HC Deb 27 July 1983 vol 46 cc1285-303 10.14 pm
Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

I beg to move That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Housing Benefits Amendment Regulations 1983 (S.I., 1983, No. 1014), dated 14thJuly 1983, a copy of which was laid before this House on 18th July, be annulled.

Mr. Speaker

I understand that it will be convenient to discuss at the same time the following motions: That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Housing Benefits (Transitional) Amendment (No. 2) Regulations 1983 (S.I., 1983, No. 912), dated 28th June 1983, a copy of which was laid before this House on 30th June, be annulled. That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Supplementary Benefit (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 1983 (S.I., 1983, No. 1000), dated 13th July 1983, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th July, be annulled. That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Social Security Benefit (Dependency) Amendment Regulations 1983 (S.I., 1983, No. 1001), dated 13th July 1983, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th July, be annulled. That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Supplementary Benefit (Equal Treatment) Regulations 1983 (S.I., 1983, No. 1004), dated 13th July 1983, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th July, be annulled. That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Family Income Supplements (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 1983 (S.I., 1983, No. 1003), dated 13th July 1983, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th July, be annulled.

Mr. Foster

We are about to debate some complex issues. I have a number of remarks to make which, to begin with, are concerned with housing benefits. The first motion I want to refer to is the Housing Benefits (Transitional) Amendment (No. 2) Regulations 1983. In a few areas, the housing benefit scheme has not been completely implemented. These regulations extend the deadline by a further three months. The housing benefit scheme is an important change in the social security system, and 2.5 million households—one in eight—are losing as a result. In my area 75 per cent, of council tenants receive housing benefits whereas in 1979 only 25 per cent, were in receipt of benefits. That has resulted largely from two things — the doubling of rents under this Government and the substantial increase in unemployment.

Some people suspect that we have had this change because the Government want to save a few hundred jobs in the Department of Health and Social Security and have therefore off-loaded the responsibilities on to local authorities.

In a recent debate the Under-Secretary said that one third of all authorities were unable to implement the scheme on vesting day. When pressed to say which local authorities and how many tenants were involved, he and his hon. Friends on the Front Bench were reluctant to give that information. In answer to a question two or three weeks, ago, the Minister of State said that only 15 authorities were having difficulty. When he was pressed to name those authorities and say how many tenants were involved he was unable to do so but promised to make a statement in the near future. The Minister will perhaps break his silence tonight and give us that information.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

Will my hon. Friend accept from me that Birmingham is one of the cities in almost complete chaos? The scheme was introduced by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) as chairman of the housing committee. Such is the chaos that many of my constituents, and those of other hon. Members in the city, are coming to advice surgeries with eviction notices, or something not far short, received from the city's housing department because it cannot cope with the scheme.

Mr. Foster

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. Birmingham is one of the authorities that has experienced difficulties. I intend to name one or two more.

The inescapable conclusion to be drawn three and a half months after the start of the housing benefits scheme is that its implementation has been disastrously bungled. There is widespread evidence of confused claimants, many of whom are still not receiving their correct benefit, of harassed local authority officials desperately trying to get to grips with the scheme's requirements and with a huge backlog of unprocessed applications and perplexed housing association staff wondering what to do about the escalating levels of rent arrears caused by tenants not receiving enought or, in some cases, any money with which to pay their rent.

Judging by its public statements, to which I have already referred, the Department appears surprisingly unaware of the extent of the problem.

In a recent answer the Minister said: Our information is that of the 500 authorities, only 15 are now experiencing difficulties." — [Official Report, 28 June 1983; Vol. 44, c. 446.] The Minister has been badly briefed by his officials. We know of at least 15 authorities in London alone that are experiencing great difficulties.

For example, in Brent, not unknown to the Minister, council tenants have yet to be told of their rent and rebate payments, applicable from last April, and most private tenants have been receiving only emergency payments, 150 of which are being made every day. Problems with the computer, which is shared with the London borough of Ealing, have been a major contributory factor and are still being uncovered. Computer problems are also reported to have caused serious delays in Bromley. In Kensington and Chelsea tenants have had no benefit three and a half months after the scheme was due to start. Similar problems are reported in Barnet where, six weeks after the start date, 7,000 private sector tenant cases were outstanding. In Southwark a backlog of 6,000 cases still to be processed was reported at the end of June. In Lambeth the latest estimate of the backlog is 11,000. While the majority of Lambeth rent allowance recipients are still being paid benefit at the old rate, it is estimated that 10 per cent, of claimants are getting no payments at all. Some of the worst problems have been in Hackney, where rent allowance cases have not been assessed since last November and new applicants dating back to last October are still waiting for assessment.

I could go on at much greater length, but I do not want to weary the House. It is obvious that in London alone at least 15 authorities are having major difficulties. Those examples are only from London. Reports from a wider area show that it seems likely that most local authorities in Britain are experiencing difficulties with housing benefits. Some of the largest metropolitan authorities, such as Birmingham and Manchester, appear to be suffering acute problems. Therefore, the departmental view that only a few authorities are having difficulties and that these are only teething troubles appears grossly optimistic and ill-informed.

There seems to be some inconsistency between those views and the Department's actions. The regulations make provision for a further extension of the period during which claimants can be paid on the old basis when it has not proved possible for housing benefit assessment to be made. The provision has been extended to the end of September in standard cases and to the end of December in certificated cases.

