I beg to move,
That if proceedings on the Bill are not concluded at this day's sitting the Committee do meet on Thursday 11 July at Nine o'clock and half-past Two o'clock.
If we do not complete our deliberations today, I thought it might be helpful if the Committee were at least able to consider the amendments on the amendment paper. Some of the amendments tabled will stand even when the Government have tabled their amendments; it might help the Committee to hear the reasoning behind them, even if they are not pressed to a vote, so that that debate is behind us when we reconvene at 9 am on 11 July.
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr. O'Hara?
I welcome the sittings motion moved by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead. On Second Reading, the Bill was broadly welcomed by the Opposition and by the House as a whole. We do not want to jeopardise its progress in any way—indeed, we want it to make progress. That, however, is subject to giving it as much detailed consideration as can properly be given to a Bill in the normal course of events. The sittings motion is appropriate in the circumstances.
The Bill has been before hon. Members for some time, and the Opposition have tabled amendments to it. We understand from the Minister's letter that the Government intend to propose extensive amendments. We do not yet know how extensive they may be, but we suspect that they will leave us with a Bill with the same objectives under the same title, but in a different form. We would like the opportunity to give appropriate debate to those amendments at the appropriate time.
We pressed the Government on the matter last Wednesday evening when the money resolution was debated in the House. It is important that amendments are seen as soon as possible and that we have the opportunity to debate them, and it is our duty as the Opposition to press the Government on the issue. The Minister has been open about his intentions, and we are grateful to him for his correspondence, but it is important that extensive amendments to a private Member's Bill are tabled as early as possible so that
proper debate of a Bill is possible. In that light, the sittings motion sets out an appropriate way for the Committee to proceed.
First, Mr. O'Hara, I welcome you to the Chair of the Committee.
In view of the sittings motion, I hope that it will help the Committee if I use the debate to set out the Government's thinking on the Bill. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead for proposing a Bill on an important issue that we all face in our constituencies. It shows the strength of the private Member's Bill procedure. As the promoter of a successful private Member's Bill, I wish a more veteran Member of Parliament a fair wind.
I start by apologising that the Government have not yet been able to table amendments. I hope that all Committee members received my letter. As I explained on Second Reading, the Government are highly sympathetic to the aims of the Bill. It has the potential to be an additional weapon in the fight against the antisocial behaviour that so plagues our constituencies, including my own, Croydon, North. Like my right hon. Friend, I have been struck by the number of people coming to my advice surgeries to complain about often intolerable behaviour. However, we believe that the Bill will have to be substantially rewritten to make it workable and to meet human rights concerns.
I said on Second Reading that the Government would work with my right hon. Friend to get the Bill into shape, and our intention was to table amendments in time for Committee. Even last week, when I addressed the House on the money resolution motion, we still intended to have our amendments ready, but in the end we felt that we were unable to table amendments that were sufficiently robust and that it would be more useful to debate the issue thoroughly in Committee and then table Government amendments. We originally thought of doing that on Report, but I support my right hon. Friend's motion that the Committee convene at a time closer to Report. I regret any inconvenience that the delay may have caused hon. Members, and I hope that they all received the letter that I wrote on Friday.
As the Committee will understand, the Bill raises some complex and technical questions. Withdrawing or, as the Government envisage, reducing benefits involves removing what would otherwise be a person's legal entitlement. Although there are several precedents elsewhere in the benefits system, we must tread carefully; in particular, we must ensure that any legislation complies with the Human Rights Act 1998 and that its provisions are both fair and proportionate. An essential point is that the Bill is designed as an additional weapon in the fight against antisocial behaviour, not as the sole or main solution.
The Government already have a wide-ranging strategy on antisocial behaviour. For example, the Home Office is currently seeking new powers in the Police Reform Bill to expand and improve the use of antisocial behaviour orders. Evidence shows that the orders can be highly effective in cutting short a pattern
of antisocial behaviour, but the Government admit that the uptake of the orders has not been as high as we would have wanted. It is hoped that the new measures will help by broadening the range of organisations that can apply for an order.
At the same time, the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, or the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister as it is now, is consulting on a variety of options for tackling antisocial tenants. That includes ideas such as downgrading the status of a person's tenancy if they act antisocially. Lower level schemes, such as the so-called acceptable behaviour contracts, can often be extremely successful in deterring antisocial conduct without the need for penalties or to involve the courts. The Bill before us has the potential to take its place in the armoury and send the message that the right to support from the state is linked to the responsibility to behave appropriately. Judging by our debates so far, I am sure that all parties would warmly endorse that principle.
I should like to outline some of the issues that we have been considering under two headings: the trigger for the sanction and the benefit sanction itself. On the trigger, part of our difficulty comes from the nature of antisocial behaviour. In other areas in which we use benefit sanctions, the trigger is fairly easy to establish: for example, a jobseeker can be sanctioned for failing to attend an interview with an adviser; and people can be sanctioned after being convicted twice of benefit fraud or if a court rules that they have breached their community order. In those cases, the facts are clear, but antisocial behaviour is harder to pin down. It can cover a wide range of conduct, from littering to serious harassment.
As a Government policy action team pointed out in a comprehensive report two years ago, there is no single accepted definition of antisocial behaviour. In fact, a consultation document entitled ''Tackling Anti-Social Tenants'', published recently by the then DTLR, specifically asked whether there should be a standard definition of antisocial behaviour. All offences are antisocial in that they represent activity that society regards as unacceptable, but very few are inherently antisocial in the sense that anyone convicted of them would automatically qualify for a benefit sanction. A great deal will turn on the type of behaviour involved in the offence and its context.
