Aster Group Housing Association

Business without Debate – in the House of Commons at 6:06 pm on 22nd February 2017.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Steve Brine.)

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset 6:35 pm, 22nd February 2017

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am most grateful to you for that very kind introduction and warm up, but I am afraid that I will probably disappoint. I do not intend to detain the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Andrew Percy for the 55 minutes available for this Adjournment debate. [Interruption.] Even Mr Speaker is leaving the Chamber just as I start my speech.

I will begin by stating what I think we all know to be absolutely true: housing associations in all of our constituencies do the most phenomenal work, often in housing some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, and they do so in a professional and engaged way. Without housing associations and the commitment they show in our communities, the problems piling up for our local authorities and, indeed, for us as constituency MPs would be legion.

Given my background, albeit short, as the MP for North Dorset since the 2015 general election, allied with 12 years spent in local government, it was with a twinge of sadness that I felt that I had no other option but to apply for and secure this Adjournment debate on the Aster Group housing association, which operates in my constituency and others.

Aster’s corporate public relations state that it is

“an ethical housing developer and landlord that exists to benefit society.”

They go on to state:

“Having a decent home is a basic right and has a huge impact on people’s lives—from their health, to their wellbeing”.

However, that is certainly not the case for my constituent, which proves that warm words really do butter no parsnips. Words on a website are rather cheap compared with when they are tested by practical application.

Due to the sensitivity involved, about which I have already spoken to my hon. Friend the Minister, I will not name either of my constituents who are involved in this case, which is to some extent ongoing. The constituent whom I seek to represent is not a vexatious complainer. She has always had friendly and cordial relations with all of the housing association tenants who have lived next to her. She is a private resident who owns her own home in a small, rather isolated community in my constituency. She is a lady who lives alone. She works and is self-supporting and self-sustaining. She has had considerable problems with tenants who have been housed by Aster in its property immediately adjacent to hers.

Antisocial behaviour, both physical and verbal, has gone on for several months. The excellent district councillor, Simon Tong of East Dorset District Council, has been involved. So frustrated did he become that he asked me to convene a multi-agency roundtable that included the housing association, the police and the district council to see whether we could identify a way through the impasse.

The impasse is that a single lady living alone has felt so intimidated in her own property—arguably, I suggest, a breach of her human rights under article 8—that she has had to move out and seek private rented accommodation. She is not a lady of huge means; rather, she is a lady of modest means. Her credit cards are maxed to the limit, and this is proving to be a real stress and strain. The corporate words on the Aster website tell us of the importance, with which I concur, of quality housing and the huge benefit that it can have for mental health and wellbeing, but completely the opposite is true for my constituent.

I have mentioned that the allegations that my constituent has made are not vexatious. They have been accepted by the housing association, and they have been endorsed and agreed to by the police. The only remedy that has been identified so far is for the housing association to seek an injunction in court and to seek eviction. The process of application for an injunction requires the neighbour to give written and potentially oral testimony to the court, with no guarantee, as is always the case in a legal process, that the application to the court will be successful.

Frankly, I do not know whether this is a one-off, unique case or whether it is mirrored elsewhere and other tenants and neighbours have similar problems. To an extent, it almost does not matter if it is unique, because it has had the most fundamental, disturbing, upsetting and devastating impact on the quality of my constituent’s life.

Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson Conservative, Mid Dorset and North Poole

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for securing this important debate. I can assure him that the example that he cites is not unique. I have had similar casework, as I know others in the Chamber have. Does he not think that part of the problem is that there is no duty of care? There is no obligation on housing associations to take action. I associate myself with his remarks about the good work that housing associations do, on the whole, but without such an obligation, housing associations find it very difficult to take action in these circumstances.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset

My hon. Friend is right, and he brings his considerable experience as a lawyer to this debate. I say in passing that I am grateful that a colleague from Dorset—my neighbour—has intervened. Interestingly, a number of colleagues, on seeing “Aster Group Housing” on the Order Paper, have sidled up to me and said, “Yes, we have problems with it. It is the least well performing housing in my constituency.” I mentioned that to representatives from Aster yesterday afternoon, when they came to see me again in Westminster. It was met with an incredulous shrug of the shoulders and, in effect, “We couldn’t care less. We have never heard that before.” They almost said, “We think you’re making it up, Mr Hoare,” so it is interesting to hear what my hon. Friend says. He is right about the duty of care, and, if he will forgive me, I will come on to that in a moment.

