Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill

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The Chairman: Order. I am trying to be as generous as possible to the hon. Gentleman and to let him make his point, which at the moment is alternatives to benefit sanctions. Earlier in the debate I said that it was legitimate to cite other examples and perhaps say a little about them, but not to expatiate at undue length. The hon. Gentleman is in danger of doing that. If I do my utmost to give him the opportunity, in the face of some opposition, to make his legitimate points, he has an obligation to meet me half way.

Mr. Davey: I assure you, Mr. O'Hara, that this is my last example of alternative enforcement measures. I have another example of prevention, but that is a separate point that I have not yet touched on.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby): The hon. Gentleman can imagine my delight when this afternoon I came to the Committee somewhat late and found him still speaking. The Government and Opposition Front-Benchers took exactly one hour. He has now been speaking for one hour and 40 minutes. He has tabled 42 amendments to the Bill and there are 14 in this group. We do not even know, because he has not told us, which amendment he is talking to and how his comments relate to it. I know that he wants to be the hero of the harassers, but could he please bring some logic to his argument?

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman does himself a great disservice with outbursts like that. He was indeed late; had he come in on time, he would have known that I started my remarks—I am sure that you will confirm this, Mr. O'Hara—by referring to amendments Nos. 23 and 24, which are the amendments to which I was speaking when we adjourned this morning. I hope that that clarifies the point. He might think that there has been no progress since then, but I have been giving more examples.

I gave an undertaking that this next example would be my last example of enforcement measures and it will be. With the hon. Gentleman's patience, I should like to explain how the landlord project in Newcastle works to ensure that private landlords play their part in dealing with the problem of antisocial behaviour. The project brought the whole private sector together. The team had a database of all the different landlords. It took a lot of time investigating the ownership of all the different properties, and it contacted all the private landlords, who helped it to form a landlords' association for the area. It developed best practice with those landlords, and assisted them by giving them services to make their job easier. That is as an example in which all the problems that the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East quite rightly raised are being tackled.

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The final example, which relates to prevention, is simple—not rocket science and not new. It is about ensuring that people in authority in our communities are on the streets as often as possible. I am talking not about bobbies on the beat, but about community wardens, estate wardens, estate managers and so on. The presence of people in authority deters antisocial behaviour. I accept that some tenants and residents will still cock a snook at people in authority, but many will mend their ways—or at least become less outrageous in their behaviour—if there are people like community wardens around. That is a prevention mechanism. I should be careful because it does not quite fit into the process of the Bill, because we are taking about enforcement, but I wanted to give that example because alternatives exist.

Amendment No. 21, which is on page 1167 of the amendment paper, would ensure that the benefits sanction would not go ahead if the Secretary of State thought that it would cause exceptional hardship to the tenant or anyone residing with that tenant. We have heard that there may be a hardship regime, and I want to examine how other hardship regimes have worked. There is concern that hardship regimes that have been adopted through secondary legislation and administrative arrangements have not been effective. That is a strong argument for putting a duty on the Secretary of State to consider exceptional hardship.

The change would allow a defence and appeal mechanism for the tenant. If tenants experienced exceptional hardship, they could use the provision as a protection. I should have thought that all Committee members would welcome such a protection to ensure that we do not create destitution among a group in our society. That is the core of amendment No. 21. It is important to recognise that the thrust of both the Bill as it stands and the Government new clauses that, in effect, rewrite the Bill is to create hardship.

Whether the Bill prescribes a total withholding or a reduction of housing benefit, Shelter advises that either system would invariably lead to homelessness and destitution. It believes that tenants would quickly get into rent arrears, be evicted by their landlords and then be unable to secure further accommodation. Families would have to look to the social services authority to provide them with accommodation, which in some cases is of a low standard. Single people would be likely to end up sleeping on the streets, which surely goes against the Government's rough sleepers initiative. Those outcomes are real, not pretend, so the Secretary of State should have to take them into account.

One has to remember what will happen if one increases exceptional hardship, as I fear the Bill will do. That will be counter-productive. If we increase the levels of poverty and destitution among a group of people, many will turn to crime, which is serious antisocial behaviour. That would completely defeat the honourable intentions of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead. Surely, therefore, he will want to include amendments to avert that.

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The requirement in amendment No. 21 would be particularly relevant in cases in which the tenant's household includes children. We will move on to new clauses later, in which children—

The Chairman: Order. I advise the hon. Gentleman that we had a general debate about the Bill in the Committee's first sitting, when all hon. Members present participated in a full debate. In this instance, I shall not be particularly tolerant of excessive expatiation.

3 pm

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. As we have heard these arguments, albeit with different words being used, for a long time, when might you be prepared to accept a closure motion?

The Chairman: The Committee will appreciate that I am listening extremely carefully. I have in mind what I said during this morning's sitting about the debate in our first sitting. We are not at a point at which I might consider a closure motion, but I am vigilant of when we might get there.

Mr. Davey: Thank you, Mr. O'Hara. I accept what you said about debating hardship, although I wonder whether it will be in order to discuss excessive hardship that has been a consequence of other benefit sanctions regimes.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. I do not want to pre-empt the hon. Gentleman's argument, but we have already gone round the effects of other benefit sanctions half a dozen times during our debate.

The Chairman: I was about to say that I am not prepared to listen to excessive further debate on that subject, given that we have had so much already.

Mr. Davey: May I explain what I meant? I did not mean that I wanted to discuss alternatives to benefit sanctions. I accept your ruling, Mr. O'Hara, that we have discussed that matter at great length. I want to discuss the benefit sanctions themselves. We have not spent any time learning lessons from the new deal for young people. If young people refuse an option in the new deal or terminate an option early, they are sanctioned—

The Chairman: Order. The Committee is considering the sanction of withholding housing benefit. Hon. Members may refer to other means, but the Committee's business is not to discuss other means at length.

Mr. Field: Further to the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Hertsmere, Mr. O'Hara. In another place, the Liberal Democrats argued that the regime of penalties is ineffective; they said that they think that the Bill will be ineffective. Is it pertinent of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton to argue that examining a supposedly ineffective regime is relevant?

The Chairman: That is not a point of order, nor a point for me to comment on, although Committee members might take note of what the right hon. Gentleman says.

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Mr. Davey: What I am seeking to do relates directly to amendment No. 21, which I have not been discussing for very long. I am trying to show the Committee that we need a safeguard to prevent exceptional hardship. Other regimes have not achieved that. The Minister has tried to say—he used almost these words this morning—that it is intended that the regulations that are likely to be forthcoming after the Bill is enacted will mirror the underpinning hardship regimes of previous benefit sanctions. The problem is that I do not believe that those regimes worked. There has been real hardship and I can quote an example to the Committee.

A person was told to apply to a hardship fund because his jobseeker's allowance had been withheld. I shall read to the Committee what he told Government researchers when they were considering the effects of the hardship regime. I shall quote from Jill Vincent's ''Jobseeker's Allowance Evaluation: Qualitative Research on Disallowed and Sanctioned Claimants—Phase Two: After Jobseeker's Allowance'', which was published in 1998 by the Centre for Research in Social Policy. The sanctioned applicant said:

    ''Ended up at the DSS . . . I went into one of these places, you know, big glass cages, filled in a form, handed the form over—''

an application for a hardship payment—

    ''and they said, sorry, you can't claim this. I said, 'why I've got no money . . . ' 'because we want you to go through an amount of hardship, it's basically a punishment . . . you can't have a loan, otherwise there'd be no point in stopping your money', so I couldn't even get money off the DSS.''

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