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

Volume 695: debated on Thursday 25 October 2007

rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the regulations laid before the House on 29 August be annulled (SI 2007/2474).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister and to noble Lords on both sides of House for taking an interest in the debate. I say at the outset that I have no intention of dividing the House, which will probably not come as a surprise to many people. The purpose of tabling this Prayer was that I was minded to divide the House. The condition the Minister has now expunged and met is that the full guidance is now available in the public domain and to the stakeholders. These important pilots appeared as if by magic in my inbox this very morning. So, to that extent, I am satisfied.

It is important—and I am sure that the Minister will agree—that the guidance should be made available. These pilots start on 1 November and everyone should know how these things are to be played through. And I am grateful for that. In parenthesis, and at the risk of being boring because I say this nearly every time we have an exchange with the Minister, I understand that the Government have to get the business through, but I, for one, would have been very much happier had I seen a formal reference to the SSAC. The Social Security Advisory Committee of course cannot take formal references on statutory instruments that flow within the six months of the passage of primary legislation. These pilots are quite contentious in a number of different ways, and I would have been happier if the SSAC, with its depth of knowledge, had been able to opine on this and give the House the benefit of its collective wisdom before the legislative process, which finishes this afternoon, was completed.

This is the last chance for us to have a debate about this matter. It is not, obviously, the time to go into all the background principles and fundamental concepts behind the policy objectives. We have had those debates. We had a very good debate on the Welfare Reform Act, Section 31 of which spawns these regulations. That Act is a welcome piece of legislation. I think that the Government are perfectly reasonably able to found these pilots on it. Valuable lessons can be learnt in the 10 areas in which they will obtain for the next two years. The pilots are for a limited period of two years. The areas are geographically restricted to England at the moment. So-called former occupiers, in the Queen’s English, really means evicted tenants, but I will let that pass. The small number of people affected and the ultimate sunset clause of 31 December 2010 are welcome safeguards. We recognise that. Speaking for myself, I think that that is the least the Government can do.

The Government can also perfectly reasonably found on these pilots, dealt with in these regulations, an important aspect of the respect agenda. The respect agenda is a common cause on all sides of the House. It is a terrible title, very Daily Mail—and anything to do with the Daily Mail gives me the heebie-jeebies. Notwithstanding that, the policy objectives behind trying to get people to be more responsible in their behaviour to their neighbours and the environment in which they live is absolutely right. I just do not think that the benefit system, and using sanctions in the benefit system, is an acceptable way to do that. Indeed, I think that the stakeholders and the Government deserve credit because there has been substantial consultation, and that consultation has produced a lot of extra safeguards. Perversely, they are making the guidance more lengthy and complicated. But it is all to the good because it is all to try to get better safeguards for the people to whom these pilots may apply.

I hope that the Minister will understand that one of the key elements that we will apply when watching the outcome and development of the pilots is the extent to which they—by a process of osmosis, almost—introduce behavioural tests into eligibility for social security or housing benefit payments. If we start to go down that road, it will be deeply worrying. We started off in the old days with national insurance contributions producing benefit payments as a result. As the system has developed, it has become more means-tested and more targeted. Therefore, the eligibility for benefits is down to domestic household income. Those should be entitlements with a capital E. As soon as you introduce any other test by way of behaviour—which is a very difficult thing to define—there are real causes for concern. People’s rights and entitlements under the benefits system may be confused and diluted if we go too far down that route.

I say again that laws that are restricted to apply only to people who receive a single type of benefit are deeply questionable. That is another thing that we will need to watch very carefully in the course of the pilots.

Complexity is an even bigger issue, for the very good reason that there are yet more safeguards, which we welcome. The Government have, through the consultation process, found new ways to protect people. That is good, but you pay a price for that in increased complexity. I have not yet had a chance properly to read the notes and guidance in great detail. People obviously benefit from increased protection, but that makes the system more complex. We will be watching that very carefully over the next two years as well.

