Before we commence, some words from the Chair might be helpful to the Committee. If our business is not completed by then, we must adjourn our proceedings at 11.25 am. Members of the Committee will have noted that the first group of amendments is enormous. Amendments to the existing clause 1 have been tabled, as have several proposed new clauses to replace clause 1 and a number of amendments to the Government new clauses. The most convenient way in which to deal with such matters is to have a wide-ranging debate on one large group of amendments. When that business is disposed of, the waters will be clearer, procedurally speaking.
On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. I welcome you to the Chair and congratulate you on how you have dealt with the amendments that have been tabled. It must have been a complicated exercise. I should like further clarification of the guidance on Divisions. Will it be in order to press for a Division on specific amendments? Do you want advance notification of our intentions?
If notice is given of the desire to put amendments other than Government amendments to the vote, I shall deal with that when it happens. Members of the Committee can give notice that they wish to divide the Committee.
Amendment No. 10, in page 1, line 3, after 'individual', insert 'permanently'.
Amendment No. 11, in page 1, line 3, after 'individual', insert
'who for more than twelve months has been'.
Amendment No. 4, in page 1, line 4, leave out 'magistrates'.
Amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 4, leave out 'summary'.
Amendment No. 12, in page 1, line 5, after second 'tenant', insert
'and reasonable attempts to offer support and resettlement services have been refused'.
Amendment No. 3, in page 1, line 5, leave out 'Secretary of State may' and insert
'court concerned on the most recent occasion may order the Secretary of State to'.
Amendment No. 13, in page 1, line 8, leave out 'twelve' and insert 'six'.
Amendment No. 15, in page 1, line 8, at end insert
'provided that in the case of a tenant of a registered social landlord the Secretary of State shall first obtain the agreement of the registered social landlord'.
Amendment No. 16, in page 1, line 8, at end insert
'provided that in the case of a tenant of a local authority the Secretary of State shall first obtain the agreement of the local authority'.
Amendment No. 17, in page 1, line 8, at end insert
'provided that in the case of a tenant of a public body the Secretary of State shall first obtain the agreement of the public body and in this section the term public body includes—
(a) a local authority
(b) a registered social landlord
(c) a government department
(d) a police authority and
(e) a health authority or primary care trust'.
Amendment No. 14, in page 1, line 8, at end insert—
'(1A) A local housing authority or a local social services authority may make recommendations to the Secretary of State regarding the withholding of benefit under subsection (1) above and it shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to consider all such recommendations before taking any action under subsection (1)'.
Amendment No. 18, in page 1, line 9, after 'means', insert 'a pattern of consistent'.
Amendment No. 19, in page 1, line 9, after second 'behaviour', insert 'consistently'.
Amendment No. 20, in page 1, line 10, leave out from 'cause' to end and insert
'serious harm, harassment, alarm or distress to others where the behaviour is either linked to the occupation of the home or occurs in the locality of the home'.
Amendment No. 25, in page 1, line 10, leave out 'or' and insert 'and'.
Amendment No. 23, in page 1, line 10, at end add
'and which in the opinion of the Secretary of State cannot better be dealt with in any other way than that specified in this Act'.
Amendment No. 24, in page 1, line 10, at end add
'and which in the opinion of—
(a) the Secretary of State and
(b) the local housing authority and
(c) the local social services authority
cannot better be dealt with in any other way than that specified in this Act'.
Amendment No. 21, in page 1, line 10, at end add—
'(3) For the purposes of subsection (1) the Secretary of State may only withhold any payment of housing benefit if he is satisfied that exceptional hardship will not result for the tenant or any person who resides with them.'.
Amendment No. 22, in page 1, line 10, at end add—
'(3) In paragraph 3 of Schedule 3 to the Social Security Act 1998 (decisions against which an appeal lies), after sub-paragraph (e) there shall be inserted ''; or
(f) section 1 of the Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Act 2002.''.'.
Amendment No. 26, in page 1, line 10, at end add—
'(3) The Secretary of State shall not take any action pursuant to subsection (1) above until he has given any person against whom any
such action is intended to be taken a reasonable opportunity to make representations to him or any person appointed by him as to why such action should not be taken.'.
Amendment No. 27, in page 1, line 10, at end add—
'(3) The Secretary of State shall not take any action pursuant to subsection (1) above until he has received the advice of a case conference called for the purpose of considering the proposed action.
(4) For the purposes of this section a case conference is a meeting called by the Secretary of State of all agencies which he considers may be able to offer him guidance and notwithstanding the generality the following persons shall be invited to such a meeting, namely—
(a) a representative of the local housing authority
(b) a representative of the local social services authority
(c) a representative of the local police
(d) the person or persons against whom action is proposed to be taken.'.
Clause stand part.
Amendment No. 28, in clause 2, page 1, line 13, after 'individual', insert 'permanently'.
Amendment No. 29, in clause 2, page 1, line 13, after 'individual', insert
'who for more than twelve months has been'.
New clause 1—Effect on child—
'( ) Before any decision to withhold payment of housing benefit is made regard must be had to the effect of this on the welfare of any children in such a household.'.
New clause 2—Representations—
'( ) In making a decision to withhold payment of housing benefit regard may be had to representations from any person affected by the anti-social behaviour concerned.'.
Government new clause 3—Anti-social behaviour declarations: criminal proceedings
'(1) This section applies where—
(a) on any occasion a person (''the offender'') is convicted of one or more offences by or before a court, but
(b) a custodial sentence of a year or more is not imposed on the offender in respect of the conviction, or any of the convictions.
(2) If it appears to the prosecutor that, by reason of any or all of the conduct giving rise to the conviction or convictions, the offender may have behaved in an anti-social manner, the prosecutor must notify the court to that effect.
(a) the court is notified under subsection (2), and
(b) it is satisfied that, by reason of any or all of the conduct giving rise to the conviction or convictions, the offender has behaved in an anti-social manner,
it must make a declaration that he has so behaved.
(4) A declaration under this section must specify the day on which the conduct in respect of which it is made occurred or, if that conduct occurred on more than one day, the earliest and latest days on which it occurred.
(5) For the purposes of this section, a person has behaved in an anti-social manner if his conduct caused, or was likely to cause, harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons (not of the same household as himself) residing in, visiting, or otherwise engaged in lawful activity in, the locality of his home.
(6) In this section—
(a) any reference to a conviction includes a conviction in relation to which a court makes an order for a conditional discharge (but not a conviction in relation to which a court makes an order for an absolute discharge), and
(b) ''custodial sentence''—
(i) in relation to England and Wales, has the meaning given in section 76 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 (c.6), and
(ii) in relation to Scotland, means a sentence as defined in section 307(1) of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995 (c.46).
(7) In section 50 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1968 (c.19) (meaning of ''sentence''), in subsection (1), after paragraph (h) insert ''; and
(i) a declaration under section (anti-social behaviour declarations: criminal proceedings) of the Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Act 2002 (anti-social behaviour declarations: criminal proceedings).''
(8) In section 108 of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 (c.43) (rights of appeal), at the end of subsection (3) insert ''and a declaration under section (anti-social behaviour declarations: criminal proceedings) of the Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Act 2002 (anti-social behaviour declarations: criminal proceedings).''
(9) For the purposes of any appeal or review, a declaration under this section made by a court in Scotland is a sentence.'.
And the following amendments thereto: (a), leave out subsection (1)(b).
(c), in subsection (2) after ''effect'', insert
'and provide written evidence, including at least a statement from the landlord of the offender.'.
(d), in subsection (3)(b) after ''convictions'', insert
'and by reason of the written evidence it has considered as to the specific anti-social behaviour concerned,'.
(b), in subsection (5), after ''home'', insert
', provided that if a person can show that he acted in self defence or under extreme provocation then his behaviour shall not be deemed to be anti-social'.
Government new clause 4—Anti-social behaviour declarations: civil proceedings—
'(1) This section applies where—
(a) in England and Wales, the High Court, a county court or a magistrates' court, or
(b) in Scotland, the Court of Session or the sheriff,
makes a prescribed order in any civil proceedings, other than prescribed proceedings.
(2) Any prescribed party to the proceedings may apply to the court for a declaration that any other prescribed party has behaved in an anti-social manner by reason of any or all of the conduct in respect of which the order is made.
(3) If the court is satisfied on an application under subsection (2) that the person concerned has so behaved it must make a declaration accordingly.
(4) A declaration under this section must specify the day on which the conduct in respect of which it is made occurred or, if that conduct occurred on more than one day, the earliest and latest days on which it occurred.
(5) Subsection (5) of section (anti-social behaviour declarations: criminal proceedings) applies for the purposes of this section as it applies for the purposes of that section.'.
And the following amendments thereto: (a), in subsection (3), after 'accordingly', insert
', provided that the court need not make such a declaration if it is of the opinion that the person acted in self defence or under extreme provocation.'.
(b), after subsection (3), insert—
'(3A) A court may only make a declaration under subsection (3) above against a person over the age of 65 if it considers that there are exceptional circumstances and if it is satisfied that no other method of dealing with that person's behaviour is applicable.'.
(c), after subsection (5), add—
'(6) Where a court is minded to make an order under this section and it forms the view that any person against whom the order is intended is unable to properly represent himself and is not represented the court shall adjourn the proceedings to give any such person the opportunity of securing legal representation.'.
Government new clause 5—Withholding of benefit—
'(1) Where a declaration is made under this Act in respect of a person, any housing benefit payable to him during the disqualification period shall be payable as if the rate of benefit were reduced in the prescribed manner.
(2) Subsection (1) does not apply in prescribed cases.
(3) Subsection (1) also does not apply to a declaration made in respect of a person (''declaration A'') where—
(a) another declaration made under this Act in respect of that person (''declaration B'') has been taken into account for the purposes of any previous application of that subsection, and
(b) any day which is a relevant day in relation to declaration A is also a relevant day in relation to declaration B.
(4) For the purposes of subsection (3)(b) ''relevant day'', in relation to a declaration under this Act, means—
(a) in a case where only one day is specified in the declaration under section (anti-social behaviour declarations: criminal proceedings)(4) or (anti-social behaviour declarations: civil proceedings)(4), that day, and
(b) in any other case, the earliest and latest days so specified and any day between them.
(5) Where a declaration by virtue of which subsection (1) operates is quashed or set aside, all such payments and other adjustments shall be made as would be necessary if the declaration had not been made.
(6) Where, in the case of a declaration by virtue of which subsection (1) operates, the date or dates specified under section (anti-social behaviour declarations: criminal proceedings)(4) or (anti-social behaviour declarations: civil proceedings)(4) are varied by a court (on appeal or otherwise), all such payments and other adjustments must be made as would be necessary if the declaration had been made as varied.
(7) In this section ''disqualification period'' means such period, not exceeding 52 weeks, as may be determined by or in accordance with regulations made by the Secretary of State.'.
And the following amendments thereto: (c), in subsection (1), leave out ''shall'' and insert ''may''.
