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Housing Benefit (Loss of Benefit) (Pilot Scheme) Regulations 2007

Volume 694: debated on Tuesday 17 July 2007

rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Housing Benefit (Loss of Benefit) (Pilot Scheme) Regulations 2007.

The noble Lord said: Anti-social behaviour ruins lives. It does not just make life unpleasant but prevents the renewal of disadvantaged areas and creates an environment where more serious crime can take hold. It is also very expensive. It is estimated to cost the British taxpayer £3.4 billion a year. One of the commitments in the respect action plan, launched in January 2006, was to consider how to encourage those involved in persistent anti-social behaviour to engage with intensive family support.

As part of the plan, we developed the policy of a housing benefit sanction for people who have been evicted for anti-social behaviour and then refuse to take up offers of help. This proposal is different from sanction proposals previously considered but not taken forward. It is a post-eviction sanction, designed to encourage people to access support to tackle their problem behaviour, as opposed to a pre-eviction proposal intended to deter but not tackle the causes of the anti-social behaviour. The aim is to provide a very strong incentive to encourage these households to undertake rehabilitation when they have refused other offers of help.

This measure was thoroughly debated during the course of the Welfare Reform Act 2007, so I know that there are concerns about its impact on the vulnerable. However, the measure is about helping vulnerable people and about getting people in crisis to accept the support offered to them. Because they have already been evicted, the chances of it happening again are high unless they change their behaviour. As I told noble Lords during the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill, this policy will be considered a success if no sanction is imposed. It will mean that people have accepted the help that they need.

We know that intensive rehabilitation can achieve positive and significant changes in behaviour, resulting in long-standing difficulties and entrenched anti-social behaviour being stopped. The evaluation of the Dundee families’ project showed an 84 per cent success rate with the most difficult families, using a variety of key indicators, including prevention of issuing anti-social behaviour orders and preventing children being taken into care.

A Sheffield Hallam University evaluation of six family support projects found that the projects were strong on their primary objective of reducing incidents and complaints about anti-social behaviour. An 85 per cent reduction in anti-social behaviour was recorded. This study used key indicators, including the reduction in the level of complaints and improved school attendance over two years. Evaluations show success rates of over 80 per cent. It means that behaviour improves and communities get respite from the behaviour that is plaguing them, and it also delivers other positive outcomes. An 84 per cent improvement in school attendance was recorded across the six projects covered in the Sheffield Hallam evaluation. Parents often report feeling better able to control, supervise and parent their children.

Given the strong evidence that such rehabilitation works, it is justifiable that a sanction of benefit should be linked to the refusal of such help and support. The fate of those who have a sanction imposed is within their own hands. Benefit will be reinstated if they choose to take up the rehabilitation services offered to them. These regulations underpin the possible sanction of housing benefit and set the rate for the reduction. It is right that they are subject to the affirmative procedure. The regulations would allow the pilots to run for two years, starting from 1 November 2007. Under the primary legislation, the conditions that must be satisfied for a sanction to be applied are that the former occupier has been evicted on grounds of anti-social behaviour; they have secured alternative accommodation and a new claim to housing benefit has been made; they have been issued with a warning notice requiring them to take specified action to avoid a sanction; and they have failed, without good cause, to comply with the warning notice.

Regulation 3 sets out that that must all take place within a pilot area—not necessarily the same pilot area—and within the pilot period. Under regulation 4, if those conditions are satisfied, housing benefit will be gradually reduced in three phases, the intention being that the increasing deduction acts as a rolling incentive to take up support. Because we want this to be a strong incentive, it is a severe sanction, taking away up to 100 per cent of benefit. However, if the person falls into the category of “person of hardship”, the maximum reduction is 30 per cent. Hardship is defined in regulation 5. As well as those listed as automatically qualifying for hardship, local authorities have discretion to award hardship in any case where they have taken account of all the circumstances of the household and are satisfied that it will suffer hardship.

