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Secure Tenancies (Victims of Domestic Abuse) Bill [Lords]

– in the House of Commons at 4:57 pm on 19th March 2018.

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Second Reading

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 5:30 pm, 19th March 2018

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am delighted to move the Bill’s Second Reading. Hon. Members will know that domestic abuse is a devastating issue that has a serious impact on the lives of the victim and their family, and on society as a whole. It can be physical, psychological, sexual and financial, and when violence is involved, the victim and their family are placed in immediate physical danger. All forms of domestic abuse have long-term damaging emotional effects on the victim and their family, and place huge costs on society and the public purse. An estimated 1.9 million people in England and Wales suffer from some form of domestic abuse each year, according to crime survey statistics.

This short and focused Bill is an important part of the Government’s wider aim of supporting victims of domestic abuse to leave their abusive situation and ensuring that they and their families are provided with the stability and security that they need and deserve. We are fortunate that the Bill has reached us after scrutiny in the other place. The amendments made there have improved its consistency and extended protections for victims of domestic abuse. I am aware that the Bill has strong cross-party support. I commend the Minister for faith, Lord Bourne, for successfully steering it through the other place and pay tribute to domestics abuse charities, particularly Women’s Aid, for their contribution to ensuring that it is in such good shape.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Labour, Hornsey and Wood Green

Will the Minister join me in praising the work of Solace Women’s Aid in London? It does an incredible job for women who are survivors and victims—sadly—of domestic abuse.

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I thank the hon. Lady for mentioning Solace, which has a very good reputation across London. It is quite right that it should get a namecheck in this place.

The Bill will do two things. First, it will ensure that if victims of domestic abuse who have a lifetime social tenancy need to flee their current home to escape abuse, they will be granted a new tenancy and retain their lifetime tenancy in their new social home. It will also apply to lifetime tenants who, having fled their homes, may be considered to have lost their security of tenure, or may have lost their lifetime tenancy altogether before they are rehoused. The Bill will specifically protect all lifetime social tenants in such circumstances, whether they have a secure local authority tenancy, or an assured tenancy with a private registered provider of social housing —a housing association.

Secondly, the Bill will ensure that victims of domestic abuse who are joint lifetime tenants and want to remain in their home after the abuser has left or has been removed can be granted a new lifetime tenancy after the joint tenancy has ended. We have Baroness Lister of Burtersett to thank for her persistence in ensuring that the Bill should be extended to apply to that situation as well. The provisions will apply to all local authorities in England, and not only when the tenant is a victim of domestic abuse, but when a member of the household, such as a child, has suffered domestic abuse. The definition of domestic abuse has deliberately been drawn widely to apply not just to those who have suffered physical abuse and violence, but to victims of psychological, sexual, financial and emotional abuse.

The Bill delivers on a commitment the Government made to the House during the passage of the Housing and Planning Act 2016. We committed to ensuring that when local authorities move to fixed-term tenancies, the regulations that specify when they may grant a further lifetime tenancy would make that mandatory for victims of domestic abuse. Primary legislation is necessary for us to deliver on that commitment, and I am very pleased to be introducing it today.

I should make it clear that the Bill does not create a new requirement for local authorities to rehouse lifetime tenants who are the victims of domestic abuse, and does not require local authorities to grant a further tenancy to victims in their own homes after the perpetrator has left. However, it ensures that when a lifetime tenant is rehoused in those circumstances, or when a victim is granted a new tenancy in his or her home after the previous tenancy has ended, the victim does not lose security of tenure. The purpose is to remove an impediment that could prevent victims from leaving their abusive situations, or from taking steps to secure their safety in their current social homes. The Government are absolutely committed to supporting victims of domestic abuse.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Labour, Chesterfield

That support for victims of domestic violence is incredibly important. Will the Minister say a little more about allocations policy, which seems to be applied very inconsistently in different local authority areas? If a victim of domestic violence moves from one area to a hostel in another local authority area, should that local authority have a responsibility for the tenant who is fleeing domestic violence?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

The average stay in a hostel or refuge can be up to four and a half or five months, so a local connection is created. Most local authorities that deal on a workaday basis with people who need to be rehoused from refuges take the view that domestic abuse is one of the highest priorities when it comes to the reallocation of premises. I think that there needs to be a full and frank discussion about which is the best place for a family to move to, and the best place may be where the family have been for the last four and a half months.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Labour, Chesterfield

It is true that some local authorities take the view that the Minister describes, but would it not be better if central Government made the rules clear? Allowing people who are fleeing domestic violence to stay in hostels for an extended length of time simply in order to develop a local connection is the wrong approach. Do the Government plan to put in statute the rights of victims of domestic violence in respect of future allocations?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

That is a very good question, but I do not think there is the problem that the hon. Gentleman thinks there is. I have certainly never known that to be the case.

As I have said, the Government are absolutely committed to supporting victims of domestic abuse, which is why we have invested £33.5 million in supporting them since 2014. However, we want to go further. We are carrying out a fundamental review of the commissioning and funding of domestic abuse services, which will conclude this summer. I look forward to updating the House on its progress later in the year. We will also announce details of further significant funding for domestic abuse services as early as possible in the new financial year. It will be open to all local areas to bid for a share.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Conservative, Aldershot

I am very pleased that the Bill is being introduced, but will my hon. Friend give us a little more detail about how information about the changes will be spread? My constituency is lucky to benefit from the work of the North East Hampshire Domestic Abuse Forum, led by the magnificent Karen Evans, which does a tremendous job of spreading such information. What provision does the Bill make for that sort of work?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

The Bill is specifically about lifetime tenancies. The review of women’s refuges is about provision across the country. Some areas specialise in sanctuaries rather than hostels or refuges; others specialise in hostels followed by move-on accommodation and the involvement of outreach workers. We intend to review all provision in the country, to close the review in the summer, and to report back in the autumn. We will be updating the House as we proceed.

