HC Deb 18 February 1982 vol 18 cc493-500

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. David Hunt.]

10.14 pm
Mr. David Stoddart (Swindon)

I am pleased to be able to draw to the attention of the House a serious problem that has been brought to my notice of late. It concerns single people and childless married couples offered permanent accommodation in unfurnished units. Such people are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain single payments from the DHSS to enable them to move into such accommodation. Many are refused payment altogether because DHSS local offices claim that suitable alternative furnished accommodation is available in the area.

The DHSS is able to make that claim because of the rider to regulation 10(I)(a)(iii) and (iv) which states that, in addition to other requirements, people will be eligible for a payment for furniture only if there is no suitable alternative furnished accommodation available in the area". I seek to have that rider deleted. No other course will satisfactorily meet the problem. No minor amendment, such as a provision that payments should be available for those moving from a voluntary organisation running a resettlement programme, will suffice as this would exclude the vast majority who are not supported in that way.

The problem came to my notice when I received a letter in December 1981 about a single man who had been allocated a council flat on medical grounds because of the condition of the private furnished accommodation in which he was living. He was in receipt of sickness benefit and supplementary allowance but needed assistance with basic household items by way of a single payment. He applied to the DHSS for such a payment but was refused on the grounds that there was suitable furnished accommodation available in the area.

In this case, a satisfactory result eventually ensued, but it alerted me to the fact that the regulations were operating in a restrictive, unfair and highly discriminatory manner, causing hardship and possible loss of permanent accommodation to single people and childless couples. Furthermore, it was undermining good housing practice by local authorities wishing to help to re-house all people, irrespective of marital status or size of family. Indeed, it was working against Department of the Environment policy.

Coincidentally with that case, I received an indication from the Thamesdown law centre to the effect that similar problems were being brought to its notice. It outlined its concern at a meeting that I had with it and the Salvation Army resettlement officer who was concerned not only that his work in resettling people in permanent accommodation was being hampered by the offending regulations but that the Salvation Army hostel at Davis House, Swindon, was apparently being used as evidence of suitable alternative furnished accommodation available in the area.

After that meeting, I wrote to the Secretary of State expressing my concern about the matter and urging him to bring forward an appropriate amendment to the regulations. I have not yet had a reply. That is not intended as a criticism. I take the delay as an indication that he is treating the matter seriously and sympathetically.

However, since writing to the Secretary of State it has become obvious that a solution to the problem is urgently needed and that action in the House is called for—hence the debate tonight. If there was any doubt before this debate that there was a nationwide problem, it has certainly been dispelled. Immediately it became known that there was to be a debate, I received correspondence from various parts of the country citing examples of refusals to single people and drawing attention to delays by DHSS offices in making; visits and deciding claims. Officers of the campaign for single homeless people—CHAR—nationally and locally have been in touch with me, and letters from them and other organisations have come in over the past few days. There have been examples from Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, London, Nottinghamshire and Wales—indeed, from throughout the country. They all related the same experience of refusal, hardship and delay. The law centre in Swindon carried out a survey and the replies confirmed that the problem is widespread, although there are often different nuances in approach between one DHSS office and another.

There are far too many cases to quote, but I must quote one or two to ensure that they are on the record. The first two come from the Toynbee Hall citizens' advice bureau. The first concerns a telephone call which the advice bureau received on behalf of a man who had been refused a single payment for furniture because he already had adequate accommodation. He had been living in a hostel for the past two or three years and had at last received an offer of unfurnished accommodation from his local authority. He was advised to appeal and I hope sincerely that he did.

The other case that was reported by the Toynbee Hall citizens' advice bureau concerned a woman who w, as refused a single payment for furniture. She had been staying with friends since her marriage had broken up but had been offered unfurnished accommodation by the local authority. Her local DHSS office had told her that she could claim rent for her new accommodation. The bureau was told on the telephone by the legal department of the health and social security office that she did not qualify for a single payment because she had not been in receipt of supplementary benefit for six months and because she had no need to move as she was currently adequately housed. I do not know what sort of office that is, but it seemed to be a cruel and wrong decision.

