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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Housing Benefit (Loss of Benefit) (Pilot Scheme) Regulations 2007



The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Eric Martlew
Alexander, Danny (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD)
Betts, Mr. Clive (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab)
Brown, Lyn (West Ham) (Lab)
Cawsey, Mr. Ian (Brigg and Goole) (Lab)
David, Mr. Wayne (Caerphilly) (Lab)
Engel, Natascha (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab)
Jackson, Glenda (Hampstead and Highgate) (Lab)
Morgan, Julie (Cardiff, North) (Lab)
Plaskitt, Mr. James (Parliamentary Under- Secretary of State for Work and Pensions)
Rowen, Paul (Rochdale) (LD)
Selous, Andrew (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con)
Smith, Geraldine (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab)
Tapsell, Sir Peter (Louth and Horncastle) (Con)
Tredinnick, David (Bosworth) (Con)
Trickett, Jon (Hemsworth) (Lab)
Walter, Mr. Robert (North Dorset) (Con)
Wright, Mr. Anthony (Great Yarmouth) (Lab)
Hannah Weston, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committeec

Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 10 July 2007

[Mr. Eric Martlew in the Chair]

Draft Housing Benefit (Loss of Benefit) (Pilot Scheme) Regulations 2007

4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Housing Benefit (Loss of Benefit) (Pilot Scheme) Regulations 2007.
Good afternoon, Mr. Martlew, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Antisocial behaviour remains a key area of concern for the public and can blight the lives of individuals and whole communities. It is estimated that antisocial behaviour costs public services around £3.5 billion every year. One of the commitments in the Government’s respect action plan, launched in January 2006, was to consider how to encourage those involved in persistent antisocial behaviour to engage with intensive family support. That led to the decision to introduce a housing benefit sanction for those people who have been evicted for antisocial behaviour but who have refused to take up offers of help.
The aim is to provide a strong incentive for households to undertake rehabilitation when they have refused other offers of help. Such households have and create multiple problems. The cost to the taxpayer can be between £250,000 and £350,000 per family per year for a range of interventions by public services, including the costs of social, children’s and housing services, policing, court services, criminal justice agencies and others. We are keen to reinforce the link between rights and responsibilities in the benefit system. The deal is that the right to housing benefit must come with the responsibility to be a decent neighbour.
The policy is intended to tackle the hardest-to-reach households—those that have refused offers of help. In practice, the local authority will have met with the majority of such households and offered support prior to eviction. Many households co-operate at that stage and avoid eviction, but there is a hard-to-reach group for whom the threat of eviction is not enough.
As part of the scheme, eviction and a sanction of loss of housing benefit will be raised as possible consequences of not co-operating with support. It is hoped that the combined threat will increase the number of people who co-operate prior to eviction. However, some households may continue to be evicted for antisocial behaviour. Post eviction, the local authority may engage with the household, at which point an assessment will be made of the household’s needs, and an action plan drawn up in co-operation with them. If people accept help at that stage and continue with the programme of support, no sanction of loss of housing benefit will be made. If they choose not to co-operate, the local authority can issue a sanction warning notice, which will warn a household that housing benefit will be reduced if they do not carry out the actions listed in the notice within the stated time scale. If they do not comply with the warning notice, the sanction will be applied unless the household can show that they had good cause not to.
The household may bring the sanction to an end at any time by complying with the notice and taking up the offer of support. The local authority also has discretion to bring the sanction to an end at any time. If a household initially co-operate and then stop, the sanction can be restarted at the rate at which it was applied previously.
Under the scheme, pilots can run for a maximum of two years, in eight local authorities. The regulations apply only to those pilot areas. The enabling power, which is set out in primary legislation, is time limited and will come to an end on 31 December 2010. Provided that the regulations are approved, it is our intention to begin the pilots in November 2007. They will therefore conclude in November 2009. For a scheme to continue beyond 2010 there would need to be further primary legislation. The regulations underpin the possible sanction of reduction of housing benefit and set the rate for the reduction. It is right that they are subject to affirmative procedure. They will allow the pilot schemes to run for two years, starting from 1 November.
