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Mr. Davey: If the hon. Gentleman reads the Bill, he will see that the situation is even worse than he describes, because we are not told the sort of benefit reductions that will apply. The Minister gave some indication in Committee but did not share with us the details that the Government have in mind in respect of the different stages of benefit reductions and how they would apply. It is all under regulation in the Bill. Therefore, in debating the hon. Gentleman's amendment, the House is bereft because we do not know the detail of what the Government intend.

Mr. Dismore: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. The point is important. We are considering whether it is correct to impose as a simple administrative process what is, in effect, a sanction, when there are grades of offence. It would not be as though someone had failed to sign on or had fraudulently claimed benefit—either they have done that or they have not. We are considering the use of the benefit sanction as an adjunct to the powers of the courts, so it would be appropriate for the court to decide the length of disqualification.

Mr. Davey: I understand from information given to us in Committee that the Government intend that the first reduction of housing benefit—when the sanction has been applied after the court's declaration—should be a fixed sum. The hon. Gentleman's point is thus even more valid; everyone will be treated in exactly the same way even if one person's antisocial behaviour was far worse than that of another.

Mr. Dismore: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. No doubt we shall also hear from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on that point when he replies to the debate.

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I am certainly concerned about the disqualification period, which we may discuss later. When the Select Committee on Work and Pensions visited the United States to examine such issues in the context of its benefits system, we found that the first penalty was often a short sharp shock rather than the long one that the Bill seems to presage. The court might want to take that point into account.

Similarly, there could be repeat offences; an offender could come before the court to face a second benefit sanction. If there is no opportunity for the court to examine all the circumstances and to consider a gradation of penalty—perhaps increasing the disqualification period for a second offence—we are not sending the right message to offenders. I support some of the ideas behind the Bill, but I am worried about the practicalities. We would be wielding a big and rather inflexible stick instead of using the measure as it should be intended: to correct offending behaviour rather than to provide a penalty for having offended. We should see the measure as a tool of correction, to try to help people to recognise that they owe an obligation to society in return for their benefit, in which case a gradated approach would be far more appropriate.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): My hon. Friend is of course aware that although we are discussing only one measure, the Government want to introduce a series of measures in the next Session, including model tenancy agreements, fast-track evictions, and conciliation services such as those in Dundee. It is not as though someone committing antisocial behaviour will go straight into court as a result of the Bill; there will be several steps before they reach that point.

Mr. Dismore: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention, but it does not mean that there should not be some degree of flexibility in the process so that it can complement those measures rather than being used as an inflexible stick at the end.

Mr. Davey: May I clarify one point? I do not want the hon. Gentleman to misunderstand what the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) was saying. Although the Government have a range of measures to tackle antisocial behaviour, many of which we wholeheartedly support because they are exactly right, the Bill does not set out a process whereby those methods and policies can be used before the court is asked to make a declaration and the benefit sanction is applied. In Committee, I tried to insert a provision for such a process so that all the options could be explored, but the Government resisted such amendments. I do not want the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Davey) to be under any illusion: no process involving other measures is foreseen in the Bill—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps, in order to make this more of a debate than a conversation piece, the hon. Gentleman might save up his comments and seek to catch my eye later on.

Mr. Dismore: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I noted what the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) and my right hon. Friend the Member for

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Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said, and the House will obviously form its own view when it considers the amendments at the end of this short debate.

The last amendment in my name in the group, and probably the most important, is amendment No. 11. It concerns the extent to which the penalty could have consequences for people who are not before the court, or are not directly in receipt of the benefit. If I may return to my basic point, which is that the power should be exercised by someone with a bit of discretion—that is, the court—it seems to me that the court should be able to take into account not only the circumstances of the offender before it, but any hardship that is likely to be inflicted on others as a consequence of that person's disqualification from benefit.

If benefit is taken away and the person concerned happens to be the householder, that could have a serious impact on their children and/or their partner, husband or wife. I am keen to ensure that we do all that we can to deal with those who behave in the most appalling antisocial ways, but I do not believe that it will necessarily be constructive if in doing so we penalise the children or the partner in the relationship. That could make things worse. That would not necessarily apply in all cases, but the court should certainly have discretion to look at the hardship of what could be, according to the Bill, a very lengthy withholding of benefit. These provisions must be exercised with a degree of flexibility.

Mr. Edward Davey: I shall primarily speak to amendments Nos. 19, 21, 24 and 22, and I shall try not to be tempted to cover ground that I covered in exchanges with the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) because that would try your patience sorely, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Amendments 19, 21 and 24 are intended to highlight one major change to the Bill that has occurred during its passage. In Committee the Bill was effectively rewritten, and the sanction, instead of applying after two antisocial behaviour orders had been issued on a person—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) tries to intervene from a sedentary position. I am saying that the old Bill talked about two antisocial behaviour orders. It has been changed. In clause 1, the Government have introduced the link between the benefit sanction and a custodial sentence. Under clause 2, in civil proceedings the sanction will be triggered by some method of which we are not yet told, because those proceedings will be prescribed in due course in regulations.

