‘(1) The Housing Act 1996 (c. 52) is amended as follows.
(2) After paragraph (d) of section 189(i) (Priority need for accommodation) insert—
“(e) A person without dependant children who has been subject to domestic violence or is at risk of such violence, or if he or she returns home is at risk of domestic violence.”.’.—[Mr. Love.]
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
This is a probing new clause, and would amend the Housing Act 1996 to include a new section allowing a person without dependent children who has been subject to or is at risk of domestic violence, including if he or she were to return home, to have priority need.
Domestic violence currently accounts for 16 per cent. of all violent crime in this country and is estimated to cost in the region of £23 billion a year. In the latest year for which figures have been taken, more than 100 women and 30 men lost their lives as a result of domestic violence, and it is estimated that it affects one in four women and one in six men at some time in their lives. It is an enormous problem.
We do not want someone to be forced to choose between staying at home in a violent relationship and facing the prospect of street homelessness. If accepted, the new clause would bring England into the same situation as already exists under the Welsh homelessness legislation, and I would commend it on that point alone.
The current law suggests that people who seek assistance from a local authority have to be homeless, in priority need and not intentionally homeless. It is the difficulty of demonstrating that people are in priority need that we wish to address through the new clause. According to the Homelessness (Priority Need for Accommodation) (England) Order 2002, a victim of domestic violence is a
“person who is vulnerable as a result of ceasing to occupy accommodation by reason of violence from another person or threats of violence from another person which are likely to be carried out.”
That sounds as if it provides protection, but the problem is the accepted definition of vulnerability, which states that someone who has become homeless in such circumstances is
“less able to fend for themselves than an ordinary homeless person”.
That definition of vulnerability gives rise to four problems with the current law. First, the nature of the vulnerability test leads to a number of problems to do with consistency and decision making. One authority may take a decision that is quite at odds with other authorities’ measures, so the leeway in the definition of vulnerability means that consistency is sometimes the first casualty of such decisions.
Secondly, in many cases decisions are resource-driven, and that assertion is not just based on anecdotal evidence from my own local authority area. Indeed, it was echoed by a Lord Justice, who said in Osmani v. Camden that
“decisions are often likely to be highly judgemental”.
That has often been the outcome when such cases come to court, and the new clause would go some way towards address the problem.
Thirdly, victims of domestic violence often find it extremely difficult to provide sufficient evidence of their vulnerability. It is not easy for someone to come forward—victims of domestic violence often do not go to the police or any other authority for help—and when they have to go to a housing authority it is difficult for them to prove that they are victims, which makes it problematic to deal with them under the existing definition. As a consequence, people are often forced, if the local authority is not helpful and if they cannot show the necessary evidence, into a stark choice: do they stay where they are, subject to further violence, which may have serious implications, or do they turn to the streets, simply go to central London and end up in a hostel? One benefit of the new clause is that it would enable us to tackle that great difficulty.
Fourthly, many of those single people—mostly women, but also some men—end up on the street or in a hostel. However, because they cannot prove that they are vulnerable, they are not picked up under homelessness legislation, so they spend considerable periods of time in hostel accommodation before they can move on. That, as we all know, silts up the hostel accommodation and makes it more difficult for other single, homeless people to access it. As I mentioned, the new clause would bring us into line with the situation in Wales, but most importantly it would provide a way out for one of the most vulnerable groups in our society. I mentioned earlier the level of domestic violence in this country and the shocking statistics; we know how violent some of those relationships can be. The new clause would provide an option—a way out—for someone who in those circumstances has difficulty showing that that is the situation. It would allow them to access alternative local authority accommodation, move on and restart their life without the problems caused by their violent partner, so I commend it to the Minister.
I rise to give general support to the intention behind the new clause, which I think is a very good one. There is definitely a problem concerning the difference between being intentionally and unintentionally homeless, particularly with regard to domestic violence. I suspect that all hon. Members have experience of dealing with constituency cases in which someone is clearly frightened to death by what is going on in their home but is scared to leave, because they have been told, perhaps by someone in the housing department, that if they do so and do not have clear evidence of violence, they will make themselves intentionally homeless, which means that they will not gain access to the services that they require.
Many of us are fortunate enough to have excellent women’s refuges and other facilities in our communities, but inevitably they never have sufficient capacity to deal with the large number of cases. Domestic abuse is very much a hidden problem; it takes place behind closed doors. It is right to consider amending the law to ensure that the balance of proof is pushed just a little further towards people who are suffering domestic abuse.
I support my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton, and I congratulate him on tabling the new clause. Speaking about this issue, I have a feeling of dÃ(c)jÃ vu, because I was involved, as I believe he was, in considering a previous Housing Bill, in which we introduced the wider definition of vulnerability. We had a very good debate on domestic violence, and we believed that it would be incorporated by widening that definition. We thought that that would encourage more local authorities to take domestic violence into account when making decisions about homelessness. It was the Government’s intention at that time to incorporate the seriousness of domestic violence into consideration of whether someone was homeless and therefore entitled to be considered for accommodation. It was their intent to recognise domestic violence as a particular category.
I hope that the Minister will reflect on that and reinforce the Government’s intention. Despite our best intentions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton said, it is still a postcode lottery as to whether someone who is a victim or survivor of domestic violence receives assistance from the local authority. It is very much down to the discretion and the definition of each local authority in deciding what vulnerability means. It is extremely difficult to categorise, so survivors—women predominantly—who flee domestic violence are in a predicament based entirely on where they live and whether the local authority is sufficiently sympathetic to their situation. That is what determines whether they can flee from repeat violence.