Under the primary legislation, the conditions that must be satisfied for a sanction to be applied are that the former occupier has been evicted on grounds of antisocial behaviour; that they have secured alternative accommodation and a new claim for housing benefit has been made; that they have been issued with a warning notice that requires them to take specified action to avoid the sanction, and finally, that they have failed, without good cause, to comply with the warning notice.
Regulation 3 states that all of the conditions must take place within the pilot area and during the pilot period. Under regulation 4, if the conditions are satisfied, housing benefit will be reduced gradually in three phases—the intention being that the increasing deduction will act as a rolling incentive to take up support. The sanction will start with a 10 per cent. reduction in housing benefit for a period of four weeks. That will be followed by a 20 per cent. reduction for a further four-week period. After that eight-week period, the reduction will become 100 per cent.
We want this measure to be a strong incentive, so it is a severe sanction that could take away up to 100 per cent. of a person’s housing benefit. However, if the person falls into the category of a “person in hardship”, the maximum reduction will be only 30 per cent. Hardship is defined in regulation 5. Those who qualify for hardship include households in which a member is pregnant. Hardship also covers people under the age of 18, people over 60, those with responsibility for a child, those in receipt or in the process of claiming disability living allowance at the higher rate and those in receipt or in the process of claiming attendance allowance at the higher rate. Beyond that, local authorities have discretion to award hardship in cases when, having taken account of all of the circumstances of the household, they are satisfied that such households will suffer hardship. That should take account of the resources that may be available to a household, and whether there is a substantial risk that essential items such as food, clothing or heating would cease to be available.
The proposed regulations would amend the Social Security (Loss of Benefit) Regulations 2001, so that where another sanction is already applied to the household’s housing benefit for benefit offences, the rate of reduction that will apply is the greater of the two rates. For example, if a person is subject to a loss of housing benefit of 40 per cent., because of a benefit fraud sanction and, at the same time, is subject to an antisocial behaviour sanction at 30 per cent., the full housing benefit sanction applied would be 40 per cent. If the fraud sanction ended, but the antisocial behaviour sanction continued, housing benefit would be sanctioned at 30 per cent.
The schedule to the regulations lists the local authorities in which the pilot schemes will take place. Only claimants in those local authorities may be subject to the sanction of reduced housing benefit. The local authorities piloting the scheme are volunteers that all believe that such a tool will be useful to them.
Further detail on the sanction scheme will be provided in negative regulations, the Housing Benefit (Loss of Benefit) (Pilot Scheme) (Supplementary) Regulations 2007. Those regulations will contain details of appeal rights and of what would be considered good cause not to comply with a warning notice. They will provide rules for discretionary housing payments, and arrangements for sharing that information between the courts, the Department for Work and Pensions and local authorities.
Detailed guidance will be provided for housing benefit administrators, the courts and local authorities. That is being drafted in conjunction with the piloting local authorities and relevant stakeholders. We hope to publish the guidance in August and we will be revising it throughout the pilots as best practice emerges. In addition, details of the measure will be included in information for tenants of local authorities. The pilot authorities will also be working with other local landlords to ensure that tenants are aware of the measure.
In my view, the provisions of the draft Housing Benefit (Loss of Benefit) (Pilot Scheme) Regulations are compatible with the European convention on human rights and I commend them to the Committee.
4.40 pm
Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve again in Committee under your chairmanship, Mr. Martlew. It is worth reflecting briefly on the history of the regulations. I was a member of the Standing Committee that discussed the Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill in the previous Parliament. It was a private Member’s Bill introduced by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) with which the Government were sympathetic, although it ran out of time. As a result, the Government commissioned a consultation in 2003 of which again I was part because one of the Minister’s predecessors came to my constituency when we and about 30 constituents considered a similar measure. However, due to the result of the consultations that the Government received then, they decided not to proceed.
