Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill

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Mr. Clappison: I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with great interest. My constituency has some of the wealthiest wards in the country, but it also has poor wards that are in receipt of single regeneration budget funding. From the complaints that I receive from those wards, I know how serious the problem of antisocial behaviour is. Is it the hon. Gentleman's experience, as it is mine, that the victims of antisocial behaviour are often the ones who have remove themselves from their properties?

Mr. Howarth: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right. I have complained many times about the fact that, in the end, the council has to transfer the people who have been harassed beyond endurance rather than those who have caused the problem, and that is exactly where my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead is coming from.

I make one final point. I would be most interested to hear what advice my hon. Friend the Minister's has received on the human rights implications of the Bill, and his response to those issues. I enthusiastically supported bringing the European convention on human rights into our domestic legislation, but I am growing somewhat weary of legislation that is meant to protect the rights of the individual being constantly wheeled out to support the rights of those who—to use the new Labour equation—accept all their rights but none of their responsibilities. My hon. Friend the Minister may view my remarks as somewhat unhelpful, and I await his amendments with some trepidation.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby): I share the disappointment of my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth). Here we are with a Bill before us, debating a basic issue of principle, yet we have just heard two contrasting points of view being expressed. We are being bombarded with mail from all sorts of groups, and the Government are in effect saying, ''Go away and mill around a bit while we get our heads straight.'' It is a disappointing response.

We have had five years of initiatives, action, statements, and declamations of ''We're going to do this, we are considering doing that, we have done so and so.'' That sort of thing gets in the newspapers and the public think that something is happening. People visit our surgeries and tell us horror stories about the way their neighbours are behaving; they say that their lives are hell and ask us what we are going to do about it now that the Government have come up with so many initiatives. I then ring up the people at the local council to find out what is being done to seize those initiatives and they say, ''Um . . . they won't work.''

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The same is true of some of the Government's other initiatives, such as those that are designed to enable education authorities to deal with truancy. People come to my surgery and say that there are kids hanging around town, making a nuisance of themselves and misbehaving, and their kids want to follow their example and walk out of school. I ring up the local education authority and ask what it is doing, only to find that it is doing nothing and that there is

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nothing that it can do. This is after five years of initiatives. The Government are all fur coat and no knickers in this respect.

Mr. Davey: Has the hon. Gentleman seen evidence from the Government—knickers or no knickers—showing that one reason why their initiatives have not worked is that people at local level do not know that some of those tools are available to them and are confused about how to implement them?

Mr. Mitchell: That is completely wrong. The local authorities and the education authorities know full well what has been proposed. They have considered it and found, on taking advice, that it does not work. That is the problem.

We have arrived at a basic division of principle. I must confess that I was a bleeding-heart liberal until I met my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead. I espoused the kind of bleeding-heart liberalism that used to dominate the Liberal Democrat party until it discovered yomping with its previous leader and reverted to Gladstonian social policy. However, I am glad to see that—at least in Surbiton—bleeding-heart liberalism is alive and well. I have no doubt that if, when the Bill is enacted, anybody is threatened with the sort of initiatives that it proposes, the Liberal Democrat welcome wagon will be go round to their house and offer them bowls of soup and nourishing gruel to compensate them for the loss of benefit.

I am glad to know that that spirit is still alive in Surbiton, but it is not alive in Grimsby, Liverpool or Manchester, where we are grappling with the problem in our surgeries and people are grappling with it in their lives. It is making their lives miserable and they want something done. There has been so much time to think about the matter, so much consideration and so many announcements that we should by now have had a clear statement and a clear set of proposals from the Government rather than have my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead

    ''Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer,

    And without sneering teach the rest to sneer.''—

yet that has been the approach.

The Bill contains a ready-made proposal. A private Members' Bill is a vulnerable, frightened and timid creature that is easily exposed, starved to death, talked out or battered, especially by Governments who do not want it to pass. If the Government do not take the initiative and come to the Committee, which has gathered here to discuss the principle, with definite proposals, they are participating in the death throes of the Bill.

It is disappointing to find the Government saying at this late stage that they have not thought it through. Why not? We have been thinking it through for years now. Why have we not reached some conclusion? It is no use constantly making announcements that the Government are going to do this, or are considering that, that they will grapple with the problem and eliminate nasty neighbours by 2004, or 50 per cent. of them by 2003, which is our usual approach. If we are

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going to announce initiatives, we must think them through. If we have thought them through, they should be ready for discussion in the House when a Bill such as this one is introduced.

The Bill is a step in the right direction. Despite all the arguments against it that have poured in to me from various groups, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead on his Bill. He has taken the initiative and should therefore be sustained and helped, rather than treated to a half-hearted undermining of the basic principle of his Bill. I am truly disappointed by the message that the Minister, who is an honourable, able and much respected Minister, has given us from on high.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead on introducing the Bill.

Antisocial behaviour is one of the most important issues—if not the most important—facing our constituents. I do not want to sound alarmist, but if we do not get to grips with some of the things that are happening on our estates, we will be in serious trouble. One gets the feeling that if someone on an estate stood in an election for the ''Antisocial Democratic Movement Party'', he would probably win if people believed that he could solve some of the problems. The issue transcends party politics and all other issues. People believe that it is their right to be protected from the behaviour that they are forced to endure day in, day out.

I support the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East. Individuals' human rights are important, but they should not be used as an excuse to allow people to behave in a way that impacts on the human rights of others. It sometimes seems to my constituents and me that some people's human rights are perceived as more important than the human rights of others. Indeed, the human rights of those who commit offences often seem to be regarded as more important than the human rights of victims and the law-abiding majority. If we do not reverse that perversion,—I shall not say with contempt, because that would be an overstatement, but we deserve to be regarded less favourably than might otherwise be possible.

On the sittings motion, I am disappointed with the Minister's remarks about amendments. It is important to ensure that the Bill works technically and is fair, but the aim is to deter people from the sort of behaviour that is driving many of our constituents mad. The amendments that the Minister will table might make the Bill toothless, and if it has no deterrent aspect, it simply will not work. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) makes the point that local authorities will not use the legislation if they think that it will not work. Amending the Bill might leave us with a piece of legislation that is supposed to tackle antisocial behaviour and deal with those who refuse to conform to normal rules of behaviour but that is, unfortunately, worthless. The Minister should take that into account when he discusses the amendments with his officials. We want fairness, but we also want rigour—we want a Bill that will have an effect.

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The Committee and the Government should recognise the impact that was made by imprisoning a woman for not sending her child to school for a considerable period of time. Head teachers throughout the country said that pupils were coming to school whom they had not seen for months on end—they did not even know they were on the register. Those are facts, and it is a fact that in some circumstances the law must deter. I want the Bill to retain that deterrent aspect.

As the hon. Member for Hertsmere said, it is important that hon. Members see the Government amendments in good time. Having listened to my hon. Friends, I am sure I am not alone in wanting to scrutinise those amendments to ensure that in seeking fairness, natural justice and the protection of human rights, as we all want, we do not make the Bill toothless.

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