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2.15 pm

The Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead is a very important one that has been welcomed by many people on both sides of the House. As he noted, increasing numbers of such cases are brought to us in our constituency advice surgeries, and I am afraid that my own constituency of Croydon, North is not exempt from such bad behaviour. My constituency notes show instances of people being verbally threatened, and doors being kicked and bashed in order to frighten residents. In one case, a saw was held to a woman's neck and she was racially abused, and in another a blowtorch was used through a neighbour's letterbox. A woman who asked that a dog stop barking incessantly was attacked with a knife. In a further case, a radio was left on constantly, not tuned in to any particular channel, with the windows left open. There was also an instance of dog faeces being put through a letter-box.

In one case that I personally recall—it is particularly relevant to the debate—a woman and her children had to flee their own house because of antisocial behaviour, a form of self-eviction over which she had no choice. When I hear the Liberal Democrats talk about the terrible plight of those who might be evicted if they continue in their antisocial behaviour and sanctions are stepped up, I wonder why they do not recognise—as the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) recognised—that in effect, many decent, honest people are evicted because of such behaviour. That is an important point.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): As my hon. Friend knows, as a council leader I employed private detectives to ensure that evidence was submitted to enable the eviction of unruly tenants. Does he agree, however, that the purpose of housing benefit is to enable those on low incomes to pay for their housing, and that it is not a tool for other policy objectives? Those who are rich will have no sanction against them, and the danger is that this Bill

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will be seen as evidence that those who do not behave themselves might lose their home—unless, that is, they are well off.

Malcolm Wicks: We have stressed that there are different weapons in the armoury, some of which I have noted. For example, owner-occupiers can also be antisocial, and hopefully antisocial behaviour orders will apply in their case. However, I would find it difficult to explain to those of my Croydon constituents who are being abused and harassed why that is happening, and why those responsible are having their rent paid by the rest of the community. If we are to turn the decent rhetoric of rights and duties into practical social policies, we have to get real and get tough where appropriate—not for the sake of being macho, but for the sake of the decent people in our constituencies who form the great majority.

We dealt with these matters in great detail in Committee, and as I pointed out, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) chose—sadly—to hog the discussion for various purposes, but mainly to hold up the Bill's progress. That showed great discourtesy to those Conservative and Labour Members who wanted to make proper contributions to the debate—including, no doubt, some challenging questions for me in my role as the Minister tabling amendments. I recall that the Chairman of the Standing Committee urged the hon. Gentleman on several occasions—some 15 times in respect of the first group of amendments—to make progress. That shows the real concern that exists about such bad behaviour in Committee. The Liberal Democrats' sole purpose—[Interruption.] They are muttering because they are embarrassed. Their sole purpose was to oppose the Bill as amended by the Government. They opposed the idea of an additional useful, and perhaps minor, weapon in the armoury against antisocial behaviour.

I find that approach troublesome, because it would have been good if we could have returned to our constituencies tonight and—in my advice surgery this evening, for example—reassured our constituents that Parliament was taking their views seriously and had now sent to the House of Lords a serious measure that had been usefully amended. Sadly, that may not be possible now because of the tactics of the Liberal Democrats.

In drawing my remarks on the amendments to a conclusion, it is not unfair for me to say that in our constituencies, whether those be in Croydon or Surbiton, it will be the abusers, the bullies, the harassers and the thugs who will be pleased by the Liberal Democrats' performance both today and in Committee. That is not just political rhetoric; I say it with more sorrow than anger.

The Liberal Democrats' political tactics on the Bill will come back to haunt them. This must be the first case in our democracy of Liberals writing the manifestos of their political opponents for the next general election. The people who are crying out for decent social policy and decent law to stem the tide of antisocial behaviour will be aghast at their tactics today.

Mr. Webb: Faced with a bad Bill, we have a duty to scrutinise it and, if it should come to a vote, to oppose it. We make no apology for that, because we would be doing the victims of antisocial behaviour no service by passing bad legislation that will make a bad problem worse.

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Our amendment No. 19 says that a court should make a declaration and pave the way for cutting housing benefit only if it is convinced that doing so will not lead to further reoffending. How can anyone oppose that? If the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, (Mr. Field) is so confident that his measure will reduce antisocial behaviour, he should also be confident that that test would always be passed. If it were, the courts would always make the declarations and we would not have stopped the process. Our amendment would bite only if a court of law—which would presumably be on the side of justice rather than on the side of the offender—thought that the declaration would not help to reduce reoffending. In that case the declaration should certainly be stopped, so what could possibly be wrong with the amendment?

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the fear and worry caused by the prospect of losing their home would be likely to stop people reoffending?

Mr. Webb: I do not deny for a moment that some individuals might be affected by that threat, but others will carry on regardless. They may be pushed from one neighbourhood to another, causing mayhem wherever they go. Critically, that might undermine attempts to make them less likely to reoffend. For example, the evidence suggests that antisocial behaviour is often linked with the abuse of drugs and alcohol. How are the support services ever to solve those problems if we keep shunting people from one place to another? That simply mucks up the support services and wrecks any chance those people may have of building up a relationship with the professionals who might have been able to help to solve their problems.

It is no good Members of Parliament pretending that some of us are the good guys and the others are the bad guys. We are all against antisocial behaviour—but we oppose a Bill that will make matters worse, and is not on the side of the victims.

Mr. Frank Field: Why does the hon. Gentleman say that the Bill will make matters worse, when his hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) said that no matters would ever be referred to the courts? Either one Liberal Democrat is right or the other is; they cannot both be right.

Mr. Webb: The right hon. Gentleman must have misheard my hon. Friend; that is not what I understood him to say.

Lawrie Quinn: The hon. Gentleman mentioned the migration problem when people are moved from one neighbourhood to another. Does he realise that the movement of people from one seaside resort to another is now being encouraged by absentee landlords who are trying to milk the system? What answer does he have for my constituents who have asked me to come here today and support the Bill? What does he think I should tell them?

Mr. Webb: The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly fair point. As he has discovered from earlier interventions, the parts of the Bill that deal with landlords have been removed, so nothing in the Bill deals with the point that he makes. However, a document from the former

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Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions on tackling antisocial tenants makes proposals that would help deal with landlords who do not take their responsibilities seriously.

Mr. Field: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Webb: I should like to pick up on one of the Minister's points, if I may. The hon. Gentleman made a perfectly fair point about the relative merits of our amendment as against other ways of assessing whether these measures would lead to more or less antisocial behaviour. He said that the court should not make this decision because there would be an administrative cost in getting all the information that it needed, which would slow the court down, but he did not say who would take the decision. The Secretary of State and his representatives decide whether taking this action is likely to reduce reoffending, but are we talking about a housing benefit officer or someone representing the Secretary of State?

Malcolm Wicks indicated dissent.

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