A further difficulty is that we are particularly concerned with unneighbourly behaviour. The Government believe that if the sanction is to be the withdrawal of housing benefit, it would be right to limit the definition of antisocial behaviour to things done in a person's neighbourhood, not 50 miles away.
We conclude that a separate decision would be needed about whether something should count as antisocial behaviour for the purposes of the Bill—the decision would not flow automatically from the result of the court proceedings, although for fairness, as the circumstances might be in dispute, it is likely that a court or similar body would have to make that decision. That in turn raises further practical questions. We all want the procedure to operate with as light a touch as possible. The Government do not
want to set up elaborate new procedures that could hold up the workings of civil or criminal courts.
I shall now deal with the sanction that should be imposed. I should say at once that I use the word ''sanction'' simply because it is a fairly well established term in the benefits world. The Government intend that the measures in the Bill should primarily be a means of sending the message that the right to benefit is linked to responsibilities. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead talks about withholding housing benefit in full for up to a year, but I do not think that the Government envisage such a severe step. We are more likely to propose a reduction in benefit, and if that reduction were substantial, an underpinning hardship regime might be needed.
For comparison, I point out that our existing benefit sanctions are broadly equivalent to the hardship regime for jobseeker's allowance. That reduces the benefit by an amount worth 40 per cent. of the so-called applicable amount or income allowance for a single person; if someone in the family is pregnant or seriously ill, the reduction is 20 per cent. Besides being consistent with what we do already, a sanction along those lines might also be fairer. The amount of housing benefit that people receive varies hugely, depending on their rent. The average payment to private tenants in London is about £100 a week, whereas for council tenants in the north-east, it is only £37 a week. Simply withholding the amount of benefit in payment would therefore have widely differing effects.
I believe that, in practice, regulation-making powers would need to be taken to define the details of the benefit sanction. That is what we have done elsewhere. However, it is important to have a clear idea of how the scheme would work.
I apprehend that the Minister may be approaching the conclusion of his remarks. I am grateful for his generosity in accepting that it is less than ideal that the Government amendments have not been tabled. I do not want to go into that in too much detail, but I needed to place it on the record from the point of view of the Opposition.
Given what has failed to happen so far, the technical issues relating to the Bill—the Minister has gone into them with some care—and the fact that the Government are to propose amendments that will extensively redraft the Bill and in many ways create a new one, will the hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that those amendments will be tabled in good time before the Committee reconvenes? That would enable the Opposition and other members of the Committee to consider the amendments, digest some of the issues that the Minister has talked about, table our own amendments and have the right debates in Committee.
We are asking not for a tremendous amount of time, just for a reasonable amount. The Government amendments should not be tabled at the very last minute to prevent the Opposition or anyone else from having a careful think about them and tabling their own amendments.
The hon. Gentleman has spoken perfectly reasonably and made a perfectly reasonable request. All I can say is that I will do my best. The timing of the legislation is not of the Government's choosing as it is not a Government Bill but a private Member's Bill. If it had been Government legislation, we would have had the considerable amount of time required to seek legal advice and frame appropriate amendments.
Mr. Field rose—
Recently there was some rather silly controversy about my Department having a list of friendly Members of Parliament. I must look to see whether my right hon. Friend is on that list or a different one. It does not exist, by the way—or if it does, it is called ''Dod's''.
I think that we should proceed.
I will do my best. Because the timing of the Bill is not of our choosing, we have proceeded with some speed, although we were still not able to table amendments for today. My ministerial colleagues and I need time to frame amendments extremely carefully. That is the difficulty, but I take note of what the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) said, and I am sure that the Committee shares his view.
In conclusion, I hope that I have helped the Committee by clarifying the Government's position. I have been enabled to do so early in our proceedings by our late decision to debate having further sittings. I reaffirm our intention to table amendments. We need to find robust and workable ways to achieve our objective, and I welcome the debate that we shall have this morning, as it will give us in government an opportunity to listen to the arguments on an important but most complex issue.
Most of us share the feeling that our welfare state needs to be underpinned again—it was originally—by a proper balance of people's rights and duties. Perhaps we have neglected that debate for too long. Certainly, we have neglected to translate rhetoric about citizenship into workable legislation, which is the task before the Committee.
I begin by welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. O'Hara.
I welcome the Minister's statement. As I have considered the Bill and talked to those who specialise in the subject, I have become increasingly concerned that it goes far too far. The Minister suggested that the Committee would need to consider the trigger and the sanction, saying that rather than abolish rights to housing benefit, the benefit should be reduced. In making such suggestions, he went some way towards answering the concerns that have been expressed.
As the hon. Member for Hertsmere said, it is vital that we see the Government amendments as soon as possible so that those who would have to implement the Bill in our communities can work out whether they believe it to be workable. More importantly, they need to work out whether the regime that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead proposes and that the Committee will scrutinise would meet his objectives. Some of the concerns that I have heard suggest that the Bill could not only be unworkable and harmful, but aggravate antisocial behaviour. On Second Reading, there was agreement from both sides of the House that antisocial behaviour was a major problem in our communities. The last thing that Parliament needs to do is to pass legislation that will aggravate it.
We need to be exceedingly clear, which is why I said on Second Reading that we wanted to ensure that the Bill was
''targeted at exactly the right problem''.
''I submit to the House that it will require full, and not necessarily expeditious, scrutiny to ensure that it tackles the offence.''—[Official Report, 19 April 2002; Vol. 383, c. 880.]