It is not difficult to find the reasons why the scheme is in such great chaos. There are three outstanding reasons. The first is the extreme complexity of the scheme, especially when it is remembered that it was supposed to simplify the previous one. It is much more complicated than the arrangements that it replaced. That complexity goes a long way to explain the confusion of the public and local authority administrators when confronted with the housing benefits scheme.

The second reason is the no extra cost constraint imposed by the Government against the advice of Professor David Donnison. It has had two serious consequences. First, it has made many people worse off. Between 2,500,000 and 3,000,000 households — approximately one in eight of all households in Britain — are losing benefit as a result of the scheme. Secondly, it has led to the creation of some of the worst complexities of the scheme, such as the housing benefits supplement and the transitional addition, which is designed to mitigate some of the worst losses.

However, the final straw in the implementation of the scheme was the rushed timetable. It has been argued that the local authority associations agreed to it, but when it was set, long before the detailed regulations were available, local authorities had only a general understanding of the scheme. They had no idea of the complexities that would be involved, for example, in rebating heating charges in certificated cases or making different levels of deduction for non-dependents living in claimants' households. They also did not believe that the DHSS would continue to amend the regulations until the month before implementation and, indeed, afterwards. New sets of amending regulations have poured out of the Department this year, as have explanatory circulars. No fewer than 10 circulars on housing benefit have been issued in the past 12 months.

Local authority associations had no idea that the computer firms on which many of them depended for efficient implementation of the scheme would be equally baffled by the complexities. They also has no idea of the volume of cases, especially the very difficult housing benefits supplement cases, which have far exceeded all their estimates.

What lessons should be drawn from the experience of trying to implement the scheme? First, the DHSS and the social security advisory committee should, as an urgent priority, review ways in which the housing benefits scheme can be simplified. Among other objectives, the review should aim to make complexities such as the housing benefits supplement unnecessary, and to iron out differential treatment of standard and certificated claims in, for example, claim and payment dates and overpayment recovery procedures.

Secondly, immediate action should be taken to protect people from losing when benefits have been assessed incorrectly or late. Housing benefits supplement especially, should be payable from the date on which the claimant first approached the local authority or the Department and there should be entitlement to backdated payment if a claimant's entitlement has been missed

Thirdly, the 1983 upratings of housing benefit should be used to help offset and overcome some of the losses experienced by claimants as a result of the new rules.

Fourthly, and perhaps most urgently of all, an independent inquiry should be set up to investigate the way in which the scheme has been implemented and to report with recommendations, first, on how the administration of the scheme can be streamlined and improved and, secondly, on how future changes in social assistance schemes should be prepared so as to avoid repeating the mistakes so obviously and profusely made so far.

Finally, I ask the Minister a series of questions. First, have not central Government washed their hands of administrative responsibility for housing benefit by offloading it to unprepared local authorities, which then take the blame for any problem that arises? Secondly, why was the scheme allowed to go ahead without a computer programme of proven ability, and what problems now exist with computer programmes? Thirdly, what percentage of claimants are dealt with within the time limits and what steps are being taken to force local authorities to comply with their obligations?

In a number of cases, local authorities have recovered overpaid housing benefits from council tenants by converting it into rent arrears without considering whether the claimant is in any way at fault. What action do the Government intend to take to ensure that local authorities do not recover overpaid benefit in that way?

What percentage of local authorities are identifying housing benefit supplement cases by carrying out a supplementary benefit assessment, and what percentage of those entitled to that benefit actually receive it? Is it not time that no more amendments to the housing benefits scheme are approved by the House until a plan for simplifying the scheme has been formulated? All additional amendments would then be measured against the objectives set out in the plan to make the scheme simpler and easier to understand.

The regulations to which the first motion relates alter the income disregards for housing benefit and some deductions that can be made when computing eligible rent. The earnings disregard is reduced from £18 to £17.45. The Government's justification for that is that personal tax allowances were increased ahead of inflation in the latest Budget. The Department applies the logic of its formula only to a single person. As the advisory committee on rent rebates and rent allowances pointed out last year, the disregard is insufficient to cover the need of a couple, only one of whom is working. Moreover, the amount allowed for travel costs in the DHSS formula has traditionally been increased only in line with the general rate of inflation. It has not reflected increases in travel costs ahead of the retail price index. Will not that provision hit those people who are in work but receive low incomes? How can that be reconciled with the Government's aim to increase work incentives? The Opposition see the measure as a back door means of obtaining cuts in the social security system.

With regard to the needs allowance, when it is generally proposed to uprate housing benefit scales by 4 per cent., the absence of any increase in the pensioner addition to the needs allowance stands out like a sore thumb, especially as that addition was a new element that was introduced under the scheme. The lack of increase raises the question whether the Government intend to preserve the real value of the addition or to erode it just as the 1973 needs allowance addition was eroded. I hope that the Minister will clarify that point.

My first point on the third motion concerns the recovery of interim payments of benefit. At the moment, the Department cannot recover supplementary benefit overpayments which occur through no fault of the claimant. These regulations provide that excessive interim payments can be recovered freely as long as the claimant has previously signed an undertaking agreeing to such recovery if overpayment occurs. The Department wants to make this change partly because of the new system of emergency payments following the Birmingham strike. The social security advisory committee is worried that substantial overpayments could accrue to some claimants during a prolonged dispute and is unhappy at being asked to approve this change before seeing the details of the revised emergency payments system.

