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Northern Ireland Assembly

Wednesday 3 July 2002


Housing Bill: Second Stage

Housing Support Services Bill: Second Stage

Point of Order: Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety

Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults Bill: Second Stage

Health and Personal Social Services Bill (NIA 06/01):
Further Consideration Stage

Railway Safety Bill: Final Stage

Regional Transportation Strategy for Northern Ireland 2002-2012

Water Resource Strategy 2002-2030

The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Housing Bill: Second Stage


The Minister for Social Development (Mr Dodds):

I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Housing Bill (NIA 24/01) be agreed.

It is 10 years since the introduction of any primary legislation in the social housing field, and 30 years since a Northern Ireland Assembly considered housing legislation. Therefore it is not surprising to find that the Bill is a fairly lengthy document that covers many important issues.

Before I consider the detail of the Bill, I wish to mention that extensive consultation has taken place over several years on its provisions. That consultation culminated in the publication of the draft Bill and its explanatory memorandum for comment in March 2002. More than 400 copies of the Bill were issued, and more than 250 responses were received. I am pleased to report to the Assembly that a significant majority of respondents welcomed the provisions. I thank all those who provided comments and helped to finalise the provisions before us.

The Bill contains 150 clauses and five schedules, and covers a wide range of issues. Members will be glad to hear that I do not intend to go through all of the provisions now. However, I shall mention those that have attracted most comment and discussion. The Bill contains measures to help deal with antisocial behaviour in social housing. Such behaviour is a blight on the lives of far too many people today, yet landlords and neighbours can do little to put an early stop to any nuisance or annoyance that affects them. I wish to give social housing tenants and landlords greater powers to help them to deal with the problem.

The Bill includes provision for introductory tenancies; increased powers to seek repossession of dwellings; the power to seek injunctions against perpetrators of antisocial behaviour; and the power to treat applicants as ineligible for social housing if they have been found guilty of unacceptable behaviour.

Introductory tenancies will give social landlords the opportunity to assess the suitability of new applicants. Conversely, they will also allow prospective tenants the opportunity to prove themselves worthy of a secure tenancy. If tenants prove to be unsatisfactory, repossession can be sought swiftly through the courts.

The other measures that I have just mentioned will enable social landlords to take effective action against persistent antisocial offenders. The grounds of nuisance and annoyance are being extended to cover any such behaviour by visitors to a dwelling, and unlawful activity by persons in the locality.

That will allow officials, such as Housing Executive staff, to give evidence in court about nuisance or annoyance in cases in which neighbours might be intimidated from giving such evidence. The Housing Executive, or a registered housing association, will be able to seek an injunction prohibiting a person from engaging in conduct likely to cause a nuisance or annoyance in the area, and persons found guilty of unacceptable behaviour may not be eligible for an allocation of housing.

Together, these measures will form a strong package of remedies to help deal with antisocial behaviour. However, I emphasise that repossession is a last resort; prevention is better than cure. The main emphasis will continue to be on mediation to help eradicate antisocial behaviour at an early stage and avoid the need for repossession.

The Bill also replicates to a large extent the existing scheme of grants to help with the renewal of private-sector housing. These grants continue to play a vital role in helping to improve standards in the private rented sector. Because the demand-led nature of the existing mandatory scheme inhibits the effective concentration of resources in areas of greatest need, the Bill replaces the current scheme with one that is largely discretionary. However, due to the essential nature of the disabled facilities grant, it will remain mandatory, with a discretionary option to grant-aid for additional facilities.

The provision of accommodation for travellers has been a contentious issue for some time. That is not helped by the blurring of responsibilities for providing traveller accommodation between district councils on one hand and the Housing Executive on the other. There should be a single authority with specific responsibility for dealing with all the accommodation needs of travellers. The Bill places that duty on the Housing Executive. In future, the Housing Executive will have sole responsibility for providing such sites as appear to it to be appropriate for the accommodation of travellers’ caravans. To assist in the transition, existing sites that are provided and managed by councils in Northern Ireland will be transferred to the Housing Executive.

Members will be well aware of concerns over the safety standards in houses in multiple occupation (HMOs). Those houses form part of the private rented sector, and they provide accommodation for up to 30,000 people, mainly students. The Bill requires the Housing Executive to prepare and administer a registration scheme for those houses with the objective of improving their quality and safety.

