Jake Berry is MP for Rossendale and Darwen and Parliamentary Private Secretary to Grant Shapps MP, Minister for Housing.
In the light of disgraceful looting and rioting across England last week, it is absolutely right that the Coalition Government should come forward promptly with proposals for stronger housing sanctions against those who choose to wreak havoc in people’s communities. At the heart of the motivations of those criminal looters, muggers and arsonists was a nihilist view – of being immune to any real consequence of their deeds, and lacking any sense of social responsibility for their actions.
Tougher eviction powers are not a knee jerk reaction; rather they are another marker of this Government’s consistent commitment to better balance the rights of victims with the rights of those who inflict misery on their neighbours and whole communities. As a housing lawyer prior to my election to Parliament, I have seen first hand the immense disruption and upset caused by the small number of people who are unwilling to function as responsible member of their community.
Earlier this month, the Department for Communities and Local Government published a consultation on a fast-track mandatory power of possession. This would apply where tenants had already been convicted by another court of a serious housing-related offence, had breached an injunction taken out against them by their landlord, or had their property closed because of the criminal activity taking place within it. This would help landlords with their existing powers of eviction where tenants or their children commit anti-social and criminal acts in the vicinity of their home.
It is already the case that where tenants are evicted for anti-social behaviour, it is very likely that they will be deemed to have made themselves intentionally homeless and therefore the local councils will have no duty to provide new settled accommodation. Councils from across the political spectrum, including Hammersmith & Fulham, Greenwich, Nottingham, Salford, Wandsworth and Westminster have already pledged to use these eviction powers against such ‘neighbours from hell’ in the last week.
However, where a tenant or a member of their household decides to wreak havoc in someone else’s community, those powers of eviction do not currently apply. This leaves open a significant loophole to ‘crime tourism’ – a criminal sidestepping such sanctions by simply travelling down the road to commit crime in a different neighbourhood.
The Government is now proposing to extend landlords’ powers to seek possession where tenants have committed such crimes beyond the locality of their property. I am confident that the vast majority of people think that it’s right that landlords can seek to evict a tenant where they ruin the lives of those living around them. It is important to remember that the provision of social housing – subsidised rents with long or lifetime tenures – is a privilege not an inalienable right.
Critics of these plans demonstrate an imperfect understanding both of the Government’s proposals and the application of human rights to the termination of tenancies.
Under our proposals a landlord seeks possession against a tenant on the basis of a conviction for a crime committed away from the locality of their home, the courts would have to, just as they must at the moment, consider whether it is reasonable to grant possession. But this is stating the obvious: every legal case should be considered on its merits, and everyone has a right to a fair trial.
But I don’t accept the counsel of despair that says that tenants who have caused mayhem near someone else’s home rather than their own will never be evicted. That’s not my reading of reasonableness.
Nor do I accept the contention that human rights law and considerations of proportionality mean that tenants who have caused misery through their anti-social and criminal behaviour means that they are protected from eviction, even where the landlord has an unqualified right of possession in domestic law.
The Supreme Court has emphasised in recent judgments the strong presumption that, if local authority landlords have followed proper procedures it will normally be proportionate to make a possession order. The court will give a lot of weight to the local authority’s legitimate aims in seeking possession. The threshold for a successful Article 8 challenge is extremely high and will only rarely be made out.
Indeed, rights cut both ways. Article 8 explicitly states that public authorities can intervene in the interests of public safety, for the prevention of disorder and crime and for the protection of rights and freedoms of others. Law-abiding citizens have a right to conduct their lives and run their businesses without fear of being burgled, mugged or their homes and properties ransacked or set ablaze.
Tougher eviction powers will provide a real deterrent against future crime. And once such criminals are evicted, a social home will be freed up for a deserving, law-abiding family on the waiting list.
With such lists having almost doubled to 1.8 million under the Labour Government, this will obviously just be a tiny step in the broader mission of increasing access to social housing to those in need. But it is the social contract in action – the state giving a helping hand to those who play by the rules, and withdrawing special privilege from those who wish to harm others in defiance of social responsibility.