As I have said, the lady I am talking about is not vexatious. In an email dated as recently as 23 December last year, Emily Grounds, the housing association’s antisocial behaviour officer, said:

“We are satisfied anti-social behaviour is being perpetrated” and

“it is our responsibility”—

“our” meaning the housing association—

“to resolve the issues”.

The situation has been going on since April or May of last year. In the words of Councillor Tong, who is the district council member,

“It is clear to all of us here that Aster are playing all the delaying tactics that they can”.

To return briefly to the injunction process, given the backdrop of the level of intimidation, such as the fact that tenants have attempted to drive my constituent off the road, hurled verbal abuse at her and damaged property within the curtilage of her own property, I suggest it is little wonder that she has been fundamentally unwilling—not to be obstructive, but only out of anxiety and fear—to play a part in the injunction process.

The housing association has taken the view—I do not believe that it is so clear cut as to be true—that without the active participation of the private resident next door, it is unable to begin the injunction process. I do not believe that is correct, and the briefing note prepared by the Library certainly does not seem to bear it out either. It is more likely that the housing association is just unwilling than that it hopes the issue will go away.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality)

I am quite perturbed to hear about the case of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent. What he has outlined happens in many places across the United Kingdom, and I deal with such issues all too often in my own office. I wonder whether the system on the mainland is the same as that in Northern Ireland, where an association’s tenants have a set of rules that they must adhere to, and if they do not do so, they can be reprimanded and eventually evicted if they do not do what they should.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset

My hon. Friend—I call him that, because I see him as an hon. Friend—is absolutely right. Further perusal of the corporate propaganda of the association makes it absolutely clear that antisocial behaviour is a breach of the tenancy. It is utterly and totally unambiguous in its assessment of what such behaviour represents, yet even now it refuses—it is either unwilling, or whatever—to take the action that I believe is actually required.

Earlier this year, I wrote a letter, as I am sure we have all done, to make a request or a suggestion that I would say, in the vernacular, is a no-brainer. We could almost write ourselves the answer that we would expect to get, because the request is modest, politely and respectfully put, and the expectation is clear. The request was very simple: given the fact that my constituent is now incurring costs that she cannot sustain, is racking up debts that will have to be serviced in due course and has a home that she feels she is not safe to return to, could the association make some contribution to her additional housing costs while this matter was being resolved.

I hope that the request was not naive—with hindsight, I think that it actually was—because I merely said that I was aware that the housing association had no legal obligation so to do, but given its stated corporate aims and objectives, there was a moral case or moral compulsion for its taking part in that process. That elicited a response that told me what I already understood—it is always nice when that happens, is it not?—which was that, regrettably, it had no legal obligation. In a letter to me, Margaret Wright, the Aster Group regional director for Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, and Wiltshire, wrote that

“regrettably, I cannot agree with you that the association has a moral obligation to do so.”

That is in sharp contradistinction to what it states in its corporate objectives about wishing to be a good neighbour that is engaged in the community and doing good in our rural areas. This is a prima facie case not just of its not doing good, but of its tenant doing singular and significant harm and of its seeming to be unwilling or unable to intervene. That has been the most depressing of all: the utter and total Pilate-like washing of hands of any form of moral obligation.

In closing, this case has raised two issues to my mind. I invite the Minister to reply—not necessarily from the Dispatch Box this evening—and to give further thought to this matter. I am happy to meet to discuss the matter, or to enter into communication with him.

