Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill

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Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): Mr. O'Hara, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship on this fine and sunny morning. Such weather is uncharacteristic of recent experience.

I believe in making declarations at every possible opportunity and today I wish to declare that it seems that the parts of the Bill in which we are interested are to disappear. I want the Committee to proceed expeditiously. You have listed the amendments that have been tabled. We tabled amendments to the Bill as presented by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field); the Government have tabled amendments that would, in effect, rewrite the Bill, and we have tabled amendments to those Government amendments.

Although amendment No. 1 has been tabled by Conservative Members, I shall not be moving or speaking to it, nor to amendments Nos. 1, 4, 2 and 3 and new clauses 1 and 2, which relate to the Bill in its original form. It is better to deal with matters that we shall be debating today, which are the Government amendments. I shall be speaking to the three amendments to the Government new clauses that stand in my name and that of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead. Those are described on the selection list as amendment P(a) to Government new clause 3, and amendments P(a) and P(b) to Government new clause 5. The more I read the selection list, the more it reminds me of algebra lessons at school. I shall now kick off.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman has left us with a slight procedural difficulty. He has explained on which amendments he intends to concentrate, but we have the slight problem that, if amendment No. 1 is not moved, I cannot call it. I can call another.

Mr. Clappison: In that case, shall speak briefly to amendment No. 1.

Mr. Davey: On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and I, too, shall not speak to all the amendments that I tabled to the original clause 1. However, I shall speak to some of them because they raise general issues that need to be debated and have not been. The Minister's letter to you of Tuesday 9 July states:

    ''I hope that you will accept my apologies for this unavoidable delay''

in tabling amendments

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    ''and look sympathetically at any other amendments that will be consequently delayed.''

That suggests that the Government believe that they may need to table further amendments. I, too, believe that that is necessary. My intention in speaking to some of the amendments to the original clause 1 is to bring out some points that the Government must consider. They must table amendments to their own amendments to ensure that those points are dealt with in the Bill. I hope that that will be in order.

The Chairman: I take the point of order, but in fact that could have been dealt with in the hon. Gentleman's contribution.

Everyone is trying to be co-operative, and in that spirit of co-operation, we can overcome our little procedural difficulty. If amendment No. 1 were moved, we would be able to proceed with the debate. It can always be withdrawn later.

Mr. Clappison: Thank you for your guidance, Mr. O'Hara. I beg to move amendment No. 1. The Liberal Democrat spokesman must speak and make such points as he wants to make. The Bill is an important measure which will bring relief to many people who suffer from the problem of antisocial neighbours, and the hon. Gentleman must choose the course he wants to take. People who are affected by the problem will draw their own inferences.

The first amendment to Government new clause 3 is marked amendment (a). Committee members will find it on page 1171 of the amendment paper. It would remove subsection (1)(b). Under the Government's amendments, the procedure that leads to the loss of housing benefit is brought into action in the event of a conviction involving antisocial behaviour. Under new clause 3(1)(b), which sets out the mechanism that leads to the making of an antisocial behaviour declaration, convictions that result—

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

Mr. Clappison: Yes, but it might have helped if I had explained the amendment first.

Mr. Davey: I believe that I heard the hon. Gentleman say that the Government want to link withdrawal of or reduction in benefit to a conviction relating to antisocial behaviour. My understanding of new clause 3 is that the conviction could relate to many different types of offence, not just antisocial behaviour. Is that his understanding, too?

Mr. Clappison: I was trying to summarise. If the hon. Gentleman reads the Bill carefully—it might save time were he to do so—he will find that subsection (1) refers to

    ''on any occasion a person . . . is convicted of one of more offences by or before a court''.

Paragraph (b), to which the amendment relates, provides the qualification that

    ''a custodial sentence of a year or more is not imposed on the offender in respect of the conviction, or any of the convictions.''

The hon. Gentleman might read a little further on, to subsection (2), which states:

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    ''If it appears to the prosecutor that, by reason of any or all of the conduct giving rise to the conviction or convictions, the offender may have behaved in an anti-social manner, the prosecutor must notify the court to that effect.''

I believe that that answers his question, although he might want to ask further questions. I am explaining the Bill, but I shall give way to him if he wants to make another point.

