Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill
Lord Windlesham (Conservative)
My Lords, this is the fourth and, I hope, last time that I shall speak about loss of benefit in the proceedings on the Bill. At each stage, the Government were left in no doubt about the strength of opinion in all parts of the House, objecting to the novel and misguided idea of linking the withdrawal or reduction of social security benefits to an alleged failure to comply with the conditions of a community penalty. The objections were shared by all ranks of the Probation Service--chief officers as well as line officers--the Magistrates' Association and the Justices Clerks' Society.
On Report, after a long debate, the House voted by a substantial majority of 170 to 116 to accept a cross-party amendment in the names of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln, and myself. The effect of the amendment was to delay the implementation of the loss of benefit sanction until after a court had made a determination that an offender had failed to comply with the requirements of a probation order, a community service order or a combination order.
Although it is a convention of this House not to reopen at Third Reading an issue which has already been fully debated and decided on a Division, the Government have thought again and have come forward with a series of technical amendments which have been drafted by parliamentary counsel. These amendments, most unusually in my experience, are in the names both of the Minister and myself, speaking, as your Lordships will see, from the Opposition Benches. This accord indicates agreement reached at the earlier stage between the Government and my co-sponsors, if I may so describe them, on the key point; namely, that there should be no loss of benefit before a court has determined that a community sentence has been breached. That requirement is now included in the Bill as amended on Report.
The procedure that will be followed was explained by the Minister in her introduction. In effect, it means that if a probation officer has reason to believe that an offender has failed to comply with the terms of a community order and is referred back to the court in proceedings for breach, at that stage the local benefits office will write to the offender informing him or her that they will face a loss of benefit unless the court finds that the breach is not proven.
This is not an ideal solution. Speaking for myself, I should have preferred the entire notion of making the observance of a community penalty a condition for the receipt of a state benefit to be abandoned. I thought before, and I still think, that it is a wrong and mistaken approach and is unlikely to have the effects intended. But that is for another day. For now, I congratulate the Minister on bringing forward these changes. It is not an easy thing to do. The opinion of this House was quite clear. What was in doubt was whether or not the Government, with their substantial majority in the elected House, would be willing to accept our view. In the outcome, the Minister and the Government Chief Whip have been successful in ensuring that the decision of this House should prevail.
This is a notable concession by the Government. It will give effect to the cross-party amendment carried on Report and, thanks to the government draftsman, the Bill will be in a state in which it can be enacted if the House of Commons is willing to accept the amendments made in this House. As such, they have my applause.