Let us be under no illusions: these are not individual assaults. Most victims and survivors of domestic violence have been repeatedly assaulted before they even report the fact. Consequently, we are forcing survivors to remain in a violent relationship, because they have no guarantees that they will not find themselves homeless if they try to secure their safety. We cannot possibly allow ourselves to remain in a situation in which we jeopardise the safety of vulnerable women simply because different local authorities have different definitions of vulnerability.
In my previous life, I ran a housing association. We were the only housing association in London specifically for women, and we were the only place where single women without children, or women without children generally, could find accommodation. That provision was tiny and wholly inadequate to meet the need. I refer the Minister to a recent report by Crisis. We know that in those circumstances either women become street homeless or, more likely, they spend years and years in a series of temporary arrangements, such as sleeping on people’s floors, that eventually fall to pieces. Very often, their lives fall to pieces, because without a permanent, settled home, they are unable to sustain working and other arrangements. At the end of the day, that also costs us.
Some women are successful in fleeing their home and go to a Women’s Aid refuge, but that organisation has repeatedly told me that those refuges are silting up. There simply is not sufficient accommodation for those women. Again, we know that the availability of such refuges is a postcode lottery. We wish that it were not—we should have decent refuges everywhere in the country, but that is not the case. My hon. Friend the Minister and his Department need to get a grip on the problem, because those limited places are being silted up. Places must be held for those women, because they have nowhere else to go. They do not have the prospect of a local authority or housing association home to go to.
That costs the Government a lot, as does the problem of dealing the many other victims who cannot get a place in a refuge. It would be infinitely more sensible if we did in the Bill what we intended to do in the Housing Act 1996, and ensured that domestic violence is recognised as a priority category of homelessness. My hon. Friend gave compelling evidence. Given that women in Wales in the same situation are a priority for accommodation, it is deeply inequitable that women in England should not have the same rights.
I am disappointed that my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton was disappointed with the last discussion, so I shall do my best to make amends. As he mentioned, the principal purpose of the clause is to bring those persons who have been subject to domestic violence or at risk of such violence within the category of persons who are given priority need under the homelessness legislation.
The Government take the issue of domestic abuse and violence extremely seriously. It is a nasty, pernicious and prevalent crime. It has devastating personal consequences for victims and their families, and it has a major impact on the local and national economy, the criminal justice system, and other statutory services. That is why we continue to work on many fronts to raise awareness and understanding of domestic violence, and try to improve delivery in all sectors. For example, recent investment in specialist domestic violence courts has resulted in successful domestic violence prosecutions rising from 42 per cent. in December 2003 to 67 per cent. in June 2006, exceeding the target that we set. My Department takes domestic violence extremely seriously, particularly the need to ensure that victims of domestic violence get the help and support that they need.
Under the current legislation, people who do not have dependent children have priority need if they are vulnerable as a result of leaving their home because of violence—not only domestic violence; it could be from another person—or threats of violence that are likely to be carried out. The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield used the phrase, “intentionally homeless”, but the concept of intentionality is not the issue. The issue is more about whether the victim is vulnerable as a result of their circumstances, and therefore has priority need. I stress that applicants must be in priority need to be given the main homelessness duty and secure priority. However, there are other examples, including vulnerability as a result of old age, mental illness and mental and physical disability. People aged 21 or over could be vulnerable as a result of having been in care, and people who have been in custody and former members of the armed forces could be classed as vulnerable.
Other categories of applicant have priority need that is not conditional on their vulnerability. For example, people whose household includes a dependent child or pregnant woman, and young people aged 16 or 17. It is accepted that people in those circumstances, or at least a member of their household, could be vulnerable in such circumstances, if not in all cases. I cannot stress enough the fact that the Government take extremely seriously the issue of protection for people at risk of domestic violence. I know that there is some disquiet that, in practice, not all people who are classed as vulnerable because they have had to leave their home because of violence are accepted as being owed the main homelessness duty, and I fully take on board what my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton said about the apparent differences between England, Scotland and Wales.
I am therefore prepared to consider whether any changes to the legislation are necessary. I ask my hon. Friend to withdraw his new clause, and I pledge to come back on Report and inform the House further about what we plan to do. With that commitment, I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured. I hope that I have wiped out his disappointment over the earlier discussion, and that he will withdraw the new clause.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South and I remember the discussions that we had and the extra categories that we created when we discussed the Housing Act 2004. We thought that we had provided the level of protection necessary for the different categories that were included in that statutory instrument, but, as we have said, practical experience has shown that the vulnerability test is subject to wide variation in its application. It is a bit of a lottery, depending on which local authority one ends up with, because one local authority may be much less sympathetic than another.
Similarly, as we all know, especially London Members and Members from urban areas with acute housing difficulties, such decisions often have a component that relates to the level of housing stress and resource considerations, if I can put it in the terms used by a judge. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for recognising that. I hope that he will take that into account and recognise what the new clause attempts to do, which is to provide the additional protection that was intended in the 2004 Act but has not yet been delivered. The situation should be the same as in Wales, and I hope that he can achieve that. I look forward to what he will say on a future date, and on that basis I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.