Clause 16 - Proceedings for possession:

Anti-social Behaviour Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 12:00 pm ar 13 Mai 2003.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 12:00, 13 Mai 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 197, in

clause 16, page 14, line 29, leave out subsection (1).

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Llafur, Normanton

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 148, in

clause 16, page 14, line 42, at end insert—

'(d) whether all of the available options for resolving the problem have been exhausted;

(e) what actions may be taken to discourage and prevent the person against whom the order is sought from committing further nuisance or annoyance after eviction.'.

Amendment No. 236, in

clause 16, page 15, line 13, at end insert—

'(3) where a person under 18 will be affected, the court must direct the social services department of the local authority area to undertake an assessment under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989.'.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

This is a probing amendment, and I do not want the Minister to tell me what the consequences would be of leaving subsection (1) out. The amendment was tabled to challenge him on the purpose of having that subsection in the clause. The subsection refers to section 85 of the Housing Act 1985 and to schedule 2 of that Act, which, giving the grounds for possession, clearly states ground 2 to be:

''The tenant or a person residing in the dwelling-house has been guilty of conduct which is a nuisance or annoyance to neighbours''.

All that clause 16(1) seems to do is re-establish that. It says that the court must then consider whether antisocial behaviour has taken place. I fail fully to comprehend why that is necessary. If the tenant or person residing has been found guilty of certain conduct under schedule 2 of the 1985 Act, that establishes beyond peradventure that they have committed antisocial behaviour in terms of nuisance or annoyance. I do not fully understand why we need clause 16(1), which says:

''The court must consider, in particular—

(a) the effect that the nuisance or annoyance has had on persons other than the person against whom the order is sought'';

and so on. It seems that that provision is already enshrined in schedule 2 to the 1985 Act.

If we look at the contradiction between that and clause 16(2), which refers to ground 14 in the Housing Act 1988, we see the same phraseology in terms of ''guilty of conduct'', which is a nuisance or annoyance, but then we find reference to neighbours. In the 1985 Act the conduct is specified as nuisance or annoyance to neighbours, whereas in the 1998 Act it is nuisance or annoyance to adjoining occupiers.

If the purpose of subsections (1) and (2) are to make the two Acts identical—substantively identical phraseology is used in subsections (1) and (2)—we still end up with two different grounds: ground 2 in the 1985 Act referring to neighbours, and ground 14 in the 1988 Act referring to adjoining occupiers. We have spent a great deal of time discussing the legal

interpretation of various words, but as a layman there seems to be a significant difference between a neighbour and an adjoining occupier. An adjoining occupier is a much more specific term.

I have tabled the amendment to challenge the Government about what we are trying to achieve in the clause. First, a clear statement that the tenant has to be guilty is established in the 1985 and 1988 Acts; I therefore see no need to require the court to decide whether they are guilty. Secondly, if the purpose of the two subsections is to draw the two Acts into having identical language, the provision does not address the significant distinction between a neighbour and an adjoining occupier.

As I said, this is an exploratory or probing amendment. I do not pretend to understand the legalese and I look forward to the Minister's attempt to explain it. I hope that I have successfully explained the reasons for amendment No. 197, which is not simply to exclude subsection (1) but to challenge the Government as to why it is necessary to require the court to reconsider what seems already established in the grounds as identified in the other two Acts.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow 6:15, 13 Mai 2003

Although they apply to different subsections—(1) and (2) respectively—amendments Nos. 148 and 236 could have been doubled up and applied to each part. I am sure that will not stop the Minister responding.

Amendment No. 148 is designed to ensure that all available options for resolving the problem are exhausted. I am sure that in the majority of circumstances an eviction would be sought, which is what is being requested, but what actions may be taken to discourage and prevent the person against whom the order is sought from committing further nuisance or annoyance after eviction?

One of the general complaints made about some aspects of the Bill by outside organisations is that the Bill as a whole deals with the removal of a problem but it does not address prevention or cure. I know that the Bill is not intended to deal with that, but the effect of some of the provisions is merely to move the problem on to someone else. I quote the example of the Dundee project, which dealt with families that had been through a succession of evictions—the problem had been moved on unsuccessfully. When the Dundee project was introduced, those families were successfully rehabilitated and none has been evicted since. The point of the amendment, which could apply as much to subsection (2) and to subsection (1), is to probe the Minister's thoughts on exactly how the Government will deal with the difficulty of moving the problem somewhere else rather than addressing the root causes.

Amendment No. 236 was proposed by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and it, too, could apply to subsections (1) and (2). The Liberal Democrats do not rule out evicting people from their houses as a final sanction, but sometimes particularly young children who are unconnected with the antisocial behaviour become victims of the situation just as much as the neighbours. If there is to be an eviction, we would welcome the court

requiring social services to undertake an assessment under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 where there are children under 18.

