Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill

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Mr. Field: On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. What relevance does this have to the clause? We hear about a crap company such as EDS affecting everybody; we are talking about a specific, targeted and very small group of families.

The Chairman: I was asking myself the same question and I ask the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton to focus his attention on that question. Is the current content of his contribution relevant to the Committee's business and especially this new clause?

Mr. Davey: I wanted to come back to the text of the new clause, to show the relevance of what I am saying. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Birkenhead says from a sedentary position that I should have gone to the text of the clause in the first place. I was coming to that, but then he made his point of order.

The Chairman: Order. Therefore, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman comes to that matter forthwith.

Mr. Davey: The new clause says

    'the Secretary of State shall consult with such organisations as in his view represent landlords in order to take into account any views expressed by them as to how any such action can be taken in such a way as to lessen any hardship caused to landlords.'.

That is why I am referring to concerns expressed by organisations that represent landlords. I am expressing their concerns to give a flavour of what might happen if the new clause were accepted and that is pertinent.

I have touched on a concern that the Bill would deter reputable private landlords from renting to any person in receipt of welfare benefit, but I shall move on to a further worry. The federation's members say that households to whom local authorities do not owe a duty of secure accommodation might find themselves sleeping rough because they would be effectively barred from renting accommodation. They are worried because they want the communities for which they provide housing to be manageable and safe.

The Chairman: Order. We are, once again, treading on territory that has been trodden several times before.

Mr. Davey: I am talking about the concerns of members of an organisation that represents landlords. I think that they would need to be heard if new clause 14 were agreed. I am trying to explain—

The Chairman: Order. I ask the hon. Gentleman to draw a distinction between what the landlords are

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concerned with and detailed discussion of that matter, which has been discussed umpteen times.

Mr. Davey: Let me list the organisation's concerns, if you would find that more acceptable, Mr. O'Hara. First, resting the power to withhold housing benefit with the Secretary of State is administratively cumbersome and will not allow the flexibility that is needed to deal with complex family problems. Secondly, withholding housing benefit is likely to increase evictions for non-payment of rent. Thirdly, if an evicted household contains a person who has a right to be rehoused under homeless legislation, such as a minor, a local authority might have to pay for temporary accommodation but be unable to secure permanent rehousing. We have not debated that issue, but I am listing it because of your strictures, Mr. O'Hara. Fourthly, the organisation understands that people who become homeless as a consequence of the Bill will be classified as intentionally homeless. They do not want children to be taken into care simply to punish their parents.

Malcolm Wicks: If I ever get the opportunity, I will explain to the Committee why such a new clause is not appropriate. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that if the right hon. Member for Birkenhead got the chance to speak this afternoon, he might explain that the clause is about private tenants rather than housing association tenants? I put it to the hon. Gentleman that there is a difference between a monologue and a democratic discussion.

Mr. Davey: I could engage in a debate on that point—

The Chairman: Order. I strongly advise the hon. Gentleman not to.

Mr. Davey: I am sure that the Minister will have plenty of time to answer. As you said at the beginning of the sitting, Mr. O'Hara, we may sit until any hour. The Minister is bound to have the opportunity to reply.

At your suggestion, Mr. O'Hara, I was listing concerns that landlords have expressed and would be likely to express. I referred to the concerns of the National Housing Federation, and I would like to mention worries that I have heard from the Scottish Council for Single Homeless, which is a national membership body in Scotland for individuals and organisation that work to tackle homelessness. Its members include housing associations, voluntary organisations and individual landlords. The Secretary of State would be likely to consult with such bodies and people if new clause 14 were accepted. I shall not list all of the organisation's many worries—hon. Members would have received a letter from it at the beginning of June. It believes that, for reasons of principle and practicality, the Bill will not have the intended effect. That shows why the new clause is so important. The people involved house people who behave in such a way, and are aware of all the other measures that we discussed at length and know how to use them.

I am trying to persuade the Committee that such landlords and representative organisations of landlords are exactly the people with whom the

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Secretary of State needs to be in regular contact to make the Bill work and his new clauses effective.

3.45 pm

Mr. Clappison: On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. How many times must we hear from the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton that the Secretary of State needs to consult? We have heard the same form of words about half a dozen times.

The Chairman: In this case, it comes in the context of consultation with landlords. I trust that we are reaching the conclusion of the argument of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton on that point.

Mr. Davey: I appreciate that the amendment is tight and focuses on landlords. One reason why I thought that this was an appropriate moment to raise the matter was that other hon. Members suggested that that group of people are sometimes not involved in discussions.

Many of the examples that I have given relate to partnership with landlords, both social and private. The new clause would embed that partnership and ensure that landlords are involved in the development of other measures designed to tackle antisocial behaviour and linked to the housing benefit sanction.

I learn more about the housing benefit system and how it works from speaking to landlords in my constituency than from speaking to any other group of people—including even tenants. As I am sure hon. Members are aware, tenants often do not understand the complexities of the system because it is such a minefield. Landlords, however, because their cash flow is involved, are extremely aware of those complexities. They drew to my attention several problems in our housing benefit system. They face a huge number of changes in regulations that affect the system.

The Chairman: Order. I do rule that out of order.

Mr. Davey: I was about to try to make that comment relevant and say that, as the Bill unfolds, such people will need to be consulted to ensure that some of the mistakes that have been made in the past do not recur.

The Government new clauses, which, although we will vote on them later, seem likely to be agreed, give the Secretary of State power to make regulations to prescribe how housing benefit will be withheld. As the law will develop over a period of months and will, no doubt, like other aspects of the housing benefit administration system, have to be continually tweaked, such people will need to be consulted. If they are not, they will withdraw their services from people on benefits, which would result in increased homelessness and hardship.

The amendment would help the Government. I shall be interested to hear the Minister's response and whether he will consult. His argument may be that he will do so anyway, so the amendment is not necessary, but if we believe that that is necessary, it should be specified in the Bill.

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When replying to the debate, I hope that the Minister will assure the Committee that he has already had discussions with landlords prior to drafting the new clauses. It would help me to know which landlord organisations he consulted—I hope that it was a representative sample.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman will notice from my body language that I consider that he has fully expanded his arguments about the new clause. I do not want him to advance them with further words.

Mr. Davey: I am drawing my remarks to a close, Mr. O'Hara, something about which I am sure that you and members of the Committee will be happy. I hope that the Minister will give us a detailed response to the debate and assure us that he will either accept the amendment or the spirit in which it was drafted. I am sure that all members of Committee will welcome such an assurance.

Mr. Field: I hope that the Minister will confirm what has always been his approach, which is that he is always willing to listen to people who wish to enter into conversation with him, but less keen on people who lecture him at great length on various matters. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton cited one social housing group as though it had come down from Mount Sinai with the view of its members about the Bill. I wrote to the group; it had not consulted its members. It relied on experts. I was disappointed to hear the hon. Gentleman, who usually argues that we must take action from the grass roots upwards, supporting an organisation that was imposing a will from the top and not consulting people. When the Minister and the Secretary of State debate the Bill on Report, I hope that they will be consulting widely as they have done in the past.

We have received several representations. I shall not go into that matter now; I will save it for the Floor of the House. However, I do not believe that the organisations that have lined up to attack the Bill have asked their members whether they share that view. The Guardian printed a letter today from two organisations that have honourably spoken on behalf of older people and which are worried about the measure. Apart from one single mother who has enormous courage, the only people who are willing to appear in the courts in Birkenhead to get something done about antisocial behaviour are pensioners. I doubt very much whether those organisations have asked the views of even one pensioner.

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