The proposed regulations would amend the Social Security (Loss of Benefits) Regulations 2001 so that, where another sanction was being applied to the household’s housing benefit for benefit offences, the rate of deduction that would apply would be the greater of the two rates. The schedule to the two regulations lists the local authorities where the pilots will take place, and only claimants in those local authorities will be subject to the sanction of reduced housing benefit. The local authorities piloting the scheme are volunteers who believe it is a tool that will be useful to them.

Further detail on the sanction scheme will be provided in negative-resolution regulations—the Housing Benefit (Loss of Benefit) Pilot Scheme Supplementary Regulations 2007. Those regulations contain details of appeal rights and of what will be considered good cause not to comply with a warning notice. They will provide the rules about discretionary housing payments and provide the arrangements for sharing of information between the courts, the DWP and local authorities. Detailed guidance will be provided for housing benefit administrators, the courts and local authorities. It is being drafted in conjunction with the piloting local authorities and with relevant stakeholders.

In my view the provisions of the Housing Benefit (Loss of Benefit) (Pilot Scheme) Regulations 2007 are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Housing Benefit (Loss of Benefit) (Pilot Scheme) Regulations 2007. 21st report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Lord McKenzie of Luton.)

I thank the Minister for introducing the regulations. He will remember that we opposed this power when the Welfare Reform Act 2007 was going through the House. We thought that, as part of the respect agenda, it represented government grandstanding—there for effect, but without serious intent. We are glad that they have the power only to set up a pilot scheme, which cannot be rolled out across the country without primary legislation.

As the Minister acknowledged, many charities and organisations involved are deeply opposed to the idea of imposing benefit sanctions for anti-social behaviour. Several local authorities also oppose the idea. There are concerns that it will drive the most vulnerable families, often involving children living in poverty, out of safe housing into slums, and from there on to the streets. Will the Minister clarify how many families the Government expect sanctions to be applied to under the scheme, and how they will protect the children who will unavoidably be affected by the sanctions?

The stick is meant to be balanced with a carrot. Those subject to sanctions must have the support they need. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions called this “intensive”. There was a lot of concern during the original debate that the Government were not going to provide any extra funds to the organisations—the local authority, independent charities and so on—that would have to provide that support. Will the Minister clarify what funding has been made available to them? Will any extra funding that would be provided for in the pilot, but not necessarily in the rollout, be fully transparent in the final report?

There was a lot of concern that those imposing the sanctions would not have the training or the duty to identify those whose anti-social behaviour was as a result of mental illness. What safeguards have the Government put in place to ensure that those with mental illnesses are identified and given the support that they need? Will the Government provide any extra funding to the mental health organisations that will have to provide this support, even if they are outside the usual “intensive support” that the Government intend to provide as a consequence of these regulations?

Other pilots in the Welfare Reform Act were criticised either for the inadequate number of test bases, so that the evidence was meaningless, or for the fact that funding for the pilot was much greater than funding for the planned rollout, so that the results would not necessarily be comparable.

I think that the Minister will see that the thrust of my contribution to this discussion is an attempt to ensure that the eventual report will be as full and transparent as possible. I hope he will guarantee that that will be the case. For our part, we will be interested in the pilot and await the outcome.

I am very pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, and I concur with just about everything that he said. The Committee should be very wary of taking on additional pilots. I think that there is already a feeling that the department is more or less “piloted out”. It is very easy to agree that we should look at these issues and, indeed, many of them benefit from pilots being run, but one wonders to what extent we overdo the technique. However, as has been said, we will look at this pilot programme with great interest once the results have been evaluated and made available.

I have a number of questions for the Minister. He is right to say that we had some full discussions about the principle during the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill. He will know that the legislation was amended to the extent that we have a sunset clause, under which, unless we have further primary legislation, the legislation will be brought to an end by 2010. That has an impact on its interaction with these pilots, and I should be very interested to know how he sees that working. Of course, the power for the sanctions can last for up to five years but, as there are only two or three years to go between now and 2010, it will be interesting to watch how these things interact.

