HC Deb 19 July 2002 vol 389 cc610-31 1.13 pm
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 5, leave out "a year" and insert "six months".

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 2, in page 1, line 8, after "convictions", insert— 'and taking into account any previous unspent convictions'.

No. 3, in page 1, line 13, after "convictions", insert— 'and taking into account any previous unspent convictions'.

No. 19, in page 1, line 14, at end add 'and (c) it is satisfied that any withholding of benefit, as set out in section (3) below and related regulations, will not increase the likelihood of the offender committing similar offences again,'.

No. 4, in page 1, line 15, at end insert— 'and specify the period of disqualification for the purposes of section 3(1)'.

No. 21, in clause 2, page 2, line 35, after "behaved", insert—

'and is satisfied that any withholding of benefit, as set out in section (3) below and related regulations, will not increase the likelihood of the offender committing similar offences again,'.

No. 8, in page 2, line 35, after "declaration", insert—

'and specify the period of disqualification for the purposes of section 3(1)'.

No. 22, in page 2, line 35, at end insert— '(3A) A court may only make a declaration under subsection (3) above against a person over the age of 65 if it considers that there are exceptional circumstances and if it is satisfied that no other method of dealing with that person's behaviour is applicable.'.

No. 11, in clause 3, page 2, line 44, at end insert— '(1A) In deciding to make a declaration under this Act, the court shall give due consideration to any hardship which may be inflicted on others as the consequence of disqualification of the person from benefit'.

No. 24, in page 2, line 44, at end insert—

'(1A) Subsection (1) shall only apply after the Secretary of State has—

  1. reviewed evidence as to the likelihood of the offender re-offending as a direct result of the benefit reduction, and
  2. (b) stated that, in his opinion, the benefit reduction does not increase that likelihood.'.

Mr. Dismore

Although there are quite a few amendments before the House, the issues—or at least, the issues behind the amendments in my name—pare straightforward. Amendment No. 1, which is a probing amendment, raises the question of when the declarations about antisocial behaviour can be made. Clause 1 (1)(b) suggests that an order cannot be made if a sentence of a year or more has been imposed. I would like the promoter, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), to explain why he has picked that period.

If a person is in custody as a result of a sentence imposed by the court, the question of their receiving housing benefit does not arise. Whether they receive housing benefit will not make much difference to their behaviour if they are already in jail—although it may have an impact on their family.

I could understand the position if the sentence were a community sentence. That would be clear, but I do not understand why any custodial sentence should not be a bar to the making of such an order. That needs to be considered, especially bearing in mind the qualification regulations for receiving housing benefit when people are sentenced to a term of imprisonment.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this point because in Committee we did not consider in great detail the length of the custodial sentence that would apply to the housing benefit sanction. Why does the hon. Gentleman believe that it should be six months rather than the year provided for in the Bill?

1.15 pm
Mr. Dismore

I hit on six months simply as a probing measure—I could have chosen any period. I wanted to probe whether it was appropriate for an order to be made at all when someone is sentenced to a term of imprisonment. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead is an expert in the operation of housing benefit in these circumstances, and I am sure that he had a reason for deciding on a year rather than any other period.

Mr. Davey

May I help the hon. Gentleman? It was not the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) who proposed this part of the Bill, because it was largely rewritten in Committee by the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks). The Minister proposed the provision that the hon. Gentleman is probing.

Mr. Dismore

I am grateful for that clarification. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will have an even better reason to justify the term of imprisonment referred to in the Bill. If someone is sentenced to imprisonment, taking away their housing benefits seems a belt and braces approach, to say the least, to correcting their behaviour.

My next point concerns previous offences. When a court passes sentence on someone who has been convicted of an offence, the sentence will reflect the form of the offender concerned. The offence for which the court was considering the offender could be relatively trivial but could he seen in the context of a series of prior offences that were not before the court. It seems peculiar, given the Bill's present wording, that the court can take into account only the convictions that are being considered.

If somebody is up before a court for one event of disorderly conduct, such as trouble outside a pub or drunken, noisy behaviour on the way home, the court is unlikely to do much about it other than sentence that person to a community sentence at worst, although it would more likely be a fine. However, if that was just one in a long series of antisocial behaviour incidents, the court should be able to consider any previous unspent convictions when deciding whether a declaration under the Bill should be made. It is something of a loophole, if we are trying to deal with that annoying but relatively low-level form of antisocial behaviour that currently escapes the powers of the courts. I hope that the Minister will answer that point when he replies.

Amendments Nos. 8 and 11 relate to who sets the order for the withdrawal of benefit—the disqualification period. I have real concerns that this will simply be an administrative process. A court may make a declaration and have no real understanding or knowledge of how long that person will be disqualified from benefit. Equally, when the social services department imposes a disqualification period administratively, it may not know the full context, which the court may have known when deciding to make the declaration. The appropriate course would be to telescope that procedure into a declaration and disqualification, both of which should be considered by the court when deciding what action to take.

When considering a sentence, the court always listens to a plea of mitigation. There may well be a social inquiry report and other matters may be brought to the court's attention when passing sentence. It seems peculiar if, at the same time, those facts are not brought to the attention of the person or body implementing the disqualification order.

Mr. Davey

If the hon. Gentleman reads the Bill, he will see that the situation is even worse than he describes, because we are not told the sort of benefit reductions that will apply. The Minister gave some indication in Committee but did not share with us the details that the Government have in mind in respect of the different stages of benefit reductions and how they would apply. It is all under regulation in the Bill. Therefore, in debating the hon. Gentleman's amendment. the House is bereft because we do not know the detail of what the

Government intend.

Mr. Dismore

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. The point is important. We are considering whether it is correct to impose as a simple administrative process what is, in effect, a sanction, when there are grades of offence. It would not be as though someone had failed to sign on or had fraudulently claimed benefit—either they have done that or they have not. We are considering the use of the benefit sanction as an adjunct to the powers of the courts, so it would be appropriate for the court to decide the length of disqualification.