Why was it necessary to proceed with this change before the revised emergency payments system has been produced? Does the Department expect further industrial action as a result of staff shortages and intolerable pressure on staff time? There is cause for concern at the way in which overpayments resulting from the Birmingham dispute are being recovered. Will the Minister say whether and in what circumstances overpayments of benefit which arose through no fault of claimants but as a result of the strike are being recovered by deductions from current benefit? Under what legal powers is that being done? Does the fact that the claimant signed a statement declaring that he would pay any over payment when making the claim make any difference to the legal position? Is the Minister satisfied that no hardship is being caused?

As we know, the Department recently introduced a three-month qualifying period that claimants who are unemployed and who receive benefit must satisfy before they can take advantage of the 21-hour rule. The regulation provides that the time spent on youth opportunity or youth training scheme courses should count towards that. The social security advisory committee welcomes that relaxation, but remains unhappy about the concept of the qualifying period. The report states: We acknowledge the difficulty of drawing a clear distinction between young people who are really continuing their full-time education supported by supplementary benefit and those who are genuinely seeking work, but are occupying their time usefully. We hope that in future it will be possible to devise a concession which meets the need more flexibly, but in the meantime we should like to see the present concession more widely publicised. We think there is a case for a special advice leaflet for school-leavers which both outlines their benefit conditions and explains the 21-hour rule and related issues. Amongst teachers and admin staff, the three-month qualifying period is felt to perpetuate pressures on the education service to modify its courses to fit in with the financial needs of claimant students, especially recent school-leavers who are not able to start 21-hour study proper till the December of the year in which they leave school. If such young people want to study part-time from September while claiming benefit, and waiting for a job, most of them are obliged to do less than 15 hours a week (including homework) for the three month period, and must then change to a different course if they want to increase their hours of study to take full advantage of the 21-hour concession. Young people wanted examined courses which they felt employers would respect. Most courses, examined or not, start in September. If young … claimants who wish to improve their employment chances are to take full advantage of the concession, they should be able to join courses at the beginning. The obligation to leave if a suitable job is offered would still be in force, and would safeguard against use of the concession by claimants whose main intention was to study rather than to seek employment. I had intended to make some remarks about the equal treatment regulations, but many hon. Members wish to speak in the debate. I have asked the Minister many questions, and no doubt he will wish some time in which to answer them.

10.37 pm
The Minister for Social Security (Dr. Rhodes Boyson)

I agree with the latter comments of the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster), who has asked many questions. I can answer some of them now, but, knowing how complicated some of the regulations are, I shall have to reply to the others in writing. We shall enjoy not only our conversations this evening but some written exercise afterwards.

The matter is complicated. This is not an attempt to pass the buck of housing benefit to local authorities, which are responsible already for millions of people who receive rent and rate rebates. It was an attempt to simplify the system—[Interruption.]—I said that it was an attempt to simplify the system, and to make local authorities responsible for those in receipt of supplementary benefit.

The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland may know, but others may not, that David Donnison in the report of the Supplementary Benefits Commission of 1977 recommended clearly: These dual arrangements give rise to major problems and dilemmas for those people. The idea that this is a new set of problems is completely untrue. Here is an objective authority drawing attention to those problems in the past.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Demon and Reddish)

Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Boyson

I shall, but in doing so I shall be able to answer fewer questions. I do not know whose side the hon. Gentleman is on.

Mr. Bennett

As the Minister is quoting from the old Supplementary Benefits Commission report, will he also point out that it stressed the need for some new money if the scheme was to be introduced? Has it not gone completely wrong because the Government introduced the scheme on a shoestring?

Dr. Boyson

I shall come to that point because it is in league with what I intend to say. The report also states: The Commission regard this state of affairs as intolerable, and as stated in last year's Report are keenly interested in the possibility of creating a single scheme of housing benefit which would cover all low-income householders". It is, therefore, just not true to suggest that we are moving from an ideal system under which everything was running smoothly to one under which there are problems in certain parts of the country.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) no longer represents Stockport, North. He is slowly moving around the country, like an inspectorate. He must be aware that there are times when more money is not available, and we must decide whether or not to do something. The Labour party believes that it can do nothing without more money. That is its problem. It never asks whether it can better use the money that already exists. Unlike the Labour party, we decided to do something. I am surprised that Labour Members do not commend us for doing so.

The six instruments that are the subject of this debate are wide ranging. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland devoted most of his speech to housing benefits, and so shall I. He referred to problems. I do not complain, because it is the job of the Opposition to oppose. He did not, however, refer to the fact that this year we have significantly increased the upratings.

For example, we are increasing by 33 per cent., from £11.30p to £15, the amount of any lodging allowance paid by the Manpower Services Commission that is ignored in calculating housing benefit. We are increasing the maximum amount of maintenance payments paid by parents to certain students under 25 that can be ignored by 15 per cent., from £18.60p to £21.45p. Now that Labour Members are convinced of that, I do not think that they will divide the House. I hope that pure logic and our actions have won them over.

The other housing benefit set extends transitional arrangements to help local authorities deal with the implementation of the new scheme. The Opposition have prayed against this set to complain about problems and defects in the implementation of housing benefit, yet these regulations provide measures to extend the transitional period to give local authorities a chance to deal with their problems. Labour Members grumble that the transfer has not been done properly, yet when we give more time they grumble just as much.