The most recent lettings data show that in 2016-17, some 1.52% of all social lettings were to existing social tenants who cited domestic violence as the main reason why they left their previous social home. This may be a small proportion of tenants, but it is still more than 5,000 lives affected by domestic abuse, and those people can be supported better under the provisions in this Bill.

As Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth said in the other place, we understand and appreciate

“that there will be other circumstances in which it might be appropriate for local authorities to continue to offer lifetime tenancies at their discretion. We will set out those circumstances in regulations that we are currently developing.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 January 2018;
Vol. 788, c. 136.]

I hope that that helps Toby Perkins. These regulations will be subject to the affirmative procedure, and the House will have the opportunity to debate them after they have been laid.

As I said at the start of my speech, this Bill has already faced scrutiny in the other place, and it reaches us in a much better shape as a result. This is a great example of how constructive cross-party efforts can have positive results, and I have been extremely pleased with the work going forward. I am grateful to colleagues on both sides of the House for taking so much time to talk to me about the Bill. I hope that all hon. Members can support this narrow Bill for a specific purpose. I look forward to our further helpful debates about the Bill.

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing) 5:41 pm, 19th March 2018

I pay tribute to colleagues in the other place for their work on this Bill, particularly my party colleagues Baroness Lister of Burtersett and Lord Kennedy of Southwark, who tabled amendments that helped to bring a Bill to this place that is fit for purpose.

The Bill arises from a legislative error in the Housing and Planning Act 2016. During the passage of the Bill that became that Act, the Conservative Government succumbed to Labour pressure on the issue of secure tenancies for victims of domestic abuse by offering assurances that the legislation would provide a guarantee that victims of domestic abuse would be granted an old-style secure tenancy, if they had one in their old residence.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Labour, Hornsey and Wood Green

Does my hon. Friend agree that since 2010 the situation for women and others escaping violent situations in the home has become much tougher due to a variety of factors, including the high cost of privately rented homes, the inaccessibility of social homes, the lack of resources for the police and the courts to deal with matters quickly, and cuts to legal aid? There has been a cocktail of difficulties facing women and others escaping violence.

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

My hon. Friend makes the important point that it is not a single issue but a variety of factors that has culminated in a very difficult situation for women and domestic abuse victims, who are in incredibly vulnerable positions.

Despite the intentions for the 2016 Act, it became clear that they had not been implemented. Ministers have acted quickly to rectify that situation by bringing this Bill to the House. I am pleased that the Bill is before us today and that dealing with the matter was not delayed until the introduction of the domestic violence and abuse Bill, as this is a matter of critical importance.

Housing insecurity has a massive effect on women’s ability to leave abusive relationships and to start rebuilding their lives after managing to leave. A Women’s Aid study showed that 63% of women in its refuges had spent over two years in their abusive relationship, with 17% spending over 10 years in it. Women’s Aid also says that housing concerns are a major barrier for many women who are trying to escape domestic abuse, and that housing insecurity interferes with the processes that enable them to begin undoing the harms of domestic violence. The reality is that far too many women are put in a position where their only choice is between staying in an abusive relationship and ending up in a temporary accommodation system that is increasingly unfit for purpose. That is truly horrific.

Many women in abusive relationships also have children and other dependants whom they must consider when making their dreadful choice. That is why this Bill is so important. By providing security of tenure to those who previously held old-style secure tenancies, the Bill will remove a key barrier that prevents victims of domestic violence from leaving an abusive relationship and rebuilding their lives.

The Bill helps only a fraction of victims of domestic violence, however, and in one way. Such victims are the people who are forced out of their properties, abandoning friendships, communities, their children’s schools and other family members. Rarely in our justice system do we see the perpetrator rather than the victim being forced to give up so much of their life. It is not right that victims of domestic violence should be forced to do just that in such a sudden and immediate way. They often have to leave with little notice and have no opportunity to plan or secure future housing, schooling and many other needs. I am pleased to see that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Victoria Atkins, in the Chamber to hear this. These issues cannot be solved without joint enterprise between Government Departments, and I am pleased that she is here to listen to the debate.

It is welcome that the Bill offers a secure tenancy to victims, but many will simply be unable to go through the process of moving into such a tenancy straight from their previous one. Many victims of domestic abuse will leave their abusive relationships with very few possessions and nowhere to go. This is why we need a fit-for-purpose refuge system to provide a safe haven for those with nowhere to go. Unfortunately, the current system is simply failing women across the country. Just this Friday, victims of domestic violence from Birmingham were offered accommodation in Burton and Milton Keynes, and even as far away as Manchester. Birmingham is not a small town experiencing a spike in referrals. It is a city of 2.5 million people that is sending victims 86 miles away because it does not have the capacity to accommodate vulnerable people.

Sadly, that fits into the national crisis under this Government. One fifth of specialist women’s refuges have shut down under the Conservatives, and 60% of all referrals to refuges were declined in 2016-17 due to a lack of space. Furthermore, 95% of refuge managers have reported turning away victims with complex mental health needs, with physical impairments or with a large number of children over a six-month period because they simply did not have the means to accommodate and care for them. On a typical day, 155 women and 103 children are turned away from refuges. This national crisis needs urgent attention, but instead the Government are pressing ahead with their catastrophic reforms to supported housing funding that threaten the future of refuges as we know them. Charities such as Women’s Aid, St Mungo’s, Shelter and the Salvation Army all highlighted their concerns to the Government during the consultation period, and serious questions remain about the effect of the Government’s proposals on refuges.

The reality for the funding of refuges is that, following an oversight—if I am going to be generous—by the Government, supported housing, including refuges, was included in the local housing allowance caps. A review into the funding of supported housing ended on 23 January, but the Minister has said today that there will be yet another extension, review and consultation, specifically with regard to refuge. It seems to me that when refuges are asking for security and reassurance for the sector when it comes to funding, another review will not help.

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

To set the record straight, it is not a review. It is an audit, and we have been asked by those in the business to do this.