I therefore welcome the idea that the full debate will take place later, perhaps in July. We might have to extend it beyond that date, possibly even past the summer recess, to ensure that the details are worked through. The Bill represents a substantial change if one considers the number of people on housing benefit and the extent of the problem; it could have a huge effect. We must ensure that when we have seen the Government's proposed amendments and debated them, we end up with the right legislation for the problem.
As the Minister said, the Government are taking a range of actions following the social exclusion unit's 2000 report. We all hope that the development of ASBOs and the measures in the Police Reform Bill will go some way to making such action more effective. Like a number of other local authorities, the borough of Kingston has developed acceptable behaviour contracts following previous legislation. Those are beginning to have an effect. While there are a number of measures that relate to people who behave in an unacceptable way—measures concerning enforcement, prevention and resettlement—we should be careful that we do not hastily enact legislation that could make vulnerable people destitute. We should remember that.
It is easy to say to constituents whose liberties and freedoms are severely affected by the behaviour of people who act antisocially that we will do something—that we will take away such people's benefits; but if we realise that the consequences of doing that are people on the streets and children living in poverty or taken into care, we might want to think again. We should consider more than human rights issues, although the Minister was right to pay attention to them; we should ask ourselves whether we are taking society forward. Many of those who act antisocially could be turned from their behaviour through engagement and support, and we must ensure that measures to enable that to happen are also in
place. Assistance should be available as well as enforcement measures.
I am delighted that the sittings motion has been moved, and I look forward to seeing the Government amendments as soon as possible. I hope that when we debate them, we shall have an idea of subsistence levels of benefit and of income, so that whatever measures we alight on to penalise people whose behaviour is antisocial, we do not drive them below those levels.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. O'Hara, not least because I know that you have great knowledge of the subjects under discussion.
It is appropriate that I follow the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), because the borough of Knowsley is one of the poorest in Britain and his borough, Kingston, is one of the richest. That might explain why some of us feel more strongly than others about this issue. I support the sittings motion moved by my right hon. Friend, the Member for Birkenhead, as it would give the Government the opportunity to table amendments. I agree with the hon. Member for Hertsmere that we need time to digest the meaning of those amendments and to take a considered view, rather than to take Hobson's choice on the day.
None the less, I remain somewhat perturbed, and now seems to be an appropriate time to give notice to my hon. Friend the Minister. Although he supports the purposes of the Bill, he seems to be concerned about the means of delivering them. In particular, I am worried that he places great emphasis on reduction—a word that he used repeatedly—of housing benefit, rather than its withdrawal.
If the Bill is to be targeted and effective it must do two things. First, it must act as a warning to those families who might step over the line, telling them that the withdrawal or reduction of benefit is possible. In that sense, a reduction might be a workable alternative. However, the Bill has a second purpose. Those who, day in, day out, have to put up with antisocial behaviour of the most outrageous kind, which is what many of our constituents fear, should have the right to expect that such people will be removed. The problem with reduction is that finding only £25 a week means that those people can stay put, whereas having to find the whole of the rent would mean that they could not stay put. I am therefore reluctant to support any move in the direction suggested by my hon. Friend the Minister, because it would render the Bill ineffective.
Will the hon. Gentleman say whereabouts in the Bill it says to where such residents should be removed?
The hon. Gentleman must have had his head under the table. The Bill does not mention that; it refers to the removal of housing benefit. The argument that I am developing is that most of the families who might be so affected would not be able find the whole of the rent from their own resources. They would therefore have to go.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with great interest. My constituency has some of the wealthiest wards in the country, but it also has poor wards that are in receipt of single regeneration budget funding. From the complaints that I receive from those wards, I know how serious the problem of antisocial behaviour is. Is it the hon. Gentleman's experience, as it is mine, that the victims of antisocial behaviour are often the ones who have remove themselves from their properties?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right. I have complained many times about the fact that, in the end, the council has to transfer the people who have been harassed beyond endurance rather than those who have caused the problem, and that is exactly where my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead is coming from.
I make one final point. I would be most interested to hear what advice my hon. Friend the Minister's has received on the human rights implications of the Bill, and his response to those issues. I enthusiastically supported bringing the European convention on human rights into our domestic legislation, but I am growing somewhat weary of legislation that is meant to protect the rights of the individual being constantly wheeled out to support the rights of those who—to use the new Labour equation—accept all their rights but none of their responsibilities. My hon. Friend the Minister may view my remarks as somewhat unhelpful, and I await his amendments with some trepidation.
I share the disappointment of my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth). Here we are with a Bill before us, debating a basic issue of principle, yet we have just heard two contrasting points of view being expressed. We are being bombarded with mail from all sorts of groups, and the Government are in effect saying, ''Go away and mill around a bit while we get our heads straight.'' It is a disappointing response.
We have had five years of initiatives, action, statements, and declamations of ''We're going to do this, we are considering doing that, we have done so and so.'' That sort of thing gets in the newspapers and the public think that something is happening. People visit our surgeries and tell us horror stories about the way their neighbours are behaving; they say that their lives are hell and ask us what we are going to do about it now that the Government have come up with so many initiatives. I then ring up the people at the local council to find out what is being done to seize those initiatives and they say, ''Um . . . they won't work.''