The Government are now introducing the regulations as a result of the Welfare Reform Act 2007. The official Opposition very much support the principle behind the measure. The idea that benefits provided by the state require the recipient to behave responsibly towards neighbours in the community is good and one to which I and my party would want to sign up. The Minister has outlined carefully a carrot-and-stick approach and it is absolutely right that the two are together. Were we only withdrawing housing benefit for antisocial behaviour and not doing anything to modify behaviour, I am not sure that I could support the Minister, but as he painstakingly said, there are measures to change behaviour that every one of us in this room knows from our constituency surgeries causes real misery to the lives of our constituents.
My comment, however, on the measure is that we are dealing with a small proportion of the perpetrators of antisocial behaviour. The worst case in my constituency started just before I was elected and I have dealt with it for more than six years. It has resulted in antisocial behaviour orders imposed on the perpetrators, numerous dealings with the police and court appearances. However, because of the policy of the particular housing association property in which the perpetrator resides, that gentleman has not been evicted from his housing, so the very worthy regulations that we are discussing cannot be applied. That is just one constituency example, but the excellent and full explanatory note in respect of the regulations highlights the fact that they could apply to no more than 1,500 people per year who have been evicted as a result of antisocial behaviour.
The scheme is a pilot for two years in only eight areas, so it is important to put on the record the fact that we are talking about a thin segment overall. If it works and achieves good results at the end of the two-year pilot, will that be the end of the road? Will the Government do more? In the previous Parliament, they were sympathetic with the proposals to do considerably more, and I should be interested to hear whether the Minister says anything today about whether we shall go slightly further and deal with more perpetrators of antisocial behaviour who make people’s lives—sometimes entire streets and neighbourhoods—a complete misery.
The regulations are yet another pilot from a Department that is famed for pilots. We have heard all the jokes about the Department having more pilots than British Airways. It occasionally looks as though the Department is treating the United Kingdom as one giant laboratory for various experiments of social measures. I sometimes long for the Department to take a decision and say, “This works and we are going to roll it out nationally. Let’s go for it because we have a lot of pilots here.” These are sensitive and important areas, and I understand the need for a pilot. We have a three-and-a-half month delay until these regulations start and two years of assessment. If these measures are deemed to be useful and effective and able to reduce antisocial behaviour, it will be some time before most Members will see the benefit. We are moving quite slowly here.
I should like to ask the Minister a couple of specific questions. Is there evidence of people moderating their behaviour if they are threatened with, or face, eviction? By definition, the regulations deal with people who have been through that stage. Does the Department, in conjunction with the local authorities and the Home Office, have any evidence of the impact on behaviour that the threat of eviction or actual eviction has? I am wondering whether the Department knows the circumstances of the people who are evicted as a result of antisocial behaviour. Presumably, those people have had all the warnings, yet they have carried on behaving in that way. Does that mean that we are dealing with people who have family members who can house them and a source of income—perhaps unknown to her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs—with which they are able to secure other accommodation, even though they are claiming housing benefit?
I am curious to know about the decisions that these people have made and the circumstances in which they find themselves. They go through eviction and carry on behaving in an antisocial way, knowing that eviction will be the consequence again.
The explanatory memorandum mentions the Dundee families project quite a lot and sings its praises. I heard about the project during discussions on the Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill as well. Is that the only project that the Government have looked at across the UK? Are there others that are doing similarly good work?
The explanatory memorandum is not very clear about how this intervention and rehabilitation work will be paid for. From my understanding, the Government are not providing additional resources to fund rehabilitation to the eight local authorities in the regulations. Is this just another demand that will fall on the council tax payers of those areas, and will that be the case if the scheme is rolled out nationally? I would be grateful if the Minister could address those points.