Mr. Davey

I understand from information given to us in Committee that the Government intend that the first reduction of housing benefit—when the sanction has been applied after the court's declaration—should be a fixed sum. The hon. Gentleman's point is thus even more valid; everyone will be treated in exactly the same way even if one person's antisocial behaviour was far worse than that of another.

Mr. Dismore

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. No doubt we shall also hear from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on that point when he replies to the debate.

I am certainly concerned about the disqualification period, which we may discuss later. When the Select Committee on Work and Pensions visited the United States to examine such issues in the context of its benefits system, we found that the first penalty was often a short sharp shock rather than the long one that the Bill seems to presage. The court might want to take that point into account.

Similarly, there could be repeat offences; an offender could come before the court to face a second benefit sanction. If there is no opportunity for the court to examine all the circumstances and to consider a gradation of penalty—perhaps increasing the disqualification period for a second offence—we are not sending the right message to offenders. I support some of the ideas behind the Bill, but I am worried about the practicalities. We would be wielding a big and rather inflexible stick instead of using the measure as it should be intended: to correct offending behaviour rather than to provide a penalty for having offended. We should see the measure as a tool of correction, to try to help people to recognise that they owe an obligation to society in return for their benefit, in which case a gradated approach would be far more appropriate.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

My hon. Friend is of course aware that although we are discussing only one measure, the Government want to introduce a series of measures in the next Session, including model tenancy agreements, fast-track evictions, and conciliation services such as those in Dundee. It is not as though someone committing antisocial behaviour will go straight into court as a result of the Bill; there will be several steps before they reach that point.

Mr. Dismore

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention, but it does not mean that there should not be some degree of flexibility in the process so that it can complement those measures rather than being used as an inflexible stick at the end.

Mr. Davey

May I clarify one point? I do not want the hon. Gentleman to misunderstand what the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) was saying. Although the Government have a range of measures to tackle antisocial behaviour, many of which we wholeheartedly support because they are exactly right, the Bill does not set out a process whereby those methods and policies can be used before the court is asked to make a declaration and the benefit sanction is applied. In Committee, I tried to insert a provision for such a process so that all the options could be explored, but the Government resisted such amendments. I do not want the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Davey) to be under any illusion: no process involving other measures is foreseen in the Bill

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Perhaps, in order to make this more of a debate than a conversation piece, the hon. Gentleman might save up his comments and seek to catch my eye later on.

Mr. Dismore

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I noted what the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said, and the House will obviously form its own view when it considers the amendments at the end of this short debate.

The last amendment in my name in the group, and probably the most important, is amendment No. 11. It concerns the extent to which the penalty could have consequences for people who are not before the court, or are not directly in receipt of the benefit. If I may return to my basic point, which is that the power should be exercised by someone with a bit of discretion—that is, the court—it seems to me that the court should be able to take into account not only the circumstances of the offender before it, but any hardship that is likely to be inflicted on others as a consequence of that person's disqualification from benefit.

If benefit is taken away and the person concerned happens to be the householder, that could have a serious impact on their children and/or their partner, husband or wife. I am keen to ensure that we do all that we can to deal with those who behave in the most appalling antisocial ways, but I do not believe that it will necessarily be constructive if in doing so we penalise the children or the partner in the relationship. That could make things worse. That would not necessarily apply in all cases, but the court should certainly have discretion to look at the hardship of what could be, according to the Bill, a very lengthy withholding of benefit. These provisions must be exercised with a degree of flexibility.

Mr. Edward Davey

I shall primarily speak to amendments Nos. 19, 21, 24 and 22, and I shall try not to be tempted to cover ground that I covered in exchanges with the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) because that would try your patience sorely, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Amendments 19, 21 and 24 are intended to highlight one major change to the Bill that has occurred during its passage. In Committee the Bill was effectively rewritten, and the sanction, instead of applying after two antisocial behaviour orders had been issued on a person—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) tries to intervene from a sedentary position. I am saying that the old Bill talked about two antisocial behaviour orders. It has been changed. In clause 1, the Government have introduced the link between the benefit sanction and a custodial sentence. Under clause 2, in civil proceedings the sanction will be triggered by some method of which we are not yet told, because those proceedings will be prescribed in due course in regulations.

Amendments Nos. 19, 21 and 24 are intended to challenge some of the thinking behind those amendments, particularly the linking of the sanction to the custodial sentence, which would introduce a double punishment. Once an offender's case has been heard, and he or she has been convicted of the crime that they were accused of, the court decides a punishment appropriate to the crime. Clause 1 seeks to add another punishment to that initial punishment. Although it may be related to the original offence—I wish to discuss that point in a second—it is a double punishment. That may well be a first in law, and to my knowledge it certainly is in benefit law, because other benefit sanctions have been introduced very differently.

The second aspect that really concerns me is what will happen as a result of the relating of the extra punishment to a benefit sanction. The consequence will be one of two things. The offender will either come out of prison with debts because his rent has not been paid during his time in prison—at least the 13 weeks in prison that it can currently be paid for—or come out without a home.

Either way—whether people come out of prison with increased debts or having lost their homes—the chance is that they will have no stable accommodation, as the opportunity to have stable accommodation will have been reduced. There can be no dispute about that fact because that is the Government's and, indeed, the Bill's original promoter's explicit aim, so there is no debate about that. My concern is what will happen as a result.

I should have thought that our policies—whether those for benefits or housing in general—should ensure that ex-convicts, people coming out of prison, have a good chance of getting stable accommodation. Why? Because a lot of the evidence shows that the risk of reoffending significantly increases when ex-convicts do not have access to accommodation.

1.30 pm

Government reports—particularly the social exclusion unit report, "Reducing re-offending by ex-prisoners", which was published this month—and a lot of other detailed work by Departments say that reducing reoffending is one of the Government's key targets. The Government say that reoffending is a major problem and that they wish to stop the vicious cycle of crime, which can add to the prison population.