Mr. Davey: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but perhaps the Minister is the person who should clarify the matter. From my reading of the notes and of new clause 3(2), the conviction may not be related to antisocial behaviour. It may be that such behaviour took place during the offence for which the person is being indicted. Antisocial behaviour may not be the offence for which the person is being convicted.

Mr. Clappison: I think that the new clause speaks for itself and I was trying to summarise it. There may have been antisocial behaviour in the offences that led to the conviction; if that is the view of the prosecutor, he seeks a declaration from the court. If the hon. Gentleman reads the rest of the clause, he will see that that is exactly what it says. I was trying to summarise the new clause, and I thought I gave a fair summary, but he will hear the Minister say what the Government's intentions are. My comments reflected my understanding of the subsection as drafted.

I have described the procedure leading to the loss of housing benefit. There is a trigger mechanism. In their commentary on the amendments, the Government tell us that that is intended to rule out serious crimes for which a benefit sanction is not appropriate. The hurdle is that the custodial sentence must be less than 12 months, and we would like to hear more about the rationale behind that. It seems that less serious offences of antisocial behaviour are included, but not more serious ones.

The new clause needs clarification, because it could give rise to perverse consequences. For example, we all agree that if a person assaults his neighbour, that constitutes antisocial behaviour—perhaps the Liberal Democrat spokesman does not agree, but I think that it is antisocial behaviour to assault one's neighbour. If that person receives a sentence of six or nine months imprisonment, he can lose his housing benefit as a result of the trigger mechanism coming into play and a declaration being sought by the prosecution; yet someone who commits a more serious assault on his neighbour and receives a sentence of 12 months or more does not run the risk of losing his benefit. We think that that is strange, and we would like to hear more about the reasoning behind it.

In practical terms, if someone goes up to his neighbour, gives him a black eye and gets six or nine months imprisonment, he faces the possibility of losing his housing benefit; but if he goes further, breaks his neighbour's nose and gets 18 months, he will not lose his housing benefit. We seem to be punishing less serious offences more seriously than serious ones. We would like to hear more from the Government about why it is necessary to have such a hurdle.

I now turn to the amendments to Government new clause 5. Amendment (a), which would insert new

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subsections (1A) and (1B), can be found on page 1173 of the amendment paper. It might assist the Committee if I say that this new clause relates to a different stage of the process—not the declaration, but who may be made subject to such a declaration. The purpose of the amendment is to allow us to debate one of the major changes that the Government propose to make to the framework of the Bill.

The Bill in its original form, which members of the Committee have before them, makes provision for housing benefit to be withheld as a result of

    ''the anti-social behaviour of any tenant or . . . any individual living with a tenant''.

The Government's amendment to new clause 5 would allow for housing benefit to be withdrawn only in the case of antisocial behaviour by the tenant—the person in receipt of housing benefit. That makes a big difference. Under new clause 5, housing benefit could not be withdrawn as a result of the antisocial behaviour of a person living with the tenant, which is a big change. The purpose of the amendment to the Government new clause is to enable us to debate and consider that, because we think that it is important.

In the commentary to their amendments, the Government say—although we will obviously hear more about the matter from the Minister—that they believe that

    ''it would be unfair to reduce a claimant's benefit because of anti-social behaviour by another household member, unless there was a procedure for the courts to rule that the claimant had been personally responsible for allowing or condoning the behaviour. But that would involve allowing the claimant the right to make representations to the court. It would make the decision to make a declaration of anti-social behaviour more lengthy and complicated: courts would be ruling about a claimant's responsibility rather than simply whether a person had acted in an anti-social manner. The Government would want to ensure that any new court procedures were not disproportionately complicated to administer.''

9.15 am

We think that the amendment to the Government new clause goes some way to meeting the Government's concerns, because it would allow discretion in taking away benefits in the case of antisocial behaviour committed by a person living with a tenant. As the Minister will be aware, under the proposals in Government new clauses 3 and 5, once a declaration of antisocial behaviour is made in respect of a tenant, housing benefit must be taken away from them; that is mandatory. The amendment would add a discretionary power to that mandatory power in the case of a person living with a tenant. We think that it is important to go down that road, because otherwise we are leaving out an awful lot of the antisocial behaviour afflicting people in neighbourhoods and estates across the country.

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Prepared 11 July 2002