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I repeat: our procedures here are entirely in line with the way that social security matters have worked for 50 years. As in all benefit sanctions, the decision maker in the Benefits Agency will review evidence. That happens now with evidence from a doctor or employer. For example, an employer might state that someone should not be eligible for benefit because they left their employment voluntarily, but the claimant may argue that it was in fact a case of constructive dismissal. A case such as that poses a much more grey and difficult problem for the decision maker than do the circumstances we are considering here. The decision maker will come to a conclusion based on information purveyed by the probation officer; information which, as I have already said, is almost universally upheld by the courts.
The decision maker will reduce benefit as provided for in the Bill on the basis of a certificate from the Probation Service that an offender has failed to observe his community sentence and has therefore been referred back to court for a breach. The offender then has a right of appeal against the benefit decision as he would have in the case of other benefit sanctions or decisions by the appeals service. In addition, the criminal court will hear and consider all the evidence relating to the breach to determine whether the breach is proven. That remains entirely a matter for the criminal courts.
A number of questions about Scotland were put by the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, supported by the noble Earl. Obviously DSS matters are not devolved. I was asked specifically, as this matter is devolved to Scotland, whether it would be intra vires to run a pilot in Scotland. As I say, that is a reserved matter and it would therefore be intra vires to run such a pilot in Scotland.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: In Scotland at present, loss of benefit can occur when information is presented to a justice of the peace rather than a sheriff. The decision to withdraw benefit rests with an impartial decision maker at the Benefits Agency in Scotland in the same way as in England and Wales. This follows when proceedings are commenced by the issue of a warrant.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: I wish to press the noble Baroness only on the pilot schemes. If Scotland is not to run pilot schemes on its own system because it is a devolved matter, that is very serious indeed. Surely the Government need to reconcile this with the Scots Parliament and have pilot schemes there, organised by them.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I take the point made by the noble Baroness and I shall seek further advice on it. As I said in my reply to the noble Earl, my understanding is that although DSS matters are not devolved, the process of jurisdiction is devolved. That is the reason for the element of complexity here and that is why, at this stage, we do not propose to extend the pilot schemes to Scotland.
We believe that the benefits sanction needs to be implemented quickly and with certainty if it is to get across the message that community sentences are to be respected and that observance of a community sentence forms an appropriate part of entitlement to benefit. That is what we are seeking to achieve here. Having an automatic sanction which commences at the point when the probation officer notifies the department that someone is not observing their community sentence and is therefore having their case referred to court is a simple and effective deterrent to offenders who might otherwise be tempted to breach their sentence.
I mentioned earlier that we all know that the Probation Service does not lightly refer people back to the courts. We know also that court decisions made following those referrals are almost invariably upheld.
Earl Russell: I think that the Minister has missed the point here. We are not here discussing the nature of the previous offence. We are concerned with whether the absence of benefit creates an extra incentive to crime.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: That, of course, is precisely the kind of matter that will be reviewed in the pilot studies. We are not aiming for immediate implementation across the entire country should Parliament so agree. We shall run pilot schemes to see whether some of the concerns raised by noble Lords tonight are validated by the evidence. We shall examine whether a certain type of behaviour should be met by a sanction on benefit and whether that sanction leads to greater compliance with community sentences. That, I am sure, all noble Lords would wish to see.
We hope that the existence of a sanction will mean that it will not have to be implemented very often. A clear message is to be given that benefit will be put at risk if the sentence is breached. It will be given by the court on sentencing and by the Probation Service both on first contact with the offender and after the first unacceptable failure to comply with the sentence. The sanction will not be invoked until the second offence. In my view, that will give offenders a strong incentive to comply with their sentences. It will focus their minds on the need to keep in touch with their probation officers, turn up for work and turn up to meetings in exactly the same way as they manage to turn up to sign on and collect their benefit. If they can sign on for benefit, they should be able to attend interviews with their probation officers. If, after a sanction, they feel compelled to commit further crimes, then, as now, they will face the full rigour of the law. There is no need for offenders to turn to crime as a result of these measures. All they have to do is to comply with their sentences.
The noble Lords, Lord Windlesham and Lord Carlisle, suggested that the clear message behind these sanctions would not be received because offending is often unplanned and opportunistic and thus leads to a failure to keep to a community sentence. That suggests that there is nothing we can do to influence the
Indeed, that line is not acceptable to the Front Bench in the House of Commons. I was particularly interested in the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, in which he appeared to give rather greater weight to the views expressed by the citizens advice bureaux than to those of his own Front Bench in the other place. For example, Mr Eric Pickles, who leads for the Conservative Party on this Bill, stated,
Certainty of outcome has been shown to improve compliance. A recent example is the home detention curfew system which has had a success rate of over 90 per cent. All the criminology that I was taught as a student makes the point that the certainty of either being caught or being punished--and there is an absolute certainty in this case as regards loss of benefit if there is a second offence or failure to comply with a community sentence--is far more effective than the severity of the sentence.
As a result, I am confident that the Probation Service will operate the scheme in a professional manner. It will not want the measures in the Bill to fail in their deterrent effect as a result of any reluctance on its part to refer offenders to court. The more successful this measure is in encouraging compliance--and that is what the pilots should tell us--the fewer will be the cases that the Probation Service will have to refer to court, enabling it to use its resources to assist offenders to benefit from their sentences rather than on prosecuting breaches. Therefore, I hope that the Probation Service will see this as an important new weapon in its armoury to encourage offenders to comply with their sentences rather than as undermining any work that it may be doing with offenders.
A second point made in this debate is that as a result, this provision affects not just the offender--and Members of the Committee may feel it appropriate that the offender should feel some hardship; after all, this is meant to bite on the offender--but that there
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