HC Deb 20 July 1983 vol 46 cc501-20 12.11 am
The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Chris Patten)

I beg to move, That the draft Housing Benefits (Northern Ireland) Order 1983, which was laid before this House on 7th July, be approved. The order would enable the housing benefits schemes in Northern Ireland to be broadly aligned with the corresponding Great Britain schemes from November 1983 to coincide with the annual uprating of social security benefits. The underlying reasons for the reform are the same as they were in Great Britain and can be briefly summarised as follows.

At present there are two separate systems for assisting people on low income with their rent and rates. The first is supplementary benefit and the second is the rebate and allowance schemes. That means that a householder must claim from one body—the Department of Health and Social Services — if he is entitled to supplementary benefit, but from a different body, either his local rates office or the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, if he is not receiving supplementary benefit. It has been recognised for some time that that dual system is unsatisfactory. It means that a claimant can be better off under one scheme rather than the other and it can be difficult even for experts to decide which scheme would be more advantageous in particular cases.

The present arrangements also mean that the DHSS is spending time recording, verifying and paying supplementary benefit for rent and rates claimants who in turn are required to hand the amounts involved over to the rates office or the housing executive. That is not a sensible or efficient way of administering public money, particularly when one compares it with the long-standing practice of rebating at source the rent and rates of people not on supplementary benefit.

Another problem is that a considerable number of people who receive supplementary benefit for their rent and rates fail to pay them. That in turn leads to costly administrative procedures for deducting and paying benefits direct to the landlord or rates office.

Lastly, as the House will recognise, one of the main causes of complexity in the supplementary benefit scheme lies in its provisions for assistance with housing costs. It is highly desirable to simplify that scheme by extending the scope of the existing rebate and allowance schemes to include supplementary benefit recipients.

The proposed reform tackles those issues and I draw the attention of hon. Members to some of its advantages. The main cause of the better-off problem will disappear because claimants will not longer have to choose between receiving either a rebate or a supplementary benefit rent addition. The reform will also result in greater efficiency in the use of limited administrative resources.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith, North)

I cannot let that statement slip through without comment. Surely the Minister is not claiming that the better-off problem will disappear. Or is he? It will not. However, that was one of the aims of the original idea.

Mr. Patten

People will no longer be faced with the problem of not knowing whether they would be better off under one scheme than the other. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to argue that proposition, I look forward to his doing so in his speech.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Michael Jopling)

Move along, Chris.

Mr. Patten

I shall move along as rapidly as the quondam Patronage Secretary will allow me.

The reform will also result in greater efficiency in the use of limited administrative resources, although I should not wish to argue that point too strongly. In future, householders will look to only one body for help with their rent and rates regardless of whether they are in work or unemployed. The reform should also result in more householders taking up their entitlement to housing benefits and supplementary benefit, an objective of successive Governments over the years.

Finally, there is expected to be a substantial reduction —well over £600,000 a year—in rent and rates default. Some concern has been voiced, particularly by the Northern Ireland Assembly, that rebating will leave people on supplementary benefit with less flexibility in budgeting. The other side to this, however, is that most of them will no longer run the risk of getting into debt. This is one area in which prevention seems to be much better than cure.

There are, therefore, sound reasons for this reform. In recommending its introduction in Northern Ireland, the Government have had regard to experience in Great Britain and I am glad to be able to suggest certain improvements. I shall come to those in a moment. The order which we are debating is an enabling provision and at this point it may be useful to summarise its main articles.

Article 3 provides regulation-making powers for rebate and allowance schemes. The regulations will be made by the DHSS, but the schemes themselves will be operated by the Department of the Environment and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. The proposed regulations were described in considerable detail in the explanatory document which accompanied the proposal and will be modified in the light of constructive representations received during the consultative period.

Article 4 provides for uprating, and Article 5 requires the bodies administering the schemes to publicise them fully. Articles 6 to 8 deal mainly with financial and regulatory matters as well as providing for the exchange of essential information between the bodies concerned.

I fully recognise that some aspects of the reform have led to expressions of genuine concern by Members of this House and others who, while accepting the need for change, would have preferred that no existing beneficiary should receive less than he does at present. This view came across very clearly in the detailed and cogently presented report of the Health and Social Services Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Indeed, I pay tribute to that Committte of the Assembly for thevery thorough way in which it examined the original proposals. As the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) knows, similar concern was voiced by the housing executive and other interested bodies.

It has not been possible for the Government to accept all of the recommendations put forward on the proposed reform. In particular, the principle of rebating rent and rates at source which caused so much debate in the Assembly is a tried and tested feature of the existing rebate and allowance schemes and is fundamental to the proposed reform. It should be more convenient for claimants and, as I have already said, will lead to a saving in public funds of more than £600,000 a year.

Nor can the Government accept the recommendation that there should be no losers under the reform. This would be too costly an option and would entail pumping additional resources into benefits for claimants many of whom have incomes considerably above supplementary benefit level or have non-dependants living with them who can reasonably be expected to contribute towards the householder's rent and rates.

Careful consideration has nevertheless been given to the problem of losers and I am glad to tell the House of two significant modifications which the Government intend to make to the Northern Ireland scheme. First, it is proposed to allow more generous protection against losses arising from changes in the taper percentages which, as hon. Members will know, are used to calculate housing benefit awards. Originally, it was intended to limit such losses to 60p per week for roughly four months and to £1.20 per week for the remainder of the first year of the reformed schemes. Instead, the Government now propose to protect beneficiaries against losses in excess of 50p per week from November 1983 to November 1984 and in excess of £1 per week from November 1984 to November 1985. Secondly, the housing benefit child's needs allowance will be increased by £1.50 from November 1983. That is £1 more than will apply under the Great Britain schemes from November 1983 to April 1984.