The same is true of some of the Government's other initiatives, such as those that are designed to enable education authorities to deal with truancy. People come to my surgery and say that there are kids hanging around town, making a nuisance of themselves and misbehaving, and their kids want to follow their example and walk out of school. I ring up the local education authority and ask what it is doing, only to find that it is doing nothing and that there is
nothing that it can do. This is after five years of initiatives. The Government are all fur coat and no knickers in this respect.
Has the hon. Gentleman seen evidence from the Government—knickers or no knickers—showing that one reason why their initiatives have not worked is that people at local level do not know that some of those tools are available to them and are confused about how to implement them?
That is completely wrong. The local authorities and the education authorities know full well what has been proposed. They have considered it and found, on taking advice, that it does not work. That is the problem.
We have arrived at a basic division of principle. I must confess that I was a bleeding-heart liberal until I met my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead. I espoused the kind of bleeding-heart liberalism that used to dominate the Liberal Democrat party until it discovered yomping with its previous leader and reverted to Gladstonian social policy. However, I am glad to see that—at least in Surbiton—bleeding-heart liberalism is alive and well. I have no doubt that if, when the Bill is enacted, anybody is threatened with the sort of initiatives that it proposes, the Liberal Democrat welcome wagon will be go round to their house and offer them bowls of soup and nourishing gruel to compensate them for the loss of benefit.
I am glad to know that that spirit is still alive in Surbiton, but it is not alive in Grimsby, Liverpool or Manchester, where we are grappling with the problem in our surgeries and people are grappling with it in their lives. It is making their lives miserable and they want something done. There has been so much time to think about the matter, so much consideration and so many announcements that we should by now have had a clear statement and a clear set of proposals from the Government rather than have my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead
''Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer,
And without sneering teach the rest to sneer.''—
yet that has been the approach.
The Bill contains a ready-made proposal. A private Members' Bill is a vulnerable, frightened and timid creature that is easily exposed, starved to death, talked out or battered, especially by Governments who do not want it to pass. If the Government do not take the initiative and come to the Committee, which has gathered here to discuss the principle, with definite proposals, they are participating in the death throes of the Bill.
It is disappointing to find the Government saying at this late stage that they have not thought it through. Why not? We have been thinking it through for years now. Why have we not reached some conclusion? It is no use constantly making announcements that the Government are going to do this, or are considering that, that they will grapple with the problem and eliminate nasty neighbours by 2004, or 50 per cent. of them by 2003, which is our usual approach. If we are
going to announce initiatives, we must think them through. If we have thought them through, they should be ready for discussion in the House when a Bill such as this one is introduced.
The Bill is a step in the right direction. Despite all the arguments against it that have poured in to me from various groups, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead on his Bill. He has taken the initiative and should therefore be sustained and helped, rather than treated to a half-hearted undermining of the basic principle of his Bill. I am truly disappointed by the message that the Minister, who is an honourable, able and much respected Minister, has given us from on high.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead on introducing the Bill.
Antisocial behaviour is one of the most important issues—if not the most important—facing our constituents. I do not want to sound alarmist, but if we do not get to grips with some of the things that are happening on our estates, we will be in serious trouble. One gets the feeling that if someone on an estate stood in an election for the ''Antisocial Democratic Movement Party'', he would probably win if people believed that he could solve some of the problems. The issue transcends party politics and all other issues. People believe that it is their right to be protected from the behaviour that they are forced to endure day in, day out.
I support the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East. Individuals' human rights are important, but they should not be used as an excuse to allow people to behave in a way that impacts on the human rights of others. It sometimes seems to my constituents and me that some people's human rights are perceived as more important than the human rights of others. Indeed, the human rights of those who commit offences often seem to be regarded as more important than the human rights of victims and the law-abiding majority. If we do not reverse that perversion,—I shall not say with contempt, because that would be an overstatement, but we deserve to be regarded less favourably than might otherwise be possible.
On the sittings motion, I am disappointed with the Minister's remarks about amendments. It is important to ensure that the Bill works technically and is fair, but the aim is to deter people from the sort of behaviour that is driving many of our constituents mad. The amendments that the Minister will table might make the Bill toothless, and if it has no deterrent aspect, it simply will not work. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) makes the point that local authorities will not use the legislation if they think that it will not work. Amending the Bill might leave us with a piece of legislation that is supposed to tackle antisocial behaviour and deal with those who refuse to conform to normal rules of behaviour but that is, unfortunately, worthless. The Minister should take that into account when he discusses the amendments with his officials. We want fairness, but we also want rigour—we want a Bill that will have an effect.
The Committee and the Government should recognise the impact that was made by imprisoning a woman for not sending her child to school for a considerable period of time. Head teachers throughout the country said that pupils were coming to school whom they had not seen for months on end—they did not even know they were on the register. Those are facts, and it is a fact that in some circumstances the law must deter. I want the Bill to retain that deterrent aspect.
As the hon. Member for Hertsmere said, it is important that hon. Members see the Government amendments in good time. Having listened to my hon. Friends, I am sure I am not alone in wanting to scrutinise those amendments to ensure that in seeking fairness, natural justice and the protection of human rights, as we all want, we do not make the Bill toothless.
Mr. O'Hara, I assumed that there was such universal agreement in welcoming you to the Chair that I need not begin my initial speech by doing so. I now make amends by welcoming you to the Chair. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East, you have much experience of the issues that we are debating and many thoughts on the subject.
Today's events provide a good example of every black lining having a silver cloud, or every silver lining having a black cloud. The Government's inability to table amendments in the allotted time has allowed us on the sittings motion to debate the nature of the Bill, and that has revealed differences between hon. Members.