It is now clear that for a housing association to evict a tenant it is convinced is committing antisocial behaviour—behaviour that is damaging the house itself or damaging neighbours’ private property and making their life a misery—it is overly onerous that the active engagement of the person who has brought the complaint is needed to seek redress in the courts, if Aster is correct. It surely has to be a gap in the guidance if, in a housing association-tenant relationship, there is no additional duty of care or responsibility for the behaviour of its tenants. Under Aster’s rules, if a tenant commits antisocial behaviour and is in breach of their tenancy agreements, that should be that, but it is not. If my constituent was married to a 6 foot 2, burly weightlifter-type guy who was always around—[Interruption.] Not like me, I say in answer to my hon. Friend Michael Tomlinson. I am more of a Jack Russell variety, rather than the more robust type of guard dog that my constituent would need. Notwithstanding that, I am a doughty champion of my constituent’s cause.

Living alone in an isolated area, my constituent sought the advice of the police. I cannot thank enough Tom Clements and others in the constabulary who have engaged closely with this situation. The police budget, as we know, is always difficult and strained—this is in a sparsely populated area—but they have bent over backwards to do what they can. They have made themselves available to me and I want to put on the record this evening my enormous gratitude to them. However, they had to confirm to my constituent that, given the location of the property, they could not guarantee her safety and security if the injunction was granted and the eviction was made, and—the natural corollary of that—if the injunction was not granted and the tenants remained.

We even suggested to the housing association, which is always seeking to add to its stock, whether it might be interested in buying the property at the market rate—not with any huge uplift or overage. That rather commonplace suggestion was also dismissed out of hand.

It may well be that Ministers need to consider the rules and regulations on the eviction of housing association tenants, the vast majority of whom—let me put it on the record, so it is not in any way misconstrued—are decent folk, law abiding and helpful members of their community.

The second point I invite the Minister to consider is the duty of a social landlord where their properties are adjacent to private residents. It could easily lead to the devaluation of the property, although that is not the point, of course. A housing association has the ability to place a troubled family or someone with a history of antisocial behaviour. It has placed the tenant there. If antisocial behaviour occurs, it has to have a greater duty of care, and certainly a greater duty of responsibility, to residents. As the principles of the housing White Paper evolve post-consultation, they might provide a hook on which to hang something to gain traction in dealing with this problem. As things stand, however, all I have been able to do, on behalf of one of my district councils, a distressed resident, the police and myself, is put on record our anxiety and upset in respect of a private resident who until the arrival of these tenants had been enjoying her life and the property for which she had worked so hard.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality)

I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman might mention that were his constituent to seek to sell her property she would have to notify any potential buyer of the problems she has had, which right away sets her at a financial disadvantage and makes it very difficult for her to do what she wants to do, which is to get out and get ahead.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because I had not thought about that point, but he is absolutely right. If there has been a neighbour dispute, the questionnaire that a seller has to complete for conveyancing purposes does not include a “get out of jail free” card—the question is not, “Was it a tenant?” or “Is the property rented in the private or social sector”; it is, “Have you had a neighbour dispute?” So he raises an important point.

In conclusion, against all the backdrop, the corporate brouhaha of a website and all stated policies, a lady who is trying to make her way and feel safe in her own home has been forced out of it, through fear, anxiety and intimidation. I say, more in sorrow than in anger—although it is quite hard to contain the anger—that the Aster Group has been fundamentally lacking in proactive engagement and sympathy on this issue. It needs to know, and my constituent needs to be assured, that I will not rest until we get the justice she has so far been denied.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 6:57 pm, 22nd February 2017

I begin with an apology on behalf of the Housing Minister, who is unable to respond to this debate, but I am here and happy to respond, having myself dealt with several cases very similar to that raised by my hon. Friend Simon Hoare.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on doing what he has already, in his relatively short time in the House, gained a reputation for doing—standing up for North Dorset and his constituents. It is telling that other Members are here on the Front and Back Benches, particularly those from areas of the country where the Aster housing association is active. I hope very much that it is listening to this debate. If it is not, it had better read his words tomorrow.

Antisocial behaviour and nuisance can take many forms and if left unchecked can have a huge impact on people’s lives, as we heard from my hon. Friend in relation to this particular case. While individuals should be held to account, in cases of antisocial behaviour by social housing tenants, social landlords have a responsibility and a duty—a moral duty, as he said—to work with partners, including the police and the local authority, to resolve matters.