I have serious doubts about a post-eviction policy. I absolutely concur with the analysis of the evil and damage that anti-social behaviour does and the fact that there is a need to do something. I understand that there is always pressure on Ministers to be seen to be doing something, but they must resist the temptation to do that. I also have serious doubts about using the benefits system to impose penalties as part of the so-called respect agenda. I do not think that you do that easily without potentially damaging very fragile households.

The pilots are interesting and they need to be watched but I think that Ministers need to be careful about how they are rolled out. I should be much more interested in devoting resources, time and energy to a preventive strategy. I know that that has been tried. The Minister has said, rightly, that the experience of the work carried out at Dundee and the research at Sheffield Hallam University indicates that you can get considerable returns from actively preventing people being evicted and getting involved in anti-social behaviour in the first place. If I were given the choice, that is the direction of policy that I would take. It is not the one that we have before us this afternoon, which looks at the requirement for post-eviction support services to try to reduce anti-social behaviour. I do not think that that is the right way to do it.

One immediate question that arises is that this power derives from 1992 regulations, which are UK wide, but the pilots are only English in their dimension. Does that mean that the policy as currently constructed is intended in the long term to be rolled out only in England if it is rolled out, or are there discussions with colleagues in Scotland, Wales and indeed Northern Ireland about what happens in the longer run?

As far as I can see, there is certainly not a great deal of demand for these policies. What do the local authorities that have volunteered—and that is an interesting verb to use sometimes—actually feel about this? Their view may be that this is another additional tool that they might use as a way forward in future, but I get no sense from the stakeholders or local authorities that people are queuing up to press the Minister for these measures.

One reason for that is that the proposals will involve additional complexity. The guidelines are much more extensive than I expected, but they are to provide protections for those who are subject to the regulations. It all gets a bit convoluted, and we all know that the benefit system is complex enough as it is. We need to guard against increasing complexity where we can.

I shall be interested to know why these areas were chosen and whether they were volunteers. As far as I can make out, in the timescale for which figures are most recently available, only 28 families in total were evicted across these eight areas. That suggests to me that we have a potentially very small sample here, which is something that needs looking at very carefully. I should also like to try to work out what control arrangements there are. Will there be interviews and will evaluation be attempted for those families who are evicted but are not threatened with a sanction to get a control that makes the evaluation a bit more scientific? Perhaps something could be said about that, if not this afternoon then by way of a letter to me and the noble Lord. That would be helpful.

There is confusion here about responsibility, too. The respect agenda is a Home Office matter, for which there is a budget and a rollout for national policies. The delivery of these pilots will be exclusively in the hands of local authorities, which will have some discretion in that regard while obviously being subject to the Department for Communities and Local Government. The DWP seems to fit into this process simply because it is that department’s money that is potentially being sanctioned. Can I have some assurances that there have been meaningful talks between all these various government departments so that they all know what they are trying to do?

As for the policy outcome and evaluation, will we not end up with the pilots eventually evaluating nothing much more than the quality of the service packages available in these eight areas? If they are very good service packages, a lot of people will readily accept them. Therefore, I do not see how the evaluation of the actual policy can be unbundled from the extent and provision of the package of services of support that are available. I am puzzled about that and would like some reassurance about that, too.

There is a mismatch between the legal and practical arrangements in these orders, because I think that there is a confusion of language and definition between “tenant” on the one hand, who is responsible for the rent—that comes from the rent Acts and a body of law that is separate and distinct—and “household” or “benefit unit” on the other, which come from social security law. The tenant is the person who is going to be sanctioned, because he or she will get the warning letter and the terms of the sanction threat put through his or her door. But the tenant may not be responsible for the anti-social behaviour about which the complaint is raised, because it is a member of the household who is responsible. The two are not the same thing. The loose use of terms such as “family”, “household”, “tenant” and “former occupier” will lead to potential difficulties.

The benefit unit is different from the household. We know that because housing benefit is paid to the family unit, not to the household; they are considered separate units. Deductions are made from non-dependent units, which are considered to be economically distinct and separate from the household. So you could have anti-social behaviour conducted by a non-dependent for housing benefit purposes, but how does that fit in with who gets the sanction letter and who gets the penalty applied to him or her? It is difficult to understand. I certainly do not understand it, but perhaps I am missing something here.

