Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill

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Mr. Howarth: From listening carefully to my hon. Friend's response of a few moments ago, I gained the impression that he believes that the best way to deal with those problems is by enforcing tenancy conditions. Most local authorities and housing associations are aware of the problems and use tenancy conditions in the way that he described. However, an increasing problem in my constituency is that private landlords do not care about tenancy conditions: provided that their property is not being wrecked—even that does not appear to bother some of them very much—and the rent is being paid through housing benefit, they are not bothered. There is no way to attack that problem other than through the housing benefit system.

Malcolm Wicks: I shall address those remarks a little later. Issues relating to private landlords are covered in another clause and there will be a chance to discuss them, but towards the end of my remarks today, I shall touch on the issue that my hon. Friend raises.

Mr. Field: My hon. Friend says that the measures will be underpinned by a hardship regime, but some of us are worried that it will be underpinned by an anti-

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hardship regime. If the measure is to be effective, economic sanctions must be taken. When he deals with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), will the Minister bear in mind that we are discussing not the generality of problems, but the most extreme examples—cases in which we have gone through all the stages of trying to change a person's behaviour?

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It was with that in mind that a leading member of the hard left commenting on the Bill said that although, in his view, we should not take away the whole benefit, it was important to have a sanction that pushed people into less desirable accommodation as a way of trying to convince them that their behaviour would not be tolerated. Will my hon. Friend the Minister bear that in mind when he addresses the points made by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) at the end of his remarks?

Malcolm Wicks: We thought it helpful to put a little flesh on the bones of the primary legislative intention—to be illustrative—in our explanatory memorandum. I have made the point that we want to listen to what the Committee and Parliament say during the proceedings on the Bill. We have some time to discuss the matter, which will be dealt with in regulations, and it is important that we listen and get the balance right.

I am conscious that some Committee members might find our approach insufficiently robust. The interventions have confirmed that that is so, and I understand the feeling. I hope that those hon. Members will be pleased to learn that we plan to trigger a sanction after a first court decision rather than only after a second one, which I think was the original intention of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead. If our approach is to be robust we must have, if not an eviction as such, at least a warning shot to try to get people to behave properly. I do not think that we should give up on the possibility that some people will start to behave properly after a first warning shot. We think it appropriate to trigger a sanction after a first court decision, although I imagine that some people might find that controversial.

Mr. Davey: The Minister has moved on rather more quickly than I expected. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead invited him to conclude his answer to my intervention and I was hoping that he would. I want to go back to the question of whether the hardship regime that the Minister has described will be there to prevent eviction—the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East wants to ensure that it is not. Will the Minister say whether the hardship regime is there to prevent eviction entirely, or will it be designed only to deal with children and other vulnerable members of the family?

Malcolm Wicks: It is there to prevent hardship, for example, where there are children or a family member is pregnant. The purpose of a hardship regime is to safeguard financial interests.

Mr. Davey: Will the Minister give way?

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Malcolm Wicks: Before the hon. Gentleman accuses me of moving on too quickly, even though I seem to have been in a legislative traffic jam for 20 minutes, I will give way to him, but I put it to him that it would help if I could make progress at some stage.

Mr. Davey: I hope that this will be the last time I ask the Minister to give way on this point. That little exchange has helped me to get to the question that I wanted to ask him, which I addressed to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead in our first sitting. What do the Government think should happen if a tenant is evicted? Will the Minister explain where the family might then go? What guidance will the Government's issue to local authorities be on how to deal with such evicted tenants?

Malcolm Wicks: As I will say later, there has been consultation on those matters. An interesting Scottish practice is proposed; I do not know if anyone will inform us about that during the Committee. I talked, half-jokingly, about how the middle is a dangerous place to be, but that is where we want to position ourselves. I put it to all hon. Members—including the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton—that in a middle way, we have to have regard to all sorts of things, including workability, process, the welfare of children, and so on. That is very important to our deliberations. However, if we are concerned only about those matters, we neglect the purpose of the Bill, which is to pit against the thug and the lout not the major weapon in our armoury, but a new weapon—one that is workable. At some stage, the Liberal Democrats have to decide whether they are with us or against us in our quest to root out antisocial behaviour.

Triggering a sanction after a first court decision, rather than a second, is important, as it will have a wider and more immediate effect of deterring people from antisocial behaviour than waiting until two cases have been brought to the court. In that sense, we are proposing to strengthen the proposals made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead. As I have said, we propose to set the initial sanction at a relatively low level—we will listen to others' views on that—but that sanction will act as a sort of warning shot on the first offence.

Although my right hon. Friend is right to say that we are concerned about those who are the worst proponents of antisocial behaviour, it is important that when people come to court charged with vandalism or some other offence, they are told that that constitutes antisocial behaviour in the neighbourhood—if the court so decides—and that alongside the sentence from the criminal or civil court, there will be a sanction on housing benefit. In that way, people understand that we will no longer tolerate the rest of the community paying their rent while they behave in an outrageous way. The first strike is very important in terms of deterring people from ever committing a second offence. If they do reoffend after such a warning, it seems reasonable that the sanctions become greater.

Mr. Field: When the Government consider the level at which the first sanction should be set, will the Minister bear in mind the important points made by

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my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East? Many tenants are in the private sector, and if a sanction lasts only for a month, many landlords will ride that out. If the sanction lasted for three months in the first instance, it will be noticeable in their cash flow. They might decide to put the desired pressure to behave better on their tenants if they feel that there is some sanction on their bank account. They might not do that if the sanction only lasts for a month.

Malcolm Wicks: Those are points we listen to, and in a few moments I shall move on to the Government's position on some of the issues relating to tenancies.

A further difference from the original version of the Bill is that the Government amendments would only apply when the benefit claimant has acted antisocially. They would not cover antisocial behaviour carried out by other family members. I recognise that that is a weakness in our amendments. It is the reason why I describe our amendments as providing a weapon in the armoury against the antisocial person, but not the main weapon. I recognise the difficulties that we face and I want to explain our position.

Our starting point is that it would be unfair to sanction claimants for someone else's behaviour unless they had been given their chance to put their case before the court. There would need to be a decision that the claimant was in some way responsible for allowing or condoning the antisocial behaviour. It is theoretically possible to allow that to happen. Tenants may be evicted because of antisocial behaviour by a family member, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead reminded us. The difference is that eviction is a stand-alone procedure and the tenant has the full right to make representations.

Our amendments have been designed to provide a relatively streamlined process that sits on top of decisions that the courts are already making. We do not believe that it would be possible at the moment to add procedures to give a right of hearing to a claimant without creating substantial new work for the courts. We have had to confront a practical issue. However, we do not believe that that weakens the overall effect of the policy. There are many other strands to the Government's strategy on antisocial behaviour and we would never maintain that the Bill is a comprehensive solution.

The amendments do not provide a specific sanction for landlords. I know that that will disappoint my right hon. Friend, but we shall return to the matter on clause 2.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I want to be clear about the relationship—I asked about this during our previous sitting—between withdrawal of housing benefit and any other measures. I am thinking principally about antisocial behaviour orders. Could both measures work in tandem or would one almost certainly exclude the other? It is important to know that. I do not want to labour the point, but one of the disappointments has been the degree to which local authorities have failed to take up ASBOs. Does the

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Bill provide a additional route, or a belt and braces in that both measures could be taken? I would welcome clarification.

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