We are not dealing with a one-off measure. I want the Bill to be seen within the total framework of Government policies, but I do not think that my hon. Friend the Minister stressed enough how new the political territory is that we are crossing. The politics of behaviour is the issue that will dominate this Parliament and the next, and our failure to deal with it in the past may mean that the debate forges new party loyalties. The old past loyalties are being replaced, but not by the third way, which was merely a convenient phrase used to shoehorn out a Government who had overstayed their welcome. The big divide will arise from the question of how to deal with people who behave in a totally unacceptable way in the public domain.
No hon. Member has claimed in conversation with their constituents that a panacea exists for the problem. We face a fundamental breakdown in our society because private virtues are no longer taught in an increasing number of families. Without those private virtues, which centre on self-restraint and self-control, many of us in the public domain cannot have a reasonable existence. How we deal with the breakdown of the teaching and transference of private virtue is a question that will occupy the time of most Government Departments and of the House and its Committees when they consider legislation. I have never tried to present the Bill as a panacea for the problem of noisy neighbours, let alone to the fundamental problem that something that we do not like is happening to our society.
I welcome the moves that the Government have emphasised are important and the measures that they might introduce. The Bill represents not the first but the last step against those who behave unacceptably. There will be negotiations and warnings, and local authorities will try to build on the sort of success that Dundee council has had in negotiating people out of unacceptable behaviour.
An example of the divide that will be part of the new politics was revealed when my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton—I regard him as my hon. Friend—referred to ''vulnerable people''. No local authority will allow the measures to be applied against those who are mentally ill and who can rightly be called vulnerable. However, we must sadly accept that certain families are, to put it politely, nasty—or to put it as our constituents would, evil.
Such people are totally unrestrained by any of the civilising influences that we have tried to build up in this country over thousands of years. They do not comprise a large group—we are not talking about hoovering up every other person in problem areas. When I asked officers in Wirral, which covers four constituencies, how many families they would want to use the measure against, they said 15. Fifteen divided among four does not produce a large number, but as those officers said, being able to act would enable them to set a standard, so that other families who might join the 15 would see that life might not be so pleasant for them if they did.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton asked, rightly, where such families would go, but I do not care where they go, provided they stop tormenting and destroying the lives of my constituents. I hope that the Government will give careful consideration to the idea of enforcing model tenancy agreements—not just handing out pieces of paper, but really enforcing agreements by using sanctions—and that they will introduce proposals to allow local authorities to fast track evictions, so that they do not have to go through the current cumbersome procedure.
I also hope that in the new spending round local authorities who have the Surbiton spirit and do not believe in the old Elizabethan phrase, ''You should drive these people out of your constituency,'' will be given money to build indestructible sin bins, where families will remain until they learn to behave. That has been done in Germany, and it does change behaviour. There is plenty of land near to the motorway in Wallasey and Birkenhead where sin bins could be built, and we will apply to the Government for money to do that.
First, may I put on record the fact that Kingston and Surbiton contains several very poor areas where the problems that have been discussed in Committee can readily be seen? I share the Committee's concern that antisocial behaviour is a major problem in our society, but I want to focus on the question that the right hon. Gentleman says he does not care about, because we cannot ignore the answer to that question. He proposes sin bins, in
which case we should be debating a Bill to introduce sin bins, not a Bill to withdraw benefits, because we have not answered the question, ''What happens then?''
We are not even debating the Bill at the moment.
The idea of using sin bins has been put to the Government, and I hope that they will respond. We do not need legislation to build sin bins; we need the Government to grant local authorities money to build them. We need legislation to make the change to housing benefit that is proposed in the bill. The former is procedural, the latter legislative.
One of the Bill's attractions is that it would allow benefit to be withdrawn irrespective of the landlord. In my experience, where the perpetrators of the problem are local authority tenants, the local authority will evict them even if doing so takes a while, but they cannot evict the tenants of private landlords. Most estates now include housing owned by private landlords, who, provided that the rent is paid—usually through the state—are not especially interested in the behaviour of their tenants.
I very much agree. Applying the measure to landlords is important so that the public can see that it is even-handed. In Birkenhead, many private landlords do an extremely good job, but others have destabilised stable working-class communities by buying houses at auction, tarting them up, letting them to tenants and asking way above a reasonable rent for housing benefit. The tenant families get into debt, and by the time the landlords evict them they have done much to undermine the local stability that existed before the wretched process started.
I cannot resist replying to that point and to the one made by the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East. The Government are elsewhere proposing selective licensing by local authorities of private sector landlords to deal with the precise problem that the right hon. Gentleman describes. It is not that the Bill does not discriminate between different types of tenant, but that it discriminates against tenants by not covering antisocial behaviour by people who own their houses. There is discrimination, but it is of a type that stigmatises social tenants.
I accept my hon. Friend's point. The Bill does not deal with everything. When an irate Labour voter from Fulham wrote to me and said that the Bill did not deal with the unacceptable behaviour of yuppies, I had to write back to say that, sadly, we do not have many yuppies in Birkenhead—or if we do, they are very well behaved. If I represented a seat where yuppies were causing a great deal of trouble, my duty as the local MP would have been to consider what legislative changes would be required to deal with them. I sent the correspondent to talk to his local MP and I await a Bill about yuppies.
However, we have to deal with the charge that what the Bill deals with is an attack on the poor. It represents a demand from the poor to control the
unacceptable behaviour of people whom they do not want in their midst—not because they are uncharitable or unforgiving, but because any scrap of reasonable life has become impossible for them. As somebody with a bank balance, if I am up against it, I can move. Many of my constituents do not have bank balances: they are trapped by their circumstances. The Bill is a plea from the poorer areas of Birkenhead.
