Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill

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The Chairman: Order. A general counsel from the Chair might be that if extraneous examples are produced, they should generally be cited as examples and not discussed at length.

Mr. Davey: I shall not discuss this at length. The working families tax credit did not work because the high housing costs meant that the employment and poverty traps that the credit was designed to get over—

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is discussing extraneous examples at length.

Mr. Davey: I was merely concluding my remarks on them.

In London, high housing costs mean that it would be appropriate for the maximum length of the disqualification period to be cut from 52 to 26 weeks. I suggest to hon. Members who represent constituencies in which housing costs are not so high that low-income families would still be seriously hit by benefit reductions that could last up to 52 weeks.

Mr. Howarth: That is the intention.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman knows that I am worried about several consequences of that, which I wish to ameliorate. I am pointing out to hon. Members who share some of my worries about the Bill's effect that my suggestion would deal with some of the aims of the Government and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, but would not have damaging hardship consequences.

The point is directly relevant because other benefit sanction regimes do not last as long as the provision. I

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think—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that the maximum length of an existing benefit sanction is 26 weeks, so I am following that legislation. The Bill will create a longer benefit sanction than previously envisaged and the damage will last longer. Moreover, because it is related to housing costs, which can be a significant part of a family's total gross income, there will be even greater problems. Previous sanctions on less crucial benefits have lasted for shorter periods, and a shorter period should also be adopted in this measure.

Malcolm Wicks: We are beginning to understand the hon. Gentleman's purpose. I wish to put a rational point to him. On the first strike, our intention is to make a flat reduction from housing benefit, which will probably be defined as a proportion of a single person's allowance. That would mean that there would be equal sanctions throughout the country. Therefore, his point about house prices in London is absurd.

Mr. Davey: That is news to me because we did not have that detail until the Minister gave it to us a moment ago. One of the problems with the Bill is that many such details will be given in regulations. I would like to know far more about how this Bill will work. [Interruption.] From a sedentary position, hon. Members said—

Mr. Mitchell: An hon. Member.

Mr. Davey: I thought that more than one hon. Member had spoken: the voice of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby must resonate. He said that I should read the notes on the clauses. I have read them and I am sorry if I did not take on board that detail. However, I think that Committee members agree that the notes on the clauses are not extensive and the Minister effectively admits that in his letter accompanying them. There is no way that we will be able to see the detailed housing benefit regulations because, as the Minister said, the Government have not yet decided what they will be.

I still think that the housing cost issue is important. That may not be the first measure—as the Minister said, that may be a flat sum—but I wonder whether the intention is to have flat sums all the way through.

Malcolm Wicks: If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about antisocial behaviour, does he not think that it is reasonable that after the first strike—regardless of how modest that sanction might be—people who begin to worry about housing costs and how they are going to pay their rent should start to behave properly?

Mr. Davey: I regret that the Minister intervened in that manner.

Malcolm Wicks: I did so because we know what the hon. Gentleman is about.

Mr. Davey: I am about tackling antisocial behaviour and I have huge concerns about it. I have worked on it in my constituency. I am trying to contribute to this debate.

The Minister has accepted some simplistic arguments, so he must do some more analysis. He has a case to answer. He has admitted that we do not have all the legislation and that it is very difficult to

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frame, which is why the new clauses are being introduced so late. If he is going to carry on making such interventions, I will challenge him by asking why he has not been able to produce all of the legislation, and why the whole thing has been so difficult. Presumably, the answer is that there are so many different problems that need to be addressed. He should be cautious before he suggests that other hon. Members are not concerned about antisocial behaviour. We are deeply concerned about it. The question is how to deal with it.

Amendments Nos. 15 to 17 and 14, relate to who should be contacted to obtain agreement to go ahead with this process. Amendment No. 15 talks about the registered social landlord, amendment No. 16 talks about the local authority, and amendment. No. 17 lists public bodies.

I was surprised that the landlord was not mentioned in clause 1. Both private and social landlords have an important role to play in all of this. They could be of use in dealing with the antisocial behaviour in the first place and in helping to move this process forward. Most importantly, because we want to prevent laws from resulting in miscarriages of justice, the landlord can ensure that the authorities—the court in this case—have all the available information. I will deal with my concerns about the amount of evidence that the court will have to hand when it makes its judgments and rulings. However, to stay with this point, amendments Nos. 15 to 17 and 14 would enrich the evidence that is available in the first place by involving the landlord in the process.