4.49 pm
Geraldine Smith: I did not intend to speak in this Committee, so I will be brief. I want to put on record my strong support for the measure. I have experienced such cases first hand. One family in my constituency have made many people’s lives a misery. They have been evicted. They have single-handedly brought down the reputation of one street and forced many people to move out.
They were evicted and were placed in accommodation with a housing association. They then did the same thing. They smashed the windows of people living next door for no apparent reason, stayed up all night making all sorts of noise and completely wrecked the property that they were living in. Those people probably need help; I cannot understand why they behave in that fashion. Of course, we have to go through all the procedures of antisocial behaviour orders and court appearances. We must find ways of dealing with those people. The Government are right to pilot this scheme. I am not sure whether it will work, but it is certainly worth a try. I also ask the Government to be bold, and to perhaps go further. Sometimes, in the most extreme cases, when there is nothing else, people might need to be put in supervised accommodation if they cannot live with the rest of society. It is unfair on hard-working people to be kept awake half the night and have their lives made a misery, while they pay taxes to keep people in accommodation. That is not fair, and the Government are right to tackle the problem.
4.50 pm
Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): Mr. Martlew, it is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship.
I speak for the Liberal Democrats, but also from my own experience in my constituency, and like other hon. Members I feel that the issue of antisocial behaviour is probably the greatest single issue on some estates. I wish to see strong action to deal with the problem, but we have real concerns about the measure and about whether it will be effective in terms of delivering a reduction in antisocial behaviour, as I am sure the Minister will be aware following the debates on the Welfare Reform Bill.
There are many reasons for our concerns. Page 12 of the explanatory memorandum states that the Government have no idea how many people with mental health or other health problems might be affected by the legislation. I have information from the Crime and Society Foundation for ASBO Concern that says that
“two thirds of those...involved in”
antisocial behaviour
“have some form of vulnerability.”
Of those, 18 per cent. have a mental disability, and 9 per cent. a physical disability.
Forcing people to comply and behave themselves after they have been evicted so that they are rehabilitated before they are given them fresh accommodation is right, and I would like to see such action made compulsory. I am not convinced, however, that withdrawing benefit for people with problems, be they to do with drugs, alcohol or whatever, will necessarily solve the problem.
Some people would not be bothered, so what would be the net effect of the measure? The report from the local authority consultation stated that their major concern was that the effect of the measure would be an increase in housing arrears, because people will not bother. Money goes directly to claimants, but they will not be especially bothered about how much money they owe because if they are subject to the sanctions, they will go on to the next round and will move elsewhere. I do not think that such an outcome would be effective.
Why have the eight authorities been chosen for the pilot and by what criteria? The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire asked about the chosen authorities’ rehabilitation services. We have to do something about the problem because the costs associated with the families who are subject to the regulations are real and worrying, but without substantial rehabilitation services in place, the measure will not be effective. It will be a busted flush, because people will move to the next local authority area, where they will not be subject to the measures.
I look at the effect of Government policy on failed asylum seekers, whose benefits have been withdrawn, and I ask whether it has resulted in people volunteering to remove themselves from the country. The answer is that it has not; the evidence suggests the opposite. Those people have gone underground or their children have been placed in care, and costs far in excess of those that might have been incurred by an alternative Government policy have been dumped on local authorities.
Although I understand the Government’s intent, I believe that the measure is a blunt instrument that will not deliver the changes that they want. It will force people underground. The eight pilot areas will mean that people are forced elsewhere, which will cause problems. We should be focusing more strongly on some form of introductory tenancy such as my local authority has introduced, which has to be signed and has a package agreed. The fact of people’s being on benefit—not everybody is on benefit—should not determine whether they get support.
Why have the eight authorities been chosen? What provision is being made to ensure that they have rehabilitation services in place? What numbers will be involved—of the 1,500 people evicted a year, how many people will lose housing benefit? What do the Government intend to do to ensure that people with a mental or other illness are not thrown out on the streets because their problem is not recognised? That is a problem now.
