|Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill
The Chairman: My understanding, on advice, is that it is technically possible for the amendments to be considered. My advice to the Committee is that if we proceed with the amendments today, it might cause technical difficulties in further proceedings. When we finish debating the sittings motion, it might be useful for the Committee to adjourn. The way forward will then be clear.
Mr. Clappison: The whole Committee is grateful for your advice, Mr. O'Hara. As the person in whose name the amendments were tabled, I am happy to abide by that. We do not know what form the Government's proposals will take, and we wish to reserve our position. Some of the amendments may be relevant to what the Government eventually propose. Given what you said, and given our desire for a full debate at that time, I would follow your advice that the Committee should adjourn. The amendments may then be withdrawn and other amendments tabled in the light of Government amendments, hopefully in good time.
On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. It is on a completely different subject. The course taken by today's debate has reminded me of my policy of declaring interests on every conceivable occasion. I am not sure whether I am required to declare the fact—I shall do so in any case—that I have interests as a private landlord; they are fully set out in the Register of Members' Interests.
The Chairman: That is duly noted. However, we are still debating the sittings motion.
Mr. Calum MacDonald (Western Isles): I, too, have an amendment on the amendment paper, which is intended as a probing amendment. I think that it would be appropriate, Mr. O'Hara, to follow your advice. It would help if the Minister would say something about his discussions with the relevant Ministers in the Scottish Executive, because one of the complications of the Bill—as the Minister said in his opening remarks, it is not a straightforward matter—is that legislation in Scotland designed to combat antisocial behaviour is broadly compatible with that in England and Wales, but it has significant
Column Number: 21differences. The Scottish Parliament's Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 introduced a new category of tenancies for social tenants in Scotland, which allows them to be given a short-term probationary tenancy if they have been convicted of antisocial behaviour or if they are the subject of an antisocial behaviour order. I do not think that that is the case in England and Wales.
Several hon. Members have mentioned the difficulty that local authorities in England have in activating antisocial behaviour measures to tackle such problems. I understand that they are more widely used in Scotland, and are thought to be reasonably effective at tackling some of the hard-core problems of antisocial behaviour. However, there are differences in dealing with such behaviour between Scotland and England and Wales, which I intended to flag up in my amendment. It would be helpful if the Minister would say something about that, particularly whether he has discussed the matter with the relevant Ministers in the Scottish Executive.
The Chairman: Order. We are in danger of straying into a debate on the amendments. It is advisable, on the sittings motion, that we should debate the general issues. I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear that in mind.
Mr. MacDonald: Thank you, Mr. O'Hara. I raised the matter because you indicated that it would be advisable for the Committee not to push the amendments but to adjourn at the end of the sittings motion. I agree, but it would be helpful if the Minister would respond in the way that I suggested.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. O'Hara, and apologise for having missed the first five minutes of the proceedings. If my point has already been covered, I doubly apologise. It relates to what my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. MacDonald) has been saying, but I do not want to enter into debate with him or to talk about Scotland.
I hope that the Government will dwell on the lessons that we have learned from the unwillingness of local government to take up the antisocial behaviour orders. I am interested in the degree of primacy of actions taken to deal with antisocial behaviour through the withdrawal of housing benefit rather than through ASBOs. I do not know whether it can be phrased in legislation, but there are sure to be cases. Given that ASBOs are already in place, if the Bill is to proceed and if the Minister is not able to answer this point now, can he address it later in the form of amendments?
There could be a conflict in the law if we pursue different measures to curb antisocial behaviour, either by restricting people's freedom—where they can dwell and where they can visit—or by withholding payment. Can my hon. Friend the Minister offer an assurance that those matters will be considered, in discussions with both the Home Office and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, to give us belt-and-braces opportunities to have the most effective measures possible? Then, if antisocial behaviour takes place, we shall have an incentive to take such measures.
