Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill

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The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with amendment No. 1 we are considering amendments Nos. 10, 11, 4, 2, 12, 3, 13, 15 to 17, 14, 18 to 20, 25, 23, 24, 21, 22, 26, and 27; clause stand part; amendments Nos. 28 and 29; new clauses 1 and 2; Government new clause 3 and amendments (a), (c), (d) and (b) thereto; Government new clause 4 and amendments (a), (b) and (c) thereto; Government new clause 5 and amendments (c), (a), (b) and (d) thereto; and new clauses 8, 9, 10, 12 and 13.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): Thank you very much, Mr. O'Hara; that is very clear. I add my greetings to you on this sunny and bright morning—albeit, for those of us in the hot seats, rather too sunny and bright.

During our first sitting, I explained that the Government are strongly sympathetic to the aims of the Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead. I should like to set out the Government's position at this relatively early stage. We believe that the Bill could be a valuable addition to the Government's wide-ranging strategy on tackling antisocial behaviour, but, as I have said before, it is vital that it be made workable and fully compatible with the Human Rights Act 1998. A point that I made on Second Reading is that we must take account of the Bill's impact on families and innocent dependants. We must also ensure that it is a proportionate measure that does not disrupt the workings of the courts or local authorities' administration of housing benefit.

We have tried to achieve those aims with the recently tabled Government amendments. I apologise for the fact that only limited time was available for Committee members to see the amendments before today's discussions. At our first sitting, I said that I would do my best to speed up the tabling of amendments to make them available to Committee members. We did our best, but the matter is proving to be complex, given that what is at stake will affect local authorities and courts. I hope that the explanatory notes will aid Committee members.

In the design of the amendments, we have tried to chart what might be described as a middle way. I hope that that will appeal to historically minded—and literate—Macmillanites on the Opposition Benches. On the one hand, we are well aware of the concerns

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raised by a number of people and organisations stressing the need for safeguards and cautions. No doubt, the organisations have come to that view after full consultation with their members. On the other hand, as we have heard today, some urge us to go further. I understand that argument, too. We are therefore trying to pursue a middle course.

In the week in which some of us attended a memorial for the great Barbara Castle, who was at one stage a young Bevanite, I am especially aware of Nye Bevan's warning about what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road—they get run over. Nevertheless, that is the position I seek—not to be run over, but to be in the middle. I am confident that our approach has found the right balance.

I shall not go through our amendments in great detail. I hope that hon. Members have seen the briefing note that I sent out with my letter the other day. We tried to give a full description of how we think the amendments would work, and I hope that it has been helpful. I shall take this opportunity to highlight the key points, and although I am happy to take interventions, it will help the Committee if I am allowed to make some progress in setting out our position.

Briefly, the Government amendments provide a mechanism for triggering a reduction in a person's housing benefit if a court has made a declaration that that person has acted in an antisocial manner. The process would be largely automatic—that is the strength of the amendments. There are two reasons for that, the first of which is that it would ensure that the sanction is used in practice. We have some doubts about a purely discretionary power, and those affected by antisocial behaviour want the House not merely to legislate, but to act and deliver.

Secondly, an automatic process will make the mechanism as streamlined as possible, causing minimum disruption to the civil and criminal justice systems and to the administration of housing benefit. The result is to remove any scope for discretion by administrative staff about whether and how to apply a sanction. It is not appropriate to require local authority benefits staff to make such decisions.

The amendments make a slight change to the definition of antisocial behaviour. We have used the fairly well established definition in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which is used for antisocial behaviour orders, but we have included the extra condition that the antisocial behaviour must have been carried out within the locality of the person's home. As the sanction is to be the withholding of housing benefit, we believe that it is right to limit the behaviour that can trigger a sanction to actions that are carried out in a neighbourhood context, not 50 miles away or at a football ground many miles away.

