Joint tenancies: removal of a tenant

Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 3:30 pm ar 17 Mehefin 2020.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

“(1) This section applies where there are two or more joint tenants under a secure or assured tenancy and the landlord is a local housing authority or a private registered provider of social housing.

(2) If one joint tenant (“A”) has experienced domestic abuse from another joint tenant (“B”) then A may apply to the county court for an order B is removed as a joint tenant.

(3) For the purposes of subsection (2) it sufficient that the domestic abuse was directed at A or to anyone who might reasonably be expected to reside with A.

(4) On such an application, the court must take the following approach—

(a) the court must be satisfied that the tenancy is affordable for A, or will be so within a reasonable period of time;

(b) if the court is so satisfied, then—

(i) if B has been convicted of an offence related to domestic abuse as against A or anyone who might reasonably be expected to reside with A, the court must make an order under this section;

(ii) if B has been given a domestic abuse protection notice under section 19, or a domestic abuse protection order has been made against B under section 25, or B is currently subject to an injunction or restraining order in relation to A, or a person who might be reasonably expected to reside with A, the court may make an order under this section.

(c) for the purposes of subsection 4(b)(ii), the court must adopt the following approach—

(i) if B does not oppose the making of such an order, then the court must make it.

(ii) if B does oppose the making of such an order then it is for B to satisfy the court that – as at the date of the hearing - there are exceptional circumstances which mean that the only way to do justice between A and B is for the order to be refused.

(d) if the application does not fall within subsection (b), then the court may make such an order if it thinks it fit to do so.

(5) Where A has made such an application to the court, any notice to quit served by B shall be of no effect until determination of A’s application or any subsequent appeal.

(6) Notwithstanding any rule of common law to the contrary, the effect of an order under this section is that the tenancy continues for all purposes as if B had never been a joint tenant.

(7) For the purposes of this section, an “offence related to domestic abuse” means an offence that amounts to domestic abuse within the meaning of section 1 of this Act.

(8) In section 88(2) Housing Act 1985, after “section 17(1) of the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984 (property adjustment orders after overseas divorce, &c.)” insert “, or section [Joint tenancies: removal of a tenant]Domestic Abuse Act 2020,”.

(9) In section 91(3)(b) Housing Act 1985, after subsection (iv), add “(v) section [Joint tenancies: removal of a tenant] Domestic Abuse Act 2020.

(10) In section 99B(2) of the Housing Act 1985 (persons qualifying for compensation for improvements) paragraph (e), after subsection (iii) add “(iv) section [Joint tenancies: removal of a tenant] Domestic Abuse Act 2020.””—

This new clause would facilitate occupiers of social housing removing one joint tenant from the tenancy agreement where there has been domestic violence. The tenancy would then continue (so preserving existing rights). The court must be satisfied that the applicant can or will be able to afford the tenancy.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Ceidwadwyr, Wellingborough

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 43—Housing Act 1996: Removal of local connection—

“(1) The Housing Act 1996 is amended as follows.

(2) At the end of section 199 (local connection), insert—

“(12) A person who is or is likely to become a victim of domestic abuse, is not required to have any local connection to any authority within the meaning of section 199(1) of this Act for the purposes of his or her application.

(13) For the purposes of subsection 12, a person must provide evidence of domestic abuse or the risk of domestic abuse in one of more of the forms set out in regulation 33(2) of the Civil Legal Aid (Procedure) Regulations 2012.””

This new clause would remove the need for a local connection for victims of domestic abuse when applying for social housing to a particular local authority.

New clause 44—Allocation of Housing to domestic abuse victims—

“(1) Section 160ZA of the Housing Act 1996 is amended as follows.

(2) After subsection (8) insert—

“(8A) The Secretary of State must within two months of the Domestic Abuse Act 2020 being passed make regulations under subsection (8) to prescribe the criterion set out in subsection (8B) as a criterion that may not be used by a local housing authority in England in deciding what classes of persons are not qualifying persons.