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Will my hon. Friend the Minister dwell on the point that we must consider how the various pieces of legislation will operate? They might work together or separately, but we do not want them to counteract one another and to cause more confusion; that would give local government a wonderful opportunity to do nothing about the individuals concerned.
Malcolm Wicks: It would not be helpful at this stage for me to attempt to reply to every point. Your advice is well taken by the Committee, Mr. O'Hara. There will be opportunities to scrutinise amendments in the proper way.
The Government are determined to take effective action, through benefits, against antisocial neighbours. There has been no attempt at this, but it would be foolish if the Committee were to enter into a competition to see who was the most outraged. Representing a Croydon constituency, I am bound to say that these problems exist in some areas that those in the north might regard as leafy suburbs. None of us would want to get into a game in which if we have three St. George's flags on our white van it means that we are somehow superior to those with two.
I was relieved when the hon. Member for Hertsmere declared his interest. I thought for a moment, although it seemed unlikely, that he was going to declare himself as a neighbour from hell. Although we have competed energetically in Committee on other occasions, I have never seen him in that capacity.
Mr. Field: It is important to declare an interest in this. Like the hon. Member for Hertsmere I am a private landlord. I should also declare, given that I have so disagreed with him in debate, that in his previous existence I tried to get the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton to work with me in the House; so there is no personal animosity.
Malcolm Wicks: I am sure that that is well understood. I emphasise the need to have effective measures. That is our point, and our difficulty as a Government. We need more time to table effective amendments. As the right hon. Gentleman understands, our task is not to think the unworkable. We have to think of things that work. That was the burden of the comments by various hon. Members, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew).
The focus of our approach is to ensure that in defining antisocial behaviour, properly and by a suitable authority, we have an automatic trigger that would require the local authority to sanction the benefit without further discussion. When we pass laws in this place we imagine that a great lever has been pulled, but sometimes nothing happens. Therefore, we want to have an automatic trigger in chosen circumstances that would apply throughout England, Wales and Scotland. Interesting things are happening in Scotland with tenancy arrangements, but the social security system is a United Kingdom system. We are having discussions with Ministers and officials so that we can bring on board the Scottish experience.
I apologise again for the fact that we have not been able to table our amendments, because it has
Column Number: 23inconvenienced the Committee. However, right hon. Members and hon. Members have taken it well.
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall): I appreciate my hon. Friend's apologies about the failure to table amendments. We are all aware of the constraints within the Department. However, given that if the sittings motion is passed we shall have the date for the next meeting, will he give us some idea of when he might be able to give us the amendments?
Malcolm Wicks: I regret that I cannot do so at this stage, because it depends on advice from other quarters. However, I hear the perfectly proper request of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead that we table amendments as soon as we can to be fair to the Committee. We shall do our best in that regard.
We go forward united in our approach—
Mr. Clappison: The Minister's form of words was ''as soon as we can'', but I would press him for the form I prefer, ''in good time''. If there is a question of work that needs to be done or bullets that need to be bitten, those responsible should bite the bullets, take the decisions and get on with the work. In that way, the Committee will have at least a little time to study the amendments and the difficult subjects that they raise. The Government have had since 19 April and Second Reading to produce the amendments.
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Malcolm Wicks: As the hon. Gentleman will understand, colleagues are working hard on the matter and we shall do our utmost.
I thank hon. Members for the friendly and sympathetic way in which they approached the debate. I could never compete with the colourful phraseology of the Great Grimsby poet, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby. Although you would rule it out of order if I spoke at length on the subject, Mr. O'Hara, many of us are concerned about animal rights. Therefore, the Government approach the issue wearing no fur coat, but we do not want to get the amendments in a twist.
The Chairman: A sittings motion has been moved which says that if we do not complete our deliberations today, we will reconvene at 9 am and, if necessary, 2.30 pm on Thursday 11 July.
Question put and agreed to.
Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Frank Field.]
Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Twelve o'clock till Thursday 11 July at Nine o'clock.
The following Members attended the Committee:
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