I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to empower councils and housing associations to terminate tenancies where the dependants of a tenant have been rehoused on account of the tenant's violence.
Last Saturday I was visited in my surgery by a young mother of three children. She and her youngest child, a baby, are currently living with her parents and two other adults in a three-bedroomed house. I have a report from Kent social services saying:
In 1988 it was discovered that
the two older children
had been sexually abused. They were interviewed and disclosed that they had been abused by their father. Although he was interviewed by the Police no charges were laid as it was felt that they were too young to give evidence in Court. However, the disclosures were specific enough for Care Orders to be obtained on both".
Needless to say, the lady who spoke to me is most anxious to obtain a council house so that she can reunite her family. One might ask what has happened to the family home. The answer is that the husband continues to occupy the home. He is entitled by law to continue to occupy that ratepayer-subsidised home for the rest of his life if he so chooses. Even if he had been convicted and sent to prison, he would still have that right for up to a year and the ratepayer would have to pay for housing benefit to pay his rent.
Battered wives and abused children live in a grey statistical area; there are no firm statistics. We can study surrogate statistics—for example, the Children's Society says that almost 100,000 children left home last year, for one reason or another. We are aware of the growth in convictions for marital violence and we know of the tremendous increase in divorce, currently running at about one marriage in three. However, there is no way by which we can obtain accurate figures for offences committed within the home.
However, we can say with certainty that the case to which I have alluded is not an isolated example. There is a home for battered wives in my constituency where volunteers do excellent work. From time to time ladies in that home ask me to try to assist them to obtain a council house. Many of them come from local authority homes, and in almost every case the husband or common law husband continues to occupy the original home. Surely that is a great injustice. A man is given a subsidised tenancy so that he can house his family. That was the purpose of his being given the asset, but that purpose has now lapsed because—I must be blunt—of his wickedness. Is it right that he should continue to enjoy it?
Council officials tell me that in many cases the problem takes a second, sick twist. Possessed of that asset, the man is well placed to install another woman, who may not even know the story of the first family, and so the same sick cycle starts again. In effect, child abuse or wife battering is paid for on the rates, with the council being powerless to do anything about it.
What legal remedies are available? There are two. The first is the ouster order, under which a court can evict the husband or common law husband and can also make a banning order to keep him away from the home. That has two defects. First, it puts the onus of the legal action on the shoulders least able to carry it—those of the wife. In many cases the principal witnesses are the children, and even if the wife plucks up the courage to apply for the order the last thing that she wants to do is to involve the children. Secondly, she would then be in the same home, when what is obviously needed is for the council to rehouse her so that her husband does not know the address. The council could then recover the original house so that its stock would not be one house down.
There is a second option. In the Housing Act 1985 the Government made a sensible stab at trying to do something about the problem and included provisions in a tenancy agreement to deal with that sort of case. Unfortunately, that also has serious defects. First, it cannot apply to any tenancy before 1985. Secondly, many councils have not yet amended their tenancy agreements, so even those with the most recent agreements cannot take advantage of the Act.
My proposed Bill would cut through all that. If the family had to be rehoused because of the misconduct of the husband, who was the tenant, my Bill would make that a prima facie ground for eviction by the local authority or by a housing association which also provides subsidised housing. It would be a civil measure, as is schedule 2 to the 1985 Act, so that there would be no need to prove criminal charges against the man.
I have received an early and constructive response from the Government, and I am grateful to note that two Ministers from the Department of the Environment have taken the trouble to be on the Front Bench. I am delighted to hear that they will consider the matter. I leave them and the House with this thought. The course of action that I have proposed would have four advantages. First, it would make it much easier for councils such as Canterbury with long housing lists to rehouse those unfortunate families. Secondly, it would take the legal burden from the wife, as the council could take the necessary action. Thirdly, it would eliminate the absurd expense to the ratepayer of having to keep a house going with only one person in it. Fourthly, it would send a clear message to violent husbands that the community is no longer willing to subsidise their activity.