(a), after subsection (1), insert—
'(1A) Where a declaration is made under this Act in respect of a person any housing benefit payable to a person in whose household he resides may be payable as if the rate of benefit were reduced in the prescribed manner.
(1B) Where a declaration is made under this Act in respect of a person and the commission of the anti-social behaviour leading to the making of the declaration took place within three years of the commission of anti-social behaviour leading to a previous declaration of anti-social behaviour, any housing benefit payable to him or a person in whose household he resides may be withheld.'.
(b), in subsection (7), after second 'period,', insert
'not less than 13 weeks and'.
(d), in subsection (7), leave out ''52'' and insert ''26''.
New clause 8—Old persons—
'.—No benefit shall be withheld under this Act from any person over the age of 65
New clause 9—Children under five years—
'.—No benefit shall be withheld under this Act from any person where in the opinion of the Secretary of State it would severely damage the health or welfare of any child under five years of age.'.
New clause 10—Children under five years (No. 2)—
'No benefit shall be withheld under this Act from any person where in the opinion of the local social services authority it would severely damage the health or welfare of any child under five years of age and it shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to ask that authority for its opinion before he takes any action under this Act in cases involving children under five.'.
New clause 12—Reviews (No. 2)—
'( ) The Secretary of State shall publish and send to the National Assembly for Wales a review of the working of section 1 above in Wales after a period of twelve months and shall take into account any points made by the Assembly in any future actions taken under section 1.'.
New clause 13—Reviews (No. 3)—
'( ) The Secretary of State shall publish and send to the Scottish Parliament a review of the working of section 1 above in Scotland after a period of twelve months and shall take into account any points made by the Parliament in any future actions taken under section 1.'.
Mr. O'Hara, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship on this fine and sunny morning. Such weather is uncharacteristic of recent experience.
I believe in making declarations at every possible opportunity and today I wish to declare that it seems that the parts of the Bill in which we are interested are to disappear. I want the Committee to proceed expeditiously. You have listed the amendments that have been tabled. We tabled amendments to the Bill as presented by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field); the Government have tabled amendments that would, in effect, rewrite the Bill, and we have tabled amendments to those Government amendments.
Although amendment No. 1 has been tabled by Conservative Members, I shall not be moving or speaking to it, nor to amendments Nos. 1, 4, 2 and 3 and new clauses 1 and 2, which relate to the Bill in its original form. It is better to deal with matters that we shall be debating today, which are the Government amendments. I shall be speaking to the three amendments to the Government new clauses that stand in my name and that of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead. Those are described on the selection list as amendment P(a) to Government new clause 3, and amendments P(a) and P(b) to Government new clause 5. The more I read the selection list, the more it reminds me of algebra lessons at school. I shall now kick off.
On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and I, too, shall not speak to all the amendments that I tabled to the original clause 1. However, I shall speak to some of them because they raise general issues that need to be debated and have not been. The Minister's letter to you of Tuesday 9 July states:
''I hope that you will accept my apologies for this unavoidable delay''
in tabling amendments
''and look sympathetically at any other amendments that will be consequently delayed.''
That suggests that the Government believe that they may need to table further amendments. I, too, believe that that is necessary. My intention in speaking to some of the amendments to the original clause 1 is to bring out some points that the Government must consider. They must table amendments to their own amendments to ensure that those points are dealt with in the Bill. I hope that that will be in order.
I take the point of order, but in fact that could have been dealt with in the hon. Gentleman's contribution.
Everyone is trying to be co-operative, and in that spirit of co-operation, we can overcome our little procedural difficulty. If amendment No. 1 were moved, we would be able to proceed with the debate. It can always be withdrawn later.
Thank you for your guidance, Mr. O'Hara. I beg to move amendment No. 1. The Liberal Democrat spokesman must speak and make such points as he wants to make. The Bill is an important measure which will bring relief to many people who suffer from the problem of antisocial neighbours, and the hon. Gentleman must choose the course he wants to take. People who are affected by the problem will draw their own inferences.
The first amendment to Government new clause 3 is marked amendment (a). Committee members will find it on page 1171 of the amendment paper. It would remove subsection (1)(b). Under the Government's amendments, the procedure that leads to the loss of housing benefit is brought into action in the event of a conviction involving antisocial behaviour. Under new clause 3(1)(b), which sets out the mechanism that leads to the making of an antisocial behaviour declaration, convictions that result—
I believe that I heard the hon. Gentleman say that the Government want to link withdrawal of or reduction in benefit to a conviction relating to antisocial behaviour. My understanding of new clause 3 is that the conviction could relate to many different types of offence, not just antisocial behaviour. Is that his understanding, too?
I was trying to summarise. If the hon. Gentleman reads the Bill carefully—it might save time were he to do so—he will find that subsection (1) refers to
''on any occasion a person . . . is convicted of one of more offences by or before a court''.
Paragraph (b), to which the amendment relates, provides the qualification that
''a custodial sentence of a year or more is not imposed on the offender in respect of the conviction, or any of the convictions.''
The hon. Gentleman might read a little further on, to subsection (2), which states:
''If it appears to the prosecutor that, by reason of any or all of the conduct giving rise to the conviction or convictions, the offender may have behaved in an anti-social manner, the prosecutor must notify the court to that effect.''
I believe that that answers his question, although he might want to ask further questions. I am explaining the Bill, but I shall give way to him if he wants to make another point.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but perhaps the Minister is the person who should clarify the matter. From my reading of the notes and of new clause 3(2), the conviction may not be related to antisocial behaviour. It may be that such behaviour took place during the offence for which the person is being indicted. Antisocial behaviour may not be the offence for which the person is being convicted.
I think that the new clause speaks for itself and I was trying to summarise it. There may have been antisocial behaviour in the offences that led to the conviction; if that is the view of the prosecutor, he seeks a declaration from the court. If the hon. Gentleman reads the rest of the clause, he will see that that is exactly what it says. I was trying to summarise the new clause, and I thought I gave a fair summary, but he will hear the Minister say what the Government's intentions are. My comments reflected my understanding of the subsection as drafted.
I have described the procedure leading to the loss of housing benefit. There is a trigger mechanism. In their commentary on the amendments, the Government tell us that that is intended to rule out serious crimes for which a benefit sanction is not appropriate. The hurdle is that the custodial sentence must be less than 12 months, and we would like to hear more about the rationale behind that. It seems that less serious offences of antisocial behaviour are included, but not more serious ones.
The new clause needs clarification, because it could give rise to perverse consequences. For example, we all agree that if a person assaults his neighbour, that constitutes antisocial behaviour—perhaps the Liberal Democrat spokesman does not agree, but I think that it is antisocial behaviour to assault one's neighbour. If that person receives a sentence of six or nine months imprisonment, he can lose his housing benefit as a result of the trigger mechanism coming into play and a declaration being sought by the prosecution; yet someone who commits a more serious assault on his neighbour and receives a sentence of 12 months or more does not run the risk of losing his benefit. We think that that is strange, and we would like to hear more about the reasoning behind it.
In practical terms, if someone goes up to his neighbour, gives him a black eye and gets six or nine months imprisonment, he faces the possibility of losing his housing benefit; but if he goes further, breaks his neighbour's nose and gets 18 months, he will not lose his housing benefit. We seem to be punishing less serious offences more seriously than serious ones. We would like to hear more from the Government about why it is necessary to have such a hurdle.
I now turn to the amendments to Government new clause 5. Amendment (a), which would insert new
subsections (1A) and (1B), can be found on page 1173 of the amendment paper. It might assist the Committee if I say that this new clause relates to a different stage of the process—not the declaration, but who may be made subject to such a declaration. The purpose of the amendment is to allow us to debate one of the major changes that the Government propose to make to the framework of the Bill.
The Bill in its original form, which members of the Committee have before them, makes provision for housing benefit to be withheld as a result of
''the anti-social behaviour of any tenant or . . . any individual living with a tenant''.
The Government's amendment to new clause 5 would allow for housing benefit to be withdrawn only in the case of antisocial behaviour by the tenant—the person in receipt of housing benefit. That makes a big difference. Under new clause 5, housing benefit could not be withdrawn as a result of the antisocial behaviour of a person living with the tenant, which is a big change. The purpose of the amendment to the Government new clause is to enable us to debate and consider that, because we think that it is important.
In the commentary to their amendments, the Government say—although we will obviously hear more about the matter from the Minister—that they believe that
''it would be unfair to reduce a claimant's benefit because of anti-social behaviour by another household member, unless there was a procedure for the courts to rule that the claimant had been personally responsible for allowing or condoning the behaviour. But that would involve allowing the claimant the right to make representations to the court. It would make the decision to make a declaration of anti-social behaviour more lengthy and complicated: courts would be ruling about a claimant's responsibility rather than simply whether a person had acted in an anti-social manner. The Government would want to ensure that any new court procedures were not disproportionately complicated to administer.''
We think that the amendment to the Government new clause goes some way to meeting the Government's concerns, because it would allow discretion in taking away benefits in the case of antisocial behaviour committed by a person living with a tenant. As the Minister will be aware, under the proposals in Government new clauses 3 and 5, once a declaration of antisocial behaviour is made in respect of a tenant, housing benefit must be taken away from them; that is mandatory. The amendment would add a discretionary power to that mandatory power in the case of a person living with a tenant. We think that it is important to go down that road, because otherwise we are leaving out an awful lot of the antisocial behaviour afflicting people in neighbourhoods and estates across the country.
May I say how much I welcome the amendment? Since the Committee's first sitting, I have had the opportunity to read all the evidence relating to people in Wirral who are going before the courts charged with disorder. They are the people who would be affected by the Bill. One noticeable characteristic is that there are whole families on the charge sheets, and everyone in the family is cited in court.
Although I sympathise with the Government, I want to keep the machinery of the Bill as simple as possible. Out there in the real world, not only tenants but whole households—every member of a household—are cited in proceedings. The whole household is considered dysfunctional, and it is families that neighbours and the police take to court.
The right hon. Gentleman mentions his experiences in Wirral. Committee members will remember that during the Committee's first sitting I said a little about my constituency, which certainly has such problems. I received a letter in my postbag just this week from a constituent who has suffered the problem of antisocial behaviour. I shall not identify the person concerned, but shall quote his letter:
''Following months of being terrorised by thugs, who threw eggs and stones at our house on a regular basis, the police actually arrested the main offending youth, who I identified on the same evening. The police informed us that they would return the following day to take footprint samples from a neighbour's front door, who had also been victimised by the same youths. The arresting officer stated that they would 'throw the book at him' for terrorising the neighbourhood for months. The police failed to return to take these forensic samples and subsequently, could only charge the youth for racial harassment for throwing a stone at my wife and calling her''—
two expletives deleted—my constituent writes: ''please forgive the phrase''.
That is the sort of behaviour that my constituents have to put up with. From the description that my constituent gives of the youths who are doing such things in his neighbourhood, it appears highly unlikely that they would be the recipients of housing benefit as tenants of a property; however, it is likely that they are living with someone who is. It is to cover that sort of case that we think that the amendment should be considered.
