Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill

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Mr. Clappison: I apprehend that the Minister may be approaching the conclusion of his remarks. I am grateful for his generosity in accepting that it is less than ideal that the Government amendments have not been tabled. I do not want to go into that in too much detail, but I needed to place it on the record from the point of view of the Opposition.

Given what has failed to happen so far, the technical issues relating to the Bill—the Minister has gone into them with some care—and the fact that the Government are to propose amendments that will extensively redraft the Bill and in many ways create a new one, will the hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that those amendments will be tabled in good time before the Committee reconvenes? That would enable the Opposition and other members of the Committee to consider the amendments, digest some of the issues that the Minister has talked about, table our own amendments and have the right debates in Committee.

We are asking not for a tremendous amount of time, just for a reasonable amount. The Government amendments should not be tabled at the very last minute to prevent the Opposition or anyone else from having a careful think about them and tabling their own amendments.

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10.45 am

Malcolm Wicks: The hon. Gentleman has spoken perfectly reasonably and made a perfectly reasonable request. All I can say is that I will do my best. The timing of the legislation is not of the Government's choosing as it is not a Government Bill but a private Member's Bill. If it had been Government legislation, we would have had the considerable amount of time required to seek legal advice and frame appropriate amendments.

Mr. Field rose—

Malcolm Wicks: My right hon. Friend is about to agree with me.

Mr. Field: I was going to agree that my hon. Friend has had a reasonable amount of time.

Malcolm Wicks: Recently there was some rather silly controversy about my Department having a list of friendly Members of Parliament. I must look to see whether my right hon. Friend is on that list or a different one. It does not exist, by the way—or if it does, it is called ''Dod's''.

Mr. Field: Much more interesting than which list I am on would be which list my hon. Friend was on when he was in opposition.

Malcolm Wicks: I think that we should proceed.

I will do my best. Because the timing of the Bill is not of our choosing, we have proceeded with some speed, although we were still not able to table amendments for today. My ministerial colleagues and I need time to frame amendments extremely carefully. That is the difficulty, but I take note of what the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) said, and I am sure that the Committee shares his view.

In conclusion, I hope that I have helped the Committee by clarifying the Government's position. I have been enabled to do so early in our proceedings by our late decision to debate having further sittings. I reaffirm our intention to table amendments. We need to find robust and workable ways to achieve our objective, and I welcome the debate that we shall have this morning, as it will give us in government an opportunity to listen to the arguments on an important but most complex issue.

Most of us share the feeling that our welfare state needs to be underpinned again—it was originally—by a proper balance of people's rights and duties. Perhaps we have neglected that debate for too long. Certainly, we have neglected to translate rhetoric about citizenship into workable legislation, which is the task before the Committee.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): I begin by welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. O'Hara.

I welcome the Minister's statement. As I have considered the Bill and talked to those who specialise in the subject, I have become increasingly concerned that it goes far too far. The Minister suggested that the Committee would need to consider the trigger and the sanction, saying that rather than abolish rights to housing benefit, the benefit should be reduced. In making such suggestions, he went some way towards answering the concerns that have been expressed.

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As the hon. Member for Hertsmere said, it is vital that we see the Government amendments as soon as possible so that those who would have to implement the Bill in our communities can work out whether they believe it to be workable. More importantly, they need to work out whether the regime that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead proposes and that the Committee will scrutinise would meet his objectives. Some of the concerns that I have heard suggest that the Bill could not only be unworkable and harmful, but aggravate antisocial behaviour. On Second Reading, there was agreement from both sides of the House that antisocial behaviour was a major problem in our communities. The last thing that Parliament needs to do is to pass legislation that will aggravate it.

We need to be exceedingly clear, which is why I said on Second Reading that we wanted to ensure that the Bill was

    ''targeted at exactly the right problem''.

I said:

    ''I submit to the House that it will require full, and not necessarily expeditious, scrutiny to ensure that it tackles the offence.''—[Official Report, 19 April 2002; Vol. 383, c. 880.]

I therefore welcome the idea that the full debate will take place later, perhaps in July. We might have to extend it beyond that date, possibly even past the summer recess, to ensure that the details are worked through. The Bill represents a substantial change if one considers the number of people on housing benefit and the extent of the problem; it could have a huge effect. We must ensure that when we have seen the Government's proposed amendments and debated them, we end up with the right legislation for the problem.

As the Minister said, the Government are taking a range of actions following the social exclusion unit's 2000 report. We all hope that the development of ASBOs and the measures in the Police Reform Bill will go some way to making such action more effective. Like a number of other local authorities, the borough of Kingston has developed acceptable behaviour contracts following previous legislation. Those are beginning to have an effect. While there are a number of measures that relate to people who behave in an unacceptable way—measures concerning enforcement, prevention and resettlement—we should be careful that we do not hastily enact legislation that could make vulnerable people destitute. We should remember that.

It is easy to say to constituents whose liberties and freedoms are severely affected by the behaviour of people who act antisocially that we will do something—that we will take away such people's benefits; but if we realise that the consequences of doing that are people on the streets and children living in poverty or taken into care, we might want to think again. We should consider more than human rights issues, although the Minister was right to pay attention to them; we should ask ourselves whether we are taking society forward. Many of those who act antisocially could be turned from their behaviour through engagement and support, and we must ensure that measures to enable that to happen are also in

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place. Assistance should be available as well as enforcement measures.

I am delighted that the sittings motion has been moved, and I look forward to seeing the Government amendments as soon as possible. I hope that when we debate them, we shall have an idea of subsistence levels of benefit and of income, so that whatever measures we alight on to penalise people whose behaviour is antisocial, we do not drive them below those levels.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. O'Hara, not least because I know that you have great knowledge of the subjects under discussion.

It is appropriate that I follow the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), because the borough of Knowsley is one of the poorest in Britain and his borough, Kingston, is one of the richest. That might explain why some of us feel more strongly than others about this issue. I support the sittings motion moved by my right hon. Friend, the Member for Birkenhead, as it would give the Government the opportunity to table amendments. I agree with the hon. Member for Hertsmere that we need time to digest the meaning of those amendments and to take a considered view, rather than to take Hobson's choice on the day.

None the less, I remain somewhat perturbed, and now seems to be an appropriate time to give notice to my hon. Friend the Minister. Although he supports the purposes of the Bill, he seems to be concerned about the means of delivering them. In particular, I am worried that he places great emphasis on reduction—a word that he used repeatedly—of housing benefit, rather than its withdrawal.

If the Bill is to be targeted and effective it must do two things. First, it must act as a warning to those families who might step over the line, telling them that the withdrawal or reduction of benefit is possible. In that sense, a reduction might be a workable alternative. However, the Bill has a second purpose. Those who, day in, day out, have to put up with antisocial behaviour of the most outrageous kind, which is what many of our constituents fear, should have the right to expect that such people will be removed. The problem with reduction is that finding only £25 a week means that those people can stay put, whereas having to find the whole of the rent would mean that they could not stay put. I am therefore reluctant to support any move in the direction suggested by my hon. Friend the Minister, because it would render the Bill ineffective.

Mr. Davey: Will the hon. Gentleman say whereabouts in the Bill it says to where such residents should be removed?

Mr. Howarth: The hon. Gentleman must have had his head under the table. The Bill does not mention that; it refers to the removal of housing benefit. The argument that I am developing is that most of the families who might be so affected would not be able find the whole of the rent from their own resources. They would therefore have to go.

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