HC Deb 23 October 1984 vol 65 cc535-6
1. Mr. Pike

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he is satisfied that local authorities now have sufficient resources and facilities for dealing with the unified housing benefits scheme.

The Secretary of State for Social Services (Mr. Norman Fowler)

Local authorities have statutory responsibility for administering the housing benefits scheme and it is up to individual authorities to decide what resources of staff, accommodation, computer equipment and so on they need. We are satisfied that the arrangements for subsidising local authorities' administration costs adequately reimburse authorities for all reasonable costs arising from the new scheme and that there is no reason why authorities should not have the resources and facilities that they need.

Mr. Pike

As the right hon. Gentleman has said in reply to previous questions that his Department undertakes no monitoring, how can he be satisfied that councils have sufficient resources to do the job, especially when one remembers the financial restraints that have been imposed on them? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that when the changes were brought into effect many councils had insufficient resources to do the job and that many people will suffer hardship because councils are not able to do the work as speedily as they would wish?

Mr. Fowler

I do not accept that. Our arrangements for reimbursing local authorities on housing benefit are entirely fair to them. The hon. Gentleman made a good point about checking. We shall look at that to see whether we can get a better system to check on what local authorities are spending.

Mr. McCrindle

Has my right hon. Friend seen reports in various organs of the press suggesting that there is to be a cut in the resources available for housing benefit? As an inquiry into the future of the scheme is taking place, will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to confirm that there will be no movement one way or the other in the provision of housing benefits at least until the inquiry has been completed?

Mr. Fowler

The story to which my hon. Friend referred appeared in The Guardian on Saturday and it is wrong. No decision has been taken on housing benefit and I am well aware of the importance of waiting until the independent committee under Mr. Rowe has made its report.

Mr. Alton

When the scheme was introduced, about 2 million people were an average of 75p a week worse off. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is considerable anxiety in all parts of the House about the possibility of housing benefit being cut further? When is he likely to be able to make a statement on the subject?

Mr. Fowler

The hon. Gentleman knows that public expenditure is being reviewed and he will have to await the completion of that review. The importance of the review process is well recognised, as is the importance of what the hon. Gentleman said.

Mr. Andrew Bowden

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we warmly welcome his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle) that no changes will be made until he has received the report of the inquiry? However, can my right hon. Friend assure me that even when he has received the report there will be no question of placing further burdens on pensioners or retired people?

Mr. Fowler

I shall not enter into commitments on decisions that have not been taken. I said that The Guardian story was wrong. That is a fact. My hon. Friend will have to await the completion of the public expenditure discussions that are currently taking place.

Mr. Meacher

In view of the rumours about a public expenditure cuts package, will the Secretary of State categorically deny that the Government are seriously considering further chopping back housing benefit at any stage, reducing unemployment benefit and taxing or means-testing child benefit? Do not those pre-emptive decisions clearly reveal the right hon. Gentleman's reviews to be meaningless charades?

If there are to be further cuts in housing benefit, will it not be diabolical if pensioners were made to suffer when his Government have already wasted £100 million on the Newcastle computer dispute which, if settled, would save only £46,000 a year?

Mr. Fowler

The hon. Gentleman has used a pre-prepared supplementary question and has taken absolutely no account of what I have already said. He must be even more foolish than I thought if he thinks that I will give a commitment that at no stage in the future will we study the benefits currently under review. The review process is intended to highlight how we can better provide aid for those in need.