Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill

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Mr. Davey: Before we adjourned for lunch, I was speaking to amendments Nos. 23 and 24. I had not yet referred to amendment No. 21, the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) alleged. To remind members of the Committee, I shall explain the effects of the amendments, which appear on page 1167 of the amendment paper. Amendment No. 23 would ensure that the benefits sanction under the Bill does not come into effect unless the matter

    ''in the opinion of the Secretary of State cannot better be dealt with in any other way than that specified in this Act''.

Amendment No. 24 is broader, suggesting that those who should opine on such matters should include, in

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addition to Secretary of State, the local housing authority and the local social services authority.

Before we adjourned, I was making the point that there are alternatives to benefit sanctions. I described one scheme that was piloted by Liberal Democrat colleagues on Islington council in London. The scheme involved acceptable behaviour contracts that are specifically designed to deal with the appalling behaviour that all hon. Members are concerned about. I shall continue my explanation because I want to persuade the Committee that unless we examine alternatives for the process described in the Bill, many cheaper, quicker, more effective options may never be considered.

All the evidence that I have seen, whether from the social exclusion unit or other Government research, suggests that one of the problems of dealing with antisocial behaviour is that many of the authorities involved are not aware of best practice or of all the solutions that are open to them. Amendments Nos. 23 and 24 would ensure that the process envisaged by the promoter of the Bill is integrated with the alternatives that I believe are more effective.

When we adjourned I was talking about acceptable behaviour contracts. I will not describe them in detail because that would be repeating myself, but I want to show how successful they are and how seriously other people take them. Although they were piloted in Islington only two years ago, authorities in more than 90 different parts of the United Kingdom have expressed interest in them. To date, 22 other London boroughs, including the royal borough of Kingston, are seeking to participate by introducing schemes along the same lines. Such interest shows that acceptable behaviour contracts are highly regarded as well as effective. The Home Office agrees. It cited the scheme in Islington as an example of good practice, and documents relating to the scheme are available on the Home Office's crime and disorder website.

Other schemes have cited Islington's as an example of good practice. Operation Arrow, for example, was a two-year Government-funded project identifying options to reduce auto crime. It found that in Islington acceptable behaviour contracts had made a significant impact by reducing certain people's antisocial behaviour in respect of other people's automobiles. There is a widely held opinion that that very new approach to dealing with antisocial behaviour is effective, and as a Liberal Democrat I am delighted to be associated with the group of people who piloted the scheme. Naturally, that is one of the reasons that I am keen to get such options into the Bill. I want to ensure that the Government considers them before introducing housing benefit sanctions, which many people within the House and outside believe is a draconian measure.

Acceptable behaviour contracts have worked well in Islington and have also been found to complement Government policy. Indeed, antisocial behaviour orders work very well with acceptable behaviour contracts. The research, discussions, negotiations and

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monitoring of acceptable behaviour contracts provides the evidence that is needed when an application is made to a court for an antisocial behaviour order. The contracts fit very well into processes that the Government have previously adopted—which I heartily recommend to authorities throughout the country—and have since tried to refine in other legislation. There is a real fit with existing Government policy in this area. It is one reason why I am desperately trying to persuade the Government that they should not go to the other extreme before they ensure that such options are considered.

On Second Reading, I was asked whether acceptable behaviour contracts are legally binding. They are not, but that is one reason why they have been so effective. They do not involve the judicial system—someone cannot go to the courts and say, ''He's broken the contract.''—but they can be used to facilitate eviction. They are the backstop to that process. While not legally binding, they feed into an important process to stop antisocial behaviour. However, because they are not tied to the benefits system or to the judicial process, people ask whether they are taken seriously and whether people fear eviction. The answer is yes.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling): No.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman's comment only reinforces my point that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee must look at the alternatives, because those alternatives are working. Families who exhibit antisocial behaviour are really concerned about the possibility of being evicted when they sign a contract. That is what the evidence shows. That is the experience. People should take notice when a council or local police force says that it is an effective remedy.

Acceptable behaviour contracts are one element of the sort of thing that I envisage would be considered as an alternative, prior to the imposition of benefits sanctions, if amendments Nos. 23 or 24 were made. Other solutions could also be considered prior to the benefits sanctions being triggered. I am grateful to the social exclusion policy action team for its report of March 2000, which highlighted some of the successful alternatives, one of which is mediation.

Like other hon. Members, I have had to use mediation services. When constituents come to my advice sessions, which I hold twice a week, I get to hear of neighbourhood disputes and antisocial behaviour, and mediation is one of the solutions that I discuss when people present such problems to me. Mediation services are not well developed in my borough and we rely on the voluntary sector to provide some of them. I often end up having to use a voluntary provider if my constituents feel that mediation is best for them.

In Nottingham, there is a very efficient, proactive mediation service. It was developed and is managed by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, which is interesting. In different ways, it is trying to ensure that people who exhibit appalling behaviour are made to face up to the impact that it has on their victims. That is essential. It is vastly different from the benefit sanctions approach,

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which does not tell the individual what is happening and what they are doing. There is no process that forces them to face up to their crimes and the consequences for the poor victims.

The mediation service that has done extremely well in Nottingham does that. Thus, it does not merely move the problem on, which I fear the Bill will do; instead, it finds a proper, long-term solution. I am told that the success rate is two thirds, which is high. That shows that we can avoid going down the route of the benefit sanction if we employ a panoply of measures, many of which I explored this morning.

2.45 pm

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. I think that the Committee has had enough, and I would like to move that the question be now put.

The Chairman: I cannot accept a closure motion at this stage. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) is making a legitimate point. He is speaking to an amendment about alternatives to benefit sanctions, and so far he has done so without repetition. I assure him and the Committee that I am being vigilant of undue repetition, but I do not find it at this stage.

Mr. Davey: Further to that point of order, Mr. O'Hara. Can a closure motion be debated, or does the vote take place straight away?

The Chairman: If I accept a closure motion, I put it to the Committee forthwith, without debate.

Mr. Davey: Thank you, Mr. O'Hara.

As you rightly said, I was talking about alternatives to benefit sanctions. From the mediation alternative I turn to the alternative of using specialist teams, which has been tried by many authorities throughout the country, in particular in Bradford. All the evidence suggests that antisocial behaviour is not being properly tackled in certain areas because no one takes responsibility for doing so. The different agencies—the local authority, the social landlord, or whoever—do not come together to pool their resources and tools and focus them on the problem. Specialist teams who do nothing but train, think and work in this area can make a huge difference.

That is a good use of council tax payers' money, because it can sort out problems in our community by pooling existing resources and focusing them more effectively. The specialist team in Bradford has a range of different functions. Its tenancy enforcement team ensures that serious incidents of antisocial behaviour by tenants are tackled. That team has developed close links with several other agencies, especially the police, and has successfully pursued antisocial behaviour orders, which I am sure the Government would applaud. I highlight that example to suggest that we must ensure that local authorities have things such as specialist teams by including them in the Bill. I would be interested to know whether other members of the Committee have such specialist teams in their local authorities. I am not aware of any in mine, and I would like to take that good practice back to my constituency.

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The hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) said that many of the methods employed before the benefit sanction is used are all right if the landlord is a social landlord. Perhaps he will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that he is concerned about private landlords. Often they are absentee landlords who just take the housing benefit cheque and have no commitment to or concern for the local community. We all object to that, but there are schemes to deal with that problem. There is a private landlord project in Newcastle upon Tyne called—

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