The net result of those changes is that some 32,000 beneficiaries will gain from the reform, the number of losers will be reduced to about 20,000 and the amount of individual losses will be substantially reduced in about 5,000 cases. I believe that we have shown a proper sense of priorities in the changes. Those who will gain will be pensioners at the lower end of the income scale and families with children. I am sure the House will acknowledge that it is right to concentrate the limited resources available on those groups of claimants.

The extra cost of the two improvements will be upwards of £500,000 over the next three financial years and this will he found from within existing Northern Ireland resources. About one half of this amount will fall in the current financial year. It was these improvements which, I imagine, led the NIHE to say that our scheme provided generous treatment for NI Householders in comparison with those in the rest of the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) may wish to bear that in mind.

I also note that in his own comments on our modified proposals the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), chairman of the DHSS Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly, while quite reasonably reiterating some of his Committee's original criticisms, argued nevertheless that the reformed scheme … will be fairer to claimants", that it will reduce the risk of claimants being lost in a mass of bureaucracy", that it will result in less financial hardship than the one originally proposed and that it will reduce the impact on hard pressed parents". I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman's fairminded observations. We have been able to accomplish those objectives not least because of the assistance and thoughtful criticism that we received from the hon. Gentleman and his Committee.

In response to further recommendations by the Assembly and others it is proposed to make additional improvements in the Northern Ireland scheme designed to provide greater equity between different categories of claimant and to ensure prompt payment of rebates and allowances. These detailed changes are explained fully in the Government's response to the Assembly report, copies of which are available to hon. Members.

In addition to those improvements, we should not lose sight of other beneficial changes which will flow from the reform. For example, boarders will become eligible for housing benefits for the first time and, in certain circumstances, including cases in which a wife is forced to leave home because of domestic violence, housing benefits will be payable for two homes and not just one as at present.

A major innovation to which I draw the attention of the House is the introduction of appellate machinery. In future, people claiming rebates and allowances who are dissatisfied with their awards will be able to have their cases considered by review boards. These will comprise a chairman and two members and they will operate independently of the bodies administering the schemes. This is different from the position in Great Britain where the local authorities operate the schemes and provide the appellate machinery. Because of the different administrative structures in Northern Ireland, the Government have decided that the review boards should be independent of the bodies operating the schemes. I am sure that the House will acknowledge that this is an important provision.

I also emphasise that the Government are fully aware of the need to publicise the proposed changes in the schemes so that claimants will know how they will be affected. As well as publicising the reform in the mass media, all existing beneficiaries will receive individual notifications before the reform is due to be implemented. Arrangements will also be made to explain the effects of the reform to voluntary bodies involved in giving advice to the public.

To sum up briefly, it has long been recognised that the existing schemes of assistance with housing costs are flawed and in need of reform. It was for those reasons that the House approved legislation in 1982 providing for reform of the corresponding schemes in Great Britain. The Government consider it essential that similar measures be implemented in Northern Ireland from November 1983, thus ensuring that the advantages to be derived from the reform are realised at the earliest possible date. I am grateful, however, to all those, particularly members of the Assembly and the housing executive, whose comments have resulted in worthwhile modifications to the original proposal, producing what I consider to be a much improved scheme.

The concept of unifying the present dual system has received general support, including the approval of the Social Security Advisory committee. The later start in Northern Ireland and the much smaller scale of the exercise there as compared with Great Britain should facilitate a smooth transition to the new system. The reform is a genuine attempt to tackle difficult problems, and will bring material benefits to those in greatest need. Its operation will be closely monitored, not least by myself in view of my dual responsibility for housing and for income support in Northern Ireland.

I strongly commend the order to the House.

12.26 am
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

The order is for Northern Ireland what it always was for the rest of the United Kingdom—a squalid and sordid attempt to cut back on public expenditure at the expense of some of the most low-paid groups of people, and the Minister knows it. Having listened to his speech, I am convinced that he will get some form of honorary qualification in creative literature. For phrases such as "significant improvements" he should substitute "insignificant improvements". The order is unsatisfactory for many reasons.

I should like to congratulate the Northern Ireland assembly. I do not always do that so readily, but its report and recommendations are clear, fair and well stated. It is significant that the main recommendation was that the order should not be extended to Northern Ireland. I can understand why.

The Government's objective was that the order should make it easier to understand and, therefore, to obtain benefit. Secondly, it was supposed to be fair to the employed and the unemployed alike. Thirdly, it was supposed to minimise losses to individuals. Fourthly, it was supposed to make the system easier to operate and to reduce the work load on the public sector. Fifthly, there was to be no increase in expenditure on housing assistance. That is significant. Sixthly, it was supposed to be uniform throughout the United Kingdom. I dare say that Democratic Unionist and Official Unionist Members will be aware of the way in which it has been changed for Northern Ireland. Finally, it was supposed to ensure that extra local government costs were met by the Government.

In the United Kingdom, the order has been a disastrous failure. It has been bungled here, and I suspect that it will be bungled in Northern Ireland, too. I do not say that lightly. In my constituency, within about four weeks, 4,000 people still had not had their benefit. Hon. Members have had letters, especially from old age pensioners, saying that they have never been in rent arrears but are now because they no longer have the right to pay their rent as they used to pay it. The Minister and Conservative Members know that that is happening. A significant example is Birmingham.

The application form is supposed to be simplified. I have one here. It involves answering complex and detailed questions. The scheme has never been easy, yet it was supposed not to be complex. Moreover, there are too many losers. We do not have figures for Northern Ireland yet, but on the mainland we know that one in eight households in Britain is losing. Yet the Minister glossed over that fact in his creative literature. The speed with which it was implemented caused acute problems for local authorities and claimants, which is why so many people are in difficulties now. The same thing will happen in Northern Ireland unless the Minister slows down the implementation, or makes available more resources quickly. I do not expect him to do the latter. Some slight modifications have been beneficial, but they are not significant.