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

I thank the Minister for that comment. I genuinely believe that this has been asked for as a result of the lack of clarity that came out of the Government’s review that ended on 23 January. The sector needs security and reassurance about its funding if it is to extend its provision and support the people who, as the Minister has rightly acknowledged, deserve all the support that the Government can afford to provide.

How can councils measure local demand when two thirds of victims of domestic abuse come from outside their local authority area? Are the Government finally ready to offer assurances to providers of refuges, and to guarantee that funding will be ring-fenced for 2021 and beyond and that the £500 million set aside by the Treasury for 2021-22 has been assigned to supported housing? According to Women’s Aid, more than half of refuges will have to close their service entirely or reduce the number of spaces available if these reforms go through as proposed. Will the Government therefore use the end of the consultation period on 23 January to finally listen to the experts in this field and to reconsider their reforms?

One thing that the Government must do to remove some of the pressure on short-term supported housing providers is ensure that victims and their families are rehoused in their secure tenancies as soon as possible. However, social rent capacity—whether provided by councils or by housing associations—is in crisis. New social housing is desperately needed, but the Government funded fewer than 1,000 new homes last year. In 2010, Labour left the Government a legacy of 40,000 new social rental houses a year, because we knew that having readily available social housing stock around the country is critical for so many people, including domestic violence victims. The Conservatives have taken a wrecking ball to that legacy, with fewer than 1,000 social rental homes being built in the past year, a number dwarfed by the 13,500 social homes that were sold off under the Government’s right-to-buy scheme.

That perhaps explains the Government’s rationale behind the Housing and Planning Act 2016. Rather than allowing councils to offer a secure, stable home to those who need it and building a sustainable amount of social housing, the Government decided to rip the heart out of social housing by making social tenancies more insecure. I note that the Government have not published plans to go ahead with the change agreed in the 2016 Act, and I wonder whether they have seen sense and have reconsidered the changes that they proposed in 2016. If not, perhaps they will tell us today when they plan to implement the changes.

The Government must solve the myriad problems with provision for domestic abuse victims as soon as possible. The Bill before the House today represents a small step in the right direction, and we will support it, but this legislation should have been enshrined in the 2016 Act. As such, Labour will be particularly hawkish in ensuring that the Bill carries out its intended purposes and lives up to the guarantees that the Government gave in the other place. The Bill must ensure that the many women who move local authority area after being victims of domestic abuse can transfer the right to a secure tenancy to their new local authority. The Government guaranteed that after an amendment tabled by my colleague Baroness Lister, as the Minister recognised.

Victims of domestic abuse need support after leaving an abusive relationship, and knowing that a safe pathway out of an abusive relationship exists will ease many of the worries that prevent the ending of an abusive relationship. Much more needs to be done to make that a reality. I hope that the forthcoming domestic violence and abuse Bill does much to improve provision, but we are happy to support this Bill’s Second Reading.

Photo of Giles Watling Giles Watling Conservative, Clacton 5:51 pm, 19th March 2018

It is a great honour to speak in this debate, and I fully support this important and welcome piece of legislation. As the brother of three women, the husband of one, the father of two and, of course, the son of one, gender equality has always been at the top of my agenda, although I of course recognise that domestic violence can affect both men and women. I have recently been made aware that two women are killed each week by a current or former partner—a statistic that I am sure we all find chilling—and one of those women was my constituent Jean Chapman, who was murdered by her partner last year as she slept. It was a heinous crime, and I thank Jess Phillips for bringing Jean’s case and statistics relating to domestic abuse to the House’s attention on International Women’s Day.

Given the unsettling statistics, I am pleased that tackling domestic violence and abuse remains a key priority for this Government, and that Ministers are keen to build on the measures that have been put in place since 2010 to transform the way in which we think about and tackle these terrible crimes. I welcome that progress and would argue that, as we move forward, appropriate steps should be taken to tackle domestic violence and abuse and that support mechanisms should be in place for victims. It is positive news that the Government are now consulting on their approach to dealing with domestic abuse. The wide-ranging consultation will, I hope, address every stage of the Government’s response, from prevention through to rehabilitation, and reinforce the aim of making domestic abuse everyone’s business.

I am also pleased that the Government have recently confirmed an additional £20 million to support organisations working to tackle domestic violence and abuse, meaning that the total funding available for the strategy to end violence against women and girls will be more than £100 million in this Parliament. Steps have also been taken to ring-fence funding for organisations that work in the area of domestic violence, giving them greater financial certainty.

At a local level, I welcome the work that Essex police has been undertaking to make sure that Tendring district, which covers my constituency and part of that of my hon. Friend Mr Jenkin, is a safe and pleasant place to live, work and visit. That includes tackling domestic abuse, and I am pleased to report that incidents of domestic abuse in Tendring have fallen recently. I thank Chief Inspector Paul Wells—Tendring’s district commander—and his officers for all their hard work, and I also thank Russ Cole, his predecessor, with whom I worked some years ago to create a video covering this subject. I must also acknowledge the work of Roger Hirst, Essex police and crime commissioner, and Nick Alston, his predecessor, for ensuring that domestic abuse is a priority for Essex police.

However, even with all that hard work, there were still 299 incidents of domestic abuse in Tendring in the past month alone. While I have no doubt that we have done good work, it is therefore clear that we must make further progress and that everything must be done to help victims of domestic abuse leave their abusive situation, while ensuring that they and their families are provided with the stability and security that they need and deserve. That is why this Bill, which I am pleased to say has cross-party support, is so important. It guarantees that victims of domestic abuse can access lifetime tenancies. Victims must never be kept in an abusive situation because they fear they will be homeless if they leave, and the Bill will ensure that that is not the case.

It will come as no surprise to the House that, according to analysis by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Bill will lead to a reduction in domestic violence. It will also bring benefits to children in need, half of whom are affected by domestic violence. Research in 2008 estimated that the overall cost of domestic abuse to both victims and society was approximately £16 billion annually, including an estimated cost to UK employers of £1.9 billion a year due to absences resulting from domestic abuse injury.