Both amendments would enable us to tackle the problem as a whole, rather than simply move the problem on to someone else.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Llafur, Gedling

I rise to comment on the amendments, especially the Liberal Democrat amendments Nos. 236 and 148. Before I do so, it is fair to say in relation to amendment No. 148 that of course we must consider various options such as support for families with problems.

There is a gaping hole in public policy in this area. Many of us know that our communities are blighted by small numbers of families who cause mayhem way beyond their number. I can quote anecdotal examples of areas that have almost been transformed after one or two families have been moved on. We may talk about the rights of individual families and tenants, and it is right to do so because there is always a balance to be struck between individual rights and the general rights of the community, but we must recognise that they are often at the expense of the rights and interests of all the other families in that area.

In my area, the process never reaches an end. I have talked to many other hon. Members, and I am sure that that is also the case in their areas. Agency after agency becomes involved with particular families but nothing ever happens, so those families believe that there are never any consequences as a result of their actions. They never believe that they will be evicted, because often the local authority will not take them to court. The local authority will not take them to court because the courts will not give possession to the local authority for the reason that the hon. Member for Ludlow gave—they are concerned about the consequences for the children.

What we then get is a problem family causing mayhem in an area. The individual family's needs and those of the children are not met, and the local authority is unwilling and unable to take the family to court. It knows that it will end in failure as the court will not want to put the kids on the street.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash

Is it not the case that adults in the family understand the process and the outcome of that process perfectly well, which encourages them to carry on behaving as they are?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Llafur, Gedling

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and adds to my point. Although what the amendment is intended to achieve sounds good and I understand it, I do not think that it will work. There is a gap in public policy. As a society, what do we do with families with children who cause mayhem in an area? The Bill and the amendment do not answer the question.

The court is told to consider the matter under section 17 of the Children Act. However, I do not think that the court knows what to do even if it does that. There is a huge hole in public policy because we do not have a clue what to do. I passionately believe that if we are to make the provisions work, we must make families believe that they will be evicted, because

otherwise they will not think that there is a consequence. That would be right for a particular family and also right for all the other families in that area.

The question was raised a couple of years ago, but do we need a residential option? I am not talking about prison, anything compulsory or bars on windows with police guards, before anyone thinks that I am going down that stupid route. However, do we need a residential option for those families, so that they are taken out of the community in which there is a problem? The right of that community to live in peace and security would be respected and the needs of that family and those children in question would be met as well.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

That, as I see it, is exactly what the Dundee project is trying to do, although without enforcement. Some of the families that the project is successfully dealing with have been evicted several times even under existing legislation. I want to ensure that we bring the two together.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Llafur, Gedling

If the Dundee project provides a model whereby a residential option is made available, we should perhaps consider it, although I do not know enough about the project to comment.

We could obviously go on discussing the matter at great length, but it is important to repeat two things. First, the provisions will not work if people do not believe that they will be evicted, because they will not think that there will be any consequence. Secondly, the courts must know that there is a proper sanction that will not put children on the street if they grant possession. If we do not ensure those things, we shall fail and one of the major planks of the Bill to deal with antisocial behaviour in our communities will not work.

Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I am in some difficulty because I am looking for the associated amendment. Amendment No. 197 makes no sense at all, given that it only amends subsection (1), which relates to the Housing Act 1985 and therefore local authority housing tenants, but does nothing to subsection (2), which applies more directly to RSL tenants. The amendment is flawed to begin with.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The Minister does himself a disservice in trying to belittle the amendment. I made it clear that I know that the amendment does not make sense on its own and that the sole purpose of tabling it was to challenge the Minister on what the provisions mean. I then sought to illustrate the contradictions.

Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but one would logically hope that the probing amendment related to both subsections rather than just one. However, if he is yet again entirely dissatisfied with what I say, the hon. Gentleman can pursue the amendment. The amendment is completely out of kilter and will impact only on local authority tenants rather than on RSL tenants.

There has been sufficient evidence and reviews since the 1985 and 1988 Acts were passed to suggest that the priority needs of victims rather than perpetrators have,

to be generous, been a matter of imbalance. All clause 16 would do is restore that balance to some degree for the council housing sector and the RSL sector. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling rightly says, if all we have is pretty legislation that has no teeth and does not bite, it is simply of no value.

I accept what the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire says about the 1985 and 1988 Acts. They do not go far enough; they simply talk about the court considering whether it is reasonable to grant a possession order in a range of circumstances. Translated into regular English, clause 16 says that when carrying out such considerations, the court must give some degree of priority to the needs of the victim and the consequences of the antisocial behaviour as well as making an assessment. I am not saying in any partisan sense that the 1985 and 1988 Acts were loaded towards perpetrators.

The reason for the provisions is to ensure that the judge does not just listen to the detailed stories of woe from a tenant facing an impending possession order, but takes into account in a far stronger way than the 1985 and 1988 Acts allow the wider balance of the consequences of antisocial behaviour being perpetuated. That is the reason for the provisions. They go much further than those Acts and restore some degree of balance in the language.