After the assembly failed to obtain rejection of the proposals, it got some anodyne concessions. That is no insult to the Members of the Northern Ireland assembly, who worked very hard. They examined much evidence and questioned people with knowledge and experience of the working of the scheme in Great Britain. However, the Government rejected a relatively cheap no loser scheme that would have cost about £1.9 million, or about 3 per cent. of the total housing benefit costs in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Chris Patten

indicated dissent.

Mr. Soley

The Minister denies that. Perhaps he can give us alternative figures. The Government put forward a complex and traditional protection scheme. Although the Minister talked about improvements, what we are discussing is a little cushioning over a period so that people can get used to the idea that the amounts available to them have been reduced.

The "better off" problem has not been solved, yet the Government made it clear that their main aim was to get rid of it. Both the present Minister and his predecessor made it clear that they were genuinely worried about the problem, but they have done little to resolve it. Claimants will still have difficulty in determining which scheme is best for them. The Government conceded the point, but rejected the assembly's sensible recommendations. First, the assembly said that the housing executive has a duty to make an assessment for housing benefit supplement. The Minister rejected that. Secondly, the assembly recommended that benefits should be payable from the date of the claimant's initial application to either agency, but that, too, was rejected. Thirdly, it said that power should be given to backdate entitlement to the date of the original application, but again that was rejected.

I do not call those significant improvements. At best, it is a shabby deal to try to keep down overall costs. I have acknowledged at the Dispatch Box on several occasions that in Northern Ireland we have a gallant band of slightly liberal Tories trying to do a bit better for the people there, and that the Secretary of State is gathering round him a few of his protected species of left-wing Tories before the Prime Minister rounds them all up. However, despite that, the improvements are marginal. The Government have not kept to the aims that they so explicitly stated. It is no accident that the guidelines were not reproduced in Northern Ireland. When the Government saw that the scheme introduced here did not deliver the goods in the way that they had claimed, they did not produce similar guidelines for Northern Ireland, because it was too embarrassing.

The assembly asked the Government to ensure that the proposed scheme was thoroughly publicised, and to consider the advantages of a well-publicised leaflet drop. In reply, the Government stated: The Government welcomes the Assembly's interest in this important aspect of the proposed reform and accepts its recommendation that the new schemes should be thoroughly publicised. When one translates that into the Minister's creative literature, it means, "Is this not a dangerously good idea, and might it not cost us some money unless we lose it quickly?"

So we come to the final phrase in the Government's response to the assembly report: In formulating these plans consideration will be given to the Assembly's recommendation for a selective leaflet drop. I predict that the Government may consider it but that they will not do it. They will not do it because they know that they will create a precedent for the rest of the United Kingdom and that the costs will go up as more people claim. That is what it is all about. I challenge the Minister to prove that I am wrong. I shall be happy to withdraw what I said if he produces a well-targeted leaflet drop scheme for Northern Ireland.

The increased housing benefit needs allowance for children in Northern Ireland is now to be £1.50 per child from November 1983. The Minister says that it is another significant improvement. What does he mean by "significant improvement"? In Britain, the scheme produces 50p from November, and goes up to £1.50 from April of next year. The Minister is bringing it up to £1.50 from November. People will not get the money in their hands. If people think from the way that the Minister put his case that everyone who has a child or two children or more will get £1.50 per child, they are wrong. They will get only a small percentage of it, depending on where they are on the claimants' scale. Indeed, some people will probably get only a few pounds more, and the Minister knows that. To describe that as significantly better is an insult not only to the intelligence of this House, but to the Members of the Northern Ireland assembly and the people of Northern Ireland.

The Government have introduced a scheme which takes away people's right to manage their own finances, although only a few months ago the Prime Minister talked about the importance of increasing the responsibility of the family and going back to Victorian vanes when everyone managed their own affairs. What do we have now? People cannot pay their own rent because the Minister has introduced a scheme which takes away that choice. The scheme is grossly unfair to many people.

Worse still, the scheme is designed to save money at the expense of the poorer sections of the community. That matters a great deal in Northern Ireland, because people there face increased rates, fuel and other living costs, compared with people in the rest of the United Kingdom. All the evidence shows that in the long run it will not only cut back people's benefits and rights, but increase public expenditure. It is essentially a bureaucratic scheme which has not worked in Britain. As a result, people who have never done so before will get into rent arrears. The Minister has achieved the small advantage of one or two improvements, which I welcome and which we shall ask the House to extend, because such benefits should be availabe here, too. It is nevertheless a sordid and squalid scheme which will not save public money and will hit some of the most vulnerable people in the United Kingdom.

12.38 am
Rev. William McCrea (Mid-Ulster)

I am glad to take part in this important debate. This is my first Northern Ireland debate, and at 12.38 it is sad that so many hon. Members are absent from the Chamber.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

It is a very good attendance.

Rev. William McCrea

If this is a good attendance I would not like to be here on the bad occasions, because it is deplorable that the Benches are so empty, particularly after last night. We are now debating a subject affecting benefits for those at the bottom rung of the ladder in this kingdom. Yet last night the House was alive until 4 o'clock in the morning when Members were discussing their salaries. So great was the activity here last night that one could have been forgiven for thinking that some great national crisis deserved everyone's great attention.

Whenever the draft Housing Benefits (Northern Ireland) Order was discussed, as the Minister rightly said, there was a great divergence of opinion, not only in the Committee but also in the Assembly. Indeed, the views that were expressed by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) were not the genuine feelings of the majority of the Committee. They were rather an expression of his own views and those of some of his colleagues. However, there was general agreement that the Government had missed a valuable opportunity to introduce a much-needed reform, having learned from the experience of necessary improvements required in the light of similar legislation already operating in Britain for the best part of a year.

