Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill

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Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): May I say how much I welcome the amendment? Since the Committee's first sitting, I have had the opportunity to read all the evidence relating to people in Wirral who are going before the courts charged with disorder. They are the people who would be affected by the Bill. One noticeable characteristic is that there are whole families on the charge sheets, and everyone in the family is cited in court.

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Although I sympathise with the Government, I want to keep the machinery of the Bill as simple as possible. Out there in the real world, not only tenants but whole households—every member of a household—are cited in proceedings. The whole household is considered dysfunctional, and it is families that neighbours and the police take to court.

Mr. Clappison: The right hon. Gentleman mentions his experiences in Wirral. Committee members will remember that during the Committee's first sitting I said a little about my constituency, which certainly has such problems. I received a letter in my postbag just this week from a constituent who has suffered the problem of antisocial behaviour. I shall not identify the person concerned, but shall quote his letter:

    ''Following months of being terrorised by thugs, who threw eggs and stones at our house on a regular basis, the police actually arrested the main offending youth, who I identified on the same evening. The police informed us that they would return the following day to take footprint samples from a neighbour's front door, who had also been victimised by the same youths. The arresting officer stated that they would 'throw the book at him' for terrorising the neighbourhood for months. The police failed to return to take these forensic samples and subsequently, could only charge the youth for racial harassment for throwing a stone at my wife and calling her''—

two expletives deleted—my constituent writes: ''please forgive the phrase''.

That is the sort of behaviour that my constituents have to put up with. From the description that my constituent gives of the youths who are doing such things in his neighbourhood, it appears highly unlikely that they would be the recipients of housing benefit as tenants of a property; however, it is likely that they are living with someone who is. It is to cover that sort of case that we think that the amendment should be considered.

Mr. Davey: I understand the point that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead and the hon. Member for Hertsmere make. Is the hon. Gentleman concerned that innocent members of the family who had not undertaken any antisocial behaviour might be hit by the benefits sanction? How does he think that we Members of Parliament should protect those people?

Mr. Clappison: If the hon. Gentleman were listening a moment ago, he would have heard me refer to a discretionary power to take away housing benefit. He has made his point; will he now consider innocent people who have to live nearby in such circumstances, and who as things stand would have to endure being terrorised by hooligans without there being any possibility of those hooligans' housing benefit being taken away? Such hooligans would stay where they live with impunity, as far as housing benefit is concerned. He must think about those points. We propose a discretionary power in the hope that it will cater for that sort of problem, but we must also be alert to the plight of those who suffer at the hands of youths and other people who cause such problems in their neighbourhoods.

It is important to bring individuals who live in the household of tenants within the framework of these provisions. If we do not do that a lot of antisocial behaviour will be outside the scope of the Bill. A tenant might allow antisocial members of his family or other individuals to live in his home; he might be fully

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aware of what they were getting up to—he might be told about what they were doing—but nothing would happen to his housing benefit, even if they were to do it time and again. That is the other side of the coin, and the Liberal Democrat spokesman must address that. This is an important issue, and if it is not tackled, the original proposal of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead will not bite against antisocial behaviour as hon. Members believed it would.

I turn to proposed new subsection (1B). The original Bill provides for housing benefit to be withheld if someone engages in antisocial behaviour. The Government intend that the primary sanction for antisocial behaviour will be a reduction in benefits, and the commentary sets out in detail the extent of that reduction. We are told that the amendments give the power to withdraw almost the entire benefit for up to a year, although the Government say,

    ''that this would only be used for particularly persistent anti-social behaviour. It would also be underpinned by a hardship regime.''

The details of the withdrawal of benefit for persistent antisocial behaviour are not explicitly expressed in the Government's new clauses—nor is the hardship regime, although we might be taken through that in due course.

