Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill

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Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have not said what happens after eviction. The taxpayers' duty will continue, in one way or another, after eviction. To think that the taxpayer suddenly will not have any role in subsidy—whether it be to subsidise a hostel or something else—is not to live in the real world. So, yes, I have worries about antisocial behaviour, but I shall argue that taxpayers' money could be better spent by tackling its roots to iron it out. I will show—this is relevant to amendment No. 12—that evidence from the projects that have been most hands-on in dealing with antisocial behaviour reveals cost savings to the taxpayer and more effective outcomes in dealing with that behaviour.

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Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby): What the hon. Gentleman has just said, which I think is a positive ''No'' to the Bill, makes what he is doing clear. He is not using the usual liberal tactic of paddling with the populist current while parading the purity of his principles, nor is he showing how clever he is, as he did on the Finance Bill and earlier this morning. His talk is a filibuster against the Bill, which has been accepted by Labour Members and which the official Opposition have supported very effectively by tabling sensible amendments. By parading his conscience and quibbles across the Floor of the Committee Room, the hon. Gentleman is embarking on a sustained attempt to stop a Bill that is under a tight time constraint. He is ruining it because he wants to appear in his local ''focus'' newsletter as the hero and defender of antisocial tenants.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman is getting rather heated and has shown the illogical nature of his argument. He and his hon. Friends have adopted the populist position. If he thinks that I will win many votes with my argument, I can tell him that that is not so; I am likely to lose votes. His charge that I am a populist who wants cheap material for my local ''focus'' or the ''Kingston and Surbiton Voice'', which comes out three times a year—I recommend it to the hon. Gentleman—is not true. I am not taking a populist position, but his right hon. and hon. Friends are, and not necessarily because they are trying to win votes. I fully agree that the intention of all hon. Members is to tackle a serious problem, but the analysis of other hon. Members is faulty. My views are not held on a theoretical basis and I shall produce evidence relating to the benefit sanctions that the Government have already introduced, and to alternatives to the Bill that have worked. This is not a minor matter.

The hon. Gentleman accused me of filibustering, but only two days ago we received new clauses from the Government that would completely rewrite the Bill. If he thinks that it is not right properly to scrutinise a series of new clauses that would affect the housing benefit of a huge number of people throughout the country, he is failing as a parliamentarian, despite his good track record. It is important to give the Bill strict scrutiny, which I intend to do. I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is wrong. There have been far too many instances of Bills being rushed through the House with unintended consequences, which is my worry.

10.30 am

If I may, I shall move on to amendment No. 12, which deals with the trigger of benefit sanctions. The Minister wants an automatic trigger and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead wanted the trigger to be linked to court hearings on antisocial behaviour orders. We should ensure that using the provisions in the Bill is the last thing attempted. Many other actions should be taken before that. I think that that is the spirit of what the right hon. Gentleman described as the Bill's intention during our previous sitting on 18 June. He said:

    ''The Bill represents not the first but the last step against those who behave unacceptably. There will be negotiations and warnings,

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    and local authorities will try to build on the sort of success that Dundee council has had in negotiating people out of unacceptable behaviour.''—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 18 June 2002; c. 14.]

Amendment No. 12 would insert a provision in the Bill that reflects the right hon. Gentleman's comments. Therefore, the amendment should be accepted. Given that amendment No. 12 would amend the original Bill, I hope that the Government will take a vote in favour of it as a message that they must draft amendments to include a provision in the Bill to ensure that benefit sanctions are genuinely the last step to take. The Government must use several clearly identified processes to ensure that appalling antisocial behaviour is tackled.

Let me explain the measures that I envisage to the Committee and outline why I believe that they would be extremely effective. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead mentioned the Dundee project. I am fortunate to have an evaluation of the project, which was published in September 2001. The Centre for the Child and Society undertook the evaluation.