There are some prima facie problems about human rights. I am not an expert in this area, but because these regulations discriminate households that are guilty of anti-social behaviour simply according to where they live, there is an element of potential discrimination that the Minister should get his officials to look at carefully. There are another 53 family intervention pilots in other parts of the United Kingdom that have been in place for some time, and anti-social behaviour households in those areas can refuse to co-operate and not be sanctioned. So there is a potential area of discrimination there, too. These pilots may be inherently contradictory to some of the provisions of the Human Rights Act. If the Minister cannot give me an answer today, I should like him to write to me.

The “good cause” provisions in the guidelines will exempt just about everyone who is potentially subject to these sanctions. The Minister in his introduction rightly referred to the Dundee scheme. My figures indicate that the Dundee scheme showed that 55 per cent of families engaged with the support, and that the other 45 per cent were likely to have additional barriers. Given the fact that they have additional barriers, those with extra problems will probably not be subject to the sanctions because they will be excluded by the “good cause” provisions and the guidelines. So we could be left with precious few families to whom these regulations and sanctions can ever be applied. I wonder whether this is all a great fuss about not a lot at all.

I may have got it wrong, but I think it is possible under these regulations for members of the household to engage in support intervention—to accept the letter to come and engage in the support intervention and therefore not get sanctioned—and to continue with anti-social behaviour and not get sanctioned.

Another problem is that the former occupier as defined in these regulations could quite easily go outside the pilot area and get a housing benefit application successfully accepted in some region outside of the eight current pilots. I wonder whether they will be advised about that by the local CAB. That seems to me to be a bit of a no-brainer and I do not see how it helps the constructive evaluation of the pilots.

How do you separate out the effect of a sanction from everything else that is going on at the time? I think all you will end up doing is increasing rent arrears, which is in no one’s interest.

Has the department considered a disability impact statement for these regulations? The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, is right: mental illness is fundamental and at the core of this, particularly with Asperger’s syndrome sufferers. There is a great deal of evidence that such people are subjected unduly to ASBOs for reasons of their mental illness. The disability aspect has to be looked at very carefully.

The ethnicity dimension also has to be considered because some minority communities—black and ethnic minority communities foremost among them—feel that they are subjected to a disproportionate number of ASBOs. Can we be sure that we are not discriminating against ethnic minorities in this process? Will specialist advisers in both departments be available to the eight local authorities which are part of the pilot?

We need to be careful about the guidance we are drafting. The discretion that we are asking local authorities to exercise will be very difficult and potentially very damaging for the families to whom it is applied. I support intervention/prevention strategies to help the problem much more along the lines of Sheffield Hallam and the Dundee experience than going down this route.

Having said that, it is a question of value for money. There is a real chance that not much useful will be learnt from these pilots outside the eight regions in which they apply. It might be interesting to see what happens within those regions but, outside of them, I do not think best practice will be easily translatable because the context will be so different. The money should go to local schemes with a proven record of success in prevention rather than anything else. At the end of the day, penalties should be reserved for the criminal justice system and not used in the benefits system in the way that these regulations suggest.

I thank the noble Lords, Lord Taylor and Lord Kirkwood, for their contributions. I acknowledge that there was a degree of scepticism from each of them about the value of the regulations, which I understand. It rolls on from our debates during the course of the Welfare Reform Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, asked about the impact on families with children and those with mental health problems. Clearly, both of those are considerations to which the local authority will have to have regard when deciding whether to proceed with the sanctions. That is part of the important judgment that will have to be made.

The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, asked about funding. We are investing heavily in support services through the family intervention projects and other programmes. The projects are important in ensuring that significant resources already being spent on the families in question are co-ordinated and used to best effect. The Respect Task Force has established a national network of family intervention projects in more than 50 areas. The Department for Education and Skills has made an additional £6 million available in 2007-08 to enable the new Respect areas announced on 22 January to invest in extra parenting provision to tackle and prevent anti-social behaviour. Ensuring that the most difficult and resistant households take up rehabilitation could help to reduce significantly the levels of anti-social behaviour. Money is being invested in those areas.