I received some case studies from the Leicester CHAR. The first case concerned a man who was rehoused from the waiting list after having lived in bed and breakfast accommodation for a long time. He applied in writing for a furniture grant and received a reply from the DHSS to the effect that it would not give a furniture grant because he could have moved into other bed and breakfast accommodation. He was not even visited.

The second case from the Leciester CHAR concerned a couple who were childless and who had been on the waiting list for three years. When they were rehoused the woman was three months pregnant. They applied for a furniture grant. A DHSS representative visited them shortly after the women had miscarried. The Department would not make a decision locally and referred the case to the regional office for a legalistic appraisal based on the fact that the women had had a miscarriage and that the couple were now childless.

The last case that I wish to cite comes from the Rochdale Petrus Community, the Cyrenians. It states: many claimants cannot get furniture for new tenancies because of the regulations and have to sleep on the floor and eat out for many weeks until they can beg or borrow furniture from somewhere. The local DHSS office seem to think a person should even move out of the town, since reference is sometimes made to the availability of furnished accommodation some distance away. It is clear that the phrase relating to the availability of suitable alternative accommodation is causing injustice and is discriminatory between one citizen and another. When I was a local councillor concerned with housing, I considered it a duty to provide decent unfurnished accommodation for all, and that is the view of most if not all local authorities throughout the country. However, their good housing practices are being frustrated most arbitrarily by the DHSS acting on the regulations. The benefits officer at the DHSS takes the decision as to whether there is suitable alternative accommodation available in the area but on what criteria are these decisions taken? Benefit officers have no special qualifications for taking the decision and it seems to rest on a matter of opinion rather than on a matter of fact.

As far as I know, housing departments are not consulted, yet they are the best people to know the housing situation in that area. Furthermore, because decisions are based on opinion they are bound to differ widely between one area and another. In theory at least they can differ in a single office between one benefit officer and another.

The regulations do not only frustrate the housing efforts of local authorities; they also make difficulties for the voluntary organisations, which have encouraged single people to seek permanent unfurnished accommodation from the local authority. Having achieved some success in this policy, they now find that their efforts are being undermined by the DHSS and they have to spend time and money on endless telephone calls, interviews and appeals.

There is another serious and quaint aspect of the situation, in that one Government Department, the DHSS, is, by its policies, contradicting the policies of another. I refer to the Department of the Environment and the statement made by the Housing Minister in 1980 following his visits to some of the worst hostels in the country. In announcing his hostels initiative, he said: There is significantly greater scope for helping some of those now living in impersonal, over-large and unsatisfactory hostel accommodation to establish themselves in self-contained accommodation. This initiative is entirely welcome but is completely undermined if people are unable to move from such institutions because the DHSS refuses assistance to buy furniture and other essential items. Perhaps the Minister should get together with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and synchronise Government policy on the matter.

Perhaps even more farcical is the policy within the DHSS itself. As the Minister well knows, the infamous Camberwell resettlement unit is to close in 1985. At the end of last year it was announced that no new resettlement units would be built. Instead, housing associations would be allocated funds to provide a variety of non-institutional accommodation. However, if the policy is to succeed, men moving from the resettlement unit will need help to buy furniture. Because the regulations were seen as a bar to that policy, they were changed and made more generous for people moving from resettlement units. It is unacceptable that the DHSS should treat people moving from their own institution more favourably than others in the community.

I come back to the question of discrimination between one citizen and another. Is the DHSS of the opinion that single people or married couples should not, if unemployed and on supplementary benefit, be entitled to some help for moving into permanent homes or accommodation? Can it be the policy of the Government that these citizens must be condemned to live in unsatisfactory, often deplorable accommodation simply because they are poor and unemployed at a time when there are 3 million other people unemployed? I do not believe that any Government could hold that view. Yet that is what the regulations mean, that is what they say and that is what the debate is all about.

If a person has been on supplementary benefit for six months, he has no capital resources to draw upon to provide even the merest household effects. In equity and decency, we should give help to those people to establish themselves when the opportunity arises in good surroundings with their own front door, their own pieces of furniture, free from the fear of eviction and even persecution.

