HC Deb 09 February 2004 vol 417 cc1105-6
5. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con)

What his policy is on the use of access to means-tested benefits as a deterrent to antisocial behaviour. [153174]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Chris Pond)

As a matter of principle, we do not believe that the community has an unconditional responsibility to support those who do not fulfil their responsibilities to the community. We have introduced a range of tough penalties to deal with antisocial behaviour, which blights people's daily lives, including measures in the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, which came into force that month. Following consultation, I recently announced that we will not go ahead with a housing benefit sanction at this stage, but we do not rule out introducing further measures when we have seen how effective the range of measures already in place has been.

Mr. Swayne

That was most disappointing. The painfully slow pace at which the Government have been tiptoeing in the right direct ion has been frustrating. The Prime Minister pledged himself to that policy on 1 May last year, and the Government are now backing off. May we have an explanation?

Mr. Pond

We will take every practical measure necessary to deal with antisocial behaviour. [Interruption]. I wish that we could count on the support of the Opposition in that determination to deal with antisocial and loutish behaviour. I have reminded the House that in recent weeks we have introduced a number of new measures that are intended to deal with antisocial behaviour. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are extending the pilot schemes to sanction offenders who breach their community sentences. We will watch closely to see what effect those measures have, but if they do not have the effect of dealing significantly with antisocial behaviour we will not hesitate to look again at sanctions on housing benefit.

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab)

The problem with benefit sanctions is that they can punish entire families when only one member may not be acting responsibly. Antisocial behaviour is a dreadful problem, not least in Redcar where almost every surgery I hold brings a new complaint. Will the Minister look with great care at schemes run and supported by organisations such as Shelter in Rochdale and Bolton, among other places, that aim to change the behaviour of problem members of families? They are not at all softie stuff, so will he examine those schemes with care before he looks again at benefit sanctions?

Mr. Pond

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for those comments. We must, of course, use the full range of measures. Some of them will be positive; some of them will be negative such as sanctions. For example, in community sentences, we are balancing both the piloting of the sanctions with incentives for those who do not breach their community service orders. However, we must be aware that the community and all our constituents want to see us acting decisively using every practical measure that is available. Sanctions have been built into the social security system since 1911, when unemployment benefit was first introduced, for reasons that are still relevant today.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con)

Will the Minister confirm whether the Prime Minister was informed and consulted before last week's announcement to abandon housing benefit sanctions?

Mr. Pond

I think that you, Mr. Speaker, can be sure that the Prime Minister was fully aware of the decision. From the answer that he gave at Prime Minister's Question Time, it was very clear that he was aware of the decision.

Mr. Willetts

I am pleased to hear that the Prime Minister was consulted, but when my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition asked him about the subject last Wednesday I did not gain the impression that the Prime Minister was fully aware of it. Therefore, I am very pleased to hear that he was consulted. It was put to him that he had specifically made a pledge in his 2002 conference speech that he would implement the measure, so what was his reaction when the Minister told him that he was abandoning the idea?

Mr. Pond

If I remember rightly, the Prime Minister was very grateful to the Leader of the Opposition for reminding him of his conference speeches. The Prime Minister also reminded the Leader of the Opposition, who had forgotten within a matter of days, that only very recently we introduced a full range of measures and brought them into force to deal with antisocial behaviour. We have made it absolutely clear that we will see how effective those measures are. If we need to use other measures, we will not hesitate to do so.