(8B) The criterion is that a relevant person must have a local connection to the district of a local housing authority.

(8C) For the purposes of subsection (8B), a “relevant person” is a person who—

(a) is or has been a victim of domestic abuse within two years of the date of their application for an allocation of housing under Part 6 of the 1996 Act, and

(b) has recently ceased, or will cease, to reside in accommodation provided by a local authority in an area in which they have been subjected to domestic abuse and where—

(i) the person has fled or will flee their local area; and

(ii) the purpose of fleeing was or is to escape domestic abuse.

(8D) The regulations made under subsection (8A) must specify that a local housing authority may not consider the location or whereabouts of the perpetrator of the domestic abuse.””

This new clause would remove the need for a local connection for victims of domestic abuse when applying for social housing to a particular local authority.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office), Shadow Minister (Domestic Violence and Safeguarding)

It is weird at the end stages, because we are now jumping around. We are now going to talk about joint tenancies, which is nothing like any of the stuff we have been talking about for the past few hours. I will speak to new clause 42 on joint tenancies and new clauses 43 and 44, which relate to local connection restrictions on survivors escaping domestic abuse.

The impact of joint tenancies on survivors of domestic abuse is not an issue that has been widely discussed in Parliament in recent years, but it should be. There has been a lot of stuff about tenancies, to be fair, but it has not necessarily been about joint tenancies. The current tenancy law leaves survivors particularly vulnerable to homelessness and further abuse. Where there is a joint tenancy between the abuser and the victim, either can give notice to end the tenancy and it then takes effect for all joint tenants.

I am sure I do not need to spell out what impact that has in abusive, coercive and controlling relationships. The current law means that abusers can unilaterally terminate the joint tenancy, ending the victim’s right to remain in the property, and putting her at significant risk of homelessness and harm. Currently, the only option in the short term is for the victim to seek an injunction preventing the abuser from serving notice on the tenancy. That is usually a time-limited and temporary remedy.

It is completely ineffective if the abuser decides to breach the order, as the remedy for the breach would not bind the landlord or resurrect the tenancy, although once the Bill is passed maybe they would become a criminal, depending on which order it was. We are now talking about complicated housing law. In the case of a sole tenancy in the abuser’s name, it does nothing to afford tenancy rights to the victim, and of course an injunction will probably only be obtained if she has access to legal advice in the first place. It may be possible for the victim to end a joint tenancy and immediately be granted a new sole tenancy by the landlord, if the landlord is sympathetic and prepared to do so. But that is wholly at the landlord’s whim, and the landlord is under no obligation. There are some positive examples of landlords improving their responses to tenants experiencing domestic abuse, as Committee members will know all too well from their own casework. It is not that universal to have really great landlords.

A court order is required to transfer tenancy rights from either the abuser’s sole tenancy or a joint tenancy to the victim’s sole tenancy. There are currently three mechanisms by which that can be done, but they relate only to particular circumstances, and the process is uncertain and complex. All of that requires survivors to have access to legal advice and representation. An application to transfer the tenancy must be made to the family court. The law is complicated in the sense that different routes and remedies are available, depending on marital status and the existence of children. If the parties are married, they can apply under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 only if they are in divorce proceedings. Maybe that is literally about to change as we speak; the law normally moves slowly and I feel like it is racing away with me. It can take over a year to obtain the transfer, which will not take effect until a decree absolute has been granted, although that may now be quicker. That route forces parties whose only matrimonial asset might be the tenancy to waste court time and public funds to obtain a transfer. The victim will be insecure while the proceedings are ongoing and the parties will become further polarised. That is an inevitable consequence of family litigation, and has an impact on arrangements they may need to make over children.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office), Shadow Minister (Domestic Violence and Safeguarding)

If you are going to ask me a detailed question about tenancy law, I have prepared myself for that.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Ceidwadwyr, Darlington

It is not a tenancy-related question. While well-intentioned, the proposed new clause serves effectively to sever a joint tenancy agreement and put the tenancy agreement into the abuse survivor’s sole name. The clause fails to make any provision in respect of the tenancy’s joint and several liability and therefore may create unintended consequences, such as leaving the victim—whom the Bill seeks to protect—liable for damage to the property that may have been caused by the perpetrator. That could additionally lead to residual liability for any outstanding rent arrears that may have accrued. Does she agree with me that leaving the victim with further liabilities can actually make things worse?