I am ashamed to be an MP when at public meeting after public meeting, I do not have answers for my constituents. When the role of the MP was different and people asked questions about housing, employment and social security, I could always give my constituents an answer, even if they did not like the one I gave. Now there are public meetings at which 200 or 300 people turn out at the drop of a hat to say how intolerable life has become because of the behaviour of perhaps only one family in the area, and I have to say that there is nothing much that we can do. Not one antisocial behaviour order has been issued in Birkenhead.
Before the 1997 election, I put to the Labour party the idea that, as parental authority collapsed, the local authority of the police should be reinforced and they should be allowed to impose penalty points. After that stage, the courts could automatically place restrictions on individuals. We did not go down that path; instead we went down the path of ASBOs. That is the one thing about we can get a public march in Birkenhead—there are people asking for antisocial behaviour orders to be issued, so they must believe that they work. Perhaps some groups can get their act together so that the problem can come before the courts. They do not believe that the orders are a panacea, but they might offer some respite.
I am sorry to interrupt my right hon. Friend, but I want to take him back to his remarks about what he called sin bins, but I think might be called supported housing, because the point is important.
We want housing benefit to be withdrawn from some families in some circumstances. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton asked what would happen to those families. Beyond the scope of the Bill, there is a necessity for the Government to consider supported housing for families that are simply beyond the realm of normal living, so that we can support them and try to encourage the parenting skills and family relationships that we think are acceptable. I believe that in the last Parliament the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) talked about the concept of supported housing. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead that we should consider it.
Linked with that is an Opposition new clause about the effect on children, which I welcome. I would argue that in the extreme circumstances in which we want the Bill to apply, it might not be in the children's best interests to continue to live in a certain household, although that is not to say that we want to hoover them all up and take them away for ever.
All the schools in my constituency are now achieving, thank goodness, in part because of the reforms that the previous Government introduced and on which our Government have built. The school with the most difficulties in Birkenhead is in a tough area, the head and the teachers said that, generally speaking, 60 per cent. of the children were looked after by their parents, but 40 per cent. were not. When I asked one little fellow what it was like being in foster care, he said that it was warm and there was food in the cupboards.
We must not get too idealistic about how wonderful some families are to their children. Sadly, some parents see their children as benefit books. When the teachers try to persuade the mothers to transfer the child benefit book to an older sibling so that they can buy food for the younger ones, the mothers fight like hell to keep the books, because they regard the money as theirs and not the child's.
I intervene at the risk of testing your patience, Mr. O'Hara, but I have given some thought to what we should do with such families. I am more and more inclined to the idea of weekend prisons for families that do not function properly, so that they can be given the opportunity every weekend to attend compulsory programmes that will help them to modify their behaviour. Perhaps that could be fitted into such legislation.
Given the ideas that have been raised, I hope that the Government will listen carefully and think that a few of them could grow legs. I hope that they will want to bring those ideas back in their proposals.
In some important respects, the Bill tries to break new territory. I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton for putting the traditional arguments against. That was valuable. Events are so fast moving that the outcome of elections will be determined by how effectively we control the new barbarism. We must consider how we put walls up to prevent it, as well as taking much longer-term measures to try to cultivate once again the idea that private virtues are to be commended, not scorned.
The Bill suggests that benefits should not come unconditionally. Although the Government have used that argument in understandable ways to coerce people back into work, we are entering new territory in two ways, so it is good to debate the subject. We shall indulge in further debate with organisations and so on. One of my constituents said to me, ''I work, Frank. I have to turn up at a certain time. I am expected to dress in a certain way, and behave in a certain way to my colleagues. If I do not fulfil those conditions, I don't get paid.'' He cannot see why, if he has to accept conditions so that he can earn his wage, it should be different for people who draw benefits. That is not to say that people should not have benefits, but those benefits should be earned by being good citizens and should not come without strings attached.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton asks about the subsistence level of income that people should have whatever their behaviour, but I think that we should ask about the subsistence level
of behaviour. We could turn the question around, and make it so that people have rights if they clearly behave properly.
I am approaching the end of what I want to say, but I hope that the Government have picked up two themes that came from practically all the contributors to the debate. The first is concern about the European convention on human rights. It was introduced into our law for the best reason in the world, which was that we did not want minorities to be persecuted. When we saw the relevant legislation going through, none of us believed that it might be used so that minorities could persecute the majority.
If the Government moved away from my Bill because they felt that the courts would not uphold it because of the convention, there would be political consequences. Also, it would negate their duty to say that the convention itself might need to be changed. Its main thrust should be enshrined in our law, but the legislation should not be so clumsy that it protects those who are undesirable enough to be the subjects of my Bill.
The second theme about which the Government should think seriously is the level of penalties. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton was pleased when it was clear that the penalty would not be the whole benefit, whereas I was appalled. The Government ought to uncouple in their mind the measure that they would like to introduce and the measure that they think that they could introduce with reference to only the terms of the European convention. They ought to get the penalty right and then argue that the convention should be tested in the courts, and if necessary changed, rather than introducing a penalty that they know will not allow human rights lawyers to cause any trouble.
