Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill

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Mr. Field: Mr. O'Hara, I assumed that there was such universal agreement in welcoming you to the Chair that I need not begin my initial speech by doing so. I now make amends by welcoming you to the Chair. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East, you have much experience of the issues that we are debating and many thoughts on the subject.

Today's events provide a good example of every black lining having a silver cloud, or every silver lining having a black cloud. The Government's inability to table amendments in the allotted time has allowed us on the sittings motion to debate the nature of the Bill, and that has revealed differences between hon. Members.

We are not dealing with a one-off measure. I want the Bill to be seen within the total framework of Government policies, but I do not think that my hon. Friend the Minister stressed enough how new the political territory is that we are crossing. The politics of behaviour is the issue that will dominate this Parliament and the next, and our failure to deal with it in the past may mean that the debate forges new party loyalties. The old past loyalties are being replaced, but not by the third way, which was merely a convenient phrase used to shoehorn out a Government who had overstayed their welcome. The big divide will arise from the question of how to deal with people who behave in a totally unacceptable way in the public domain.

No hon. Member has claimed in conversation with their constituents that a panacea exists for the problem. We face a fundamental breakdown in our society because private virtues are no longer taught in an increasing number of families. Without those private virtues, which centre on self-restraint and self-control, many of us in the public domain cannot have a reasonable existence. How we deal with the breakdown of the teaching and transference of private virtue is a question that will occupy the time of most Government Departments and of the House and its Committees when they consider legislation. I have never tried to present the Bill as a panacea for the problem of noisy neighbours, let alone to the fundamental problem that something that we do not like is happening to our society.

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I welcome the moves that the Government have emphasised are important and the measures that they might introduce. The Bill represents not the first but the last step against those who behave unacceptably. There will be negotiations and warnings, and local authorities will try to build on the sort of success that Dundee council has had in negotiating people out of unacceptable behaviour.

An example of the divide that will be part of the new politics was revealed when my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton—I regard him as my hon. Friend—referred to ''vulnerable people''. No local authority will allow the measures to be applied against those who are mentally ill and who can rightly be called vulnerable. However, we must sadly accept that certain families are, to put it politely, nasty—or to put it as our constituents would, evil.

Such people are totally unrestrained by any of the civilising influences that we have tried to build up in this country over thousands of years. They do not comprise a large group—we are not talking about hoovering up every other person in problem areas. When I asked officers in Wirral, which covers four constituencies, how many families they would want to use the measure against, they said 15. Fifteen divided among four does not produce a large number, but as those officers said, being able to act would enable them to set a standard, so that other families who might join the 15 would see that life might not be so pleasant for them if they did.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton asked, rightly, where such families would go, but I do not care where they go, provided they stop tormenting and destroying the lives of my constituents. I hope that the Government will give careful consideration to the idea of enforcing model tenancy agreements—not just handing out pieces of paper, but really enforcing agreements by using sanctions—and that they will introduce proposals to allow local authorities to fast track evictions, so that they do not have to go through the current cumbersome procedure.

I also hope that in the new spending round local authorities who have the Surbiton spirit and do not believe in the old Elizabethan phrase, ''You should drive these people out of your constituency,'' will be given money to build indestructible sin bins, where families will remain until they learn to behave. That has been done in Germany, and it does change behaviour. There is plenty of land near to the motorway in Wallasey and Birkenhead where sin bins could be built, and we will apply to the Government for money to do that.

Mr. Davey: First, may I put on record the fact that Kingston and Surbiton contains several very poor areas where the problems that have been discussed in Committee can readily be seen? I share the Committee's concern that antisocial behaviour is a major problem in our society, but I want to focus on the question that the right hon. Gentleman says he does not care about, because we cannot ignore the answer to that question. He proposes sin bins, in

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which case we should be debating a Bill to introduce sin bins, not a Bill to withdraw benefits, because we have not answered the question, ''What happens then?''

Mr. Field: We are not even debating the Bill at the moment.

The idea of using sin bins has been put to the Government, and I hope that they will respond. We do not need legislation to build sin bins; we need the Government to grant local authorities money to build them. We need legislation to make the change to housing benefit that is proposed in the bill. The former is procedural, the latter legislative.

Mr. Howarth: One of the Bill's attractions is that it would allow benefit to be withdrawn irrespective of the landlord. In my experience, where the perpetrators of the problem are local authority tenants, the local authority will evict them even if doing so takes a while, but they cannot evict the tenants of private landlords. Most estates now include housing owned by private landlords, who, provided that the rent is paid—usually through the state—are not especially interested in the behaviour of their tenants.

Mr. Field: I very much agree. Applying the measure to landlords is important so that the public can see that it is even-handed. In Birkenhead, many private landlords do an extremely good job, but others have destabilised stable working-class communities by buying houses at auction, tarting them up, letting them to tenants and asking way above a reasonable rent for housing benefit. The tenant families get into debt, and by the time the landlords evict them they have done much to undermine the local stability that existed before the wretched process started.

Mr. Davey: I cannot resist replying to that point and to the one made by the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East. The Government are elsewhere proposing selective licensing by local authorities of private sector landlords to deal with the precise problem that the right hon. Gentleman describes. It is not that the Bill does not discriminate between different types of tenant, but that it discriminates against tenants by not covering antisocial behaviour by people who own their houses. There is discrimination, but it is of a type that stigmatises social tenants.

Mr. Field: I accept my hon. Friend's point. The Bill does not deal with everything. When an irate Labour voter from Fulham wrote to me and said that the Bill did not deal with the unacceptable behaviour of yuppies, I had to write back to say that, sadly, we do not have many yuppies in Birkenhead—or if we do, they are very well behaved. If I represented a seat where yuppies were causing a great deal of trouble, my duty as the local MP would have been to consider what legislative changes would be required to deal with them. I sent the correspondent to talk to his local MP and I await a Bill about yuppies.

However, we have to deal with the charge that what the Bill deals with is an attack on the poor. It represents a demand from the poor to control the

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unacceptable behaviour of people whom they do not want in their midst—not because they are uncharitable or unforgiving, but because any scrap of reasonable life has become impossible for them. As somebody with a bank balance, if I am up against it, I can move. Many of my constituents do not have bank balances: they are trapped by their circumstances. The Bill is a plea from the poorer areas of Birkenhead.

I am ashamed to be an MP when at public meeting after public meeting, I do not have answers for my constituents. When the role of the MP was different and people asked questions about housing, employment and social security, I could always give my constituents an answer, even if they did not like the one I gave. Now there are public meetings at which 200 or 300 people turn out at the drop of a hat to say how intolerable life has become because of the behaviour of perhaps only one family in the area, and I have to say that there is nothing much that we can do. Not one antisocial behaviour order has been issued in Birkenhead.

Before the 1997 election, I put to the Labour party the idea that, as parental authority collapsed, the local authority of the police should be reinforced and they should be allowed to impose penalty points. After that stage, the courts could automatically place restrictions on individuals. We did not go down that path; instead we went down the path of ASBOs. That is the one thing about we can get a public march in Birkenhead—there are people asking for antisocial behaviour orders to be issued, so they must believe that they work. Perhaps some groups can get their act together so that the problem can come before the courts. They do not believe that the orders are a panacea, but they might offer some respite.

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