Page 3 of the Prime Minister's foreword to that report says: People who have been in prison account for one in five of all crimes. Nearly three in five prisoners are re-convicted within two years of leaving prison. Offending by ex-prisoners costs society at least £11 billion a year. This all tells us we are failing to capitalise on the opportunity prison provides to stop people offending for good. So the Bill, which deliberately sets out to penalise offenders by reducing housing benefits, goes exactly against what the Prime Minister said in a report published this month. I find it quite bizarre that we are debating the Bill given that the Government say that they are in favour of joined-up government.

Having stable accommodation for ex-offenders has been shown to reduce the risk of reoffending by a fifth—a significant amount. If we could ensure that all prisoners have access to stable accommodation when they finish spending time at Her Majesty's pleasure, we would significantly reduce crime. That is what the evidence shows. The Bill, particularly clause 1, goes in exactly the opposite direction.

A third of prisoners already lose their homes while in prison. That comes from recent Home Office research. The SEU report to which I have referred makes a number of recommendations to try to improve that figure, including changes to the housing benefit administration regime. which go in exactly the opposite direction to the Bill.

The recent Home Office survey, "Jobs and homes—a survey of prisoners nearing release", says that 71 per cent. of those with no accommodation arranged on release had not received any help in finding accommodation. Clearly, the Prison Service and Her Majesty's Government have a lot more to do to tackle that aspect of reoffending. I cannot believe for a minute that they welcome the Bill because it would make that huge challenge far more difficult.

I refer hon. Members to the details of the amendments in this group. If the amendments were accepted, they would at least mitigate some of the problems that I have identified. Amendment No. 19 would add another test: the court would have consider whether it is satisfied that any withholding of benefit, as set out in section (3) below and related regulations, will not increase the likelihood of the offender committing similar offences again. That would ensure that, before making any declaration to trigger the benefits sanction, the court would have to consider the likelihood of such a sanction worsening the chances of reoffending. That is a sensible thing for the courts to have to consider, as the criminal justice system plays its full part in trying to reduce reoffending.

Amendment No. 21 has a similar effect, but it amends clause 2 and would attempt to ensure that the civil courts were satisfied that there would be no increase in the likelihood of reoffending.

Amendment No. 24 would apply at another stage. As it amends clause 3, it relates not to the court stage but to the stage when the Secretary of State would apply the benefit sanction. Before clause 3(1) kicked in, therefore, the Secretary of State would be required to review all the evidence as to the likelihood of the offender reoffending as a direct result of the benefit reduction. It is therefore very specific and targeted. It would require the Secretary of State not just to review the evidence but to state that, in his opinion, the benefit reduction does not increase that likelihood.

I cannot see how the Minister could reject such an amendment. Given that his boss, the Prime Minister, stated this month in the publication from which I quoted that the Government's express aim is to reduce reoffending, and given that that document refers at length to the importance of improving the housing opportunities of people released from prison, the tests that I seek to add to the Bill are very mild, both for the court and the Secretary of State. I would therefore be extremely surprised if the Minister were to reject them.

Amendment No. 22 states: A court may only make a declaration under subsection(3) above against a person over the age of 65 if it considers that there are exceptional circumstances and if it is satisfied that no other method of dealing with that person's behaviour is applicable.

The reason I have tabled that amendment is that people over the age of 65 need extra protection from the penal sanctions in the Bill. The Minister said in Committee that a hardship regime will be introduced, although we have not had any description of that hardship regime in any shape or form. Amendment No. 22, however, would at least ensure that pensioners over the age of 65—who could still be hit by those benefit sanctions, as I am sure the Minister would agree—would be subject to an extra test that the courts would have to consider. That can only be right.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Does he not agree, however, that in the real world an awful lot of people aged over 65 are looking for protection from the antisocial behaviour of others, who are predominantly younger people, and that they want to see people who behave antisocially, of whatever age, brought to account for it?

Mr. Davey

The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. He enables me to make the point that I had intended to make at the beginning of my remarks. Liberal Democrats take the problem of antisocial behaviour very seriously. We support strong, tough measures to deal with those who behave in that appalling way, to pensioners who are their neighbours or to people of any age in our communities. As I explained at length in Committee—I will not do so now, Mr. Deputy Speaker—Liberal Democrat councils up and down the country are using innovative measures to deal with antisocial behaviour that are proving far more effective than the Government's measures.

I quoted at length—I shall be brief now—the case of acceptable behaviour contracts, which are an innovation in the Liberal Democrat-controlled borough of Islington. Acceptable behaviour contracts did not require legislation. They are much quicker in effect than measures such as antisocial behaviour orders and the proposals that we are debating, and they have enabled the council, working with the different partners in the borough of Islington, to tackle the problem quickly. They do not require a legal process or huge expenditure of taxpayer's money. They have been very effective, however, at dealing with the problem.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) for his intervention, because, effectively, he refers to the second part of my amendment No. 22, which states that the court must be satisfied that no other method of dealing with that person's behaviour is applicable. When we debated the issue at length in Committee, we heard that many alternatives are available to local authority social services departments and so on. The alternatives are being piloted around the country, and I cited several examples. They all show the high degree of success of the relatively new experiments that deal with such behaviour.

Liberal Democrats believe that successful experiments should be rolled out across the country. They should be fast-tracked and given top priority by the Government, so that we can ensure that councils and public authorities are made aware of the tools that they already possess, have the funds to ensure that they can act quickly and have the pressure of Government on them to ensure that they use those tools appropriately.

The hon. Gentleman's intervention was rather ill-advised. Amendment No. 22 would ensure that best practice is used. It would particularly ensure that older people are not affected, and I am grateful to Age Concern England and Age Concern London for the evidence that I have received from them. It shows how elderly people are currently disadvantaged under the complexities of the housing benefit administration system. There is a danger that the disadvantages that they already suffer will be exacerbated by the Bill. These are modest amendments.