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office), Shadow Minister (Domestic Violence and Safeguarding)

It absolutely cannot do that, and we must consider the politics of priorities in these circumstances. I do not pick these amendments out of the air, much as I love to pore over tenancy law. They are usually brought to me by people who have been in these specific circumstances. It is an incredibly pernicious thing, and it can be seen when people are left with problems, less so with damage to the property. I do not believe anybody ever gets their deposit back; that is a mythical thing that never actually occurs in real life. I have certainly never got any deposit back. The rent arrears issue is terrible and pernicious; there is no doubt about that. Victims are telling us that they face the problem of the risk of homelessness. Somebody can end their tenancy just like that. Our constant objective in these clauses is to remove the perpetrator from the situation and leave the victim safer at home.

There are all sorts of things that I would offer if somebody came to me and said, “Well, I’ve got rent arrears based on that.” Birmingham City Council has not had a good write-up in this Committee, but one brilliant thing it does is have discretionary housing payments specifically for local allowances for issues such as rent arrears built up in domestic abuse cases. I would seek to access that sort of support in those circumstances. In fact, with regard to tenancies, lots of local councils have different rules about the kind of things that they can do as landlords—obviously, they are the largest landlords in the country—in cases of domestic violence. Currently, however, the law does not allow for the thing that victims are telling me would help them.

To go back to complicated tenancy law, for those who are unmarried but have children—the law is very detailed in the gradients that are covered—the Children Act 1989 provides an opportunity for the tenancy to be transferred for the benefit of children, but again that necessitates bringing expensive and contentious court proceedings that polarise parties who might have been able to reach agreement over many aspects of their children’s care without the emotional impact of a litigation process. When we talk about the family courts, especially some of the harrowing cases, it is important to remember that 90% of people breaking up from each other, including a high proportion of people even in domestic abuse situations, sever their lives and those of their children amicably without the need for the courts. I want to try to avoid needless litigation, especially for victims.

The transfer in such cases is further complicated by the fact that it is only for the benefit of the children, so if the children are about to turn 18, the remedy may not help. It may be possible to sever the tenancy, but if the child is crashing towards a certain age, people may be cut off.

Married or unmarried victims with or without children can apply under the Family Law Act 1996, but for married couples, the court will insist on divorce proceedings having been commenced and will often divert them down the route of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. Where the parties are unmarried, the route of the 1996 Act will still necessitate lengthy court proceedings, often with two or three hearings at a cost in court time in excess of £10,000 and in legal aid of a similar amount for either party represented.

In contrast to those complex and uncertain processes, the new clause provides a straightforward mechanism for the victim of abuse, where they have a joint tenancy from a social landlord, to seek the transfer of the tenancy from joint names to their sole name and to prevent the abuser from ending the tenancy in the meantime. It sets out that where there has been a conviction for a domestic abuse-related offence, the court must make an order to transfer the joint tenancy to the victim’s sole name.

Understandably, there have been quite a few conversations about unintended consequences, which happen with pretty much all laws. No matter which rosette hon. Members wear, no law that has ever been passed has helped everybody universally and has been perfect for everybody. That is the reality, which is perhaps not expressed very well by the Punch and Judy politics of this place.

In the new clauses that we have tabled, we have sought to be clear that the level of the evidence base, such as conviction, needed to take something away from somebody must be high. In the issue of presumption that my hon. Friend the Member for Hove was talking about earlier, that was based on orders and convictions. When we are talking about taking something away, such as a tenancy, I recognise that that is a big liberty, even if someone is a perpetrator, because they might have had a terrible life—lots of them will have had a terrible life.