Under the scheme, persons running a house in multiple occupation will have to register the property with the Housing Executive and comply with control provisions as to the number of persons occupying it. The registration conditions may include conditions relating to the management of the house or the behaviour of its occupants. There will be further consultation on the scheme’s details as the Housing Executive develops its proposals.

The Bill deals with a range of miscellaneous matters, including a house sales scheme for tenants of registered housing associations; legislative cover for existing extra-statutory Housing Executive schemes to compensate tenants for improvements and repairs that they have carried out to their homes; and other provisions to bring our legislation into line with that in the rest of the United Kingdom.

I want to mention briefly some issues that are not in the Bill. Processing legislation is a lengthy business, and the provisions in this Bill were finalised last year. Since then several further areas have been identified for which legislation is, or may be, required. The private rented sector and the role of the Housing Executive are likely candidates. However, they are not ready for inclusion in this Bill, and to try to make provision for them now would delay the Bill beyond next year’s elections, and it would undoubtedly fall. We have waited long enough to bring the provisions in this Bill before the Assembly. Let us now make the further effort to get it onto the statute book and leave the way clear for new legislation, if necessary, to cater for further provisions.

It is clear to me as the Minister responsible for housing that housing legislation is going to be a regular feature in the coming years, whether in this Assembly or elsewhere. This is an important Bill that many people are waiting to see enacted.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development (Mr G Kelly):

The Chairperson of the Committee, Fred Cobain, has business elsewhere and wishes to apologise to the House for his absence. I may make some personal comments at the end of my speech, but I am speaking now as the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee.

The Minister has outlined the principles in the Bill, and we have waited a long time for this day. It is long overdue, and it is unfortunate that it has taken until now to deliver to the Assembly a Bill that has been in the legislative programme for the last three years. It was even about to be considered in another place before the establishment of the Assembly.

The Committee for Social Development has been calling for this legislation almost since the Assembly was formed. It was promised to us, and promised to us and promised to us. Now, with the mandate for the Assembly due to run out early next year, the Committee is faced with an enormous task over a relatively short period. Indeed, immediately after this debate the Minister will outline the principles of another piece of housing legislation, the Housing Support Services Bill, which will also have to be scrutinised by the Social Development Committee.

There are 150 clauses in this Bill. Thankfully, the Committee’s housing inquiry has given us a good grounding on the issues we can expect to face when we scrutinise it. We have visited the problems of the private rented sector, houses in multiple occupation, the rights of housing association tenants to buy their own homes and homelessness. All those subjects are covered in the Bill to a greater or lesser degree.

Unfortunately, we were unable to conduct the third element of our inquiry, which concerned antisocial behaviour. Getting the Bill through the Committee Stage will be difficult and may be contentious — in my view it will be contentious. We know that some people involved in the housing sector are critical of at least some of the Bill’s provisions. Similar legislation in England and Wales stands largely discredited. However, there is a different proposition in the North on this.

The Committee’s responsibility is enormous. It is conscious of the need to consult on legislation, and that should help to get it right. The Assembly has an obligation to be open and transparent in its business. However, we must avoid overconsultation, and a balance must be struck. All Members agree that we need action. The Committee has been pragmatic in this matter, and it sought and secured a practical commitment from the Minister. He agreed to the Committee’s request to release all the submissions his Department received in the course of the recent public consultation on this Bill, and the Committee has been studying them carefully.

10.45 am

At one time Committee members considered voting down the Bill at Second Stage by way of reasoned amendment because, in our view, it fails to keep pace with the changing housing situation. After much soul-searching, and being mindful that we represent all the parties, it was decided that there was enough in the Bill to make scrutiny worthwhile. However, the Committee does not underestimate the enormity of the task ahead. I am confident that members will rise to that task.

Unfortunately, there is precious little time to ensure that the Committee’s scrutiny is as comprehensive as it should be. If the Minister contends that that scrutiny is a matter of tying up loose ends, I say to him: if the Bill is not a radical overhaul of housing law, I am at a loss to know why we have waited so long. Perhaps the Minister will tell Members why that has been the case.

Undoubtedly, the Committee will want amendments made to the Bill. I ask the Minister to be responsive to those views. He should not be stubborn and stick rigidly to the Bill as introduced. The Committee has completed a report into the growing and worrying problem of homelessness, and the report’s recommendations had cross-party support in the House. I welcome yesterday’s announcement that more funding will be made available to tackle homelessness. That underlines the fact that there is a serious problem which may require legislative change as well as additional money.

