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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I, too, very much welcome the statement that the Minister has made today. He was at best unhappy with the answers that he gave when we discussed such matters previously. He has personally espoused the cause, and I am grateful to him for that; I am glad that the issue had a powerful advocate in government. The arguments have been presented time and again. I disagree with him only in that he said that Lords amendment No. 26 was unnecessary. I do not agree, because it was important that the point was made repeatedly to show the strength of feeling in both Houses.
As he rightly said, the Government position has not been wholly consistent; nor has that of the Conservatives. They not only refused to countenance any change when in government, but were not prepared to support such an amendment, even in the context of the Bill, at an earlier stage. A degree of opportunism has been applied to the cause in some quarters.
Having said that, let us not carp. Let us be grateful for those expressions of support, wherever they have come from. We should pay tribute to those in the other place who have been consistent on this matter, particularly Baroness Strange and Baroness Fookes, who have done much work, and my noble Friend Earl Russell, who has spoken on it many times. I reiterate the point made by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait): what is the position of widows who felt it appropriate to remarry or form a permanent relationship irrespective of their financial loss in terms of the attributable pension? Will they be eligible for restitution under the statutory instruments that the Minister intends to introduce? Those are my only questions; otherwise, I welcome what has been done.
Mr. Rooker: I had not intended to speak again, but the hon. Members for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) have asked the same question, to which I have an answer. [Interruption.] Well, the answer was implied in what I said. The changes will affect widows who already receive an attributable pension; those who remarried would not have received an
Lords amendment: No. 27, in page 65, line 5, leave out from beginning to ("that") and insert
("a court makes a determination")
Angela Eagle: Clauses 61 to 65 allow payments of certain social security benefits or training allowances to be either reduced or withdrawn when the recipient fails to meet the terms of a probation order, community service order or a combination order. We believe that people's right to support from the state depends on their meeting their responsibilities to society. That principle is fundamental to our reform of welfare. We think it wrong that people who disregard their responsibilities to society and breach sentences for criminal offences given by the courts go on expecting to receive benefit, paid for by the taxpayer, on the same terms as everybody else. We want to ensure that offenders complete their sentences as they should. We also want them to take their responsibilities to turn up to meet their probation officers or attend their community service work placements as seriously as they take their need to turn up to sign on.
Making benefit receipt conditional on compliance with community sentences will help to make it clear how important that compliance is. In the first instance, we propose to pilot that policy in a few different areas of the country to test the procedures necessary and assess the impact on offenders. For the pilots, the period of benefit withdrawal or reduction will be set at four weeks. The sanction will apply to people aged between 18 and 59 who receive income support, jobseeker's allowance or certain training allowances.
That is a benefit sanction, so the Bill as sent to the other place provided for a procedure similar to that which applies in other benefit sanctions, whereby the referral of the offender to court by the probation service is sufficient to trigger benefit loss. If the court found the breach not proven, benefit would be refunded. However, the proposal to impose the benefit sanction before the court had decided whether there had been a breach raised major concerns, and the Bill was amended to ensure that the benefit loss should follow the determination rather than the original referral to the court.
The Government recognise the strength of feeling on that issue and are willing to meet the point. To ensure that the offender is fully aware that the measure relates to conditions of entitlement to benefit and is not another
By writing to the offender quickly after he has done, or has failed to do, whatever triggered his referral to court by the probation service, we will let the offender know well before the court reaches its decision that, by his actions, he has put his benefit at risk. Therefore, amendment No. 51 would impose an obligation on the Secretary of State to notify the offender at that stage, informing him that he will lose benefit unless the court finds that he has not breached the order.
Amendments Nos. 44, 47, 48, 49 and 53 would put back in the Bill the requirement to provide information at the referral stage while leaving intact similar provisions at the court determination stage. They would require the probation service, or the courts in Scotland, to notify the Secretary of State--in practice, the Benefits Agency--when an information is laid at court and proceedings are commenced. Slightly different arrangements would apply in Scotland, as was the case in the original provisions.
A number of technical amendments would put the Bill back in alignment in the new circumstances. There has also been a slight shift on timing. Amendment No. 39 would correct a drafting error to ensure that hardship payments could be made to members of a jobseeker's allowance joint-claim couple when both were subject to a community sentence sanction. Without the amendment, access to a hardship payment could not be provided if both were sanctioned; it represents purely a drafting change. The amendment raises an issue of Commons privilege. I invite the House to waive privilege and agree with the amendment.
These amendments would tidy up the original provisions and meet concerns that decisions on benefit should be taken not on the basis of an alleged breach, but only after the court had determined whether there has been such a breach. They still provide that rights to benefits are linked to the fulfilment of responsibilities to society. With the Government amendment, they would ensure that offenders understand those links and take their responsibilities seriously. I urge the House to agree with the amendments.
Mr. Pickles: We substantially agree with the Government, but we recognise that there have been considerable policy reversals--not least that to which the Minister has just referred. All those points were made in Committee, but the hon. Lady most robustly defended benefit being lost immediately. There is one thing we cannot understand, however. After the amendment was tabled in their lordships' House, the Prime Minister--in response to a series of questions put by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition--went out of his way to attack the very proposals that the Minister has introduced today. Perhaps she will explain.
Mr. Webb: As we moved on to this group of amendments, my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) murmured that consensus was about to evaporate. Although the amendments make a truly dreadful section of the Bill marginally better, we are concerned that we have reached this stage.
The Minister set out the principles on which the clauses that are being amended are based. We will support the amendments, but we wish to register our fundamental disagreement with the Government on the principle behind the clauses.
I shall explain why we take that position. The Government, including the Minister, have said that the right to support from the benefit system is conditional on the fulfilment of responsibilities to society. I invite the Minister to consider the example of someone who is imprisoned for having committed murder, rape or some other terrible crime. The state will continue to feed and clothe him and provide a roof over his head. Yet someone who commits an offence that is not nearly so serious and does not warrant imprisonment--he may breach a community order on two occasions--might be denied food, clothing and shelter. How is that a rational approach?
If someone breaches a community order, at least the amendments require the court to test whether it has been breached. It is alarming that originally the Bill did not require that test. At least the amendments introduce the test. I welcome amendment No. 28, which refers to "reasonable excuse". Some modest safeguards are being built into the Bill, but people may still potentially be deprived effectively of food, clothing and even shelter.
The Government want to push through the clause as amended, without a clear idea of what its effects will be. The Government do not know--[Interruption.] The Minister says from a sedentary position, "That is why it is piloted." There are many instances of benefits sanctions being imposed. Instead of introducing such clauses, the Government should be examining the effects of sanctions that are already in place. My noble Friend Earl Russell has argued consistently that we should not support further sanctions until we are clear of their effects.
A deplorable measure has been made marginally better by the amendments. For that reason we shall support them, but we wish to register our strong opposition to the principle that the Minister has enunciated.