Matthew Green (Ludlow)

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that another point relates to those aged over 65. If financial penalties drive people into debt, a retired person is less able than someone of working age to work themselves out of debt. The use of financial penalties will especially penalise those who cannot earn the money to take themselves out of debt.

Mr. Davey

My hon. Friend makes an extremely valid point, and one that I had not noticed. He strengthens the case for the amendment. I stress that it deals with people who have appeared before the courts. They have already been sentenced to prison or received a conditional discharge. They have been punished, but the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and the Government are effectively seeking to put them into poverty and perhaps into homelessness. It is extraordinary that they should seek to make elderly people homeless; it is bizarre.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) does not need my protection, but the hon. Gentleman is being slightly disingenuous. The people to whom he referred are not the victims, but the perpetrators. No one is trying to put them into poverty; they are choosing to accept the sanctions by choosing to continue along the path of constant antisocial behaviour. It is their choice to have the sanctions, which they know about, imposed upon them.

Mr. Davey

The hon. Gentleman would have a point against my argument if it was that we should not do anything about such people. I made it very clear that we should be very tough and seek to change their behaviour. My argument, both in Committee and now, is that the approach taken by the Government and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead will not work.

I sought to discuss in Committee much of the evidence about other aspects of the benefits system in which benefit sanctions have been trialled and explored at some length—the new deal, the job seeker's allowance and so on. Much of the evidence suggests that benefit sanctions have not worked. I know that the right hon. Gentleman might jump to his feet and refer to examples of research in which people have said that they have changed their behaviour. He would be right to do so. I said in Committee that the evidence was mixed. [Interruption.] I think the right hon. Gentleman is saying that I have changed my tune. I have not.

Mr. Frank Field

When the hon. Gentleman was under threat from the Chairman in Committee, he changed his behaviour and gave us a good example of how the threat—not the exercise—of sanctions actually worked.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It is just a small point, but I said nothing in Committee.

Mr. Davey

I confirm that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I also confirm that the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara) was exemplary. I had no quarrel with the Chairman. However, some of the amendments that I tabled for consideration today were not able to be debated in Committee because of a closure motion. The Committee was unable to sit for as long as I think it needed to in order to scrutinise a particularly serious Bill.

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

Given that in Committee the hon. Gentleman monopolised the time, so preventing concerned Conservative Members and Labour Members from discussing this important measure, our concerned constituents would like to know now whether he is trying to talk out the Bill.

Mr. Davey

I assure the Minister that I am not intending to talk out the Bill. I can say to him that he and Conservative Members moved the closure motion. It was not Liberal Democrat Members who sought to reduce the time for debate in Committee. If there is any problem with the Bill not going forward, the Minister should take his share of the responsibility.

I return to the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris). It is important that we try to improve the behaviour of these people because it is unacceptable. We must tackle it and be hard on it. That is why I quoted an example from the hon. Gentleman's own country, Scotland. I referred to the Dundee families project, which I will not talk about now because I did so at length in Committee. The project has proved exceedingly successful. It has involved resettlement of some families—taking them away from the communities that they are disrupting. I fully support such resettlement projects. In some cases, I even support evictions of these families. I do not suggest that we must be anything but tough on these people. We must be. The question is whether the approach set out in the Bill will either change their behaviour or result in less antisocial behaviour. I think that all the evidence shows that if we make people poorer and give offenders less chance of stable accommodation when they come out, crime will increase as well as antisocial behaviour. The proposition before us is contradictory in its own terms given the evidence which the Prime Minister supported this month.

Mr. Tom Harris

The hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting that the measures contained in the Bill are the only possible sanctions against the people about whom we are talking. Surely the hon. Gentleman will agree that this is only one of a wide range of measures. He is right to point out other measures, but this is an important measure even though it is one of many that the Government and local authorities should have at their disposal.

Mr. Davey

I think the hon. Gentleman unintentionally misrepresents what I am saying. I am in favour of a range of measures. He has talked about a few of them, and the Minister has talked about some others, that are designed to tackle the sort of behaviour that we are discussing. My point is that the measure before us will have the reverse effect. It will increase antisocial behaviour, not reduce it. I think that all the evidence backs our case. We have had no evidence that the reverse is the case. I seek to draw the attention of the House to that.

In drawing my remarks to a close, I wish to point out that the amendments that are in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) are focused on a key aspect of policy for the criminal justice system. We are trying to stop reoffending, to stop crime, and to stop antisocial behaviour. That is the purpose behind our amendments, and they will have that effect. If the Government were to accept them, they would make the Bill better. Their insertion would remove some of the more worrying consequences of the Bill.

Mr. Frank Field

An intervention and the speech of the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Hertsmere(Mr. Clappison), gave the game away for the Liberal Democrats. Any Member who was concerned to represent their constituents' views about how their lives are being ruined by a small, dedicated group of constituents behaving in an antisocial manner would have introduced their comments on the amendments by making that plain. It took an intervention to stir from the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) that that was the real point behind his amendments. I do not accept that. Liberal Democrat Members tabled a whole series of wrecking amendments in Committee, some of which we spent five hours going round and round, and they are doing it again today. We all have in our mind's eye the image of Liberal Democrats as being people with shaggy beards and sandals. They must be here today if they think that we have a load of 65-year-olds running around terrorising young families with children in an antisocial manner. Their amendments are absurd.

Matthew Green

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Field

I will in a minute, because it is good to see the hon. Gentleman in his seat.

I hope all those who are of pensionable age in Surbiton and other Liberal Democrat seats think carefully about the absurd image that Liberal Democrats have of people who cause antisocial behaviour in their constituencies. It is to protect those older constituents that many of us on both sides of the House are supporting this and other measures.

Matthew Green

My concern about what the right hon. Gentleman is saying is that measures introduced by his Government, such as antisocial behaviour orders, are not being used. If there is such a huge problem, will he explain why ASBOs are not being used before he advocates more measures?

