Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill

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Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East): On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. Mindful of your strictures, may I refer you to column 18 of the Hansard of the Committee's first sitting, on Tuesday 18 June, where the hon. Gentleman makes the same point?

The Chairman: I take the point of order and therefore suggest that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton has made his point on the amendment adequately. I trust that he will make progress soon.

Mr. Davey: I will, Mr. O'Hara. I simply wanted to examine the Government's objective in their new clauses and in their adoption of a regime similar regime to the one that was originally proposed, albeit with a few modifications. We have heard that one idea behind that approach is to affect and change behaviour.

Mr. Field: I know that the hon. Gentleman has a Liberal Democrat press release. He might want to go on with the report, because the researcher concludes that the sanctions were effective in changing behaviour.

Mr. Davey: The right hon. Gentleman's suggestion tempts me. I was going to say that the results of the research into effects on behaviour are mixed. He is right to say that some research evidence shows that some behaviour is changed, but the report from which I quoted says that the findings are mixed. The behaviour of a number of claimants who were sanctioned did not change in any way.

The report's details of why their behaviour was not changed go to the core of my argument. People did not

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change their behaviour, because they were surprised that they had been sanctioned and they did not understand why they had been sanctioned. Some people felt that the sanction—

Mr. Clappison: On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. We seem to be returning to the argument that we had under the previous amendment, which was about whether the measure would be effective, not about hardship.

The Chairman: Indeed. My patience is becoming strained. I have said several times that I am doing my best to be fair to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton and to give him time to make legitimate points. However, I have also said that he has had an opportunity to make his point about the amendment. His remarks are somewhat repetitious with regard to a previous debate, so I strongly advise him to make progress—preferably to the next group of amendments.

Mr. Davey: I intend to do that, Mr. O'Hara, but I was making a point about deterrence, and I believe that the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) is wrong: at no point have I discussed the effects on behaviour that would result from the lack of a hardship regime. I am sure that the record will show that I have not addressed those issues. The point is important, because the right hon. Member for Birkenhead seems to be convinced that the sanction approach will change behaviour. I simply do not believe that the evidence backs that up, but I shall progress to the next amendment.

Amendment No. 22, which is on page 1167 of the amendment paper, relates to an appeals process. I suggest that we should use the standard appeals process that is used in many other parts of the benefits system. The amendment would give tenants whose housing benefit had been withheld the right to appeal the decision of the Secretary of State to a social security tribunal. That would ensure that the Bill was in line with other areas of social security law, especially where that law allows a right to appeal a decision to withhold benefit. Therefore, if the amendment were made, the Bill would be in line with the Government's approach to such matters in the past.

The amendment would also address a problem with an element of the Bill as it relates to the Human Rights Act 1998. The Government obviously believe that their amendment, by providing for a different type of appeal, would make the Bill comply with that Act. I will discuss that in due course. However, the Bill unamended does not contain an appeal process, so it would certainly fall foul of article 6 of the European convention on human rights, which deals with the right to a fair trial.

Mr. Field: On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. Is it relevant for us to be discussing this? The Bill as amended would provide that a court hearing precedes the withholding of benefit. That is not comparable with the withholding of a social security payment, which is done on the say-so of an officer. The Bill also provides that the penalty cannot take effect if the person then makes an appeal. As there is to be an

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appeals process, I do not know why we are discussing this matter.

The Chairman: That is not a point of order but a point of debate, which can be made during the course of the Committee's discussions—and it has been.

Mr. Davey: I will address that point shortly.

The Secretary of State's power to withhold housing benefit is available only when a magistrates court has made two orders or convictions, but there should still be a right to appeal the Secretary of State's decision to exercise that power. That is important because of the potential consequences for a household of having housing benefit withdrawn. The amendment should be considered alongside those that we have previously discussed because it links in with them. Where a tenant has had their benefit withheld and it looks likely that they will lose their home and suffer severe hardship, they should be able to appeal.

Mr. Howarth: On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. The hon. Gentleman is trying to steer the debate back on to territory that he has just left because he has nothing more to say on the subject. It is clear to me that the matters that he is now explaining were covered not only in our previous debate, which he has referred to, but at length earlier today. That being the case, I want to move closure.

The Chairman: I am not ready at this point to accept a closure motion, but I am listening very carefully and looking at the Government's new clauses to see where they deal with points that are being made by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton. I ask him to take note of that.

Mr. Davey: I do so, Mr. O'Hara.

New clause 3, which is on page 1170 of the amendment paper, is the Government's new clause that is relevant to my argument. That new clause—in particular, subsections (7), (8) and (9)—makes provision for an appeal. That is welcome, but we should debate the comparison between my approach, whereby the appeal would go through the social security system, as is the case in other aspects of the benefits system, including benefits sanctions, with the Government's totally novel approach. The approach that they are suggesting with respect to benefit sanctions and the benefits system has not been adopted before.

We are addressing an important point of principle. I am sorry if some right hon. and hon. Gentlemen think that it is not a new point. I do not think that we have debated it at all. It is a point of great substance, because it would completely change the way in which appeals against benefit decisions are made. We must debate whether we want a benefits appeal system that is administratively based, or one that is based on judicial process.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): I regret the way in which our colleague is monopolising the time. It means that there is no chance for a cut-and-thrust debate, but that is for him to decide.

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There will be full rights of appeal. The appeal against a court declaration will be made through the courts in the same way as an appeal against the initial conviction or the court order. An appeal will also be possible under the benefits system, relating to how the sanction has been applied, but not to the underlying reason for it.

The Chairman: I thank the Minister for that explanation. That is precisely what I was reading in the Government's new clauses when the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East raised the point of order. I ask the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton to note that. I feel that there is little scope for further debate on that point.

Mr. Davey: I might be able to convince you if I respond to the Minister's comments, Mr. O'Hara. He said that subsections (7), (8) and (9) allow a judicial approach to an appeals system. I understand that that is a completely new way of going about that.

Mr. Howarth: On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. It is clear that the hon. Gentleman has no intention of taking your advice. I want to move that the question be now put.

The Chairman: I shall give the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton one more opportunity, as he has more amendments to speak to. I have been anxious not to accept a closure motion in order to give him the opportunity to speak to his other amendments in the group, but I appeal to him to take that opportunity.

Mr. Davey: Mr. O'Hara, my argument in reply to the Minister relates to the distinction between an appeal process that is administratively based and one that is judicially based, and whether that is a matter of substance. We have not had that debate. I realise that I have been speaking for a long time—

The Chairman: Order. The point being made by other members of the Committee is that the hon. Gentleman is not giving the opportunity for wider debate on the matter. I repeat my counsel to him: I have refused to accept two or three attempts to move closure as I am anxious for him to have the opportunity to speak to all his amendments in the group. We have been making progress, and I ask him to take the opportunity to speak to his other amendments.

Mr. Davey: I shall certainly do that. I shall speak later to new clause 3(7), (8) and (9). I believe that it would be in order—I will be delighted if you comment on that, Mr. O'Hara—for me to deal with those subsections, as they relate to the appeals process, while I debate amendment No. 22. I am trying not to waste time but to take part of the debate—

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