Right now, there are people living in fear in this country: fear of a partner’s return; fear of the mood that partner might be in; fear of further abuse, both mentally and physically; fear for their children; and fear for their very lives. No one should have to live under such circumstances, and we as parliamentarians can do something about it. By passing this Bill, we are going a long way to doing something about it.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Sport) 5:56 pm, 19th March 2018

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker—it is pleasure to see one of Renfrewshire’s ain back in the Chair for tonight’s debate.

I am pleased to follow Giles Watling, but I suggest—I mean no offence towards the hon. Gentleman or criticism of him whatsoever—that he does not need female relatives to give him permission to speak on gender equality or domestic violence. On social media and elsewhere, it has become common for men to list their daughters or their various female relatives as a preface to making comments on domestic violence or any related subject, but it is a societal issue, so we do not need permission to talk about it.

Despite this being a Bill that affects only England, I am nevertheless grateful to be able to participate in the debate and express my support for the Bill and the continued protection that it will hopefully provide to those fleeing domestic abuse. As we debate the Bill, which would be unnecessary in Scotland where we have not gone down the road of limiting tenancy agreements, it is worth reminding ourselves that the torment that survivors of domestic violence experience sadly does not end at the moment when they escape the violence and abuse. The traumatic events will have an impact on their lives long after they have fled from their abuser. Sadly, whether it be due to lack of space at local refuges or a lack of training or resources in local government, the system all too often lets down the abused, and often the children fleeing with them, at the most vulnerable point in their lives.

It can sometimes be too easy when discussing this issue to make it a binary debate focusing on the abused and the abuser, but abuse of any kind not only affects the person on whom the behaviour is directly inflicted but has an impact on the entire family and disrupts their lives, too. The decision to flee an abusive partner is not an easy one, particularly when children are involved, and the decision is often taken after months or years of abuse, or when the woman has simply reached breaking point or becomes concerned for the safety of her children. The crucial point to make is that they are extremely anxious and frightened, and they leave trusting that the local housing service will help them in their time of need and secure immediate accommodation for the family.

After speaking to several housing officers, I know that they are fully committed to helping women in such situations and leading them hand in hand through the often complicated housing system to avoid any further unnecessary stress. Unfortunately, though, as we have heard, schedule 7 to the Housing and Planning Act 2016 will require that new secure tenancies be offered for only between two and 10 years. When that legislation was being debated, hon. Members and peers from across both Houses rightly pointed out that it might mean those fleeing domestic violence losing their lifetime tenancies. This is a vital point, as we in Parliament really should not pass legislation that makes it harder for anybody to leave an abusive relationship. When somebody decides to escape violence, what they are looking for is safety, stability and security. The removal of a lifetime tenancy can remove that stability and security that survivors are seeking for themselves and their families. It is only right that we attempt to correct that, and I appreciate that the Bill has backing from Members from right across the House, as it rightly should, and that, in this case at least, the Government recognised this issue quickly and have taken action to fix it.

I mentioned previously that I have had discussions with housing officers, which provided evidence of their commitment to help those fleeing domestic violence, and that is backed up by my casework. However, as a member of the all-party group on domestic violence, I note the points made by Women’s Aid about the existence of a postcode lottery in how local authorities deal with domestic abuse cases. The “Nowhere to Turn” report highlights the variations in approach, finding that 19% of the women studied were prevented from making a homelessness application due to the housing officer’s assessment that “no local connection” existed and therefore the local authority had “no duty” to help the women and children who presented to it.

The report highlights how many local authorities are ill equipped to assist survivors appropriately and are still erecting administrative barriers in their way. Improving training and understanding is therefore crucial to ensuring that all survivors who need a secure tenancy when escaping domestic violence can access it. Training will help to break down some of the problems that exist, including the fact that too many officers still insist on a local connection when they assess someone’s housing needs. We need to accept that many survivors will flee to a different local authority area to get as far away from their abuser as possible.

Domestic abuse is not always an easy issue to deal with—in fact, it rarely is—so proper training is vital for those dealing with survivors in any capacity. For example, the Scottish Government have committed to training 14,000 police officers and staff to ensure that the new domestic abuse legislation can be implemented effectively. It would be good to hear the Minister commit to ensuring that all housing officers will be trained appropriately, ensuring that comprehensive, specialist and face-to-face training is delivered to them, as they are often the first point of contact. Furthermore, I hope she will lobby the Home Secretary to persuade her that all English and Welsh police officers and staff should be fully trained to deal with the Government’s new domestic abuse legislation, which we hope to see on the Floor of the House soon.

I know you like talking about Scotland, Madam Deputy Speaker, so let me make the point that it is likely that someone living in England will flee to Scotland, or indeed to Wales or Northern Ireland, to present as homeless to escape violence. I hope that the Government will keep us up to date on discussions with the devolved Governments to ensure that co-operation on helping those fleeing domestic violence extends into the constituent nations of the UK. As I have said many times before in this place, it matters not to me whether a woman is abused in Renfrew or Runcorn, Paisley or Penarth; this problem is societal, across the UK, and we need to work together to end it. So on this issue, at least, this Scottish nationalist fully supports a consistent approach across the UK.

Even though I welcome the fact that the UK Government are correcting a particular mistake with this Bill, they should not for one minute allow themselves to think that their work in this area is done. It would be remiss of me not to mention that their proposed funding model for short-term supported housing would be disastrous for refuges. During her International Women’s Day speech in Downing Street, the Prime Minister stated that she was committed to “sustainable funding”, which is welcome in itself but meaningless if refuges are still forced to close. I heard what the Minister said about the audit, but the Government need to fix this and provide clarity as soon as possible.