The Government's policy of a nil additional net cost basis for the order will result in a scheme in Northern Ireland, and I am sure in the rest of the United Kingdom, which will cause great hardship and difficulty. It was the genuine belief of many Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly that the new scheme and that which is presented to the House tonight will operate with many disadvantages to the recipients.

The Northern Ireland Assembly recommended that the Government do not introduce its proposed reformed housing benefit scheme in Northern Ireland". That was the recommendation of the Northern Ireland Assembly, not that which has been suggested by the Minister.

It must be clearly stated that although the Assembly made its request to the Government to leave the path that they were treading, the Committee realised, as did the Assembly, that the then Minister and the present Minister would carry on along their jolly old road and go ahead with the proposals whether the people of Northern Ireland wanted them or not. Bearing that in mind, the Committee and the Assembly realised that they had better make recommendations and they hoped that some of the suggestions that were tabled would overcome the blunders of the Minister's recommendations.

The Government are of the opinion that the proposed scheme is simpler. With the greatest respect to the Minister, I do not know where he has got that idea from. Many of those that have discussed it in the light of the legislation here have not found it to be simpler and I do not think that it is right that the Minister should make bland statements about the scheme being simpler. Most of the schemes that I have known have baffled even solicitors. It would take solicitors to answer some of the forms that claimants are supposed to answer.

It was said that the order would make matters simpler in that it would take away the choice that has to be made; it would no longer be between the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the Department of Health and Social Services. I have a sneaky suspicion that there is more in the Minister's mind than just a desire to make it simpler. There is, perhaps, another undercurrent. I shall come to that in a moment.

It is said that some benefits can be lost by making the wrong choice. That is true—I would be the first to accept that some benefits can be lost if the wrong choice is made—but I do not feel that the right answer is to adopt the proposed scheme; the choice should still be left in the hands of the claimants.

It was suggested to the Northern Ireland Assembly that the scheme would save about £100,000 on administration, which would be ploughed back into the whole scheme and improve it. It was to be achieved by saving eight jobs. We should be cautious about such promises. Having learned from some of the sad experiences in the past, I know that many intended job losses can turn out to be job gains. Indeed, instead of only £100,000 being saved on administration, the Minister could find that the administrative costs were greater.

Mr. Chris Patten

At what point in my speech did I refer to the administrative costs?

Rev. William McCrea

The Minister must realise that in taking office he is only following the legislation brought forward by the previous Minister. I am referring to the evidence that the previous Minister in a Conservative Government gave to the Northern Ireland Assembly. I do not think that he was misleading the Assembly. Therefore, if the Minister now wants to sidestep that evidence, and realise that it is best to forget about the £100,000 saving, that is up to the Minister. I would have to refer him to the evidence of the Minister to the people in Northern Ireland —evidence which was presented to the Assembly. The Minister may want to contradict that evidence and to say that it was completely wrong and misled the Assembly. I shall await the Minister's reply. If the Minister wishes to refer to the Official Report of the proceedings of the Assembly Committee, I am sure that will be available to him.

A scheme with nil net cost is one involving no extra money. There will be a resultant redistribution of benefit. That sounds pretty good, but that redistribution of benefit is from the rather poor to the very poor. That will be so if the public expenditure on housing benefit is not increased.

There is a transfer of money from those already deemed, even by this Government, to be poor to those who are deemed to be even poorer. Surely that is not a redistribution of wealth; it is a redistribution of poverty. To me and to my colleagues that kind of policy is obnoxious.

The Department tells us about the gainers from the scheme, but it does not point out properly in its statement that those who are giving—

Mr. Harold McCusker (Upper Bann)


Rev. William McCrea

The gainers in the scheme do not point out, as they should, that they are gaining at the expense of people who, according to the Government's own criteria, are in need of help. Surely the Government should heed genuine argument and introduce a "no losers" scheme in Northern Ireland, preferably in the context of a "no losers" scheme in the whole of the United Kingdom.

I was interested in the challenge from the Minister to the hon. Member for Hemmersmith (Mr. Soley). He mentioned £1.9 million. If my memory serves me right, that sum was mentioned by the Minister's predecessor in the Assembly Committee and appeared in the Hansard report of the proceedings.

Mr. Chris Patten

I was objecting to the hon. Gentleman's reference to the percentage of the total cost of the scheme that £1.9 million represented.

Rev. William McCrea

I thank the Minister for that clarification.

Mr. Soley

We have been told in the documentation that £1.9 million represents about 3 per cent. of the total annual cost of housing benefits in Northern Ireland.

Rev. William McCrea

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that information. I shall be interested to hear the Minister's response.

Some people have been told that they will benefit from the scheme. They may find that they are slightly better off, but they may also find that they are disqualified for benefits which turn on the receipt of supplementary benefit. The Minister knows that supplementary benefit is a passport to many other benefits and that the majority of Assembly Members felt that the scheme was designed in part to stop the passport benefit and to restrict, for example, the take-up of the exceptional needs grant. Many will find themselves caught in a poverty trap instead of being better off. They could find themselves worse off in real terms.

Another problem to be faced is the increased number of trained staff of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. I am an ex-member of the executive and I make no apology for saying that I believe that it is too large. It is too insensitive to the needs of those in public housing and it has little accountability. The sooner that it returns to the proper public life of Northern Ireland, the better it will be for the people. It is now suggested that the giant should be allowed to grow larger with a view to ensuring that it will not be dismantled. I welcome the publicity for the scheme, but I ask the Minister to be more specific about the appropriate steps to be taken for the purpose of securing that the provisions of the schemes come to the notice of any persons who may be entitled to a rebate or allowance under the schemes". My colleagues in the Northern Ireland Assembly suggested that a small but well-targeted leaflet drop should take place in addition to television publicity. I shall listen with interest to the Minister's response. That issue was taken up by the hon. Member for Belfast, South and the Assembly Committee was in full agreement.

