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Draft Social Security (Breach of Community Order) Regulations 2001

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Mr. Pickles: I apologise to the Minister if she misunderstood, because I realise that housing benefit is not involved. However, the point that I tried to make is that, when incomes fall, there is a knock-on effect, which might impose burdens on local authorities. I was using that to lead in to the code of practice.

Angela Eagle: I shall deal with the code of practice shortly.

The sanction lasts for four weeks and it would be unusual for someone to have serious problems with rent during that period. Housing benefit cannot be sanctioned under the regulations.

The hon. Gentleman tempts me to rehearse the discussions that we shall have tomorrow in the Standing Committee considering the Social Security Fraud Bill. It is an intriguing offer, but you would not be pleased, Mr. Stevenson, if I did that. The code of practice applies to the ``two strikes and you're out'' provisions that the hon. Gentleman and I will be discussing tomorrow, but not to the regulations, which are separate. I hope that that reassures him.

On compliance with the European convention on human rights, we had long discussions on whether the regulations would breach articles 6, 7, 14 and others. We have taken careful legal advice and we are confident that the regulations do not breach any articles of the convention. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we examined that carefully.

Mr. Pickles: The Minister and I have considered three Bills together and her comment that she has taken careful legal advice is not reassuring. Sadly, I am not a member of the Standing Committee that will consider the Social Security Fraud Bill and I shall miss the opportunity to spend pre-Easter with the Minister, so I want to press her on whether a code of practice will eventually encompass all withdrawal-of-benefit provisions.

Angela Eagle: The Government have not been thinking along those lines. The provisions for withdrawal of benefit and the subsequent approach to hardship that may be created—I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's questions about that in a moment—already exist under jobseekers allowance. They are working and being put into effect daily. The provisions will be piloted in specific areas, and there will be a full, open and published evaluation before further action is taken. Clearly, the ``two strikes and you're out'' provisions are for other criminal convictions. The Government have not had mind an extension of the code of practice across both the currently available sanctions and those that we are piloting. I am not saying that it will not happen in the future, but we are not considering such action now. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would not expect us to do so during the pilot stage of the sanctions concerned.

The hon. Member for Northavon appeared to be implying that entitlement to all available benefits, regardless of behaviour, is a human right. That is an interesting view of human rights, but not one that I happen to hold. It is important to remember that individuals must do certain things in order to be entitled to benefits. For instance, individuals must be available for, and actively seeking, work in order to receive the jobseekers allowance. Sanctions exist under the JSA regime for people who fail or breach the conditions of entitlement to benefit. It is entirely proper, whether in relation to contribution entitlements or entitlements through being available and actively seeking work, to hedge benefit entitlements through certain requirements of individuals. That is not a new feature of the benefits system. The hon. Gentleman is going over the top by positing the developments under discussion as completely unacceptable. It is important that, as a society, we consider ways of furthering the rights and responsibilities agenda. The hon. Gentleman made it clear that he does not agree with that approach. However, we shall all be watching to see whether the pilots are successful.

Contrary to the hon. Gentleman's opinion, the Department for Education and Employment has commissioned research into the effects of sanctions. I suggest that he looks at DFEE research report No. 86, which was published in November 1998. It deals specifically with sanctions and hardship payments, and their effect on people who have been subjected to them under the JSA benefit regime. In answer to his question about whether the pilots will be extended in that respect prior to publication of the evaluation report, I reiterate the undertakings that I gave during the passage of the Act that we would publish the evaluation prior to extension of the scheme.

On the hon. Gentleman's point about community sentences, he should remember that such sentences are given in place of prison sentences, often for serious criminal offences. He is not right to give the impression that community sentences are almost optional for the people who have been given them. The probation service works hard to try to ensure that community sentences are fulfilled, and people do not have the option to decide whether to turn up. Such people can expect to be returned to court, will be returned to court, and will sometimes even be committed to prison if they do not fulfil the terms of their community sentences. It is not unreasonable—the pilot will demonstrate whether it is effective—to introduce an extra entitlement issue, whereby the person sentencing will give warning of the consequences of breaching the community sentence, which will also be raised by the probation officer and, if breaches occur, mentioned by the Benefits Agency, prior to the court deciding that a breach has occurred and a sanction being imposed.

Mr. Webb: The Minister misrepresents my remarks. I said that we do not regard imprisonment as necessarily inappropriate. There may be occasions when individuals have breached what it expected of them and they must forgo their liberty. However, convicted people, including those who have committed the most heinous crimes are fed, clothed and sheltered. Why should people who have done far more minor things not have that right?

Angela Eagle: I was not trying to misrepresent the hon. Gentleman's position in respect of prison sentences. That is a matter for the courts, which will decide whether someone in breach of a community sentence is to be committed to prison. I was trying to emphasise the point that community sentences, as they are handed down, are a serious, not an optional thing. Under the regulations, we shall pilot a regime in which there is an entitlement sanction to benefit in case of a breach of a community sentence. That may concentrate the mind of the individuals involved and make them realise that it is important that they attend and do not breach their community sentences. The pilot will be evaluated appropriately, the evaluation will be published and, in a year next October, we will all know whether the scheme would play a useful role in enabling people to fulfil their community sentences appropriately. I suggest that we return to the matter then, when we have the information at our fingertips.

Question put:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 1.

Division No. 1]

AYES
Clarke, Mr. Tony
Coffey, Ann
Eagle, Angela
Griffiths, Jane
Organ, Mrs. Diana
Pearson, Mr. Ian
Walley, Joan
Wood, Mr. Mike

NOES
Webb, Steve

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Social Security (Breach of Community Order) Regulations 2001.

        Committee rose at seven minutes past Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Stevenson, Mr. George (Chairman)
Atkinson, Mr. Peter
Clarke, Mr. Tony
Coffey, Ann
Eagle, Angela
Griffiths, Jane
Organ, Mrs.
Pearson, Mr.
Pickles, Mr.
Walley, Joan
Webb, Steve
Wood, Mr.

 
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