Clause 3 - Short title, commencement and extent

Part of Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 11 July 2002.

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Mr. Davey: I beg to move amendment No. 30, in page 1, line 22, after first 'shall', insert,

'subject to section [anti-social behaviour commission] above.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider new clause 16—Anti-social behaviour commission—

'(1) No action shall be taken under this Act until the Secretary of State has set up an anti-social behaviour commission whose function shall be to investigate anti-social behaviour by tenants and to report to him and make recommendations.

(2) It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to have regard to any recommendations made by the Commission.'.

Mr. Davey: I am especially keen to move new clause 16, because it is more substantive than the amendment. It proposes the establishment of an antisocial behaviour commission. I am not normally an advocate of quangos. In general, I am in favour of getting rid of as many of them as possible. Therefore, I have a slightly heavy heart as I propose to set up another one, but it is necessary because I have concerns about this matter.

New clause 16 would ensure that the Secretary of State was unable to take any action under the Bill until the commission had been set up and had reported on antisocial behaviour and made recommendations to the Secretary of State. It also makes an important second provision:

It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to have regard to any recommendations made by the Commission.'.

I envisage that the commission would ensure that any further movement down this road would be made on the basis of evidence. That is a key point in my argument and in one of our debates this morning. There is a danger that the Government are acting too hastily. They have not seen the evidence of the effect of benefits sanctions, and until they have done so and can say that those sanctions will not result in the destitution that we talked about, they will not have won the argument. The antisocial behaviour commission would have the core function of undertaking research to make recommendations.

In many ways, the Government should welcome the measure because it is in line with what they are doing. They are consulting and might find that this approach, which would further develop that consultation, would help. I stress that it would not stop them continuing with the consultation on attacking antisocial tenants that was published by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. It would not stop them from pushing forward such measures—Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Birkenhead says from a sedentary position, ''Of course it would.''

Mr. Field: No, I said that it would not. It is clear what the hon. Gentleman wants from his new clause. I would not prevent those other measures taking place. We have done him the courtesy of reading his amendment.

Mr. Davey: I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman has read the amendment and he can back up what I am saying. I made that point in case anyone was worried that the commission would stop real action being taken against antisocial behaviour. It would not. It would only prevent a very narrow approach being taken. The Government should not go ahead with this one tool, which the Minister himself said was only a small part of their armoury, until they have further evidence. That is a sensible way to proceed.

It is not unusual for the Government to set up commissions to obtain evidence to back up future policies. We have the Low Pay Commission, which discussed the introduction of the national minimum wage. It proved to be very effective and has subsequently reported back to the Government. The Government have adopted the same approach in other areas of social policy. It has worked exceedingly well before and is likely to do so again.

I have referred to the other consultations and work that has been done. The right hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that I will not go over that ground again. One piece of research evidence should be taken forward, however, and I am sure that the antisocial behaviour commission would do so. It relates to the Government's approach of tying housing benefit sanctions to convictions, which would lead to offenders serving time in prison in some cases.

''Reducing Re-offending by Ex-prisoners'' was published this month by the social exclusion unit. The Government have done a lot of work on it and I welcome the research, which would be key to the work of the antisocial behaviour commission. It shows that poor housing, the lack of housing and homelessness are key factors in influencing reoffending rates. Released prisoners commit a huge amount of crime—at least 1 million crimes per year, or 18 per cent. of recorded notifiable crime. Dealing with the issue would help to tackle much of the antisocial behaviour that we are worried about. We should ensure that the housing of offenders is sufficient to prevent them reoffending.

That research would be germane to the work of the commission. It would have to be—[Interruption.] I am not sure if it was the Minister or the right hon. Member for Birkenhead who asked, ''How?'' The

research that would be undertaken would examine the specific provisions in the Bill, namely, linking the housing benefit sanction to a conviction. Imagine that a convicted prisoner is released after serving a sentence of less than 12 months, is subject to the housing benefit sanction, and thus becomes homeless. In those circumstances, the chances of that prisoner reoffending are much greater, according to all the research that the Government have recently published. That seems odd, which is why we must be less hasty and why the new clause is important. It would ensure that the research published by the Government this month could be taken into account and that we could have the joined-up government that we hear so much about. We could ensure that people released from prison, who would be hit by the housing benefit sanction, did not reoffend.

