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The Lord Bishop of Lincoln: My Lords, I speak as the bishop to prisons. Although this is not particularly a prisons matter, since my appointment some years ago I have taken a keen interest in a wide range of penal affairs.
I have continuously and consistently supported the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, in his amendment and do so today because the Bill allows the diktat of the Department of Social Security to replace the court after a probation officer has reported an alleged breach. That cannot be right for the reasons that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, stated.
Lord Carlisle of Bucklow: My Lords, in Committee I expressed my total opposition to the clause and do not renege from that. Its effect is to impose the removal of benefit on an allegation of breach, rather than on the finding of the court--which principle is novel and unacceptable.
I read with great care the Minister's reply in Committee but remain unconvinced by her arguments. She said that the Government are merely adding another condition to a benefit, rather than imposing a penalty. I suggest that people on probation in Manchester and Liverpool who find their benefits withdrawn on an allegation of breach of probation will certainly believe that is a penalty.
The noble Baroness said that the measure would only be imposed in pilot areas for four weeks. Recent information from the Association of Chief Officers of Probation suggests that the normal period between an allegation of breach and a court hearing is longer than four weeks. The individual will have his benefit removed during that time, even if he is later found not in breach--which would be totally and completely wrong. There is no answer to the argument that introducing the removal of benefit that way will be a temptation and pressure for those given community service to get involved again in crime, which they otherwise might not do.
Lord Sheppard of Liverpool: My Lords, I listened carefully to the debate in Committee and to the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, and others today. Several noble Lords whom I admire greatly support the amendment and I have thought long and hard before deciding to disagree and support the Government's proposal.
My noble friend the Minister was correct to place the debate in the context of reform of the system, which is a wide and major issue that we should not consider in isolation from the far-reaching debate on benefits. My noble friend said that the measure was about rights and responsibilities in relation to benefits, so it is properly a DSS matter. I agree.
Many who support the amendment are rightly concerned for people struggling with poverty. The noble Baroness, Lady Stern--with her unrivalled experience--gave an example of a young offender failing to report for community service because of pressures at home over which he or she has little or no control. The probation officer would report such extreme circumstances to the decision maker, who would surely take them into account.
The Commission on Social Justice, chaired with distinction by my noble friend Lord Borrie, said that the best way out of poverty is to obtain a job. The Government have adopted that as a central plank in their strategy to get rid of poverty. I am aware of many outer estates and inner city areas where there has been a no-work culture for three generations. For example,
During the inquiry that I chaired on behalf of all the Churches into unemployment and the future of work, I was persuaded that full employment was possible. I had not believed it before. It is not quite as simple as saying that there are 1 million people and 1 million jobs to which they can go. But I was heartened to receive a ministerial reply at Question Time last month that in the 15 new employment zones established in April the Government would support the introduction of intermediate labour markets aimed specifically at those furthest from employment. Intermediate labour markets are a serious step in job creation and offer 12 months' work with the rate of pay for the job.
Freeing people from the no-work culture is a major task. The Government are right to believe that there must be a stick as well as a carrot. I have not lightly come to that view. The prize of getting people into real work is a major one for every individual concerned and for the community as a whole. I dare to say that some of my allies and best friends who are involved with those on benefits have themselves become locked into the no-work culture, by which I mean that they hardly believe that for those whom they serve anything other than reliance on benefits is possible.
If we believe that finding a proper job is the best way out of poverty, the nation has an obligation, as its part of the contract, to ensure that real jobs are available. For that reason, I mention the importance of intermediate labour markets. That is taking people seriously as having gifts that are needed and valued. Shifting the philosophy of benefit in that way means acknowledging that each citizen has a contract with the state. It also means that one treats people as responsible adults.
Lord Sheppard of Liverpool: My Lords, it is impossible to rebut that proposition because one is trying to guess the future. In turn, I ask the noble Earl whether he can rebut the suggestion that a little pressure will help to play a part in moving people--for whom I pray every Monday of my life--out of the no-work culture and into jobs.
Earl Russell: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Neither of us can do this until there is serious research about the effects of disentitlement to benefit. We on these Benches have been asking for that for a great many years. We do not have it.
Lord Sheppard of Liverpool: My Lords, I am not sure all noble Lords are aware that we are talking about the introduction of pilot schemes which seek to discover just that. I always expect to learn something valuable when the noble Earl speaks; indeed, I usually discover a little piece of history of which I was hitherto unaware. I was surprised, however, when the noble Earl said in Committee that the removal of benefit as provided for under the Bill was,
I recently discussed all this with a very experienced probation officer, who took the view that community service orders needed to be given firm support. He feared that if their authority was diminished we would be hearing more about the necessity of sending a greater number of offenders to prison. I do not want to see that. I believe that community service orders can be more effective than prison in persuading people to change their ways. They deal with offenders while they are still living in the context in which they must work out the rest of their lives. If someone is sent to prison, his or her benefit is of course removed. To break an order of the court is to break the contract between the offender and his or her nation. I believe that to withdraw some benefit is a proper step. Just as moving into a job is the best way out of poverty, so the completion of a community service order is the best way out of a life of crime.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord spoke to Amendment No. 115, which proposes that that Clause 63 be deleted. The noble Lord has every right to do so. However, I believe that the previous debate dealt with a point which the noble Lord did not pursue; namely, the injustice of the removal of part of a person's benefit before the court has decided that he or she has breached the order.
In the context of Amendment No. 115, I should like to speak also about the general proposition underlying the clause. During debate in Committee as to whether the clause should stand part of the Bill I asked several questions about how the withdrawal of benefit would operate in Scotland. The Minister very kindly said that she would write to me, and she did. I received an extremely full and helpful letter. She and her advisers had taken a good deal of trouble over it, for which I am most grateful. The noble Baroness clarified most of the issues about which I had inquired. However, one matter was not satisfactory.
The noble Baroness has just told the House that the whole issue will be decided by the pilots. The noble Baroness confirmed in her letter that no pilot would be run in Scotland, the reason being that the Government wished to avoid any confusion because of the different systems and that it would be,
The noble Baroness knows well that the system in Scotland is completely different. The courts operate in a different way. There are no probation officers; the social work departments do their job. I suspect that the problem is one of devolution awkwardness, but it can be overcome. It would be impossible for the Government to mount pilots in Scotland because the criminal justice system is devolved. At least one of the sanctions that can be applied--the grounds on which benefit may be refused--is devolved in Scotland. But, surely, the Scottish Executive can be asked by the Government to run a pilot in Scotland to discover whether the system works. The behaviour of people whose benefit may be withdrawn if they breach an order may be more or less the same north and south of the Border, but the system is different.
The Government must face up to these devolution difficulties. I can see no reason why the Scottish Parliament should not be asked to run a pilot scheme in Scotland. I hope that the Minister will listen. It will not be good news when it comes out in the Scottish Parliament; and it will do so.
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