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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, these amendments would allow for the court to have discretion over whether or not the benefit sanction is imposed and the amount of the sanction, rather than for the sanction to be imposed automatically after the court determines that a breach has occurred, as we discussed in a previous amendment. It would constrain that discretion by limiting the extent to which any benefit may be reduced to a maximum of 20 per cent.
The amendments also provide for a maximum 20 per cent reduction to apply to the hardship provisions for JSA recipients. That is redundant as hardship provisions are unnecessary where benefit is reduced rather than removed altogether. Finally, they would limit the maximum period for which benefit may be reduced to four weeks rather than 26 weeks.
Amendment No. 13 provides that the benefit sanction becomes, in effect, an alternative or additional disposal of the court for breaches of community sentence, alongside the existing criminal disposals. This fundamentally alters the purpose of our proposals, including that discussed in the previous amendment. As a result, I would ask the noble Earl not to pursue the proposal.
We have said that we are willing to accept that the loss of benefit should not occur until after the court makes its determination of the breach. But to go further and give the court discretion over whether the sanction should be imposed and over the amount of benefit payments would be undesirable and unprecedented. I do not believe that the courts are equipped to make benefit decisions. Their role in these measures is, and should remain, to determine whether or not a breach has been committed and to set the appropriate criminal penalty.
The remainder of the amendments are designed to water down the benefit sanctions, presumably to minimise their impact on the offender. The Government do not believe it is reasonable to provide unconditional financial support to those who fail to honour their obligation to society to comply with their community sentences.
The reason for the precise percentages is that the benefit sanctions we propose follow the same arrangements and are set at similar levels to other sanctions in the benefit system which deal with breaches of entitlement conditions. We believe that that is appropriate. It is consistent with other entitlement issues; it is fair; and it can be easily understood by both staff and claimants alike. I believe that the amendments would complicate the system unnecessarily and reduce the effectiveness of the sanction in encouraging offenders to face up to their responsibilities.
We believe that the levels and duration of the sanctions we propose for the pilots strike the right balance between ensuring that appropriate sanctions are imposed for failing to meet benefit conditions and the avoidance of hardship.
The noble Earl did not mention the four and 26 weeks, but perhaps I may mention that the ability to vary the amount and length of the sanctions by regulations is necessary to ensure that the Government are able to respond flexibly to the findings of the pilot. I can assure the House that at this stage we have no intention of increasing the length of sanction beyond four weeks. With that response, I urge your Lordships to reject the amendments.
Earl Russell: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her point concerning four weeks. Of course, I never intended to vote on these amendments, least of all at this time of night. If I may say so, the Minister has not made that intention particularly easy for me to carry out.
In response to the question about the extent of the sanction, she said only, "We have always done it this way", which is not by any means entirely true. It is in any case the response of the forces of conservatism. I rather thought that the Prime Minister disapproved of them. However, it does not look as though we shall have a meeting of minds on this subject tonight. We shall doubtless return to it later but, in the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
("(5A) Where the determination by a court that was made in the offender's case is quashed or otherwise set aside by the decision of that or any other court, all such payments and other adjustments shall be made in his case as would be necessary if the restrictions imposed by or under this section in respect of that determination had not been imposed.").
Page 65, line 32, leave out subsection (7).
Page 66, line 23, leave out ("for paragraph (b)") and insert ("after the word "excuse" insert "(or, in the case of a probation order, failed)";
( ) for paragraph (b) of that subsection").
Page 67, line 31, at end insert--
("(5A) Subsection (5A) of section 63 shall apply for the purposes of this section in relation to any determination relating to one or both members of the joint-claim couple as it applies for the purposes of that section in relation to the determination relating to the offender.").
Page 67, line 34, leave out subsection (7).
Page 68, line 4, at end insert--
("( ) of the laying by a person employed or appointed by a probation committee of any information that a person has failed to comply with the requirements of a relevant community order;").
Page 68, line 7, at end insert ("and
( ) of any circumstances by virtue of which any payment or adjustment might fall to be made by virtue of section 63(5A) or 64(5A)").
Page 68, line 9, after ("any") insert ("proceedings are commenced that could result in a").
Page 68, line 10, leave out ("has been made").
Page 68, line 12, at end insert--
("( ) the commencement of the proceedings;").
Page 68, line 13, leave out ("the determination") and insert ("any such determination made in the proceedings").
Page 68, line 14, at end insert ("and
( ) any circumstances by virtue of which any payment or adjustment might fall to be made by virtue of section 63(5A) or 64(5A)").
Page 68, line 14, at end insert--
("(3A) Where it appears to the Secretary of State that--
(a) the laying of any information that has been laid in England and Wales, or
(b) the commencement of any proceedings that have been commenced in Scotland,
could result in a determination the making of which would result in the imposition by or under one or both of sections 63 and 64 of any restrictions, it shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to notify the person in whose case those restrictions would be imposed, or (as the case may be) the members of any joint-claim couple in whose case they would be imposed, of the consequences under those sections of such a determination in the case of that person, or couple.
(3B) A notification required to be given by the Secretary of State under subsection (3A) must be given as soon as reasonably practicable after it first appears to the Secretary of State as mentioned in that subsection.").
Page 68, line 15, leave out subsection (4).
Page 69, line 4, at end insert--
("( ) For the purposes of this section proceedings that could result in such a determination as is mentioned in subsection (3) are commenced in Scotland when, and only when, a warrant to arrest the offender or to cite the offender to appear before a court is issued under section 232(1) or 239(4) of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995.").
Page 95, leave out lines 1 to 3 and insert--
("(b) Chapters I to III of Part II (other than sections 37 and 38 and paragraphs 4 to 6, 8(1), (3) and (4) and 13 of Schedule 5);").
Page 95, line 6, leave out paragraph (g).
Page 99, line 32, at end insert--
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