Although giving an ASBO may solve the problem, it does not necessarily solve it; dealing with the underlying issues solves the problem. The regulations will not deliver what the Government want to achieve.
4.56 pm
Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) (Lab): Mr. Martlew, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I presume that the Government are attempting to attract problem families to be assisted. I presuppose that because the list of households that will not be affected by the regulations will include practically every one in my constituency that is causing problems for its neighbours. I wonder why the regulations have been so narrowly drawn. I should also like to know whether the regulations will apply to tenants in the private sector as well as those in local authority and social housing.
I am puzzled about why the threat of the removal of housing benefit is being staged. Surely, the overall threat is that housing benefit will be removed. There are certain private sector tenants in my constituency, for example, who may certainly be engaging in what I believe—and what their neighbours believe—is antisocial behaviour, although the rent officer has decided that the rent that should be paid for that property is lower than the rent that the landlord is charging. So we are already looking at people who are finding it difficult to meet their rent, if it is exclusively based on housing benefit.
I should like my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to address the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman. Certainly, I think it highly unlikely that the Government intend that such regulations should impact on people with a mental health disorder. However, that does not remove the fact that it is not infrequently people with serious mental health disorders who cause the most distress to their neighbours. It is difficult, in my experience at any rate, for local authorities, even with combined services, to bring about a change in their behaviour. If an individual or a household does not respond to the threats in the regulations—they are threats—will they be taken through the existing legal process of eviction or will there be a coup de grace? Will they still have the right to appeal, should the court find for the owner of the property and in favour of an eviction order? Will there be a time scale before that house or living quarters can be returned, either to the local authority or the private landlord?
I am a strong supporter of ASBOs and I strongly support the Government’s acknowledgement of the serious damage done to so many by the inexplicable and utterly unacceptable behaviour of a small number of people. On the point made about children by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary in his introduction, I acknowledge that the Government must take that consideration on board. Equally, however, the lives of neighbours’ children are made a misery and something has to be done to protect them.
5 pm
Mr. Plaskitt: I am grateful to Committee members for their contributions to the debate. I shall begin by mentioning the support for the proposals expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale. I appreciate what she said. There is often tragedy within the families that are perpetrating the antisocial behaviour—that has certainly been my experience in my constituency—which is why the measure is cast in the way that it is. We know that the ultimate solution to dealing with antisocial behaviour—relieving those who are on the receiving end of it—also involves resolving the issues within the families that can give rise to it.
There are many families responsible for behaviour that is sometimes appalling, for whom getting to grips with the core problems is not terribly difficult. However, that requires a fairly concentrated engagement with that family in a very intimate way to find out what has gone wrong.
As part of the preparation for introducing the regulations, I have also met families who have been through family intervention programmes and received support to deal with their antisocial behaviour. Some of those families are as appreciative of those programmes as the neighbours who have been relieved of the problem of being on the receiving end of their behaviour. So from that point of view, we are trying to address both symptoms and causes.
I appreciate the support for the measure from the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire. If it were not attached in the way that it is to the provision of family support projects, I would not support it either. I am grateful that he has underlined that point. I can help with his questions about the scale of the measure, about which other Committee members also asked. As we know, some 1,500 families a year in the United Kingdom are evicted from their properties for antisocial behaviour. The eight authorities that have volunteered to pilot the scheme evicted 28 families in the last year for which we have figures. The pilot is based on quite a small sample, but it is of a sufficient size and duration to enable us to judge the effectiveness of the measure. Our conclusion, as a Government, will be that the measure will have been effective if the sanction never has to be applied. It will be effective if all the families have engaged with the support services and start to tackle their antisocial behaviour. That will be the real test of whether it has worked.
The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire asked whether there were too many pilots. I know it sometimes feels like that. I, too, see another pilot coming my way. However, I can reassure him that pilots do not remain as pilots. Although we all see pilots coming into the Department, many of the previous ones—having worked and proven that they work—become policy and are applied universally. Some pilots are leaving as others come in, so there is not an ever-accumulating number.