Preventative measures are required in the strategy for tackling homelessness, and legislative provision must be made for that. If that cannot be achieved, I hope that the Minister will immediately set in motion arrangements for further housing law.

The Committee intends to agree quickly those provisions that are not contentious and to concentrate on areas where there is disagreement with the Minister’s position. The Committee will write to those who are interested in housing matters to establish the provisions that should be amended and what form those amendments should take. In the belief that housing impacts on poverty, health and education, the Committee will consult other Statutory Committees on those issues. I hope that those Committees will be able to respond quickly, so that the Committee for Social Development can report back to the Assembly. The Committee will do its best to do the Bill justice on the Assembly’s behalf.

Between now and May 2003, the Committee for Social Development will have to consider five Bills. If that situation is replicated in every Department, it will be a gargantuan task to progress legislation in the time allotted. However, the Housing Bill is important. The Committee believes that the existing legislation is outdated and copies British models instead of dealing with the specific issues that we face here. Although Committee members agree that the legislation must be approved before May, we must get it right and we must not rush the Bill through, because it will impact on generations to come. I hope that the House will bear with the Committee, and that Members will make their views known when the Bill is being scrutinised.

Many people have expressed their views on antisocial behaviour. The provisions on antisocial behaviour in the Bill are inadequate. The Committee has had many briefings and heard many presentations on homelessness that have been critical of the Bill. I hope that the Committee will be able to present those views later, and to proceed in a considered way and get things right.

Sir John Gorman:

I am the leading advocate of those who are prepared to go so far as to turn away from the Bill as it stands. I totally support the view expressed by the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development, Mr Gerry Kelly, that we ask the Minister and his advisers to take account of the huge changes that are being made in UK housing legislation.

In recent years three ministers in the United Kingdom have had responsibility for housing; Lord MacIntosh, Stephen Byers — God bless him, if He can — and Lord Rooker. This is probably a symptom of the fact that there is much dislike of what has gone on in social housing. Social housing is the reason the Housing Executive was introduced. Its role was to ensure housing for those who were unhoused, badly housed, poor and whose chances of bringing up a family in decent surroundings were quite bad. When I joined the Housing Executive many years ago there was a daunting task to be done, but it was done well.

The Housing Executive now sells 5,000 houses a year — it has done so for years and will do so for years — from its stock of 120,000. That stock used to comprise just fewer than 250,000 houses for social housing. The Housing Executive now produces, with a struggle, about 1,000 houses a year, so the loss to the Province a year is 4,000 houses for letting. That cannot go on. We have the highest level of homelessness in the United Kingdom, and it is increasing by 15% a year. I beg the Minister to pay as much attention as he can to the big changes that are taking place. Progress can be made in the time available to him.

I was at Harrogate two weeks ago listening to 2,400 housing specialists. The First Minister made the opening speech, and those who were listening to him were very impressed. However, Northern Ireland needs some radical re-thinking in respect of antisocial behaviour, for instance. Members should consider the private Member’s Bill tabled by Mr Frank Field in the House of Commons last week. He talked about the serious action to be taken against "neighbours from hell" who make life in some housing estates intolerable for others. Look at what is going on in north and east Belfast; neighbours from hell exist there, and the situation may get worse.

Given what the Deputy Chairperson said about the new attitude to funding — something which was also expressed by Lord MacIntosh in his Green Paper in December — I wonder if the role of the Housing Executive does not require a radical re-think. The Green Paper showed that the need for social housing in the United Kingdom generally is becoming more pronounced than it is in Northern Ireland.

I admire the Minister; I think he is one of the best Ministers that Northern Ireland has ever had, and I am sure that the whole Committee and the Chairperson, if he had been able to attend, would agree. The Minister is desperately trying to put housing here into its proper place in the twenty-first century, and the Committee supports him in that. However, the Committee does not believe that everything that is needed for housing is covered in the Bill. I hope that the Minister heeds that and uses his time in office as best he can.

(Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair)

The Minister is right to say that something must be done now. Members cannot let the best be the enemy of the good. The good is bringing the Bill into existence quickly, but modified as much as it can be in the given time and with some herald of changes by way of another piece of legislation in due course.

Mr ONeill:

My Colleagues in the SDLP and I have examined the Housing Bill against existing commitments made by the Minister, against key principles that the SDLP is committed to, and against the serious housing needs of the community. It is a serious disappointment.