Mr. Howarth: On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. I have re-read the new clause to which the hon. Gentleman is speaking carefully and I think that he is straying rather wide of it.

The Chairman: I suppose that that is a point of order; it is for the Chair to decide. I am listening carefully for a distinction in the arguments of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton between the reoffending that might take place, which is not relevant to the debate, and how the commission would assist in analysing and more generally. He should be referring to the commission and what it would do, not to behaviours, which have been discussed many times before.

Mr. Davey: I am grateful for that advice, Mr. O'Hara. The commission would take evidence that was already available, consider it in respect of the housing benefit sanction and decide whether that was the right approach. It would work out whether such sanctions would result overall in a reduction in antisocial behaviour. The commission would need to do that, because by tying the housing benefit sanction to a conviction, one is targeting it on offenders. Presumably, they will suffer the sanction when they are released from prison. As a result, they will have problems getting stable accommodation and a plethora of evidence suggests that that will make them reoffend.

Mr. Clappison: On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. You have been very fair, if I may say so, in giving the hon. Gentleman latitude for debate, but he seems to have ignored your strictures completely. He has returned to the subject of reoffending and behaviour—he never even got to what the commission would do.

The Chairman: Order. I was about to make exactly that point. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton is not observing the distinction that I asked him to. With the new clause, we are concerned only with what the commission would do.

Mr. Davey: The commission would have to look into the workings of, for example, the 13-week rule that applies to prisoners in respect of housing benefit. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead has suggested that prisoners do not receive housing benefit; he forgets the 13-week rule.

Mr. Field: We are discussing a new clause that would set up an independent commission. What business is it of the Committee to decide what the commission would or would not do? It would not be a tool of the Committee or anyone else.

The Chairman: Order. I repeat that I wish and expect to hear about the role and value of the commission, not about behaviours and reoffending, which we have discussed many times before.

Mr. Davey: I hope that the commission would be made up of a range of specialists in understanding the people who would be affected by the legislation. It should have members from organisations such as the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, landlords' organisations and, in particular, those who could assist in research. I have talked about those involved with resettling offenders and one can imagine many other types of people who would be appropriate members of the commission. Examples are people from local authorities who administer housing benefit and representatives of homeless charities. They have been debated and disparaged by a few hon. Members, but I believe that they would play a valuable role as members of an antisocial behaviour commission. I am not sure how long a commission would need for an investigation, so I deliberately did not set a timetable. That would be too prescriptive, but it would clearly want to report as soon as possible to make recommendations.

I am sure that a commission, as it went about its work, would read the reports to which we have referred. I would expect it to take notice of the consultation paper on tackling antisocial behaviour in tenants. I would also strongly recommend to hon. Members and any future commission members a text by Caroline Hunter, Judy Nixon and Sigrid Shayer called, ''Neighbour nuisance, social landlords and the law''. I found it exceedingly useful for understanding the current processes and how the proposals would affect them.

I do not want to prejudge any outcomes, but commission members would want to understand such analysis because they would be worried about whether the Bill would reduce antisocial behaviour. That is my main concern and the antisocial behaviour commission would be the best place to make such a fine judgment. That is the subject of the debate: whether benefit sanctions will reduce or increase antisocial behaviour.

Mr. Clappison: On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. We have been through this before. I would like to move that the Question be now put.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is being a little premature. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton is entitled to refer to that point, but not develop it yet again. I remind Committee members that when the Chairman has advised the speaker on several occasions of the need to make progress, he has the power to order the Member to finish his speech if that advice is not taken.

Mr. Davey: I was coming to the tasks that an antisocial behaviour commission would undertake and referring to the research of which it could take note. I imagine that it would commission new research, focusing particularly on the concern at hand.