The hon. Gentleman asked, reasonably, what is the evidence that such intervention works with these families. So far we have established 53 family intervention projects around the country, as we promised to do under the respect action plan. The evidence, drawing not just from the Dundee project, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but also from independent analysis of about eight projects, done by Sheffield Hallam university, is that they are effective. All the evidence shows a dramatic reduction in the incidence of antisocial behaviour by the families that engaged with the projects. In so far as it can be measured, Sheffield Hallam university has suggested that there is about an 80 per cent. reduction in the incidence of antisocial behaviour. The evidence suggests that this is well worth doing.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about resources. I can confirm that there are additional resources for local authorities helping us with the pilots.
The hon. Member for Rochdale likewise asked whether the scheme would be effective. I think I have covered that question in response to issues that were raised by other hon. Members. He asked about people with mental vulnerability, and he rightly said that such vulnerability could contribute to inability to deal with antisocial behaviour, or inability to know how to begin to deal with it.
I hope that I can reassure him by saying that leading charities in the field, including Mind and Rethink, are working with us in devising and drafting the guidance to the pilot local authorities. They support our objectives. I remind him that each of the local authorities involved will have power to decide whether it is appropriate to apply the sanction in individual cases. It is right that that should be so, and I hope that that also reassures the hon. Gentleman about the safeguards and about inappropriate application. Inappropriate application would be pointless. All of the volunteering pilot local authorities have rehabilitation services. Indeed, they would not have been admitted as pilot authorities had that not been the case, because those services are a sine qua non of the scheme.
The hon. Gentleman suggested that we should perhaps consider alternative measures to tackle antisocial behaviour. I do not see the issue as being one of either/or. The other measures that the Government have introduced during the past 10 years to help tackle antisocial behaviour all have their part to play, and the present instrument is an additional one which, if it proves effective in pilots, will be applied more widely. I take on board what the hon. Gentleman said about introductory tenancies. They have their place; my own local authority has them. However, they come at a different point in the drive to reinforce socially responsible behaviour on the part of neighbours. The regulations will apply at a much later, post-eviction stage when things have become really desperate. In those circumstances, the provisional tenancy agreements would presumably not have done the job, and there needs to be some kind of fall-back.
Andrew Selous: Before the Minister concludes, will he say whether, at some stage in the future, the Government might be prepared to extend the scope of this or another similar measure so as to cover more perpetrators of antisocial behaviour? I referred to that earlier and so did the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate.
Mr. Plaskitt: Well, now I am going to advocate the use of pilots, because their purpose is to allow us to obtain evidence and experience on which to proceed. We believe that the pilots are sufficient in scale and number to give us an indication of how the sanction will work and whether it will have the effect that we want. It would be improper to pre-judge the outcome of the pilots, so I shall not do so. However, if they point to a helpful effect for families who might not otherwise have engaged with the relevant support, that would be an indication of success, and we shall of course think about wider application. The point is that we shall do that in the light of what we learn from the two years of piloting.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate asked whether the measure would apply in the private sector. The answer is that it will in the case of any private sector tenant who is on housing benefit. We know that landlords in the private sector frequently find it difficult to deal with tenants who perpetrate antisocial behaviour. It is often harder for them to gather the evidence or to take the necessary preliminary steps that are easier for a local authority or social landlord.
Many private landlords might choose to go down a different route and get rid of the tenant by way of a two-month eviction notice for which no reason is required, rather than prove antisocial behaviour. That means that they are not as good at engaging in tackling the core of the problem as are local authorities. Happily, some local authorities work closely with private landlords to try to assist them in helping families heading towards eviction and to address the core problem. However, there are only a few examples of that.