A domestic abuse protection notice or a conviction seems like a reasonable threshold, rather than just an allegation, for doing something such as taking someone’s tenancy away. Where a domestic abuse protection notice or a protection order has been served, there is a presumption that the court will make an order transferring the tenancy to the victim’s sole name, which the other joint tenant can seek to oppose by showing exceptional circumstances. In both cases, this is subject to the court being satisfied that the tenancy is affordable for the applicant. To answer the point made by the hon. Member for Darlington, in this instance the court would assess the affordability of the tenancy rather than the burden of that tenancy, because we do not want to burden people needlessly.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Ceidwadwyr, Darlington

The clause deals with affordability going forward, but does it specifically address any latent problems?

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office), Shadow Minister (Domestic Violence and Safeguarding)

That is a reasonable point. This definitely happens, so I am more than happy for those issues to be dealt with as we go through this process. One thing about this Bill going through to the Lords is that it has some really keen experts who know an awful lot about housing law; I have been a licensed landlord through running refuges and other things, so I know a little bit about the law in this area, but it definitely bamboozles me. Some Lords know an awful lot about the criminal justice system and housing tenancies, so I feel keenly that we ought to make some assessment of the point the hon. Gentleman has made. I suppose the victim could give their consent by self-declaring—by saying, “I am willing to pay £3 a month until my arrears are paid back”, or “He has kicked out the fireplace; I am happy to get it replaced.” Any Member who has large numbers of council tenancies in their constituency will know that tenants would often much rather pay to have things replaced than wait for the council to replace them. It is not uncommon to hear, “I’ve had my whole kitchen done, because I’ve been waiting four years.”

In the new clause, any notice to quit served by the abuser is of no effect if an application has been made, therefore removing the need for an injunction or to protect the tenancy until the application is decided. The amendment also protects succession rights and right-to-buy rights on the transfer of the tenancy to a sole tenant—another classic casework thing I have to deal with all the time. This is a simplification of the current complex, potentially expensive and risky processes by which a victim of abuse can seek the transfer of a joint tenancy to their sole name. It gives greater certainty about the circumstances in which the court will transfer the tenancy to the victim, and it helps the victim of abuse obtain security in their home, free from the fear of the abuser ending their tenancy.

I will briefly touch on new clauses 43 and 44. Domestic abuse does not end when a relationship ends, and leaving an abuser is statistically a highly dangerous time. A survivor faces ongoing and severe threats to their safety. Anyone who has read domestic homicide reviews will know that very few things consistently crop up—the people involved can be of all races, backgrounds and classes—but the common thread running through them is that people often get murdered when they first escape. It is a very risky time, and therefore many survivors escaping abuse need to leave their local authority area in order to be safe. Women and children escaping to a refuge, in particular, will often need to cross local authority boundaries.

The very existence of refuges depends on those services’ availability, as this Committee has largely covered. The Government homelessness guidance for local authorities makes it clear that the local connection rules should not apply in cases of domestic abuse. It states that all local authorities must exempt from their residency requirements those who are living in a refuge or other form of safe temporary accommodation in their district, having escaped domestic abuse in another local authority area. However, this is not a requirement and does not apply to women who have not escaped into a refuge—or into another form of temporary accommodation, which I am afraid to say is the most likely place for them to end up nowadays.

In addition, local authorities often use blanket residency tests in allocation schemes without accounting for exceptional circumstances, such as a woman fleeing domestic abuse. This has already been found unlawful. In the case of R (on the application of HA) v. Ealing London Borough Council, the full homelessness duty under part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 was owed to a mother and her five children fleeing domestic violence, but she was disqualified from the housing register because she failed to meet the residency requirements. There was an exceptional circumstance clause in the local authority’s allocation scheme, but this was not used. The High Court found that Ealing had acted unlawfully in failing to apply the exceptionality provision, or to even consider applying it.

