HC Deb 19 April 2002 vol 383 cc877-82

Order for Second Reading read.

2.7 pm

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I believe that almost any Member of the House would wish to introduce or support such a Bill. In the 22 years that I have had the honour to represent Birkenhead, the nature of my postbag and of the people who come to my surgery has changed out of all recognition. Twenty-two years ago, the overwhelming majority of people came to see me with complaints about social security, the housing department, unfairness in the allocation of homes, industrial disputes or about similar issues. Now, by far and away my constituents' outstanding grievance is about the behaviour of a very small minority of people in the town who make their lives a misery.

I do not claim that my Bill would be a panacea or that merely passing this measure would deal with all the problems of antisocial behaviour in constituencies around the country. Nor do I pretend that the Bill need not be modified in Committee. Indeed, I seek the House's permission to move the Bill to that stage. However, giving the Bill a Second Reading would send a clear message to our constituents that, slowly and surely, the balance of power in our society is moving away from protecting those who cause the most disorder, discomfort and unpleasantness and towards using the law to support those who are the backbone of our country—the decent citizens.

The Bill has two major clauses. Housing benefit would be denied to a household if a court has found its members guilty of antisocial behaviour twice in the past three years. Similarly, it addresses the issue as it relates to landlords. I am pleased to say that most landlords are decent people. There is, however, a minority who buy up houses merely to rake in housing benefit. They are not concerned about who their tenants are or how they behave.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

My right hon. Friend does the House and my constituents a service by introducing the Bill. However, I should like one thing clarified. The Bill refers to antisocial behaviour. Is that antisocial behaviour in general terms within the definition as set out in clause 1(2), or is it linked specifically to an antisocial behaviour order made under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998?

Mr. Field

I would not dream of linking it to the latter. We tried to get antisocial behaviour orders granted in Birkenhead from the very minute that that power came into effect and we are still waiting for the first one to be implemented. The definition is set out in clause 1(2). I hope that with those brief comments we have a short and productive debate on the Bill.

2.11 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

It will have to be a short debate; let us hope that it will also be productive. The main point of having a debate in the House is to give hon. Members the opportunity to raise different views. We may just about have time to do that and I shall keep my remarks as brief as I reasonably can for that reason.

It is interesting that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who has many years of experience in the House, highlighted antisocial behaviour as one of the things that now dominates his postbag. Without wishing to be insulting, that might be expected given some of the problems in his constituency. However, it might surprise the House to know that that problem occurs all too often in the leafy suburbs of Bromley and Chislehurst. My postbag and telephone conversations with constituents reflect the same concerns. So on that sample of two hon. Members, we can probably assume that the problem is nationwide. For that reason, the right hon. Gentleman should be congratulated on introducing the Bill. Given his experience in, expertise of and commitment to such matters, we can reasonably defer to his judgment on the subject.

In general, I welcome the Bill. Although it would take only a small step in the right direction, as the right hon. Gentleman conceded, it would at least provide another weapon in the armoury that we need to deal with such difficulties now. Funnily enough, my reservations are that it does not go far enough or is not tough enough. I wonder whether a three-year period is the right time span. I hope that the House gives the Bill its Second Reading so that we can discuss that in Committee. We all have examples of grotesque behaviour that has taken place over a relatively short time. It may not be right to expect someone to put up with antisocial behaviour for three years.

To hang the measure on the peg of convictions made in a magistrates court may create difficulties. As the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) implied, the antisocial behaviour orders have not been as successful as we had all hoped. Perhaps we should consider alternatives to the requirement that convictions trigger the mechanism. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman can think of times when behaviour has caused extreme distress but has not been subject to a conviction in a magistrates court or taken place over a three years.

I acknowledge that the matter is delicate. Problems between neighbours are notoriously difficult to address. I am sure all hon. Members have experienced the problems that arise from such circumstances, but there must be a way to deal with them. When it is patently obvious that a tiny minority in a community is causing a disproportionate amount of distress to decent citizens, it is frustrating that we, as Members of Parliament, all too rarely offer them relief or succour.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire)

Given that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) implied that he may be prepared to consider widening the Bill should it progress further, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is too restrictive because it relates only to court orders before magistrates courts, yet many unruly and bad tenants are taken to the county court? When defining what should trigger the mechanism in the Bill, we should also consider court orders made by the civil courts.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for making that useful point. The promoter of the Bill is nodding, so I suspect that he would be prepared positively to consider the matter in Committee. The point of my few remarks is to try to strengthen the Bill and to make it more effective. That was also the thrust of my right hon. Friend's comments.

