First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Monday 2 April 2001
[Mr. George Stevenson in the Chair]
Draft Social Security (Breach of Community Order) Regulations 2001
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Social Security (Breach of Community Order) Regulations 2001.
Sections 62 to 66 of the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000 allows specific benefits to be reduced or withdrawn from community sentence defaulters. If a court has determined that a person has failed to comply with the requirements of a designated community sentence, the Secretary of State may impose a benefit sanction by reducing or withdrawing specific benefits and training allowances.
Bar the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb), who did not deign to participate in the Standing Committee that considered the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill, all members of that Committee will remember that we debated the underlying principles at length. I do not therefore intend to rehearse them in a general debate, and instead I should like to spend a little time describing the practicalities of implementing the provisions in the order.
We have always recognised that the proposals are innovative in principle and in practice, and it was always our intention to pilot and evaluate them before making any decision to extend them nationally. I can confirm that the pilots, which will run for one year, will start in October this year in the following four probation service areas: Hertfordshire, Derbyshire, west midlands and Teesside. For an offender to be included in the pilots, he or she must come under the supervision of the probation service in one of the pilot areas. On the basis of figures supplied by the Home Office, we do not expect more than 3,000 claims over the year of the pilot exercise.
Offenders sentenced within the pilot areas will first be warned by the magistrate, or the sentencer, that they will lose their benefit if they breach their community sentence, and will be warned again by the probation officer when the order is commenced. Before any consideration is given to imposing a sanction, each offender will have ample opportunity to avoid any loss of benefit by complying with the terms of the order. The offender will know that his or her benefit is at risk right from the outset.
It is for the probation service to determine when an offender should be returned to court for breach proceedings. Under national standards for the supervision of offenders in the community, offenders must be returned to court no later than when there has been a second unacceptable failure to comply. Within Home Office guidelines, the probation service uses its professional judgment as to what is an acceptable or unacceptable failure.
Once the referral to court has been made, the first step is for the probation service to notify the Benefits Agency that the offender has been referred to court for breach proceedings. On receiving that information, the agency will issue a warning letter to the offender irrespective of whether he or she is in receipt of one of the affected benefits. The letter will advise that, if the court determines that the offender has been in breach of the order and is in receipt of one of the relevant benefits or training allowances, he or she will incur a benefit sanction. The offender is thus again made aware of the link between compliance with the community sentence and benefit receipt.
If the court determines that the offender is in breach of the terms of the community sentence, the probation service will again notify the Benefits Agency. The agency will check and confirm whether the offender is in receipt of one of the relevant benefits or training allowances at that time. There is no element of discretion about the imposition of the benefit sanctionif a court deems that an offender is in breach, a sanction will be imposed. If the offender is not in receipt of one of the relevant benefits when the check is made, the Benefits Agency will retain the notification and check weekly, for a further four weeks, whether a claim is made. If the offender makes a claim in that period, the sanction will be applied for the remainder of the four-week period from when it would have commenced had a claim been held.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): For clarification, is the hon. Lady saying that in the pilot areas a sanction will be imposed only after a magistrate has issued a warning? Will it be based on the number of cases arising after each warning, rather than any existing order?
Angela Eagle: Clearly, it will be necessary to go through the entire process. The sentencer or magistrate must warn, at the time of passing the sentence, that the benefit sanction regime is in place in the pilot areas. As soon as a community sentence is given, an offender will know what consequences breaching it will have on his or her benefits.
Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): The Minister mentioned the role of magistrates. What response has the Magistrates Association given to the proposals?
Angela Eagle: As the hon. Gentleman probably knows, given that he asked the question, there is scepticism about whether the proposals will be effective. That is why we are piloting them. There will be an open evaluation of how the proposals work, to see whether it is reasonable to connect responsibilities and rights in this area. I hope that magistrates and organisations involved with offenders will allow the pilot period to go ahead, and will examine the evaluation. We can then discuss the facts, which will be at our fingertips.
We will ensure that a full and independent evaluation of the pilot is conducted, especially as some of the regulations deal with the exchange of information for research and evaluation purposes. A competitive tendering exercise is being held, and contractors have been identified. The evaluation will assess the operational impact on the probation service, the Benefits Agency and the Employment Service, so that we can ensure good liaison between the different parties and understand the implications for staff and resources. Examining the measure's practical operation will enable any necessary improvements to be identified.
The evaluation will examine the behavioural impact of the sanctions on offenders and others involvedfor example, whether the sanctions encourage greater compliance with community sentences, or more active job seeking. The evaluation will use various methods of data collection, including analysis of official records from the probation service and the Department of Social Security, in-depth interviews with offenders, and sending postal questionnaires to magistrates. Information on sanctioned persons will be compared with information on control groups in the pilot areas, such as groups of persons breaching before the implementation procedures and groups of persons breaching who are not on benefit.
I am satisfied that the instrument is compatible with convention rights, and I commend it to the Committee.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): At an exciting moment before a general election, it is often good to be confrontational. However, hon. Members will be disappointed if they were expecting such confrontation, because we support the regulations. We recognise that they are to be piloted and that nobody is entirely sure how effective they will be. As the Minister said, some time was spent discussing the regulations during the passage of the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill. I have spent a happy half hour examining the Minister's comments and undertakings, and I cannot find anything that she has not covered in the regulations.
The Minister has, however, raised some interesting points. It surprised me that she saidI do not know whether it was in her briefthat the Bill will provide an opportunity to examine claimants' responsibilities and rights. That is a bold statement. I recall that, in answer to a parliamentary question, she mentioned claimants' responsibilities and rights and said that people are not entitled to benefits as a right, but that there is a contract involved. In two successive Bills, I have tempted her to go further, but failed. The Minister is creating a philosophical benefits policy. Will she enlarge on the responsibilities and rights that she mentioned? I would be keen to discuss that.
The regulations contain several safeguards to ensure that hardship does not occur, for instance if the claimant or the claimant's partner is pregnant, the claimant has responsibility for a young person, or disability benefits are being paid to the claimant or his partner. That is reasonable. Benefit withdrawal seems to be an increasingly important part of the Government's armoury, especially against fraud.
Several hon. Members will serve on the Committee that will consider the Social Security Fraud Bill during this coming week. I recognise that the regulations do not cover housing benefit. However, we face an analogous problem, which was dealt with at length in the other place, and about which concern has been expressed by the Local Government Associationof which august body I happen to be a vice-president. The LGA's briefing on the Third Reading of the Social Security Fraud Bill in the other place on 8 March makes a relevant point about the withdrawal of benefits. It states:
``Even though the withdrawal of benefits will be time limited and some measures to provide a degree of protection in case of hardship are proposed, there is a possibility that certain applicants will lose their homes as a result of housing benefit being withdrawn or reduced''.
It goes on to consider the burdens that are placed on local authorities owing to their statutory obligations. I was greatly interested to see that several amendments were tabled to try to deal with the funding and resourcing of local authorities in such circumstances. That is directly relevant to the regulations, given that the Government have agreed to return to these matters in relation to local authorities and to include a code of practice in the provisions of the Bill. If that code of practice deals specifically with the withdrawal of benefits, does the Minister envisage that it will encompass the regulations as well as any provisions in the Bill and any regulations that are made under it? The Minister nods.