In conclusion, I welcome today’s Bill and hope that it will offer the safety, security and stability that people fleeing domestic violence are entitled to. However, the Government could and should be doing a lot more to help those experiencing abuse of any kind. We need to build on this legislation by introducing comprehensive training for housing officers to help eliminate the postcode lottery on the support provided. We must also be mindful of the very real threat of a changed funding model to the future of women’s refuges. This Bill aims to provide stability for those fleeing domestic abuse, but if the Government fail to provide a long-term, distinct and sustainable funding model to support women’s refuges, we face the strong possibility that centres will close, removing the safety, stability and security that survivors of domestic violence are looking for and should receive.

Photo of Robert Courts Robert Courts Conservative, Witney 6:04 pm, 19th March 2018

It is an honour to make a brief contribution to this debate on a much needed and welcome Bill, which I am glad has cross-party support and which I support fully. When I was practising at the Bar, I came across many people. As many Members who have also practised in that field will realise, one of the most common emotions encountered there is fear. Sometimes that is people’s fear of the consequences of things they have done, but unquestionably the most moving is people’s fear as a result of what has happened to them or what may happen to them in the future.

Victims of domestic violence have some of the most terribly moving stories, and the issue of control runs through the whole domestic violence situation. Sometimes we are talking about control of things as basic as who can be spoken to or the control of money or of what somebody does, but there can be no greater control than the control of where somebody lives. When someone is suffering from abuse and needs to leave that relationship, the extra fear and worry of where they and perhaps their children are going to go adds a whole other layer. I will always remember the people I met who were in precisely that situation, which is why I am so pleased that the Government are introducing this much needed and welcome Bill.

I entirely support the Bill, as it is essential that when those tenants are leaving lifetime tenancies, they are able to be rehoused in the same sort of accommodation as soon as possible. The policies vary in district councils across the country. My local authority of West Oxfordshire grants special case status if accommodation is unsuitable because the continued occupation of the property is likely to lead to violence, but we must go much further, so that anybody who has to leave understands and knows that they will also have that lifetime tenancy.

I am glad that, statistically, domestic violence appears to be falling, but clearly one incident is far too many and we must do everything possible to assist those who are in that situation. I am also glad that the Government are providing £100 million of funding to tackle violence against women and girls, including £17 million for the transformation fund.

I want to say a word or two about social housing, because it is important that we do have social housing available. I am glad this Government have been building more council housing since 2010 than we saw built over the previous years of the Labour Government. I am not saying that just to make a party political point; I am simply saying that we have to have that social housing in order to ensure that if there is a family break-up for reasons of domestic violence, we have the property available for someone to go to and that that will remain the case.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Labour, Chesterfield

On the amount of council housing that there is, a tiny amount is being built and that has been the case for many years, including under the previous Labour Government. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a huge number of councils would love to get building more houses but simply say, “We can’t risk building new houses only to have them bought off us under right to buy within three years”? Would he support some kind of moratorium so that for brand new houses built by councils there would not be a right to buy for perhaps 20 or 25 years, so that more councils are encouraged to build houses?

Photo of Robert Courts Robert Courts Conservative, Witney

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that interesting point, although I do not agree with him on it. Right to buy has been a great engine of social mobility. I believe the statistic is that more than 85% of people would like to buy and own their own home, and we ought to facilitate that in any way we can. We have to enable the building of more social and affordable housing, of all tenures—that is the way forward. In my area, West Oxfordshire District Council is being innovative in working with local landowners and providing some of its own money to help with affordability issues. That is the way forward to address that particular issue.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Labour, Warwick and Leamington

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the best opportunities for local authorities to provide some of this housing is for them to use the assets in their portfolio—that is, their land—to start to build council housing and to prioritise social housing?

Photo of Robert Courts Robert Courts Conservative, Witney

Yes, that should certainly be encouraged if councils have assets and land in their portfolios and it is available for use. That can certainly happen in my area, where possible. Of course, the difficulties arise where councils do not have the land available. In somewhere like West Oxfordshire, land value and prices are at the heart of the affordability issue. If councils have the ability to do that, it should certainly be considered. Councils have a role, as do housing associations, in the provision of social and affordable housing of all tenures. Social housing is very much at the heart of this issue.

I very much welcome the Bill. The proposals before us are intended to help the most vulnerable at the time in their lives when they most need help. I very much welcome that intention and effect.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 6:10 pm, 19th March 2018

The Bill is a welcome step towards the provision of increased security and stability when those fleeing domestic violence are rehoused, and I definitely support it. Survivors should never be trapped in an abusive relationship for fear of losing their right to secure housing. The lack of safe, affordable housing is the single biggest barrier to people leaving abusive relationships. How can somebody leave when there is nowhere to go?

In December, Women’s Aid reported that of the 113 women killed in the UK last year, nine out of 10 were killed by their current or former partner or by another male family member. According to the Office for National Statistics, two women a week in England and Wales are killed by their partners or ex-partners. Those are not just appalling figures, but real people whose lives have been destroyed.

It is only right that social housing lifetime tenants who need to leave their home, often because their lives are at risk, are granted a further lifetime tenancy when they are re-housed. However, it must be said the Government’s plans to change refuge funding will undermine the Bill’s aims. By removing refuges’ last secure form of funding from housing benefit payments, the proposed changes will prevent survivors from escaping domestic abuse. The Government must understand that if they underfund the refuges that provide a safe haven for those fleeing domestic violence in the first instance, the Bill will fail to achieve what it has set out to do, which is to save lives.

I hope that those undertaking the Government’s review of the commissioning and funding of domestic abuse services will listen to what is said in the Chamber today. I eagerly await the domestic violence Bill that the Government have promised will come in this Parliament. Cuts to local authorities have meant less funding for domestic abuse services, which have suffered. As we have heard, some services have had to refuse referrals from victims because of lack of capacity.

