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Standing Committee B
Tuesday 18 June 2002
[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair]
The Chairman: The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) gave me verbal notice of a sittings motion, which I accepted in the circumstances that he explained to me.
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): I beg to move,
That if proceedings on the Bill are not concluded at this day's sitting the Committee do meet on Thursday 11 July at Nine o'clock and half-past Two o'clock.
If we do not complete our deliberations today, I thought it might be helpful if the Committee were at least able to consider the amendments on the amendment paper. Some of the amendments tabled will stand even when the Government have tabled their amendments; it might help the Committee to hear the reasoning behind them, even if they are not pressed to a vote, so that that debate is behind us when we reconvene at 9 am on 11 July.
The Chairman: That is a slightly different and somewhat extended version of what I expected. To save time, the question is as the right hon. Gentleman has explained.
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr. O'Hara?
I welcome the sittings motion moved by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead. On Second Reading, the Bill was broadly welcomed by the Opposition and by the House as a whole. We do not want to jeopardise its progress in any way—indeed, we want it to make progress. That, however, is subject to giving it as much detailed consideration as can properly be given to a Bill in the normal course of events. The sittings motion is appropriate in the circumstances.
The Bill has been before hon. Members for some time, and the Opposition have tabled amendments to it. We understand from the Minister's letter that the Government intend to propose extensive amendments. We do not yet know how extensive they may be, but we suspect that they will leave us with a Bill with the same objectives under the same title, but in a different form. We would like the opportunity to give appropriate debate to those amendments at the appropriate time.
We pressed the Government on the matter last Wednesday evening when the money resolution was debated in the House. It is important that amendments are seen as soon as possible and that we have the opportunity to debate them, and it is our duty as the Opposition to press the Government on the issue. The Minister has been open about his intentions, and we are grateful to him for his correspondence, but it is important that extensive amendments to a private Member's Bill are tabled as early as possible so that
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proper debate of a Bill is possible. In that light, the sittings motion sets out an appropriate way for the Committee to proceed.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): First, Mr. O'Hara, I welcome you to the Chair of the Committee.
In view of the sittings motion, I hope that it will help the Committee if I use the debate to set out the Government's thinking on the Bill. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead for proposing a Bill on an important issue that we all face in our constituencies. It shows the strength of the private Member's Bill procedure. As the promoter of a successful private Member's Bill, I wish a more veteran Member of Parliament a fair wind.
I start by apologising that the Government have not yet been able to table amendments. I hope that all Committee members received my letter. As I explained on Second Reading, the Government are highly sympathetic to the aims of the Bill. It has the potential to be an additional weapon in the fight against the antisocial behaviour that so plagues our constituencies, including my own, Croydon, North. Like my right hon. Friend, I have been struck by the number of people coming to my advice surgeries to complain about often intolerable behaviour. However, we believe that the Bill will have to be substantially rewritten to make it workable and to meet human rights concerns.
I said on Second Reading that the Government would work with my right hon. Friend to get the Bill into shape, and our intention was to table amendments in time for Committee. Even last week, when I addressed the House on the money resolution motion, we still intended to have our amendments ready, but in the end we felt that we were unable to table amendments that were sufficiently robust and that it would be more useful to debate the issue thoroughly in Committee and then table Government amendments. We originally thought of doing that on Report, but I support my right hon. Friend's motion that the Committee convene at a time closer to Report. I regret any inconvenience that the delay may have caused hon. Members, and I hope that they all received the letter that I wrote on Friday.
As the Committee will understand, the Bill raises some complex and technical questions. Withdrawing or, as the Government envisage, reducing benefits involves removing what would otherwise be a person's legal entitlement. Although there are several precedents elsewhere in the benefits system, we must tread carefully; in particular, we must ensure that any legislation complies with the Human Rights Act 1998 and that its provisions are both fair and proportionate. An essential point is that the Bill is designed as an additional weapon in the fight against antisocial behaviour, not as the sole or main solution.
