Committee (1st Day)

Part of Housing and Planning Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 9th February 2016.

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Photo of Lord Beecham Lord Beecham Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice) 4:00 pm, 9th February 2016

My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 8ZA. Both amendments stem from the 20th report of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, published just last Friday—hence the fact that they are manuscript amendments. Both the clauses affected, Clauses 13 and 22, have attracted considerable criticism from the committee. They relate to the introduction of banning order offences, about which the committee expresses serious concerns.

A ban would arise following conviction for a banning order offence and would prevent the relevant person from letting or engaging in letting agency or management work, as a result of an order made on the application of a local authority. It would also ban the relevant person from holding an HMO licence and allow him to be placed on a database. However, the Bill does not define the offence that would allow the Secretary of State to describe its nature, the offender’s characteristics, the place where it was committed, the court passing sentence and the sentence itself by regulations subject to the negative procedure—with no restriction whatever on the character of the offence, which need not be related to housing issues at all.

In a memorandum, however, a wide range of offences is cited as possibly relevant. The committee sensibly pointed out that these offences could be listed in the Bill with a power to amend, if necessary, by secondary legislation. The committee averred:

“We consider it inappropriate that the determination of the offences that are to constitute ‘banning order offences’ should be left entirely to the discretion of the Secretary of State and with only a modest level of Parliamentary scrutiny”.

The committee recommended removing Clause 13(3) and replacing it with a provision listing offences constituting banning order offences, with a delegated power to amend by the affirmative procedure.

The amendment tabled today defines—very narrowly, it must be said—the grounds for a banning offence, and requires parliamentary approval for the relevant regulations. The grounds may be considered too narrow. I hope that the Minister will look at the issue and come back on Report with a more developed position in which parliamentary approval for any new offence is required.

Amendment 8ZA to Clause 22 relates to the provision for financial penalties for a breach of a banning order which may be imposed by the local housing authority. Subsection (9) requires the housing authority to have regard to any guidance given by the Secretary of State in respect of the exercise of its function under the clause. The amendment simply requires that such guidance should take effect only under the affirmative procedure. The amendment to Clause 22 relates to the provision in the clause in respect of the financial penalties for a breach of the banning order which may be imposed by the local housing authority.

The Delegated Powers Committee noted that Clause 22 allows a housing authority to impose a penalty of up to £30,000 for the breach of a banning order and points out that this is an alternative to a criminal prosecution. Unlike in the latter procedure, it will not be necessary for the authority to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt, such that, to quote the committee,

“this clause empowers an authority to act as if it were prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner”.

The provision in subsection (9) requiring the authority to have regard to the guidance means that such guidance will be expected to be followed unless there are cogent reasons for not doing so. The committee concluded that, given the nature of the power conferred on local housing authorities—which would deny the accused access to adjudication by a court as to whether a criminal offence had been committed—the guidance is of great significance, and accordingly that it should be laid in draft and not come into force with the affirmative procedure.

These observations essentially foreshadow the amendment to be moved later by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes. I think that we are at one on this: indeed, there was, I think, wide agreement around the House at Second Reading that there are far too many areas that are to be covered by regulation with no evidence that any of this will be presented to us as the Bill goes through. It may be ready for other parts of the Bill but there is nothing today on these matters. Unless we have an assurance from the Minister that we will be able to see regulations before Report, the House should take a strong view in support of the amendment which I now move.