The new clauses give the Government a broad power to prescribe the amount by which benefits will be reduced and to make regulations as to how long they will be reduced for. The commentary on the amendments state:

    ''The Government's intention is that the regulations would broadly follow the pattern of current benefit sanctions. It is likely that progressively stricter sanctions would be imposed if people received further court declarations''.

If somebody receives many declarations of antisocial behaviour, we are told that:

    ''A second declaration within a three-year period might lead to a 13-week sanction. A third or fourth declaration could lead to 26-week and 1-year sanctions.

    It is also possible that the sanction could involve reducing the benefit down to a nominal amount.''

It is necessary to look closely at these Government proposals. They have been modelled on other benefit sanctions, but they address a special situation—antisocial behaviour that involves people who have suffered at the hands of perpetrators, and where there has been a criminal conviction or a civil finding as a result of the behaviour. We wonder whether the lengthily progressive approach that the Government appear to be contemplating is appropriate in those circumstances.

Existing benefit sanctions relate to different circumstances, such as failing to turn up to work or to do work properly. The Bill's provisions deal with antisocial behaviour that involves other people. Neighbours will be very frustrated and annoyed if such behaviour goes on and on. Innocent members of the public who suffer from such behaviour sometimes feel additionally aggrieved when it carries on happening, the legal processes seem to be taking a long time, and not much is achieved on the first occasion on which the matter is addressed. They think

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not only that they are the victims of antisocial behaviour, but that the law is not doing much about that. People find that if processes go on and on, additional grievance or frustration is added to the problems that gave rise to the court processes. We wonder whether it would be better to make the provision crisper and clearer, and to prevent neighbours requiring three or four declarations of antisocial behaviour before something significant happens.

The amendment would allow housing benefit to be withheld after a second episode of antisocial behaviour within three years. I hope that even the Liberal Democrat spokesman will agree that if people have one declaration of antisocial behaviour that resulted in a criminal conviction or civil fine, they are on notice and should behave. We should take a suitably robust line in respect of such people, and we want the provision to be explicit in the Bill. It would be in line with the intentions of the original Bill and it would be underpinned by the hardship regime to which the Government amendments refer. There would be no question of hardship because that regime would underpin a person who faced losing benefit due to a second episode of antisocial behaviour within three years.

I turn to amendment (b) to Government new clause 5, which is at the foot of page 1773 of the amendment paper. The amendment is in a similar vein to the previous amendments and deals with the length of the disqualification period—the period for which a person should lose benefits. Government new clause 5(7) states:

    '' 'disqualification period' means such period, not exceeding 52 weeks, as may be determined by or in accordance with regulations made by the Secretary of State.''

The only stipulation is that benefits may not be withdrawn for more than one year. However, no minimum period for which benefits will be reduced or withheld is set.

The Government's commentary on their proposals states:

    ''the sanction after a first declaration might be a reduction in benefit for a month.''

Does that reduction send a clear enough message to the perpetrators of antisocial behaviour? We wonder whether something more significant should happen at that stage in order to send out the clear message that something serious is occurring.

The proposal in the amendment is for minimum reduction in benefit for 13 weeks, rather than one month, following a first offence. If memory serves, 13 weeks is used in the Government's provisions for loss of benefit after repeated social security fraud. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I remember participating in the debate on that. I do not understand why the time period for the housing benefit sanction should not be 13 weeks.

The danger of withdrawing benefit for only a month is that it is not a significant measure and it would not be taken seriously enough. We all know from everyday life that there are risks if penalties are not significant

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enough in the first instance, because that leads people to believe that they can commit an offence again and nothing significant will happen. A clear message should be sent at the outset that antisocial behaviour will result in the loss of benefit for a more significant period.

I am grateful to hon. Members for the patient way in which they have listened. I hope that I have made myself clear enough, although I probably have not—I shall speak again later if necessary. I pay tribute to the way in which the Committee's business has been organised, which has been necessary given all the technicalities. The amendments I have spoken to would do much to improve the Government new clauses.

9.30 am

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