Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Field: If the hon. Gentleman does not believe that the measures represent the right way, why does he not just vote against them? Why is he trying to amend them?

Mr. Davey: That is a fair point, but as the right hon. Gentleman will know from his long experience of the House, if one does not like a measure, one tries to make it not quite as bad as one perceives it to be. Given that the Government have tabled a series of new clauses, it is likely that they will try to ensure that the Bill goes on to the statute book. The Minister has certainly signalled that quite strongly. On Report, I imagine that there will be a Whip. It is a private Member's Bill, but perhaps there will be a strong steer from the Government. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead should be pleased about that. However, during these proceedings and those that follow, I want to see whether we can ameliorate some of the problems, so that when the Bill becomes law it is nowhere near as bad as I and others perceive it to be. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman sees that I am acting in good faith, because I want to ensure that the amendments are properly debated and, I hope, included.

Amendments Nos. 10, 11, 28 and 29 link into the Government's new clauses implicitly. As the Minister says, the Government have decided not to allow this sort of sanction against antisocial behaviour committed by other members of the household. That is the Government amending the original Bill. The promoter of the Bill, supported by the hon. Member for Hertsmere and his colleagues, has now tabled

Column Number: 048

amendment (a) to new clause 5. Effectively, when one takes those amendments together, we have three options. We have the option that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead wants, which is that any antisocial behaviour from any member of the household should be taken into account and housing benefit sanctions could then be applied.

Mr. Field: May I suggest that the hon. Gentleman does not spend time on that matter? I have put my name to amendments that have changed my position.

Mr. Davey: I believe that the right hon. Gentleman has only slightly changed his position. I think that he will agree that he does not want to go in the Government's direction of excluding all other members of the household. That is why I wanted to discuss it. There are three positions: his position, amended as it is, the Government's position, and the position that I am putting forward in amendments Nos. 10 and 11. Those amendments are on page 1165 of the amendment paper and they are designed to define who would count as an individual in that household.

Amendment No. 10 would extend the definition to those living permanently in the household. Amendment No. 11 would require an individual to have been living there for more than 12 months. That is the middle way, because it would cover other people in the household, as the right hon. Gentleman seeks, and would define them more closely. I suggest that he accepts the thrust of that amendment because the loose definitions, even his amended definitions, could have consequences that he does not intend. For example, the benefit sanction could be triggered by a friend or family member who visits frequently, but does not live regularly at the address. It might be difficult in the real world for a tenant to take action against a regular visitor. What action would the right hon. Gentleman expect that person to take? Would he expect him to seek legal advice or an injunction, or to go to court to prevent a family member or friend from making regular visits? That would be impossible, but the right hon. Gentleman's definition of other members of the household who would fall under the legislation would catch such person. Tenants and their families would be hit because of the actions of someone they were unable to exclude using other legal measures. That is a matter of concern and I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman has not considered it. Other examples include family members who are students and return home during vacations because they would be regular visitors and covered by the definition. Ex-spouses or partners might also visit their children regularly.

10.15 am

I know what the right hon. Gentleman envisages: he wants to ensure that unruly children and teenagers are caught, as well as drug dealers who may visit and trade from someone's house. I have some in my constituency. A drug dealer uses the home of an addict with all the mayhem that goes with that. The addict would have great difficulty tackling the dealer and getting him out of the house, for obvious reasons.

Mr. Howarth: That is all right

Column Number: 049

Mr. Davey: No, it is not all right. I want action to be taken against that drug dealer using other aspects of the criminal law and the panoply of measures proposed by the Minister. The danger is that in trying to catch people covered by this small Bill, a whole range of others may be caught and we should be wary of that.

I refer the Minister to the housing Green Paper that the Government produced in 2000, which made it clear that they wanted to reduce housing benefit for antisocial tenants. The paper stated:

    ''This would mark a fundamental shift in the nature of Housing Benefit and we would need to proceed with great care. Above all we would need to ensure that the innocent families of unruly tenants did not suffer.''

The Minister may say that the hardship regime that he envisages—we do not have it in front of us, but it will no doubt be described in regulations in due course—will cover such instances, and that may be so, but I am concerned to ensure that innocent people are not affected by the Bill. That is a core issue and there is a debate to be had on the definition of the household.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): Will the hon. Gentleman explain his philosophical problem concerning the children of housing benefit tenants who are responsible for antisocial behaviour? What is wrong with the proposals in the Bill to ensure that parents have due regard to their children's behaviour and the consequences of it on the community in which they live? Surely, if parents are concerned and worried about losing their accommodation, they will exert the pressure on their children to behave properly that they have, perhaps, previously failed to exert. Will the hon. Gentleman deal with that matter?

Mr. Davey: I am more than happy to do so. The hon. Gentleman is right that parents must be responsible and keep their children in check. The question is whether this is the right way to put pressure on them to do so. Other methods can be used to encourage them to bring their children to book, some of which are already on the statute book. I have seen evidence that they work, though some may question whether parental orders work.

The Youth Justice Board published a report yesterday. Right hon. and hon. Members will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that the report mentioned the huge success of parental orders and showed how the Government's action works in dealing with exactly the sort of behaviour that the hon. Gentleman described. We do not need to keep adding extra measures to the statute book if we already have some that work. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that the Youth Justice Board is a reputable and independent body and that we can rely on its analysis.

Vernon Coaker: I am struggling to work out exactly where the Liberal Democrats stand on the matter. Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whether they believe in using housing benefit as a sanction?

Mr. Davey: We are extremely concerned about the proposals—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) will wait a little longer—he often intervenes quickly—I will deal with the question—[Interruption.]

Column Number: 050

The Chairman: Order. Chatting across the Floor is undesirable. Please put interventions formally through the Chair.

Mr. Davey: I am grateful for your protection, Mr. O'Hara. I am sure that you will give it to all Members when it is needed.

The hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) asked a fair question. The evidence and research on the use of benefit sanctions has been far too partial and not deep enough to show whether it has serious social effects. Furthermore, there is already a great deal of evidence, which I shall discuss later, on benefit sanctions in the jobseeker's allowance regime and the new deal for young people, for example, to suggest that those sanctions result in severe hardship that is not covered by the regime that underpins them. On the evidence, albeit partial and preliminary, such an approach causes huge poverty, sometimes to families and children who are innocent parties, as is the case with jobseeker's allowance benefit sanctions.

Vernon Coaker: Is that enough?

Mr. Davey: The position is provisional—we want to see the evidence. Before approving severe action that can—some Members urge that it should—result in someone losing their home, and before going the extra mile and putting in place punitive sanctions, I should have thought that all hon. Members, would want to find out about the effects of benefit sanctions from the evidence that is already available. What effect do they have on the welfare of the family? Do they change people's behaviour? In due course, I shall provide evidence that jobseeker's allowance benefit sanctions have had no effect on behaviour, which was the stated aim of the Government in introducing them. Indeed, it is the stated aim of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead. Therefore, if the evidence—preliminary and partial, I agree—suggests that benefit sanctions do not meet their intended objectives, we should be careful.

Mr. Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East): I am mindful not to fuel what I suspect will be an extended canter over the issues by the hon. Gentleman. I shall ask him the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling posed, but in a different way. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that it is right that law-abiding residents who are harassed almost to the point that they consider moving voluntarily should subsidise through their taxes the very people driving them from their homes?

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 11 July 2002