Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill

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Mr. Field: On Second Reading and several days ago in Committee, I said that the Dundee project was important and that its achievements should be built on, but that it should not be considered in isolation. We are discussing a package. I think that the entire Committee agrees that local authorities would be well advised to build the lessons that this project teaches us into the armoury of mechanisms that they have at their disposal.

The Chairman: Order. I trust that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton will take note of that advice.

Mr. Davey: I am not sure what the implication is. Is the right hon. Member for Birkenhead implying that he believes that the Government should amend their new clauses in the way that I suggest in amendment No. 12? My amendment would do exactly what he asked for in the previous sitting, as I suggested at the beginning of my remarks about that amendment, namely, it would ensure that there was a process by which local authorities had to implement such mechanisms.

One of the problems to emerge from the social exclusion unit's report is that many local authorities are not taking action or adopting best practice, as the right hon. Gentleman said earlier. For whatever reason, local authorities are not using the tools or examples of exceedingly good practice. The amendment would ensure that they did so. The Bill would require local authorities to use them as part of a process. I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would like that.

I was describing the Dundee families project and trying to explain how the many different problems were identified. After people are made to face up to the difficulties that they cause and any underlying problems are identified, a range of options are available to deal with the root causes of their antisocial behaviour. Options range from fairly mild measures such as youth work, learning cookery skills or lessons in parenting or anger management, to relocation and resettlement in specialist or dispersed units.

Outreach workers do a lot of work in the homes of antisocial tenants. However, some of the most successful work done by the project has been when the tenants have been removed from the homes where they are causing the problem, which I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would welcome. They are sent to places—the right hon. Gentleman mentioned sin bins, but I am not sure that those in the Dundee families project would call them that—where their problems are dealt with. The root causes are tackled with a hugely successful outcome.

Andrew Selous: I think that the whole Committee agrees with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of long-term work. I especially agree about the parenting work, which is essential. However, the Bill

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focuses on the effects of extremely nasty actions over a period of time, that have immediate and short-term consequences for people—actions that need a quick answer as far as vulnerable people affected by antisocial behaviour are concerned. I submit to the hon. Gentleman that the long-term work about which he is talking is not relevant to what we are discussing in the Bill.

Mr. Davey rose—

The Chairman: Order. Before the hon. Gentleman proceeds, perhaps I can help. We had a very helpful general debate in the previous sitting of the Committee. The hon. Member for Hertsmere was very co-operative in identifying which amendment he was speaking about at each point in his contribution. Given the previous general debate that we have had, perhaps it would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman would likewise try to identify in the course of his contribution the amendments that I have selected about which he is speaking.

Mr. Davey: Obviously, I will deal with your point first, Mr. O'Hara, and then answer the hon. Gentleman's.

I am sorry if I did not make myself clear enough, but I am referring to amendment No.12 on page 1165 of the amendment paper. I wanted to explain why the ''support and resettlement services'' are so vital. In his intervention, the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) misunderstood the sort of work that I was talking about. The Dundee families project offers an immediate solution in some cases—immediate resettlement, when people are actually taken away, which would potentially have a more immediate impact than what is proposed in the Bill.

With the Government's new clauses, reductions in housing benefit would take a long time to have an effect. The people concerned would be in place for a long time before any effect was felt, causing the problems that we are all against. The hon. Gentleman seems to be arguing for my amendment, which I am pleased about.

10.45 am

What is the success rate of the project? The evaluation suggests that about two thirds of the families were successfully helped. That is an astonishing rate when one remembers that many of the families were difficult cases. It was not a soft-touch option. On the cost savings, we should ask what was the impact on the taxpayer, whom we should always remember. Paragraph 29 of the executive summary of the report reads:

    ''The estimates suggested that the project saved agencies approximately £117,600 of savings per annum. At worst, the Project can be assumed to cost no more than the conventional way of dealing with these families. However, it is more likely that the Project actually generates real cost savings, particularly when long-term costs are taken into account.''

The solution that I am trying to ensure is a part of the process is two-thirds successful and seems to generate long-term cost savings. The Minister and the right

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hon. Member for Birkenhead should table a similar amendment that relates to the process and compels local authorities to take such action.

In our previous sitting, I jested with the right hon. Member for Birkenhead about sin bins. When the Dundee families project was first set up, it was pilloried in the local media. The tabloids said that it would be like Colditz. There was much hostility in the local community to the idea of having such hostel blocks in the community and taking antisocial tenants from other communities to put them in such blocks. However, once the project was up and running, people did not notice, because it was so successful. The community did not suffer as a result of several antisocial families being put together in a community that had not previously been affected. That is another sign of the success of such projects and why I believe that the amendment should be made.

I could mention several other projects mentioned in the social exclusion unit report and, I believe, in the DTLR consultation paper. However, I shall not do so. My comments on the Dundee families project speak for themselves.

Amendment No. 13 deals with the maximum period of disqualification of housing benefit—the maximum period for which the benefit sanction can run. Both it and amendment (d) to new clause (5) are effectively the same and would reduce the period for which the benefit sanction could run, from 52 weeks to 26.

It is vital to do that to mitigate some of the most damaging potential effects. Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner that I feel so strongly about the amendments. In London, housing costs are huge. Reductions in housing benefit in London would quickly lead to high levels of indebtedness, eviction and homelessness. As a Member of Parliament who represents an area of London where costs are high, I am conscious of the differentially negative impact that the Bill might have.

I represent a borough that the Government, in their consultation paper on Government finances, now describe as east outer London. I did not know that Kingston was in east outer London. The consultation showed, once again, that housing costs are high.

If we are to ensure that the Bill's impact is not far harsher than I believe that some people envisage, we need to cut the period. That is not just a theory. Many low-income Londoners—who have not behaved antisocially—face severe hardship as a result of the current housing benefit regime, because the previous Government and this Government—

Mr. Field: That has nothing to do with the Bill.

Mr. Davey: If hon. Members allow me to finish my comments, they will find that they are exactly to do with the Bill.

When a cap was placed on housing benefits for high-rent properties, many people on low incomes had to try to make up the difference through income from work or benefits. Often, they were unable to do so and got into serious debt—some were evicted as a result. I have seen those consequences and Labour Members have pressed Ministers on that matter during debates

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on London housing. That is a real-life example—in some ways it was more serious, because it affected people who had not committed offences. The cap effectively caused housing benefit sanctions, as the benefit did not cover the whole rent. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East might not have experienced that in his constituency, but I have seen the cap's effect. It is further evidence to warn us against taking this action.

There are examples of high housing costs in London having effects on social security legislation that was dreamed up centrally and seemed to work for the whole country—

Mr. Howarth: On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. The hon. Gentleman is using the example of capping housing benefit, which was introduced to control housing costs, as if it is comparable with the Bill's provisions. They are entirely different measures and it is misleading and abusive to the Committee to suggest otherwise.

The Chairman: I think that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton is moving on.

Mr. Davey: I was moving on to discuss the fact that measures on high housing costs that relate to benefit losses, such as that in the Bill, can have unintended consequences.

The effect of working families tax credit in the capital has been poor, and its take up has been much lower than in the rest of the country. I am going to move on—

 
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Prepared 11 July 2002