Another continuous gripe that I have in social security debates is that we often forget that benefit deductions can be insidious. They pop up here and there and we do not take account of them. We think that all families are starting with a common level of income because they are on minimum benefits—even minimum benefits cause problems for people who try to live on them. They are a challenge to domestic budgets in some parts of the country. If some, whom we then forget about, are then subject to deductions of one kind or another—this is not a unique deduction, but it is yet another deduction—that may produce hardship in a way that is not easily seen.

I still think that prevention is by far the best policy, as demonstrated by some of the evidence given by stakeholders. It would be useful if the Minister could say a word about what the Government will do during the two years when the pilots are in place to ensure that there is a network of rehabilitation support throughout England, so that we use that time to ensure that if the pilots in the 10 areas are rolled out more extensively, rehabilitation support services will be available for anyone who falls into the realms of the legislation. I am sure that the 10 areas were selected because they have rehabilitation services available, but, as I understand it, if we were to roll out the legislation and there were no rehabilitation services to hand, the legislation would fall, because local authorities cannot sanction people if they are not invited to use existing services.

I sense that the money could be better used. I accept that there have been welcome developments in added protection. I must say that the good-cause provisions in Section 5 look very much as if they have been cut and pasted from jobseeker’s allowance, which takes us back to the wonderful prospect of good-cause circumstances including, among others that you could plead for avoiding the regulations the manning or launching of a lifeboat. I will give the Minister a new Scots £10 note for every time that good cause could successfully be prayed in aid during the next two years. That is a no-lose bet for him and, coming from a Scotsman, that is very unusual.

There are genuine concerns. The Government have gone some way to meet some of them—that must be acknowledged. I still think that the pilots are daft, but I am prepared to be persuaded. I conclude on this. I am sure that colleagues in the House on both sides will be watching the pilots like a hawk. If they slipped without further discussion into a major rollout throughout the rest of the United Kingdom across the whole housing benefit system without very careful evaluation, we could store up problems for ourselves in future.

On those grounds, I beg to move the Prayer to Annul the regulations on the basis that if the Minister gives us some steer as to how he will proceed, I will not test the opinion of the House.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the regulations laid before the House on 29 August be annulled (SI 2007/2474).—(Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope.)

My Lords, somewhat unusually, listening to the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, a remark of Flanders and Swann in the early 1960s—those magnificent satirists, alas, no more—sprang to mind. I remember that, “O tempora, O mores!” was translated as, “O Times, O Daily Mail!” on the London stage.

Be that as it may, in the unavoidable absence of my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach—he has, after all, been following this saga throughout—I am very pleased to be able to speak in support of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, on the regulations, which supplement the Government’s continuing insistence that it makes sense to have a series of pilot schemes allowing the partial or, at worst, complete withdrawal of housing benefit for anti-social behaviour.

That we should condemn such behaviour and, as a legislature, draw up laws to minimise it should, as the noble Lord just said, go without argument. We have that right and I agree with the Government that that is our duty. But with rights and duties go responsibility, and responsibility means that we must draw up laws that are appropriate to the problem that they seek to address. The problem undoubtedly exists. Anti-social behaviour is a curse of society. Not only does it “ruin lives”, as the Minister said in July, but it can make already sick people more ill, as happened to my son-in-law—but more of that anon. It is arguable, however, that anti-social behaviour creates an environment in which serious crime can take hold, as the Minister also claimed at the time. Whether his estimate of a £3.4 billion cost to the taxpayer is right, I cannot say, but I have no doubt that its knock-on effects cost us all a thundering lot of money.