Mr. Dismore

On the same theme, I hope that the promoter of the Bill will also consider conviction on indictment in the Crown court, because it would be nonsense if people with lesser offences were subject to the Bill, but those with more serious offences were not.

Mr. Forth

Indeed. We are receiving some high-quality free legal advice today, which is always appreciated. Moreover, it is balanced advice from both sides of the House.

The right hon. Member for Birkenhead will have gathered that there will be widespread support for his Bill. Equally, he will accept that it covers such an important subject that it will have to be considered properly, if perhaps expeditiously, in Committee.

I wish the Bill well. Despite the brief time available, I hope that the House will give the Bill its Second Reading, and that it can then be strengthened and sharpened in Standing Committee.

2.16 pm
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)

Like the right hon. Members for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), I can attest from my constituency casework that this is a growing and serious problem, and our law-abiding constituents are looking to this place to take action.

We therefore have to decide what action we should take. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead suggests benefit sanctions, especially housing benefit sanctions, and he may have a point, but we need to debate some of the wider social issues behind the problem to ensure that we are taking the right action. As the right hon. Gentleman said, there have been problems in using the law introduced by the Government. Antisocial behaviour orders—at least in their earliest years—are not proving to be up to the job, so perhaps that legislation should be refined as well.

Some of my Liberal Democrat colleagues in local government in Islington and Kingston are considering so-called antisocial behaviour contracts, which do not require law. They are a grass-roots, locally based solution by which the council takes action, working in partnership with tenants and others to try to explain to people that their behaviour is causing problems for their neighbours. What strikes me in some of my dealings is the fact that people who are behaving in what we would consider to be atrocious ways do not appear to realise the damage that they are doing to other people or that their behaviour is wrong and immoral.

Mr. Greg Knight

Can the hon. Gentleman explain how those contracts will not need law? As I understand it, if a contract is broken one needs to go to law to get a remedy.

Mr. Davey

The contracts are between a local authority or housing association and a tenant. I am told that they are legally binding; the legal departments of local authorities in Kingston and elsewhere are using them. I have not seen all the legal advice, but I assure the right hon. Gentleman that they are in use.

The right hon. Member for Birkenhead has made a welcome proposal that takes its place in a wider debate. I look forward to assisting, if I may, on the Committee that will give it proper scrutiny. However, I say to him and to other potential members of the Standing Committee that, in passing the Bill, we want to ensure that tenants' freedoms are not unnecessarily and wrongly overridden.

Some of the difficulties caused by antisocial tenants in my constituency stem from their mental health or addiction problems, which may require a solution through the health service or the police and the legal system rather than the imposition of benefit sanctions. We want to make sure that the Bill is targeted at exactly the right problem, and I submit to the House that it will require full, and not necessarily expeditious, scrutiny to ensure that it tackles the offence.

2.20 pm
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire)

Sometimes there are pleasant surprises in politics. When I came into the House at 9 o'clock this morning, I looked at the Order Paper and was disappointed to see that the Bill promoted by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) was listed as No. 4. I concluded that we would not reach it and would therefore be unable to debate it and express our support for this excellent measure. As luck would have it, we have reached the right hon. Gentleman's Bill, and I congratulate him on his speech proposing it to the House.

I found that I agreed with everything that the right hon. Gentleman said. It was not the first time, and I am sure that it will not be the last, that he spoke sound common sense. I am sure, from what he said, that antisocial behaviour is a growing problem in Birkenhead, but it is also a growing problem in towns such as Bridlington because many unemployed troublemakers go to seaside resorts during the summer months to enjoy the sea and the sand. I know that this measure will be warmly welcomed by many good landlords in my constituency whose lives, and those of their tenants, have been made a misery by one or two bad tenants. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say bad tenants are in a minority—it is the bad few who make life a misery for the many.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's indication that he is prepared to be flexible, which was confirmed by the nod of his head in response to the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). As well as his Bill is drafted, it could be broadened to include orders made by the civil courts, to which I referred in an intervention, and convictions on indictment. It would be bizarre if a tenant who had been convicted of murder could not be dealt with under the Bill, but a tenant who had committed a minor offence that was dealt with before the magistrates could. I am therefore pleased that the right hon. Gentleman is prepared to keep an open mind about suggestions that Opposition Members may make to improve and strengthen the Bill. With those words, I wish the Bill well in its progress.