I understand the point that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead and the hon. Member for Hertsmere make. Is the hon. Gentleman concerned that innocent members of the family who had not undertaken any antisocial behaviour might be hit by the benefits sanction? How does he think that we Members of Parliament should protect those people?
If the hon. Gentleman were listening a moment ago, he would have heard me refer to a discretionary power to take away housing benefit. He has made his point; will he now consider innocent people who have to live nearby in such circumstances, and who as things stand would have to endure being terrorised by hooligans without there being any possibility of those hooligans' housing benefit being taken away? Such hooligans would stay where they live with impunity, as far as housing benefit is concerned. He must think about those points. We propose a discretionary power in the hope that it will cater for that sort of problem, but we must also be alert to the plight of those who suffer at the hands of youths and other people who cause such problems in their neighbourhoods.
It is important to bring individuals who live in the household of tenants within the framework of these provisions. If we do not do that a lot of antisocial behaviour will be outside the scope of the Bill. A tenant might allow antisocial members of his family or other individuals to live in his home; he might be fully
aware of what they were getting up to—he might be told about what they were doing—but nothing would happen to his housing benefit, even if they were to do it time and again. That is the other side of the coin, and the Liberal Democrat spokesman must address that. This is an important issue, and if it is not tackled, the original proposal of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead will not bite against antisocial behaviour as hon. Members believed it would.
I turn to proposed new subsection (1B). The original Bill provides for housing benefit to be withheld if someone engages in antisocial behaviour. The Government intend that the primary sanction for antisocial behaviour will be a reduction in benefits, and the commentary sets out in detail the extent of that reduction. We are told that the amendments give the power to withdraw almost the entire benefit for up to a year, although the Government say,
''that this would only be used for particularly persistent anti-social behaviour. It would also be underpinned by a hardship regime.''
The details of the withdrawal of benefit for persistent antisocial behaviour are not explicitly expressed in the Government's new clauses—nor is the hardship regime, although we might be taken through that in due course.
The new clauses give the Government a broad power to prescribe the amount by which benefits will be reduced and to make regulations as to how long they will be reduced for. The commentary on the amendments state:
''The Government's intention is that the regulations would broadly follow the pattern of current benefit sanctions. It is likely that progressively stricter sanctions would be imposed if people received further court declarations''.
If somebody receives many declarations of antisocial behaviour, we are told that:
''A second declaration within a three-year period might lead to a 13-week sanction. A third or fourth declaration could lead to 26-week and 1-year sanctions.
It is also possible that the sanction could involve reducing the benefit down to a nominal amount.''
It is necessary to look closely at these Government proposals. They have been modelled on other benefit sanctions, but they address a special situation—antisocial behaviour that involves people who have suffered at the hands of perpetrators, and where there has been a criminal conviction or a civil finding as a result of the behaviour. We wonder whether the lengthily progressive approach that the Government appear to be contemplating is appropriate in those circumstances.
Existing benefit sanctions relate to different circumstances, such as failing to turn up to work or to do work properly. The Bill's provisions deal with antisocial behaviour that involves other people. Neighbours will be very frustrated and annoyed if such behaviour goes on and on. Innocent members of the public who suffer from such behaviour sometimes feel additionally aggrieved when it carries on happening, the legal processes seem to be taking a long time, and not much is achieved on the first occasion on which the matter is addressed. They think
not only that they are the victims of antisocial behaviour, but that the law is not doing much about that. People find that if processes go on and on, additional grievance or frustration is added to the problems that gave rise to the court processes. We wonder whether it would be better to make the provision crisper and clearer, and to prevent neighbours requiring three or four declarations of antisocial behaviour before something significant happens.
The amendment would allow housing benefit to be withheld after a second episode of antisocial behaviour within three years. I hope that even the Liberal Democrat spokesman will agree that if people have one declaration of antisocial behaviour that resulted in a criminal conviction or civil fine, they are on notice and should behave. We should take a suitably robust line in respect of such people, and we want the provision to be explicit in the Bill. It would be in line with the intentions of the original Bill and it would be underpinned by the hardship regime to which the Government amendments refer. There would be no question of hardship because that regime would underpin a person who faced losing benefit due to a second episode of antisocial behaviour within three years.
I turn to amendment (b) to Government new clause 5, which is at the foot of page 1773 of the amendment paper. The amendment is in a similar vein to the previous amendments and deals with the length of the disqualification period—the period for which a person should lose benefits. Government new clause 5(7) states:
'' 'disqualification period' means such period, not exceeding 52 weeks, as may be determined by or in accordance with regulations made by the Secretary of State.''
The only stipulation is that benefits may not be withdrawn for more than one year. However, no minimum period for which benefits will be reduced or withheld is set.
The Government's commentary on their proposals states:
''the sanction after a first declaration might be a reduction in benefit for a month.''
Does that reduction send a clear enough message to the perpetrators of antisocial behaviour? We wonder whether something more significant should happen at that stage in order to send out the clear message that something serious is occurring.
The proposal in the amendment is for minimum reduction in benefit for 13 weeks, rather than one month, following a first offence. If memory serves, 13 weeks is used in the Government's provisions for loss of benefit after repeated social security fraud. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I remember participating in the debate on that. I do not understand why the time period for the housing benefit sanction should not be 13 weeks.
The danger of withdrawing benefit for only a month is that it is not a significant measure and it would not be taken seriously enough. We all know from everyday life that there are risks if penalties are not significant
enough in the first instance, because that leads people to believe that they can commit an offence again and nothing significant will happen. A clear message should be sent at the outset that antisocial behaviour will result in the loss of benefit for a more significant period.
I am grateful to hon. Members for the patient way in which they have listened. I hope that I have made myself clear enough, although I probably have not—I shall speak again later if necessary. I pay tribute to the way in which the Committee's business has been organised, which has been necessary given all the technicalities. The amendments I have spoken to would do much to improve the Government new clauses.
I remind the Committee that with amendment No. 1 we are considering amendments Nos. 10, 11, 4, 2, 12, 3, 13, 15 to 17, 14, 18 to 20, 25, 23, 24, 21, 22, 26, and 27; clause stand part; amendments Nos. 28 and 29; new clauses 1 and 2; Government new clause 3 and amendments (a), (c), (d) and (b) thereto; Government new clause 4 and amendments (a), (b) and (c) thereto; Government new clause 5 and amendments (c), (a), (b) and (d) thereto; and new clauses 8, 9, 10, 12 and 13.
Thank you very much, Mr. O'Hara; that is very clear. I add my greetings to you on this sunny and bright morning—albeit, for those of us in the hot seats, rather too sunny and bright.
During our first sitting, I explained that the Government are strongly sympathetic to the aims of the Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead. I should like to set out the Government's position at this relatively early stage. We believe that the Bill could be a valuable addition to the Government's wide-ranging strategy on tackling antisocial behaviour, but, as I have said before, it is vital that it be made workable and fully compatible with the Human Rights Act 1998. A point that I made on Second Reading is that we must take account of the Bill's impact on families and innocent dependants. We must also ensure that it is a proportionate measure that does not disrupt the workings of the courts or local authorities' administration of housing benefit.
We have tried to achieve those aims with the recently tabled Government amendments. I apologise for the fact that only limited time was available for Committee members to see the amendments before today's discussions. At our first sitting, I said that I would do my best to speed up the tabling of amendments to make them available to Committee members. We did our best, but the matter is proving to be complex, given that what is at stake will affect local authorities and courts. I hope that the explanatory notes will aid Committee members.
In the design of the amendments, we have tried to chart what might be described as a middle way. I hope that that will appeal to historically minded—and literate—Macmillanites on the Opposition Benches. On the one hand, we are well aware of the concerns
raised by a number of people and organisations stressing the need for safeguards and cautions. No doubt, the organisations have come to that view after full consultation with their members. On the other hand, as we have heard today, some urge us to go further. I understand that argument, too. We are therefore trying to pursue a middle course.
In the week in which some of us attended a memorial for the great Barbara Castle, who was at one stage a young Bevanite, I am especially aware of Nye Bevan's warning about what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road—they get run over. Nevertheless, that is the position I seek—not to be run over, but to be in the middle. I am confident that our approach has found the right balance.
I shall not go through our amendments in great detail. I hope that hon. Members have seen the briefing note that I sent out with my letter the other day. We tried to give a full description of how we think the amendments would work, and I hope that it has been helpful. I shall take this opportunity to highlight the key points, and although I am happy to take interventions, it will help the Committee if I am allowed to make some progress in setting out our position.
Briefly, the Government amendments provide a mechanism for triggering a reduction in a person's housing benefit if a court has made a declaration that that person has acted in an antisocial manner. The process would be largely automatic—that is the strength of the amendments. There are two reasons for that, the first of which is that it would ensure that the sanction is used in practice. We have some doubts about a purely discretionary power, and those affected by antisocial behaviour want the House not merely to legislate, but to act and deliver.
Secondly, an automatic process will make the mechanism as streamlined as possible, causing minimum disruption to the civil and criminal justice systems and to the administration of housing benefit. The result is to remove any scope for discretion by administrative staff about whether and how to apply a sanction. It is not appropriate to require local authority benefits staff to make such decisions.
The amendments make a slight change to the definition of antisocial behaviour. We have used the fairly well established definition in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which is used for antisocial behaviour orders, but we have included the extra condition that the antisocial behaviour must have been carried out within the locality of the person's home. As the sanction is to be the withholding of housing benefit, we believe that it is right to limit the behaviour that can trigger a sanction to actions that are carried out in a neighbourhood context, not 50 miles away or at a football ground many miles away.
The Government amendments would prevent a criminal court making a declaration of antisocial behaviour about a person who has been sentenced to a year or more in prison. The hon. Member for Hertsmere raised that matter, and I understand his argument. His amendment, which I do not believe he will press, would remove that exemption. The Bill is a
preventive measure to deter antisocial behaviour by making it clear that the right to benefit depends on the duty not to act in an antisocial way. It is not a substitute for the criminal justice system. If a person has committed a serious crime and has been sentenced to a considerable period in prison, a benefit sanction would not be appropriate. The rights and responsibilities message of the benefit sanction would be far outweighed by the loss of liberty involved in a long prison sentence. To take an extreme example, it would clearly be a waste of a court's time to make declarations about someone who had just been given a life sentence.
The possibility of a sanction would arise only if the person claimed benefit again within the next three years or so; there should therefore be some sort of cut-off point to exclude those who have been given long prison sentences. I am happy to listen to the Committee's views about what that point should be, but we think that a year is about right.
As I indicated at the first sitting, our amendments propose a reduction in benefit rather than a withholding of it. In fact, they would allow practically the same scale of sanctions as was originally proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead—a reduction of all but the whole benefit for up to a year. However, that would be a last resort. The details will be set out in regulations, as happens with existing benefit sanctions. Our thinking is that the initial sanction would be a fairly modest reduction in benefit, perhaps for a month. Successive sanctions would be steeper and cover longer periods, though there would be a hardship regime as there is in respect of current benefit sanctions. Given that we propose to introduce secondary legislation—regulations—on those matters, we are very willing to listen to the Committee and the views of Parliament.
