Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill

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Mr. Field: On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. The hon. Gentleman has made two contributions. The first is that he wants the ideas monitored before the provisions come into effect, but the new clause does not cover that. Secondly, he tells us that the commission should talk to the victims, but again the new clause makes no reference to it. If it is so important and the hon. Gentleman drew up the new clause, why is it not there?

The Chairman: The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton is once again taxing my patience. I have heard no further development of the argument to establish a commission and make the Government take heed of its recommendations. If the hon. Gentleman says anything further, he must refer to that argument and he must not repeat points that he has already made in his contribution.

Mr. Davey: I apologise if I am trying your patience, Mr. O'Hara, by not sticking to the main point. I hoped that I was. The main argument for establishing an antisocial behaviour commission is to provide more information to the Government before they go down the route that they want to follow.

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The Chairman: Order. That point has already been made.

Mr. Davey: I was making that general point and wanted to go on to talk about the sort of information that would be appropriate. I can see that I am trying your patience, Mr. O'Hara. On the basis of what you said, I shall be forced to close my remarks if I do not do so of my own accord. I acknowledge your experience in chairing Committees and I do not want to try your patience. I hope that you understand the spirit of my concluding remarks. I am sitting down so that we can continue and I no longer try your patience.

Mr. Field: I am relieved to hear the hon. Gentleman say that. He is one of the most intelligent Members of Parliament, but he would never have passed his exams if his answers mirrored his approach to new clause 16 or, indeed, his previous contributions to the debate.

The Bill makes a new beginning. Previous sanctions were about trying to get people to perform well for themselves, but we are now moving toward taking sanctions against people whose behaviour is making life impossible for others. I will be surprised if the Minister accepts the amendment, though it has a kernel of an idea—that the Government should consult widely on the causes of antisocial behaviour. Clearly, the Government have monitored changes in other respects and they will monitor changes in this case, too. The Government have a good track record on consulting and monitoring, so I hope that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton will withdraw the amendment.

Malcolm Wicks: I can be brief. The Government have researched problems of antisocial behaviour and Members of Parliament know about the problems that their constituents face. In 2000, the social exclusion unit published a comprehensive report on antisocial behaviour and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister recently consulted on the problems of antisocial tenants. We do not believe that a new commission would add greatly to what we already know. Our constituents want quick action, not a slow Lib-Dem quango around the houses.

Mr. Davey: As the Minister would not allow me to intervene on him—I have always allowed him to intervene on me—I must say how disappointed I am with that answer. Neither the consultation document that has been discussed many times nor the social exclusion report mentioned the proposal that is before us, although they contain all the measures that I have been talking about. All those people who did the research and the study and collected the evidence, which is exactly what I would hope the antisocial behaviour commission would do, had different recommendations. They did not make this recommendation at all. It is a great shame that the Minister will not accept the amendment because it would force him to go back to the sort of work that has been done, which has clearly come up with different solutions and it would help to tackle the problem with a properly targeted approach.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 1, Noes 10.

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Division No. 8]

Davey, Mr. Edward

Blizzard, Mr. Bob Clappison, Mr. James Coaker, Mr. Vernon Field, Mr. Frank Hoey, Kate
Howarth, Mr. George Knight, Mr. Greg MacDonald, Mr. Calum Selous, Andrew Wicks, Malcolm

Question accordingly negatived.

Malcolm Wicks: I beg to move amendment No. 8, in page 1, line 23, at end insert—

    '(2A) An order under subsection (2) may make—

    (a) different provision for different purposes or different areas, and

    (b) such supplementary and incidental provision as the Secretary of State thinks appropriate.'

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following: Amendment (a) to the proposed amendment, in line 4, at end add:

    'provided that an instrument containing provisions under paragraph (b) above shall not be made unless a draft of it has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament'.

Malcolm Wicks: The amendment is purely technical and concerns the commencement order that would be used to bring the Bill into force. I commend it to the Committee.

