Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill

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Malcolm Wicks: The hon. Gentleman and I have one thing—possibly only one thing—in common, which is that we are both London MPs. He knows, and Shelter knows, that many thousands of people are homeless or very poorly housed. They would love some of the council dwellings occupied by people who are abusing their communities at the taxpayer's expense. If we are to take a once-noble organisation seriously, will he tell us how many homeless people Shelter consulted about antisocial behaviour?

Mr. Davey: Of course, I do not have the answer, as the Minister well knows. I am surprised that he denigrates Shelter, which has a fantastic track record. He said it was a once-noble organisation.

Malcolm Wicks: It has known better days.

Mr. Davey: The Minister has confirmed my observation. I understand that Shelter has worked closely with the Government in the past to assist them in understanding the problems of homeless people, and I am therefore particularly surprised by his comments. He should listen to other points that Shelter has brought forward. It quotes Home Office research study 236, published in 2002, which reviews antisocial behaviour orders granted under the definition that we are discussing. The research lists the types of behaviour for which ASBOs were granted:

    ''verbal abuse, harassment, graffiti, noise, shoplifting, drunk and disorderly behaviour, prostitution and trespass.''

I do not know whether he is aware of that research. He frowns, almost suggesting that he is not aware of it.

Malcolm Wicks: I was frowning at the whole debate

Mr. Davey: The Minister is obviously welcome to his own opinion. However, he ought to take the

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relevant point on board. If antisocial behaviour has been deemed to include some of the examples that I listed, would he be happy to see benefit sanctions apply in those cases? Some of those examples of antisocial behaviour are actually quite limited. There is a real concern. Shelter has made it very clear that with the declaration trigger tied to the definition in subsection (5) of new clause 3, unintended consequences could occur. We could see housing benefit deduction from people whom the Minister and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead have no intention of catching.

Mr. Drew: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman received the same fax that I did today from Shelter signed by several organisations. The key note from those organisations is that they do not believe that the legislation has any merit at all. I repeat what was asked earlier. If the hon. Gentleman concurs with that, why does he not oppose the Bill? I see no reason to amend it; we might as well get on with it. Either one agrees with it, or not. That seems to be the nub of the matter.

Mr. Davey: I would be in danger of being ruled out of order if I repeated in full the response I gave when the right hon. Member for Birkenhead made that accusation. I am concerned, and the amendments need to be debated and considered by the Government to ensure that when the legislation goes on to the statute books, it is not as damaging as it would be if passed in its current form. He is right that those organisations are opposed to it. I was not intending to quote from that letter; I was sent copies and given notification of it. I do not intend to do that, partly because of my huge respect for the right hon. Gentleman. Although those organisations are free to say what they like, I have respect for him and was not intending to quote from their letters.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): If the hon. Gentleman has, as he says, huge respect for the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, why is he not frank with the Committee? Why did he say that he is trying to ameliorate the Bill when he is doing no such thing? These are wrecking amendments.

Mr. Davey: I do not believe that they are wrecking amendments. I discussed them with other people who believed that in the operation of the legislation, they would assist. Therefore, the Government should take account of them.

Mr. Howarth: On a point of order, Mr. O' Hara. You have helpfully grouped the amendments in such a way that we can meaningfully discuss and debate not only the amendments and new clauses, but some of the issues of principle involved. For the purposes of almost all of the Committee, that is a helpful exercise, which enables us to proceed in a proper manner. The difficulty that we are now experiencing is that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton is abusing the intelligent way in which you have put the amendments together. That means that in effect none of us will be able to have the sensible debate that we envisaged.

The Chairman: Order. I have been listening extremely carefully to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton, and since I gave him that counsel, he has

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been speaking to specific groups of amendments. I was about to suggest that he moved on from his previous subject, but he anticipated me by saying that he was going to move on. He has been diverted from doing so by several interventions. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman be allowed to move on.

Mr. Davey: I was indeed going to move on, but with one comment. I hope that the Minister, when he responds, will take seriously the point made by Shelter concerning the declaration mechanism.

I am going to discuss other aspects of new clause 3. Can the Minister tell the Committee whether the declaration mechanism—the link to the conviction—would expand the definition beyond what he expected and would be unintended?

11.15 am

Amendments Nos. 23 and 24 would ensure that the Secretary of State, in the case of No. 23, and the Secretary of State, the local housing authority and local social services authority, in the case of No. 24, must express an opinion that the housing benefit sanction route was best. In other words, the amendments would require them to think of other routes to deal with antisocial behaviour. That is important, and would enable them to consider alternative methods.

Earlier, I mentioned the sorts of things that I have in mind for the Secretary of State, the local housing authority and local social services authority to consider; I shall now go into more detail. In the London borough of Islington, Liberal Democrats have been doing an awful lot of effective work to tackle antisocial behaviour; that work has had success and has been held as an example to other places. In response to some of the Minister's points, I can say that Liberal Democrats are dealing with antisocial behaviour.

Mr. Field: I knew that there would be opposition to the Bill from the Liberal Democrats, so I asked the Library to do a trawl of all the questions that they had asked, all the debates to which they had contributed and all the articles that they had written on the sort of antisocial behaviour addressed in the Bill. Does it surprise you, Mr. O'Hara, that not one of the Liberal Democrats who is opposing the Bill with wrecking amendments has raised the topic before?

Mr. Davey: I am grateful for that remark, because the thrust of my point on the amendments is that we may not have been writing letters and articles or tabling questions, but we have taken action that has worked at the grass roots and dealt with antisocial behaviour. In my constituency, Councillor Tricia Bamford and some of her colleagues went to Islington to talk to Councillor Steve Hitchens and his team about how acceptable behaviour contracts work in practice. The royal borough of Kingston now has a protocol for using those contracts and several have already been issued. The Liberal Democrats undertook that work using the scrutiny committees when they were in opposition on the council. Those councillors did the work; they were not writing

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articles, but tackling the problem by coming up with innovative solutions that the Government are now copying. The right hon. Gentleman's attack is therefore unfounded.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman should move on.

Mr. Davey: I was trying to. I want to talk about the alternatives that I hope that the Secretary of State, the local housing authority or the local social services authority will be able to consider before they impose housing benefit sanctions. That is the purpose of amendments Nos. 23 and 24.

There is another version of acceptable behaviour contracts called parental control agreements—PCAs—for youngsters under the age of 10. Both have been successfully piloted and are now being used throughout Islington borough through the Islington crime reduction partnership. They were the first of their kind in the country; they were not trialled elsewhere, but dreamed up in Islington. They have been successfully tackling antisocial behaviour caused by young people. They have involved partnerships with the council's housing department and the borough police, and have been used on many estates and problem areas. Their aim is to deal with the root of the problem. They have some similarities with the Dundee Families Project in that they deal with behaviour and try to ensure that the individual behaving unacceptably understands why it is unacceptable and why people are concerned. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may laugh, but it is clear from analysis of the research on other benefit sanctions that people—not all, but some—do not understand why they are being sanctioned. We must bear that important point in mind.

Mr. Howarth: On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. The hon. Gentleman covered that territory about 20 minutes ago, and I believe that we are in danger of tedious repetition.

The Chairman: The Chair will decide if there is tedious repetition. I am observing very carefully, and the hon. Gentleman has made reasonable progress since I gave him guidance to do so. While I am on my feet, I suggest that, under my guidance, the hon. Gentleman might make better progress through the group of amendments if there were fewer interventions, which are diverting him from doing so. I remind Members that when we get through this block of amendments, much of the further business will be formal and will not require further debate.

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Prepared 11 July 2002