Housing Succession Policy

John Bercow Excerpts
Thursday 31st October 2019

(10 months, 4 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
Rushanara Ali Portrait Rushanara Ali - Hansard
31 Oct 2019, 5:06 p.m.

I very much agree with that point. People need to be given the right advice about the legal framework when they apply so that mistakes are not made, and I will come on to mention some of those. Individuals in public organisations such as housing associations and local authorities find themselves in the very difficult position that while they feel they have to apply the law, that law itself is flawed, which is why we need action from the Government.

Section 160 of the Localism Act 2011 ended the right of those who are not spouses or civil partners to succeed to secure tenancies that were agreed after 1 April 2012. The Act passed responsibility for decision making to local authorities, and clear central guidance has meant that many more bereaved children have faced eviction after the death of their parent. In the depths of their grief, they have had to fight bureaucracy, and often legal threats, just to stay in their homes, all the while dealing with the consequences of losing a family member.

Guidance on the allocation of accommodation for local authorities was issued in 2002. It includes guidance on when it might be appropriate to grant a tenancy to members of a household. For example, that could be when someone has been living with a tenant for a year prior to that tenant’s death, when they have provided care, or when they have accepted responsibility for the tenant’s dependents and need to live in the family home. There are many example of caring responsibilities that people have fulfilled over many years, and such people should not be treated in such a way.

The whole House will understand why, when left to their own devices, local authorities prioritise those in need on the housing waiting list. They are often placed in an impossibly difficult situation and need to make difficult choices. However, that does not balance out the needs of vulnerable people who are at risk of being made homeless, and who are treated inhumanely and unsympathetically at a time of bereavement.

No one suggests that large family homes should be occupied by single tenants— the 2002 guidance makes that clear—or that the rent book should stay with the same family in perpetuity. As the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, I know all too well about the desperate need for more affordable homes, and for an end to overcrowding and appalling housing conditions. The rationing of housing has meant that even in those cases, people are threatened with eviction because of changes made in the Localism Act 2011. Surely that is an unintended and pernicious consequence of the Act, but the way it has been interpreted by local councils and housing associations means that people face homelessness at the very time when they need support from the state and solace, rather than having to think about whether they will be allowed to live in their homes. If ever there was a need for a humane and flexible approach, it is this.

I have had to deal with so many cases over the past few years. Families with caring responsibilities have had to fight multiple eviction notices having just buried family members. Older children have given up their own council properties, because they could not afford private accommodation or to buy, and have moved in to look after a parent for many years. They are then faced with eviction when that parent dies.

One constituent moved out of his own council property to care for his father, who suffered from a number of serious health and mobility conditions. After successfully registering to have him and his wife added to his father’s tenancy agreement, the housing association sent a letter, two days after his father’s death, to explain that that may not be possible. My constituent eventually received an eviction notice. I am pleased that he was ultimately allowed to stay and the housing association reversed its decision, but he should never had faced the trauma of having to go through that so soon after the death of a family member.

Another constituent wanted to succeed to her late mother’s tenancy, having lived in the property as her main home since the late-‘80s. She suffers from a number of health issues. She feels that the EastendHomes housing association applied discretion appropriately, but she now faces eviction.

There have been many cases where constituents of mine have been wrongly served eviction notices in the circumstances of bereavement. I even had a case where a constituent came to my surgery who, having just lost her partner of 19 years, was told, wrongly, that she could not succeed his tenancy. In one case, the combination of an eviction threat and a bereavement faced by my constituent, after having cared for her mother for over a decade, was driving her to the edge of a nervous breakdown. She was worried about bailiffs coming to her house—she had received eviction notices—and that she would be thrown out. The only thing I could offer her was that I would go there and stand with her, and do whatever was needed to help her so that she did not get seriously ill as a result of the pressure and, in essence, the harassment she was experiencing at the hands of the state.

There have been so many cases that we have had to fight. Many hon. Members from across the House will have had similar cases. This is no way to treat hard-working and caring family members who, through their caring responsibilities, have saved the state billions of pounds. We should be supporting them, especially through bereavement, rather than punishing them. What can we do? In so many cases, it is too late for those who have experienced such treatment. People have been evicted from their homes and subjected to needless concern, worry and stress. That has affected their mental health and wellbeing. In other cases, the effect has been even more severe.