Despite that case and the Government guidance, there remain clear inconsistencies between local authorities across England. I am sorry; I do not mean to exclude Wales, but I have no idea—I presume there are inconsistencies there.

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Ceidwadwyr, Cities of London and Westminster 4:00, 17 Mehefin 2020

I am slightly confused about what the hon. Member seeks to improve with new clause 43. I am happy to be corrected, but I understand that local authorities, as the hon. Member said, already have the ability to prioritise domestic abuse cases for rehousing. I believe that, on Second Reading a couple of weeks ago, the Minister quoted the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, who said that he was making this a priority. The statutory guidance also states that local authorities should find a local connection, and that it is okay if it is in another district or local authority, so long as there is no threat to the family or the woman. I am just trying to understand what the new clause would do that is not already in the statutory guidance or the Bill.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office), Shadow Minister (Domestic Violence and Safeguarding)

I am more than happy to answer that. I am quite fond of the particular bit of statutory guidance she refers to, because it did not actually exist until a woman who lived in the refuge where I worked took a case against Sandwell Borough Council regarding her local connections. Currently, the statutory guidance is explicit about refuge accommodation. This woman was living in a refuge, many years ago now, and Sandwell Borough Council said she did not have the local need that meant it had to pay her—what we call—housing benefit-plus, so it contested her application on the basis of local need. With the help of the Child Poverty Action Group, that was challenged in the courts in two cases specifically around refuge accommodation. All the new clause really seeks to do is extend that beyond being only about refuge to being about other forms of temporary accommodation.

Councils imposing local connection restrictions on their refuge funding contracts—exactly what I was just talking about—such as capping the number of non-local women able to access the refuge or requiring a specific proportion of the women in a refuge to be from the local authority area, has been one fall-out of that particular incident, because a refuge just cannot be run like that. We cannot know who will turn up. By and large, refuges will have people in who are from the local area, but it is not like a school, where someone has to live within a certain radius and has their needs assessed based on other things. People deal with the situation as it arises.

Homelessness teams are refusing to support women escaping abuse because they are not from the local area. Nearly a fifth of women supported by Women’s Aid’s No Woman Turned Away project in 2016 and 2017 were prevented from making a valid homelessness application on the grounds of domestic abuse—outside of refuge; just rocking up to the homelessness services—for reasons including that they had no local connection and that local housing teams were deprioritising survivors who did not have a local connection within their housing allocation policy.

As Members may know, the Government already require local authorities to make exemptions for certain groups from these local connection requirements or residency tests, including members of the armed forces and for those seeking to move for work. Nobody would argue with that. We just wish to add domestic abuse victims to that roster. Therefore, to tackle continuing inconsistent and unacceptable practices, a statutory bar on local authorities imposing local connection restrictions on refuges or any temporary or permanent accommodation should be included in the Bill, and needs to sit alongside the proposed statutory duty on local authorities to fund support in refuges and other forms of safe accommodation. The Government are essentially going to be paying for some of this from central funds. We look forward with bated breath to that big cheque, Minister; we should have a big-cheque moment.

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Ceidwadwyr, Cities of London and Westminster

I want to get to the bottom of this. Is the hon. Lady saying that there is a lack or a vacuum in the Bill or in statutory guidance full stop, or are local authorities not complying or doing what they should under existing legislation or statutory guidance? If they are not doing what they should be doing—if Sandwell, which is a Labour council, or Ealing, which is a Labour-led council are not doing what they should be doing—surely it is possible to go to the ombudsman? Surely there is a way to hold local authorities to account if they are not carrying out their statutory duty?

