Clause 192

Legal Services Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 8:45 pm on 26th June 2007.

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Rights of audience etc of employees of housing management bodies

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

This clause gives rights of audience to employees of housing management bodies. Like the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley, and others, I represent large numbers of council tenants and the tenants of housing associations and trusts. As we know, housing officers go to the county court on a regular basis to act as if they were a lawyer on behalf of the landlord, to deal with rent arrears, breaches of tenancy, possession actions and other matters.

I have spotted something in the clause that I had assumed was covered, but it is not abundantly clear, as there are lots of different arrangements between housing authorities and other housing providers. There are arm’s length management organisations and other such part-tenant management co-operatives, estate management boards, tenant management boards and others, and the council may have an arrangement with a housing association or housing trust that uses the premises on a short-term basis for homeless people or in cases of domestic violence.

Will the definition in new section 60A(7) of the County Courts Act 1984 cover all those bodies? It does not look as if it will, if one considers the definition of a housing management body. However, I am happy that the Minister has agreed to consider that technical matter, which could be clarified on Report. I am conscious that there has been a huge expansion in those sorts of bodies, and I guess that the proposal is intended to give authority for those issues to be taken up in the county court.

People should know what authority a person has when they go to court. I have had cases in which people are not sure how far down a management tree the responsibility rests, which has led to some fairly junior people, who did not appear to have the authority to deal with those matters, pitching up at county courts. If there is to be fair but effective disposal of matters in  county courts, they should not be dealt with by someone who, to put it bluntly, does not have any more authority than doing what they were told when they left the office. I am keen that we should not go so far down the management tree that we are authorising people who do not understand how the county courts and the profession work. There is a practical concern in dealing with all the cases. I would be grateful for a response on whether we should authorise such junior people and whether all eventualities are covered.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice 9:00 pm, 26th June 2007

I hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman. The rights that are outlined in this clause will be exercisable only by those employees of housing management bodies that have an agreement with the local housing authority under section 27 of the Housing Act 1985. They might be former employees of the local authority or housing officers who lost their rights under the local authority when they were transferred over. We have worked with the Department for Communities and Local Government on this, and it has confirmed that the measure covers the huge variety of people mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, but I will double-check to be sure.

Section 27 agreements have to be approved by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government before they can take effect. I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s second concern, which I share, will fall into that category. Through that system, we will ensure that the person who appears in court is appropriate and has the approval of the Secretary of State through section 27.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 192 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 193 ordered to stand part of the Bill.