My word, what a fountain of press releases you have been lately. Quite takes me back to the heady days of John Healey. But it is this press release I want to talk about, the ‘Neighbours from Hell’ one.
You announce that you:
will introduce a new additional mandatory ground for possession, so those tenants with a track record of anti-social behaviour can be evicted from their council or housing association property much more quickly.
Ministers believe this will lead to a faster and fairer courts process - being found guilty of housing related anti-social behaviour in one court will provide automatic grounds for eviction in the county court, removing the need to prove the incidents of anti-social behaviour for a second time.
I’ve been trying to make sense of this, being a housing lawyer who will have to deal with whatever the legislative outcome is. It sounds as if it makes sense. There are words and sentences, arranged in a sense making order. There are impressive sounding phrases like ‘more quickly’ and ‘faster and fairer’ (haven’t we heard that somewhere before? Ah yes, the late Govt’s line on ‘summary justice’). But when I try to match it up against what actually happens now, let alone what the current legal position is, things go together as well as pairing lime green crocs with a nice navy pinstripe worsted suit (and that combo should never be seen in town after 1 May, really).
Not that I’m knocking the seriousness of the issue. I, and probably every housing solicitor, get many, many people approaching me desperate for something to be done about their nuisance neighbour/kids/gangs in the area or wanting a transfer because they just can’t take it any more. Of course, we also get people accused of causing nuisance/perpetrating ASB, so we have a perspective from both sides to some extent. But I would in no way seek to minimize the seriousness of the problem and the blight it can have on people’s lives. All the more important for anything you propose to actually be worthwhile and effective rather than sitting at the glib sound bite end of things.
So. let’s try to break this down a bit…
Being found guilty of housing related anti-social behaviour in one court will mean that it won’t have to be ‘proved again’ in the county court on a possession claim.
Well, that would actually be true now. If someone had a finding of ‘housing related’ anti-social behaviour against them in the County Court, Magistrates or Crown Court, it then wouldn’t have to be ‘proved again’ in any other proceedings based on the same incidents. So, for instance, a criminal conviction would be incontestable as a fact in civil possession proceedings. In short, there is no need for something to be ‘proved again’ on a possession claim at all.
That bit may be nonsense, but never mind, let us move on:
There is to be a new mandatory ground for eviction for council and housing association tenants such that being found guilty of housing related anti-social behaviour in one court will provide automatic grounds for eviction in the county court.
Now the devil here is in the detail. Any kind of ‘housing related ASB’? That covers a lot of ground, from the minor but annoying to the very serious indeed. And ‘found guilty’ – does this mean a conviction in the Magistrates or Crown Court? Or the Magistrates making an ASBO or ASBI?
Then there is that word ‘Mandatory’. I realise you are a very busy housing minister – all these initiatives to come up with and residential property market tendencies to powerlessly bemoan – so you probably haven’t had time to read the blog lately. (You do subscribe to the twitter feed, but detail is everything). You may have had a bit of a briefing on a case called Pinnock, though. Suffice it to say that ‘mandatory’ is a bit more of tricky concept than it was in the recent past. Whether ‘proportionate’ under Article 8 is akin to the current test of ‘reasonable to make a possession order’ is an open question – none of us know yet, - but you either aren’t going to get ‘mandatory’ possession proceedings or you may well be looking at a declaration of incompatibility.
But annoying legal issues aside, what of practicality?
My view is entirely based on anecdotal experience, but that seems fair enough, as your press release refers to no statistical or survey evidence whatsoever for assuming that non-mandatory possession proceedings are what is getting in the way of dealing with the problem.
Your evidential justifications in the press release - the dreadful experiences of Ms Tomlinson and Ms Stenhouse - do not indicate that drawn-out possession proceedings were a problem. Possession was gained in one case and proceedings were underway in the other. In the Guardian story, the example – given by your press office – is of Ms Glover in Birmingham, again a dreadful story, in which there is no mention of possession proceedings having been brought against the perpetrator at all.
My experience is that the real problem people have is in getting their (Council/RSL) landlords (and/or police) to take any substantive action against the perpetrators at all, at least beyond a letter or two, visit and suggestion of ‘mediation’. Obviously social landlords (and police forces) vary greatly in this regard, but I gather from others and from Ombudsmen's’ reports that a landlord’s failure to take action and implement their existing and quite extensive powers is very common, let alone acting in any joined up way with the police.
How far Councils and police will support and staff anti-social behaviour action teams in the current funding situation is, to say the least, a bit of a question. I note that you do nothing more in this regard than ‘want’ landlords and/or police to use their powers. (I want an iPad and world peace, while we’re at it). No dedicated funding. You can, of course, blame the councils when nothing actually changes as a result of this initiative, but that would just be cynical.
There we are. Unless existing powers are actually used (and the dedicated joined-up ASB teams funded), the fact that there may be a kind of mandatory possession proceeding – although see above – is going to make no practical difference to the situation at all, as there will be as few ‘housing related ASB’ prosecutions as there are now, or even fewer.
Oh yes, there is some money – “£300,000 of Government funding to a new central team to help tenants and landlords” tackle ASB. Yep. That is about 8 mid level civil servants for a year.
And housing associations can extend ‘probationary’ tenancies – typically Assured Shortholds – to be for a period of 18 months. I have to admit I wasn’t aware that they couldn’t (or that they didn’t realise that they could).
ownership of the Respect Standard setting out best practice on preventing and tackling ASB is being transferred from DCLG to the housing sector. The Chartered Institute of Housing, working closely with the Social Landlords Crime and Nuisance Group and other key partners will lead on an early review of the Standard's content, name and any 'sign-up' arrangements.
How is that going to work for local authorities, out of interest?
That is it. Of course, I could be completely wrong about all of this, as there is no detail at all in the press release or attached to it. We will, I suppose, have to see what is put forward for consultation.
In the meantime, you appear to have presented us all with a chocolate teapot.