When I mentioned the current penalties at public meetings, people generally fell about laughing. If I could crack jokes at after-dinner speeches and get a response as excited as that of my constituents when I tell them that the Government use a series of penalties against people on the new deal and so on, I would be a rich man. No doubt the registrar who looks after the Register of Members' Interests would require a new category for my earnings from that.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, if not my right hon. Friend, for giving way. When the Minister talked about the reduction rather than the withdrawal of benefits, he mentioned the penalty being proportionate. Given that we imprison rapists, terrorists and murderers but feed, clothe and house them in warm conditions, why does the right hon. Gentleman think that the penalty of total withdrawal that he proposes is proportionate? Those affected may be below subsistence levels of income, and unable to house and feed themselves.
We are talking not about innocent people, but about people for whom the panoply of preventive measures will have been taken—from friendly chats, to serious warnings and attempts such as the Dundee experiment to negotiate through difficulties. A person has to be convicted before the
courts not once but twice. My constituents think that I am going soft when I tell them that. Their urgency is such that they would like it to happen on the first occasion. I hope, therefore, that when the Government examine the matter, they will think it proportionate to use the more gentle deductions on the first occasion, to show people that on the next occasion we will get serious and they will lose their benefit.
In every aspect of law, whether it deals with housing benefit or with eviction, people have to believe that the penalty will be carried out if they continue to behave in a certain way. Some people in my constituency do not believe that they will ever reach the end of the line and be evicted, however bad their behaviour. It was the same when I was a schoolteacher. One gave children chance after chance, but if they believed that they would never be excluded from school one could not change their behaviour. The measure is not about wanting to withhold housing benefit completely from somebody but about having a deterrent so that people know that that will happen if they do not change their behaviour. Is that not the point?
That is precisely the point. The Bill is not about imposing sanctions but about trying to change behaviour. It also draws a line in the sand so that people know that if they go beyond that line on two occasions, there are penalties. That is immensely important.
The right hon. Gentleman touches on an important point. Given that antisocial behaviour has to be established on two separate occasions through an order of the court or a conviction, and given the seriousness of the antisocial behaviour with which the Bill seeks to deal, does he agree that the period during which those two occasions may fall should be reasonably long?
Indeed, and that is why, although we will not discuss the amendments today, I was pleased that the Opposition tabled an amendment changing the period during which the penalties might operate from three to five years.
Probably nobody in Parliament will say that he or she is against the Bill or its objectives. The Opposition will say that we all stand shoulder to shoulder, are all appalled by the rise in antisocial behaviour and are all just as sympathetic towards our constituents as I am in proposing the measure. Then they will say that they have just a small doubt and do not think that the Bill is quite the right way to go.
Those people have every right to pursue that argument and to try to convince the Commons and the Lords of it, but I believe that their constituents will be watching them. Well before the next election this will be one of the big issues on which our electorate will ask for action from us. Of course, there is one part of my nature that does not like doing things because the majority wants them and feels that one ought to stand out and test whether such a measure is the right way forward. Members who hold the view that it is
right to deal with the issue but not in this way will therefore have an important function.
Come election day, one of the pieces of information that our opponents will be circulating against us is how we have voted on this and similar measures. As the old politics of class clearly belongs to the past, the new politics of behaviour will dominate how people vote, even if not all politicians will have managed to catch up with that agenda by the time of the general election.
I am immensely pleased that we have had the opportunity in discussing this sittings motion to have such a wide-ranging debate and for all of us to say how we feel the Bill fits in with how our own constituents think politics is developing and how Government and Opposition see that. I end by asking your advice, Mr. O'Hara. If the Committee goes on to discuss the amendments on the amendment paper, would that mean that we could not come back to them in the other sittings?
My understanding, on advice, is that it is technically possible for the amendments to be considered. My advice to the Committee is that if we proceed with the amendments today, it might cause technical difficulties in further proceedings. When we finish debating the sittings motion, it might be useful for the Committee to adjourn. The way forward will then be clear.
The whole Committee is grateful for your advice, Mr. O'Hara. As the person in whose name the amendments were tabled, I am happy to abide by that. We do not know what form the Government's proposals will take, and we wish to reserve our position. Some of the amendments may be relevant to what the Government eventually propose. Given what you said, and given our desire for a full debate at that time, I would follow your advice that the Committee should adjourn. The amendments may then be withdrawn and other amendments tabled in the light of Government amendments, hopefully in good time.
On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. It is on a completely different subject. The course taken by today's debate has reminded me of my policy of declaring interests on every conceivable occasion. I am not sure whether I am required to declare the fact—I shall do so in any case—that I have interests as a private landlord; they are fully set out in the Register of Members' Interests.
I, too, have an amendment on the amendment paper, which is intended as a probing amendment. I think that it would be appropriate, Mr. O'Hara, to follow your advice. It would help if the Minister would say something about his discussions with the relevant Ministers in the Scottish Executive, because one of the complications of the Bill—as the Minister said in his opening remarks, it is not a straightforward matter—is that legislation in Scotland designed to combat antisocial behaviour is broadly compatible with that in England and Wales, but it has significant
differences. The Scottish Parliament's Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 introduced a new category of tenancies for social tenants in Scotland, which allows them to be given a short-term probationary tenancy if they have been convicted of antisocial behaviour or if they are the subject of an antisocial behaviour order. I do not think that that is the case in England and Wales.
Several hon. Members have mentioned the difficulty that local authorities in England have in activating antisocial behaviour measures to tackle such problems. I understand that they are more widely used in Scotland, and are thought to be reasonably effective at tackling some of the hard-core problems of antisocial behaviour. However, there are differences in dealing with such behaviour between Scotland and England and Wales, which I intended to flag up in my amendment. It would be helpful if the Minister would say something about that, particularly whether he has discussed the matter with the relevant Ministers in the Scottish Executive.