Mr. Field: On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. There is nothing in the clause that we are discussing that asks the commission to do that. The clause says that it should investigate antisocial behaviour; there is nothing to do with monitoring the Act. When the hon. Gentleman has been in order, his contribution has been literature on criminal activity.

The Chairman: I hear that point of order and once again advise the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton that he is not further developing his argument. With my guidance, he has concentrated on the particular point of the new clause, but he is not advancing the argument much further. I ask him to heed my advice.

Mr. Davey: I will try to do so and I am trying to stick to the point on the work that a commission would do. I do not think that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead was listening because I am talking about how it would investigate antisocial behaviour by tenants. I hope that such investigations would include hearings and evidence from the victims of antisocial behaviour. That would be proper and important. The Minister accused me of not referring to victims. In my previous remarks, I have referred to them and I hope—we all take the matter so seriously—that the antisocial behaviour commission would do the same. Victims should be at the forefront of the commissioners' minds as they set about their work. The commission should exist to carry out investigations to ensure that we have the right laws—and put the right recommendations to the Minister—to tackle antisocial behaviour for the benefit of victims.

Mr. Field: On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. The hon. Gentleman has made two contributions. The first is that he wants the ideas monitored before the provisions come into effect, but the new clause does not cover that. Secondly, he tells us that the commission should talk to the victims, but again the new clause makes no reference to it. If it is so important and the hon. Gentleman drew up the new clause, why is it not there?

The Chairman: The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton is once again taxing my patience. I have heard no further development of the argument to establish a commission and make the Government take heed of its recommendations. If the hon. Gentleman says anything further, he must refer to that argument and he must not repeat points that he has already made in his contribution.

Mr. Davey: I apologise if I am trying your patience, Mr. O'Hara, by not sticking to the main point. I hoped that I was. The main argument for establishing an antisocial behaviour commission is to provide more information to the Government before they go down the route that they want to follow.

The Chairman: Order. That point has already been made.

Mr. Davey: I was making that general point and wanted to go on to talk about the sort of information that would be appropriate. I can see that I am trying your patience, Mr. O'Hara. On the basis of what you said, I shall be forced to close my remarks if I do not do so of my own accord. I acknowledge your experience in chairing Committees and I do not want to try your patience. I hope that you understand the spirit of my concluding remarks. I am sitting down so that we can continue and I no longer try your patience.

Mr. Field: I am relieved to hear the hon. Gentleman say that. He is one of the most intelligent Members of Parliament, but he would never have passed his exams if his answers mirrored his approach to new clause 16 or, indeed, his previous contributions to the debate.

The Bill makes a new beginning. Previous sanctions were about trying to get people to perform well for themselves, but we are now moving toward taking sanctions against people whose behaviour is making life impossible for others. I will be surprised if the Minister accepts the amendment, though it has a kernel of an idea—that the Government should consult widely on the causes of antisocial behaviour. Clearly, the Government have monitored changes in other respects and they will monitor changes in this case, too. The Government have a good track record on consulting and monitoring, so I hope that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton will withdraw the amendment.

Malcolm Wicks: I can be brief. The Government have researched problems of antisocial behaviour and Members of Parliament know about the problems that their constituents face. In 2000, the social exclusion unit published a comprehensive report on antisocial behaviour and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister recently consulted on the problems of antisocial tenants. We do not believe that a new commission would add greatly to what we already know. Our constituents want quick action, not a slow Lib-Dem quango around the houses.

Mr. Davey: As the Minister would not allow me to intervene on him—I have always allowed him to intervene on me—I must say how disappointed I am with that answer. Neither the consultation document that has been discussed many times nor the social exclusion report mentioned the proposal that is before us, although they contain all the measures that I have been talking about. All those people who did the research and the study and collected the evidence, which is exactly what I would hope the antisocial behaviour commission would do, had different recommendations. They did not make this recommendation at all. It is a great shame that the Minister will not accept the amendment because it would force him to go back to the sort of work that has been done, which has clearly come up with different solutions and it would help to tackle the problem with a properly targeted approach.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 1, Noes 10.