It seems that there is a divergence of motivation between the Minister's ideas and the Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead. The Minister seems to think that the measure will be a tool for modifying future behaviour, but to be frank, in most cases the community wants to get people out of the property and be rid of them altogether.
That is a helpful intervention and I understand the community's feeling. I shall not detain the Committee, but towards the end of my remarks I shall say something about the Government's wider strategy on antisocial behaviour. Our position in amending the Bill is not to find a back-door way by which to evict people. My hon. Friend is right to say that there is a legitimate difference of opinion. Evictions should take place via arrangements such as tenancy agreements, whereas the Bill is about sanctions and warnings and is an attempt to get people in communities to behave properly.
I am not quite sure that I understand the logic of the Minister's position. Does he agree that if the benefits sanction is as harsh as he suggests, it will lead to loss of tenancy and eviction? Does he fear that
outcome and will he prescribe measures in the regulations to avoid it?
I have every sympathy for people in our communities, whether they are in Birkenhead, Hertsmere, Croydon or Kingston, who want to rid themselves of people who commit foul acts, but the Bill is not an appropriate vehicle to do that. The Bill is about warnings and sanctions. We are taking powers to sanction people for a long time and, if necessary, to withhold a considerable amount of their benefit. If that stage were reached, I am realistic enough to recognise that people would find it difficult to pay their rent, but one imagines that other action would have been taken by then.
The Minister has not answered my question. Does he intend to put protections in the regulations that will prevent the benefit sanction resulting in arrears that would result in eviction? Does he intend to allow arrears that would result in eviction? Would he be happy if a benefits action resulted in an eviction—yes or no?
Where there are children and vulnerable members of a family, there will be a hardship regime following the logic of our other sanctions policy. Our view is that an eviction is best carried out through proper eviction procedures; I shall talk about the Government's position on that in a moment. Sanctioning benefits is not an appropriate method per se, but if faced with a situation in which someone continues to act in an abusive, loutish and foul manner, it would be absurd if we could not increase the sanction to a point at which we withdrew most of that person's housing benefit and they suffered the consequences. If people had been the subject of warning shots on two or three occasions, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's constituents would feel that enough is enough and that action should be taken to protect the community. I am sure that that must be his position.
From listening carefully to my hon. Friend's response of a few moments ago, I gained the impression that he believes that the best way to deal with those problems is by enforcing tenancy conditions. Most local authorities and housing associations are aware of the problems and use tenancy conditions in the way that he described. However, an increasing problem in my constituency is that private landlords do not care about tenancy conditions: provided that their property is not being wrecked—even that does not appear to bother some of them very much—and the rent is being paid through housing benefit, they are not bothered. There is no way to attack that problem other than through the housing benefit system.
I shall address those remarks a little later. Issues relating to private landlords are covered in another clause and there will be a chance to discuss them, but towards the end of my remarks today, I shall touch on the issue that my hon. Friend raises.
My hon. Friend says that the measures will be underpinned by a hardship regime, but some of us are worried that it will be underpinned by an anti-
hardship regime. If the measure is to be effective, economic sanctions must be taken. When he deals with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), will the Minister bear in mind that we are discussing not the generality of problems, but the most extreme examples—cases in which we have gone through all the stages of trying to change a person's behaviour?
It was with that in mind that a leading member of the hard left commenting on the Bill said that although, in his view, we should not take away the whole benefit, it was important to have a sanction that pushed people into less desirable accommodation as a way of trying to convince them that their behaviour would not be tolerated. Will my hon. Friend the Minister bear that in mind when he addresses the points made by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) at the end of his remarks?
We thought it helpful to put a little flesh on the bones of the primary legislative intention—to be illustrative—in our explanatory memorandum. I have made the point that we want to listen to what the Committee and Parliament say during the proceedings on the Bill. We have some time to discuss the matter, which will be dealt with in regulations, and it is important that we listen and get the balance right.
I am conscious that some Committee members might find our approach insufficiently robust. The interventions have confirmed that that is so, and I understand the feeling. I hope that those hon. Members will be pleased to learn that we plan to trigger a sanction after a first court decision rather than only after a second one, which I think was the original intention of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead. If our approach is to be robust we must have, if not an eviction as such, at least a warning shot to try to get people to behave properly. I do not think that we should give up on the possibility that some people will start to behave properly after a first warning shot. We think it appropriate to trigger a sanction after a first court decision, although I imagine that some people might find that controversial.
The Minister has moved on rather more quickly than I expected. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead invited him to conclude his answer to my intervention and I was hoping that he would. I want to go back to the question of whether the hardship regime that the Minister has described will be there to prevent eviction—the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East wants to ensure that it is not. Will the Minister say whether the hardship regime is there to prevent eviction entirely, or will it be designed only to deal with children and other vulnerable members of the family?
It is there to prevent hardship, for example, where there are children or a family member is pregnant. The purpose of a hardship regime is to safeguard financial interests.
Before the hon. Gentleman accuses me of moving on too quickly, even though I seem to have been in a legislative traffic jam for 20 minutes, I will give way to him, but I put it to him that it would help if I could make progress at some stage.
I hope that this will be the last time I ask the Minister to give way on this point. That little exchange has helped me to get to the question that I wanted to ask him, which I addressed to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead in our first sitting. What do the Government think should happen if a tenant is evicted? Will the Minister explain where the family might then go? What guidance will the Government's issue to local authorities be on how to deal with such evicted tenants?
As I will say later, there has been consultation on those matters. An interesting Scottish practice is proposed; I do not know if anyone will inform us about that during the Committee. I talked, half-jokingly, about how the middle is a dangerous place to be, but that is where we want to position ourselves. I put it to all hon. Members—including the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton—that in a middle way, we have to have regard to all sorts of things, including workability, process, the welfare of children, and so on. That is very important to our deliberations. However, if we are concerned only about those matters, we neglect the purpose of the Bill, which is to pit against the thug and the lout not the major weapon in our armoury, but a new weapon—one that is workable. At some stage, the Liberal Democrats have to decide whether they are with us or against us in our quest to root out antisocial behaviour.
Triggering a sanction after a first court decision, rather than a second, is important, as it will have a wider and more immediate effect of deterring people from antisocial behaviour than waiting until two cases have been brought to the court. In that sense, we are proposing to strengthen the proposals made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead. As I have said, we propose to set the initial sanction at a relatively low level—we will listen to others' views on that—but that sanction will act as a sort of warning shot on the first offence.
Although my right hon. Friend is right to say that we are concerned about those who are the worst proponents of antisocial behaviour, it is important that when people come to court charged with vandalism or some other offence, they are told that that constitutes antisocial behaviour in the neighbourhood—if the court so decides—and that alongside the sentence from the criminal or civil court, there will be a sanction on housing benefit. In that way, people understand that we will no longer tolerate the rest of the community paying their rent while they behave in an outrageous way. The first strike is very important in terms of deterring people from ever committing a second offence. If they do reoffend after such a warning, it seems reasonable that the sanctions become greater.
When the Government consider the level at which the first sanction should be set, will the Minister bear in mind the important points made by
my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East? Many tenants are in the private sector, and if a sanction lasts only for a month, many landlords will ride that out. If the sanction lasted for three months in the first instance, it will be noticeable in their cash flow. They might decide to put the desired pressure to behave better on their tenants if they feel that there is some sanction on their bank account. They might not do that if the sanction only lasts for a month.
Those are points we listen to, and in a few moments I shall move on to the Government's position on some of the issues relating to tenancies.
A further difference from the original version of the Bill is that the Government amendments would only apply when the benefit claimant has acted antisocially. They would not cover antisocial behaviour carried out by other family members. I recognise that that is a weakness in our amendments. It is the reason why I describe our amendments as providing a weapon in the armoury against the antisocial person, but not the main weapon. I recognise the difficulties that we face and I want to explain our position.
Our starting point is that it would be unfair to sanction claimants for someone else's behaviour unless they had been given their chance to put their case before the court. There would need to be a decision that the claimant was in some way responsible for allowing or condoning the antisocial behaviour. It is theoretically possible to allow that to happen. Tenants may be evicted because of antisocial behaviour by a family member, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead reminded us. The difference is that eviction is a stand-alone procedure and the tenant has the full right to make representations.
Our amendments have been designed to provide a relatively streamlined process that sits on top of decisions that the courts are already making. We do not believe that it would be possible at the moment to add procedures to give a right of hearing to a claimant without creating substantial new work for the courts. We have had to confront a practical issue. However, we do not believe that that weakens the overall effect of the policy. There are many other strands to the Government's strategy on antisocial behaviour and we would never maintain that the Bill is a comprehensive solution.
The amendments do not provide a specific sanction for landlords. I know that that will disappoint my right hon. Friend, but we shall return to the matter on clause 2.
I want to be clear about the relationship—I asked about this during our previous sitting—between withdrawal of housing benefit and any other measures. I am thinking principally about antisocial behaviour orders. Could both measures work in tandem or would one almost certainly exclude the other? It is important to know that. I do not want to labour the point, but one of the disappointments has been the degree to which local authorities have failed to take up ASBOs. Does the
Bill provide a additional route, or a belt and braces in that both measures could be taken? I would welcome clarification.
That is one intervention that comes in precisely the right place because of what I am about to say. My hon. Friend is helpful, as ever.
I am trying to emphasise that the Bill is just part of the Government's strategy on tackling antisocial behaviour. I believe that we should develop a wide-ranging strategy for a problem that is of increasing importance. Antisocial behaviour orders can be a very effective solution and the Home Office is taking steps to develop and extend the use of ASBOs. We all know from our communities that they have not been widely used: I think that they have been used in my borough only once, and my right hon. Friend said that they have never been used in Birkenhead. The Home Office recognises the problem and we intend to develop and extend use of the orders.
Several measures are available to landlords and local authorities, from acceptable behaviour contracts to court injunctions and, as a last resort, eviction.
The last couple of sentences are very important to our discussion this morning. I want to build on what my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said. The basic problem with antisocial behaviour orders, interim behaviour orders and so on is the reluctance of local authorities to use them. A plethora of measures and regulations are available but never used. I implore the Minister to recognise that if the Bill and other measures are to have credibility, people must believe that they will be implemented and used, and that there will be a consequence to their actions.
My hon. Friend's point is well made and my colleagues in the Home Office are fully aware of the problems, particularly with ASBOs, hence the drive to develop them effectively. Our underlying purpose is to ensure that the amendments work—I jested with my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead that our aim was to think the workable.
One reason why we would be reluctant to accept amendments—albeit well intentioned amendments—concerned with, for example, the welfare of children is because the introduction of discretion would mean that housing authorities or local authorities would have to weigh up such issues. The danger is that that would invariably ensure that the sanction was not used in practice.
