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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, this has been an interesting and, if I may say so, good debate. Although I know that your Lordships opposite wish us to confine our remarks to the particular amendments--although not everybody has--they are grouped and it is right on an issue of such importance and significance that I should remind your Lordships of the reasons for the Government's policy.
We believe that it is wrong for the state to support those who do not honour their obligations to society. We want their rights to be matched by responsibilities. It is unreasonable to expect you, me and, above all, the many people whose lives are made a misery by repeated crime in the neighbourhood to support financially those who continue to disregard society's legitimate expectations. Many people would find it extraordinary that we continue to finance people through the benefit system while they continue to disregard the law.
We believe that benefit sanctions will encourage people to comply with their sentences rather than being tempted into reoffending that could have been avoided. When someone takes on a community sentence as an alternative to a fine or imprisonment, he or she accepts the obligations that go with that. That means observing the sentence. If they fail to honour that contract, benefit sanctions will come into play. We will not suddenly leave people without money. They will know about it in advance. They will have been warned by the court and by the probation officer and it will be on their benefit form. There will be ample opportunity to comply, but, if they then choose to break the conditions of their community sentence, society's obligation to provide them with their benefit has in turn been broken.
My noble friend Lady Kennedy and many others have said that such people's lives are so chaotic that the sanction will not work. I do not accept that. If they had not filled in forms, signed on, attended interviews, looked for work, been available for work and energetically sought it, they would not have had benefit in the first place. We have heard a lot about fecklessness tonight. It is a curious form of fecklessness that someone can meet the benefit conditions by signing on in person but cannot be expected to meet the community service conditions by attending interviews in person. If such a young offender manages to attend benefit interviews because he values the benefit and takes the signing on seriously, there is all the more reason to link his benefit to his observance of the community sentence so as to get him to take that seriously, too. As my noble friend Lord Sheppard said, getting someone to take his community sentence seriously, and ultimately getting him into work, has to be in his best interests.
Why are we doing it this way? We are not proposing a criminal punishment but a benefit sanction, exactly as we do across the whole social security system. My noble friend Lord Goldsmith was right. I suspect that many of your Lordships who have spoken tonight do not know how the social security system and its benefits and sanctions work. Obviously, many of those who have been involved in previous debates on the subject do, but, listening to your Lordships, it has sounded as though there are no other benefits to which a sanction is attached that operates in this way. A benefit sanction is not a matter for the courts. The court hearing provides an opportunity for a review of the facts, but the initial decision is based on behaviour that is sufficiently serious to merit referral back to court.
These measures are designed as a benefit sanction. All benefits have conditions attached to them. If those conditions are breached, then part or all of the benefit is withdrawn. However, there is a hardship arrangement available for those with dependants, or those who are vulnerable; for example, through reasons of health.
Some noble Lords talked about an "alleged breach". All infractions of benefit conditions are alleged but the benefit sanction still applies, whether such cases are reported by an employer to the agency--alleged--by a doctor to the agency--alleged--by another Benefits Agency official--alleged--or by a probation officer. All such infractions are alleged. That is entirely consistent with how the whole of the social security structure operates.
Perhaps I may give the House some examples. Let us take a potentially "good news" case--that is, someone on DLA who has a periodic review. The doctor says that that person is now much better. He reports that to the decision-making officials who withdraw the benefit. That person may take the matter to appeal or to a tribunal to argue that he is not as well as that, but it is never suggested that the withdrawal of the benefit should await the outcome of the tribunal, which is the equivalent of the court. It is an administrative decision; it is a condition of the benefit and is attached to it. It will be reinstated if the tribunal finds otherwise, as often happens in many cases.
Another example would be the lone parent, the widow or the disabled person who fails to attend a "ONE" interview without good reason. That person would be sanctioned on his or her benefit. The latter would only be reinstated if the matter goes to appeal and the case is won. We could also take the example of someone leaving work "voluntarily", according to the employer. The employee says that it was constructive dismissal, which is highly contestable. However, no benefit will be awarded to him unless the tribunal finds in his favour. An even more difficult case would be where she, the lone parent, is refusing to co- operate
So the whole of the social security system is underpinned by conditionality. Decisions as to whether the conditions of benefit have been breached are made, in all cases, as an administrative decision by quite junior officials in the DSS and usually in far more complicated situations with far less reliable professional evidence and with far more severe penalties attached to them than is the case here. By the criteria used by noble Lords this evening, this is infinitely more robust than almost any other benefit sanctions that the DSS imposes. We impose this straightaway and, if someone wishes to take the matter to appeal, he can do so.
