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12 Jun 2002 : Column 968

Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill (Money)

Queen's recommendation having been signified—

10.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): I beg to move,

(b) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable out of money so provided by virtue of any other Act.

The motion concerns the private Member's Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). On Second Reading, I welcomed the Bill on behalf of the Government. I said that we were sympathetic to its objectives and content for it to proceed into Committee. That was then agreed by the House.

There was clear agreement from all sides about the scale of the problems caused by antisocial behaviour and the so-called "neighbour from hell" problem. Unfortunately, it is something that we all see in our constituencies. The Bill offers a new approach to the problem which we are keen to explore.

However, I also made it clear that the Bill would need substantial amendment to make it technically workable and to address human rights concerns. I said that we would work with my right hon. Friend to try to resolve those points. We have been doing that, and I hope that in Committee next week we will be able to debate this thoroughly.

For that reason, I do not propose to talk about the details of the Bill today. In any case, my right hon Friend is unable to be here. He has asked me to pass on his apologies to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the House.

One essential point is that this Bill is designed to be an additional weapon in the fight against antisocial behaviour. It is meant to be neither the sole solution nor the main solution. However, this Bill might send the message that the right to support from the state is linked to the responsibility to behave appropriately.

We are tabling this motion because it is likely that the Bill—whatever precise form it took—would lead to additional expenditure for my Department and for local authorities, which administer housing benefit. The costs involved would depend on the shape of the Bill at the end of the Committee stage. However, we felt that it would be prudent to seek this resolution tonight. I commend it to the House.

10.14 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): As the Minister rightly said, this is the money resolution for the private Member's Bill promoted by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). Sadly, he cannot be present for this debate.

The Bill will permit the Secretary of State to withhold payments of housing benefit in certain circumstances because of antisocial behaviour. The resolution is concerned with authorising expenditure, and I appreciate

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that if I were to venture into a debate about the merits and the substance of the Bill you would soon rule me out of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. However, in the light of the Minister's comments, it will be helpful if I point out that we share the Bill's objectives. When it had its Second Reading, it received a general welcome from my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who spoke on behalf of the Opposition.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): A very great man.

Mr. Clappison: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As the House well knows, my right hon. Friend is also a caring man. No doubt because of his caring nature, he gave the Bill a warm welcome. However, it was not just that. He shares our concern with the problem that the Minister described. The problem of antisocial behaviour affects many of our constituents—it plagues law-abiding and decent people.

The Minister has adverted to the Bill's history and to the Government's intention to table amendments. It is useful to know that at this stage, but I gently draw the House's and the Minister's attention to the fact that the Bill received its Second Reading on 19 April. We were given to understand that it would go into Committee today. The Minister looks puzzled, but we have received notification of a change of date and that the Bill will go into Committee next Tuesday.

As of today, the only amendments that have been tabled are those in the names of myself and other Opposition Members. They were tabled a little while ago and we have yet to see any Government amendments. The Bill will go into Committee next Tuesday and Friday is a non-sitting day. Although the Minister has said that the resolution will authorise general expenditure, one would have thought that that point would have been clear when the Bill received its Second Reading. Whether or not that is the case, it is appropriate to consider how such expenditure might arise, and the nature of the amendments is important for that. However, as matters stand, we have not seen the amendments, and we do not know how extensive they will be. We gather from what the Minister said that they could be fairly extensive. We should have the opportunity to table amendments to the Government's proposals. The amendments that we have tabled already are to the Bill as it stands, but we do not know what the Government will propose.

I shall not venture into the Bill's merits, but the amendments are germane—the Minister accepted this in his remarks—to the money resolution. Although we do not wish to express anything but sympathy for the Bill's aims, we gently draw the Minister's attention to the circumstances facing us and to our wish to give the Bill proper consideration, as is our duty.

10.19 pm

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): Although I and my Liberal Democrat colleagues have considerable reservations about the Bill, we think that the resolution is appropriate. The remarks of the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) about the process and procedure leading up to the Committee stage next week enhance my concern that we might end up with a Bill that is less satisfactory than it should be. Nevertheless, we shall not oppose the resolution.

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10.19 pm

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I welcome the principle behind the Bill. People who live with neighbours from hell, as they are commonly called, should be afforded protection. However, I want to put down a marker. Housing benefit is paid from money that comes to Northern Ireland from the Treasury. I take it that the Northern Ireland Assembly will have to amend legislation because the measure relates to social legislation, which it covers. I certainly wish the proposal every speed in this place so that we do something to protect good neighbours from those who are bad.

10.20 pm

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe): My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) rightly emphasised that there is general support on both sides of the House for the principles behind the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) suggested, my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House also supports it. He is renowned for his compassionate and caring approach—

Mr. Bercow: And generosity of spirit.

Mr. Goodman: Of course.

However, the Minister said something that is slightly puzzling and it threatens to disturb the happy consensus across the Floor of the House. The Government have introduced the money resolution but have not tabled amendments to the Bill, which received its Second Reading on 19 April. I understand, however, that its Committee stage has been delayed. The puzzle is that the Government have introduced the money resolution but we do not know what it will apply to because we do not know what the Government amendments will be. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere is also puzzled by that and was entitled to raise it. We are concerned and disturbed because the puzzle threatens the consensus on a popular and necessary Bill.

10.22 pm

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): I have three points to add. First, I want to reinforce the contention that it is impossible to have proper scrutiny if the Government continue to table amendments at the last moment. They did that on the Adoption and Children Bill, which also had widespread support. Those amendments dealt with hugely complicated material. Many of them were welcome, but they were produced at the last minute, just before Report.

Secondly, I cannot emphasise how strongly I support a money resolution to fund the measure. My surgeries are dominated by the problems caused by antisocial behaviour. Some people may wrongly imagine that Canterbury is a leafy and comfortable part of the world, but it has a great deal of poverty. I would never identify poverty with villainy. Far from it. It is certainly true, however, that poor people suffer from the villainy of antisocial behaviour far more than the better-off. Any measure that tries to address that is welcome.

Thirdly, the particular merit of the measure, as opposed to almost all the other measures that have been introduced to tackle antisocial behaviour, is that it is specifically civil rather than criminal. The problem with criminal measures to deal with antisocial behaviour is so obvious that it

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should not be worth explaining. However, hardly anyone has thought it through. As antisocial behaviour is by its very nature—

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