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Lord Carlisle of Bucklow: One of the advantages of Committee stage when one has not taken part in the Second Reading is that one has had an opportunity to read the speeches made on that occasion. All I can say is that, having read the speeches of my noble friend Lord Windlesham, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, I agree with every word that each has said. To repeat their words would be tautologous and, therefore, I intend to be brief.
I believe that what is proposed in these clauses is wrong in principle and that it would be wholly counter-productive in practice. First, it is wrong in principle because the withholding of benefits is used as a non-judicial means to punish and attempt to enforce the orders of the courts. Secondly, it is wrong in principle because it clearly involves a double penalty. In those cases where a breach is proved, the withdrawal or reduction of benefit is a further punishment on top of the order of the court. Thirdly, it is wrong in principle because it discriminates between those who are out of work as against those who are in work as to the form of penalty that they face. Fourthly, to impose a reduction of benefit on an allegation of breach of an order rather than on a finding of a breach is a principle that I regard as both novel and unacceptable.
As far as concerns practicality, I believe that the measure will be wholly counter-productive. The fact is that most of those who are on probation or subject to community service orders have a history of thieving and stealing of various kinds. To impose greater poverty on the poorest at that time by this measure will substantially increase the temptation for them to commit further offences. Undoubtedly many will fall to that temptation and commit further offences. Therefore, the effect in practice will be to increase rather than reduce the amount of crime.
I strongly believe that those who are in breach of a condition of a probation order, particularly a community service order, should be dealt with severely by the courts. Community service is accepted and intended to be an alternative to imprisonment, and it is right that those who breach a community service order should realise that they stand in real jeopardy of losing their liberty.
I understand that 21 per cent of those who were brought back before the courts in the past year for breach of community service went to prison. It would not worry me if that figure were far higher. I believe that they should be warned clearly of the effect. But to attempt to punish them in the way that the Bill provides is, I believe, wrong in principle and will fail in practice.
The penal affairs case against the clause, and the attendant comet of other clauses which form its tail, is so overwhelming that, having listened to the speeches made already, any sensible government would withdraw the clause. But there is also a social security aspect. As the only social security specialist with his name to the amendment, I think that it would make sense if I concentrate on that part of the argument.
It seems as clear from the social security perspective as from the penal perspective that the effect of the proposal would be to increase crime. In the words of the Penal Affairs Consortium, pushing poor people into even greater poverty must increase the temptation
The Minister may tell me that that is a rebuttable presumption. If the noble Baroness tells me that, I shall not argue with her. But I think she knows that she is in no position to rebut it because she and her predecessors have failed conspicuously to collect the evidence upon which it might be rebutted. We have no significant body of evidence on how those who are disentitled to benefit make a living. The Minister knows that I have questioned her and her predecessors on this issue for quite a long time and have not received answers. If it were not true that the measure will increase crime, the Minister is in no position to make the case.
It is a slight exaggeration to say that the noble Baroness knows of no evidence. In a debate immediately before the Easter Recess in which my noble friend Lord Addington spoke, the Minister recommended one piece of government research: the DfEE Research Report 86 on the effect of sanctions on jobseeker's allowance. In that report I find one and a quarter pages on the effect of sanctions. It states that people experienced considerable hardship, but those who were single experienced slightly greater hardship. Doubtless the Minister will make much of hardship payments. I invite her, not for the first time, to explain why the Government believe that single people by definition cannot be in hardship. I have never understood that argument and I have never heard a coherent explanation.
Noble Lords have touched on the fact that the benefit is withdrawn before a hearing. I shall not soon forget the speeches made by the Minister herself against that proposal when it was introduced in the Jobseekers Act. They were some of the best speeches I have ever heard in Parliament; and I still agree with every word of them. The noble Baroness will point out that the benefit forgone can be withdrawn if the penalty were found to be mistakenly imposed. But you cannot hang your stomach on skyhooks. If your benefit is withdrawn for several weeks, you will be
I am sure the Minister will say that this is not a penalty. That does not sound particularly convincing. I am reminded of the story of Kaiser Wilhelm (as he subsequently became) at the age of five being spanked by his nurse. The nurse said solemnly, "This hurts me as much as it hurts you", to which the Kaiser replied, "Oh, and in the same place?". The argument that it is not a punishment is just about as convincing as that.
However, for the sake of fair play I take the argument on the premises on which the DSS has chosen to advance it. I take it on the letter from Mr Alistair Darling in The Times of 11th May replying to letters from the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, and myself. Mr Darling said that the proposal is based on the clear principle that rights to benefits are conditional on an individual fulfilling their responsibilities to society. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, pointed out, that is dangerously open-ended. I am not clear what might be done in future under it.
On conditions to benefits, we need to make some distinctions. At Second Reading, the Minister said that conditions to benefits have been imposed before. Yes, they have, but we need to consider under what headings. First, in means-tested benefits there is inevitably a condition about the sufficiency of means. None of us argues about that. Secondly, there is a condition about being available for work. There is plenty of room for argument on both sides about that. On the one hand, it is a valid principle that the need can be seen, like intentional homelessness, as self-inflicted if the person is not seriously trying to get out of it. On the other hand, it is an equally valid principle that starvation is a punishment which should not be inflicted by authority in civilised society. We on these Benches have debated the issue at considerable length among ourselves on various occasions. The position we take is that since both those principles are valid in the moral plain we should judge between them according to the effects that disentitlement has. We should judge by the consequences if ever we can find what those are. Meanwhile the benefit claimant should be given the benefit of the doubt.
However, with Mr Darling's letter we are in an altogether different line of country. There is nothing in this new condition to benefit about whether the person is attempting to get work. It is not even a condition of a probation order that you should actively seek work. The condition is based simply on the fact that the Secretary of State happens to disapprove of the activity in question. Once you get into disentitlement
The idea that some of the poor are undeserving is always tempting to those who have property. I do not believe that we should encourage it, especially when by doing so we are wandering into an area where we confuse the business of two ministries. Late last weekend, I happened purely by chance to be looking at the 13th report of the Social Security Advisory Committee. It was considering a quite different measure, but it stated a general principle which is worth thought:
There are problems here. If people lose their benefits, what will happen to their repayments of Social Fund loans? I know that they keep housing benefit, but what will happen if they are paying some of their rent out of income support? What will happen to instalment payments to the utility companies? What will happen to the £5 which they are required to pay as child maintenance if they are in receipt of income support?
If that goes, the Minister must abandon the position she took about the absolute priority of money for child maintenance. If it does not go, she must abandon the insistence she then made that she cannot imagine any situation in which people are unable to pay what they were assessed for under the Child Support Act.
The Government are not so much shooting themselves in the foot as shooting themselves in the toes one by one. It is a wistful procedure. We should stick to the basic simple principle that benefits are not given for being good; they are given for being in need.
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