One main issue is that the Bill’s success will depend on the training of local housing authority staff to guarantee that its objectives are implemented on the ground. That is important, not least because the Bill does not create a new statutory requirement for the rehousing of lifetime tenants who are victims of domestic abuse, but will instead ensure that if a lifetime tenant is rehoused, it will be with a lifetime tenancy.

Furthermore, to be able to house these women in safe and affordable social housing we must have enough safe and affordable housing. In 2016-17, some 12,600 homes were sold under right to buy, and, as was just mentioned, we continue to lose social housing, with only 5,000 new social homes built in the same period. Our social housing stock is at a record low. The Bill will be able to deliver on its promises only if a large amount of new social housing is built.

Under the Housing and Planning Act 2016, housing associations will retain discretion over whether or not to offer a flexible tenancy. In some areas, such as Bath, housing associations will be the only registered social landlord. What advice will the Government give to housing associations, which will not have the same obligation to give a lifetime tenancy if a tenant moves to another housing association property? It is issues like that that must be resolved if we want the Bill to achieve its objectives. I welcome the Bill and its aims, but urge the Government to put their money where their mouth is.

Photo of Andrew Lewer Andrew Lewer Conservative, Northampton South 6:14 pm, 19th March 2018

The Bill is a good example of legislation not having to be contentious to be worth while and, indeed, to be worth a decent debate. From reading the speeches on the Bill in the other place, it is clear that such a sentiment prevailed there, even when the stronger levels of collegiality that customarily define that place are taken into account. Lord Bourne and Baroness Lister were especially prominent in the debates and brought to light some technical but important components of the legislation. Their work was subsequently added to by the as ever superb work of the Commons Library staff and Wendy Wilson in particular.

As a former director of a housing association, Dales Housing, involved in the stock transfer of Derbyshire Dales District Council’s former council housing, I have seen benefits flowing from such arrangements. To reflect a little on the comments made by Wera Hobhouse, I was surprised to see, for what seem to be quite technical reasons, a situation wherein tenants of housing associations are less protected by legislation than traditional council house tenants, as is the case here. I therefore echo and, indeed, reinforce the remarks of Lord Bourne in stressing that housing associations not only do a lot of work in support of victims of domestic violence, but recognise the spirit of the Bill as much as possible in their decision making about new secure tenancies for domestic violence victims, even though they are not as bound by it in law. During the research I carried out for this speech, I was pleased to discover that the arm’s length management organisations that, via Northampton Partnership Homes, are responsible for the bulk of the social housing in my constituency will be covered by the Bill.

This speech is not a bid for a change of status within the Palace of Westminster, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I beg your and other Members’ indulgence in my again referencing a Member of the other place—in this case, Lord Kennedy, who highlighted a significant concern of mine and, I suspect, of many other Members, when he talked about domestic violence victims being charged for letters of evidence of abuse. With regard to solicitors’ letters, notwithstanding the legal aid dimension, there may be little that can be done, but with regard to GPs’ letters action is possible and certainly desirable. It appears that fees of approaching £100 can be charged by GPs for letters of evidence of domestic abuse. Even if much less than that is charged, I think that it would be seen as wrong. It may be within the letter of GP contracts as they currently stand, but it is wrong nevertheless. I am sure that many GPs would not levy such charges to the vulnerable and would see the fact that in theory they could do so as irrelevant. Furthermore, it is true that imminent changes to data protection law will allow for some help for victims to obtain some medical information without charges, but “some information”, which means pretty raw data and printouts, is not the same as the tailored and specific GP letter that they actually want.

It all brings to mind an experience that I had as leader of Derbyshire County Council, when a local GP wanted to charge an extortionate amount of money to a lady in her 80s who wanted to vote by proxy on health grounds. In that case, a good dose of publicity secured a free letter for the lady, but publicity and victims of domestic violence obviously do not go together, although the shame for the GP in question would be all the greater. I am therefore interested to hear what progress has been made since the House of Lords debate on the Bill, in respect of GPs, their contracts and their receipt of public money placing on them additional obligations to act in the public interest. Will the Minister say what can be done to ensure that huge charges—preferably any charges at all—are not levied for people likely not to be able to pay and who do not need any additional stress in their lives at that point?

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Labour, Warwick and Leamington 6:19 pm, 19th March 2018

I very much welcome the Bill and its variation to the Housing and Planning Act 2016. In particular, I welcome the fact that it will seek an exemption for survivors of domestic abuse, so that councils will be compelled to offer life-time tenancies to those victims being offered local authority housing. Clearly, this addresses the concern that, in being offered a less secure tenancy, it would be for the victim to take the difficult step of moving away from the home where the abuse is taking place. I am very much in support of this variation. In fact, I share the conviction that lifetime tenancies should be reinstated for all tenants, not just for those who are victims of domestic abuse.

However, my support for the Bill—I echo many of the comments that have been made in the Chamber—is diluted by the fact that it does not cover housing association tenants, and this appears to be a major flaw, an inconsistency in recognising the needs of such victims. As Lord Bourne and the hon. Members for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) and for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) said, comprehensive action is required.

On many occasions in recent weeks, we have debated the huge homelessness crisis facing this country. It is worth reminding the House that insecurity of tenure—fixed tenancies do not provide security—is a contributory factor in so many cases, but for women in particular and all victims for that matter, that leads to the plight of homelessness.

Although I welcome the Bill, I very much hope that the Minister will listen to my points, particularly those on social housing, and include them. None the less, I very much welcome the spirit of the Bill.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Labour, Chesterfield 6:21 pm, 19th March 2018

I rise to speak briefly on this Bill. Like other colleagues, I welcome the limited but important steps that the Bill takes to ensure that one thing that victims of domestic violence do not have to consider when facing choices about their housing is whether they will lose their secure tenancy. It is important that this is clarified for victims of domestic violence. We all feel strongly about them and we all wish to protect their interests at what we know is an incredibly difficult time.