Mr. Tony Fayell (Stockport)

I introduce myself to the Minister as the hon. Member for Stockport. I can tell him that after some teething problems, the new system in Stockport is working extremely well.

Dr. Boyson

It must be the change of Member. I am delighted not only that has Stockport seen the light politically but that it has introduced housing benefits so smoothly.

When we considered when this scheme should be introduced, we found that an April start was a complex exercise, given the scale and diversity of the changes involved. Last November, 1.5 million people were transferred, and we did not experience the problems that have been outlined tonight — [HON. MEMBERS: "Gabbling."] I am trying to speed up my remarks to give other hon. Members a chance to speak.

We originally hoped to introduce the whole scheme in November last year. The introduction was delayed until April this year, at the request of the Labour party, by the Committee on the Bill. Mrs. Ann Taylor, who was then a Member of the House, moved the motion, which we accepted, that the scheme should come into operation in April 1983. There was no question then about whether it could be done. The Labour party agreed that it was a reasonable time.

Apart from the Scottish authorities, no other local authorities were complaining about the difficulty of introducing what was admittedly a complicated scheme. The move was accepted by all the local authority associations except the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. We recognised that authorities would need early notification of the regulations and guidance for the new scheme. The main sets were published and in the hands of local authorities in July of last year— nine months before the start of the scheme. We were, in other words, giving people nine months' notice of how the regulations should be applied. At that time no one suggested that the timetable was unrealistic.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

If that is so, how is it that the Government, in their Supplementary Estimates, under the Consolidated Fund, on page 81, put through an extra £8.3 million due to higher administration cost subsidies than were originally estimated? That sum of £8.3 million took the sum originally allocated from £16.7 million to £25 million — a 50 per cent. increase in administration costs. Yet the Minister says that the local authorities have not had problems.

Dr. Boyson

I wish the hon. Member would listen. I said that at that time nobody was saying that it could not be done. The hon. Gentleman's point is worth developing. As a Government, we guaranteed to cover the administrative costs of the scheme being brought in. When it was found that the authorities needed more money, we did not say that the money was not available. We made the extra money available. The Government could not have done anything more reasonable than they did at that time, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for his intervention.

Hon. Members are properly concerned with individual problems. When something does not work, everyone in every constituency knows that it does not work. If we were to judge questions simply from letters received, we should have to conclude that nothing was working.

Although most authorities had not completed the take-on by 4 April, the great majority of cases were assessed for housing benefit on time. Indeed, for many claimants the take-on of housing benefit has this year been as fast as, if not faster than, the reassessment last year. Certain authorities not only did it quickly, they did it more speedily than previously.

The current position, as I explained yesterday in reply to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt), is that 95 per cent. of the claimants involved — about 5.5 million households—have now been reassessed.

Mr. Corbett

Have they been paid?

Dr. Boyson

Having been reassessed, we assume that the money has been paid. There may be the odd cases where that has not occurred. As 7 million cases are involved, that may be so. Presumably authorities complain to hon. Members on each side of the House when things are not working. The authorities inform us that 95 per cent. of households have now been reassessed, and that 80 per cent. of local authorities have now completed all their assessments, or will have done so by the end of this month.

We have been criticised for extending the time for transitional payments. We first extended the time by three months, in regard to both sides of the scheme, and there was a further three months' extension on request. We waited to see whether it was necessary. If we had brought in the regulations earlier, they would have been criticised as panic measures. They were brought in when it was obvious that something of that nature had to be applied.

I recognise, and I have recognised from the beginning, that there have been problems. Many hon. Members will know that from their local authorities. Some of these were caused by things that had nothing to do with housing benefit, for example, the industrial action in the Birmingham and Oxford DHSS, which has had a long-term and knock-on effect. I hope that if my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) is called, she will be able to speak about Birmingham.

Mr. Corbett

I now have the privilege to represent the constituency where that dispute started. Will the hon. Gentleman be kind enough to acknowledge that the dispute in the DHSS office in Birmingham—whether he agrees with it—was action by the people employed there to try to improve the service to claimants? He may think that they are misguided, but will he accept that that was the ambition of the dispute?

Dr. Boyson

It strikes me as a strange way to give a better service by going on strike and providing no service. There is a difference of opinion between the two sides of the House on that matter.

Other problems were outside the control of local authorities, such as those with computer packages. A number of authorities, one of which was Liverpool, brought in computers but took a long time to develop them. There was also a problem in certain areas because of the advertisement, on which we spent £350,000 of departmental money between January and March this year so that people would know about the scheme and what was available. We put out a simple leaflet with details about the scheme as well.

As a result, many people who had not known that they could claim these benefits then knew that they could. They went to the local authorities to say that they had not known that they could have a grant but now wanted to apply. Many authorities, instead of developing from the transitional to the long-term, by a normal reassessment, said that priority should be given to the new applicants because of the advertisements. That shows that the scheme was successful, and I am sure that Labour Members would like to know that those who should use the scheme now know that it exists. However, it also increased the problems, and the period of transition was extended.

As to housing benefits, it seems to many hon. Members, and to many outside the House who are not involved in politics, that it is better to have one authority to deal with this than to have two, which means that the claimant does not know whether he is better going to his DHSS or to the local authority. Similarly, money goes to local authorities who are already housing authorities, and the money goes backwards and forwards. In the long term it would be advantageous if this did not happen.

However, rarely does it happen that we make any change in this country — I presume that the same happens in other countries—without there being teething problems.

