Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill

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Mr. Davey: The right hon. Gentleman said that organisations, in particular the National Housing Federation, have not been consulting. Did he consult widely with landlords when preparing the Bill? Does it mirror their specific views? Has he met any landlords who are against the Bill, or are they all in favour of it?

Mr. Field: Obviously, I must not take interventions, because there is a certain structure to what I want to say, and I will cover such points.

After I received the letter that the hon. Gentleman received, I consulted—unlike him—the association that deals with the largest group of social housing in my constituency. It is probably one of the largest in the

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country. The association said that, provided that we adopted the Liberal Democrat policy of establishing sin bins, it would have no worries with the measures under the Bill. It was not talking about policy officers writing papers to lobby MPs, some of them misusing public money in doing so. I shall return to that when I get to the Floor of the House—if people want to involve themselves in politics, they must expect a proper fight.

Mr. Clappison: In the course of the right hon. Gentleman's experiences, has he, like me, come across landlords who are as concerned as their tenants about the misbehaviour of other tenants who are antisocial, who make it difficult for good landlords to find good tenants, and who have a bad effect on a neighbourhood and thus drive down the value of properties?

Mr. Field: I have indeed, as have almost all other members of the Committee. I have not received any representations from those landlords—those vagabonds—who buy up houses as cheaply as possible, shove in people on housing benefit, and happily witness the collapse of decent working class communities because of their failure to act as proper landlords. I was therefore pleased when my hon. Friend the Minister told me that they could not support the clause because of the European convention on human rights, but would put proposals before the House that would deal with those rogue landlords. I emphasise that most landlords in my constituency and, I suppose, elsewhere, are decent people who are as appalled by this behaviour as are pensioners in my constituency who seem to be so misrepresented by their national organisation in The Guardian today. When we vote, I will ask hon. Members not to agree that the clause stand part. I will also ask them to reject new clause 14, as all of us would support the last plea made by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton that the Minister should consult widely when he moves to regulations.

Malcolm Wicks: When my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead was speaking, I reflected that the Committee was trying to discuss several substantive issues that his Bill raises. Some of them are difficult, and the Committee wanted to discuss them more fully. At the beginning, I mentioned that I recognise that we stand in the middle of the road on the Bill and are vulnerable to attack from those who think that we are not being strong enough. I tried to explain the reasons for our position. We also appear vulnerable—although I do not feel so vulnerable—to those who think that we are being too hard. However, I very much regret that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton chose to adopt that approach, as it has meant that we have not had a proper debate.

We could not properly discuss some of the difficult issues that I needed to confront. He referred to the fact that Surbiton was the scene for, ''The Good Life'', which some of us still remember with affection. In that programme, the characters occasionally dug a hole to plant plants and vegetables, but they never made the mistake of being in the hole and not stopping digging. He kept digging a hole and lost the Committee with some of his arguments. Some of them deserved proper

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discussion, but the manner of his approach has prevented that.

The hon. Gentleman missed the point when he talked about landlords, as my right hon. Friend is concerned about the behaviour of private landlords in particular, not those in the social landlord sector. That point about rationality would be of no interest to one member of the Committee.

The Government amendments do not include any equivalent of the clause, because it could prove to be unfair in practice. After all, housing benefit is an entitlement of the tenant, not the landlord. In practice, therefore, denying benefit to the landlord for a given property would mean denying benefit to any tenant who happened to live there. If the antisocial tenant moved out and a wholly innocent family took over the tenancy, it would clearly be unfair to restrict its entitlement to housing benefit. We also have concerns about the possible effect that the clause might have on the market by making private landlords less willing to let to housing benefit claimants.

The Government are aware of the problems that irresponsible landlords can cause. Some areas—in particular, those where there is low housing demand—have attracted unscrupulous, even criminal, landlords and antisocial tenants, some of whom have been excluded from social housing. These people can cause misery to the local community, and often cause further decline by forcing out law-abiding landlords, tenants and owner-occupiers.

People who are concerned about children and homelessness make representations, but they seem to have no understanding of the situation of law-abiding tenants who have been forced out and become homeless. Those tenants might have to sleep on their friends' floors. Their children might have been unable to go to the local school, which would disrupt their education. All of that would have happened because of the behaviour of people whose rights we have heard a lot about, but whose responsibilities need to be emphasised today. Some Committee members seem to have no understanding of that aspect of hardship and child neglect, which is caused by the perpetrators of antisocial behaviour.

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I can illustrate that point by referring to a case in my constituency: a woman and her children were driven out of their home because of the thuggishness of her neighbours, which caused them great hardship. That sort of behaviour can also lead to the decline of a community. I look forward to receiving representations about that from bodies that are concerned with children's welfare and homelessness. They have neglected to do so until now, but I would welcome their evidence.

Tackling the spiral of decline in such areas is a huge and complex task. Last year, the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions—as it was then called—consulted on proposals for the limited licensing of private landlords, as an additional way of controlling the problem.

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However, it is important to emphasise that the vast majority of private landlords are law-abiding, which is one reason why we need to get this right. There is huge pressure on housing in many parts of the country. The Government see the private rented sector as an important way to reduce those pressures. Therefore, we want to encourage landlords and help to improve quality and standards where necessary. The proposals that we are developing are a more appropriate way of tackling problems where they exist than the possibly rather punitive approach that is suggested by clause 2.

I hope that, having emphasised our need to take action in future on housing policy, Committee members will decide not to retain this clause.

Question put and negatived

Clause 2 disagreed to.

Clause 3

Short title, commencement and extent

Mr. Davey: I beg to move amendment No. 30, in page 1, line 22, after first 'shall', insert,

    'subject to section [anti-social behaviour commission] above.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider new clause 16—Anti-social behaviour commission—

    '(1) No action shall be taken under this Act until the Secretary of State has set up an anti-social behaviour commission whose function shall be to investigate anti-social behaviour by tenants and to report to him and make recommendations.

    (2) It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to have regard to any recommendations made by the Commission.'.

Mr. Davey: I am especially keen to move new clause 16, because it is more substantive than the amendment. It proposes the establishment of an antisocial behaviour commission. I am not normally an advocate of quangos. In general, I am in favour of getting rid of as many of them as possible. Therefore, I have a slightly heavy heart as I propose to set up another one, but it is necessary because I have concerns about this matter.

New clause 16 would ensure that the Secretary of State was unable to take any action under the Bill until the commission had been set up and had reported on antisocial behaviour and made recommendations to the Secretary of State. It also makes an important second provision:

    It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to have regard to any recommendations made by the Commission.'.

I envisage that the commission would ensure that any further movement down this road would be made on the basis of evidence. That is a key point in my argument and in one of our debates this morning. There is a danger that the Government are acting too hastily. They have not seen the evidence of the effect of benefits sanctions, and until they have done so and can say that those sanctions will not result in the destitution that we talked about, they will not have won the argument. The antisocial behaviour commission would have the core function of undertaking research to make recommendations.

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In many ways, the Government should welcome the measure because it is in line with what they are doing. They are consulting and might find that this approach, which would further develop that consultation, would help. I stress that it would not stop them continuing with the consultation on attacking antisocial tenants that was published by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. It would not stop them from pushing forward such measures—Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Birkenhead says from a sedentary position, ''Of course it would.''

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Prepared 11 July 2002