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office), Shadow Minister (Domestic Violence and Safeguarding)

No, they absolutely are carrying out their statutory duty, but the statutory duty is only about refuge—unlike the statutory guidance regarding servicemen and women, which is that they are allowed to move without local connection, recognising that base life does not necessarily mean that they are based in a place, so they might not have a local connection, as well as tipping the hat to people who deserve a break when they are presenting to homelessness services. It is essentially the same thing—recognition that people living in certain circumstances might need extra help. I am sure the hon. Lady does not wish to be political about this, but I could list lots of Tory councils that turn away victims of domestic abuse, and many that have no current provision for refuge, but send their victims to a neighbouring local authority; that is not uncommon. The way some councils choose to fund this is to fund it elsewhere, which I think is problematic and will certainly be furthered by the new statutory duty.

The Government will pay for this statutory duty, which may lead to people having to present to homelessness teams in different areas when they do not have a connection to the local area. That is the problem I am trying to overcome. Together, the new clauses will help to ensure that all women and children fleeing domestic abuse can access safe housing where and when they need to. I urge colleagues to support new clauses 43 and 44 to bar local authorities from imposing dangerous local connections restrictions on survivors of domestic abuse.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I apologise at the start because, just as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley went into the fine detail of housing law, so, sadly, will I. I will try to cut it down.

We understand the motivation behind new clause 42. Abusers seek to control their victims in many different ways, and threatening to make their victims homeless or actually making them homeless by ending a tenancy is a particularly pernicious form of control. However, we have concerns about the drafting of the new clause, as it would apply only to local authority and housing association periodic tenancies, whereas most social tenants have periodic tenancies that are often known as lifetime tenancies, which generally mean that they can stay in their home for the rest of their life, provided they comply with the terms of the tenancy. A social tenancy with lifetime security of tenure is a valuable asset, which is why the Bill includes provisions designed to protect the security of tenure of victims of domestic abuse when granted a new tenancy by a local authority.

Notwithstanding the general position on security of tenure, current law provides that if any joint tenant of a period tenancy serves a notice to quit, it brings the whole tenancy to an end and the landlord can seek possession. The rule is of long standing; it has been established in many cases over the years and was recently upheld by the Supreme Court. It aims to balance the interests of each joint tenant and the landlord. For example, it would allow a victim of domestic abuse who has had to flee her home to ensure that she is no longer bound by the full obligations of the tenancy, which she is no longer able to enjoy. We recognise that the rule may be problematic in some cases of domestic abuse where the perpetrator can use it to exert control. I appreciate that the aim of the new clause is to find a way around that, to enable victims of abuse to remain in their current home, without fear that the abuser may seek to terminate the tenancy.

We are concerned about a number of areas of the new clause. It would allow the victim to apply to the court to remove the perpetrator from the tenancy, which is intended to effectively transfer the tenancy into the victim’s name. Where there are other joint tenants, it would have the effect of transferring the tenancy into the names of the victim and of those other joint tenants. As my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington pointed out so eloquently—perhaps he should have declared an interest as a long-standing solicitor, as he was bringing his expertise into this—it means that victims may face the prospect of unresolved or remaining debts and costs because of any damage that the perpetrator may have caused to the property. The perpetrator will not be liable, as they will have been removed from the tenancy.

The new clause also fails to provide for how the interests of third parties may be taken into account by the court, including those of the landlord, any other joint tenant or any children in the relationship. A decision to grant a tenancy lies with a landlord. Where a landlord has decided to grant a tenancy to two or more individuals jointly, this new clause means that the number of tenants may be changed without reference to the landlord as the property owner.

It is important to bear in mind that landlords may have other reasons, outside of affordability, for deciding to grant a joint tenancy. In addition, this could amount to an interference with a housing association landlord’s own rights under the human rights legislation. Since this engages other parties’ human rights, we need to consider carefully what is the right approach in order to balance those rights, and ensure that any interference is proportionate and justified.

I understand that officials from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government are engaging with the domestic abuse sector and other relevant stakeholders on these issues, regarding the termination of joint tenancies. I am happy to give a commitment that we will continue to consider the issues with the sector, with a view to arriving at a workable solution.

