Behave or else

We all have our own horror stories about the neighbours from
hell. Personally speaking, mine would be to find myself living next
door to Arsenal supporters who were into house music.
But what if your anti-social neighbours had their housing benefit
reduced because of their activities? Would such a sanction turn
them into Fred and Doris Normal? And what will be the role of
social work agencies in the aftermath? 
The Department for Work and Pensions  published a consultation
paper on 20 May seeking views on the introduction of a housing
benefit sanction to deter and address anti-social behaviour. You
have until 8 August to make your views known.
Under these proposals, housing benefit law would be amended to make
housing benefit conditional upon the behaviour of the claimant,
members of his or her household and regular visitors.
Anti-social behaviour, of course, ranges from the unpleasant to the
– Incessant loud music.
– Rubbish (“and worse”) thrown in gardens or through
– Continual shouting and screaming.
– Threats or actual violence.
– Deliberate damage and graffiti.
– Intimidation, drunkenness or rowdy behaviour.
Two options for controlling that behaviour are set out in the
consultation paper. Both are presented as deterrents as well as
penalties and are designed to complement other actions that a
landlord could take.
First, if a court convicts a person of an offence involving
anti-social behaviour, it would also make a declaration of
anti-social behaviour to the local social security office. In turn,
it would tell the relevant local authority to apply a sanction to
the family’s housing benefit. This would be in addition to
any court action such as a fine. 
The second option, which seems to be the preference of central
government, is that the sanction could be applied simply at the
discretion of the local authority, without the need for a civil or
criminal court decision. It would only be applied after a
“warning”, and advice and counselling had been offered.
And appeals would be allowed against the local authority’s
decision to reduce housing benefit.
This option certainly runs the risk of inconsistency in
application, not only between but also within local authorities. We
only need to look at the different ways in which school exclusion
orders are imposed to see the potential for direct
Both of these options seem to assume that withdrawing housing
benefit is an appropriate tool to address anti-social behaviour.
They also assume that most “problem families” are on
housing benefit. The consultation paper is also very quiet on the
matter of where a claimant should live if the reduction of housing
benefit leads to homelessness and the need for rehousing. 
This is not to deny the need to address anti-social behaviour,
which often teeters on the brink of racist, homophobic or sexist
harassment. But will reductions in housing benefit do anything
useful in combating that behaviour, compared with other existing or
potential measures?
DWP consultation paper is available at
Gary Vaux is head of money advice, Hertfordshire

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