Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill

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Malcolm Wicks: That is one intervention that comes in precisely the right place because of what I am about to say. My hon. Friend is helpful, as ever.

I am trying to emphasise that the Bill is just part of the Government's strategy on tackling antisocial behaviour. I believe that we should develop a wide-ranging strategy for a problem that is of increasing importance. Antisocial behaviour orders can be a very effective solution and the Home Office is taking steps to develop and extend the use of ASBOs. We all know from our communities that they have not been widely used: I think that they have been used in my borough only once, and my right hon. Friend said that they have never been used in Birkenhead. The Home Office recognises the problem and we intend to develop and extend use of the orders.

Several measures are available to landlords and local authorities, from acceptable behaviour contracts to court injunctions and, as a last resort, eviction.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling): The last couple of sentences are very important to our discussion this morning. I want to build on what my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said. The basic problem with antisocial behaviour orders, interim behaviour orders and so on is the reluctance of local authorities to use them. A plethora of measures and regulations are available but never used. I implore the Minister to recognise that if the Bill and other measures are to have credibility, people must believe that they will be implemented and used, and that there will be a consequence to their actions.

Malcolm Wicks: My hon. Friend's point is well made and my colleagues in the Home Office are fully aware of the problems, particularly with ASBOs, hence the drive to develop them effectively. Our underlying purpose is to ensure that the amendments work—I jested with my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead that our aim was to think the workable.

One reason why we would be reluctant to accept amendments—albeit well intentioned amendments—concerned with, for example, the welfare of children is because the introduction of discretion would mean that housing authorities or local authorities would have to weigh up such issues. The danger is that that would invariably ensure that the sanction was not used in practice.

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That is why we are trying to go for something that is simple and streamlined. Where a civil or criminal court decides following a conviction that there has been antisocial behaviour, the name of the person responsible will be kept on a register by my Department. Following a first strike, there will be a limited sanction, the details of which we need to discuss. The sanction is not discretionary and it will happen.

I do not want to draw too many comparisons because this is a different phenomenon, but practice in

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the Employment Service, which is now Jobcentre Plus, shows that sanctions against those who will not work despite opportunities to do so are effective because many thousands of people have found employment following the introduction of sanctions.

Mr. Drew: I shall pose another question that I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will find helpful. Schools are one area in which antisocial behaviour, whether it is truancy, misbehaviour or the behaviour of some parents when they enter school premises, is causing all of us difficulties. Would we define a local school, which may not be as local as some of us might want, to be part of the neighbourhood in which action could be taken? That would be an invaluable sanction that could enable teachers in particular to pass on information to allow action when either pupils or parents have misbehaved.

Malcolm Wicks: As my hon. Friend knows, we are restricting the sanction to actions in the neighbourhood. If someone is vandalising a car or a neighbour's house, or commits an offence in a local amenity, including a school, that should be part of the regime. It would be nonsense if the major institution on a housing estate were a local primary school and that sort of behaviour were not covered. We are trying to adopt the following procedure: after a conviction for an offence in a criminal or civil court, the prosecutor will ask the court to judge whether the offence constitutes antisocial behaviour under the new legislation, which will be for the court to decide. It is logical that if a school were intrinsic to a local community it would be covered. We are all concerned that our teachers are sometimes assaulted or verbally abused and that parents sometimes set a terrible example to their children, and those are active matters for debate within the Government.

What is now the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister issued a consultation paper, ''Tackling Anti-Social Tenants'', that suggests ways to improve on those policies. The consultation period ends tomorrow and there is still time for hon. Members to respond to it. The Government believe that the Bill could make a useful third strand to our existing strategy, which at present consists of antisocial behaviour orders and powers to deal with antisocial tenants in the public and privately rented sector.

The Government amendments will put the Bill into a workable shape but, before formally commending them to the Committee, I want to make a plea. We all have instincts about the Bill, but today's task is to translate those instincts, and our anger about what is happening in our communities, into something that is legal, compatible with human rights legislation and has proper regard for consequences for children. Courts, prosecutors and local authorities must be able to understand the Bill and it must work in the interest, which we all have, of turning our communities back into the civilised places that some of them are not at present because of the loutish behaviour of the few.

Mr. Davey: In speaking to the amendments tabled in my name, I preface my remarks with an answer to the hon. Member for Hertsmere. Slightly teasing me, I think, and anticipating that we would oppose the thrust of the Bill and the Government's new clauses,

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he implied that the Liberal Democrats, in stating that opposition, would have to say what we feel about antisocial behaviour and how we would tackle it. That was a fair point and I intend to do that.

I have many constituents who suffer the consequences of antisocial behaviour. They write to me or come to my advice sessions and I go and meet them. I have attended a number of public meetings that have shown that antisocial behaviour is a huge blight on parts of my constituency. I understand what happens. The incidence of such behaviour may not be so great in my constituency and may be much greater in those of other right hon. and hon. Members, but I do not want to leave the Committee in any doubt, such behaviour is a problem in my constituency.

Right hon. and hon. Members have been referring to me as the Member for Kingston, but I am the Member for Kingston and Surbiton. It is often thought that Surbiton is a leafy place. The image that people have of Surbiton is of that wonderful television programme, ''The Good Life'', which was supposed to be based there, although it was not actually filmed there. I can assure people that if they go to the Alpha road estate, School lane or York way in Chessington, they will find many of the social problems found in many other constituencies. That is Surbiton today and it is very different from the image that some hon. Members may have.

I have experienced the problems and turned my mind to them, trying to help my constituents in practical ways, working with the local authority, the police and other agencies where necessary to see what can be done. In doing that work and in preparing for the debate, I have been impressed by many of the actions that the Government have taken, are planning to take and on which they are consulting. I shall touch on those in detail later.

In some ways, the Minister skated over the many things that are going on. We have had a range of reports, critiques and actions from the Government, from the social exclusion unit's report in 2000 to the recent consultation paper that the Minister mentioned from what is now the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I hope that he will take many of my remarks today as a contribution to the consultation. I shall touch later on some of the detailed points in the consultation paper.

The Government are doing much, which I welcome because antisocial behaviour is such a serious problem. Moreover, I do not shy away from some tough measures. Ideas were bandied about in the first sitting of the Committee for alternative actions that we might take. For example, a Labour Member—I forget who—mentioned a weekend prison. That idea has some attraction for me. We need to get the message over that all such behaviour is unacceptable and must be tackled hard, in as many ways as possible. The question for the Committee, which my amendments seek to address, is whether this provision is the right measure. Having thought about it long and hard and listened closely to right hon. and hon. Members, I am not convinced that it is.

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The Minister almost gave the game away when he said that the Bill would be a small part of the armoury. That seemed to imply that there are many other measures that are far more important. Some of those measures are extremely severe; we must not forget that. They do lead to evictions. The hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East is worried that in the private sector those evictions often do not take place. I have also experienced that in my constituency. However, is that the way to deal with the problem that the hon. Gentleman rightly identified, or are there are other ways to deal with it? I read in some of the Government's consultation papers that they are looking at other ways. I applaud that fact and I want to detail some of the other ways in which Liberal Democrat councils are innovating and trialling.

I will talk later about the experience of acceptable behaviour contracts in Islington. They are exceedingly successful measures, which are enjoying a high success rate. I commend them to other hon. Members and I hope that they will recommend them to their local authorities. The Government, various housing associations and representative organisations have praised them as some of the best practices now available. I come to the debate with just as much concern about the issue as anyone else. I am just as concerned about finding every mechanism that will work to tackle it. I will not shy away from proposing tough measures, but I do not believe that this measure is the right one.

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