The 2006-07 British Crime Survey showed us that the problem is getting worse. The proportion of people perceiving high levels of anti-social behaviour in their local area has risen by 1 per cent in the past year to 18 per cent. However, the regulations, and the original order that they hang on, address only part of the problem, as between them they apply only to people who have already been ejected from one house or flat for anti-social behaviour and are in danger of being removed again for the same reason. They thus apply to a rather limited number of people. I note that among the myriad of modern Home Office legislation, a new power was introduced on 2 October last year allowing the police to apply for intervention orders to try to deal with the anti-social behaviour of drug users. That may be one reason why the householder was ejected the first time round.

The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, touched on the fact that when we originally debated Clause 31 of the Welfare Reform Bill, as it was then, in early March, I interjected that the sanction of withdrawal of housing benefit was referred to in the housing Green Paper of 2000. That Green Paper was at best lukewarm about this idea, commenting that it would be difficult to use the sanction on a claimant guilty of anti-social behaviour without it impacting adversely on innocent members of the household. The scheme was soon vetoed by the then Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Prescott, but, as we all know, it raised its head again in the Welfare Reform Bill earlier this year. The Bill originally proposed that local housing authorities would be allowed to use it anywhere in the country.

During the passage of the Bill, the Government and opposition parties received adverse representations from the charities concerned and some of the local authorities which were to operate the scheme. What surprised me was that DWP Ministers started saying that they hoped that the sanctions would never be used. That is almost a direct quote from the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie of Luton. He will remember that on that basis, I argued that we should not have it at all. However, in the spirit of compromise that I hope I often exhibit, I was happy to allow a pilot scheme to go ahead as long as it had a limited life and, if the pilots were successful, there would be further primary legislation to roll out such a scheme across the country. That is the position we find ourselves in today.

The original order, which this one supplements, was debated in July this year and provided for pilots to be set up in eight local authority areas: Blackburn and Darwen; Blackpool; Manchester; Newham; Wirral; Dover; New Forest; and South Gloucestershire. My first question to the Minister is whether they are still all on board or have any of them exhibited the cold feet anticipated when my noble friend Lord Taylor debated the primary order with the Minister in July? I observe that only the first five have family intervention projects in place. Should they find that, because of that, they do not need the sanctions, how will that help the evaluation of the pilots?

The original order was rushed out fairly quickly after the Bill received Royal Assent; we were told in the Explanatory Memorandum that this supplementary statutory instrument would be necessary to make these pilot schemes work. What has happened to the care and attention to detail that the DWP’s predecessor departments exhibited 20 years ago, when we would have had slower, but more complete, details in a single order? That order would only have needed to be supplemented in the light of experience—experience which the Minister will be forced to agree we cannot have because the pilots only start on the first of next month. Does he agree with my anticipation of at least one further supplementary order some time next year, when that experience will have started to be gained?

Almost a year ago, the Government’s respect tsar, Louise Casey, announced that 40 areas in England and Wales are to be offered additional funding to become respect zones. In return, these areas are expected to use their full powers to combat anti-social behaviour. Full powers must include the powers in these two orders—at least, I assume they do; perhaps the Minister can tell me. Are all the eight pilot areas in the respect zones? If not, why not? Or is it another case of one department not knowing what another is up to?

To change the subject, these pilots ought to come to a grinding halt on 31 October 2009, the two years agreed in the compromise. Why, then, does paragraph 7.4 of the Explanatory Memorandum say:

“The intention is to pilot the scheme for 2 years in eight local authorities”?

So far, so good. It continues:

“These regulations only apply to the pilot areas”.

Again, so far, so good. It goes on to say:

“The enabling power is time-limited and will come to an end on 31 December 2010. For a scheme to be in place after this date primary legislation would be required”.

Does this mean that the pilots will not actually start until well into next year? What exactly does it mean?

Then there will be an evaluation and we will be able to see whether my scepticism is borne out in reality. But the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, is right that at the start of these two years it is the guidance, which should by now have been sent to local authorities trialling this scheme, that is all-important. I am remiss in not having asked before, but I would appreciate a copy—the noble Lord has clearly had one. Either I have not been at my desk recently or I have not been sent one automatically. That is not a complaint. This is one of the many occasions on which one should ask for that information from the department.