The Government amendments would prevent a criminal court making a declaration of antisocial behaviour about a person who has been sentenced to a year or more in prison. The hon. Member for Hertsmere raised that matter, and I understand his argument. His amendment, which I do not believe he will press, would remove that exemption. The Bill is a

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preventive measure to deter antisocial behaviour by making it clear that the right to benefit depends on the duty not to act in an antisocial way. It is not a substitute for the criminal justice system. If a person has committed a serious crime and has been sentenced to a considerable period in prison, a benefit sanction would not be appropriate. The rights and responsibilities message of the benefit sanction would be far outweighed by the loss of liberty involved in a long prison sentence. To take an extreme example, it would clearly be a waste of a court's time to make declarations about someone who had just been given a life sentence.

The possibility of a sanction would arise only if the person claimed benefit again within the next three years or so; there should therefore be some sort of cut-off point to exclude those who have been given long prison sentences. I am happy to listen to the Committee's views about what that point should be, but we think that a year is about right.

As I indicated at the first sitting, our amendments propose a reduction in benefit rather than a withholding of it. In fact, they would allow practically the same scale of sanctions as was originally proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead—a reduction of all but the whole benefit for up to a year. However, that would be a last resort. The details will be set out in regulations, as happens with existing benefit sanctions. Our thinking is that the initial sanction would be a fairly modest reduction in benefit, perhaps for a month. Successive sanctions would be steeper and cover longer periods, though there would be a hardship regime as there is in respect of current benefit sanctions. Given that we propose to introduce secondary legislation—regulations—on those matters, we are very willing to listen to the Committee and the views of Parliament.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East): It seems that there is a divergence of motivation between the Minister's ideas and the Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead. The Minister seems to think that the measure will be a tool for modifying future behaviour, but to be frank, in most cases the community wants to get people out of the property and be rid of them altogether.

Malcolm Wicks: That is a helpful intervention and I understand the community's feeling. I shall not detain the Committee, but towards the end of my remarks I shall say something about the Government's wider strategy on antisocial behaviour. Our position in amending the Bill is not to find a back-door way by which to evict people. My hon. Friend is right to say that there is a legitimate difference of opinion. Evictions should take place via arrangements such as tenancy agreements, whereas the Bill is about sanctions and warnings and is an attempt to get people in communities to behave properly.

Mr. Davey: I am not quite sure that I understand the logic of the Minister's position. Does he agree that if the benefits sanction is as harsh as he suggests, it will lead to loss of tenancy and eviction? Does he fear that

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outcome and will he prescribe measures in the regulations to avoid it?

Malcolm Wicks: I have every sympathy for people in our communities, whether they are in Birkenhead, Hertsmere, Croydon or Kingston, who want to rid themselves of people who commit foul acts, but the Bill is not an appropriate vehicle to do that. The Bill is about warnings and sanctions. We are taking powers to sanction people for a long time and, if necessary, to withhold a considerable amount of their benefit. If that stage were reached, I am realistic enough to recognise that people would find it difficult to pay their rent, but one imagines that other action would have been taken by then.

Mr. Davey: The Minister has not answered my question. Does he intend to put protections in the regulations that will prevent the benefit sanction resulting in arrears that would result in eviction? Does he intend to allow arrears that would result in eviction? Would he be happy if a benefits action resulted in an eviction—yes or no?

Malcolm Wicks: Where there are children and vulnerable members of a family, there will be a hardship regime following the logic of our other sanctions policy. Our view is that an eviction is best carried out through proper eviction procedures; I shall talk about the Government's position on that in a moment. Sanctioning benefits is not an appropriate method per se, but if faced with a situation in which someone continues to act in an abusive, loutish and foul manner, it would be absurd if we could not increase the sanction to a point at which we withdrew most of that person's housing benefit and they suffered the consequences. If people had been the subject of warning shots on two or three occasions, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's constituents would feel that enough is enough and that action should be taken to protect the community. I am sure that that must be his position.

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