Report on the Housing (Amendment) Bill NIA 58/11-16

Session: Session currently unavailable

Date: 07 January 2016

Reference: NIA 269/11-16

ISBN: 978-1-78619-051-2

Mandate Number: 2011-16

housing-amendment-bill-report.pdf (469.21 kb)

Executive Summary and Recommendations

1. The Housing (Amendment) Bill was introduced in the Assembly on 30 June 2015, and encompasses three key areas.  These are:

  • Sharing of information relating to empty properties;
  • Disclosure of information relating to anti-social behaviour; and
  • Registration as statutory charge of certain loans.

2. The political situation in September/October 2015 meant that it was unclear when the Second Stage of the bill would take place. 

3. Noting the potential impact on the time the Committee for Social Development (the Committee) would have to consider the bill as a result of this delay, the Committee agreed to proceed with oral evidence sessions in advance of the bill reaching Second Stage and being formally referred to the Committee. 

4. During Committee Stage members considered the issues raised in evidence sessions with assistance from the Department for Social Development (DSD/the Department), conducted its clause-by-clause consideration of the bill on 10 December 2015 and agreed its report on 7 January 2016.

5. Over the course of briefings and evidence sessions, a number of issues in relation to the bill were raised by both stakeholders and members of the Committee. These were:

  • The scope of information-sharing in relation to empty properties and in particular, extending the provisions of clause 1 to housing associations, private landlords and councils;
  • Accessing and sharing information in order to identify empty properties including that from the Land Registry and utility companies;
  • The appropriateness of the  information-sharing provisions of clause 2 which relate to anti-social behaviour and related definitions;
  • The lack of compulsion on social landlords to disclose information related to anti-social behaviour;
  • The potential need for an indemnity in respect of defamation as a result of sharing information on anti-social behaviour; and
  • Guidance relating to the bill to be provided and placed on a statutory basis.

6. Stakeholders were broadly supportive of clause 1 which relates to sharing of information relating to empty properties in order to assist with the delivery of the Empty Homes Strategy however there was some debate around the scope of the clause.

7. The Committee was content that the Department had sufficiently addressed the issue of not including housing associations and private landlords in the drafting of the bill as relevant information to assist in the delivery of the Empty Homes Strategy will be provided by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) as appropriate.

8. The Committee was content that the Department had sufficiently addressed the issue of not extending information-sharing to councils under clause 1, acknowledging that data protection requires that information sharing must align with the purpose of the bill.

9. The Committee accepted that councils do not have a role in delivering the Empty Homes Strategy and therefore amending the bill to include councils in information-sharing under this clause would not be for the purpose of delivering this strategy.

10. The Committee agreed with the Department that, if councils required such an information-sharing provision in relation to empty homes, that this should be made in local government legislation rather than housing legislation.

11. Members did however express a concern that there has been a potential missed opportunity for a joined up approach to information-sharing and agreed this should be considered by the new Department for Communities which will have responsibility for local government.

12. The Committee is of the view that there may be benefit in the Department exploring options for establishing information-sharing protocols with utility companies within the current legislative provisions in order to identify the addresses of empty properties which could then be brought to the attention of Land and Property Services. This additional information could also have the wider application of helping to address the issue of tenancy fraud.

13. Clause 2 of the bill deals with disclosure of information relating to anti-social behaviour.

14. Key issues raised under this clause were: the appropriateness of the information-sharing provisions which relate to anti-social behaviour and related definitions; the lack of compulsion on social landlords to disclose information related to anti-social behaviour; the potential need for an indemnity in respect of defamation as a result of sharing information on anti-social behaviour; and guidance relating to the bill to be placed on a statutory basis.

15. The bill will introduce new powers for information-sharing for the purpose of pursuing possession action (in accordance with grounds 1, 2 and 3 of Schedule 3 to the Housing (NI) Order 1983 (the 1983 Order)).

16. The Committee agreed with Housing Rights who told the Committee in oral evidence that they believe the definition of “relevant information” and “relevant purpose” goes beyond what is necessary. 

17. The Committee discussed this issue at length with the Department. In the end, the Department stated that while the Minister did not believe that the references to grounds 1 and 3 in the bill do go beyond what is necessary, if the Committee requested their removal from the bill, he would accept this in order to ensure the bill’s timely progress through the Assembly.

18. At its meeting of 10 December the Committee agreed that reference to grounds 1 and 3 in clause 2 should be removed by way of an amendment provided by the Minister.

19. While the Committee believed there was a legitimate argument to include private landlords in the information-sharing provisions of clause 2 it also recognised the serious concerns about individual landlords being equipped to handle personal data in accordance with data protection legislation.

20. The Committee therefore decided against amending the legislation to include an enabling clause for information-sharing with private landlords.

21. The Committee welcomed the fact that this issue has been included in the  recently launched  discussion paper, Review of the Role and Regulation of the Private Rented Sector:

 "It has been suggested that the Bill should go further and enable social landlords to share relevant information with a registered private landlord to enable anti-social behaviour to be addressed in a more consistent way across housing sectors. The feasibility of such a provision is being examined.”

22. The Committee was content that all other issues raised under clause 2 of the bill had been sufficiently addressed by the Department and no substantive issues were raised under clauses 3 – 5.

23. The Committee therefore makes the following recommendations:

Recommendation 1

24. The Committee recommends that SOLACE and NILGA consider if there is a requirement for statutory information-sharing between DFP and councils in relation to empty properties.  If such provision is required then this should be made in local government legislation rather than housing legislation.

Recommendation 2

25. The Committee recommends that the issue of effective information-sharing with local government should be considered by the new Department for Communities which will have responsibility for this area.

Recommendation 3

26. The Committee recommends that the Department seek to improve information-sharing protocols between NIHE and utility companies to assist in identifying empty properties.

Recommendation 4

27. The Committee recommends the Department consider the inclusion of information-sharing provisions with utility companies in its consultation on the proposals to introduce new fraud legislation in May 2016.

Recommendation 5

28. The Committee recommends that the issue of enabling social landlords to share relevant information with a registered private landlord to enable anti-social behaviour to be addressed in a more consistent way across housing sectors is given close consideration within the Department’s Review of the Role and Regulation of the Private Rented Sector.

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