As in much of our deliberations today, the symbolism and perception of how fair and balanced the system is, how effective it is and whether it has teeth are as important for those who would pursue antisocial behaviour as they are for those who would seek some redress against that behaviour. I ask the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire to resist pressing his amendment to a vote.

By the bye, I cannot remember whether it was in relation to the last clause or the previous one that I disappointed the hon. Gentleman so much. I thought that I said at the outset—if I did not, I apologise—that the consequence of the amendments, intended or otherwise, was as I laid out. I was not impugning his motives by suggesting that he was watering down the process—it is just the consequence of the amendments. I am sure that that was not his motive.

Amendment No. 148 would add further measures to those that a court would have to give particular weight to in considering whether to grant possession. I agree that such issues are important. A landlord should always look at all possible solutions to a problem and not go automatically straight to possession. However, under our new provisions, the courts will retain discretion to consider the factors relating to the amendment and more. We return to the point about the shopping list. However succinctly put, the import is that the shopping list remains.

Our intention is to ensure that the needs of the victims and the wider community do not get lost and our aim is that the court should give the victim's needs priority. I have to say, perhaps in disagreement with my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling—but not intentionally—that I strongly resist the implication of new paragraph (d) in amendment No. 148 that the

possession action is only appropriate when all other options have been exhausted. There may be subsequent antisocial behaviour. Sometimes the behaviour may be so serious that seeking outright possession immediately is entirely justified to ensure the swift and effective protection of the community. That may be true only in a handful of cases, but the notion of always having to go through antisocial behaviour or worse until all options have been exhausted is naïve at best, and would be quite destructive in relation to the thrust of the clause at worst. It would close that option in the most serious of circumstances.

Amendment No. 236, despite having the imprimatur of the NSPCC, is superfluous. If there is remote impact of any description on the children involved in any household, the relevant powers that the local council is obliged to pursue under section 17 of the Children Act will prevail. It is wrong to suggest that in every circumstance—regardless of background, history and experience—there must be an assessment under section 17. That would not lead to the best use of local authorities' time, and it would introduce a fairly erroneous element into the process. That would, in effect, be to say that if, under any circumstances, children are involved in this process, there are problems or difficulties that necessitate an assessment under section 17. That is not an appropriate burden to impose on local government. Councils already have those duties, and that is being reviewed in the Green Paper on children at risk, and elsewhere.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow 6:30, 13 Mai 2003

The Minister did not address new paragraph (e) in amendment No. 148:

''what actions may be taken to discourage and prevent the person against whom the order is sought from committing further nuisance or annoyance after eviction.''

There is an idea that eviction leads to the problem being moved somewhere else—some families end up being evicted from one place to another. Will the Minister take a moment to address that?

Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I will, by making a simple statement. I admit that I am not a lawyer, but I suspect that that would be totally out of place under law because it would remove the burden of the consequence of the action and the relationship between landlord and tenant from the clause to somewhere else. That would be inappropriate.

There are other possible ways that are almost contrary to some of the lines that the hon. Gentleman was arguing in favour of earlier, in terms of antisocial behaviour and injunctions. At that stage in the process, it is not for the local housing authority, the HAT or the RSL to go down that road. That would almost block any subsequent avenue to proceed with a possession order, which cannot be right. That almost belongs at the start of the process that we deliberated on: those preventative, supportive and other measures

that should be part of the policy and procedure for antisocial behaviour, RSLs, HATs and local authorities in the first instance. To introduce that at the proceeding stage for a possession order would be inappropriate, and I do not think that it would work under law.

For those reasons, and with no malice aforethought in the way that I introduced this in terms of the balance between local authority housing and the RSLs, I urge the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Llafur, Gedling

I just wondered whether my hon. Friend the Minister wanted to comment on my residential option?

Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I am struggling to get our existing policy through, without developing subsequent new policy on the hoof so late in the day. However, we will bear that in mind, and explore it once this Bill has secured Royal Assent and I have nothing more to do with it.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

On that last point, I hope that the Minister will still be responsible for ensuring that the legislation is enforced after it has gained Royal Assent. If I have a great deal of sympathy with the point of the hon. Member for Gedling it is because of this. We do not just sit here and pass laws. We also want them to have the desired effect. That is very important. It has guided me through my consideration of this Bill. I have been asking myself whether it will achieve what we are setting out to achieve.

I am grateful for the Minister's words of clarification about the remarks on the earlier amendment, and I accept the apology contained therein.

The Minister has succeeded in explaining the issue about amendment no. 197 that I sought to raise—although I am unsure whether other hon. Members have understood it. I obviously do not want to see legislation that favours the perpetrator more than the victim, which is clear from everything that I have said during proceedings on the Bill. If that is the intention behind clause 16(1) and (2), I am more than happy with the clarification of the distinction between the two grounds in the existing legislation to which I referred. On that basis, and with gratitude to the Minister for his clarification, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 17 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Heppell.]

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Seven o'clock till Thursday 15 May at ten minutes past Nine o'clock.