Turning to new clause 43, this seeks to amend section 199 of the Housing Act 1996, which defines local connection. Local connection relates to how local housing authorities establish and carry out their statutory homelessness duties under part VII of the Act. If an applicant does not have a local connection, as defined by section 199, a housing authority can refer that applicant to another housing authority where they do have a local connection and can access this support. However, under that legislation, the authority must ensure that the conditions for referral are met. This means that a housing authority cannot refer an applicant to another authority if they, or anyone who might reasonably be expected to reside with them, would be at risk of violence.

The homelessness code of guidance makes clear that a housing authority is under a positive duty to enquire whether the applicant would be at such a risk, and stipulates that authorities should not impose a high standard of proof of actual violence in the past when making its decision. The changes the Government propose to make in this Bill, in order to ensure that domestic abuse victims are considered to be in priority need for homelessness assistance, will be strengthened further by amending section 198 of the Housing Act 1996, so that a local authority cannot refer an applicant if there is a risk of not only violence but domestic abuse, as defined in the Bill.

Local connection is also a factor in how many local authorities determine priority for social housing. The allocation of social housing is governed by part VI of the Housing Act 1996. Local authorities must give reasonable preference for social housing to certain groups of people, including those who are homeless or who need to move for medical or welfare reasons. To help them determine the relative priority of applicants who fall into these groups, they may, but are not obliged to, use local connection as defined in section 199. Existing statutory guidance, to which authorities must have regard, makes it clear that they should consider giving additional preference within their allocation schemes to people who are homeless and require urgent rehousing as a result of domestic abuse. Existing legislation and guidance should therefore ensure that the intended purpose of new clause 43 is already in effect. It is not correct to say that a victim of domestic abuse needs to have a local connection for the purposes of a homelessness application, and lack of local connection should not prevent victims of domestic abuse from getting priority for social housing.

In new clause 44, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley proposes that the Government make new regulations to prevent local authorities from setting qualification criteria for social housing that may disadvantage victims of domestic abuse due to lack of a local connection. Many local authorities restrict their waiting lists to those who can demonstrate a close association with their local area. This helps to ensure that, as far as possible, affordable housing is available for those among the local population who are on low incomes or otherwise disadvantaged, and who would find it particularly difficult to find a home on the open market.

Statutory guidance published in 2013 is clear that local authorities should consider the need to provide for appropriate exceptions from their residency requirements to take account of special circumstances, including providing protection to people who need to move away from another area to escape violence. Statutory guidance published in 2018 goes even further. It encourages all local authorities to exempt from their residency requirements those who are living in a refuge or other form of safe temporary accommodation in their district, having escaped domestic abuse in another local authority area. This is because many people escaping domestic abuse may seek a place of safety in a refuge before they apply for social housing.

The allocation of social housing is devolved to local housing authorities for good reason. The legislation allows for flexibility, to ensure that authorities can tailor their allocation schemes to meet local priorities. The Government are committed to ensuring that the system is fair and functioning effectively. The social housing Green Paper included a proposal to carry out an evidence-collection exercise to improve our understanding of how the system is playing out across the country. The findings from the exercise will be published in due course and we will consider any changes that may be needed. For those reasons and on the understanding that we will continue to examine the issues around joint tenancies, I invite the hon. Lady to withdraw the clauses.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office), Shadow Minister (Domestic Violence and Safeguarding) 4:15, 17 Mehefin 2020

It is pleasing to hear that the issue of joint tenancies is being looked into. As I said to the hon. Member for Darlington, these issues will undoubtedly come up in the Lords, where some very eminent people will wish to look over them, so I will withdraw the motion and look forward to progress being made.

On local connection, if we do not do something in regulations, the issue will continue to be tested in the courts because it is currently not working. I very much hope that the Bill in its wider sense and the new duties will provide further strength, but I guess we will have to wait and see. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.