It is worth noting that, contrary to public opinion and to the view expressed a short while ago by a member of the Northern Ireland Office, the people of Northern Ireland are not over-eager to claim benefits. The member of the Northern Ireland Office said, "You never saw people like them for putting their hands out to get benefits," but the Assembly was told that there was a problem because the people were not taking their benefits. It ill becomes any Minister to cross the sea to Ulster to tell us that he has never met people like the people of Northern Ireland to reach out their hands for benefits. Indeed, someone who is no longer in this place said that they were spongers. I can assure the Minister and the House that, although some in Northern Ireland take more than their rightful benefits, they have no allegiance to the British paymaster or even to the British way of life.

I object to the proposed changes for those in receipt of state benefit. I know of people all over the United Kingdom who have never been unemployed before. They always knew what it was to have a job. But because of circumstances not of their making they now receive state benefit. They have always paid their way. They are responsible and respectable citizens but under this order they are being regarded as completely irresponsible and unable to look after their own budgeting.

I reject what the Minister said earlier. We are referring to those who use for other things the money that was given to them for housing. I condemn unreservedly anyone who does that, but the vast majority used their benefit for housing and were never in debt to the housing executive. Now that has been taken away from them and they alone are being treated as second-class citizens.

At the moment, such recipients of benefit receive the money for their rent allowance in pounds and pence. I object to the fact that the new system stigmatises all supplementary benefit recipients as untrustworthy in the Department's eyes. I do not believe that this group should be singled out for differential treatment. Is this the thin edge of the wedge? Will the pensioner have the rent taken from his pension before he gets his benefit? Will not the pensioner be allowed to pay his housing costs and have the dignity of so doing? Are we on the edge of a bigger precipice? Many people on supplementary benefit are dignified, honourable citizens of the United Kingdom. If the problem is the debt of £600,000, there is already legislation to take it. That debt is caused not by lack of legislation but by lack of will. I do not believe that, because some people in Northern Ireland are irresponsible, everyone in receipt of state benefit should be branded in this fashion.

There are some concessions and I appreciate the concessions that the Minister has mentioned, but I must agree with the hon. Member for Hammersmith that those concessions are minimal. Therefore, my colleague and I will vote against the order.

12.58 am
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I was happy to hear the comments of the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea), who signified disagreement with me, arising out of the Minister's comments and those of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley). Until that moment I was a shade worried, because I remembered a verse in scripture: Woe to you when all men speak well of you. I was happy to realise that some Members did not see eye to eye with me.

Rev. William McCrea

The majority of the Assembly did not.

Rev. Martin Smyth

A majority of one vote.

Rev. William McCrea

Two votes.

Rev. Martin Smyth

That is a large majority when one considers the absentees.

Rev. William McCrea

That is correct.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I should like to put the record straight, because the Division in the Assembly was to give Members an opportunity to express their minds. That is why several hon. Members who normally sit with the Conservatives will vote against the Government tonight. Of course, that is the principle of democracy and it is why the Assembly is in being—to try to assess the minds of the people — and I suggest that we have done a remarkably good job there, given the limitations imposed upon us.

In that Division we were striking at two aspects. One was whether, as part of the United Kingdom, we wanted a different style of benefit. The second, and more important, was whether we wanted to continue to allow debts to mount up because people given housing benefit to pay their rents were using that money for other purposes, saying that they did not have enough money on which to live.

Three recommendations of the Assembly Committee were rejected by the Government. The first was that we should not introduce the reformed housing benefit scheme. The majority in the Assembly believed, in the light of the information available, that it was not working in Great Britain and that we were not ready to introduce it in Northern Ireland. In the Assembly, on receiving the Secretary of State's answer, I regretted the Government's decision to turn it down.

The Government turned down the second recommendation, which was that there should be no losers. Reference has been made to the begging bowl mentality. Earlier tonight the House was dealing with equal rights, especially in the context of sex discrimination. I wish to make it plain that the Assembly was not asking for more than we would expect all people in Britain to have. Our recommendation was that the no losers scheme should be introduced in the context of a similar scheme for Great Britain as a whole, but the Government turned that down, apparently because of the cost.

When we in Northern Ireland speak of the better off, we tend to think of those who live in the west end rather than the east end, or the well-to-do, whereas the discussion document uses the term referring simply to poor people who happen, in the Government's opinion, to have a little more than some other poor people. The very use of the term "better-off" is, in our view, a misnomer, and therefore we should have prefered to see the no loser scheme introduced.

The third main recommendation rejected by the Government—I was surprised that the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) did not mention it—referred to squatters. Although the Assembly was strong on that recommendation, it was rejected, and it seems that there are many people in public life, and a fair percentage in this House, who are joining the law breakers' protection society and allowing people wilfully to break the law, to jump queues and then to get benefit for doing so. With our experience in the north of Ireland we do not believe that that is a responsible position, even if it is excused as the traditional practice of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, which has allowed use and occupation books and thereby allowed people to jump the queue and get houses before others with greater entitlement. There have been instances of people being allocated houses and discovering when they have tried to move in, that the squatters are already there. Instead of using their authority to take the squatters to court, evict them and repossess the house, the Government have allowed the squatters to keep the house. We hold that in any society it is wrong for the state to subsidise the law-breakers. We regret that the Government turned down that recommendation.

When the Assembly received the recommendation from the Secretary of State, we noted which points had been accepted. We appreciate that, in the light of experience in Great Britain, the Government were prepared to make some improvements in the order as it affected Northern Ireland. However, hon. Members representing other constituencies will be happy to know that the extra money involved will not be taken from the budgets for their areas. It will have to be found from within the general budget set aside for Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland will not be getting more money than the rest of Great Britain. The Government will simply divide Northern Ireland's cake in a different way.