The debate has raised a couple of other issues on which I wish to touch. More broadly, there is the point about how well we, in this place and as a society, support victims of domestic violence with regard to housing and some of the other issues that have been raised today. Importantly, I am very conscious of the fact that there should be security for victims of domestic violence, who have often been left with absolutely no security—no financial security—and in psychological turmoil, as well as with the physical scars that have come from the situation from which they are fleeing.

The earlier exchange that I had with the Minister raised some important questions about the allocations policy for victims of domestic violence. In her response, she talked about the fact that, when it comes to victims who have moved into refuges, many authorities will consider that, because they are often there for four or five months, they have developed a local connection and will then consider that they should be allocated a property. From my perspective, the minute that someone flees domestic violence, we should recognise that the circumstances that they face are different. Often they need to escape their local connections, because it is those local connections—the wider family unit—that they are escaping from. Therefore, it is crucial that they can get to a place where they do not know anyone and where they do not have those local connections.

The Minister said that I was talking about something that did not really exist, but when I visited the Elm Foundation, an important domestic violence refuge in my constituency, precisely that issue was raised. The staff said that they faced different circumstances depending on which local authority they were dealing with. That is why I believe that it would be useful for the Government to clarify more broadly that we do not operate a postcode lottery here and that the rights of domestic violence victims should be the same wherever they live in the country. There should also be a recognition that once someone finds refuge in a hostel and is accepted by that hostel, a local connection should be established immediately at that point. They should not be stuck in the hostel for a long period to establish some kind of local connection. The moment that they and their family unit are ready to move on from the hostel, they should be accepted by that local authority area as having a local connection.

It is impossible to separate the needs of domestic violence victims in our social housing environment from the wider crisis that exists around social housing, homelessness and pressures on local authorities. That is why I took up the point that Robert Courts raised about right to buy. I very much support the right to buy. In its broader context, it plays an incredibly important role. My sister has just moved into a council house and is delighted to know that she is one of the last to get a secure tenancy and is delighted to know that there may be an opportunity in the future for her to take over the ownership of that property. However, an exemption should be put in place for brand new council houses. In Chesterfield, we have about 9,500 to 10,000 council houses, and a council that is very enthusiastic about taking up the opportunity to build more council houses. However, it also says that it would be unaffordable for it to build a new estate of the size that Chesterfield Borough Council used to build in the past, because, within three years, it would be vulnerable, as a large number of those houses would have been bought by tenants.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the system would only really work if we replaced like for like? If a social house has been lost through right to buy, we should replace it. That requires large Government subsidies. The fact that those are not forthcoming means that we are losing large numbers of social homes.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Labour, Chesterfield

I partly agree with the hon. Lady. A big flaw in the original right to buy policy was that the same number of houses were not replaced. That was a deliberate political decision. I do not think that Mrs Thatcher wanted to see large numbers of tenants in council houses. She introduced the policy with a view to reducing the number of council house tenants. Like with so many other policies, she wanted to reduce people’s dependence on the state, because she thought there was a political purpose for doing so. Therefore, there was a flaw in the original policy.

I would certainly like to see more council houses being built and some kind of link between the number being built and the number being sold off. To an extent, these are two different questions. There is one question about whether we replace the number of council houses. Some Members want to see more council houses built, but we should have a specific exemption from the right to buy on brand new properties, so that those council houses could regenerate the money for local authorities before they are expected to sell them. Councils would then be more enthusiastic about building more council houses.

If we head back to the 1980s when the Thatcher Government introduced the right to buy, we would see that a very reasonable point was being made at the time. It was that local authorities had built these houses and that families had lived in them for 30 or 40 years and had spent in rent far more than they would ever have spent if they had bought their houses in the first place. Therefore, it was perfectly reasonable for them to say, “Well, look, I have already paid for this house many times over.” Getting a discount when they bought their houses seems very reasonable, and I support that entirely.

None the less, if we want local authorities to build more council houses in any substantial way—there is a real need for that now—a moratorium should be introduced. I will encourage my colleagues on the Front Bench to develop this as Labour party policy. In those early years, councils could build the required number of houses, giving domestic violence victims and others the opportunity to move into them—I say this without in any way wanting to undermine the value of the right to buy as a policy more generally—and that is how we will achieve the council house building that we need.

I very much welcome this Bill, but we cannot discuss the impact of policy on domestic violence victims in the round until we address issues such as housing allocation for domestic violence victims and the shortage of council and social housing more generally. Notwithstanding that, this Bill is a welcome step forward that I look forward to supporting.

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing) 6:30 pm, 19th March 2018

I think that I can probably say without contradiction from the Chair that this has been a wide-ranging debate. Nevertheless, it has been an important one. I congratulate hon. Members on both sides of the House who have contributed. We heard excellent speeches from the hon. Members for Clacton (Giles Watling), for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), for Witney (Robert Courts), for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) and for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer), from my hon. Friends the Members for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) and for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins), and from the two Front Benchers: the Minister and my hon. Friend Melanie Onn.

I say kindly to the Minister that we need some assurances that what the Government claim that the Bill will do is actually what it will do. This will be an important point to consider in Committee. Before we start proceedings in Committee, I hope that she will write to me and my colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench so that we can ensure that we understand exactly the legal implications of the Bill.

There is a recognition across the House that we have a duty not only to do everything we can to stamp out domestic abuse and violence—of course we must do that—but to recognise that stamping it out may be an ideal. There will still be victims, so we must do everything we can to support them against the perpetrators by preventing those perpetrators from operating, and by ensuring that there are no artificial impediments to people moving out of and away from situations that put them in danger.

Two women are killed every week in this country as a result of domestic abuse. Throughout my life I have met many people who have told me the most horrendous stories about being trapped in domestic violence. I particularly think of a woman who was into her 70s and had been married for many decades before finally summoning up whatever it took to break the bonds of that relationship. We have to ensure that we do not place artificial barriers in the way of people leaving such situations.

