Joint tenancies: removal of a tenant

Part of Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 17th June 2020.

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Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women 4:00 pm, 17th June 2020

I apologise at the start because, just as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley went into the fine detail of housing law, so, sadly, will I. I will try to cut it down.

We understand the motivation behind new clause 42. Abusers seek to control their victims in many different ways, and threatening to make their victims homeless or actually making them homeless by ending a tenancy is a particularly pernicious form of control. However, we have concerns about the drafting of the new clause, as it would apply only to local authority and housing association periodic tenancies, whereas most social tenants have periodic tenancies that are often known as lifetime tenancies, which generally mean that they can stay in their home for the rest of their life, provided they comply with the terms of the tenancy. A social tenancy with lifetime security of tenure is a valuable asset, which is why the Bill includes provisions designed to protect the security of tenure of victims of domestic abuse when granted a new tenancy by a local authority.

Notwithstanding the general position on security of tenure, current law provides that if any joint tenant of a period tenancy serves a notice to quit, it brings the whole tenancy to an end and the landlord can seek possession. The rule is of long standing; it has been established in many cases over the years and was recently upheld by the Supreme Court. It aims to balance the interests of each joint tenant and the landlord. For example, it would allow a victim of domestic abuse who has had to flee her home to ensure that she is no longer bound by the full obligations of the tenancy, which she is no longer able to enjoy. We recognise that the rule may be problematic in some cases of domestic abuse where the perpetrator can use it to exert control. I appreciate that the aim of the new clause is to find a way around that, to enable victims of abuse to remain in their current home, without fear that the abuser may seek to terminate the tenancy.

We are concerned about a number of areas of the new clause. It would allow the victim to apply to the court to remove the perpetrator from the tenancy, which is intended to effectively transfer the tenancy into the victim’s name. Where there are other joint tenants, it would have the effect of transferring the tenancy into the names of the victim and of those other joint tenants. As my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington pointed out so eloquently—perhaps he should have declared an interest as a long-standing solicitor, as he was bringing his expertise into this—it means that victims may face the prospect of unresolved or remaining debts and costs because of any damage that the perpetrator may have caused to the property. The perpetrator will not be liable, as they will have been removed from the tenancy.

The new clause also fails to provide for how the interests of third parties may be taken into account by the court, including those of the landlord, any other joint tenant or any children in the relationship. A decision to grant a tenancy lies with a landlord. Where a landlord has decided to grant a tenancy to two or more individuals jointly, this new clause means that the number of tenants may be changed without reference to the landlord as the property owner.

It is important to bear in mind that landlords may have other reasons, outside of affordability, for deciding to grant a joint tenancy. In addition, this could amount to an interference with a housing association landlord’s own rights under the human rights legislation. Since this engages other parties’ human rights, we need to consider carefully what is the right approach in order to balance those rights, and ensure that any interference is proportionate and justified.

I understand that officials from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government are engaging with the domestic abuse sector and other relevant stakeholders on these issues, regarding the termination of joint tenancies. I am happy to give a commitment that we will continue to consider the issues with the sector, with a view to arriving at a workable solution.

Turning to new clause 43, this seeks to amend section 199 of the Housing Act 1996, which defines local connection. Local connection relates to how local housing authorities establish and carry out their statutory homelessness duties under part VII of the Act. If an applicant does not have a local connection, as defined by section 199, a housing authority can refer that applicant to another housing authority where they do have a local connection and can access this support. However, under that legislation, the authority must ensure that the conditions for referral are met. This means that a housing authority cannot refer an applicant to another authority if they, or anyone who might reasonably be expected to reside with them, would be at risk of violence.

The homelessness code of guidance makes clear that a housing authority is under a positive duty to enquire whether the applicant would be at such a risk, and stipulates that authorities should not impose a high standard of proof of actual violence in the past when making its decision. The changes the Government propose to make in this Bill, in order to ensure that domestic abuse victims are considered to be in priority need for homelessness assistance, will be strengthened further by amending section 198 of the Housing Act 1996, so that a local authority cannot refer an applicant if there is a risk of not only violence but domestic abuse, as defined in the Bill.

Local connection is also a factor in how many local authorities determine priority for social housing. The allocation of social housing is governed by part VI of the Housing Act 1996. Local authorities must give reasonable preference for social housing to certain groups of people, including those who are homeless or who need to move for medical or welfare reasons. To help them determine the relative priority of applicants who fall into these groups, they may, but are not obliged to, use local connection as defined in section 199. Existing statutory guidance, to which authorities must have regard, makes it clear that they should consider giving additional preference within their allocation schemes to people who are homeless and require urgent rehousing as a result of domestic abuse. Existing legislation and guidance should therefore ensure that the intended purpose of new clause 43 is already in effect. It is not correct to say that a victim of domestic abuse needs to have a local connection for the purposes of a homelessness application, and lack of local connection should not prevent victims of domestic abuse from getting priority for social housing.

In new clause 44, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley proposes that the Government make new regulations to prevent local authorities from setting qualification criteria for social housing that may disadvantage victims of domestic abuse due to lack of a local connection. Many local authorities restrict their waiting lists to those who can demonstrate a close association with their local area. This helps to ensure that, as far as possible, affordable housing is available for those among the local population who are on low incomes or otherwise disadvantaged, and who would find it particularly difficult to find a home on the open market.

Statutory guidance published in 2013 is clear that local authorities should consider the need to provide for appropriate exceptions from their residency requirements to take account of special circumstances, including providing protection to people who need to move away from another area to escape violence. Statutory guidance published in 2018 goes even further. It encourages all local authorities to exempt from their residency requirements those who are living in a refuge or other form of safe temporary accommodation in their district, having escaped domestic abuse in another local authority area. This is because many people escaping domestic abuse may seek a place of safety in a refuge before they apply for social housing.

The allocation of social housing is devolved to local housing authorities for good reason. The legislation allows for flexibility, to ensure that authorities can tailor their allocation schemes to meet local priorities. The Government are committed to ensuring that the system is fair and functioning effectively. The social housing Green Paper included a proposal to carry out an evidence-collection exercise to improve our understanding of how the system is playing out across the country. The findings from the exercise will be published in due course and we will consider any changes that may be needed. For those reasons and on the understanding that we will continue to examine the issues around joint tenancies, I invite the hon. Lady to withdraw the clauses.