I will say more about the responsibility of social landlords later, but we should not fail to recognise that fundamentally the responsibility for this behaviour lies with the individual. Having spent 10 years in local government and seven years in this place, I cannot get my head around why some people choose to make life so difficult and so awful for other people in their neighbourhood. I have seen people’s lives destroyed in the same way by neighbours who simply cannot behave in a decent and respectful neighbourly manner. It is appalling, and my heart goes out to the constituent in this case, who has had her home and life changed in the way that my hon. Friend so eloquently outlined.

Leaving aside the responsibility of the individual, social landlords absolutely have a responsibility and a duty, too. They must demonstrate to tenants and residents how easily they can report antisocial behaviour, and they must also provide active support to victims and witnesses.

As a Government, we recognise the frustration of victims of antisocial behaviour about how complex and slow processes to evict antisocial tenants in social housing can be. I used to find it incredibly frustrating as a local councillor, as my hon. Friend was, when we would go through this routine of—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Steve Brine.)

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 7:00 pm, 22nd February 2017

I have seen that the process can be cyclical; we think we are getting to the point of action being taken when all of a sudden the process resets again and tenants who have been engaged in antisocial behaviour appear to get away scot-free. That is why we introduced faster and more effective powers through the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. Let me deal with that before moving on to the particular case.

Those powers make it easier for social landlords to take swift and decisive action against their most antisocial tenants, although this relies, of course, on the active engagement of the landlord in the first place. The powers are there to protect the activities of citizens, the majority of whom are law abiding, including people living in social housing, private residences or whatever the tenure of the property. The powers are also to protect victims and communities from unacceptable behaviour.

Social landlords are able, as my hon. Friend said, to take out civil injunctions against social tenants engaging in antisocial behaviour to prohibit them from behaving in a particular way, and this carries significant sanctions if breached. Of course, social landlords must make proportionate and reasonable judgments before applying for a civil injunction, but if they think this is the most appropriate course of action, it offers fast and effective protection for victims and communities and sets a clear standard of behaviour for perpetrators.

When other interventions have been tried and failed, the absolute ground for possession introduced through the 2014 Act makes it easier for landlords to evict persistently antisocial tenants, as I believe applies in this case, where housing-related antisocial behaviour has already been proven by a court. Landlords can choose to use the absolute ground for possession where at least one of five conditions is met. These are that the tenant, a member of the tenant’s household, or a person visiting the property has been convicted of a serious offence; that the tenant has been found by a court to have breached a civil injunction, to which I shall return; that the tenant has been convicted for breaching a criminal behaviour order; that the tenant has been convicted for breaching a noise abatement notice or order; or that the tenant’s property has been closed for more than 48 hours under a closure order for antisocial behaviour.

The Government have published statutory guidance to frontline professionals on the use of these powers. We are also keeping the use of the powers under review, and some of the specific issues raised by my hon. Friend can be fed into that process. We have established an antisocial behaviour advisory group with frontline agencies to monitor how the powers are being used. The Government are currently reviewing the statutory guidance to frontline professionals on the use of the powers and anticipate that the refreshed guidance will be published by spring this year. Perhaps that improved guidance will be of value to the professionals working in Aster housing.

My hon. Friend will understand that, given that the specific case he has raised relates to a live antisocial behaviour case, there are limitations to what I can and cannot say. However, as I said, one can only imagine how bad the situation must have become for the affected family to have taken such a serious step as leaving their property and incurring significant credit card debt in the process. No law-abiding citizen should ever be put in such a position.