2.22 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) is to be commended for introducing this Bill, which seeks to withhold the housing benefit of those whose antisocial behaviour can have a devastating effect on the local community.

In this brief debate, my right hon. Friend and other hon. Members have mentioned their constituency experience. I shall briefly wear my constituency hat and say that, sadly, what they have said rings all too true of my constituency of Croydon. North, which is not far from Bromley. As I came here this morning, I reminded myself of the experiences faced by some of my law-abiding constituents. Those include intolerably loud music, sometimes with neighbours deliberately placing speakers so as to harm the well-being of my constituents, rubbish thrown in gardens, continual shouting, threats of violence and actual violence against neighbours, cars that have been deliberately scratched, graffiti and unruly children. The children of honest citizens are often afraid to go in the gardens because things are constantly thrown over the fence. When tabloids talk about neighbours from hell, for once they speak some truth.

The Government see no reason why the activities of unscrupulous landlords and antisocial tenants should undermine the work of local authorities that are trying to stabilise and regenerate neighbourhoods in decline and to tackle crime. The Government have just published a consultation paper, "Tackling Anti-Social Tenants" in the social sector of housing. We have also proposed new discretionary powers for local authorities to license all private landlords in all or part of their area. Those powers will be available alongside licensing of houses in multiple occupation. Another consultation paper, on the selective licensing of landlords, focusing on areas of low housing demand, was issued last October.

In the few minutes remaining, I shall emphasise the issues that I believe are important. The Government remain sympathetic to the Bill's objectives, but it deals with a complex subject and, as has already been acknowledged, careful drafting is required. The Government are concerned that, as the Bill stands, considerations relating to the European convention on human rights remain to be addressed, necessitating substantial amendment in Committee.

Consideration has to be given to dependants, especially children. We should not seek deliberately to make children homeless—and therefore, in extremis, taken into care—just to punish their parents. We must ensure that all dependants are fully protected.

The Bill accords with ideas that we have been considering in relation to the licensing of landlords and houses in multiple occupations, but, although it is not right to pay housing benefit to landlords who operate illegally, nor would it be right to expect landlords to house people rent-free. How we deal with antisocial tenants depends on the responsible management of the properties in which they reside. Under our proposals, if a landlord ceases to be licensed, a local authority may seek alternative management, with any housing benefit being paid to the new managing agent instead. Fundamentally, we look to landlords to take a measure of responsibility for their tenants and to take action against those who act antisocially. Many landlords already do so, and they deserve the support of their local authority.

There is much to be considered in the wording of the Bill, which will require amendment if it is to achieve its aims. Above all, human rights issues must be addressed. We will be happy to work with my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead to ensure that his Bill adequately caters for such issues.

All hon. Members are concerned to ensure that rights in society and the welfare state are matched by proper responsibilities and duties. It is important to safeguard the right to decent housing: many of our poorer constituents depend on the provision of council and social sector housing. The housing benefit system means that people have the right in practice to be able to afford their rents. We must protect and cherish those rights.

Rights demand responsibilities. The responsibility demanded in the context of the Bill is to be a good neighbour. Many of us, and most of our constituents, take for granted the good fortune of living with good neighbours, but when responsibilities are ignored, decent citizens should be able to seek the state's protection. All of us feel strongly that in the past we have not struck the right balance between people's rights and people's responsibilities.

I know from my constituents that too many of our decent citizens are plagued by neighbours from hell. They feel that in the past the state and the courts have not had the powers needed to deal with unruly neighbours. Now, we are taking measures to get the right balance between rights and duties. I hope that the Bill can be amended in Committee to contain the proper safeguards, so that it can become law. I wish it well.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).