Mr. Howarth: On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. You have helpfully given us the opportunity to debate the Bill in a sensible manner due to the grouping of the amendments and new clauses. However, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton is speaking to amendment No. 12, which, as he concedes, relates to the original Bill. He has taken no cognisance of the new clauses. It is increasingly clear from the way in which he is making this section of his speech in particular that he is filibustering.

The Chairman: I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but I must rule that the amendments to which the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton is speaking relate to the Bill as it stands. It is not for me to predetermine whether the Government new clauses will be accepted. We must debate the amendments to clause 1 as it stands, which is why clause stand part is grouped where it is.

Mr. Clappison: Further to that point of order, Mr. O'Hara. I see that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton has a rather thick document called ''Evaluation of the Dundee Families Project''. I understand the course that the hon. Gentleman is taking, but it would be useful if you reminded the Committee of the rules of the House on reading out long documents. Liberal Democrat Members normally manage to speak without reading from long documents, but the hon. Gentleman seems to be resorting to that.

The Chairman: The rules are that one should quote short extracts verbatim, but that longer sections should be paraphrased—although the rules are not hard and fast.

Mr. Davey: I can reassure the hon. Member for Hertsmere that although I will read out a few extracts, I have no intention of quoting long sections. He might be surprised to learn that I will not need to quote very much from this document because I have actually read much of it, so I know about its findings. I recommend it to Committee Members because it is relevant to my

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amendment. However, I wonder how many of them have read the document.

The Chairman: Order. Nevertheless, I trust that the hon. Gentleman will take notice of the Chair's guidance. We are at a relatively early stage of the debate, but the Chair will be listening for unnecessary repetition as we proceed.

Mr. Davey: I would expect nothing less from you, Mr. O'Hara, as I have served under your chairmanship before. You will apply the rules in a fair but rigorous manner, which is the right thing to do.

The project that I was talking about is significant because it has made a concerted effort over a long period to try to deal with antisocial behaviour by using support and resettlement services, which is precisely what my amendment tries to do. Moreover, it is not only a long-established and well-functioning project, but it has been properly evaluated by social scientists, who have had the support of the Scottish Executive, Dundee city council and NCH Scotland.

Mr. Howarth: What does that stand for?

Mr. Davey: I do not know.

Malcolm Wicks: I believe that it stands for National Children's Homes.

Mr. Davey: I turn to the basic structure of the project. I wish to read a very short extract. Paragraph 3 of the executive summary states:

    ''The Project works with families deemed to have exhibited a range of anti-social behaviour, with the aim of enabling them to avoid eviction or be restored to satisfactory tenancy arrangements. This also helps to prevent the breakdown of vulnerable families, and to re-unite separated families.''

Therefore, the project addresses the same concerns that we wish to deal with.

It is worth noting the sorts of work undertaken by the Dundee project. At first there are tough counselling sessions, to ensure that the family face up to the problem. As part of the research, it was asked, ''Was this seen as an easy option by the project workers, the families or the people who were affected by the antisocial behaviour?'' The conclusion was that it was seen as an effective, rather than a soft, option. The counselling sessions made people face up to the problems that they had been causing.

Secondly, the project's team identifies the specific underlying problems that lead the family to behave in this way. All of the evidence that I have read—from the Government and outside bodies—shows that antisocial behaviour is caused by a range of things. It is a very complicated problem.

Mr. Mitchell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for again allowing me to interrupt his anti-Committee behaviour. What he is saying should be submitted as an extended PhD thesis to the departmental inquiry, which closes tomorrow, because it is relevant to that. He is wasting the Committee's time by parading his agonies of conscience about the Bill in this way, unless he is going to address the specific points in the wrecking amendments. That is what we should be dealing with.

Mr. Davey: There is no need to submit this to the Government so that it can be consulted on. I am

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referring only to published documents, so I assume that the Government have copies of all of them. I believe that they are aware of the projects, which are well known. I do not intend to undertake a PhD thesis on this subject.

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