Members are aware of the North’s high levels of homelessness, unfit housing and shortage of public-sector housing. It was hoped that the Bill would begin to seriously tackle those issues, informed by the experiences of recent legislative change elsewhere to prove that devolution will make a difference to the people in Northern Ireland. However, that opportunity has been wasted.

Instead, we are dealing with a minimalist housekeeping exercise, a rehash of the dusty old reports compiled over the last decade — or, as the Deputy Chairperson put it, the last century — with little or no fresh thinking on today’s problems and little vision for the future.

Several issues will illustrate the points that I am trying to make. The proposal for introductory tenancies is unacceptable. It is not justifiable for the public sector to impose such status on tenants. To my knowledge, there is no evidence that such a measure would satisfactorily deal with problems such as antisocial behaviour.

The SDLP views housing as a fundamental right. It takes minimum international standards as its starting point and looks higher, to best international practice, as its aim. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights commits us to recognition of everyone’s

"right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care".

Moreover, the Executive’s priorities in the Programme for Government include tackling social need and social exclusion; ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to access decent, affordable housing; and securing permanent tenancies, within three months of application, for 70% of applicants accepted as statutorily homeless. That has been unanimously adopted by the House. Yet the Housing Bill sets out a method by which people can be evicted from public-sector housing and left without assistance if they are homeless as a consequence. Even worse, they are likely to remain ineligible for state assistance for an indefinite period.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that the right to shelter ranks alongside the right to food and medical care. It is not a luxury, to be denied as a punitive measure — it is a right. Antisocial behaviour is a problem to be acknowledged and tackled, particularly given the scarce public resources available. It is a complex issue, of which housing is only one element. Just as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights refers to housing in the context of an essential standard of living, so must the solution to the housing problems be found in acknowledging the linkage with wider issues.

In other words, tackling antisocial behaviour is a societal issue that must involve, among others, the agencies responsible for employment, education, health, social services, criminal justice and social security. The Minister must introduce a positive and co-ordinated initiative such as that, rather than merely punitive measures to relocate and replicate the problem.

11.00 am

Once again, the Bill is found wanting strategically. Although the homelessness figures continue to rise, no clear plan exists to alleviate homelessness, and there is no duty on the state housing authority to assist the homeless. Instead, the Bill focuses on withdrawing support from some individuals, such as those evicted from public sector housing or people who are considered to be intentionally homeless. There is a danger that if the latter category is not carefully defined, not everyone who requires help will get it. If a homeless person is lucky enough to receive assistance, he or she will be granted an unsecure tenancy for an unlimited period. That happens in spite of the Programme for Government’s aim of granting secure tenancies within three months of a person’s presenting himself or herself as homeless. In that way, the most vulnerable people will be disadvantaged. The Committee for Social Development hopes and expects that, given his welcome and support for the Committee’s report, the Minister will ensure that the recommendations are reflected in the Department’s amendments to the section on homelessness.

The lack of traveller accommodation has been highlighted regularly; it is time to tackle the problem comprehensively. The Committee acknowledges the duty of the Housing Executive to provide sites. However, we wish to see that extended so that the Housing Executive would be required to meet travellers’ accommodation needs, which include group housing, service sites and transit sites. We trust that steps will be taken to ensure that the Housing Executive can fulfil that obligation through the purchase of land or sites as required.

The Bill contains some welcome provisions for houses in multiple occupation (HMOs). [Interruption].

I am glad to hear that Members recognise my generosity.

Many students and others have endured substandard accommodation over the years. Therefore it is vital that a compulsory registration scheme be established to raise standards and eliminate safety hazards. All types of HMOs must be covered right across the North. The status of nurses’ accommodation, as well as accommodation that belongs to charitable organisations, is unclear. That is interesting. As we work through the stages of the Bill, we may achieve clarity on that.

Antisocial behaviour must be dealt with in a co-ordinated fashion, regardless of the status of management-type accommodation. Moreover, it is necessary to protect the list of private landlords from exploitation, criminal or otherwise.

The sale of properties by registered housing associations is a difficult issue. The SDLP has always supported Housing Executive tenants’ right to buy their property, and we endorse the equality argument in the proposed right to buy for housing association tenants. However, it is a cause for concern that there is no clear strategy to address the shortage of homes under public sector ownership. Sir John Gorman made the point that we can continue to sell homes to tenants only if we build replacements to house new families who will be afforded that same right. Otherwise, the right to buy homes will only be a right for the present generation. The SDLP firmly holds the view that there continues to be a need for publicly owned housing that is available to rent at a modest price and that the right to live in a home will always outweigh the right to buy a home. Therefore, the right of a low-income family to rent affordable accommodation will outweigh the right of a better-off family to buy up that affordable rental accommodation.