Being treated this way by the national Government and by local government, through legislation, is wrong. Surely, we can do better in the future. Surely, we can reach cross-party agreement to look at this issue and look at the number of cases around the country. It is very hard for us to get the aggregate statistics on the impact on our constituents across the country, and this is a major problem. I strongly urge all local administrators to be made to adopt a humane, compassionate policy for those facing such difficulties. The Government should instruct them to stop sending eviction notices to our constituents when they have been bereaved. There should be a significant length of time before matters such as remaining in the properties they are resident in are considered, even if they are larger properties, so that they have an appropriate time in which to grieve and recover.

I am extremely grateful to Ministers and hon. Members from across the House for attending this debate, given that we are in the midst of an election campaign. I appreciate that this issue may well get drowned out in the election campaign because there are so many other big issues such as Brexit, the NHS and other public services that we will want to talk about. However, I hope that when the next team of Ministers returns to the House, we can all agree that we need action. I therefore ask the Minister to address the following points.

Does the Minister agree that passing a tenancy to an appropriate person who might be a relative—a child or a carer—can be an appropriate way to maintain stability and ensure that the parent receives the right support and that the child, who is often an adult, is not made homeless and punished for dutifully providing care to a family member? What assessment has she made of the workings of the Localism Act with regard to tenancy succession for those family members who have been carers for many years? How many cases end up in court? What is the financial and personal cost, in terms of health and wellbeing, to residents? Does she not agree that we need national guidance to provide clarity on how local agencies and authorities should treat people in such circumstances and that local authorities must not use eviction notices or bailiffs to threaten our constituents with eviction when they are suffering and grieving? That is utterly unacceptable. There is a wider point about the use of bailiffs by local authorities that this Government need to act on, because in such circumstances we can see how much damage is done. What steps will she take to ensure that there are common standards and that public servants take appropriate, sensitive actions in these times of need? Finally, will she commit to a timetable to deliver change?

In conclusion, to lose a parent or a relative is a terrible blow. The aftermath requires a suitable period of grieving and healing, and the amount of time required will vary between different people. Those of us who have grieved for loved ones will know that we cannot put a fixed timetable on grief and recovery from it. Just because I am talking about people who are not wealthy, who do not have the means to own their own properties and do not have the resources but who have cared for a loved one does not mean that their suffering should be treated in this way—that they should not be treated compassionately for what they are doing, not only for their families, but as a public service. They have shown a duty of care and love to their family members and loved ones as their lives have come to an end, providing them with the dignity that they rightly should have, and we should make sure that such people are also treated in a dignified, caring way.

Mr Speaker Hansard
31 Oct 2019, 5:18 p.m.

I thank the hon. Lady for her speech, including the very kind remarks that she made at the start.

I referenced a constituent and a former constituent earlier, whom I am absolutely thrilled to see in the Gallery. As we approach the end of the day and just before I call the Minister, whom I regard as a personal friend, I want to reference three other people in Gallery, because I regard their presence as being of great significance. First of all, Stephen Benn is in this place more often that he is out of it, and he has forged a magnificent link between the science community and Parliament. As a result of his prodigious efforts, boundless energy, personal charm and obvious commitment, those links are stronger now—I say this almost as much for the benefit of members of the public as I do for Members of the House—than they have been in the past. That is an enormous tribute to you, Stephen. Of course, you know that our bond is also strengthened by the fact that I came to know you through your late father, Tony, who was, without question, one of the great parliamentarians of the 20th century. I came to know Tony well and benefited from his counsel and support. I think of him pretty much every day and often regale audiences with anecdotes flowing from my friendship with and benefit gained from him.