The Government already have a wide-ranging strategy on antisocial behaviour. For example, the Home Office is currently seeking new powers in the Police Reform Bill to expand and improve the use of antisocial behaviour orders. Evidence shows that the orders can be highly effective in cutting short a pattern
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of antisocial behaviour, but the Government admit that the uptake of the orders has not been as high as we would have wanted. It is hoped that the new measures will help by broadening the range of organisations that can apply for an order.
At the same time, the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, or the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister as it is now, is consulting on a variety of options for tackling antisocial tenants. That includes ideas such as downgrading the status of a person's tenancy if they act antisocially. Lower level schemes, such as the so-called acceptable behaviour contracts, can often be extremely successful in deterring antisocial conduct without the need for penalties or to involve the courts. The Bill before us has the potential to take its place in the armoury and send the message that the right to support from the state is linked to the responsibility to behave appropriately. Judging by our debates so far, I am sure that all parties would warmly endorse that principle.
I should like to outline some of the issues that we have been considering under two headings: the trigger for the sanction and the benefit sanction itself. On the trigger, part of our difficulty comes from the nature of antisocial behaviour. In other areas in which we use benefit sanctions, the trigger is fairly easy to establish: for example, a jobseeker can be sanctioned for failing to attend an interview with an adviser; and people can be sanctioned after being convicted twice of benefit fraud or if a court rules that they have breached their community order. In those cases, the facts are clear, but antisocial behaviour is harder to pin down. It can cover a wide range of conduct, from littering to serious harassment.
As a Government policy action team pointed out in a comprehensive report two years ago, there is no single accepted definition of antisocial behaviour. In fact, a consultation document entitled ''Tackling Anti-Social Tenants'', published recently by the then DTLR, specifically asked whether there should be a standard definition of antisocial behaviour. All offences are antisocial in that they represent activity that society regards as unacceptable, but very few are inherently antisocial in the sense that anyone convicted of them would automatically qualify for a benefit sanction. A great deal will turn on the type of behaviour involved in the offence and its context.
A further difficulty is that we are particularly concerned with unneighbourly behaviour. The Government believe that if the sanction is to be the withdrawal of housing benefit, it would be right to limit the definition of antisocial behaviour to things done in a person's neighbourhood, not 50 miles away.
We conclude that a separate decision would be needed about whether something should count as antisocial behaviour for the purposes of the Bill—the decision would not flow automatically from the result of the court proceedings, although for fairness, as the circumstances might be in dispute, it is likely that a court or similar body would have to make that decision. That in turn raises further practical questions. We all want the procedure to operate with as light a touch as possible. The Government do not
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want to set up elaborate new procedures that could hold up the workings of civil or criminal courts.
I shall now deal with the sanction that should be imposed. I should say at once that I use the word ''sanction'' simply because it is a fairly well established term in the benefits world. The Government intend that the measures in the Bill should primarily be a means of sending the message that the right to benefit is linked to responsibilities. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead talks about withholding housing benefit in full for up to a year, but I do not think that the Government envisage such a severe step. We are more likely to propose a reduction in benefit, and if that reduction were substantial, an underpinning hardship regime might be needed.
For comparison, I point out that our existing benefit sanctions are broadly equivalent to the hardship regime for jobseeker's allowance. That reduces the benefit by an amount worth 40 per cent. of the so-called applicable amount or income allowance for a single person; if someone in the family is pregnant or seriously ill, the reduction is 20 per cent. Besides being consistent with what we do already, a sanction along those lines might also be fairer. The amount of housing benefit that people receive varies hugely, depending on their rent. The average payment to private tenants in London is about £100 a week, whereas for council tenants in the north-east, it is only £37 a week. Simply withholding the amount of benefit in payment would therefore have widely differing effects.
I believe that, in practice, regulation-making powers would need to be taken to define the details of the benefit sanction. That is what we have done elsewhere. However, it is important to have a clear idea of how the scheme would work.