Mr. Davey: The Minister was modest in describing this as a technical amendment. Allowing the Minister to make different provisions for different purposes or different areas would seem to be quite a substantive power. I do not know whether he will be able to tell the Committee whether that is taken from other social security legislation and whether it is usual within housing benefit administration law to enable such different positions to be taken. Does it mean that different approaches could be taken in different regions so that the higher housing costs of London, for example, could be taken into account in the various regulations? When the Government announce the coming into effect of the Act will they understand that we have specific problems in the capital?

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. I do not believe that a discussion on regional variations is relevant to amendment (a).

The Chairman: I must allow the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton to continue a little longer before being convinced that he is out of order.

4.30 pm

Mr. Davey: I am not necessarily suggesting that such matters would be on a regional basis. I accept that I gave such an example, but I imagine that the Government would take a different approach. Local rent officers do not operate on a regional basis. They play a full part in the way in which housing benefit is assessed and administered. The Government may want to talk about the areas in which the rent officers operate. I do not want the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) to be under any illusion that I am suggesting that the measure could be used for regional variation; it is my understanding that

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it could be used for different areas.

The Chairman indicated assent.

Mr. Davey: I am grateful for that confirmation, Mr. O'Hara. I thought that the Minister was being modest when he suggested that the proposal was a technical amendment. It would give significant powers for variation. I do not know when the House will be able to consider those differences, which is why I tabled amendment (a). It would give Parliament the chance for such a debate. I hope that the Minister will either accept the amendment or come back on Report with an alternative that is better drafted. I confess that some of my amendments were drafted in the early hours and may not be as accurate as they should be.

I fear that I shall not be able to detain the Committee for as long as I want to on the amendment. Not much more can be said about it and that is a great shame. [Interruption.] Members of the Committee seem to be suggesting that other things could be said about it. However, given the way in which the past two hours have gone, I am beginning to think that some of my efforts have been in vain. I hope that, at least, they pressed for more scrutiny of the Bill. I know that the Minister thinks my amendments have not done that, but I assure him that the Bill's provisions will receive more scrutiny than we have been able to give them today, which, incidentally, was not my fault.

Mr. Calum MacDonald (Western Isles): I declare an interest in that I also have tenants. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton asked a reasonable question. At our previous sitting, I said that the legislation on antisocial behaviour in Scotland differs significantly from elsewhere in the United Kingdom. For example, under section 3 of the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001, anyone who is evicted for rent arrears in Scotland must automatically be rehoused by the local authority. We hope that the Bill will become law. If people are caught up in its operations and lose their homes as a result of falling behind in the payment of their rent because of the lack of housing benefit, some unintended consequences may result in the Scottish context. People will have to be rehoused by the local authority. The punitive effect, or the deterrent effect, would not apply in the way that is intended. The local authority, rather than the Department for Work and Pensions, would pick up the bill.

That example illustrates the need to ensure that the way in which we apply the Bill, if it becomes law, is sensitive to different needs and situations in different parts of the United Kingdom. The Government amendment captures that requirement, and I would be grateful if the Minister addressed that point.

Malcolm Wicks: I repeat that the amendment, which is purely technical, relates to the commencement order. It might help if I tell the Committee that it technically allows the Bill to be introduced at different times in different parts of the country. That is in line with standard regulation-making powers for housing benefit, which enable different provisions to be made for different areas if

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that is sensible. If the Bill becomes law with the Government's amendments, it would be sensible to roll it out at the same time throughout Great Britain.

I turn to the question of Scotland. I do not believe for one minute that there can be antisocial behaviour of any kind in the beautiful Western Isles, given its wonderful environment, but I should say that housing benefit is reserved for Westminster, as are all social security benefits. Our starting point is that any benefit measure must be applied throughout Great Britain.

The Bill's objectives clearly coincide with devolved responsibilities for housing policy and criminal justice. We have worked closely with our colleagues in the Scottish Executive to ensure that our approach on the Bill meshes with their strategy on antisocial behaviour, and I have had two conversations with the appropriate Minister. I assure my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead that we will continue to liaise closely when making regulations. I commend the amendment to the Committee.

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