Mr. Corbett

When the hon. Gentleman makes changes.

Dr. Boyson

I said "we". I might some time include the hon. Member in what we are doing. Whoever brings in schemes, difficulties are always involved, and we hear a great deal about them, and not about the good things.

Let me make it clear what we are voting—or not voting—about tonight. My logic may convince Labour Members. I should be delighted if after my speech they decide not to vote. I know that they were convinced before of how bad the scheme is. Let us go back to my reply to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Ravensbourne yesterday. I said that about 80 per cent. of the authorities had completed the move to the new system from transition, and 95 per cent. of claimants were being moved over. Tonight, we are giving three months more time to the 20 per cent. of local authorities which have not completed the move, and the 5 per cent. of claimants who have not been transferred. We trust that by the end of September, in one case, and the end of December, in the other, they will all be transferred.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

The Minister suggests that we face a transitional problem and that if we pass the regulations and give local authorities more time, there will be no problem by the end of the summer recess.

Some of us feel that a major part of the problem is that local authorities have felt that they have to cut the number of staff administering the scheme. Will the hon. Gentleman assure us that it was not the Government's intention that that should happen and that authorities that are having, in the Minister's words, teething problems — which means that many of our constituents are not getting their rents — should think about whether they should increase the number of staff running the scheme so that the hon. Gentleman does not have to face a repeat debate after the recess?

Dr. Boyson

The problems will not all be solved when we return from the summer recess. That is why we are proposing a timetable to the end of December in one case. If the problem is solved before then, it will be a bonus.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) has mentioned the extra money that we have provided for the administration of the scheme. We have met any reasonable request—including one 50 per cent. increase—where staff have been required locally.

Mr. Foster

The Minister said earlier that only 15 authorities were having difficulty. Then he told us that one fifth of them — about 100 authorities — are having difficulty. How does he reconcile those statements?

Dr. Boyson

About 15 authorities have major problems. The rest can solve their problems if they are given a little more time. The list includes Birmingham, Plymouth, Dudley, Enfield, Hull, Scarborough, Brent, Hackney and Lambeth. I trust that the number will be reduced by the time that we have our next debate.

The three sets of regulations on equal treatment, and a commencement order that is not subject to parliamentary procedures, seek to introduce equal treatment for men and women to the family income supplement and supplementary benefit schemes. they alos take an important step forwards more equal treatment as regards entitlement to national insurance benefit dependency increases.

In bringing the changes into effect in November 1983, the Government will fulfil pledges given during the passage of the Social Security Act 1980, and ensure compliance with the European Community directive on equal treatment in social security matters. The principal effect of the family income supplement and supplementary benefit regulations will be to enable either partner of a couple—instead of just the man—to qualify for those benefits, subject to conditions set out in the regulations. The Social Security Act 1980 already contains provision enabling a married woman to claim a national insurance benefit increase for her husband and children if her husband's earnings are low. The dependency benefit regulations are concerned merely with technical changes.

The Social Security Advisory Committee has given a warm welcone to that package of proposals. We have accepted a number of helpful recommmendations that it made on the detail of the draft regulations. The committee noted that although the changes would be of real benefit, they introduced new complications. We have accepted its recommendations about providing information and advice, and about monitoring arrangements.

Ms. Jo Richardson (Barking)

Does the Minister agree that two areas of discrimination remain in that package, welcome as it is? One is the non-payment of a pension to married women who are disabled and who the hon. Gentleman is not allowing to claim the housewives noncontributory invalidity pension. The other is his failure to extend the invalid care allowance to married and cohabiting women. If the Minister cannot end such discrimination in these regulations, when will he be able to do so?

Dr. Boyson

We have been considering those matters for some time and I am not surprised that the hon. Lady asked about them. We have to consider whether we are compelled to take action or whether it would be voluntary. We also have to assess the cost—£275 million in one case and £60 million in the other. A lot of money is involved. We must decide what money is available for social security in Britain and where the priorities are. I take the hon. Lady's point and I hope that I have answered it. In addition, we must assess our responsibility in law. I cannot say more than that at present.

Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

I am sorry that the Minister has not mentioned the 21-hour concession. Whatever the divisions in the House about the causes of unemployment we would all agree that it is right that people who are unemployed and on benefit should at least be given the chance to study. It is clear that the concession is not working well and people are not getting that chance. Will the Minister undertake to review the concession and to publicise it so that at least the unemployed will be able to study during their enforced leisure time?

Dr. Boyson

I take the hon. Lady's point and we shall consider that.

On the earlier point, I must say that it is difficult for us to agree on a measure which would cost £275 million.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind hon. Members that the debate must finish at 11.30 pm.

11 pm

Ms. Jo Richardson (Barking)

I am grateful to you for calling me for a few minutes, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so that I can continue the point I made in an intervention in the speech of the Minister for Social Security.

I had not intended to speak on housing benefits, but listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) and the Minister it is clear that although there are many councils who have not completed the system, and they have been referred to at length, there are also many councils that are not getting it right. That is the problem. At least, it is the problem for my constituents. I, like others, am bombarded by people who have never been in debt in their life. They come along to me and tell me that they have lived for 40 years in a council house and have never owed a penny rent. Then suddenly the council tells them that they owe £98 and they ask how that can possibly be. The same applies to private tenants, although I have less experience of them. Such troubles will cause not only hardship but embarrassment and humiliation to people. We really should look at that much more closely to ensure that it is eliminated.