There are further concerns about the supply of specially designed or adapted homes, such as sheltered accommodation designed for pensioners, or houses adapted for people with disabilities. Clearly, we would not want pensioners and people with disabilities to be discriminated against. However, if such homes are not replaced those people will suffer from the lack of sufficient accommodation. Some of the regulations regarding the sales policy being operated by the Housing Executive need to be examined carefully, because they include good practice.

I referred to the need for greater investment in housing. Clause 125, which is aimed at levering in private money, would allow the Housing Executive to sell off a group of houses to a landlord if a majority of tenants agreed. The SDLP has concerns about the long-term value-for-money implications of such an initiative, and it seeks reassurance on the issue as well as on the accountability and transparency of the operation. Public sector investment must be guarded and consistent with Mark Durkan’s input to yesterday’s announcement regarding the reinvestment and reform initiative. The SDLP wants long-term investment in public services, rather than having them sold off.

We had hoped that the Bill would demonstrate a serious commitment to tackle the housing problems in Northern Ireland. With rising homelessness and housing shortages forming a central part of overall deprivation statistics, the Assembly and the Executive must work together to address the glaring social needs of the community. It is hard to believe that in the year 2002 we are having to campaign on issues that were alive in the 1880s — free sale, fixity of tenure and fair rent — "the three fs" of the land war. It is interesting to consider how far we have come.

Communities with housing shortages and homelessness often suffer the related problems of unemployment and poor literacy together with health difficulties. That is another reason why the Minister’s brief cannot be separated from the good work that is done in other Departments, for example, Carmel Hanna’s task force on employability and long-term unemployment, and the work to deliver Executive programme funds to tackle disadvantage. One cannot help but wonder how much better the Bill would have been if the Minister for Social Development had been more fully involved in the efforts of the Executive to address those community issues on a partnership basis.

A Member:

Must the Member take every opportunity?

Mr ONeill:

I never miss it.

The SDLP seriously considered voting against the Bill in the hope that the Minister would come back with a more comprehensive and up-to-date attempt to tackle housing issues. However, as is consistent with our constructive approach to politics, the party has decided that it will give the Bill its reluctant support. We do so on the basis that there are modest improvements to the Bill that we would not wish to delay, and also because there is considerable consensus on amendments that need to be made. In fairness, I believe that the Minister is genuine in his commitment to some of those.

The issue is one of Members’ time and commitment. The SDLP is willing to work with its Colleagues on the Committee for Social Development to bring forward a wide range of amendments to the Bill. We trust that in so doing, the Minister will recognise and support the changes proposed, given the broad support for them.

Mr Morrow:

I am not sure how to follow all that — it was more like a wake than a celebration. It is astounding that someone who claims to have a social conscience could be so negative. In fact, the Bill augurs well for the future. It amazes me that certain Members can put so much misinterpretation and spin on issues when they stand in the Chamber, yet their press statements paint a different picture.

I welcome the Second Stage of the Housing Bill. It has been a long time coming and a long time in the making. However, I do not lay any blame at the feet of the Minister or, indeed, his Department. Rather, that blame rests elsewhere. Had there been co-operation from the Executive early on, we would have been debating this Bill 12 or 15 months ago. We should lay the blame where it belongs.

The Bill is comprehensive, but it will not be the panacea to all housing troubles. It is the basis on which to build and go forward, not, as we have heard, to be negative and keep looking back.

I particularly welcome the Bill’s provisions for dealing with antisocial behaviour. I suspect that the Member who has been most critical of the Bill to date will also be most critical of antisocial behaviour. For far too long, we have had to tolerate a situation whereby good tenants have been unable to live in their homes and have been at the mercy of the thug, the hood and the corner boy; but there is not, as yet, any legislation to deal effectively with that problem.

We have an opportunity to correct the situation today, but Members say one thing in the House and another to the public. I work with that Member’s colleagues in Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council. I know their views on antisocial behaviour and thuggery. Therefore, it behoves the Assembly to give its full support and for Members not to take a negative, inward or backward attitude followed by a little comment that we will go forward.