That is why we are trying to go for something that is simple and streamlined. Where a civil or criminal court decides following a conviction that there has been antisocial behaviour, the name of the person responsible will be kept on a register by my Department. Following a first strike, there will be a limited sanction, the details of which we need to discuss. The sanction is not discretionary and it will happen.
I do not want to draw too many comparisons because this is a different phenomenon, but practice in
the Employment Service, which is now Jobcentre Plus, shows that sanctions against those who will not work despite opportunities to do so are effective because many thousands of people have found employment following the introduction of sanctions.
I shall pose another question that I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will find helpful. Schools are one area in which antisocial behaviour, whether it is truancy, misbehaviour or the behaviour of some parents when they enter school premises, is causing all of us difficulties. Would we define a local school, which may not be as local as some of us might want, to be part of the neighbourhood in which action could be taken? That would be an invaluable sanction that could enable teachers in particular to pass on information to allow action when either pupils or parents have misbehaved.
As my hon. Friend knows, we are restricting the sanction to actions in the neighbourhood. If someone is vandalising a car or a neighbour's house, or commits an offence in a local amenity, including a school, that should be part of the regime. It would be nonsense if the major institution on a housing estate were a local primary school and that sort of behaviour were not covered. We are trying to adopt the following procedure: after a conviction for an offence in a criminal or civil court, the prosecutor will ask the court to judge whether the offence constitutes antisocial behaviour under the new legislation, which will be for the court to decide. It is logical that if a school were intrinsic to a local community it would be covered. We are all concerned that our teachers are sometimes assaulted or verbally abused and that parents sometimes set a terrible example to their children, and those are active matters for debate within the Government.
What is now the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister issued a consultation paper, ''Tackling Anti-Social Tenants'', that suggests ways to improve on those policies. The consultation period ends tomorrow and there is still time for hon. Members to respond to it. The Government believe that the Bill could make a useful third strand to our existing strategy, which at present consists of antisocial behaviour orders and powers to deal with antisocial tenants in the public and privately rented sector.
The Government amendments will put the Bill into a workable shape but, before formally commending them to the Committee, I want to make a plea. We all have instincts about the Bill, but today's task is to translate those instincts, and our anger about what is happening in our communities, into something that is legal, compatible with human rights legislation and has proper regard for consequences for children. Courts, prosecutors and local authorities must be able to understand the Bill and it must work in the interest, which we all have, of turning our communities back into the civilised places that some of them are not at present because of the loutish behaviour of the few.
In speaking to the amendments tabled in my name, I preface my remarks with an answer to the hon. Member for Hertsmere. Slightly teasing me, I think, and anticipating that we would oppose the thrust of the Bill and the Government's new clauses,
he implied that the Liberal Democrats, in stating that opposition, would have to say what we feel about antisocial behaviour and how we would tackle it. That was a fair point and I intend to do that.
I have many constituents who suffer the consequences of antisocial behaviour. They write to me or come to my advice sessions and I go and meet them. I have attended a number of public meetings that have shown that antisocial behaviour is a huge blight on parts of my constituency. I understand what happens. The incidence of such behaviour may not be so great in my constituency and may be much greater in those of other right hon. and hon. Members, but I do not want to leave the Committee in any doubt, such behaviour is a problem in my constituency.
Right hon. and hon. Members have been referring to me as the Member for Kingston, but I am the Member for Kingston and Surbiton. It is often thought that Surbiton is a leafy place. The image that people have of Surbiton is of that wonderful television programme, ''The Good Life'', which was supposed to be based there, although it was not actually filmed there. I can assure people that if they go to the Alpha road estate, School lane or York way in Chessington, they will find many of the social problems found in many other constituencies. That is Surbiton today and it is very different from the image that some hon. Members may have.
I have experienced the problems and turned my mind to them, trying to help my constituents in practical ways, working with the local authority, the police and other agencies where necessary to see what can be done. In doing that work and in preparing for the debate, I have been impressed by many of the actions that the Government have taken, are planning to take and on which they are consulting. I shall touch on those in detail later.
In some ways, the Minister skated over the many things that are going on. We have had a range of reports, critiques and actions from the Government, from the social exclusion unit's report in 2000 to the recent consultation paper that the Minister mentioned from what is now the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I hope that he will take many of my remarks today as a contribution to the consultation. I shall touch later on some of the detailed points in the consultation paper.
The Government are doing much, which I welcome because antisocial behaviour is such a serious problem. Moreover, I do not shy away from some tough measures. Ideas were bandied about in the first sitting of the Committee for alternative actions that we might take. For example, a Labour Member—I forget who—mentioned a weekend prison. That idea has some attraction for me. We need to get the message over that all such behaviour is unacceptable and must be tackled hard, in as many ways as possible. The question for the Committee, which my amendments seek to address, is whether this provision is the right measure. Having thought about it long and hard and listened closely to right hon. and hon. Members, I am not convinced that it is.
The Minister almost gave the game away when he said that the Bill would be a small part of the armoury. That seemed to imply that there are many other measures that are far more important. Some of those measures are extremely severe; we must not forget that. They do lead to evictions. The hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East is worried that in the private sector those evictions often do not take place. I have also experienced that in my constituency. However, is that the way to deal with the problem that the hon. Gentleman rightly identified, or are there are other ways to deal with it? I read in some of the Government's consultation papers that they are looking at other ways. I applaud that fact and I want to detail some of the other ways in which Liberal Democrat councils are innovating and trialling.
I will talk later about the experience of acceptable behaviour contracts in Islington. They are exceedingly successful measures, which are enjoying a high success rate. I commend them to other hon. Members and I hope that they will recommend them to their local authorities. The Government, various housing associations and representative organisations have praised them as some of the best practices now available. I come to the debate with just as much concern about the issue as anyone else. I am just as concerned about finding every mechanism that will work to tackle it. I will not shy away from proposing tough measures, but I do not believe that this measure is the right one.
That is a fair point, but as the right hon. Gentleman will know from his long experience of the House, if one does not like a measure, one tries to make it not quite as bad as one perceives it to be. Given that the Government have tabled a series of new clauses, it is likely that they will try to ensure that the Bill goes on to the statute book. The Minister has certainly signalled that quite strongly. On Report, I imagine that there will be a Whip. It is a private Member's Bill, but perhaps there will be a strong steer from the Government. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead should be pleased about that. However, during these proceedings and those that follow, I want to see whether we can ameliorate some of the problems, so that when the Bill becomes law it is nowhere near as bad as I and others perceive it to be. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman sees that I am acting in good faith, because I want to ensure that the amendments are properly debated and, I hope, included.
Amendments Nos. 10, 11, 28 and 29 link into the Government's new clauses implicitly. As the Minister says, the Government have decided not to allow this sort of sanction against antisocial behaviour committed by other members of the household. That is the Government amending the original Bill. The promoter of the Bill, supported by the hon. Member for Hertsmere and his colleagues, has now tabled
amendment (a) to new clause 5. Effectively, when one takes those amendments together, we have three options. We have the option that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead wants, which is that any antisocial behaviour from any member of the household should be taken into account and housing benefit sanctions could then be applied.
I believe that the right hon. Gentleman has only slightly changed his position. I think that he will agree that he does not want to go in the Government's direction of excluding all other members of the household. That is why I wanted to discuss it. There are three positions: his position, amended as it is, the Government's position, and the position that I am putting forward in amendments Nos. 10 and 11. Those amendments are on page 1165 of the amendment paper and they are designed to define who would count as an individual in that household.
Amendment No. 10 would extend the definition to those living permanently in the household. Amendment No. 11 would require an individual to have been living there for more than 12 months. That is the middle way, because it would cover other people in the household, as the right hon. Gentleman seeks, and would define them more closely. I suggest that he accepts the thrust of that amendment because the loose definitions, even his amended definitions, could have consequences that he does not intend. For example, the benefit sanction could be triggered by a friend or family member who visits frequently, but does not live regularly at the address. It might be difficult in the real world for a tenant to take action against a regular visitor. What action would the right hon. Gentleman expect that person to take? Would he expect him to seek legal advice or an injunction, or to go to court to prevent a family member or friend from making regular visits? That would be impossible, but the right hon. Gentleman's definition of other members of the household who would fall under the legislation would catch such person. Tenants and their families would be hit because of the actions of someone they were unable to exclude using other legal measures. That is a matter of concern and I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman has not considered it. Other examples include family members who are students and return home during vacations because they would be regular visitors and covered by the definition. Ex-spouses or partners might also visit their children regularly.
I know what the right hon. Gentleman envisages: he wants to ensure that unruly children and teenagers are caught, as well as drug dealers who may visit and trade from someone's house. I have some in my constituency. A drug dealer uses the home of an addict with all the mayhem that goes with that. The addict would have great difficulty tackling the dealer and getting him out of the house, for obvious reasons.
No, it is not all right. I want action to be taken against that drug dealer using other aspects of the criminal law and the panoply of measures proposed by the Minister. The danger is that in trying to catch people covered by this small Bill, a whole range of others may be caught and we should be wary of that.
I refer the Minister to the housing Green Paper that the Government produced in 2000, which made it clear that they wanted to reduce housing benefit for antisocial tenants. The paper stated:
''This would mark a fundamental shift in the nature of Housing Benefit and we would need to proceed with great care. Above all we would need to ensure that the innocent families of unruly tenants did not suffer.''
The Minister may say that the hardship regime that he envisages—we do not have it in front of us, but it will no doubt be described in regulations in due course—will cover such instances, and that may be so, but I am concerned to ensure that innocent people are not affected by the Bill. That is a core issue and there is a debate to be had on the definition of the household.
Will the hon. Gentleman explain his philosophical problem concerning the children of housing benefit tenants who are responsible for antisocial behaviour? What is wrong with the proposals in the Bill to ensure that parents have due regard to their children's behaviour and the consequences of it on the community in which they live? Surely, if parents are concerned and worried about losing their accommodation, they will exert the pressure on their children to behave properly that they have, perhaps, previously failed to exert. Will the hon. Gentleman deal with that matter?
I am more than happy to do so. The hon. Gentleman is right that parents must be responsible and keep their children in check. The question is whether this is the right way to put pressure on them to do so. Other methods can be used to encourage them to bring their children to book, some of which are already on the statute book. I have seen evidence that they work, though some may question whether parental orders work.
The Youth Justice Board published a report yesterday. Right hon. and hon. Members will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that the report mentioned the huge success of parental orders and showed how the Government's action works in dealing with exactly the sort of behaviour that the hon. Gentleman described. We do not need to keep adding extra measures to the statute book if we already have some that work. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that the Youth Justice Board is a reputable and independent body and that we can rely on its analysis.
I am struggling to work out exactly where the Liberal Democrats stand on the matter. Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whether they believe in using housing benefit as a sanction?
We are extremely concerned about the proposals—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) will wait a little longer—he often intervenes quickly—I will deal with the question—[Interruption.]