I want to speak for a couple of minutes about the two benefits to which I referred when I intervened. I am glad that the Government have taken steps to implement the EC directive on equal treatment. Organisations — women's organisations in particular—and people in the House have campaigned for that for many years. However, it is tremedous blot on the Government's record that they should continue to exclude two groups of women—those who are disabled but married, because the noncontributory invalidity pension applies automatically to married men and to single people whether they he men or women, and married women who have to look after elderly or disabled relatives. That is to penalise a group of people on the grounds that they are married or living with someone. There is still the old-fashioned Victorian assumption that because a person is married, whether disabled or looking after somebody who is disabled, that person will be at home anyway. Life is not like that any more. Women, whether disabled or not, in many cases want to go out to work and they have a right to do so. If they cannot, they have a right to benefit.

The SSAC report, to which the Minister referred, said: The introduction of equal treatment throughout much of the social security system will render the continuation of discrimination in these two benefits impossible to defend. Yet the Government go on defending them on the grounds that to do otherwise would cost a lot of money. Admittedly, it would. The Minister has said that it costs £275 million to extend the benefit to disabled married women who at the moment are unable to claim it — about 750,000 married women. The gross cost is £300 million, but the Government have said that they would save £25 million in national insurance and other supplementary benefits, leaving the figure of £275 million.

It is about time we found that money. We cannot permit such discrimination to go on against a group of people who are least able to bear it. Ironically, if one is disabled and helps oneself, one does oneself out of benefit because the doctor says, "You can do your household duties" That is the degrading and humiliating test that is applied to married women.

How many hon. Members have stopped to think what happens to those in society who are carers? I refer to those who are in a job that occupies them for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and who get no holidays, no sickness benefit and no salary. They are looking after people who may weigh 15 stone and may be incontinent and old. They deal with feeding and laundering, but they get absolutely nothing for it, yet very few women complain. I wish that they would complain more loudly about not being given a little help by the Government.

Benefit in that case would cost not the £275 million we were discussing earlier, but £60 million. I was given that figure in answer to a parliamentary question. The Government were able to find £8 million just like that to implement the housing benefits regulations. They must look at their accounting more positively to see where money is being ill spent—I do not suggest that it is being ill spent on housing benefits; I can think of many ways in which it is being ill spent—so that priority can be given to those who need it most.

Two such groups of people are those I have mentioned: disabled married women who are forced to stay at home because they cannot work, and able-bodied married and cohabiting women who are forced by society to stay at home to look after elderly and disabled relatives who would otherwise be a charge on the state. It is a disgrace that the measure omits those two groups of people.

11.8 pm

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

I understand that while I was not in the Chamber the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) referred to an early-day motion that has been tabled by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker). I am grateful for this opportunity to put on the record once and for all what happened in Birmingham and to point out that responsibility must be shared by the Conservative administration there, which is still in power, and by the Labour administration, which held power until 1982.

Birmingham is a seesaw authority. In the eight years I have been on the council there have been four different administrations, and the result is always close. When, in May 1982, we won—I admit, somewhat to my surprise — and I became housing chairman—even more to my surprise — we thought hard about our priorities in housing. We decided to go hell for leather for council house sales—we sold 4,000 in 12 months—and for housing repairs, because the mess that Birmingham's council housing was in from the repairs point of view—

Mr. Corbett


Mrs. Currie

The hon. Gentleman would not have been aware of that; he is a newcomer to Birmingham and was nowhere near the place at the time. The mess our housing was in was an absolute disgrace, and that was entirely the responsibility of the Labour administration.

The chairman of the housing committee at the time, a senior councillor in Erdington, is, I believe, a senior member of the Labour party in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. So if the hon. Member for Erdington wants to do something useful about Birmingham's housing, he might care to sit Councillor McCallion down and find out precisely what he was doing for the two years when he was housing chairman. We can be sure that he was not repairing any Birmingham houses and was not planning for the introduction of housing benefits. When the Conservative-controlled authority came in there was virtually no mention of and no planning for the housing benefits scheme—

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett


Mrs. Currie

We came into power in May 1982 and it was clear that there had been no planning.

Mr. Rooker

The legislation had not reached the statute book by then.

Mrs. Currie

There were a number of problems with the scheme in Birmingham. I have mentioned the lack of planning, but 96,000 tenancies were affected by the scheme, perhaps more than in any other authority. There was also the problem of the time scale, which we discussed thoroughly with Ministers. We had to try to get all the tenants organised by November 1982, at a time when the status of many of them was changing. The remainder had to be dealt with by April 1983.

At that time Birmingham's rent account was not computerised. On almost my first day I was shown round the housing department, which is in a great tower block —they go in for them in Birmingham. I met many nice ladies—there were about 90 of them—who were busy writing up the accounts. At that time about 75 per cent. of Birmingham's rental income came in through the national giro. Every week the national giro sent a computer tape to the city and the 90 ladies posted its contents to 136,000 tenants by hand.

I asked the city treasurer when Birmingham's rent accounts were to be computerised and he said that he was not planning to do so until about 1985–86 because the Labour administration had not thought that it was very important. I threw my weight around and I succeeded in bringing forward the programme. We started computerising in December 1982. At the same time we were trying to implement the housing benefits scheme.

