Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill

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New clause 6


    '(1) Where a court makes, quashes or sets aside a declaration under this Act, or varies the date or dates specified in such a declaration under section (anti-social behaviour declarations: criminal proceedings)(4) or (anti-social behaviour declarations: civil proceedings)(4), it must notify the Secretary of State in the prescribed manner of—

    (a) the fact that it has done so, and

    (b) the prescribed information.

    (2) The Secretary of State may make regulations about how information relating to declarations under this Act may be used and supplied (and may in particular authorise the supply of such information by any person to any other person).

    (3) In section 170 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 (c.5) (functions of the Social Security Advisory Committee), in subsection (5), in the definition of ''the relevant enactments'', after paragraph (ag) insert—

    ''(ah) the provisions of the Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Act 2002; and''.'.—[Malcolm Wicks.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Malcolm Wicks: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss the following: Government new clause 7—Regulations—

    '(1) Subject to subsection (6), in this Act ''prescribed'' means prescribed, or of a description prescribed, by regulations made by the Secretary of State.

    (2) Any power to make regulations under this Act is exercisable by statutory instrument.

    (3) Subsections (4) to (7) of section 189 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 (c.5) (supplemental and incidental provision) apply in relation to the powers to make regulations conferred by this Act as they apply in relation to the powers to make regulations conferred by that Act.

    (4) Subject to subsection (5), a statutory instrument containing regulations under this Act may not be made unless a draft of it has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.

    (5) Subsection (4) does not apply in the case of an instrument containing regulations under section (administration) only.

    Such an instrument is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.

    (6) In the application of section (administration) in relation to any court in Scotland, ''prescribed'' means—

    (a) in relation to declarations under section (anti-social behaviour declarations: criminal proceedings), prescribed by the High Court of Justiciary by Act of Adjournal, and

    (b) in relation to declarations under section (anti-social behaviour declarations: civil proceedings), prescribed by the Court of Session by Act of Sederunt.

    (7) The power of the Court of Session by Act of Sederunt to regulate the procedure and practice in civil proceedings in the sheriff court includes power to regulate—

    (a) the manner in which the court must notify the Secretary of State of the fact that it has made, quashed or set aside a declaration under this Act, or varied the date or dates specified in such a declaration under section (anti-social behaviour declarations: criminal proceedings)(4) or (anti-social behaviour declarations: civil proceedings)(4), and

    (b) the information which the court must give to the Secretary of State.

    (8) Subsections (4) and (5) do not apply to Acts of Adjournal and Acts of Sederunt.'.

And the following amendments thereto: (a), leave out subsection (5).

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(b), at end add—

    '(9) Before making any regulations under this section the Secretary of State shall consult—

    (a) organisations representing tenants,

    (b) organisations representing landlords,

    (c) organisations representing persons living in fuel poverty, and

    (d) other such persons as he deems appropriate.'.

Malcolm Wicks: Government new clauses 6 and 7 provide the framework for administering the sanction, and are largely technical. New clause 6 gives powers to require the courts to notify the Department for Work and Pensions of any declarations that they make about antisocial behaviour. It also provides for regulations to allow information to be shared—for example, between the Department for Work and Pensions and local authorities. Finally, it applies the normal requirement for social security legislation, to consult on regulations with the Social Security Advisory Committee.

New clause 7 sets out how the regulations under the Bill would be used. The key point is that all those regulations, except technical ones about administration, would be subject to affirmative resolution procedure. That is in line with existing powers for benefit sanctions. It gives a guarantee of rigorous parliamentary scrutiny—although not necessarily long-winded scrutiny—of any regulations that are made in this potentially controversial area.

I commend both the new clauses to the Committee.

Mr. Davey: I will try to be brief.

Mr. Mitchell: Why break the habit of a lifetime?

The Chairman: Order. Allow the hon. Gentleman to speak.

Mr. Davey: Thank you, Mr. O'Hara.

New clause 6 deals with the administration of this process. I think that when hon. Members read it they will be surprised, because it proposes an unusual way to administer housing benefits. It will link things back to the Secretary of State. It will be a very centralised system.

Unfortunately, we will not debate this at length now—although we might do so at a later stage. However, I am concerned that this administrative process will be complicated, and it will not work. It could be argued that I should be delighted that the Government are taking this approach, because it might prevent what I believe to be an unfair system from operating. However, we should do our jobs properly, so I suggest that the Minister explains why the Government have gone down this road of centralisation, and why local authorities are, effectively, being bypassed. My study of the notes leads me to believe that that is the intention. Who in the Minister's Department will do all of the tasks that are set out in new clause 6?