I was interested in the arguments about savings. The more I examine the question, the more I am convinced that the concept of saving will be only wistful longing. Yesterday I talked to some people involved with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. I discovered that they are recruiting staff to deal with the problem. I mentioned that we were to debate the draft housing benefits order tonight. I was asked what I meant. I said that the order was to be debated and would come into operation on a date to be announced. I was told that staff were already being recruited to deal with it.

At one stage we understood that there would be a transfer of staff from the Department of Health and Social Services and that that would result in some savings. However, when we asked how great the saving would be, we were told that eight jobs would be involved. It will be interesting to see what has happened in a year's time. Some of us will not object to people being kept in work or taken off the dole queue. My point is that the scheme will not have the advantages that the Government or their advisers imagined would accrue from it.

In a previous debate, I think that it was the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) who described the language of the draft order in glowing terms. It amounted to a lawyer's paradise and was full of gobbledegook. I fear that those who draw up guidance leaflets for the general public are inclined to think that the average John citizen has been to Oxbridge or some other elite educational establishment. In that context, the Assembly was adamant that some effort should be made to provide simplified forms. I have not seen or heard about the form produced tonight by the hon. Member for Hammersmith, and I am not too sure whether the red link signified the area from which it came or the fact that there was a bank overdraft and the housing benefits were needed to help.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's argument that such forms terrify old people. They will have to depend on civil servants to help them, and that will take up more man or woman power. Those hours could be used for more positive work. Indeed, I press the Minister on how far his advisers have guided him to say nothing more about a leaflet drop. We urged that workers in the health and social services or in the housing executive should do a leaflet drop in those areas where they suspected there should be a higher take-up of housing benefits. The leaflet would be simplified, would set out what housing benefit was, and would encourage people to apply.

Television and newspaper advertisements regularly draw attention to such benefits, but that is not enough because, first, one must see the programme at the right time, and secondly, because I suspect that the average person does not spend his time reading through the public notices. Those are the people whom we need to reach, and that is why we must go the second mile and make people aware of what is available if we are to reach out and serve the community for whom the draft order is designed.

At some stage, reference was made to the appeal position. Without taking up too much time, I should like to consider that. Is this another quango? Is it providing jobs for those who may be due to retire from a trade union or from some other reputedly moderate body? Is it trying to find jobs for those who would not be elected by the people of Northern Ireland? I am not sure what the Government are after, and I should like a little more clarification.

I should like to press the Minister on the refusal to allow the date of application to be operative, whether the application is first made in the DHSS or in the housing executive. I rely on my experience over the years. The people of Ulster are not much different from the people in any other part of the United Kingdom, or of the world. When they apply to a Government office, they automatically assume that that is the Government. If people apply to a department that has some association with their claim, they cannot understand why it is not dated when it is received, instead of when it reaches the department responsible.

Will the Government think again about their decision not to accede to the Assembly's request? I rest the case at this point.

1.14 am
Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

I do not find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) in rejecting the principle of housing benefits as a separate form of assessment. On the contrary, one of the problems associated with the administration of supplementary benefit has always been that, by its nature, it is unsuited to deal with a need so different in kind from the other needs which are assessed in the administration of supplementary benefit. It is a need the cost of which not only varies irrationally without rhyme or reason from one place to another and from one part of the country to another, but the satisfaction of which is of a particularly rigid character.

The other needs, and the means of meeting them, can be adapted with great flexibility, but there is a characteristic inflexibility in the housing accommodation that a family or a person occupies. That characteristic of this special need calls for distinctive treatment. It has been a correct approach, on both sides of the water, to single out housing need for administration and management in different ways.

Something has been said about the principle of allowing persons who are in receipt of social benefits to have control over the money that is placed in their hands. In general, that is an important principle. I believe that we have to be chary of replacing monetary benefits by real benefits. We have to be chary of that in the context of the pensioner, because, nearly always, the result is that it is a real benefit that one person chooses and another does not, or it is a real benefit that is available for enjoyment by one person but not by another, with resultant inequity between persons whose conditions are essentially the same.

I do not believe, however, that that criticism applies to the housing benefit system in so far as it is separate from the administration of supplementary benefit. I cannot see that where there is a universal need, such as housing, the provision for that need, either with a rebate or the full cost, is a withdrawal of an effective choice from the person to be benefited. There is an essential difference between reducing the cost of a universal item of need and providing, free of charge or at a concessionary rate, something that some people need and others do not, or that some people choose and others do not.

I believe, therefore, that the principle underlying this scheme, and therefore this order, is right. Normally we are critical when we find that important aspects of legislation are left to be dealt with by regulations. But we are the beneficiaries in this case from the fact that so much of the detail of the scheme will be in the form of regulations. That means not only that it will be much easier for those administering the scheme to adjust it from time to time in the light of experience, but that tonight's debate can be more fruitful than the debates which we usually have upon Orders in Council. Normally when we debate an Order in Council, we know for certain that it will not be altered, whereas most of the points that have been made in the course of this debate from both sides o f the House can be met either at once or subsequently, if the Government decide to meet them, by a modification of the regulations.

Therefore, it is a practical observation to say to the Minister that one hopes that either immediately, or subsequently in the framing of the regulations, the points that have been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) and by the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) will be taken into account. The division, as it were, of the legislation between the order and the regulations has given the debate potential and the Government the freedom and flexibility that we do not generally enjoy.

I conclude by inviting the Minister, if he can, to supply two pieces of information for which one's curiosity is excited by the scheme. He referred to take-up and expressed the opinion, with which I agree, that the result of the housing benefits scheme will be that more people will be assisted in this way than under the alternative system, but it would be helpful if his Department had any estimate of the area that is yet to be covered. How far is the estimated 100 per cent. take-up of housing benefit already met under existing arrangements? How far does he think it will be met in the first 12 months of the operation of the scheme? It may be impossible to make an estimate, but at least in such a scheme there is an advantage in placing before oneself a target delineating the total possibilities and forming an initial estimate of the extent to which they can be realised.