Five pilot areas have family intervention projects in place: Blackburn, Blackpool, Manchester, Newham and Wirral. Although this is just one model of support, each area is confident that it will have an appropriate array of support available.

The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, asked why those particular authorities were willing to take part—although he partly answered his own question. They have each had anti-social behaviour evictions in their areas. I accept entirely that the base of the numbers is relatively small; nationally, we are looking at perhaps 1,500 people. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, raised that. Within the pilot areas, a relatively small number of people will be focused on. The other key element of the pilot sites is that they will have the support services available, which is very important.

The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, said that we in the DWP were “piloted out”. I think that someone in the other place said he thought the DWP had more pilots than British Airways. That might be Ryanair; I do not know. The noble Lord said also that the sanction could last for five years and the pilots only for two. Clearly, everything comes to an end at the end of that two-year period.

It is correct that the pilots will be in England only. If we were to roll them out nationally, we would need to return to Parliament as necessary. If we were to do so, we would seek to apply the scheme to all of Great Britain.

The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, asked whether government departments have spoken to each other, because a number of players are involved in the sanctions. Yes, extensive close working between the DWP, the Respect Task Force and Communities and Local Government has taken place. We have also consulted lobby groups such as Mind and Shelter, which are working with us in drawing up the guidance.

I was asked whether someone would escape sanction if they moved out of a piloting area. It is inevitably the case that if we are piloting only in a few areas and somebody is outside, the scheme ceases to apply. As I said in my introductory remarks, the eviction, the sanction and the behaviour involved have to take place within one of the piloted areas, although not necessarily the same one. However, someone who was outside would not be covered.

Obviously the scheme will not be a success if we end up sanctioning lots of people, but we need to evaluate that. The evaluation will be independent and carried out by experts in this field of research.

The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, challenged whether the scheme was consistent with human rights legislation. The advice we have had is that it is. Our advisers look at all these things very carefully, which is why I was able to make the statement that I did. The definition of hardship is fairly broad, and it is good that it is. The noble Lord may well be right that at the end of the day there are relatively few people to whom this might apply. Ultimately we want to sanction no one under these provisions, because we want people to take up the rehabilitation that is on offer.

I hope I have covered most of the points that noble Lords have made. If not, they are welcome to have another go.

I just want to go back to the report. In many ways, Parliament’s task in looking at the success of the pilot will involve the way the report is presented. The Minister mentioned that in certain cases local authorities will be making judgments on how to proceed with cases that might involve hardship, mental illness or a risk to the welfare of children. I hope that when the evaluation is made those judgments will be part and parcel of it, so that we will be aware how frequently, and in what way, they have been made. That will help to give us a balanced view of just how effective the mechanism has been and to what extent it is able to deal with the greater problem, and how much of that problem is identifiable as being caused by other elements of anti-social behaviour.

I understand that point. It might help if I expand a little on what we will be looking at during and following the piloting. We will be seeking to establish whether local authorities feel it is a useful tool; whether the sanction is an effective incentive to take up rehabilitation; what resources are needed to set up and run it; its impact on anti-social behaviour; the impact on landlords; the effect on rent arrears; how it can best be operated; the impact on housing and homelessness; the impact on charities and voluntary bodies; and the profile of those sanctioned. As I said earlier, the evaluation will be independent and carried out by experts in the field. I accept that that will be an important part of the pilot.

Households that have been evicted have clearly reached crisis point. Previous interventions have not resulted in the household obtaining the support it requires. If we do nothing we will be failing those households and the communities in which they live. As I have said, it is not the intention to sanction widely; the sanction is targeted at the most problematic households that have refused offers of help. It will provide local authorities with an additional tool to encourage households to address their behaviour. We strongly believe that the welfare state should combine rights with responsibilities, and the right to benefit can only come with a responsibility to behave with respect for others. This proposal strikes the right balance.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

The Committee adjourned at 7.03 pm.