Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill

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Vernon Coaker: I am sorry to interrupt my right hon. Friend, but I want to take him back to his remarks about what he called sin bins, but I think might be called supported housing, because the point is important.

We want housing benefit to be withdrawn from some families in some circumstances. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton asked what would happen to those families. Beyond the scope of the Bill, there is a necessity for the Government to consider supported housing for families that are simply beyond the realm of normal living, so that we can support them and try to encourage the parenting skills and family relationships that we think are acceptable. I believe that in the last Parliament the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) talked about the concept of supported housing. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead that we should consider it.

Mr. Field: Linked with that is an Opposition new clause about the effect on children, which I welcome. I would argue that in the extreme circumstances in which we want the Bill to apply, it might not be in the children's best interests to continue to live in a certain household, although that is not to say that we want to hoover them all up and take them away for ever.

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All the schools in my constituency are now achieving, thank goodness, in part because of the reforms that the previous Government introduced and on which our Government have built. The school with the most difficulties in Birkenhead is in a tough area, the head and the teachers said that, generally speaking, 60 per cent. of the children were looked after by their parents, but 40 per cent. were not. When I asked one little fellow what it was like being in foster care, he said that it was warm and there was food in the cupboards.

We must not get too idealistic about how wonderful some families are to their children. Sadly, some parents see their children as benefit books. When the teachers try to persuade the mothers to transfer the child benefit book to an older sibling so that they can buy food for the younger ones, the mothers fight like hell to keep the books, because they regard the money as theirs and not the child's.

Mr. Howarth: I intervene at the risk of testing your patience, Mr. O'Hara, but I have given some thought to what we should do with such families. I am more and more inclined to the idea of weekend prisons for families that do not function properly, so that they can be given the opportunity every weekend to attend compulsory programmes that will help them to modify their behaviour. Perhaps that could be fitted into such legislation.

Mr. Field: Given the ideas that have been raised, I hope that the Government will listen carefully and think that a few of them could grow legs. I hope that they will want to bring those ideas back in their proposals.

In some important respects, the Bill tries to break new territory. I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton for putting the traditional arguments against. That was valuable. Events are so fast moving that the outcome of elections will be determined by how effectively we control the new barbarism. We must consider how we put walls up to prevent it, as well as taking much longer-term measures to try to cultivate once again the idea that private virtues are to be commended, not scorned.

The Bill suggests that benefits should not come unconditionally. Although the Government have used that argument in understandable ways to coerce people back into work, we are entering new territory in two ways, so it is good to debate the subject. We shall indulge in further debate with organisations and so on. One of my constituents said to me, ''I work, Frank. I have to turn up at a certain time. I am expected to dress in a certain way, and behave in a certain way to my colleagues. If I do not fulfil those conditions, I don't get paid.'' He cannot see why, if he has to accept conditions so that he can earn his wage, it should be different for people who draw benefits. That is not to say that people should not have benefits, but those benefits should be earned by being good citizens and should not come without strings attached.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton asks about the subsistence level of income that people should have whatever their behaviour, but I think that we should ask about the subsistence level

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of behaviour. We could turn the question around, and make it so that people have rights if they clearly behave properly.

11.30 am

I am approaching the end of what I want to say, but I hope that the Government have picked up two themes that came from practically all the contributors to the debate. The first is concern about the European convention on human rights. It was introduced into our law for the best reason in the world, which was that we did not want minorities to be persecuted. When we saw the relevant legislation going through, none of us believed that it might be used so that minorities could persecute the majority.

If the Government moved away from my Bill because they felt that the courts would not uphold it because of the convention, there would be political consequences. Also, it would negate their duty to say that the convention itself might need to be changed. Its main thrust should be enshrined in our law, but the legislation should not be so clumsy that it protects those who are undesirable enough to be the subjects of my Bill.

The second theme about which the Government should think seriously is the level of penalties. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton was pleased when it was clear that the penalty would not be the whole benefit, whereas I was appalled. The Government ought to uncouple in their mind the measure that they would like to introduce and the measure that they think that they could introduce with reference to only the terms of the European convention. They ought to get the penalty right and then argue that the convention should be tested in the courts, and if necessary changed, rather than introducing a penalty that they know will not allow human rights lawyers to cause any trouble.