On the basis of experience of constituency cases, I believe that many persons, who may be outside the supplementary benefit area, are entitled at present to housing benefits in their present form and will be entitled to them under the scheme. In my constituency there must be hundreds of families who simply are not securing the benefits to which they are already entitled and to which they will be entitled under the scheme. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will pay particular attention to the stress that has been placed both by the assembly and by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South upon the problem of enlightening the families and individuals who ought to benefit about the help with which they are now being provided.

My final inquiry relates to the observation made by the Minister in his explanatory letter of 6 July, that the improvements proposed in the tapering scheme compared with the original proposals will be funded from within existing Northern Ireland resources". Such a remark prompts an inevitable query. If the money is being added here, from where is it being subtracted? I hope that it is not unfair to inquire from where the resources are being transferred to pay for this temporary alleviation, welcome though it is. The Minister may not have answers to those questions readily available. If not, can an estimate be made and will he supply the answer in the usual way?

1.25 am
Mr. Chris Patten

I am grateful for the observations of hon. Members in this interesting, albeit short, debate. The opening speech by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) contained some language which was arguably more suitable for a speech to his general management committee. He spoke about the scheme being squalid and said that he did not welcome it. If it is so bad, I am surprised that he wishes to extend to Great Britain the improvement that the Government have made for Northern Ireland. He seemed to quote what suited him, as has been done before. He did not quote remarks by several members of the Health and Social Services Committee of the Assembly. While members of that Committee perfectly properly stated their criticisms of the original proposals, they were prepared to accept that we had made several improvements. I referred to what the Northern Ireland Housing Executive said about the scheme, but the hon. Member for Hammersmith did not. He spoke about complexity, as did the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) in his—I use an adjective of the Prime Minister's—robust contribution to our discussions. Any scheme providing income support for people in varying circumstances must inevitably be detailed if it is to pinpoint need and provide help in an equitable manner. A less detailed scheme would be inadequate.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith thought that the purpose of our reform was to save public money. That seemed a curious observation, and the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) alluded to it. I made it clear that the Government would spend extra money on the reform to pay for the improvements which we had discussed. The right hon. Gentleman asked me to specify where the money was coming from. I assure him that money will not be taken away from other schemes to which the Government attach great importance, such as improvement grants which we may be discussing later today, or certainly tomorrow. I hope that the funding will come from money which, from time to time, is underspent in even the best-managed Departments. A sum of £500,000 spread over three years should not be excessive.

Several hon. Members, quite properly, spoke about publicity and asked what steps the Government proposed to take to ensure that the schemes were thoroughly publicised. We accept that they must be thoroughly publicised. Our existing plans cater for those people already receiving assistance as well as for those who may be eligible but who have not yet made a claim. Individual notifications will be sent to all existing recipients of rebates and allowances and to all those receiving supplementary benefit, explaining how they will be affected by the reform. A Province-wide press campaign will take place in the weeks preceding 21 November and there will be a good deal of coverage on radio and television. In addition, officials will be available to explain the details of the reform scheme to the voluntary bodies which give advice to the public. Seminars will also be arranged for this purpose.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) mentioned the possibility of a leaflet drop and I am perfectly content to consider that. All existing claimants will, of course, receive information about how the reform will affect them, but I am happy to consider how best to get information to non-claimants, perhaps by issuing a leaflet with rent increase notices. I hope that by such means, complemented by an advertising campaign on radio and television, we shall be able to increase the take-up.

As the right hon. Member for Down, South said, take-up is estimated at about 80 per cent., so about 20 per cent. —the proportion may be larger; it is always difficult to know exactly—of those entitled to the benefits have not taken them up. I hope that the kind of publicity that we have suggested will help to deal with that. I am certainly happy to consider also the useful suggestion of a leaflet drop.

The main burden of the speech of the hon. Member for Hammersmith and a prominent theme in that of the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster was the "no loser" option. As the practice of humility is a Christian virtue, I must confess at once that the hon. Gentleman was right about the 3 per cent. I was thinking of the percentage available under the Great Britain enhancements. I believe that the £1.9 million is about 12 per cent. of that. Having had to spend a good deal of time recently thinking about the comparison between what we were doing in Northern Ireland and the Great Britain enhancements, I am afraid that 3 per cent. was the figure that came to mind.

On the "no loser" option, my task today would have been much easier if I had been able to announce that no existing beneficiary would receive less help under the reformed scheme than he now receives. Unfortunately, the economic facts of life are such that it is not possible to achieve that result, however desirable it may be. Bringing the two separate schemes together in a unified scheme makes it unavoidable that some people will gain and others lose if the books are to be balanced.

I emphasise, however, that the general effect of the reform will be to improve significantly the position of householders at the lowest end of the income scale, including pensioners and claimants with dependent children. The new scheme will therefore be fairer, concentrating help on those likely to be in greatest need of assistance with their housing costs.

The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster referred to passporting benefits. The vast majority—more than 97 per cent.—of supplementary claimants will continue to receive supplementary benefit. Their entitlement to single payments and passported benefits will therefore be unaffected. That includes people who will become entitled to a housing benefit supplement.

The remaining 3,000 or so claimants who transfer completely to housing benefit will gain from the reform but lose their automatic entitlement to passported benefits. Many of them, however, will continue to qualify for welfare food, free prescriptions and so forth on age or low income grounds. In addition, as a special transitional measure, claimants with eligible children will retain their right to free school meals and school clothing grants, and special steps will be taken to notify this group of claimants of the help that will continue to be available to them after the reform is implemented.