Amendments Nos. 19, 21 and 24 are intended to challenge some of the thinking behind those amendments, particularly the linking of the sanction to the custodial sentence, which would introduce a double punishment. Once an offender's case has been heard, and he or she has been convicted of the crime that they were accused of, the court decides a punishment appropriate to the crime. Clause 1 seeks to add another punishment to that initial punishment. Although it may be related to the original offence—I wish to discuss that point in a second—it is a double punishment. That may well be a first in law, and to my knowledge it certainly is in benefit law, because other benefit sanctions have been introduced very differently.

The second aspect that really concerns me is what will happen as a result of the relating of the extra punishment to a benefit sanction. The consequence will be one of two

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things. The offender will either come out of prison with debts because his rent has not been paid during his time in prison—at least the 13 weeks in prison that it can currently be paid for—or come out without a home.

Either way—whether people come out of prison with increased debts or having lost their homes—the chance is that they will have no stable accommodation, as the opportunity to have stable accommodation will have been reduced. There can be no dispute about that fact because that is the Government's and, indeed, the Bill's original promoter's explicit aim, so there is no debate about that. My concern is what will happen as a result.

I should have thought that our policies—whether those for benefits or housing in general—should ensure that ex-convicts, people coming out of prison, have a good chance of getting stable accommodation. Why? Because a lot of the evidence shows that the risk of reoffending significantly increases when ex-convicts do not have access to accommodation.

1.30 pm

Government reports—particularly the social exclusion unit report, "Reducing re-offending by ex-prisoners", which was published this month—and a lot of other detailed work by Departments say that reducing reoffending is one of the Government's key targets. The Government say that reoffending is a major problem and that they wish to stop the vicious cycle of crime, which can add to the prison population.

Page 3 of the Prime Minister's foreword to that report says:

So the Bill, which deliberately sets out to penalise offenders by reducing housing benefits, goes exactly against what the Prime Minister said in a report published this month. I find it quite bizarre that we are debating the Bill given that the Government say that they are in favour of joined-up government.

Having stable accommodation for ex-offenders has been shown to reduce the risk of reoffending by a fifth—a significant amount. If we could ensure that all prisoners have access to stable accommodation when they finish spending time at Her Majesty's pleasure, we would significantly reduce crime. That is what the evidence shows. The Bill, particularly clause 1, goes in exactly the opposite direction.

A third of prisoners already lose their homes while in prison. That comes from recent Home Office research. The SEU report to which I have referred makes a number of recommendations to try to improve that figure, including changes to the housing benefit administration regime, which go in exactly the opposite direction to the Bill.

The recent Home Office survey, "Jobs and homes—a survey of prisoners nearing release", says that

Clearly, the Prison Service and Her Majesty's Government have a lot more to do to tackle that aspect of reoffending. I cannot believe for a minute that they welcome the Bill because it would make that huge challenge far more difficult.

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I refer hon. Members to the details of the amendments in this group. If the amendments were accepted, they would at least mitigate some of the problems that I have identified. Amendment No. 19 would add another test: the court would have consider whether

That would ensure that, before making any declaration to trigger the benefits sanction, the court would have to consider the likelihood of such a sanction worsening the chances of reoffending. That is a sensible thing for the courts to have to consider, as the criminal justice system plays its full part in trying to reduce reoffending.

Amendment No. 21 has a similar effect, but it amends clause 2 and would attempt to ensure that the civil courts were satisfied that there would be no increase in the likelihood of reoffending.

Amendment No. 24 would apply at another stage. As it amends clause 3, it relates not to the court stage but to the stage when the Secretary of State would apply the benefit sanction. Before clause 3(1) kicked in, therefore, the Secretary of State would be required to review all the evidence as to the likelihood of the offender reoffending as a direct result of the benefit reduction. It is therefore very specific and targeted. It would require the Secretary of State not just to review the evidence but to state that, in his opinion, the benefit reduction does not increase that likelihood.

I cannot see how the Minister could reject such an amendment. Given that his boss, the Prime Minister, stated this month in the publication from which I quoted that the Government's express aim is to reduce reoffending, and given that that document refers at length to the importance of improving the housing opportunities of people released from prison, the tests that I seek to add to the Bill are very mild, both for the court and the Secretary of State. I would therefore be extremely surprised if the Minister were to reject them.

Amendment No. 22 states:

The reason I have tabled that amendment is that people over the age of 65 need extra protection from the penal sanctions in the Bill. The Minister said in Committee that a hardship regime will be introduced, although we have not had any description of that hardship regime in any shape or form. Amendment No. 22, however, would at least ensure that pensioners over the age of 65—who could still be hit by those benefit sanctions, as I am sure the Minister would agree—would be subject to an extra test that the courts would have to consider. That can only be right.

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