Residential Tenancies and Housing Legislation Amendment (Public Housing—Antisocial Behaviour) Bill 2015

17th September 2015

Mr GREG PIPER (Lake Macquarie) [10.58 a.m.]: I support the intent of the Residential Tenancies and Housing Legislation Amendment Bill 2015, which is to crack down on antisocial and criminal behaviour evinced by a small minority of social housing tenants who, through their wanton actions, make life difficult for and in extreme cases threaten the safety of the vast majority. Many of my constituents live in social housing; up to 40 per cent of housing in one suburb of my electorate falls into that category. While most of the tenants of those homes are law-abiding people and good neighbours, complaints to my office of violent criminal and antisocial behaviour, unfortunately, are not uncommon. Generally speaking, people who live in social housing are not there by choice. They are people who in most cases work hard to make the best of limited means or whatever circumstances that have prevented them from entering the private housing market. They are raising families, working, training, studying and participating in their communities or frequently they are retired.

People in this situation should not be forced to endure threatening or intimidating behaviour from troublemakers who do not respect other people's homes and rights. I have spoken with the Minister about the substance of this bill—an opportunity for which I thank him and his staff. I understand why he seeks to take a strong stand on this problem. I appreciate that some hard decisions have to be taken that may impinge on the liberty of those alleged to have been involved in persistent serious criminal or antisocial activity in order to tip the balance back towards the law-abiding majority. I support this approach. I have had some concerns, but I am pleased that a number of them will be dealt with in the amendments foreshadowed by the Government. I understand also that the shadow Minister has foreshadowed amendments, and I will be interested to see how they fit into the intentions of the bill.

The main tenets of the bill are the creation of one strike and three strike policies to deal respectively with serious crime and repeated lesser breaches of tenancy agreements. Serious crime is defined as offences that constitute grievous bodily harm under the Crimes Act 1900, a show cause offence within the meaning of the Bail Act 2013, or the illegal storing of firearms. Show cause offences are those at the most severe end of criminal activity and include sexual offences against children, weapons-related crime and the manufacture, cultivation and supply of illegal drugs. The offences that will apply under the three strikes rule are lesser offences which, on their own, would not constitute a breach severe enough to warrant automatic eviction.

The Minister maintains that these amendments will provide a more transparent approach that will give firm guidance to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal on how to deal with offenders. Again, I agree with this principle. I note that some stakeholders have expressed concern that the proposed legislation will remove the tribunal's discretion to rule against an eviction for one strike offences, but I understand the Minister's desire to draw a line in the sand when it comes to serious offences. I am pleased that amendments will be moved to ensure that for some categories of crime a tenant will not be evicted automatically due to the offences of another occupant of the House. I note that drug offences are not part of that exclusion.

I have spoken with the Minister's office about my concerns that, for example, a minor who becomes involved in even low-level drug selling could cause the other occupants of his or her household to be evicted. I have been assured that this will not be the case if the offender is under 18; rather, support services would be mobilised to address the young person's behaviour and offending. I had also been concerned about what would happen in the hypothetical case of a female tenant who finds herself in breach due to the actions of a controlling or violent partner. Would she, and perhaps other children in her care, be subject to eviction through no fault of their own? The Minister discussed this scenario with me and assured me that in cases where a tenancy had to be terminated due to the actions of people other than the registered tenant, the innocent party or parties would be rehoused in another property within the same area.

The Law Society is concerned that one strike action can be taken on the basis of a criminal charge that does not ultimately stand up in court. Notwithstanding the seriousness of the crimes to which the one strike rule applies, the potential exists for a miscarriage of justice if the offender is evicted on the strength of a charge of which they are subsequently cleared. Concern has been put forward by the Tenants Union, the Law Society and other parties about the provision of a minimum 14 days for a tenant to raise an objection to a strike notice issued by the landlord. It rightly points out that this may be difficult for tenants who have low literacy skills, limited understanding of English, mental health problems or even just limited access to the materials or resources required to lodge such an objection. I understand the Government is amending the legislation to extend this appeal period to 21 days, and I welcome that change.

In the interest of fairness, I believe the department should provide some facility to assist people with this process, if they need help, and if the assistance is not forthcoming within the given time frame an extension should be granted automatically. It would be prudent to address this either in the legislation or in regulations. I mention the introduction of neighbourhood victim statements—an initiative I support. While it will remain the discretion of the court to decide what weight it gives these statements in making determinations, the provision of an avenue whereby aggrieved tenants can make a statement to the courts in confidence, rather than having to appear at a hearing as a witness, is welcome.

I also recognise the potential deterrent effect of the three strikes rule, and I note the member for Tweed's comment that a similar policy in Queensland has resulted in 80 per cent of first strike offenders not reoffending further. This is obviously the outcome we want: to prevent antisocial and criminal behaviour from occurring in the first place, rather than to punish after the event. I think we all agree that there is a need for a practical ability for action to be taken against people living in social housing who seek to intimidate or bully their neighbours, make the lives of those living around them a living hell or engage in criminal behaviour.

I accept that this legislation covers complex situations and that the Minister has decided to err on the side of protecting the safety of the innocent, rather than extending the benefit of doubt to alleged serious offenders in cases where the interests of each conflict. I realise there are no easy solutions for some of the scenarios this legislation seeks to address. In understanding the complexities of the legislation and the scenarios, once again I thank the Minister for his assistance with the briefings provided by his office, in particular Lee Dickson and Emma Gittos. On balance, and in the interests of those who are at present frustrated and frequently frightened by the antisocial behaviour of their neighbours, I fully support the bill.

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