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Mr. Edward Davey: The Minister is using much of his speech to point out some of the existing problems, particularly in Cameroon. He agreed with the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) that perhaps the best way to deal with those problems is to allow Cameroon into the Commonwealth, and to offer the support network that only the Commonwealth can provide. Can he say a little more about that, and about how soon he hopes to see those improvements? We are being asked to vote for a Bill that, in many ways, will give up one of our existing sanctions. The Minister shakes his head. He may wish to say that we will consider the case for removing Cameroon from the Commonwealth in due course, after discussing it with our partners, if it fails to meet the mark, but he should reassure the House that Her Majesty's Government will be very strict with Cameroon and Mozambique if they fail to meet the standards required.

Mr. O'Brien: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but let me make it clear, as I thought I already had, that the Bill does not secure the entry of Cameroon into the Commonwealth. Cameroon joined in 1995, and the Bill simply tidies up our statute book by recognising something that has already occurred.

The Commonwealth Secretary-General has engaged, as we have, in a number of ways with Cameroon, and there have been discussions with its Government to ensure

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that they are aware of our concerns about a series of issues, some of which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon touched on, and others of which we could go into, no doubt at great length, today.

The point is whether through the Commonwealth and particularly through the appointment of Christine Stewert by the Secretary-General to enter into close discussions with Cameroon and support its membership of the Commonwealth, we can engage it in a serious discussion of how it can improve its human rights and electoral system. We are talking to Cameroon and ensuring that it is aware both of our concerns and of the fact that there are ways in which we can encourage it, and provide some practical assistance if it wishes to improve its electoral and other procedures to protect human rights better.

We believe that membership of the Commonwealth is important to enable our partners to encourage Cameroon to meet its commitments, and we hope that the way in which we and the rest of the Commonwealth are engaging with it will start to secure some change. There is no point in making threats and wild statements. We need to engage constructively and seek to change the way in which things are done. I hope that hon. Members will feel that the Bill is worth supporting, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

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Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill

As amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

Clause 1

Anti-social behaviour declarations: criminal proceedings

1.13 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 5, leave out "a year" and insert "six months".

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 2, in page 1, line 8, after "convictions", insert—

'and taking into account any previous unspent convictions'.

No. 3, in page 1, line 13, after "convictions", insert—

'and taking into account any previous unspent convictions'.

No. 19, in page 1, line 14, at end add

(c) it is satisfied that any withholding of benefit, as set out in section (3) below and related regulations, will not increase the likelihood of the offender committing similar offences again,'.

No. 4, in page 1, line 15, at end insert—

'and specify the period of disqualification for the purposes of section 3(1)'.

No. 21, in clause 2, page 2, line 35, after "behaved", insert—

'and is satisfied that any withholding of benefit, as set out in section (3) below and related regulations, will not increase the likelihood of the offender committing similar offences again,'.

No. 8, in page 2, line 35, after "declaration", insert—

'and specify the period of disqualification for the purposes of section 3(1)'.

No. 22, in page 2, line 35, at end insert—

'(3A) A court may only make a declaration under subsection (3) above against a person over the age of 65 if it considers that there are exceptional circumstances and if it is satisfied that no other method of dealing with that person's behaviour is applicable.'.

No. 11, in clause 3, page 2, line 44, at end insert—

'(1A) In deciding to make a declaration under this Act, the court shall give due consideration to any hardship which may be inflicted on others as the consequence of disqualification of the person from benefit'.

No. 24, in page 2, line 44, at end insert—

'(1A) Subsection (1) shall only apply after the Secretary of State has—
(a) reviewed evidence as to the likelihood of the offender re–offending as a direct result of the benefit reduction, and
(b) stated that, in his opinion, the benefit reduction does not increase that likelihood.'.

Mr. Dismore: Although there are quite a few amendments before the House, the issues—or at least, the issues behind the amendments in my name—are straightforward. Amendment No. 1, which is a probing amendment, raises the question of when the declarations about antisocial behaviour can be made. Clause 1(1)(b)

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suggests that an order cannot be made if a sentence of a year or more has been imposed. I would like the promoter, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), to explain why he has picked that period.

If a person is in custody as a result of a sentence imposed by the court, the question of their receiving housing benefit does not arise. Whether they receive housing benefit will not make much difference to their behaviour if they are already in jail—although it may have an impact on their family.

I could understand the position if the sentence were a community sentence. That would be clear, but I do not understand why any custodial sentence should not be a bar to the making of such an order. That needs to be considered, especially bearing in mind the qualification regulations for receiving housing benefit when people are sentenced to a term of imprisonment.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this point because in Committee we did not consider in great detail the length of the custodial sentence that would apply to the housing benefit sanction. Why does the hon. Gentleman believe that it should be six months rather than the year provided for in the Bill?

1.15 pm

Mr. Dismore: I hit on six months simply as a probing measure—I could have chosen any period. I wanted to probe whether it was appropriate for an order to be made at all when someone is sentenced to a term of imprisonment. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead is an expert in the operation of housing benefit in these circumstances, and I am sure that he had a reason for deciding on a year rather than any other period.

Mr. Davey: May I help the hon. Gentleman? It was not the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) who proposed this part of the Bill, because it was largely rewritten in Committee by the Under–Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks). The Minister proposed the provision that the hon. Gentleman is probing.

Mr. Dismore: I am grateful for that clarification. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will have an even better reason to justify the term of imprisonment referred to in the Bill. If someone is sentenced to imprisonment, taking away their housing benefits seems a belt and braces approach, to say the least, to correcting their behaviour.

My next point concerns previous offences. When a court passes sentence on someone who has been convicted of an offence, the sentence will reflect the form of the offender concerned. The offence for which the court was considering the offender could be relatively trivial but could be seen in the context of a series of prior offences that were not before the court. It seems peculiar, given the Bill's present wording, that the court can take into account only the convictions that are being considered.

If somebody is up before a court for one event of disorderly conduct, such as trouble outside a pub or drunken, noisy behaviour on the way home, the court is unlikely to do much about it other than sentence that person to a community sentence at worst, although it

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would more likely be a fine. However, if that was just one in a long series of antisocial behaviour incidents, the court should be able to consider any previous unspent convictions when deciding whether a declaration under the Bill should be made. It is something of a loophole, if we are trying to deal with that annoying but relatively low-level form of antisocial behaviour that currently escapes the powers of the courts. I hope that the Minister will answer that point when he replies.

Amendments Nos. 8 and 11 relate to who sets the order for the withdrawal of benefit—the disqualification period. I have real concerns that this will simply be an administrative process. A court may make a declaration and have no real understanding or knowledge of how long that person will be disqualified from benefit. Equally, when the social services department imposes a disqualification period administratively, it may not know the full context, which the court may have known when deciding to make the declaration. The appropriate course would be to telescope that procedure into a declaration and disqualification, both of which should be considered by the court when deciding what action to take.

When considering a sentence, the court always listens to a plea of mitigation. There may well be a social inquiry report and other matters may be brought to the court's attention when passing sentence. It seems peculiar if, at the same time, those facts are not brought to the attention of the person or body implementing the disqualification order.

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