My Lords, I rather think that my activities in the House next week will mean that I have 10 days in which to read it, rather than a weekend.

As I said earlier, we all condemn anti-social behaviour. My daughter experienced it some years ago in Sheffield. It took a little time to persuade the youth next door to stop playing loud music at all hours, but the matter was eventually settled through the good offices of the environmental health officer, without—and this is the important point—the withdrawal of housing benefit. None the less, the experience made my son-in-law’s illness worse for a considerable period thereafter. Is not this the point? Will the mere threat of withdrawal be enough to stop bad behaviour, or will sanctions actually have to be employed? Which of these two would the Minister raise as a successful outcome to the pilots? Once we know that, we will be able to make our own evaluation. In the mean time, like the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, my scepticism remains unabated.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, for giving us the opportunity to have another debate on this issue. I am conscious that both he and the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, are not very keen on these proposals, but I hope that we have a shared objective as they are to proceed in making sure that they are dealt with effectively and sensitively.

Before I start to deal with some of the detailed points, I remind the House of the wider context of the regulations. As has been acknowledged, anti-social behaviour ruins lives and creates an environment where more serious crime can take hold. Anti-social behaviour is estimated to cost the British taxpayer £3.4 billion a year; even if that figure is subject to challenge, it is acknowledged that a lot of money is involved.

We are determined to stamp out anti-social behaviour. The respect programme is delivering an approach that tackles and prevents damaging behaviour through, for example, additional investment announced earlier in 2007 for extra parenting provision. In April 2007, we announced that we have delivered on the promise to establish a network of 53 flagship family intervention projects. That deals in part with the point of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, about what happens if we rolled this out across the country.

The housing benefit sanction is part of this overall approach but only part; it is one of many tools that we have given to local authorities at the front line in dealing with anti-social behaviour. The aim is to provide a strong incentive to encourage households where a person is evicted as a result of anti-social behaviour to undertake rehabilitation when they have refused other offers of help. As we know, this measure was thoroughly debated during the passage of the Welfare Reform Act 2007, so I know that there are concerns, particularly at the impact of this measure on vulnerable people. However, this is about helping people in crisis to accept 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 have said before, and I repeat today, this policy will be considered a success if no sanction is imposed. That will mean that people have accepted the help that we believe 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. In previous debates I have set out in detail the supporting evidence. Given this strong evidence that such rehabilitation works, it is justifiable that a sanction of benefits should be linked to the refusal of such help and support. The fate of those who have a sanction imposed is in their own hands. Benefit will be reinstated if they choose to take up the rehabilitation services offered to them.

This summer, we debated the regulations that provide for the pilot scheme, and the pilot will run for two years, starting from 1 November 2007. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, referred to another date in the Explanatory Memorandum. I suspect that that was the final date by which pilots had to be completed and was the date at which the sunset clause kicked in. I will look at that and write to the noble Lord if it is other than I have said.

The debate in the summer approved the essential elements of the scheme, and the regulations set out in more detail the rules on how the sanction will work on, for example good cause and information sharing. They do not contain any new provisions. I am pleased to say that my department has been working closely with the eight local authorities that have volunteered to test the measure. There are indeed eight, and I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, that they are all still on board and actively engaged. They have the necessary procedures in place and are ready to start the pilots on time.

Detailed guidance has also been developed, as we have heard, for housing benefit administrators, the courts and local authorities. I am sorry if that guidance was not issued a long time before the opportunity for this debate arose, but it has just been finalised. It is draft guidance, because it is anticipated that they will learn from the pilots and that there may be the need to revise the guidance in the course of those pilots.

My Lords, I asked whether the Minister anticipated another order, or will the revision of the guidance, should it be necessary, be sufficient?