All that would have been quite enough to create difficulties but on top of that, egged on by colleagues in the Labour party during the Northfield by-election, the entire social security department of the city—all the officers—went on strike. We could not get anything out of the department.

Mr. Terry Davis (Birmingham, Hodge Hill)

That is not true.

Mrs Currie

My colleague, the Secretary of State for Social Services, who is my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler), will remember that to get quite simple pension cases sorted out I had to go direct to him. I could not get through to the social security department.

Mr. Rooker

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The staff of the social security office in my constituency did not go on strike. I ask the hon. Lady to withdraw the slanderous attack that she has made on it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) must be responsible for her own speech.

Mrs. Currie

Even if the staff in the social security department had not gone on strike, the DHSS in Birmingham was—I believe that it still is—six months behind.

In April 1982, thanks to the Government's action, the city's rates were reduced. That happened because the west midlands transport levy was declared illegal. In October 1983 I increased the rents to raise a great deal more money for council house repairs. In April 1983 the city council reduced the rates.

In addition to our problems, we had the private tenants. It was probably the private tenants who caused nearly all of us to go grey. We thought that there were nearly 30,000 private tenants but that had to be something of a guess. There was no good reason why the city council's housing authority should have had records of private tenants.

Mr. Corbett

What is the census for?

Mrs. Currie

They would have teen on the records only if they were on the housing lists at the time. Account had also to be taken of lodgers, houses in multiple accupation and the one or two illegal tenants who were not terribly happy about disclosing themselves. When everything was put together, we were confronted with a mammoth task. I am deeply grateful to the Government for allowing the timetable to be extended.

Mr. Foster


Mrs. Currie

No, I shall not give way. Opposition Members have been having a go at me and it is my turn now. There was some hassle about whether the date of the first implementation should be 15 or 22 November. With hindsight I feel that a big authority such as Birmingham should have sorted that out in advance. I make no apology for having, perhaps, been a little preoccupied with other things at the time.

I ensured that we repaired the flat roofs on the many blocks of flats in the city and that we installed entry phones in all the 429 tower blocks, whereas the Labour housing chairman had spent his time answering petitions about them but had not installed them. One of the results was that it was hard for Labour canvassers to, get into the tower blocks during the May elections.

We also had a programme, which is continuing, to repair the 625 lifts in those tower blocks. We developed and expanded the enveloping scheme and used the capital receipts from the sale of council houses to increase the housing investment programme from the £41 million spent by Labour in 1981–82 to £60 million last year and £128 million this year. They must be major benefits for all Birmingham council tenants.

Some of the details of the legislation, as I suspect happens with all legislation, created difficulties for those who had to carry it out. I suspect that, no matter who is sitting on the Front Bench it is always easier to write the legislation than to try to make it work. Many of the problems are being improved by these instruments.

The measures contains first-class objectives which must benefit all tenants. Before the legislation was introduced rent arrears in Birmingham were running at £10 million —about 7 per cent. of the rent roll. Tae figure was 25 per cent. 30 per cent. or even 50 per cent. of the rent roll of other local authorities. I fail to see how such interruptions to the cash flow can help.

The legislation and these changes will save time and public money, which we should not waste. They will avoid many evictions. I have experience of the social services and have always hated evicting a family for rent arrears. These proposals will improve local authorities' cash flow substantially. The tenants will benefit. I therefore welcome and support the Government's action.


Mr. Terry Davis (Birmingham, Hodge Hill)

I wish to begin by referring to statutory instrument No. 1,000 and especially to regulation 5(3) which deals with the recovery of interim payments, and, as I understand it, arises directly from the dispute that took place in Birmingham social security offices about a year ago.

I wish to make only two comments about that strike. First, I must refer to the comment made by the Minister of State. He said that going on strike was a funny way to improve the service and thus provide no service at all. I regard that comment as ignorant and ill informed. He was not Minister then and can be forgiven for not knowing how and why that strike happened. However, he should have talked to his predecessor and the Under-Secretary, who is sitting next to him, and they should have briefed him before he came to this debate on why the strike took place.

Secondly, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) said that Labour Members of Parliament egged on the social security staff to strike — she is nodding now —but that statement is not true. If she would take the trouble to speak to those of her hon. Friends who were Ministers then and who are still Ministers, they will tell her that Labour Members played a constructive role, did not exploit the situation and did not egg on the staff in social security offices to strike. In particular, it is a slur on the record of Julius Silverman, in whose constituency the strike began, to suggest that he egged on people. On behalf of my hon. Friends I resent those remarks.

However the strike did take place and had a serious effect on many people in Birmingham. People were paid a flat rate of emergency payments which did not take account of their circumstances. At the time they were asked to sign undertakings that the money could be recovered from their supplementary benefit when the dispute ended. Those people had no alternative. They had to sign the undertaking or they would have received no money. Now the money is being deducted from their supplementary benefit, which both sides of the House will agree does not provide a rich living or high income. Those people will have deductions made week after week, month after month and in some cases for years.

I should like to know from the Minister on what authority those deductions are being made. My hon. Friends and I have examined the present regulations, which existed when the undertakings were signed. We are not convinced that the Government have the legal right to make those deductions from the supplementary benefit of our constituents. What is the legal authority? Statutory Instrument No. 1000 comes into effect on 15 August. It is designed to cater for future disputes in the DHSS. What is the legal authority for making deductions from payments that were made on an emergency basis during the dispute in Birmingham from November 1982 to March 1983?