Mr. Field

That question should have been addressed to the hon. Gentleman's own Front Benchers. If the measures are never used, why should they stir up the fear that this one will send vast numbers of our constituents to prison? The two things do not add up. When pressed in Committee, Liberal Democrat Members sprang up like jack-in-the-boxes to say, "Of course we are representing the interests of our constituents: we are massively concerned about antisocial behaviour, and we want a whole range of measures to deal with it." I therefore asked the Library to find out what concerns every Liberal Democrat had expressed about antisocial behaviour before the introduction of the Bill. Let me record on the Floor of the House that not one Liberal Democrat had asked a question about it, made a speech about it in this Chamber or written an article about it for a national or local newspaper. They may be concerned about it now, but they certainly were not before the introduction of the Bill.

Mr. Edward Davey

The right hon. Gentleman is factually incorrect. I have spoken to my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) and I know that my hon. Friends have raised the issue. More importantly—with great respect to the right hon. Gentleman—Liberal Democrats on the ground are not just talking about it and writing articles, but producing policies to tackle antisocial behaviour in our communities. I challenge him to go to the borough of Islington to see how acceptable behaviour contracts are working. I also suggest that he go to the Home Office's website, where that Liberal Democrat innovation has been held up by his own Government as best practice and has been recommended across the country. That has not taken legislation or parliamentary questions, but active engagement by elected Liberal Democrat councillors in Islington. The right hon. Gentleman should withdraw his remarks.

Mr. Field

I shall not do so for the simple reason that, as Labour and official Opposition Members have made plain, if we are to stand any chance of countering antisocial behaviour more successfully than in the past, we need a whole range of measures, and the Government have said that they will provide them. Some will require legislation, but many will not. Some councils, thank goodness, are already pressing ahead with such measures, but others are dragging their feet.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

Many seaside communities such as Scarborough and Whitby have a persistent problem in relation not only to tenants, but to landlords who fail to police and monitor their tenants' activities. My local council and local community would want this measure to be placed on the statute book to give them an extra deterrent to ensure that such behaviour is dealt with.

Mr. Field

I agree. Given that our seaside towns usually have a higher proportion of elderly people than elsewhere, it is interesting that my hon. Friend chooses not to use the scare tactic of saying that we have to protect pensioners from the measure when, of course, we want to protect them from antisocial behaviour. He probably knows that a clause in the original Bill dealt directly with landlords. Sadly, it had to be withdrawn because it clashed with human rights legislation that the House passed.

The good news is that the Government are considering measures for the next Session aimed specifically at bad landlords—in particular those who make a cool killing on milking housing benefit. Those people pay not the slightest attention to the way in which they contribute to the collapse of working-class areas by accommodating such families. None of us would want to live next door to those families, so we should not inflict them on our constituents.

The Liberal Democrats took the typical old line of pulling out one tiny bit of Government policy. They said that the Bill must fall because it is against the Government's strategy on people who reoffend, but that is only part of their strategy. The Prime Minister's overall vision of our society is to remoralise it and to change people's behaviour. That is the cornerstone of policy. We are in a new situation in which old class politics are giving way to the new politics as regards how we control behaviour. As we get to grips with that agenda and fashion measures to deal with it, of course we must be careful and listen, especially to our constituents, but to pretend that we can pull measures off the shelf, as we could for the past century, as solutions to issues that are only just emerging, shows how naive the Liberal Democrats are on this issue.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that during the next election, the neighbours from hell who make so many people's lives a misery should put up Liberal Democrat posters in their windows, because it is clear from debates in Committee and the House that the Liberal Democrats are the party of the neighbourhood nuisance-makers?

Mr. Field

We all hope that those who are in error change their ways. I have warned the Liberal Democrats, and in so doing perhaps slightly hardened their views about antisocial behaviour, that they have to answer one question: are they prepared to have one, let alone two, of those families living on one or both sides of them? Hence the Liberal Democrats' support in Committee for the establishment of what some people crudely call sin bins. If we do not want those families living next to us, we cannot expect to inflict them on our constituents. In that case, we have to think about where we put such families until they change their behaviour.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North)

I am listening to my right hon. Friend with care. As someone who has a serious problem of antisocial behaviour in my constituency, on which I have spoken many times, the aspect that concerns me most is that the neighbours from hell who have been evicted have almost invariably ended up living with friends, sometimes staying on their floors, in private accommodation, which gives the local authority virtually no leverage to deal with their behaviour. The consequence of the actions taken under the current provision is to relocate the problem from within, say, a council estate to a street nearby where their behaviour continues unchecked.

Mr. Field

I fully accept my hon. Friend's point. That is why I have lobbied the Government to the effect that local authorities should be given the resources so that they can build accommodation to house people who inflict such horrors on our constituents. That is part of the overall picture. However, the measure does not deal with it because the Bill's title means that we can deal with only one aspect of the problem in our debate. However, the contrast between the amendments that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) tabled and those that the Liberal Democrats tabled reveals a difference in approach.

2 pm

Let me deal with my hon. Friend's amendments. I accept that my hon. Friend was probing through the amendments and that he therefore probably already knows some of the answers. Indeed, given his legal experience, he probably knows them better than me. It is important that hon. Members do not have a view of the courts that is too mechanical. Things may be different in London, but most of our constituencies are clearly defined areas of towns, villages or groups of villages. The courts' operations happen against the background of that framework. Those there know a bit about the people who come before them.

At the end of proceedings, a charge of antisocial behaviour will be made against the individual before the court. That should be taken into account when we devise sentencing policy. The House has always been careful not to be too prescriptive on sentencing; it grants some freedom of manoeuvre in a general framework. However, some courts are still waiting for their first, second or third order to arrive. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton referred to that. The logic of his position is that we need to find methods of speeding up the process and ensuring that antisocial behaviour orders come before the courts more quickly.