I am grateful for your protection, Mr. O'Hara. I am sure that you will give it to all Members when it is needed.
The hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) asked a fair question. The evidence and research on the use of benefit sanctions has been far too partial and not deep enough to show whether it has serious social effects. Furthermore, there is already a great deal of evidence, which I shall discuss later, on benefit sanctions in the jobseeker's allowance regime and the new deal for young people, for example, to suggest that those sanctions result in severe hardship that is not covered by the regime that underpins them. On the evidence, albeit partial and preliminary, such an approach causes huge poverty, sometimes to families and children who are innocent parties, as is the case with jobseeker's allowance benefit sanctions.
The position is provisional—we want to see the evidence. Before approving severe action that can—some Members urge that it should—result in someone losing their home, and before going the extra mile and putting in place punitive sanctions, I should have thought that all hon. Members, would want to find out about the effects of benefit sanctions from the evidence that is already available. What effect do they have on the welfare of the family? Do they change people's behaviour? In due course, I shall provide evidence that jobseeker's allowance benefit sanctions have had no effect on behaviour, which was the stated aim of the Government in introducing them. Indeed, it is the stated aim of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead. Therefore, if the evidence—preliminary and partial, I agree—suggests that benefit sanctions do not meet their intended objectives, we should be careful.
I am mindful not to fuel what I suspect will be an extended canter over the issues by the hon. Gentleman. I shall ask him the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling posed, but in a different way. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that it is right that law-abiding residents who are harassed almost to the point that they consider moving voluntarily should subsidise through their taxes the very people driving them from their homes?
The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have not said what happens after eviction. The taxpayers' duty will continue, in one way or another, after eviction. To think that the taxpayer suddenly will not have any role in subsidy—whether it be to subsidise a hostel or something else—is not to live in the real world. So, yes, I have worries about antisocial behaviour, but I shall argue that taxpayers' money could be better spent by tackling its roots to iron it out. I will show—this is relevant to amendment No. 12—that evidence from the projects that have been most hands-on in dealing with antisocial behaviour reveals cost savings to the taxpayer and more effective outcomes in dealing with that behaviour.
What the hon. Gentleman has just said, which I think is a positive ''No'' to the Bill, makes what he is doing clear. He is not using the usual liberal tactic of paddling with the populist current while parading the purity of his principles, nor is he showing how clever he is, as he did on the Finance Bill and earlier this morning. His talk is a filibuster against the Bill, which has been accepted by Labour Members and which the official Opposition have supported very effectively by tabling sensible amendments. By parading his conscience and quibbles across the Floor of the Committee Room, the hon. Gentleman is embarking on a sustained attempt to stop a Bill that is under a tight time constraint. He is ruining it because he wants to appear in his local ''focus'' newsletter as the hero and defender of antisocial tenants.
The hon. Gentleman is getting rather heated and has shown the illogical nature of his argument. He and his hon. Friends have adopted the populist position. If he thinks that I will win many votes with my argument, I can tell him that that is not so; I am likely to lose votes. His charge that I am a populist who wants cheap material for my local ''focus'' or the ''Kingston and Surbiton Voice'', which comes out three times a year—I recommend it to the hon. Gentleman—is not true. I am not taking a populist position, but his right hon. and hon. Friends are, and not necessarily because they are trying to win votes. I fully agree that the intention of all hon. Members is to tackle a serious problem, but the analysis of other hon. Members is faulty. My views are not held on a theoretical basis and I shall produce evidence relating to the benefit sanctions that the Government have already introduced, and to alternatives to the Bill that have worked. This is not a minor matter.
The hon. Gentleman accused me of filibustering, but only two days ago we received new clauses from the Government that would completely rewrite the Bill. If he thinks that it is not right properly to scrutinise a series of new clauses that would affect the housing benefit of a huge number of people throughout the country, he is failing as a parliamentarian, despite his good track record. It is important to give the Bill strict scrutiny, which I intend to do. I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is wrong. There have been far too many instances of Bills being rushed through the House with unintended consequences, which is my worry.
If I may, I shall move on to amendment No. 12, which deals with the trigger of benefit sanctions. The Minister wants an automatic trigger and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead wanted the trigger to be linked to court hearings on antisocial behaviour orders. We should ensure that using the provisions in the Bill is the last thing attempted. Many other actions should be taken before that. I think that that is the spirit of what the right hon. Gentleman described as the Bill's intention during our previous sitting on 18 June. He said:
''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.''—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 18 June 2002; c. 14.]
Amendment No. 12 would insert a provision in the Bill that reflects the right hon. Gentleman's comments. Therefore, the amendment should be accepted. Given that amendment No. 12 would amend the original Bill, I hope that the Government will take a vote in favour of it as a message that they must draft amendments to include a provision in the Bill to ensure that benefit sanctions are genuinely the last step to take. The Government must use several clearly identified processes to ensure that appalling antisocial behaviour is tackled.
Let me explain the measures that I envisage to the Committee and outline why I believe that they would be extremely effective. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead mentioned the Dundee project. I am fortunate to have an evaluation of the project, which was published in September 2001. The Centre for the Child and Society undertook the evaluation.
On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. You have helpfully given us the opportunity to debate the Bill in a sensible manner due to the grouping of the amendments and new clauses. However, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton is speaking to amendment No. 12, which, as he concedes, relates to the original Bill. He has taken no cognisance of the new clauses. It is increasingly clear from the way in which he is making this section of his speech in particular that he is filibustering.
I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but I must rule that the amendments to which the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton is speaking relate to the Bill as it stands. It is not for me to predetermine whether the Government new clauses will be accepted. We must debate the amendments to clause 1 as it stands, which is why clause stand part is grouped where it is.
Further to that point of order, Mr. O'Hara. I see that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton has a rather thick document called ''Evaluation of the Dundee Families Project''. I understand the course that the hon. Gentleman is taking, but it would be useful if you reminded the Committee of the rules of the House on reading out long documents. Liberal Democrat Members normally manage to speak without reading from long documents, but the hon. Gentleman seems to be resorting to that.
I can reassure the hon. Member for Hertsmere that although I will read out a few extracts, I have no intention of quoting long sections. He might be surprised to learn that I will not need to quote very much from this document because I have actually read much of it, so I know about its findings. I recommend it to Committee Members because it is relevant to my
amendment. However, I wonder how many of them have read the document.
Order. Nevertheless, I trust that the hon. Gentleman will take notice of the Chair's guidance. We are at a relatively early stage of the debate, but the Chair will be listening for unnecessary repetition as we proceed.
I would expect nothing less from you, Mr. O'Hara, as I have served under your chairmanship before. You will apply the rules in a fair but rigorous manner, which is the right thing to do.
The project that I was talking about is significant because it has made a concerted effort over a long period to try to deal with antisocial behaviour by using support and resettlement services, which is precisely what my amendment tries to do. Moreover, it is not only a long-established and well-functioning project, but it has been properly evaluated by social scientists, who have had the support of the Scottish Executive, Dundee city council and NCH Scotland.
I turn to the basic structure of the project. I wish to read a very short extract. Paragraph 3 of the executive summary states:
''The Project works with families deemed to have exhibited a range of anti-social behaviour, with the aim of enabling them to avoid eviction or be restored to satisfactory tenancy arrangements. This also helps to prevent the breakdown of vulnerable families, and to re-unite separated families.''
Therefore, the project addresses the same concerns that we wish to deal with.
It is worth noting the sorts of work undertaken by the Dundee project. At first there are tough counselling sessions, to ensure that the family face up to the problem. As part of the research, it was asked, ''Was this seen as an easy option by the project workers, the families or the people who were affected by the antisocial behaviour?'' The conclusion was that it was seen as an effective, rather than a soft, option. The counselling sessions made people face up to the problems that they had been causing.
Secondly, the project's team identifies the specific underlying problems that lead the family to behave in this way. All of the evidence that I have read—from the Government and outside bodies—shows that antisocial behaviour is caused by a range of things. It is a very complicated problem.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for again allowing me to interrupt his anti-Committee behaviour. What he is saying should be submitted as an extended PhD thesis to the departmental inquiry, which closes tomorrow, because it is relevant to that. He is wasting the Committee's time by parading his agonies of conscience about the Bill in this way, unless he is going to address the specific points in the wrecking amendments. That is what we should be dealing with.
There is no need to submit this to the Government so that it can be consulted on. I am
referring only to published documents, so I assume that the Government have copies of all of them. I believe that they are aware of the projects, which are well known. I do not intend to undertake a PhD thesis on this subject.
On Second Reading and several days ago in Committee, I said that the Dundee project was important and that its achievements should be built on, but that it should not be considered in isolation. We are discussing a package. I think that the entire Committee agrees that local authorities would be well advised to build the lessons that this project teaches us into the armoury of mechanisms that they have at their disposal.
I am not sure what the implication is. Is the right hon. Member for Birkenhead implying that he believes that the Government should amend their new clauses in the way that I suggest in amendment No. 12? My amendment would do exactly what he asked for in the previous sitting, as I suggested at the beginning of my remarks about that amendment, namely, it would ensure that there was a process by which local authorities had to implement such mechanisms.
One of the problems to emerge from the social exclusion unit's report is that many local authorities are not taking action or adopting best practice, as the right hon. Gentleman said earlier. For whatever reason, local authorities are not using the tools or examples of exceedingly good practice. The amendment would ensure that they did so. The Bill would require local authorities to use them as part of a process. I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would like that.
I was describing the Dundee families project and trying to explain how the many different problems were identified. After people are made to face up to the difficulties that they cause and any underlying problems are identified, a range of options are available to deal with the root causes of their antisocial behaviour. Options range from fairly mild measures such as youth work, learning cookery skills or lessons in parenting or anger management, to relocation and resettlement in specialist or dispersed units.
Outreach workers do a lot of work in the homes of antisocial tenants. However, some of the most successful work done by the project has been when the tenants have been removed from the homes where they are causing the problem, which I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would welcome. They are sent to places—the right hon. Gentleman mentioned sin bins, but I am not sure that those in the Dundee families project would call them that—where their problems are dealt with. The root causes are tackled with a hugely successful outcome.
I think that the whole Committee agrees with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of long-term work. I especially agree about the parenting work, which is essential. However, the Bill
focuses on the effects of extremely nasty actions over a period of time, that have immediate and short-term consequences for people—actions that need a quick answer as far as vulnerable people affected by antisocial behaviour are concerned. I submit to the hon. Gentleman that the long-term work about which he is talking is not relevant to what we are discussing in the Bill.
Mr. Davey rose—
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman proceeds, perhaps I can help. We had a very helpful general debate in the previous sitting of the Committee. The hon. Member for Hertsmere was very co-operative in identifying which amendment he was speaking about at each point in his contribution. Given the previous general debate that we have had, perhaps it would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman would likewise try to identify in the course of his contribution the amendments that I have selected about which he is speaking.