Second, I want to know why the DHSS is failing to follow its own procedure for the recovery of money from people who have been overpaid. I have evidence that the Ministers can have if they wish—or they can obtain it from agencies in the city of Birmingham. It is that the DHSS is not notifying people of the amount of calculated overpayment or of their appeal rights, and it is not discussing with people the arrangements for recovery. It is simply imposing an arbitrary deduction from people's supplementary benefit.

The Minister may say, "So what. The staff at the social security office will not demand too much." However, I have known occasions when people have been asked to repay money that they have already repaid. The DHSS in Birmingham is in chaos. The social security offices are inefficient to an extent that only pales into insignificance when compared with the city housing department. I repeat that people are being asked to repay money that they have already repaid. They have no evidence for the payment, but later the social security office admits that it has found the records showing that the people had already repaid the money that it had intended to deduct from their supplementary benefit week by week. That is appalling. If the Government cared at all for people in that situation, through no fault of their own, they would have written off the amount of money involved.

People's housing is also being affected. The delay in calculating the amount of arrears of benefit that people are entitled to receive is exacerbated by the delay in checking whether they received emergency payment. That means that people are not receiving their arrears of supplementary benefit and that their rents are not being paid. The city housing department, under Conservative control, is busy sending out possession orders, taking people to court and obtaining possession of their homes for rent arrears that are entirely due to the social security strike of 1982.

Dr. Boyson

On a point of fact, I am informed that the provisions enabling interim payments to be deemed to be payments of supplementary benefit that can be reclaimed in this way are under the Supplementary Benefit Act 1976 —the regulations on the determination of claims. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with more information.

Mr. Davis

It was not supplementary benefit. It was an extra-statutory payment. That was made clear at the time. We shall debate this in future.

Now I refer to housing benefits. The city housing department is not only taking out possession orders against people who owe rent because they have not had their supplementary benefit, but also seeking to possess people's homes because it has not yet credited their rent accounts with the housing benefit to which they are entitled. I can give examples to Ministers, if they wish to hear them.

Statutory instrument No. 912 is an admission of failure. It was agreed on both sides of the House that a reasonable period of time was being allowed for implementation of housing benefit. It was indeed reasonable, except for the city of Birmingham housing department, which was already in chaos. It was already taking three months to deal with rebate applications. The hon. Lady did not mention that. The department was already in arrears and should have told the Government that it could not meet the timetable. April was an unreasonable date for Birmingham. The hon. Member for Derby, South tried to blame the Labour council up to May 1982. The fact is that this—

Mrs. Currie

It is Derbyshire, South.

Mr. Davis

The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South is trying to blame the Labour council up to May 1982. The Act had not been passed in May 1982. The hon. Lady is really stretching things when she tries to blame the Labour council.

Then the hon. Lady said that the city of Birmingham was so large, with 96,000 tenants, that the timetable would not be met. What she is really saying is that the city of Birmingham is too large for the Conservative party or her to administer.

We want to know whether another three months is enough. Will the city of Birmingham have straightened out the problem by 30 September? What will happen if it has not? The House will be in recess. When we return, will the Government introduce another statutory instrument to correct retrospectively what failed to happen in October? The truth is that the implementation of housing benefit in the city of Birmingham shows that the combination of a Conservative Government and a Conservative council means misery for hundreds of Birmingham people.

11.25 pm
Mr. Robert McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)

Having listened to a tirade against the housing benefits system from at least two Labour Members, I shall speak in favour of it. A large part of the country has moved towards that system with the minimum of difficulty. It is easy for the Opposition to fasten on to those local authorities which have experienced difficulties. The Government should be congratulated, not vilified, on having embarked upon such a major undertaking as housing benefits with so few difficulties. What has characterised the introduction of housing benefits more than anything else is the smooth transition towards the new system.

I have no way of knowing whether my constituency is typical, but with several thousand council houses and several thousand privately rented houses within it I have received very few complaints. The system has moved forward much more smoothly than anyone might reasonably have expected. Of course there have been problems, but the scheme, after a relative short time in operation, has far fewer detractors outside the House than it seems to have within it.

More problems have arisen in the private rented sector than in the council house sector. Perhaps that was to be expected. Although I speak with no knowledge of Birmingham, the problems that have occurred in my constituency have been fairly minimal. I believe that once the initial difficulties, which might well have been anticipated, have been overcome, we shall look back and wonder why we took so long to move to this system of housing benefits. The removal of one tier of administration must eventually lead to a simplification rather than a complication of the system. I do not deny that there will be complications until the system is fully bedded down and I have no doubt that the Government are right to extend the time scale within which the complications can be sorted out.

The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) implied not only that there have been difficulties and complexities in introducing the system but that they will continue for ever. I do not accept that. I believe that once the whole thing is bedded down it will prove to have been one of the better moves introduced by the Government.

Therefore, it is wise to extend the transitional provisions. It may be said with hindsight that the Government were marginally more optimistic than they were entitled to be about the time within which the changes could be made, but I am certain that the system is moving in the right direction. It has thrown up far fewer complications than one might have feared. There have been few complaints and I expect very few in the future.

I commend the Government for having introduced the housing benefit system and I believe that they are right to persevere with it and to extend the transitional period as they propose.

11.29 pm
Dr. Oonagh McDonald (Thurrock)

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I—

It being half-past Eleven o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant io order this day.

Question negatived.

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