We began to consider the matter in Birkenhead seven years ago, and we lobbied the Labour party, which was then in opposition. We proposed a simple system of penalty points, which the police could apply mainly against young lads for their misbehaviour. That was not accepted and we got antisocial behaviour orders instead. Not one application for such an order has been successful in Birkenhead. Consequently, we have made representations to the Home Secretary to turn the procedure upside down so that one seeks an order and returns to the court after carrying out all the detailed work to implement it. The Home Secretary accepted that reform, which is outlined in the White Paper that was cited.

Considering methods of controlling behaviour is new, and we realise that even after introducing a measure, we may have to revert to it to speed up the process of justice to protect our constituents.

Ms Buck

My right hon. Friend has been generous in giving way.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady must remember to address the Chair.

Ms Buck

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My local authority has also been slow in introducing antisocial behaviour orders. The primary problem is obtaining witness statements that are sufficient to enable the police and the local authority to take action. It is difficult to persuade members of the community to give evidence. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is the principal reason for the slowness of ASBOs?

Mr. Field

Indeed. When preparing for the debate, I asked our local authority, Wirral, to give me all its papers on taking four families in my constituency—the figure will be low in most constituencies—to court. A single parent who has been smashed in the face, pushed over and had her house wrecked by the family next door, is the only person under pensionable age who is appearing before the courts to give evidence, even though the family next door has threatened to kill her if she goes to court. That makes laughable the Liberal Democrat amendment to protect those over 65 and ensure that the Bill does not sanction them. In Birkenhead, and, I guess, even in Surbiton, the bravest people, who are prepared to go to court, stand up, and be seen and known by the thugs are pensioners. They feel that strongly about it.

My answer to the point about the difficulty of getting cases to court is that on the first occasion, the sanction is applied only against the head of the household for a part of that head of household's benefit. The difficulty of getting the case back into court if the behaviour remains unchanged will be considerable, but the fuller sanction will be applied only against the head of the household and not to the housing benefit for the whole household. I hope that by the end of the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon will feel that this aspect of the Bill has been explored effectively, and that further probing will take place when the Bill goes to the House of Lords.

Mr. Clappison

I shall be brief. The Conservatives welcome the Bill and want it to make progress because it deals with a serious issue for many of our constituents, that of antisocial behaviour by badly behaved neighbours.

With that in mind, I appeal to the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) to think again about his amendments. The Committee debated how long the prison sentence in respect of which the sanction would not apply should be, and the Minister told us that it was not appropriate in respect of longer sentences. The Committee accepted that. As for taking unspent convictions into account, the hon. Gentleman will see that the Bill catches antisocial behaviour on any occasion on which it arises. The legal definition of antisocial behaviour is the same as is used in other statutes. The message is clear: the Bill is designed to catch antisocial behaviour and to bring it to a halt.

As a result of amendments standing in the name of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and supported by the Conservatives that were accepted by the Committee, we now know how long the period of reduction of benefit—the disqualification period—will be. It will be at least 26 weeks, which substantially strengthens the Bill. As for the question of hardship, I ask the hon. Member for Hendon to read the Committee debate on the provisions that were to be put in place to deal with that.

I understand the point of view being expressed by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), but have difficulty with his approach to the Bill. I wish that he would face up to the consequences of his arguments. When we debate disapplying provisions in the Bill for the over-65s, we are becoming somewhat fanciful. I do not know what sort of world he inhabits, but it appears to be full of Victor Meldrews on crack. In the real world—the one inhabited by our constituents—the over-65s are often the people who are affected by antisocial behaviour. As for their being made homeless, they will not be made homeless as a result of the Bill; what all too often makes the over-65s and many others homeless is their own decision to leave their homes because they can no longer endure the behaviour of people around them.

We want more measures to bring antisocial behaviour to a stop. People are crying out for assistance—for a measure that will end the behaviour that far too many people have to endure and that makes their life a torment. We appeal to the Liberal Democrats, even at this late stage, to face up to the consequences of their actions. They must realise that the Bill will help people, or at least acknowledge that their chosen approach will block a piece of legislation that would otherwise help many people whose lives have been made a misery by the antisocial behaviour of others. We want to stop that behaviour, they want it to be stopped, and I ask the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton not to continue his present course of trying to talk out a measure that many people want and that would help many people, including the elderly.

Malcolm Wicks

I am happy to be back in the Chamber discussing the Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) following an extensive series of debates in Committee. The Government fully support the Bill's objectives in preventing antisocial behaviour which, as some speakers today have said, blights the lives of so many of our constituents. We believe that it would make a valuable third strand in our armoury, alongside the use of antisocial behaviour orders and the Government's strategy to improve landlords' powers to tackle antisocial tenants.

Our priority has been to make the Bill workable and compatible with human rights legislation. We recognise the concerns that have been expressed urging caution but also the voices recommending a tougher approach. We believe that the Government amendments made in Committee strike the right balance.

I shall not try to respond to each of the amendments individually. They have a common theme in giving a greater role to the courts in deciding whether to apply a benefit sanction and considering the likely implications of any sanction. We would all agree with many of the objectives of the amendments, such as that of ensuring that sanctions are used in a fair and proportionate way, but as I explained in Committee, the Government's proposals will achieve those objectives by a different route and the approach suggested here is not compatible with the streamlined process that we introduced with the Government amendments.

We deliberately designed a procedure of court declarations that would sit on top of decisions that the courts already make. It will be a relatively quick and straightforward decision following a conviction or an order. The crucial factor under our approach is that the courts need consider only the nature of the behaviour—that is, was it antisocial or not? There is no need for them to know whether the person is on benefits, has other family members, has received previous declarations and so on.

In practice, the courts have no way of knowing many of those things. There is no ready mechanism for them to check whether someone is receiving housing benefit, or the details of their family. Equally, they may not know whether there has been a previous court declaration, especially if that declaration was made in a different type of court proceeding, either civil or criminal.

