§ 4. Mr. Foster
asked the Secretary of State for Social Services how many local authorities were unable to implement the housing benefits scheme on 4 April; and how many tenants were involved.
§ The Minister for Social Security (Dr. Rhodes Boyson)
Between 30 and 35 per cent. of authorities completed the various parts of the implementation on time, and most of the others had dealt with the large majority of cases by then. From the detailed information available, we know that about 75 per cent. of the total of former rent and rate rebate recipients were assessed on time.
§ Mr. Foster
Is the Minister aware that the Shelter Housing Aid Centre, in its most recent report, referred to hardly any local authority as successfully implementing the scheme without mishaps, serious problems and delays? Is it not true that the inner London authorities are experiencing massive difficulties, especially with private tenants? Will the Minister confirm that the latest date for local authorities to implement the scheme is being moved from June to October?
§ Dr. Boyson
I remind the hon. Gentleman that it was the previous hon. Member for Bolton, West, Mrs. Taylor, who in Committee moved the amendment for the scheme's starting date. She was the Opposition spokesman at that time. Apart from the Scottish authorities, there was general agreement that the scheme should start on 1 April. We accept that there are problems, but there are always problems when dealing with 7 million people. Our information is that of 500 authorities, only 15 are now experiencing difficulties. We are prepared to extend the time for the payment to be made, to help the scheme work smoothly.
I am strongly in favour of the change, which is both wise and right, but is my hon. Friend aware that some local authorities—Birmingham is one—are experiencing great difficulty in sorting out the problems connected with the scheme? Many tenants are paying their rent out of money on which they should be living, and many landlords are not receiving the rent that they need. Can my hon. Friend help such authorities to sort out the difficulties they are experiencing?
§ Dr. Boyson
Birmingham is one of the two authorities facing the greatest problems, and we are aware of that. Birmingham has asked for an extension, but I understand from my conservations with that authority that the problems are now being smoothed out. Under the regulations, every tenant should be paid something within 14 days of application. If that is not happening, hon. Members must take the matter up with their local authorities.
§ Mr. Alton
Notwithstanding the fact that some landlords are having problems with the scheme, is the Minister aware that many tenants have been caused great distress because they have received notices to quit and eviction orders because of the non-implementation of the scheme? Is he further aware that about 2 million people are about 75p a week worse off because of the scheme? How long will it be before the remainder of those entitled to benefit will be brought into the scheme?
§ Dr. Boyson
It is obvious that some people are bound to be worse off on a nil-cost change. About 1.2 million are better off—pensioners and those about whom the House is especially concerned. About 2 million people are 40p a week worse off. When moving to a new scheme, there are bound to be teething problems. The Supplementary Benefits Commission wanted the change and all parties supported it. It is now a matter of making it work smoothly.
I have already told the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) that only 15 of the 500 authorities are experiencing problems. That is only 1 or 2 per cent. of authorities. We are prepared to extend the transitional period for another three months, if necessary, to ensure the smooth working of the scheme.
§ Mr. Greenway
So that hon. Members can press the appropriate authorities, will my hon. Friend say whether a timetable was agreed in advance with local authorities and whether those authorities were satisfied with it?
§ Dr. Boyson
Only the Scottish authorities wanted delays, and they were provided for in the scheme that began on 1 April. The regulations we re laid in July last year and detailed information was sent out. Authorities had nine months in which to make applications. There was general agreement on the starting date, and it is only recently that the problems have come to light. I am sure that within three months the scheme will have been properly sorted out.
§ Mr. Craigen
As a member of a Government who claim to have so much concern for family life, is the Minister not aware that the operation of the scheme is disrupting family life? Is he not aware also that the way in which the scheme operates actually splits families?
§ Dr. Boyson
I remind the House that Professor David Donnison was the chairman of the Supplementary Benefits Commission when the scheme was recommended. He is respected by both sides of the House. I know that the only idea in the Labour party is to spend more money and never change anything. The scheme was an attempt at a radical change, and was widely supported. However, I know that radical change is unpleasant for Opposition Members.