Order. We are in danger of straying into a debate on the amendments. It is advisable, on the sittings motion, that we should debate the general issues. I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear that in mind.
Thank you, Mr. O'Hara. I raised the matter because you indicated that it would be advisable for the Committee not to push the amendments but to adjourn at the end of the sittings motion. I agree, but it would be helpful if the Minister would respond in the way that I suggested.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. O'Hara, and apologise for having missed the first five minutes of the proceedings. If my point has already been covered, I doubly apologise. It relates to what my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. MacDonald) has been saying, but I do not want to enter into debate with him or to talk about Scotland.
I hope that the Government will dwell on the lessons that we have learned from the unwillingness of local government to take up the antisocial behaviour orders. I am interested in the degree of primacy of actions taken to deal with antisocial behaviour through the withdrawal of housing benefit rather than through ASBOs. I do not know whether it can be phrased in legislation, but there are sure to be cases. Given that ASBOs are already in place, if the Bill is to proceed and if the Minister is not able to answer this point now, can he address it later in the form of amendments?
There could be a conflict in the law if we pursue different measures to curb antisocial behaviour, either by restricting people's freedom—where they can dwell and where they can visit—or by withholding payment. Can my hon. Friend the Minister offer an assurance that those matters will be considered, in discussions with both the Home Office and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, to give us belt-and-braces opportunities to have the most effective measures possible? Then, if antisocial behaviour takes place, we shall have an incentive to take such measures.
Will my hon. Friend the Minister dwell on the point that we must consider how the various pieces of legislation will operate? They might work together or separately, but we do not want them to counteract one another and to cause more confusion; that would give local government a wonderful opportunity to do nothing about the individuals concerned.
It would not be helpful at this stage for me to attempt to reply to every point. Your advice is well taken by the Committee, Mr. O'Hara. There will be opportunities to scrutinise amendments in the proper way.
The Government are determined to take effective action, through benefits, against antisocial neighbours. There has been no attempt at this, but it would be foolish if the Committee were to enter into a competition to see who was the most outraged. Representing a Croydon constituency, I am bound to say that these problems exist in some areas that those in the north might regard as leafy suburbs. None of us would want to get into a game in which if we have three St. George's flags on our white van it means that we are somehow superior to those with two.
I was relieved when the hon. Member for Hertsmere declared his interest. I thought for a moment, although it seemed unlikely, that he was going to declare himself as a neighbour from hell. Although we have competed energetically in Committee on other occasions, I have never seen him in that capacity.
It is important to declare an interest in this. Like the hon. Member for Hertsmere I am a private landlord. I should also declare, given that I have so disagreed with him in debate, that in his previous existence I tried to get the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton to work with me in the House; so there is no personal animosity.
I am sure that that is well understood. I emphasise the need to have effective measures. That is our point, and our difficulty as a Government. We need more time to table effective amendments. As the right hon. Gentleman understands, our task is not to think the unworkable. We have to think of things that work. That was the burden of the comments by various hon. Members, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew).
The focus of our approach is to ensure that in defining antisocial behaviour, properly and by a suitable authority, we have an automatic trigger that would require the local authority to sanction the benefit without further discussion. When we pass laws in this place we imagine that a great lever has been pulled, but sometimes nothing happens. Therefore, we want to have an automatic trigger in chosen circumstances that would apply throughout England, Wales and Scotland. Interesting things are happening in Scotland with tenancy arrangements, but the social security system is a United Kingdom system. We are having discussions with Ministers and officials so that we can bring on board the Scottish experience.
I apologise again for the fact that we have not been able to table our amendments, because it has
inconvenienced the Committee. However, right hon. Members and hon. Members have taken it well.
I appreciate my hon. Friend's apologies about the failure to table amendments. We are all aware of the constraints within the Department. However, given that if the sittings motion is passed we shall have the date for the next meeting, will he give us some idea of when he might be able to give us the amendments?
I regret that I cannot do so at this stage, because it depends on advice from other quarters. However, I hear the perfectly proper request of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead that we table amendments as soon as we can to be fair to the Committee. We shall do our best in that regard.
We go forward united in our approach—
The Minister's form of words was ''as soon as we can'', but I would press him for the form I prefer, ''in good time''. If there is a question of work that needs to be done or bullets that need to be bitten, those responsible should bite the bullets, take the decisions and get on with the work. In that way, the Committee will have at least a little time to study the amendments and the difficult subjects that they raise. The Government have had since 19 April and Second Reading to produce the amendments.
As the hon. Gentleman will understand, colleagues are working hard on the matter and we shall do our utmost.
I thank hon. Members for the friendly and sympathetic way in which they approached the debate. I could never compete with the colourful phraseology of the Great Grimsby poet, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby. Although you would rule it out of order if I spoke at length on the subject, Mr. O'Hara, many of us are concerned about animal rights. Therefore, the Government approach the issue wearing no fur coat, but we do not want to get the amendments in a twist.
A sittings motion has been moved which says that if we do not complete our deliberations today, we will reconvene at 9 am and, if necessary, 2.30 pm on Thursday 11 July.
Question put and agreed to.
That if proceedings on the Bill are not concluded at this day's sitting the Committee do meet on Thursday 11 July at Nine o'clock and half-past Two o'clock.
Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Frank Field.]
Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Twelve o'clock till Thursday 11 July at Nine o'clock.