Obviously, I will deal with your point first, Mr. O'Hara, and then answer the hon. Gentleman's.
I am sorry if I did not make myself clear enough, but I am referring to amendment No.12 on page 1165 of the amendment paper. I wanted to explain why the ''support and resettlement services'' are so vital. In his intervention, the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) misunderstood the sort of work that I was talking about. The Dundee families project offers an immediate solution in some cases—immediate resettlement, when people are actually taken away, which would potentially have a more immediate impact than what is proposed in the Bill.
With the Government's new clauses, reductions in housing benefit would take a long time to have an effect. The people concerned would be in place for a long time before any effect was felt, causing the problems that we are all against. The hon. Gentleman seems to be arguing for my amendment, which I am pleased about.
What is the success rate of the project? The evaluation suggests that about two thirds of the families were successfully helped. That is an astonishing rate when one remembers that many of the families were difficult cases. It was not a soft-touch option. On the cost savings, we should ask what was the impact on the taxpayer, whom we should always remember. Paragraph 29 of the executive summary of the report reads:
''The estimates suggested that the project saved agencies approximately £117,600 of savings per annum. At worst, the Project can be assumed to cost no more than the conventional way of dealing with these families. However, it is more likely that the Project actually generates real cost savings, particularly when long-term costs are taken into account.''
The solution that I am trying to ensure is a part of the process is two-thirds successful and seems to generate long-term cost savings. The Minister and the right
hon. Member for Birkenhead should table a similar amendment that relates to the process and compels local authorities to take such action.
In our previous sitting, I jested with the right hon. Member for Birkenhead about sin bins. When the Dundee families project was first set up, it was pilloried in the local media. The tabloids said that it would be like Colditz. There was much hostility in the local community to the idea of having such hostel blocks in the community and taking antisocial tenants from other communities to put them in such blocks. However, once the project was up and running, people did not notice, because it was so successful. The community did not suffer as a result of several antisocial families being put together in a community that had not previously been affected. That is another sign of the success of such projects and why I believe that the amendment should be made.
I could mention several other projects mentioned in the social exclusion unit report and, I believe, in the DTLR consultation paper. However, I shall not do so. My comments on the Dundee families project speak for themselves.
Amendment No. 13 deals with the maximum period of disqualification of housing benefit—the maximum period for which the benefit sanction can run. Both it and amendment (d) to new clause (5) are effectively the same and would reduce the period for which the benefit sanction could run, from 52 weeks to 26.
It is vital to do that to mitigate some of the most damaging potential effects. Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner that I feel so strongly about the amendments. In London, housing costs are huge. Reductions in housing benefit in London would quickly lead to high levels of indebtedness, eviction and homelessness. As a Member of Parliament who represents an area of London where costs are high, I am conscious of the differentially negative impact that the Bill might have.
I represent a borough that the Government, in their consultation paper on Government finances, now describe as east outer London. I did not know that Kingston was in east outer London. The consultation showed, once again, that housing costs are high.
If we are to ensure that the Bill's impact is not far harsher than I believe that some people envisage, we need to cut the period. That is not just a theory. Many low-income Londoners—who have not behaved antisocially—face severe hardship as a result of the current housing benefit regime, because the previous Government and this Government—
If hon. Members allow me to finish my comments, they will find that they are exactly to do with the Bill.
When a cap was placed on housing benefits for high-rent properties, many people on low incomes had to try to make up the difference through income from work or benefits. Often, they were unable to do so and got into serious debt—some were evicted as a result. I have seen those consequences and Labour Members have pressed Ministers on that matter during debates
on London housing. That is a real-life example—in some ways it was more serious, because it affected people who had not committed offences. The cap effectively caused housing benefit sanctions, as the benefit did not cover the whole rent. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East might not have experienced that in his constituency, but I have seen the cap's effect. It is further evidence to warn us against taking this action.
There are examples of high housing costs in London having effects on social security legislation that was dreamed up centrally and seemed to work for the whole country—
On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. The hon. Gentleman is using the example of capping housing benefit, which was introduced to control housing costs, as if it is comparable with the Bill's provisions. They are entirely different measures and it is misleading and abusive to the Committee to suggest otherwise.
I was moving on to discuss the fact that measures on high housing costs that relate to benefit losses, such as that in the Bill, can have unintended consequences.
The effect of working families tax credit in the capital has been poor, and its take up has been much lower than in the rest of the country. I am going to move on—
I shall not discuss this at length. The working families tax credit did not work because the high housing costs meant that the employment and poverty traps that the credit was designed to get over—
I was merely concluding my remarks on them.
In London, high housing costs mean that it would be appropriate for the maximum length of the disqualification period to be cut from 52 to 26 weeks. I suggest to hon. Members who represent constituencies in which housing costs are not so high that low-income families would still be seriously hit by benefit reductions that could last up to 52 weeks.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I am worried about several consequences of that, which I wish to ameliorate. I am pointing out to hon. Members who share some of my worries about the Bill's effect that my suggestion would deal with some of the aims of the Government and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, but would not have damaging hardship consequences.
The point is directly relevant because other benefit sanction regimes do not last as long as the provision. I
think—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that the maximum length of an existing benefit sanction is 26 weeks, so I am following that legislation. The Bill will create a longer benefit sanction than previously envisaged and the damage will last longer. Moreover, because it is related to housing costs, which can be a significant part of a family's total gross income, there will be even greater problems. Previous sanctions on less crucial benefits have lasted for shorter periods, and a shorter period should also be adopted in this measure.
We are beginning to understand the hon. Gentleman's purpose. I wish to put a rational point to him. On the first strike, our intention is to make a flat reduction from housing benefit, which will probably be defined as a proportion of a single person's allowance. That would mean that there would be equal sanctions throughout the country. Therefore, his point about house prices in London is absurd.
That is news to me because we did not have that detail until the Minister gave it to us a moment ago. One of the problems with the Bill is that many such details will be given in regulations. I would like to know far more about how this Bill will work. [Interruption.] From a sedentary position, hon. Members said—
I thought that more than one hon. Member had spoken: the voice of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby must resonate. He said that I should read the notes on the clauses. I have read them and I am sorry if I did not take on board that detail. However, I think that Committee members agree that the notes on the clauses are not extensive and the Minister effectively admits that in his letter accompanying them. There is no way that we will be able to see the detailed housing benefit regulations because, as the Minister said, the Government have not yet decided what they will be.
I still think that the housing cost issue is important. That may not be the first measure—as the Minister said, that may be a flat sum—but I wonder whether the intention is to have flat sums all the way through.
If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about antisocial behaviour, does he not think that it is reasonable that after the first strike—regardless of how modest that sanction might be—people who begin to worry about housing costs and how they are going to pay their rent should start to behave properly?
I am about tackling antisocial behaviour and I have huge concerns about it. I have worked on it in my constituency. I am trying to contribute to this debate.
The Minister has accepted some simplistic arguments, so he must do some more analysis. He has a case to answer. He has admitted that we do not have all the legislation and that it is very difficult to
frame, which is why the new clauses are being introduced so late. If he is going to carry on making such interventions, I will challenge him by asking why he has not been able to produce all of the legislation, and why the whole thing has been so difficult. Presumably, the answer is that there are so many different problems that need to be addressed. He should be cautious before he suggests that other hon. Members are not concerned about antisocial behaviour. We are deeply concerned about it. The question is how to deal with it.
Amendments Nos. 15 to 17 and 14, relate to who should be contacted to obtain agreement to go ahead with this process. Amendment No. 15 talks about the registered social landlord, amendment No. 16 talks about the local authority, and amendment. No. 17 lists public bodies.
I was surprised that the landlord was not mentioned in clause 1. Both private and social landlords have an important role to play in all of this. They could be of use in dealing with the antisocial behaviour in the first place and in helping to move this process forward. Most importantly, because we want to prevent laws from resulting in miscarriages of justice, the landlord can ensure that the authorities—the court in this case—have all the available information. I will deal with my concerns about the amount of evidence that the court will have to hand when it makes its judgments and rulings. However, to stay with this point, amendments Nos. 15 to 17 and 14 would enrich the evidence that is available in the first place by involving the landlord in the process.
The aim of amendments Nos. 18 to 20 and 25 and amendment (b) to new clause 3 is to tease out a little further the appropriate definition of antisocial behaviour in the context of the Bill.
The hon. Member for Hertsmere did not read from the notes on clauses on this point, but I shall do so. Page 3 of those notes explains that subsection (5) of new clause 3 is about introducing a definition of antisocial behaviour and says that that definition is
''the same as the one already used by the courts for Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, under section 1 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 (section 19 has a comparable definition for Scotland)''.
The Government, understandably, are trying to use other legislation to ensure that the definition is consistent. I am not sure whether that is the correct approach. The definition used for ASBOs is connected to the purpose of those orders, but this legislation is about benefit sanctions, another ratchet up in terms of penalties. Should we have a slightly stricter definition here because we have a different type of penalty? I suggest that we should.
I do not seek to water down the definition, but to make very clear how it would work. Amendments Nos. 18 and 19 would introduce the word ''consistent'' and amendment (b) would ensure that, if antisocial behaviour had taken place from self-defence or under extreme provocation, that could be cited. I am sure that other Members, like me, have come across
neighbour disputes in which one neighbour alleges that the other has been behaving in an antisocial way, but the answer comes back from the other family involved that it was the first neighbour who was responsible.
I am trying to follow the hon. Gentleman's argument. Can I take it from what he is saying that I can tell my constituents that the Liberal Democrats do not think that behaviour or conduct that has
''caused, or was likely to cause, harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons''
is antisocial behaviour? It is antisocial behaviour for the purposes of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998; I think that the wording is also lifted from public order legislation that refers to convictions for breach of public order. Can I tell my constituent from Borehamwood who is having youths pelting his house with eggs, stamping at his door and racially abusing his wife that that is not antisocial behaviour in the view of the Liberal Democrats?
Of course the hon. Gentleman cannot say that. We are not debating the legislation to which he referred. I am not seeking to change that legislation, and would not seek to do so.
The hon. Gentleman rightly says that that is where the definition comes from, but I made the point—I thought quite clearly—that the different legislation we are debating has a different penalty and a different purpose. There is a genuine argument, in which the hon. Gentleman is quite at liberty to engage, as to whether or not the definition here is appropriate. I am trying to tease out from the Government whether they considered a slightly stricter definition. That is a valid point to make.
The Government might do well to read the report on antisocial behaviour from policy action team 8 of the social exclusion unit, published in March 2000, which talked about the definition of antisocial behaviour. I will quote briefly from paragraph 1.2, page 15, of that report, which says:
''There is no single definition of anti-social behaviour.''
That should not strike us as odd. The question is which definition we will use for that purpose. There are some wide-ranging definitions; for example, the Chartered Institute of Housing good practice briefing defines antisocial behaviour as
''Behaviour that unreasonably interferes with other people's rights to the use and enjoyment of their home and community.''
That is a very wide definition and the definition in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 is slightly narrower than that.