Requiring the courts to find out and take account of such factors would drastically increase the amount of work involved in making declarations. We believe that it would be disproportionate in relation to the objective and could risk disrupting the wider work of the criminal and civil justice systems. In a week when the Government have just published the criminal justice White Paper. that is an important factor to bear in mind.

For those reasons, we believe that the amendments would not work under our approach and that they are not necessary. The Government's plan is to set up a hardship scheme in the same way as for other benefit sanctions, taking account of the family circumstances at the point when the sanction is applied, and not just when the court is making a declaration. For example, it may be some time after the court hearing before a sanction is put in place, allowing time to cross-match declarations against housing benefit records. The composition of the household may have changed in that time.

The Government approach would be not only more streamlined and efficient but more responsive to family circumstances, and therefore more effective at preventing hardship as a result of benefit sanctions.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon)

To clarify how existing hardship provisions work, can the Minister tell me—I genuinely do not know—whether support can be given to the sanctioned person because the sanction has caused hardship, or only when the hardship is caused to other family members?

Malcolm Wicks

The purpose of the hardship regime is to take account of children and other factors such as a pregnancy. If the Bill is enacted, we will spell that out in secondary legislation and the House will be able to discuss it. We noted the hardship regime as one example of our approach, but we will need to take expert advice and make specific proposals in Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) asked about prison sentences. There is clearly no exact science, but the Government think that there should be a cut-off point to exclude long prison sentences. The question is where to set it, and that is a matter of judgment. We feel that a year is about right. In practice, that means that anyone who served longer than six months would be excluded. With shorter prison sentences, there is perhaps less distinction between offenders sent to prison and those given alternative punishments. Exempting shorter sentences might create a more arbitrary cut-off, whereby people who carried out similar kinds of antisocial behaviour were treated differently under the Bill. That is the thinking behind our approach to this issue.

2.15 pm

The Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead is a very important one that has been welcomed by many people on both sides of the House. As he noted, increasing numbers of such cases are brought to us in our constituency advice surgeries, and I am afraid that my own constituency of Croydon, North is not exempt from such bad behaviour. My constituency notes show instances of people being verbally threatened, and doors being kicked and bashed in order to frighten residents. In one case, a saw was held to a woman's neck and she was racially abused, and in another a blowtorch was used through a neighbour's letterbox. A woman who asked that a dog stop barking incessantly was attacked with a knife. In a further case, a radio was left on constantly, not tuned in to any particular channel, with the windows left open. There was also an instance of dog faeces being put through a letter-box.

In one case that I personally recall—it is particularly relevant to the debate—a woman and her children had to flee their own house because of antisocial behaviour, a form of self-eviction over which she had no choice. When I hear the Liberal Democrats talk about the terrible plight of those who might be evicted if they continue in their antisocial behaviour and sanctions are stepped up, I wonder why they do not recognise—as the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) recognised—that in effect, many decent, honest people are evicted because of such behaviour. That is an important point.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)

As my hon. Friend knows, as a council leader I employed private detectives to ensure that evidence was submitted to enable the eviction of unruly tenants. Does he agree, however, that the purpose of housing benefit is to enable those on low incomes to pay for their housing, and that it is not a tool for other policy objectives? Those who are rich will have no sanction against them, and the danger is that this Bill will be seen as evidence that those who do not behave themselves might lose their home—unless, that is, they are well off.

Malcolm Wicks

We have stressed that there are different weapons in the armoury, some of which I have noted. For example, owner-occupiers can also be antisocial, and hopefully antisocial behaviour orders will apply in their case. However, I would find it difficult to explain to those of my Croydon constituents who are being abused and harassed why that is happening, and why those responsible are having their rent paid by the rest of the community. If we are to turn the decent rhetoric of rights and duties into practical social policies, we have to get real and get tough where appropriate—not for the sake of being macho, but for the sake of the decent people in our constituencies who form the great majority.

We dealt with these matters in great detail in Committee, and as I pointed out, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) chose—sadly—to hog the discussion for various purposes, but mainly to hold up the Bill's progress. That showed great discourtesy to those Conservative and Labour Members who wanted to make proper contributions to the debate—including, no doubt, some challenging questions for me in my role as the Minister tabling amendments. I recall that the Chairman of the Standing Committee urged the hon. Gentleman on several occasions—some 15 times in respect of the first group of amendments—to make progress. That shows the real concern that exists about such bad behaviour in Committee. The Liberal Democrats' sole purpose—(Interruption.] They are muttering because they are embarrassed. Their sole purpose was to oppose the Bill as amended by the Government. They opposed the idea of an additional useful, and perhaps minor, weapon in the armoury against antisocial behaviour.

I find that approach troublesome, because it would have been good if we could have returned to our constituencies tonight and—in my advice surgery this evening, for example—reassured our constituents that Parliament was taking their views seriously and had now sent to the House of Lords a serious measure that had been usefully amended. Sadly, that may not be possible now because of the tactics of the Liberal Democrats.

In drawing my remarks on the amendments to a conclusion, it is not unfair for me to say that in our constituencies, whether those be in Croydon or Surbiton, it will be the abusers, the bullies, the harassers and the thugs who will be pleased by the Liberal Democrats' performance both today and in Committee. That is not just political rhetoric; I say it with more sorrow than anger.

The Liberal Democrats' political tactics on the Bill will come back to haunt them. This must be the first case in our democracy of Liberals writing the manifestos of their political opponents for the next general election. The people who are crying out for decent social policy and decent law to stem the tide of antisocial behaviour will be aghast at their tactics today.

Mr. Webb

Faced with a bad Bill, we have a duty to scrutinise it and, if it should come to a vote, to oppose it. We make no apology for that, because we would be doing the victims of antisocial behaviour no service by passing had legislation that will make a bad problem worse.

