NIGHTMARE neighbours face losing their housing benefits or having them cut under proposals announced by the government to target persistent anti-social behaviour.

However housing associations are unconvinced that the threat will have any positive effects and are sceptical that it will convince some people to change their behaviour.

A massive consultation is under way after the government unveiled its plans to use housing benefit sanctions as a tool to tackle the growing number of problems in what is described as a Òswift and fair deterrent to tenants who make their neighbourÕs life a miseryÓ.

The news comes in the wake of an increase in cases of anti-social behaviour in East Hampshire.

Local councils, housing associations and other bodies are being consulted on two options which will see a sanction, triggered by court convictions, for offences involving anti-social behaviour; or the local authority identifying and determining cases of bad behaviour and then applying the penalty

The local authority housing benefit service could then reduce the amount of housing benefit payable. In some cases it could even cut out benefits altogether.

Announcing the consultation, Andrew Smith, secretary of state for work and pensions, said: ÒThe government strongly believes in the principle that state welfare should combine rights with responsibilities.

ÒThe rights we gain from civil society - including the right to financial support when we need it - must be balanced by our duty to behave responsibly towards our fellow citizens.

ÒThe government sympathises with those who question whether it is right for the state to support the housing costs of people whose behaviour brings misery to the lives of individuals and communities.

ÒThe aim of a housing benefit sanction would be to provide a workable measure that could be applied swiftly and fairly in response to such behaviour.Ó

Housing benefit minister Malcolm Wicks added: ÒWe are aware that for any system of sanctions to be workable and effective it must draw on the experience of local authorities, landlords, and other agencies supporting local communitiesÕ efforts to address anti-social behaviour. We will also talk direct to victims of this vile behaviour.Ó

Home office minister Bob Ainsworth said that the proposals mirror the governmentÕs Òradical agendaÓ to tackle anti-social behaviour sends a clear message that behaviour which Òmakes life a misery for othersÓ will not be tolerated.

ÒNeighbours from hell can destroy the spirit of a community,Ó he said.

ÒCutting housing benefit could be an effective way of dealing with anti-social tenants and act as a deterrent to others. Everyone has a role to play in beating this scourge.

ÒPeople must realise their rights come with responsibilities and if they act in an anti-social way they can expect to face tough penalties.Ó

The paper states that any penalties must:

l be capable of being applied quickly and decisively,

l act as a deterrent,

l be fair and seen to be fair,

l be practical and usable, without excessive extra bureaucracy,

l reduce, not increase, social exclusion,

l be compatible with Human Rights.

News that a tougher stance could be taken on anti-social behaviour is expected to be welcomed by a large number of residents in East Hampshire who have been plagued by problems.

The most recent high-profile case involved a 26-year-old man from Petersfield who drove his neighbours mad by playing loud music and damaging residentsÕ property.

The rising tide of problems has also resulted in Drum Housing Association putting together its own anti-social behaviour strategy which is still out for consultation.

But a spokeswoman for Drum Housing Association told The Herald that its views echo that of its professional body, the National Housing Federation, which is unconvinced that the proposed new measures will cut down on anti-social behaviour.

She said: ÒHousing associations actively strive to reduce anti-social behaviour and protect tenants, whilst also assisting individuals to address their behaviour and reengage with society.

ÒExperience has shown that partnership approaches with other agencies, such as the police and local authority, schools and social services based upon prevention are the most constructive means to reduce anti-social behaviour.

ÒEmphasis must be placed on constructive measures that produce results, such as good behaviour contracts.

ÒThere is no evidence that punitive measures alone, such as the withdrawal of housing benefit, will change anyoneÕs behaviour or create lasting solutions to the problem.

ÒInstead this will only lead to higher arrears, more evictions and a subsequent displacement of the problem to other areas.Ó

The deadline for responses to the consultation document is August 12.