Mr ONeill:

What is backward-looking about the human rights standards that I quoted from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

Mr Morrow:

Feedback from Housing Executive tenants shows that the Bill meets their needs. The Bill reflects what tenants have been telling the Housing Executive. It is amazing that Members should say that the Bill is repressive and should not be enacted.

I categorically stand with those who have fought for years to keep and maintain their homes, yet who have had to compete with the thugs, hoods and corner boys who systematically try to destroy their homes. Have any Members visited estates in Northern Ireland? Have they witnessed the aftermath of individuals’ taking control of estates? Had they done so, they would not have said what they did about methods to tackle antisocial behaviour.

I welcome the Bill. It is comprehensive, extending to almost 200 clauses. It is not the be all and end all. Rather, it is the basis on which we can start to go forward.

A good home is not a privilege; it is a basic human right. Housing in Northern Ireland over the past 25 years has changed dramatically. In this so-called terrible place in which we live, where we are supposedly underprivileged, it is ironic that 72% of homes are privately owned.

I could not agree more with Mr ONeill that good social housing is required and there must always be provision for it in Northern Ireland for those who cannot afford their own homes. However, I must also acknowledge that there are methods in place whereby people can purchase their own homes. I am thinking in particular of the Northern Ireland Co-ownership Scheme Ltd, which provides excellent facilities to assist those who want to purchase their own homes. That helps them to get onto the home ownership scheme. The Housing Executive introduced house sales approximately 25 years ago. I was the first to propose Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council’s support for that, because it adopted a good, healthy environment where social and private housing sat together. From that springs a good environment, and people’s lives have been enhanced immensely by it over the past 25 years. However, much remains to be done.

11.15 am

I also welcome the provision to give housing association tenants an equal footing so that they will be able, eventually, to purchase their homes. Anything different is incomprehensible. Every tenant, whether of the Housing Executive or a housing association, should have an equal right to purchase his or her home.

Homelessness is, unfortunately, on the increase in Northern Ireland. I have no doubt that the Minister and his Department are sincere and that they are capable of tackling the problem. I suspect that the Minister needs no lectures on deprivation and people’s needs. His constituency has the worst housing in Northern Ireland. He is therefore well positioned and well able to tackle the problem of house disrepair that exists throughout Northern Ireland. I am pleased that he is in that position, because he has first-hand knowledge of deprivation, and I do not doubt his determination to deal with it.

The Bill is but a start, albeit a good one, and the Assembly should give it its unqualified support. To be negative about some aspects of it is perhaps to play to the gallery. Could anyone say that the Bill is not a progressive step in the right direction and a vast improvement on current provisions? The negative perceptions of some Members exist only in their own heads. The public has been crying out for these provisions for 30 years, and, at long last, we have legislation to tackle the issues that affect every Member.

I welcome the introduction of the Bill, and I wish the Minister well with it.

Mrs E Bell:

I welcome the Bill. It is long awaited and reflects more flexibility in the housing rules and regulations. It is not perfect, but it is a good first step in prioritising the need to bring the law into line with social change.

Housing is as important as good health and, therefore, must be handled with equal urgency. There is a facility to amend the Bill — and all of us will use that — but the basic legislation must be there first.

Other Members outlined some of the provisions that the Alliance Party welcomes in the complex and comprehensive Bill. Members encounter problems daily with people who want to transfer, and I am glad that the transfer process was considered in line with other regulations that were introduced in the past. That the right to veto can be dealt with by housing associations and the Housing Executive is a step forward.

There is a problem with unacceptable and antisocial behaviour. I would like confirmation that the Bill will help those families in housing estates who find themselves the targets of the nuisance behaviour of people who were transferred from other estates due to their antisocial behaviour. Such problems are experienced in north Down and in other areas. People are transferred to estates in north Down because their neighbours in Belfast would not accept their antisocial behaviour. I am not sure that the legislation provides solutions for such problems.

Apart from the situation in north and east Belfast, the daily problems faced by councillors and tenants show that antisocial behaviour and nuisance levels are unacceptable, and I welcome the solutions provided in the Bill. However, several measures must be clarified. Legislation in England and Wales stated that housing should be made available to eligible persons. I would like that criterion clarified to show whom the eligible persons are.

The Bill refers to immigration. Immigrants in Northern Ireland must be provided with good accommodation. As the Minister stated, it is wise to make one agency responsible for the needs of travellers. It is to be hoped that the Bill ensures that travellers are dealt with in a fair and clear manner, which will acknowledge that they have the right to live in safety and comfort.