The Government might have learned to their cost that messing around too often with the administration of housing benefit creates problems at the local level, and they might not wish to add further problems to those that they have already created. However, between now and Report, the Government should

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think about whether this really is the administrative route that they want to go down. I would also be interested to know whether the right hon. Member for Birkenhead considers it to be the most sensible route, because I think that there are problems with it.

Mr. Field: As we are interested in debate, it would be relevant for us to hear what would be the Liberal Democrats' approach. All hon. Members have in their constituencies a few families who work under different identities, and we need a way of recording their movements around the country and between local authorities. The Government is offering a central register. My experience is that the staff at local offices of the Department for Work and Pensions will know the other names that such families operate under, and presumably they will provide that information centrally. However, what does the hon. Gentleman propose as an alternative?

Mr. Davey: I am grateful for the chance to debate that point a little further. I accept that some of the people that we are talking about do not recognise the boundaries of local authorities, and that it would be necessary for local authorities to co-operate. However, I am not convinced that the best approach is for the Secretary of State to keep the register for the whole United Kingdom. There are arguments for keeping things local, even in this regard. The people in the local authority, who obviously have their own housing department and relationships with housing associations, are aware of those whom we are discussing. Perhaps it would be best if they held the register and shared it with neighbouring authorities.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that our constituencies provide examples of people moving across boundaries, but whether they move across the country in the way that he suggests, and whether a central register is required, I am not so sure. Whether the whole system should be based on that, or whether there should be some additional element, but the main register kept locally, is the point of debate. There are genuinely two options. I wish that the Government had not taken their approach.

Section 170 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992, which new clause 6 will alter, concerns the social security advisory committee and the industrial injuries advisory council. Those bodies were set up to advise the Government. I am pleased with what the Government have done in that regard, because it ensures that other expert people may give them advice. Will that advice be published, so that we can see what those bodies think of the system and how it operates? Their published opinions would be welcome.

I hope that I am being brief, Mr. O'Hara, and that right hon. and hon. Members accept that. I shall move on to new clause 7.

Mr. Field: Mr. O'Hara, does not the hon. Gentleman's improved behaviour just show what the effect of threatening sanctions can be?

The Chairman: The Chair cannot comment on that.

Mr. Davey: I did not feel that you were threatening me with sanctions, Mr. O'Hara. I thought that you simply made it clear that, if necessary, the Committee

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would sit beyond 7 pm and into the night. Indeed, you made that very clear at the beginning of this afternoon's proceedings. Much as I would like to speak for longer, because the provisions require that, I will not, given what you have said. I apologise to right hon. and hon. Members if they think that I have not yet run up the white flag. There is a job to be done, and I will do it, although probably with slightly fewer words than might have been my intention an hour or two ago.

I have concerns about new clause 7, which is fundamental to the way in which the process will work. It relates to the whole Bill and talks about all the different ways in which regulations made under the Act will be developed. Let us consider the new clause to which it relates, which we have passed. New clause 4(1) refers to a ''prescribed order'' and ''prescribed proceedings''. Subsection (2) refers to a ''prescribed party''.

New clause 7 will give the prescriptions, and those details are fundamental. One worries about which orders will be involved in civil proceedings, which orders will be prescribed, and about the parties that will be prescribed. Who will be able to apply to the courts for declarations when the provision is enacted?

The Minister would be doing the Committee a service if he spelled out some of his initial thinking. Will someone affected by the antisocial behaviour be the prescribed party, and if so, how will that be defined? Or will it be a local authority, the police or the local social services authority? No doubt we will have that debate on another occasion, assuming that new clause 7 is accepted.

5 pm

It would help us on Report if the Minister could give his initial thinking now, as some hon. Members may be concerned if he has it in mind to prescribe almost anyone who can take this action. That could result in a range of problems and false allegations clogging up the system. It is important that the regulations under new clause 7 are specific and carefully thought through. To know the Government's initial thinking would help me to decide whether I will support new clause 7.

I tabled two amendments to new clause 7. Amendment (a) would remove subsection (5), which says that where the regulations relate only to administrative issues, there need not be an instrument

    ''subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.''

I regret that. I think that I am right, but the right hon. Member for Birkenhead wants to intervene. Have I made a mistake?

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