People may say that we are trespassing across boundaries. That is already the case with the Sure Start maternity grant and your Lordships agreed on Thursday night that it should apply to driving licences and CSA rates. What matters is what brings the young offender to respect his community service.
Some noble Lords have implied that the Probation Service staff are hard-line and have no discretion as regards referring cases to court. In fact, the opposite has been the case; indeed, that is one of the reasons why the Home Office is having to tighten up the system. However, as my noble friend Lord Mackenzie said, these changes in procedure do not remove discretion, which still remains a part of deciding what constitutes an unacceptable absence.
Much of tonight's discussion has focused on Amendment No. 114A; namely, that no such sanction should be applied by the benefits officer until the courts have heard the case. That is entirely at odds with the rest of the social security system where the decision to suspend benefit, or to reduce it, and bring that person on to a hardship scheme is determined by the DSS. Here, uniquely, the matter must first go before the courts.
If we were to follow the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, it would indeed represent double punishment. The offender would see this as a direct consequence of the court judgment when in fact it is a benefit decision. He will see it as double punishment par excellence and the effectiveness of the
If the benefit sanction is to be effective, it must be implemented quickly and with certainty, as happens across the rest of the social security system, so that people clearly understand that their rights to benefit are conditional. If they are on JSA, they must understand that they have to be available for and actively seeking work; if they are lone parents, they must understand that if they wish to receive benefit they must name the father of the child so that he makes a proper contribution to the child's upbringing; and, if they are in receipt of a community sentence, they must understand that they have to observe that sentence. It is a condition that society wants people to meet if they are to receive society's financial support.
I shall deal with just a few of the points raised by your Lordships, because there are too many of them for me to answer this evening. The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, and other speakers said that this provision was discriminatory against those who might be in work; in other words, someone in work would get away with it and would not have his benefit sanctioned because he would not be receiving it, and only the poor would be damaged. It is quite simple. If an individual is in work, he is not seeking society's financial support, he is earning his passage: if someone is receiving benefit, he is not. He is receiving a benefit from society and, in return, society has a right to attach conditions to it. It is no more discriminatory against the poor than saying that the state will not pay benefit to people who are already high earners. It is neither more nor less discriminatory than that.
Equally, we were told tonight that this provision is discriminatory against black people--a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. I do not believe that to be true. It is true that more black people are serving community sentences as a percentage of their population than is the case with other communities--something like 5 per cent of those between the ages of 16 and 44 are serving probation sentences, although they represent just 2 per cent of the country's population. But, in a way, that is because they are not going to prison. Moreover, although that is true for black offenders, the reverse is true for other ethnic minority communities; for example, only 2 per cent of the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, which represent 3.2 per cent of the country's population, are serving community sentences. If I may be so impertinent as to say it, I do not think that we do the ethnic minorities any kindness in assuming that they need special treatment when it comes to the law and expecting them to observe community punishments.
Similarly, I do not believe that that also applies to women. Again, I am trying to emphasis that there is discretion where unforeseen emergencies arise; for example, in the case of carers. On average, fewer
The noble Baroness, Lady Stern, and others, challenged my noble friend Lord Sheppard. They said that this is a new direction for benefit policy and that we are uncertain about its overall effects. Judging by today's debate, one would have thought that this provision was going to be imposed tomorrow across the whole of the country--with a question-mark over Scotland, courtesy of the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy. That is not true. We propose to pilot this measure and assess it to see whether your Lordships' fears that it will increase crime, or our belief that it will bring greater respect for the observation of community sentences, is correct. Indeed, after listening to tonight's debate, I am not sure whether noble Lords would be more upset if the pilots show that the scheme is working than if they do not.
However, we shall be evaluating these pilot schemes before taking the decision to roll out the programme nationally. Independent researchers will be looking at the evidence. The final report will be published, with a copy being placed in the Libraries of both Houses. The Government will not extend their policy nation-wide until that evaluation has been assessed. We shall be considering breach rates, crimes committed, financial effects on offenders, hardship payments as well as seeking offenders' views.