I also want to mention Tim Hames, who has worked as an adviser to me for the last decade and who is as near to being a polymath as I know. He is one of these people who is incredibly accomplished at a very large number of different things—at writing and speaking, as an academic, as a journalist and as somebody who ran the British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association very successfully for a very long period—but who, in particular, has been a wonderful counsellor to me, of which I am enormously appreciative, as I think he knows. Tim, it is great to see you, and to see you accompanied by your wife Julia, and to have you in the Gallery as we approach the end of the day—my last day in the Chair—has a very special significance for me.

Esther McVey Portrait The Minister for Housing (Ms Esther McVey) - Hansard
31 Oct 2019, 5:19 p.m.

It is indeed an honour to be answering this debate—the very last debate that you will chair, Mr Speaker. In that regard, it is quite an occasion. Many of us will only know you as the Speaker. You have a reputation for being a thorn in the side of Ministers, but as a Minister, I appreciate that your job is to help to ensure that Back Benchers hold Ministers to account, and you have done that better than anyone else. That is your job and your purpose for being here.

Many people have also mentioned how you have been a modernising Speaker, that you have ensured that Back Benchers have had more say and, in doing that, that the public have had a greater say in this House, as a centre of democracy; the people are being heard.

I wish you well as you go forth. There is a chapter closing here, but I do not want to dwell on that. I want to look forward to a chapter that will be opening, for you and your family. I am sure we have not heard the last of your dulcet tones. You have accrued an almost—no, not almost—an encyclopaedic knowledge of what goes on in this House, of its processes and procedures, and I hope you take that forth into another job that allows you to speak about what happens in Parliament. I hope you remain a good friend of this House too.

I want to also pay tribute to Rose—I will call her by her first name because most of us class her as a friend and call her by her first name. She has touched the hearts of many, as we have heard here today, and has been there for many during this turbulent time when people have turned to her in their time of need. She has celebrated with us and spent sad times with us. She has not left the House entirely: she is coming back next September, when I shall be, late in life, getting married for the first time.

I turn back to this important debate. I commend the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) for securing it and bringing this matter to the Government’s attention. The Government recognise the important role that affordable housing in general, and social rented housing in particular, play in supporting people and communities. That is why the Government are committed to increasing the supply of affordable housing and have made £9 billion available through the affordable homes programme, to March 2020, to deliver 250,000 new affordable homes of a wide range of tenure, including homes for social rent. It is also why we are determined to ensure that social housing is safe and decent and that those who live in social homes are treated with dignity and respect. The hon. Lady raised very relevant issues about those who have been bereaved and could be going through a period of grief.

The hon. Lady talked about succession and social housing. Social housing confers many benefits, including security of tenure and below-market rents. For local authority tenants, it also confers the statutory right to buy. It is incumbent, therefore, on local authorities and housing associations to manage their housing to benefit the community, particularly those in greatest need; they need that housing. It is important, therefore, that the succession rules strike a balance between the needs of those members of the deceased tenant’s family who consider the property to be their home, the interests of the local authority and the housing association in making best use of their housing, and the interests of those on the housing waiting list who are also in need.

There will always be sensitive and difficult cases that cannot always be foreseen or captured by the statutory provision, which is why there is an addition to that provision: the social landlord can exercise discretion to take into account individual circumstances such as those the hon. Lady raised, and that is what they should be doing. Provided it is in line with their own allocation policies and the Regulator of Social Housing’s tenancy standards, there is nothing to stop a social landlord from granting the surviving family member a new tenancy in the same property, or they may be able to offer a tenancy for a different property, should that be more appropriate. Indeed, it is partly because the previous succession rules were considered too inflexible and not sufficient to allow for a household’s individual circumstances to be taken into account that the Government introduced changes under the Localism Act 2011.

Those changes apply to social tenancies granted from 1 April 2012. They mean that social landlords are no longer limited by law to providing only one succession to a spouse or a partner, or, in the case of local authorities, to a resident family member. Instead, social landlords have, since April 2012, been able to give to new tenants more extensive succession rights in tenancy agreements, in addition to the statutory one succession to a spouse or partner. That important flexibility means that, for example, carers or adult children who have lived in a property for many years can be provided with the assurance of a right to succeed to the tenancy, regardless of whether a previous succession has already taken place.

Striking the right balance between competing interests is never easy.