Our amendment No. 19 says that a court should make a declaration and pave the way for cutting housing benefit only if it is convinced that doing so will not lead to further reoffending. How can anyone oppose that? If the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, (Mr. Field) is so confident that his measure will reduce antisocial behaviour, he should also be confident that that test would always be passed. If it were, the courts would always make the declarations and we would not have stopped the process. Our amendment would bite only if a court of law—which would presumably be on the side of justice rather than on the side of the offender—thought that the declaration would not help to reduce reoffending. In that case the declaration should certainly be stopped, so what could possibly be wrong with the amendment?

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)

Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the fear and worry caused by the prospect of losing their home would be likely to stop people reoffending?

Mr. Webb

I do not deny for a moment that some individuals might be affected by that threat, but others will carry on regardless. They may be pushed from one neighbourhood to another, causing mayhem wherever they go. Critically, that might undermine attempts to make them less likely to reoffend. For example, the evidence suggests that antisocial behaviour is often linked with the abuse of drugs and alcohol. How are the support services ever to solve those problems if we keep shunting people from one place to another? That simply mucks up the support services and wrecks any chance those people may have of building up a relationship with the professionals who might have been able to help to solve their problems.

It is no good Members of Parliament pretending that some of us are the good guys and the others are the bad guys. We are all against antisocial behaviour—but we oppose a Bill that will make matters worse, and is not on the side of the victims.

Mr. Frank Field

Why does the hon. Gentleman say that the Bill will make matters worse, when his hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) said that no matters would ever be referred to the courts? Either one Liberal Democrat is right or the other is; they cannot both be right.

Mr. Webb

The right hon. Gentleman must have misheard my hon. Friend; that is not what I understood him to say.

Lawrie Quinn

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the migration problem when people are moved from one neighbourhood to another. Does he realise that the movement of people from one seaside resort to another is now being encouraged by absentee landlords who are trying to milk the system? What answer does he have for my constituents who have asked me to come here today and support the Bill? What does he think I should tell them?

Mr. Webb

The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly fair point. As he has discovered from earlier interventions, the parts of the Bill that deal with landlords have been removed, so nothing in the Bill deals with the point that he makes. However, a document from the former Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions on tackling antisocial tenants makes proposals that would help deal with landlords who do not take their responsibilities seriously.

Mr. Field

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Webb

I should like to pick up on one of the Minister's points, if I may. The hon. Gentleman made a perfectly fair point about the relative merits of our amendment as against other ways of assessing whether these measures would lead to more or less antisocial behaviour. He said that the court should not make this decision because there would be an administrative cost in getting all the information that it needed, which would slow the court down, but he did not say who would take the decision. The Secretary of State and his representatives decide whether taking this action is likely to reduce reoffending, but are we talking about a housing benefit officer or someone representing the Secretary of State?

Malcolm Wicks

indicated dissent.

Mr. Webb

The Minister shakes his head. I am not clear who will take the decision, and I am happy to give way if he can tell me who will.

Malcolm Wicks

The hon. Gentleman has not followed the discussions, of course, because he was not in Committee. The court makes the judgment as to whether behaviour is antisocial. There will then be an automatic sanction policy. If the hon. Gentleman had followed the details instead of trying to hold up proceedings, he would understand that point.

Mr. Webb

I am not sure whether my five-minute contribution has played a major part in this delay. Indeed, it was certainly not my hon. Friends who delayed the debate in Committee.

When cutting housing benefit is considered, the test should be whether such action would help. We should all agree on that. We believe that the court should make that decision because it is the only place where all the information about the person accused of the offences is present. The court has access to what the probation officers say and the social inquiry report. No one else has that information.

Mr. Tom Harris

Does the hon. Gentleman believe, to take a parallel situation, that the fixed penalty for a speeding offence should be imposed only if the court is convinced that it will reduce someone's speed in future?

Mr. Webb

The difference is that, under these measures, people will lose the roof over their heads. That is more likely to affect the possibility of someone reoffending than whether they incur a fine for speeding. The order of magnitude is completely different.

Mr. Frank Field

I just wanted to take the hon. Gentleman back to his argument. It is clear who makes the decision—it is the court.

Mr. Webb

We are saying that the court should make that decision based on a further test which, according to the right hon. Gentleman, will always be passed. If the right hon. Gentleman is empirically correct that imposing these sanctions will reduce the likelihood of further antisocial behaviour, the test that we are trying to impose will never stop things. We believe that if the court considers the evidence independently and decides that imposing a penalty will not make a difference or will actually make things worse, it will not have to do so. That is the discretion that we want for the courts, which have the ability to consider all the circumstances.

Mr. Dismore

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Webb

No, I do not want to delay the House any further.

There are issues in this group of amendments that need further scrutiny. However, we cannot say that the Bill has come to the House completely different from how it was on Second Reading and the first day of its Committee stage. It has had one day of Committee scrutiny and an hour or so today. We should never let legislation go any further without proper scrutiny, especially when it is bad legislation like this Bill.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Edward Davey

I beg to move amendment No. 17, in page 1, line 9, at end insert— 'and provide written evidence of that anti-social conduct'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 18, in page 1, line 13, after "convictions", insert 'and by reason of the written evidence it has considered as to the specific anti-social conduct concerned,'. No. 20, in clause 2, page 2, line 35, after "behaved", inser— 'and has considered written evidence of the anti-social conduct'. No. 23, in page 2, line 40, at end insert— '(6) Where a court is minded to make an order under this section and it forms the view that any person against whom the order is intended is unable to represent himself properly and is not otherwise represented, the court shall adjourn the proceedings to give any such person the opportunity of securing legal representation.'.

Mr. Davey

The amendments seek to ensure that the court has written evidence of antisocial conduct. As the Bill stands, the court will make the declaration following discussions on whether the person should be convicted of the crime of which they are accused, not related to any antisocial behaviour. The only test for antisocial behaviour is whether someone could have been responsible for antisocial behaviour at the same time as committing a crime. No evidence is required for the court to judge whether antisocial behaviour occurred. All we want to do is to ensure that there is written evidence before the court, so I would like—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Debate to be resumed what day? No day named.

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