I think that there is a common view across the House on the very real issue of training, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North. When I was police and crime commissioner for Greater Manchester, every frontline officer there was retrained to recognise domestic abuse. That had previously not been done properly, and that was not only because there was sometimes a lack of empathy or ambition. People simply did not always recognise what abuse was all about or what they as individuals could do to combat it. Training people within the framework of housing is of fundamental importance to ensuring that we have the cultural capacity to help victims of domestic abuse.

The hon. Member for Northampton South made an important point about barriers. It may be a small thing for a Member of Parliament to pay for a letter from a solicitor, a doctor or whoever it might be, but somebody who is fleeing domestic abuse may simply have no capacity to find the resources to pay for a letter of evidence, which can become a barrier in its own right. We need to look at such issues, so the hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to make that point.

I want to press the Minister to comment on a few matters in her response, although we will need to return to a number of these points in Committee. I begin with the important point raised by my hon. Friend Toby Perkins about people who move across boundaries. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby mentioned women being asked to travel from Birmingham to find a place in a refuge in Manchester. It might on occasion be a good thing for women to break ties, and that can be a perfectly sensible opportunity to do so, but I have known of cases in which women have been asked to travel many miles not because they need to break those chains, but because no alternative refuge space is available. If women in such circumstances do not have their rights guaranteed under the Bill, frankly we will not have moved the situation on for that subset of domestic abuse victims. I would be grateful if the Minister would write to us to clarify how a different local authority is caught by this legislation, as that is not automatically obvious from the Bill. It is important that we have certainty about what its words will actually mean when tested, for example in a court of law.

I want to make a fundamental point: even now, at a time when there are secure tenancies—when the situation is as it was before the amendments through which the Government sought to get rid of the old-style secure tenancies—a significant number of women leaving refuges are moved into continued temporary accommodation. It is an interesting but shocking statistic that 22% of women who arrived in refuges in a particular year had a secure tenancy on arrival, but only 13% had a secure tenancy on departure. We need to reflect on that because it means that, even before this legal change, the situation does not guarantee that people leaving secure tenancies move back into those secure tenancies. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North referred to the Scottish context, and it is worth our thinking about that. I am very supportive of the Scottish Government’s position—I think that this is also the position in Wales—of maintaining the old-style secure tenancies, but if the system is not working even now, because those in flight from domestic abuse do not move from secure tenancy to secure tenancy, we have a systemic problem that we need to look at.

Of course, not every person leaving a secure tenancy will qualify for an offer of rehousing by an appropriate housing authority. I want to give the Minister the opportunity to pause for thought on this point. Will she be clear about whether the offer by a housing association is covered by the Bill? It is clear from the Department’s explanatory notes that somebody moving from a secure tenancy within a housing association to a local authority tenancy would be offered an old-style secure tenancy, but it is not obvious that somebody leaving an old-style secure tenancy of any kind who is offered rehousing by a housing association would automatically qualify for an old-style secure tenancy. This is not a matter of trivia; it is an important issue. Of course, not everybody who moves as a result of domestic abuse will find themselves in a position to be offered a tenancy at all, and we must look at whether this is still a continuing barrier.

The Government were dragged into this situation—I say that kindly—having made a mistake in the original legislation. They faced defeat in Committee at that time because of a combination of their own Back Benchers and, of course, the Labour Opposition. The Government rightly recognised that they had to do something, and it has taken two years for the Bill to come forward. We obviously welcome the Bill, but it is important that we make sure that what it is claimed that it will do will really happen in practice.

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 6:40 pm, 19th March 2018

With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am grateful to have the opportunity to respond to the debate.

As I set out in my opening speech, the Bill forms part of the Government’s wider work to support victims of domestic abuse. Some £20 million of spending supports 80 projects with more than 2,000 bed spaces, helping to build a new life for domestic violence victims in safety and security. The Bill removes an impediment to victims of domestic abuse from being able to escape their abusive situation. It ensures that those who have a lifetime social tenancy and need to flee their current home so as to be safe from abuse are able to retain their lifetime tenancy in their new social home.

The Bill was improved in the Lords. As a result, it also covers a situation where a victim of abuse who is a joint lifetime tenant and wants to remain in their current home after the abuser has left or been removed can be granted a new sole lifetime tenancy in their social home. We have ensured that the Bill covers off circumstances in which a victim of domestic abuse who has or had a lifetime tenancy is seeking a new tenancy as a consequence of that abuse. This may be a short Bill but, as I am sure that we all agree, it is an important one with the potential to make a real change to victims’ lives.

A few questions were raised during the debate. In response to Toby Perkins—I will read this word for word, if I may—“A further Government amendment was made to the existing provisions of the Bill for victims who move to cover the scenario where the tenant has lost her security of tenure or no longer has a tenancy at all after she has fled her home. The amendment means that in this circumstance she will still be granted a lifetime tenancy in the new council property so long as the new tenancy is granted for reasons connected with the abuse.” I think that that answers his question.

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

No, I will not—I have to move on.

My hon. Friend Giles Watling brought up the matter of domestic violence as a priority for Essex police. I am very grateful for that. Councils have been given large amounts to help them to support people in this regard, and training on domestic abuse has been provided from that funding pot.

My hon. Friend Andrew Lewer mentioned GPs charging for letters. The provision of notes or letters as evidence falls outside a GP’s NHS contract, so a fee can currently be charged. This issue was raised in the Lords, as we heard, and Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth has already written to the Department of Health and Social Care about it. While we await a response, it is important to note that GP contract negotiations for 2018-19 are still ongoing and negotiations for the 2019-20 contract begin in April. We look forward to receiving the details of that response.

We have had a very good debate. There is cross-party support for the Bill. I am grateful to everybody who has been involved in the debate and hope that I have dealt with the points that have been raised. I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to discussing it further during its later stages.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

We now come to the programme motion. I must inform the House that paragraph 5 of the motion on the Order Paper should refer to Third Reading being brought to a conclusion three hours after the commencement of proceedings on consideration, not on Third Reading.