obviating the need for a letter altogether. I appreciate we need to get that message out there so people are aware of it, but on that basis, I do not think that this would represent a problem.

I will ensure that I get an update on this issue for noble Lords. Because the amendment was tabled only last night—so it was not late as such; it was within the time limit—we have not had long to investigate the issue and had to seek assistance overnight. We are investigating further with the department, but it appears that this issue should not be a concern; if it is, then it is for the Department of Health and Social Care to discuss further. But I agree that in this sort of situation it would be quite wrong—morally wrong, if not legally wrong—to charge victims in this regard.

I also spoke privately to the noble Lord before today’s sitting, and with that assurance, I hope he feels able to withdraw this amendment.

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My Lords, I apologise to the Committee for arriving so late after amendments to which I had my name, as I was at the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I will not ask the Minister to respond to this, but just put it into the pot. I think he is saying that a person who has been the subject of abuse needs to go and consult a doctor, perhaps, and so get it into the records that advice and assistance has been sought, and then after that ask for the records to be released. I say that because other people involved in this work will look at what has been said and might have comments on it as well as the noble Lord and the Department of Health and Social Care.

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I thank the noble Lord for his response. I am sorry I tabled the amendment fairly late, and will bring the issue back much earlier on Report. I hear what he says about the use of a subject access request to get medical records, and I am sure he is right. But imagine you are a victim of a crime, distressed and being told you need some evidence. Asking for your medical records may not be the quickest way to get it. Then what do you do? Do you take a big file down to the housing office? I see the point he is making but we need to find a simpler way.

I agree with the noble Lord that it is morally wrong that a victim goes to a doctor and is then charged £50, £75 or £100 to have a letter written. That is just wrong. I am pleased with what he said, but we need to go a bit further with this, as it is not right. I will certainly bring the issue back on Report. The noble Lord is right that there are other professions that do something similar, but it is a particular problem with GPs. People have the right to have a note written and not be charged for it. I thank the noble Lord for what he said, and I will happily withdraw the amendment at this stage, but I will raise the issue again on Report.

Amendment 5A withdrawn.

Amendment 6

Moved by

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6: Clause 1, page 2, line 7, at end insert—

“(2C) Local housing authorities must report annually the number of old-style secure tenancies granted under subsection (2A) of this section to the Secretary State, and the Secretary of State must lay a report containing this information annually before both Houses of Parliament.”

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My Lords, this amendment in my name, and that of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, would place a requirement on local authorities to report annually to the Secretary of State the number of old-style secure tenancies granted under the Bill. This would be useful information for the Government to collect. It would not be a great burden for local authorities, which already have to provide the department with a wide variety of information on a regular basis. It would be useful if we got to see how many tenancies were being granted, which would provide a better picture of this dreadful crime and the action being taken by local authorities in keeping people safe. I look forward to the Minister’s response. I beg to move.

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My Lords, this is an important amendment. It scratches the surface of a number of issues that might actually be reported annually. I hope the Government will look carefully at what information they are going to get. I would like to see how many tenants of housing associations who transfer to a local authority—either the local authority where they have been living or another one—are rehoused with a secure tenancy. I am sure the Minister and his officials will come up with a long list of what local authorities should report on, but it is important to get this right because otherwise we may not know whether the training is being properly undertaken.

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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for tabling this amendment and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for his contribution.

I am sympathetic to the intention behind Amendment 6; I agree that it is important to monitor the impact of the Bill. However, I do not believe it is necessary to use the Bill to impose an additional duty on local authorities to collect information, or on the ministry to report to Parliament on the information collected. Information on all social housing lettings is collected through the continuous recording system known as CORE and is published annually by the ministry. I believe the data collected through CORE is sufficient to allow the ministry to monitor the impact of the Bill. This is because CORE collects information on the nature of the landlord, the type of tenancy granted, whether the letting is made to a new or existing tenant and the main reason reported by the tenant for leaving their last settled home, including whether this was in relation to domestic abuse.

As I say, while I understand the intention behind the amendment, I cannot support it. To impose a further statutory requirement on local authorities to collect information that is already being provided through CORE would be burdensome, unnecessary and indeed costly. On this basis, I hope the noble Lord agrees to withdraw the amendment.

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I am happy to withdraw the amendment. I was pleased when I heard from the Minister about the system that we have for recording information. Maybe between now and Report he could see what is actually recorded. It may be that what we need is already there, as he said, but the system might need a tweak to give us absolutely everything. Still, I was very pleased to hear his response, and at this stage I am happy to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 6 withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed.

Amendment 7

Moved by

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7: After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—

“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.”