My Lords, I am not aware that another order is in the offing or anticipated. I stress that we are dealing with pilots, and the flexibility that they present should be borne in mind, but it is quite possible that the guidance will be adjusted in the course of them.

I stress that the guidance has been drafted with the pilot authorities and relevant stakeholders, including those who represent vulnerable people. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, referred to extensive consultation, which is right. We know that a number of stakeholders are not particularly happy with the direction of this policy, but they have engaged with us and, within the context of what is happening, they are content with the guidance. We are reassured by that.

I am satisfied that the guidance is balanced and encourages those considering whether to sanction to take all circumstances into account in a sensitive way. The guidance sets out, for example, that a multi-agency approach should be adopted when a decision is being taken whether to sanction. It is envisaged that in most cases decisions whether to sanction will be made by a panel of key professionals and support workers. The guidance acknowledges that, with a multi-agency approach, some agencies may support the use of the sanction but others may oppose it. If this is the case, there will need to be a clear separation between assessment and decision. In determining whether a sanction should be imposed, the following should be taken into account: the circumstances of the household and the impact that a sanction is likely to have; previous support provided and the impact on the household’s behaviour; efforts made to engage with the household and the response; details of support available to the household and when it is available; whether the individuals know and understand that a sanction may be imposed and what this will mean in practical terms; and the likelihood that a sanction will bring a desired change in behaviour.

Members of the household should be given the opportunity to explain why they will not engage and whether any circumstances should be taken into account. They should also be asked about the impact of the sanction on their ability to secure adequate housing, their physical and/or mental health, and their ability to maintain education, training and work. When doing this, the local authority should take into account literacy, language and communication skills if, for example, face-to-face contact is the best way in which to engage with the person. The guidance sets out detailed steps to be taken in dealing with vulnerable people, particularly those with mental health issues, physical and sensory impairments, learning difficulties and drug abuse issues. I have placed a copy of the guidance in both House Libraries and sent it to noble Lords on the Front Benches.

On the more specific points that have been made, the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, referred to the SSAC. It was consulted informally on the draft regulations and made its view clear. There has been extensive consultation, as we have said. The noble Lord is right in a sense in that any proposal that seeks to safeguard people and ensure that a provision is fair could add to the complexity; we see that in so many areas of government policy, not least in taxation policy, which we debate from time to time. The number of areas is eight, not 10. The noble Lord was also right that there can be no sanction if the relevant services are not available. That is very clear from the guidance and from statements that we have made on a number of occasions.

The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, asked how many of the pilots had family intervention projects and instanced five. That is right. Part of the benefit of the pilots is to see what happens in other areas with mechanisms other than formal family intervention projects. I was also asked how many pilots are being held in respect zones. I think that three are. One is being held in London, which has no respect areas. Respect-area status was for the most active areas, so they are not all in respect areas. We have dealt with the point that not all pilots have FIPs. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, asked whether we thought that this would be a success and whether the sanctions would be used. The best outcome would be if they were not used, because that would mean that they were acting as a deterrent and were encouraging people to engage with the support that is on offer. That is particularly what we want. The noble Lord also asked about innocent members of households. This issue was also raised by the SSAC and is very much part of the judgment that a court would make, because the process is triggered in the first instance by a possession order due to anti-social behaviour. Obviously a range of circumstances would routinely be taken into account.

I hope that I have dealt with most of the issues that noble Lords have raised. I am very happy to try to answer further questions if I have not. The sanction is not intended to be widely used, but it will provide another way for local authorities to help families in crisis to obtain the support that they need. I am comforted that the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, is not intent on pressing the Motion to a vote, but I appreciate the opportunity to debate this policy matter with both noble Lords.

My Lords, on the basis of that reassuring response from the Treasury Front Bench, I think that the Government understand that the House will be watching these pilots very carefully. Given the Minister’s assurance that the Government will keep us advised of developments as the pilots unfold, I am perfectly happy not to press the matter to a vote. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.