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Ms Buck: My right hon. Friend has been generous in giving way.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady must remember to address the Chair.
Ms Buck: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My local authority has also been slow in introducing antisocial behaviour orders. The primary problem is obtaining witness statements that are sufficient to enable the police and the local authority to take action. It is difficult to persuade members of the community to give evidence. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is the principal reason for the slowness of ASBOs?
Mr. Field: Indeed. When preparing for the debate, I asked our local authority, Wirral, to give me all its papers on taking four families in my constituencythe figure will be low in most constituenciesto court. A single parent who has been smashed in the face, pushed over and had her house wrecked by the family next door, is the only person under pensionable age who is appearing before the courts to give evidence, even though the family next door has threatened to kill her if she goes to court. That makes laughable the Liberal Democrat amendment to protect those over 65 and ensure that the Bill does not sanction them. In Birkenhead, and, I guess, even in Surbiton, the bravest people, who are prepared to go to court, stand up, and be seen and known by the thugs are pensioners. They feel that strongly about it.
My answer to the point about the difficulty of getting cases to court is that on the first occasion, the sanction is applied only against the head of the household for a part of that head of household's benefit. The difficulty of getting the case back into court if the behaviour remains unchanged will be considerable, but the fuller sanction will be applied only against the head of the household and not to the housing benefit for the whole household. I hope that by the end of the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon will feel that this aspect of the Bill has been explored effectively, and that further probing will take place when the Bill goes to the House of Lords.
Mr. Clappison: I shall be brief. The Conservatives welcome the Bill and want it to make progress because it deals with a serious issue for many of our constituents, that of antisocial behaviour by badly behaved neighbours.
With that in mind, I appeal to the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) to think again about his amendments. The Committee debated how long the prison sentence in respect of which the sanction would not apply should be, and the Minister told us that it was not appropriate in respect of longer sentences. The Committee accepted that. As for taking unspent convictions into account, the hon. Gentleman will see that the Bill catches antisocial behaviour on any occasion on which it arises. The legal definition of antisocial behaviour is the same as is used in other statutes. The message is clear: the Bill is designed to catch antisocial behaviour and to bring it to a halt.
As a result of amendments standing in the name of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and supported by the Conservatives that were accepted by the Committee, we now know how long the period of reduction of benefitthe disqualification periodwill be. It will be at least 26 weeks, which substantially strengthens the Bill. As for the question of hardship, I ask the hon. Member for Hendon to read the Committee debate on the provisions that were to be put in place to deal with that.
I understand the point of view being expressed by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), but have difficulty with his approach to the Bill. I wish that he would face up to the consequences of his arguments. When we debate disapplying provisions in the Bill for the over-65s, we are becoming somewhat fanciful. I do not know what sort of world he inhabits, but it appears to be full of Victor Meldrews on crack. In the real worldthe one inhabited by our constituentsthe over-65s are often the people who are affected by antisocial behaviour. As for their being made homeless, they will not be made homeless as a result of the Bill; what all too often makes the over-65s and many others homeless is their own decision to leave their homes because they can no longer endure the behaviour of people around them.
We want more measures to bring antisocial behaviour to a stop. People are crying out for assistancefor a measure that will end the behaviour that far too many people have to endure and that makes their life a torment. We appeal to the Liberal Democrats, even at this late stage, to face up to the consequences of their actions. They must realise that the Bill will help people, or at least acknowledge that their chosen approach will block a piece of legislation that would otherwise help many people whose lives have been made a misery by the antisocial behaviour of others. We want to stop that behaviour, they want it to be stopped, and I ask the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton not to continue his present course of trying to talk out a measure that many people want and that would help many people, including the elderly.
Malcolm Wicks: I am happy to be back in the Chamber discussing the Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) following an extensive series of debates in Committee. The Government fully support the Bill's objectives in preventing antisocial behaviour which, as some speakers today have said, blights the lives of so many of our constituents. We believe that it would make a valuable
Our priority has been to make the Bill workable and compatible with human rights legislation. We recognise the concerns that have been expressed urging caution but also the voices recommending a tougher approach. We believe that the Government amendments made in Committee strike the right balance.
I shall not try to respond to each of the amendments individually. They have a common theme in giving a greater role to the courts in deciding whether to apply a benefit sanction and considering the likely implications of any sanction. We would all agree with many of the objectives of the amendments, such as that of ensuring that sanctions are used in a fair and proportionate way, but as I explained in Committee, the Government's proposals will achieve those objectives by a different route and the approach suggested here is not compatible with the streamlined process that we introduced with the Government amendments.
We deliberately designed a procedure of court declarations that would sit on top of decisions that the courts already make. It will be a relatively quick and straightforward decision following a conviction or an order. The crucial factor under our approach is that the courts need consider only the nature of the behaviourthat is, was it antisocial or not? There is no need for them to know whether the person is on benefits, has other family members, has received previous declarations and so on.
In practice, the courts have no way of knowing many of those things. There is no ready mechanism for them to check whether someone is receiving housing benefit, or the details of their family. Equally, they may not know whether there has been a previous court declaration, especially if that declaration was made in a different type of court proceeding, either civil or criminal.
Requiring the courts to find out and take account of such factors would drastically increase the amount of work involved in making declarations. We believe that it would be disproportionate in relation to the objective and could risk disrupting the wider work of the criminal and civil justice systems. In a week when the Government have just published the criminal justice White Paper, that is an important factor to bear in mind.
For those reasons, we believe that the amendments would not work under our approach and that they are not necessary. The Government's plan is to set up a hardship scheme in the same way as for other benefit sanctions, taking account of the family circumstances at the point when the sanction is applied, and not just when the court is making a declaration. For example, it may be some time after the court hearing before a sanction is put in place, allowing time to cross-match declarations against housing benefit records. The composition of the household may have changed in that time.
The Government approach would be not only more streamlined and efficient but more responsive to family circumstances, and therefore more effective at preventing hardship as a result of benefit sanctions.
Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): To clarify how existing hardship provisions work, can the Minister tell meI
Malcolm Wicks: The purpose of the hardship regime is to take account of children and other factors such as a pregnancy. If the Bill is enacted, we will spell that out in secondary legislation and the House will be able to discuss it. We noted the hardship regime as one example of our approach, but we will need to take expert advice and make specific proposals in Committee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) asked about prison sentences. There is clearly no exact science, but the Government think that there should be a cut-off point to exclude long prison sentences. The question is where to set it, and that is a matter of judgment. We feel that a year is about right. In practice, that means that anyone who served longer than six months would be excluded. With shorter prison sentences, there is perhaps less distinction between offenders sent to prison and those given alternative punishments. Exempting shorter sentences might create a more arbitrary cut-off, whereby people who carried out similar kinds of antisocial behaviour were treated differently under the Bill. That is the thinking behind our approach to this issue.