Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill

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Mr. Field: I thought that we were discussing new clauses 6 and 7, but the hon. Gentleman's amendments relate to administrative costs.

Mr. Davey: No. That is the amendment to new clause 6. For the right hon. Gentleman's benefit, I am talking about amendment (a) to new clause 7, which is at the bottom of page 1175.

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The Chairman: Indeed. It was in the wrong place. New clause 7 and the amendment are grouped for debate with new clause 6.

Mr. Davey: I understand that amendment (a) to new clause 6 was not selected, so I am not talking to it.

Amendment (a) to new clause 7 would delete subsection (5). I believe that the right hon. Gentleman is now with us. As I said, many problems with the operation of housing benefit that would arise under the Bill come from administration. The House spends too little time considering administration. I know that we have plenty of other things to do, but the administration of housing benefit, more than any other benefit, is the one that causes the problems. Time after time in my twice-weekly advice sessions, I see people with administrative problems with housing benefit, yet the House does not take decisions on administration. One might question whether we would take better decisions on it, but if we examine the sort of decisions taken on administration at the moment, we would reach the conclusion that we could do a better job than the current process allows. I therefore recommend my amendment (a).

Amendment (b) would ensure that the Government would consult widely before issuing any regulations under new clause 7. I am tempted to have another consultation debate, but that really would try your patience, Mr. O'Hara, and that of other members of the Committee. Hon. Members understand the sort of people that the Secretary of State should consult. I recommend my amendment to the Minister. I know that Ministers do not like to have a statutory duty to consult before issuing regulations, as they say that they adopt best practice in any case. However, given the nature of benefit sanctions, it would be appropriate for the Secretary of State to consult those people. I hope that the Minister will take my amendments in the spirit in which they are meant.

Mr. Field: Before the Minister replies, will he help us with amendment (b). Given that new clauses 3 and 4, which we accepted, say that the declarations are the result of other proceedings brought before the courts, the actual costs of the declarations will surely be minuscule.

Malcolm Wicks: The cases will come before the courts in the normal way, so I can confirm that the extra costs will be very small indeed. We believe that a central register of court declarations kept by my Department is the fairest, most efficient and cost-effective way for the policy to work. It is in line with what already happens with our sanction for benefit fraud.

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton. He approaches the issue with good intentions, but I have an opposing view about what would happen if the local authority kept the register. There are 408 local authorities administering housing benefit. As a London Member he knows—as I know and as my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) knows—that there is often great movement of tenants and others across Greater London. The same will be true of many other parts of the country. What would happen if the record

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is kept in Kingston, and the tenant then moves to Croydon, Lambeth, Enfield, Edmonton or even out of Greater London? The idea that there is somehow an easy administrative capacity to keep a check on such people across 408 local authorities is, with due respect, totally absurd.

As the Minister responsible for housing benefit—a complex area that we are trying to reform and simplify—I am concerned that we should not place additional burdens on local authorities. It is altogether more sensible, therefore, for my Department to keep the register—it is the only feasible way of keeping track of people who move between areas. Otherwise, people could avoid a sanction or receive a less severe sanction simply by moving house. In many respects, we are protecting the position of local authorities.

Questions were asked about what civil cases will be prescribed, but they are questions of substance about new clause 4, and new clause 7 is purely procedural. No regulations are introduced by it: it merely prescribes how regulations may be made under other clauses. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton must believe me when I tell him that it is a purely technical clause. As for his charge that we do not discuss housing benefit administration in the House, I invite him to come and sit in on the statutory instruments debate that is to take place on Monday, when we will discuss contracting out proposals. He will see that we regularly discuss such things in Committee. I invite him to turn up as my guest—as long as he does not participate.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead said that our colleague on the Committee, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton, was clearly an example of good behaviour following sanctions policy. I am not at all disputing your authoritative and wise judgments today, Mr. O'Hara—although it seems like more than one day—but I am bound to say that, so far there seem to have been 12 strikes and he is still not out.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New clause 7


    '(1) Subject to subsection (6), in this Act ''prescribed'' means prescribed, or of a description prescribed, by regulations made by the Secretary of State.

    (2) Any power to make regulations under this Act is exercisable by statutory instrument.

    (3) Subsections (4) to (7) of section 189 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 (c.5) (supplemental and incidental provision) apply in relation to the powers to make regulations conferred by this Act as they apply in relation to the powers to make regulations conferred by that Act.

    (4) Subject to subsection (5), a statutory instrument containing regulations under this Act may not be made unless a draft of it has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.

    (5) Subsection (4) does not apply in the case of an instrument containing regulations under section (administration) only.

    Such an instrument is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.

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    (6) In the application of section (administration) in relation to any court in Scotland, ''prescribed'' means—

    (a) in relation to declarations under section (anti-social behaviour declarations: criminal proceedings), prescribed by the High Court of Justiciary by Act of Adjournal, and

    (b) in relation to declarations under section (anti-social behaviour declarations: civil proceedings), prescribed by the Court of Session by Act of Sederunt.

    (7) The power of the Court of Session by Act of Sederunt to regulate the procedure and practice in civil proceedings in the sheriff court includes power to regulate—

    (a) the manner in which the court must notify the Secretary of State of the fact that it has made, quashed or set aside a declaration under this Act, or varied the date or dates specified in such a declaration under section (anti-social behaviour declarations: criminal proceedings)(4) or (anti-social behaviour declarations: civil proceedings)(4), and

    (b) the information which the court must give to the Secretary of State.

    (8) Subsections (4) and (5) do not apply to Acts of Adjournal and Acts of Sederunt.'.—[Malcolm Wicks.]

Brought up, and read the First and Second time.

Amendment proposed to the proposed new clause: (b), in line 36, at end add—

    '(9) Before making any regulations under this section the Secretary of State shall consult—

    (a) organisations representing tenants,

    (b) organisations representing landlords,

    (c) organisations representing persons living in fuel poverty, and

    (d) other such persons as he deems appropriate.'.—[Mr. Edward Davey.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 1, Noes 10.

Division No. 13]

Davey, Mr. Edward

Blizzard, Mr. Bob Clappison, Mr. James Coaker, Mr. Vernon Field, Mr. Frank Hoey, Kate
Howarth, Mr. George Knight, Mr. Greg MacDonald, Mr. Calum Selous, Andrew Wicks, Malcolm

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause added to the Bill.

Malcolm Wicks: I beg to move amendment No. 9, in line 1, leave out

    'Secretary of State to withhold'

and insert 'withholding of'.

There is little to say about the amendment, but that is only my opinion. It simply amends the Bill's long title to clarify that the Secretary of State would not be responsible for withholding housing benefit. Local authorities administer housing benefit so they would take the decision to withhold, although the decision would be triggered by notification by the Department for Work and Pensions. I commend the amendment to the Committee.

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Mr. Knight: I support the amendment, but I thought that it might be appropriate to put on record my appreciation of your fair, good-natured, impartial and extremely patient chairmanship, Mr. O'Hara. If you have erred in our proceedings, you have erred in favour of the minority, which is how things should be. In this Committee, there has not been a silent minority but a rather verbose minority. After reflecting on the behaviour and words of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton, his party's policy on antisocial behaviour is crystal clear and simple: Liberal Democrats are clearly the yob's best friend.

Mr. Davey: Just for the record, I think that the right hon. Gentleman's comments ill become him.

Amendment agreed to.

Question proposed, That the Chairman do report the Bill, as amended, to the House.

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