I believed that it was the Government's policy to help people on to their own feet and then to enable them to stand on their own feet. Far from helping them on to their feet, the regulations restrain people from getting to their feet at all and keep them in permanent housing poverty.

The Minister might argue that the single payments are too expensive, but that cannot be so. The lump sum payments are not substantial, anyway. As unfurnished accommodation is cheaper than furnished accommodation, the initial outlay on a single payment will be recouped over some time. Due to inadequate payments, an internal DHSS memorandum, which no doubt the Minister has seen, recently drew attention to the fact that many cookers bought by claimants were in a dangerous condition and presented a real danger to the household. I seek an assurance from the Minister tonight that that deficiency has been rectified in all areas.

The Minister might also argue that single people are often itinerant and that single payments would be wasteful. I sincerely hope that he will not use such an argument, because it is specious and unworthy of him. All too often, the only reason why single people move more often than others is that they are hounded from one unsatisfactory furnished place to another. Given the chance to settle down in permanent accommodation, they would be no more itinerant than anyone else. I have also heard it said that supplementary benefits cannot be seen to be unreasonably generous to people who are unemployed as opposed to those who have low-paid jobs. I reject that argument out of hand, because the supplementary benefits scheme is not generous and the real solution to that problem would be to give assistance, if needed, to those on low incomes to buy furniture rather than to leave those on supplementary benefits in empty flats or force them into a refusal of permanent accommodation.

There is much more to be said on the issue, but because of the shortage of time I must bring my remarks to a close. However, there is one further serious and valid point against the regulations—the person who is represented fares rather better than the person who is not. Thus the person who does not know where to go for help or who prefers to stand on his own two feet comes off much worse. That should not be so. It introduces a further discriminatory element into the whole sorry business.

I am sure that the Minister cares about the issue and I am confident that he will wish to do something radical about it. I do not know what is in his brief, but if it does not contain a commitment to remove forthwith from the regulations the phrase relating to suitable alternative furnished accommodation being available in the area, I advise him to cast the brief aside and say that he is convinced of the justice of the case and will personally see that the matter is rectified. Nothing less than the removal of the offending phrase will do.

10.33 pm
The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Rossi)

The hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Stoddart) has raised an issue that has attracted some attention in the current scheme of payments for furniture. There are two main issues—who should be helped by special grants for furniture, and how should the policy operate?

The current scheme, which is enshrined in the regulations brought into effect in November 1980, simply carries forward what had been the long-standing practice of the former Supplementary Benefits Commission. The commission accepted that the scale rates of supplementary benefit could not cover furniture and larger items of household equipment. Therefore, an exceptional needs payment would have to be made to help impoverished people in certain circumstances. However, those payments were in the main restricted to replacing one or two worn-out articles or for providing for a growing family. That was regarded as something quite different from kitting out accommodation—for example, where a claimant moved into unfurnished accommodation for the first time. Such a circumstance was seen by the Supplementary Benefits Commission as an extreme case. In my view, the commission was rightly concerned about the equity, indeed, the propriety, of providing large-scale assistance, particularly for single or childless couples who were more likely to be on benefit for short periods, when others on comparable incomes from employment could receive no help at all.

Moreover, those considerations existed against the background of the powers of local authorities to assist under section 94 of the Housing Act 1957. That Act gives powers to provide furniture, or loans for the purchase of furniture. Those powers are not confined in the same way as supplementary benefit to those in receipt of benefit. Furthermore, the provision of furniture or loans to purchase furniture would not arouse the same resentment as a scheme by the State to provide household furniture to furnish unfurnished accommodation for a selected few, whilst others would have to struggle on low incomes.