Paul Rowen: The Minister’s point about private sector landlords prompts me to ask whether the Department has assessed how likely it is that the regulations will deter private landlords from taking on such tenants. I know that private landlords are concerned that benefits are now being paid direct to the tenant rather than to them. If someone has been evicted, they are going to find it difficult to find accommodation anyway. Surely the introduction of this measure will make it even more unlikely that a private landlord will give a tenancy to such a person?
Mr. Plaskitt: Well, the thing that will make it most difficult for a family to secure a new tenancy is if they have not corrected their antisocial behaviour. It is for that reason that our policy thrust is to secure the engagement of the services that tackle the causes of antisocial behaviour.
I know that the hon. Gentleman thinks that private sector landlords are concerned about the switch in the local housing allowance. Here again, I can preach the virtue of pilots. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the local housing allowance was extensively piloted in 14 different areas. The evidence was very encouraging. We have not seen any of the problems that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. Therefore, as the local housing allowance takes effect across the private sector next April, we are expecting to see quite positive outcomes.
Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab): In my constituency, half the problems with tenancies are with the private sector. We have some very good private landlords, and some very bad ones. By choosing particular types of tenants, and putting them together in houses, one can often aggregate the problems which eventually lead to antisocial behaviour and neighbour nuisance.
What evidence does the Minister have that by driving further into debt the tenants of private landlords—by cutting their housing benefit—the private landlord will then engage better with the enforcement of the rent book?
Mr. Plaskitt: May I stress that this is an after-eviction sanction. It comes into effect after a family have lost their housing. If they have never engaged and refuse to engage with the support services and the sanctions come into effect, it bites at the point when they re-apply for housing benefit. The measure will not put into debt people who are already tenants because by definition, they have lost their tenancy as a result of antisocial behaviour. That comes back to the basic proposition. There is an issue that we have to tackle here. Why should the rest of the community give financial support to a family to move back into housing if they are going to wreak havoc on the rest of that community? That is the deal implied by the rights and responsibilities formula that drives the thinking of the measure and the wider agenda.
Jon Trickett: I accept the objective and the method by which we are trying to achieve it. Does the Minister think that private landlords will have a greater propensity to take on such people who are looking for homes, or will the problem be thrown on to the social landlords, particularly the councils, which are increasingly having their housing stock reduced?
Mr. Plaskitt: I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. However, if the sanction is effective in encouraging people to participate in the support and intervention projects, it tackles the problems that could be faced by both the private and social landlords. I hope that we will see its effectiveness applied across both forms of tenancies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate wanted to know why we had staged the penalty. The thinking behind that is that it creates a rolling incentive. Rather than plunging someone into a 100 per cent. cut-off, one would initially say, “You are facing a smaller withdrawal of housing benefit, which will be ramped up.” We think that that will have the effect of engaging that family in a continued discussion as they can see that the potential loss will get worse and worse.
The measure is designed to deal with families on the cusp of deciding whether to participate. We thought that it was reasonable to have a phased introduction of the penalty rather than an immediate move to 100 per cent. We will judge the effectiveness of the regulations by whether it has incentivised families to engage with the process. The thought of seeing an even worse penalty looming in the future will encourage them to make a response before it is too late. In that sense, I am not sure that I agree that the measure is too narrow. I think I can see what my hon. Friend is saying, but we need to proceed carefully with this. This is a very severe sanction and we have tried to craft it as carefully as we can.
In the light of earlier debate and discussion that we had on previous private Member’s legislation—although that was directed at the pre-eviction stage—we decided that this measure had the right blend. I hope that that has addressed the points that have been raised.
We strongly believe that the welfare state should combine rights with responsibilities. The right to benefit can come only with the responsibility to behave with respect to others. I hope that I have managed to reassure hon. Members that this measure strikes the right balance between competing obligations. On that basis, I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved,
That the Committee has considered the draft Housing Benefit (Loss of Benefit) (Pilot Scheme) Regulations 2007.
Committee rose at sixteen minutes past Five o’clock.
 
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