I suggest that the definition may need to be narrower because we are dealing with a continuum and with degrees. The report sets out different aspects of antisocial behaviour, which include noise, conflicts involving harassment, serious crimes such as domestic violence and racist incidents, littering and dumping rubbish, which is serious but clearly not as serious as some of the examples that I have cited. Problems that
come under that definition include dealing with graffiti and uncontrolled pets, nuisance from vehicles including parking and abandonment and unkempt gardens. All of that counts as antisocial behaviour and much would be captured by the definition. I am seeking to tighten up the definition to make sure that the worst types of antisocial behaviour are caught by new clause 3(5).
I was grateful to Shelter for its briefing on how the definition in new clause 3(5) might work in practice, and I hope that the Minister will clarify this point. Shelter is worried that although the definition in new clause 3(5) is narrower than the original definition in the Bill, because of the trigger of the court declaration the definition could be made wider. A declaration could be sought in either the criminal or the civil courts by which any or all of the conduct giving rise to a conviction would be defined as behaving in an antisocial manner. Imagine that a conviction for, for example, shoplifting was undertaken by someone who had once or twice walked down the street drunk and that was brought up as evidence of antisocial behaviour. Perhaps that person kept their garden in an untidy way, which is a minor example of antisocial behaviour. The question that Shelter is asking, through me, is whether that type of minor antisocial behaviour being linked into a conviction for something else would be sufficient to trigger the housing benefit sanction.
The hon. Gentleman and I have one thing—possibly only one thing—in common, which is that we are both London MPs. He knows, and Shelter knows, that many thousands of people are homeless or very poorly housed. They would love some of the council dwellings occupied by people who are abusing their communities at the taxpayer's expense. If we are to take a once-noble organisation seriously, will he tell us how many homeless people Shelter consulted about antisocial behaviour?
Of course, I do not have the answer, as the Minister well knows. I am surprised that he denigrates Shelter, which has a fantastic track record. He said it was a once-noble organisation.
The Minister has confirmed my observation. I understand that Shelter has worked closely with the Government in the past to assist them in understanding the problems of homeless people, and I am therefore particularly surprised by his comments. He should listen to other points that Shelter has brought forward. It quotes Home Office research study 236, published in 2002, which reviews antisocial behaviour orders granted under the definition that we are discussing. The research lists the types of behaviour for which ASBOs were granted:
''verbal abuse, harassment, graffiti, noise, shoplifting, drunk and disorderly behaviour, prostitution and trespass.''
I do not know whether he is aware of that research. He frowns, almost suggesting that he is not aware of it.
The Minister is obviously welcome to his own opinion. However, he ought to take the
relevant point on board. If antisocial behaviour has been deemed to include some of the examples that I listed, would he be happy to see benefit sanctions apply in those cases? Some of those examples of antisocial behaviour are actually quite limited. There is a real concern. Shelter has made it very clear that with the declaration trigger tied to the definition in subsection (5) of new clause 3, unintended consequences could occur. We could see housing benefit deduction from people whom the Minister and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead have no intention of catching.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman received the same fax that I did today from Shelter signed by several organisations. The key note from those organisations is that they do not believe that the legislation has any merit at all. I repeat what was asked earlier. If the hon. Gentleman concurs with that, why does he not oppose the Bill? I see no reason to amend it; we might as well get on with it. Either one agrees with it, or not. That seems to be the nub of the matter.
I would be in danger of being ruled out of order if I repeated in full the response I gave when the right hon. Member for Birkenhead made that accusation. I am concerned, and the amendments need to be debated and considered by the Government to ensure that when the legislation goes on to the statute books, it is not as damaging as it would be if passed in its current form. He is right that those organisations are opposed to it. I was not intending to quote from that letter; I was sent copies and given notification of it. I do not intend to do that, partly because of my huge respect for the right hon. Gentleman. Although those organisations are free to say what they like, I have respect for him and was not intending to quote from their letters.
If the hon. Gentleman has, as he says, huge respect for the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, why is he not frank with the Committee? Why did he say that he is trying to ameliorate the Bill when he is doing no such thing? These are wrecking amendments.
I do not believe that they are wrecking amendments. I discussed them with other people who believed that in the operation of the legislation, they would assist. Therefore, the Government should take account of them.
On a point of order, Mr. O' Hara. You have helpfully grouped the amendments in such a way that we can meaningfully discuss and debate not only the amendments and new clauses, but some of the issues of principle involved. For the purposes of almost all of the Committee, that is a helpful exercise, which enables us to proceed in a proper manner. The difficulty that we are now experiencing is that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton is abusing the intelligent way in which you have put the amendments together. That means that in effect none of us will be able to have the sensible debate that we envisaged.
Order. I have been listening extremely carefully to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton, and since I gave him that counsel, he has
been speaking to specific groups of amendments. I was about to suggest that he moved on from his previous subject, but he anticipated me by saying that he was going to move on. He has been diverted from doing so by several interventions. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman be allowed to move on.
I was indeed going to move on, but with one comment. I hope that the Minister, when he responds, will take seriously the point made by Shelter concerning the declaration mechanism.
I am going to discuss other aspects of new clause 3. Can the Minister tell the Committee whether the declaration mechanism—the link to the conviction—would expand the definition beyond what he expected and would be unintended?
Amendments Nos. 23 and 24 would ensure that the Secretary of State, in the case of No. 23, and the Secretary of State, the local housing authority and local social services authority, in the case of No. 24, must express an opinion that the housing benefit sanction route was best. In other words, the amendments would require them to think of other routes to deal with antisocial behaviour. That is important, and would enable them to consider alternative methods.
Earlier, I mentioned the sorts of things that I have in mind for the Secretary of State, the local housing authority and local social services authority to consider; I shall now go into more detail. In the London borough of Islington, Liberal Democrats have been doing an awful lot of effective work to tackle antisocial behaviour; that work has had success and has been held as an example to other places. In response to some of the Minister's points, I can say that Liberal Democrats are dealing with antisocial behaviour.
I knew that there would be opposition to the Bill from the Liberal Democrats, so I asked the Library to do a trawl of all the questions that they had asked, all the debates to which they had contributed and all the articles that they had written on the sort of antisocial behaviour addressed in the Bill. Does it surprise you, Mr. O'Hara, that not one of the Liberal Democrats who is opposing the Bill with wrecking amendments has raised the topic before?
I am grateful for that remark, because the thrust of my point on the amendments is that we may not have been writing letters and articles or tabling questions, but we have taken action that has worked at the grass roots and dealt with antisocial behaviour. In my constituency, Councillor Tricia Bamford and some of her colleagues went to Islington to talk to Councillor Steve Hitchens and his team about how acceptable behaviour contracts work in practice. The royal borough of Kingston now has a protocol for using those contracts and several have already been issued. The Liberal Democrats undertook that work using the scrutiny committees when they were in opposition on the council. Those councillors did the work; they were not writing
articles, but tackling the problem by coming up with innovative solutions that the Government are now copying. The right hon. Gentleman's attack is therefore unfounded.
I was trying to. I want to talk about the alternatives that I hope that the Secretary of State, the local housing authority or the local social services authority will be able to consider before they impose housing benefit sanctions. That is the purpose of amendments Nos. 23 and 24.
There is another version of acceptable behaviour contracts called parental control agreements—PCAs—for youngsters under the age of 10. Both have been successfully piloted and are now being used throughout Islington borough through the Islington crime reduction partnership. They were the first of their kind in the country; they were not trialled elsewhere, but dreamed up in Islington. They have been successfully tackling antisocial behaviour caused by young people. They have involved partnerships with the council's housing department and the borough police, and have been used on many estates and problem areas. Their aim is to deal with the root of the problem. They have some similarities with the Dundee Families Project in that they deal with behaviour and try to ensure that the individual behaving unacceptably understands why it is unacceptable and why people are concerned. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may laugh, but it is clear from analysis of the research on other benefit sanctions that people—not all, but some—do not understand why they are being sanctioned. We must bear that important point in mind.
On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. The hon. Gentleman covered that territory about 20 minutes ago, and I believe that we are in danger of tedious repetition.
The Chair will decide if there is tedious repetition. I am observing very carefully, and the hon. Gentleman has made reasonable progress since I gave him guidance to do so. While I am on my feet, I suggest that, under my guidance, the hon. Gentleman might make better progress through the group of amendments if there were fewer interventions, which are diverting him from doing so. I remind Members that when we get through this block of amendments, much of the further business will be formal and will not require further debate.
Thank you, Mr. O'Hara. As you rightly said, I was trying to move on to discussing other alternatives that might be considered. I gave as an example the Islington experiment, which has been running since February 2000. It has been developed borough-wide after some pilots, and some 100 contracts have been signed.
The failure rate is 2 per cent., and action is taken if a contract is breached. Hon. Members might be surprised to learn that the effective penalty for breaching an acceptable behaviour contract is eviction. However, eviction is done in a way that includes support and resettlement services—a multi-
agency approach is used. People will say that such an approach may be politically correct but never actually succeeds. However, that is an example that it does. Before it is dismissed as trendy or new Labour, it should be noted that the approach works.
On the point made by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire, the great advantage of acceptable behaviour contracts is that they enable the crime reduction partnership to intervene quickly. There is no need to go to the courts or involve people in making judgments. Someone can talk to the individual concerned and ensure that they sign up. They can be signed up to a contract in a matter of days, not months.
I understand your point about interventions, Mr. O'Hara, and the need to move on. However, in the dying moments of this morning's discussion—given that most of us hope this weekend to reassure victims of antisocial behaviour in our constituencies that Members of Parliament have deliberated and made some decisions and progress—may I ask whether there will come a moment when the hon. Gentleman, too, will agree to move on, despite the legitimate differences between us, so that we can vote on the matter?
I imagine that there will be votes today, and I intend to make progress. However, as you rightly said, Mr. O'Hara, I have been intervened on heavily and have not refused any interventions. I am trying to make progress and, with the Minister's agreement, shall do that. I was trying to point out that that very new experiment was the first. It has not been trialled in other councils up and down the country,
which may be why other hon. Members are fortunate—
On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I am having difficulty following which amendment we are on. I thought that we had moved on to amendment No. 21, which deals with exceptional hardship, but the hon. Gentleman seems to be discussing amendments that you advised him to move on from some time ago.
I am speaking to amendments No. 22 and 24. I do not believe that at any stage I advised that I had moved on to amendment No. 21. I assure the hon. Member for Hertsmere that I shall tell him when I have moved on.
The right hon. Member for Birkenhead suggested from a sedentary position when the hon. Member for Hertsmere intervened that we did not need a Bill for this purpose. He is absolutely right, because what we have discussed is already happening. My point is that before we put in place a draconian sanction regime we should ensure that the authorities have considered the type of action that I described. It would be the most effective way to deal with antisocial behaviour and would ensure that such best practice—introduced and piloted by the Liberal Democrats—was used throughout the country and becomes part of the process. It would be cheaper—
It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.