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My Lords, Amendment 7 would insert a new clause requiring the Secretary of State to publish a review into future co-operation between local authorities in each part of the UK. This is another issue that I raised at Second Reading. As I explained, people move around the UK for a variety of reasons, and if a victim wants to move back to a place where they previously lived or where they grew up, to be nearer to family and friends or to have the additional support that they need to get their life back on track, that is something we should all support. As drafted, the Bill applies only to England, but someone could want to move from Birmingham to Belfast or from Coventry to Glasgow, or indeed any number of permutations around the UK.

The Minister recently sent out a very helpful letter setting out the current position, and it would be useful for the record if he set it out in the House today. For me, this is again about ensuring that the victims of this appalling crime are given every help and assistance, and that unnecessary impediments or barriers are not put in people’s way as they go about the process of rebuilding their lives. I hope the Minister can give us that information today. I beg to move.

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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for moving this amendment; I understand what lies behind it and recognise its benign intention. He will understand that we as a Parliament are not in a position to pass legislation on housing policy in the devolved Administrations. I want to ensure that that is on the record. That said, I agree absolutely that increased co-operation between England and the devolved Administrations on the issue of victims of domestic abuse who need or want to move from one country to another is something that we should consider within the United Kingdom framework. Indeed, there are many other issues when collaboration across the devolved Administrations is desirable.

It is my intention to raise this at the ministry’s devolved Administration round table, which I am due to attend in Cardiff on 19 April. I set up the forum of devolved Administrations with colleagues when I arrived in the ministry some 18 months ago, understanding from my background in Wales, how important this collaboration is.

As part of the review, Amendment 7 would require the Government to consider how the Bill’s provisions could be extended to Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, so that any victim of abuse could apply for a lifetime tenancy in another part of the United Kingdom. As noble Lords will understand, there are devolved sensitivities, which I fully understand myself, which means that we do not want to approach the issue in that way. It must be approached, quite correctly, through collaboration. I am sure that there will be a positive response to that, as there has been at other devolved Administrations when we talked about co-operation, for example, relatively recently on Roma/Gypsy/Traveller issues, and others. So I am sure that this will push at an open door.

When a person flees domestic abuse to England from another part of the United Kingdom, the housing authority could not refer them back to where the abuse took place or where they would be at risk of violence or abuse. The housing authority must ensure that the applicant would not be at such a risk. They would then be housed in temporary accommodation or a refuge, and placed on the local authority housing waiting list with appropriate priority. If the person has “priority need”—they will have if they are vulnerable due to having left accommodation because of domestic abuse, or have children in their care—they will be assisted under the homelessness legislation. This means they will be provided with temporary accommodation by the local authority until a settled home is available. Households that are owed the main homelessness duty have reasonable preference—that is, priority—for social housing.

The purpose of the Bill is to remove an impediment that might prevent someone who suffers domestic abuse leaving their abusive situation in England, when the provisions under the Housing and Planning Act 2016 come into force. That Act applies to England only. The current situation for a victim of abuse in another part of the United Kingdom—in Scotland, for example—is that they will not have an impediment to flee their situation for fear of losing their lifetime tenancy, as another council within Scotland will grant them a lifetime tenancy when they are rehoused. The commencement of the Housing and Planning Act does not change this, of course.

As noble Lords are aware, housing is a devolved matter. I do not think that it would be appropriate to include a duty in the Bill, which applies to England only, to consider the potential for amending legislation in other parts of the UK. Indeed, it would be inappropriate. That said, I appreciate that there will be cases where co-operation and collaboration would be the order of the day to deal with difficult cases where people are moving from one nation of the United Kingdom to another. It is with that in mind that I want to raise this at the next devolved forum, which as I said will take place in Cardiff in April. I will certainly ensure that a reply goes out to noble Lords who have participated in the debate, and that a copy of such a letter is placed in the Library to indicate how we see the way forward. I will ensure that that is done, and with that I respectfully ask the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, to withdraw his amendment.

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I thank the Minister for his helpful response. We tabled the amendment because of the risk of anomalies; if someone wanted to go back to Glasgow or Belfast, having lived in London, they might find themselves in difficulties. I would hope that that would not be the case, but I am conscious that this is English legislation and people move around the whole of the United Kingdom. I would not want anyone to have any difficulties with going back to another nation.

I am pleased that the Minister is going to raise the issue at the devolved forum in April, but perhaps he could write before then, because that is still three months away. This is an important issue, and it would be good if everyone was clear on that co-operation and collaboration. Equally, it works the other way as well. It is important that everything is done right. I accept entirely that it is not our place to legislate for matters that are devolved, but co-operation and collaboration are the order of the day here. Having said that, I am very grateful for the Minister’s response and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 7 withdrawn.

Clause 2 agreed.

House resumed.

Bill reported without amendment.