Many Members referred to homelessness in the debate; only last week, we debated the definition of homelessness. As stated in paragraph 36 of the explanatory and financial memorandum

"the Housing Act 1996 (which applies in England and Wales) subsequently provided for persons to be treated as homeless if they had no accommodation available for their accommodation in the United Kingdom or elsewhere. It is proposed to adopt the same definition for Northern Ireland. The policy objective is to ensure that applicants cannot be accepted as homeless by the Executive if they have accommodation available for their occupation outside Northern Ireland".

Do Members seriously believe that it would be easy to implement such measures in Northern Ireland? I do not. That provision must be reconsidered. The Minister is aware of Members’ feelings on homelessness, and I am sure that he is committed to improving the situation.

The regulations relating to unfit housing are welcome. In certain situations, people must be moved quickly, and the Housing Executive must allocate a house. However, I know a woman who is living in a Women’s Aid refuge because the house that the Housing Executive allocated is unfit. Safety measures must be considered, but allocated housing must be fit for occupation. The process takes a minimum of four weeks, and although Women’s Aid refuges are good, they are unacceptable if children are involved. Those are our principal feelings about the Bill.

Like other Members, I welcome the provision for housing association tenants to purchase their own houses. I also welcome other criteria contained in the Bill. Many issues must be reconsidered, but I will not go into those in any more detail. The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development stated that that Committee will consider those concerns. I am sure that it will scrutinise the Bill thoroughly. The Alliance Party will certainly scrutinise it and make a submission to the Committee. I hope that my party’s deliberations and those of the Committee will be considered thoroughly so that the legislation is strengthened to make it more relevant to society.

It is important to reiterate that the legislation should proceed quickly so that ratepayers, travellers and homeless people will benefit. The Bill should uphold everyone’s right to a decent and comfortable home. It should improve access to such accommodation and make tenants confident that they can live in safety.

I may harbour the vain hope that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the housing associations will be able to use the legislation to help people who want to live together in an atmosphere of peace and tolerance to find accommodation in integrated housing estates. That will in turn militate against ignorance, intolerance and sectarianism.

I welcome the Bill as a serious first step, and I wish the Minister well in its passage through the House.

Ms Lewsley:

The Bill must consider the complexities of travellers’ accommodation, because any structural weaknesses will have a negative impact on the overall housing programme. I am concerned at the lack of consultation with local authorities during the preparation of the Bill. The Bill does not take a holistic approach to travellers’ accommodation; for example, there is no guidance on the management or control of illegal encampments, transit sites or traveller traders. Those issues must be addressed positively and proactively. If responsibility for control or management of transit sites, unauthorised encampments or traveller traders rests with another agency, there is no legislation to empower effective management of those situations. The result is a time lapse of up to three years to permit new legislation to be drafted, consulted upon and enacted.

The wording of the Bill is unclear on the Housing Executive’s role in the provision of sites for travellers. It is unclear whether that responsibility will be statutory or non-statutory. The references to traveller sites are outdated, because they are based on the Caravans Act (Northern Ireland) 1963. Identification of a traveller refers to the Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, and again there is no reference to the problems of distinguishing traveller traders from nomadic traders. The issue of compatibility is also unclear.

The Bill deals effectively with many aspects of antisocial behaviour, which the Minister mentioned in his opening remarks and to which other Members have also referred. Local authorities would support action on antisocial behaviour, but there are concerns that those travellers who fall foul of the antisocial behaviour clauses and who find themselves outside the Housing Executive’s remit may resort to roadside existence again. That would have a negative effect because if no agency is responsible for the relocation of travellers, there will be no effective management control system.

11.30 am

A holistic approach to travellers’ accommodation is commendable and should be delivered by a single agency. That approach must include the provision of transit sites that deal with traveller traders and illegal and unauthorised encampments. That single agency should be the Housing Executive. It should be supported by legislation and powers of enforcement that promote effective management and control of those issues. Ring-fenced funding to provide specific accommodation for travellers is also necessary.

Specific management control mechanisms exist in the rest of the United Kingdom and in the Republic of Ireland, where the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 2002, which has far-ranging powers to deal with trespass and illegal encampments, has recently been introduced. In England and Wales, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 has been reasonably effective, but two Bills are going through Parliament that address perceived weaknesses in the 1994 Act. Therefore, it is essential that the Assembly takes note of all the relevant information available before it makes a final judgement on the matter.