I understand that, as my hon. Friend highlighted, Aster’s published policy on tackling antisocial behaviour says that it will make it absolutely clear to existing and prospective customers that antisocial behaviour is unacceptable and that if it arises, it may lead to action being taken against them. Clearly, in view of that published policy, Aster must not delay in taking action against tenants who are engaging in this sort of behaviour.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to the local councillor whom he mentioned for the work that they have done. As he knows, Aster has worked with the affected people, the police, councillors and, indeed, my hon. Friend himself to try to resolve the matter, but I take on board his comments about what he considers to be the ineffectiveness of that joint action. I understand—and my hon. Friend mentioned—that Aster has discussed with the affected family the option of pursuing an injunction. That option has not been taken up so far, but it is still there. I fully recognise my hon. Friend’s concern about the fact that it has not been taken up, but it is the case that hearsay and professional witness evidence can allow the identities of those who are not able to give evidence owing to fear or intimidation to be protected in the pursuit of such an injunction. Hearsay evidence could be provided by a police officer, a healthcare official, or any other professional who has interviewed the witness directly. I will write to my hon. Friend about that in more detail, and I will also write to Aster to ensure that it is fully aware of the provisions that apply.

My hon. Friend referred to the call for Aster to pay compensation to the affected family. As he said, there is no regulatory requirement for compensation to be paid, and that is therefore a matter for Aster on which, as he will appreciate, I cannot comment. However, Aster will have heard his impassioned plea in relation to what he described as the moral case, despite the absence of a legal obligation.

I understand that Aster has gifted and installed two GuardCams in the residence, which should allow evidence to be gathered. It has assured us that it will continue to work with the family to ensure that they can return to their home as swiftly as possible, although I know that, given the fears of intimidation and threats that my hon. Friend described, they may not consider that to be desirable.

I am sure we all agree that everyone needs to feel safe and protected at home and in the community. The social housing regulator, in dealing with antisocial behaviour, must require housing associations to publish a policy explaining how they intend to tackle such behaviour in areas where they own properties. The regulator also deals with the complaints of tenants who feel that matters cannot be resolved directly with their housing associations. The regulator has enforcement powers. They may not apply in this case, given that the next-door neighbour is not a tenant, but we expect housing associations, as independent organisations with a social purpose, to act in the best interests of not only all existing and future tenants, but all the residents in areas where they are active.

Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson Conservative, Mid Dorset and North Poole

The Minister is rightly setting out the current position, and he has just hit on the exact problem. When housing association tenants live alongside private rented tenants, there is almost a sense that they have less of an obligation. It is much easier for housing associations when all their tenants live side by side. Will the Minister acknowledge that, and look into what more can be done?

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

I think the review that we are undertaking will cover some of those issues, and I will feed any comments back to my hon. Friend. When two tenants living next door to each other are involved in a dispute, it tends to be much easier for the social landlord to mediate actively. Of course, the individuals concerned are responsible for their behaviour, and we must not let them off the hook, but social landlords have a responsibility for everyone in the communities in which they have properties, especially when one of their tenants is a source of antisocial behaviour. It should not really matter whether the neighbour affected is a private owner-occupier, a private renter, or another social tenant. However, I take on board what my hon. Friend has said.

I also want to raise awareness of the community trigger, introduced in the 2014 Act specifically to deal with the feeling expressed by many people that their concerns about antisocial behaviour are not responded to appropriately. That power gives victims and communities the right to require agencies to deal with persistent antisocial behaviour that has previously been ignored and brings together partner agencies such as the police, councils and social landlords to investigate complaints. That was a positive change.

Everybody has a right to live in a safe and secure environment, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset said. That applies to his constituent who has been the victim of this behaviour and also the other residents in that area. The people who engage in this behaviour make people’s lives hell. They cause misery to those affected. They affect people’s health, both physical and mental, and it is completely unacceptable. All the agencies responsible have a role to play in making sure that those who engage in this behaviour are dealt with firmly and appropriately, always putting the needs of the victim at the heart of their response, and that response must be prompt and proportionate.

I thank my hon. Friend for calling this debate and hope Aster housing is watching it. If so, it will have heard his impassioned plea on behalf of his constituents. I will write to Aster to clarify the issue of hearsay evidence and other professionals acting on behalf of witnesses who feel intimidated, and I will encourage it to look closely again at this case to see what else it can do to deal with this persistent antisocial behaviour.

My hon. Friend has proven himself to be a champion for his constituents, not only this evening, but throughout his time so far in this place.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.