The aim of amendments Nos. 18 to 20 and 25 and amendment (b) to new clause 3 is to tease out a little further the appropriate definition of antisocial behaviour in the context of the Bill.

11 am

The hon. Member for Hertsmere did not read from the notes on clauses on this point, but I shall do so. Page 3 of those notes explains that subsection (5) of new clause 3 is about introducing a definition of antisocial behaviour and says that that definition is

    ''the same as the one already used by the courts for Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, under section 1 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 (section 19 has a comparable definition for Scotland)''.

The Government, understandably, are trying to use other legislation to ensure that the definition is consistent. I am not sure whether that is the correct approach. The definition used for ASBOs is connected to the purpose of those orders, but this legislation is about benefit sanctions, another ratchet up in terms of penalties. Should we have a slightly stricter definition here because we have a different type of penalty? I suggest that we should.

I do not seek to water down the definition, but to make very clear how it would work. Amendments Nos. 18 and 19 would introduce the word ''consistent'' and amendment (b) would ensure that, if antisocial behaviour had taken place from self-defence or under extreme provocation, that could be cited. I am sure that other Members, like me, have come across

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neighbour disputes in which one neighbour alleges that the other has been behaving in an antisocial way, but the answer comes back from the other family involved that it was the first neighbour who was responsible.

Mr. Clappison: I am trying to follow the hon. Gentleman's argument. Can I take it from what he is saying that I can tell my constituents that the Liberal Democrats do not think that behaviour or conduct that has

    ''caused, or was likely to cause, harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons''

is antisocial behaviour? It is antisocial behaviour for the purposes of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998; I think that the wording is also lifted from public order legislation that refers to convictions for breach of public order. Can I tell my constituent from Borehamwood who is having youths pelting his house with eggs, stamping at his door and racially abusing his wife that that is not antisocial behaviour in the view of the Liberal Democrats?

Mr. Davey: Of course the hon. Gentleman cannot say that. We are not debating the legislation to which he referred. I am not seeking to change that legislation, and would not seek to do so.

Mr. Clappison: That is where the definition comes from.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman rightly says that that is where the definition comes from, but I made the point—I thought quite clearly—that the different legislation we are debating has a different penalty and a different purpose. There is a genuine argument, in which the hon. Gentleman is quite at liberty to engage, as to whether or not the definition here is appropriate. I am trying to tease out from the Government whether they considered a slightly stricter definition. That is a valid point to make.

The Government might do well to read the report on antisocial behaviour from policy action team 8 of the social exclusion unit, published in March 2000, which talked about the definition of antisocial behaviour. I will quote briefly from paragraph 1.2, page 15, of that report, which says:

    ''There is no single definition of anti-social behaviour.''

That should not strike us as odd. The question is which definition we will use for that purpose. There are some wide-ranging definitions; for example, the Chartered Institute of Housing good practice briefing defines antisocial behaviour as

    ''Behaviour that unreasonably interferes with other people's rights to the use and enjoyment of their home and community.''

That is a very wide definition and the definition in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 is slightly narrower than that.

I suggest that the definition may need to be narrower because we are dealing with a continuum and with degrees. The report sets out different aspects of antisocial behaviour, which include noise, conflicts involving harassment, serious crimes such as domestic violence and racist incidents, littering and dumping rubbish, which is serious but clearly not as serious as some of the examples that I have cited. Problems that

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come under that definition include dealing with graffiti and uncontrolled pets, nuisance from vehicles including parking and abandonment and unkempt gardens. All of that counts as antisocial behaviour and much would be captured by the definition. I am seeking to tighten up the definition to make sure that the worst types of antisocial behaviour are caught by new clause 3(5).

I was grateful to Shelter for its briefing on how the definition in new clause 3(5) might work in practice, and I hope that the Minister will clarify this point. Shelter is worried that although the definition in new clause 3(5) is narrower than the original definition in the Bill, because of the trigger of the court declaration the definition could be made wider. A declaration could be sought in either the criminal or the civil courts by which any or all of the conduct giving rise to a conviction would be defined as behaving in an antisocial manner. Imagine that a conviction for, for example, shoplifting was undertaken by someone who had once or twice walked down the street drunk and that was brought up as evidence of antisocial behaviour. Perhaps that person kept their garden in an untidy way, which is a minor example of antisocial behaviour. The question that Shelter is asking, through me, is whether that type of minor antisocial behaviour being linked into a conviction for something else would be sufficient to trigger the housing benefit sanction.

 
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