Draft Social Security (Breach of Community Order) Regulations 2001

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Angela Eagle: No, I did not.

Mr. Pickles: In that case, I shall continue with my point. If the code of practice does not cover the withdrawal of benefit, why not? A code of practice is desirable, especially in the context of the dialogue between central Government and local authorities. If the hardship safeguards are, rightly, introduced, in many cases all that will happen is the straight transfer of resources to local authorities—which play no part in decisions on the withdrawal of benefits, other than housing benefits. There could be various indirect effects on local authorities' finances, even though that would not be the intention of the courts or the Government. Will the regulations be affected by the code of practice, or by another code of practice, and is the Minister mindful of the effects on local authorities?

The Minister said that there were no implications with regard to the Human Rights Act 1998, but we should like more assurances. Indeed, the hon. Member for Northavon mentioned that magistrates are concerned about the regulations. Furthermore, we know that the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders and the assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers are also concerned. Indeed, the National Association of Probation Officers specifically drew our attention to articles 6 and 7, which concern the right to a fair trial and no punishment without law. It argues that the suspension of benefits is automatic and that the penalty is mandatory, with no mitigation. It also brought article 14 on the prohibition of discrimination to our attention, and suggested that the regulations discriminate against people who are unemployed and in receipt of benefits.

I shall support the regulations, as I am unconvinced by the probation officers' argument. We must reconsider the points made by the Minister on the relationship between rights and responsibilities in the receipt of benefits and whether the withdrawal of benefits is a punishment. Do people have an automatic right to benefits? Does a contract exist between claimants and the state? Do those who are in receipt of benefits—especially those who are in default of community orders—have an obligation to the state to conform to its laws?

Having said that, we are prepared to support the regulations, which is easy to do because they are pilots. However, they raise important issues with regard to local government finance and the rights and responsibilities of claimants.

4.47 pm

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): We fundamentally object to the principle of the regulations. Like the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), our objections relate to the fundamental rights of citizens, and how far they are conditional on following society's instructions. That is a legitimate question to pose and, in our view, the Government have come up with the wrong answer. As a society, we take the view that people have human rights that are not contingent. For example, the fundamental right to freedom of speech is not contingent on saying something that I agree with or even that I like; one has the right to say things with which others disagree.

Liberty is not such a right. A punishment for breaching community orders that involved imprisonment is a legitimate sanction. However, a punishment for breaching a community order that resulted in someone not having enough money for food, clothing or shelter, is an illegitimate response. We should treat people with humanity. Members of society have the right to food, shelter and clothing. The regulations will initially leave hundreds of people--that figure may swell to thousands in time--below basic benefit levels. The people involved may already be below benefit levels because they are repaying social fund loans or because another sanction is being applied. The regulations could leave them short of food, unable to buy new clothes or unable to meet their housing costs, which is linked to the comments about homelessness and its effects on local authorities made by the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar.

The Government are clearly marching down that path, and we shall see a great deal more marching if there is another Labour Government. We want to block that road. Let us go no further, certainly not until we know the effects of existing benefit sanctions. I accept that it is better for the scheme to be piloted than to be brought in fully nationwide. However, many sanctions are already in place, and the Government do not have a clue as to what effect those are having. As far as I am aware, no research has been commissioned to examine the effects of sanctions, but I would be pleased to be proved wrong about that.

Sanctions can deny people the basic rights of food, clothing and shelter, and are already in place in other parts of the benefit system. Those sanctioned under these regulations could be driven further below basic benefit levels--some people have already turned to the wrong side of the law. What will be the effect of sanctioning them and forcing them to live below the poverty line? I do not believe that the Government know the answer to that, and they have not fully considered the effect of existing sanctions. Therefore, we must oppose the regulations in principle.

The inconsistency of the regulations is highlighted in some of the hardship provisions. For instance, disabled people have a smaller sanction. Do not disabled people have the same responsibilities as everybody else? Do not they have the same responsibility to obey a community service order? According to the Government, the sanction for a disabled person who breaches the orders is less than that for an able-bodied person. What could be the rationale for that, other than the fact that the Government know that the regulations are penal and that they will hurt and cause hardship? Even with the hardship provisions in place, they will leave people below the poverty line.

The real reason for the provision for disabled people is that the Government do not want a bad tabloid headline about a person in a wheelchair who has breached two community services orders and the Government are not leaving them enough money for food, clothing and shelter. However, that reveals a fundamental inconsistency. Either people are citizens and have a right to food, clothing and shelter or not. Why do disabled people have such a right in the regulations whereas able-bodied people do not? It is a path down which we have already begun to travel, and do not want to travel any further. Will the Minister confirm that the pilots will not be extended nationwide until they have been properly evaluated and a report on the pilots has been fully debated in the House?

I recently visited a local magistrates court and would like to mention the magistrates' attitude towards the regulations. I have no reason to think that my local magistrates are a bunch of woolly minded liberals. They said that such regulations will not work and that, from their experience, what would really hurt people who breach community service orders would be more hours added to their community sentence. That was the unprompted response of my local magistrates--magistrates nationally have similar concerns. Magistrates have an incentive to see the law work and enforced effectively, and they doubt whether the regulations will work.

Mr. Pickles: The hon. Gentleman's meeting with magistrates sounds very useful. When they suggested that longer community service may be more appropriate, did they say how a person who had defaulted on an original community service order would find a longer sentence a deterrent?

Mr. Webb: It is perfectly fair to argue that the existence of a sentence has not prevented these people from breaching an order twice. However, the individual circumstances that give rise to a breach may not suggest that the person will never keep an order. There may be specific circumstances that cause a person to breach an order once, perhaps twice, but that person may not be a serial breacher. Each case will be different; for some a longer sentence may not be a deterrent. However, magistrates' first-hand experience of the client group that we are dealing with is that longer sentences would have the desired effect.

Angela Eagle: Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that to be deemed to have breached a community sentence, an offender must have two unacceptable absences from the community sentence? Under Home Office guidelines, the probation officer has the right to decide whether the failure to turn up is for acceptable or unacceptable reasons. If someone is deemed to have breached an order, they will have unacceptably failed twice to turn up to satisfy the order.

Mr. Webb: Acceptability will be a balance of judgment. There is no clear right or wrong answer, and there will be grey areas. For example, will it be acceptable if a bus does not turn up and the person concerned does not make much effort after that? It is impossible to define acceptability, which will depend on each individual case.

Magistrates have told me--the Minister is shaking her head, so she thinks she knows better than magistrates who deal daily with the client group that we are discussing--that that client group is more likely to be frightened off by a long community sentence than by a benefit sanction, which might even be counter productive. There is a fundamental philosophical difference. Members of society have certain rights. The benefit levels that will be sanctioned are not princely and no one in this Room would want to live on them for any period. The state is not giving people carte blanche to do what they like and live in the lap of luxury. The Government have failed to evaluate the effect of the existing sanctions, and the regulations represent a further step down a slippery slope, so I shall oppose them.

4.56 pm

Angela Eagle: The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar raised various matters and I hope to put his mind at rest about the effects of the regulations. First, the sanctionable benefits are income support and jobseekers allowance with their equivalent training allowances if the young person concerned is in a new deal place and receiving training allowance instead of jobseekers allowance. Those are the only benefits involved and housing benefit is explicitly not included, so there is no reason why local authorities should be concerned about housing benefit.

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