The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster talked a good deal about rebating of rent and rates at source. The principles involved in that were dealt with admirably, clearly and concisely by the right hon. Member for Down, South. I do not think that there is any evidence to suggest that beneficiaries under the existing rebate scheme dislike this method of payment. We are not, after all, talking about the establishment of a new principle. One advantage is that people who are entitled to full rebates do not suffer the inconveniences of having to make periodic payments to the housing executive and the rates offices. It is also a more efficient means of administering the schemes and it limits the scope for the abuse of public money. Any help that the House can give to prevent people getting into arrears should be strongly welcomed.

Rev. William McCrea

Will the Minister give the percentage of people who are getting benefit and are in arrears? Being in arrears has nothing to do with state benefits; some are in arrears although they are wage earners.

Mr. Patten

I could give such an answer if my manual dexterity were greater. I shall do my best to provide the hon. Gentleman with those figures in a letter, if I may. They might be immediately to hand but they cannot be grabbed immediately.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South raised the important matter of squatting which featured prominently in the Assembly's report and in his comments on our response to the Assembly. I share the view of those who condemn that deplorable practice which deprives families, who might have been on a waiting list for a long time, of a home. That is why I welcome the fact that the number of squatters has been reduced by roughly one half since the end of 1980.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Was not that reduction brought about by the introduction of the use and occupation book and, ultimately, by giving squatters a rent book? In other words, was not their success at squatting accepted by the housing executive?

Mr. Patten

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we intend to take further measures to deter squatting. That is one of our early objectives. I assure the House that there will be no slackening in our resolve to deal with squatting as effectively and quickly as is practical.

However, I do not believe that it would be right or productive to deny squatters assistance with their housing costs under the reformed housing benefit schemes. Under the existing system, they can claim a rate rebate or a supplementary benefit housing addition. There is no evidence to suggest that the availability of that help encourages squatting and I have no grounds for believing that withdrawal of that assistance would reduce the incidence of illegal occupation. For those reasons, it is right that squatters on low incomes in Northern Ireland should have access to housing benefits as do their counterparts in Great Britain. Nevertheless, I repeat that it is a deplorable practice that we must do everything to stamp out.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South mentioned the appellate machinery. Perhaps I should make clear what the appeal rights consist of. The claimant will be able to ask for a written statement of how the decision on his claim for housing benefit was reached. If he is dissatisfied it will be open to him to ask the Housing Executive or the Department of the Environment to review that decision. If he remains dissatisfied with that review by officials, he will be able to have his case considered by an independent review board. He will also have the right to attend in person, to be represented by another person or to make representations in writing to the review board. That is a considerable improvement on what happens in Great Britain and I hope that it commends itself to the House. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about his comments to the Assembly on appeal board membership. That need not worry him. I am sure that we shall find willing and informed people to take their places on those committees. The hon. Gentleman said that our proposals would make the scheme more humane than might otherwise have been the case. That is absolutely right, and I hope that the House will agree with the reform and go ahead with the improvements as planned.

Question put:

The House divided: Ayes 103, Noes 7.

Division No. 37] [1.40 am
Batiste, Spencer Gale, Roger
Bellingham, Henry Galley, Roy
Blackburn, John Goodlad, Alastair
Boscawen, Hon Robert Gregory, Conal
Bottomley, Peter Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Ground, Patrick
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)
Brinton, Tim Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Brooke, Hon Peter Hanley, Jeremy
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes) Hargreaves, Kenneth
Bruinvels, Peter Harvey, Robert
Burt, Alistair Hawkins, C. (High Peak)
Butterfill, John Hawkins, Sir Paul (SW N'folk)
Chope, Christopher Hawksley, Warren
Conway, Derek Hayward, Robert
Coombs, Simon Heathcoat-Amory, David
Cope, John Hickmet, Richard
Couchman, James Holt, Richard
Currie, Mrs Edwina Howard, Michael
Dorrell, Stephen Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)
Dover, Denshore Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)
Favell, Anthony Hubbard-Miles, Peter
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Hunt, David (Wirral)
Forth, Eric Hunter, Andrew
Franks, Cecil Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Freeman, Roger Jones, Robert (W Herts)
King, Roger (B'ham N'field) Patten, Christopher (Bath)
Knight, Gregory (Derby N) Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Knowles, Michael Powell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down)
Lang, Ian Powell, William (Corby)
Lawler, Geoffrey Powley, John
Lester, Jim Raffan, Keith
Lightbown, David Rathbone, Tim
Lilley, Peter Rhodes James, Robert
Lord, Michael Robinson, Mark (N'port W)
McCusker, Harold Roe, Mrs Marion
MacGregor, John Ross, Wm. (Londonderry)
Maginnis, Ken Rowe, Andrew
Major, John Ryder, Richard
Malins, Humfrey Sackville, Hon Thomas
Malone, Gerald Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Maples, John Sayeed, Jonathan
Mayhew, Sir Patrick Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Merchant, Piers Smyth, Rev W. M. (Belfast S)
Miller, Hal (B'grove) Stern, Michael
Mills, Iain (Meriden) Stradling Thomas, J.
Molyneaux, James Terlezki, Stefan
Moynihan, Hon C. Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Needham, Richard Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Newton, Tony
Nicholls, Patrick Tellers for the Ayes:
Nicholson, J. Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones and
Norris, Steven Mr. Michael Neubert.
Osborn, Sir John
Cook, Frank (Stockton North) Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Flannery, Martin
Hume, John Tellers for the Noes:
Kilfedder, James A. Rev. Ian Paisley and
Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight) Rev. William McCrea.
Soley, Clive

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Housing Benefits (Northern Ireland) Order 1983, which was laid before this House on 7th July, be approved.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Paul Dean)

I understand that it will be for the convenience of the House to take the next two motions together.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I submit that, as the limited point which arises on the second order is quite distinct from the matters to be debated on the first, it would be to the greater convenience of the House if they could be taken separately. I do not think that there will be any loss of time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

In that case I shall call only the first motion.