When I mentioned the current penalties at public meetings, people generally fell about laughing. If I could crack jokes at after-dinner speeches and get a response as excited as that of my constituents when I tell them that the Government use a series of penalties against people on the new deal and so on, I would be a rich man. No doubt the registrar who looks after the Register of Members' Interests would require a new category for my earnings from that.

Mr. Davey: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, if not my right hon. Friend, for giving way. When the Minister talked about the reduction rather than the withdrawal of benefits, he mentioned the penalty being proportionate. Given that we imprison rapists, terrorists and murderers but feed, clothe and house them in warm conditions, why does the right hon. Gentleman think that the penalty of total withdrawal that he proposes is proportionate? Those affected may be below subsistence levels of income, and unable to house and feed themselves.

Mr. Field: We are talking not about innocent people, but about people for whom the panoply of preventive measures will have been taken—from friendly chats, to serious warnings and attempts such as the Dundee experiment to negotiate through difficulties. A person has to be convicted before the

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courts not once but twice. My constituents think that I am going soft when I tell them that. Their urgency is such that they would like it to happen on the first occasion. I hope, therefore, that when the Government examine the matter, they will think it proportionate to use the more gentle deductions on the first occasion, to show people that on the next occasion we will get serious and they will lose their benefit.

Vernon Coaker: In every aspect of law, whether it deals with housing benefit or with eviction, people have to believe that the penalty will be carried out if they continue to behave in a certain way. Some people in my constituency do not believe that they will ever reach the end of the line and be evicted, however bad their behaviour. It was the same when I was a schoolteacher. One gave children chance after chance, but if they believed that they would never be excluded from school one could not change their behaviour. The measure is not about wanting to withhold housing benefit completely from somebody but about having a deterrent so that people know that that will happen if they do not change their behaviour. Is that not the point?

Mr. Field: That is precisely the point. The Bill is not about imposing sanctions but about trying to change behaviour. It also draws a line in the sand so that people know that if they go beyond that line on two occasions, there are penalties. That is immensely important.

Mr. Clappison: The right hon. Gentleman touches on an important point. Given that antisocial behaviour has to be established on two separate occasions through an order of the court or a conviction, and given the seriousness of the antisocial behaviour with which the Bill seeks to deal, does he agree that the period during which those two occasions may fall should be reasonably long?

Mr. Field: Indeed, and that is why, although we will not discuss the amendments today, I was pleased that the Opposition tabled an amendment changing the period during which the penalties might operate from three to five years.

Probably nobody in Parliament will say that he or she is against the Bill or its objectives. The Opposition will say that we all stand shoulder to shoulder, are all appalled by the rise in antisocial behaviour and are all just as sympathetic towards our constituents as I am in proposing the measure. Then they will say that they have just a small doubt and do not think that the Bill is quite the right way to go.

Those people have every right to pursue that argument and to try to convince the Commons and the Lords of it, but I believe that their constituents will be watching them. Well before the next election this will be one of the big issues on which our electorate will ask for action from us. Of course, there is one part of my nature that does not like doing things because the majority wants them and feels that one ought to stand out and test whether such a measure is the right way forward. Members who hold the view that it is

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right to deal with the issue but not in this way will therefore have an important function.

Come election day, one of the pieces of information that our opponents will be circulating against us is how we have voted on this and similar measures. As the old politics of class clearly belongs to the past, the new politics of behaviour will dominate how people vote, even if not all politicians will have managed to catch up with that agenda by the time of the general election.

I am immensely pleased that we have had the opportunity in discussing this sittings motion to have such a wide-ranging debate and for all of us to say how we feel the Bill fits in with how our own constituents think politics is developing and how Government and Opposition see that. I end by asking your advice, Mr. O'Hara. If the Committee goes on to discuss the amendments on the amendment paper, would that mean that we could not come back to them in the other sittings?

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