The Supplementary Benefits Commission set out its policy clearly as recently as 14 April 1979 in "SBC Notes and News". It still represents the policy in this matter today. After describing the problems of the kind the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the article states: The Commission accept that the scale rates of benefit cannot be expected to cover the cost of furniture and larger items of household equipment. Where claimants need these things an ENP should normally be given. In extreme cases it may be necessary to provide all or most of the essential furnishings when a claimant moves into unfurnished accommodation for the first time. More commonly the need is for one or more pieces of furniture or equipment to replace ones which have worn out, or to meet the needs of a growing family. But the Commission cannot accept that every claimant who wishes to furnish and equip his home should automatically receive an ENP—that is, an exceptional needs payment—for that purpose. They put forward their view, in discussion with some local authority representatives, that Councils should be prepared to use their powers under the Housing Act 1957 (or the Housing (Scotland) Act 1966) to provide essential furniture and equipment, or the finance to purchase it, if necessary as a loan to be repaid. The case for doing this is particularly strong where the needs arise from slum clearance or other action taken by the Councils themselves. Even if the Commission stepped in and offered ENPs freely to every claimant needing furniture, that would not help the tat ge number of people with similar needs who are not living on supplementary benefit—some of them -with incomes only slightly above supplementary benefit levels, and some entitled to claim benefit but failing for various reasons to do so. Many of these needs can be effectively met only by the housing authorities. T he local authority representatives however saw little prospect of Councils extending their present practice in the direction suggested by the Commission. Nonetheless, the Commission hope that, by seting out their policies, they may pesuade these authorities to re-examine their position. The Commision are prepared to make ENPs or essential furniture and household equipment to a claimant taking up the tenancy or ownership of unfurnished accommodation if the claimant or one of his or her dependants is There follows a list of people to whom help will be given, including a pensioner, a child under 16, a pregnant woman, someone moving house because of marital breakdown, a chronically sick or disabled person, someone moving out of prison. There are specific categories of people who, by their nature, need special help. The Supplementary Benefits Commission's policy has been extant for some time and has been largely reproduced in the regulations to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

The regulations—principally regulations 9 and 10—provide for those moving into unfurnished property and mention certain overriding categories, where the need for furniture and household equipment is met without further conditions. I refer, for example, to the elderly, to families with young children and to the sick and disabled. There are other categories where an extra condition is applied. That condition is that there should be no suitable alternative accommodation in the area for those who are unemployed or who are on supplementary benefit for more than six months and those coming out of prison or out of homes and centres where they have received special care.

One of the principles behind setting out those two categories was expense. Of course the Government cannot afford to kit out everybody with furniture at taxpayers' expense. The other principle is that those on low incomes must be considered. It would be unfair to those who are struggling to put a home together and who may be borrowing from families and relatives and buying second hand furniture if others were to be kitted out by the State at the taxpayers' expense.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned cookers. The instructions to staff say that second hand cookers bought for claimants should be reconditioned to acceptable fuel board standards. Single payments are, available to repair deficient or unsafe cookers. That policy is based on what the Supplementary Benefits Commission has done for years and is enshrined—with a few minor changes—in regulations. How are the regulations operated? The hon.

Gentleman made several references to DHSS officials. I should make it clear that the interpretation of all regulations, includng the application of conditions to individual cases, is a matter for independent adjudicating authorities and not for officials directly responsible to me. The independent adjudicating authorities are in the first instance, supplementary benefit officers. There are certain rights of appeal from their decisions on the interpretation of the regulations.

For example, the furniture grant qualification for some claimants—there being no suitable alternative furnished accommodation in the area—may be interpreted differently in different cases, depending on the individual circumstances of the case. The advice given from the office of the chief supplementary benefit officer—over whom I have no control—is that the supplementary benefit officer must be satisfied that alternative accommodation is both available to, and suitable for the claimant with whom he is dealing.

The supplementary benefit officer must use his personal knowledge of the local area involved and information from advertisements in the local press. He will know from his local knowledge the type of accommodation available and the claimant and, therefore, whether one is suited to the other. That is why there will be different decisions in different circumstances in different areas. Decisions are based on personal knowledge of an area and of the claimant. Obviously, supplementary benefit officers do not go round knocking on doors to check that specific accommodation is available. That would be impractical. Their refusal to make a single payment for furniture is based on the evidence provided by newspapers about the general availability of suitable furnished accommodation——

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour. Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned as sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.