The Bill’s definition of disability is taken from the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons (Northern Ireland) Act 1978, rather than that used in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. I ask the Minister to consider that discrepant factor. In the interests of inclusion and targeting social need (TSN), the definition should be widened to include all disabled people.

The Housing Executive needs to examine its provisions for the allocation of public housing to help disabled people who are trapped in areas of civil unrest. Their position on waiting lists is often put back because higher priority is given to other unsettled families. It would be advisable for the Housing Executive to obtain the relevant information from other bodies in order to satisfy itself that an applicant has a disability. I wish to see an end to the imposition of the Housing Executive’s own criteria as the only means of allocating local authority housing to people with disabilities.

The Housing Executive is to be congratulated on its provisions to enable disabled people to live an independent life. It has earmarked additional money to address the situation, and it is important that those people have the choice of living independently in suitable housing.

What provision is there to allow a disabled person to be a member of the Housing Executive’s board? Will the Minister provide details of disabled people who have served on previous boards?

Families with disabled children that seek a disabled facilities grant have often struggled for a long time in homes that are neither accessible nor suitable for their child’s needs. Difficulties arise through the means-testing system, in which no account is taken of the real income and expenditure or of the additional cost of disability. Means-testing has a devastating effect; it penalises families whose income is just above benefit level. Means-testing for families with disabled children should be discontinued and grant aid made mandatory for anyone with a disability. The legislation does not adequately explain TSN provision.

Introductory tenancy may cause reduced security of tenure and directly impact on disabled people. Linked to that is the fact that 68% of evictions are for rent arrears or non-payment of rent. Many disabled people are dependent on benefits and therefore live on the poverty line. As a result, introductory tenancy could have a disproportionate impact on disabled tenants. The benefits trap also means that disabled tenants are denied access to the financial service that they need to buy their homes.

Many aspects of the Bill do not deal with the issues that impact negatively on travellers and the disabled. We need housing legislation that is tailored to the needs of our people.

Mr Shannon:

I welcome the Bill, and I thank the Minister and the Committee for Social Development for their work. Although the Bill is not perfect, we must recognise its many good points.

My Colleague, Maurice Morrow, and other Members have spoken about antisocial behaviour. I am concerned about the timescale for addressing antisocial issues. What is the timescale for dealing with such behaviour, from the time a complaint is made to the time that it is resolved? Will action be taken against those responsible following one complaint, or will a number of complaints have to be made before the process is initiated?

I am concerned that the process takes too long. The Bill must provide for an immediate response to the problem. We need provisions that have the teeth to deal with people's needs and concerns quickly, rather than six months or more down the line. During the seventeen-and-a-half years that I have served as a councillor on Ards Borough Council, this issue has arisen time and again. People should not have to endure any longer than necessary the disruption of their lifestyles through despicable conduct and persistent antisocial behaviour. It is our responsibility to protect the vulnerable, look after the needy, and ensure that good tenants feel that the legislation caters for their needs. Will the Minister describe the timescale and explain how the process works?

With regard to succession on the death of a tenant, most of my concerns arise from constituency issues. I respond to those issues and bring them forward for consideration in the context of the Bill by the Committee and by the Minister.

Some cases involving the death of a tenant are very tragic. In many cases, the tenant who has passed away is a parent or relative of the person who will be succeeding them. Often, the death is very sudden; a tenant can pass away within six months of being diagnosed as terminally ill and they often need someone to look after them on an almost 24-hour basis during that time. The Bill provides for succession of tenancy when a person has resided with the tenant for 12 months ending with the tenant's death. Can that be made flexible so that a person who has resided with a tenant for six months could succeed them?

I welcome the change to the legislation detailed in paragraph 9 of the explanatory and financial memorandum. It will clearly address the problems that many of us have experienced while looking after constituents. A social landlord will now be able to take action when a non-tenant causes nuisance to his tenants. In the past fortnight, I have heard from several constituents affected by such a situation. The problem falls into a grey area, and the change to the legislation will enable us to address it quickly.

Clause 17 deals with nuisance or annoyance to neighbours, and the proposed change will be helpful. The clause deals with those

"guilty of conduct causing or likely to cause a nuisance".

How long it will take to deal with such people? It is important that we have a process to resolve such problems so that I can tell my constituents when issues will be sorted out. Will the Minister address that so that the problems that constituents bring to us can be dealt with quickly?

I congratulate the Minister and the Committee on their hard work. Let us focus on the positive points of the Bill and be flexible in operating the system for our constituents.


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