§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
The hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) should make more speeches on social security matters and spend less time campaigning. He would be more successful in social security debates, and he has made a cogent and clear attack on the measure.
I want the Government to understand what the sequence of events has meant in mining areas such as my constituency. The picture that is painted, particularly by Conservative Members, is that a group of people rushed in and made a fast profit out of a loophole in the social security rules and thereby enhanced their already considerable financial ease. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We are talking primarily about single striking miners — young lads in many cases — who live at home, sometimes with a widowed mother and often in an improverished household which had previously depended on their contribution. In many cases it was not long ago that the miners were still at school and were making no contribution to the household.
Those youngsters in the mining industry, mainly aged between 16 and 21, have suddenly found that they are causing a drastic reduction in their parents' ability to make ends meet. We are talking about families who were among the poorest to start with. They were not households in which there were two or three miners bringing in a substantial income. I am thinking particularly of homes where there is a widowed mother on the old-age pension and a young lad who is on strike. At the end of last year those youngsters were led to believe that they would be able to claim back payments under the regulations. That was a chink of light for them in their desperate situation.
Some Conservative Members seem to want to dwell on the moral position of someone who reduces his own circumstances by going on strike. But we are talking about elderly parents who had nothing to do with the decisions of their sons. Those lads have been caught up in the strike. The parents played no part in their decisions and real hardship is being caused.
At the end of last year, it seemed that some back payment of housing benefit could be made. In some areas, the local authorities paid out, but in others they did not. Families in Castle Morpeth and in Alnwick in my constituency have not received any money. The Minister should realise that he has left the local authorities in utter confusion. He has left the people seeking benefit at a loss to understand why the person they normally work alongside in the pit is getting the benefit because he lives on the other side of the border, and they are not. That is the position in pits like Ellington in my constituency. A striking miner who lives in Ashington is getting the benefit and a striking miner who lives in Lynemouth or Ellington is not because of the confusion among local authorities.
I asked the local authorities why they are not paying out the back benefit, at least for the period until the new regulations came into force. They tell me that the advice they are getting from the Department of Health and Social Security is unclear and they do not understand what they are supposed to do. I wrote in November about one of 436 these cases. In his reply, the treasurer of Alnwick district council defined the lad concerned and his widowed mother as unable to qualify for benefit. He said:This is the position as the Regulations stand at present, but it is fair to say that certain local authorities are interpreting the Regulations in a manner which does not accord with the general view or the view of the Department of Health and Social Security.So the local authority assumed that the DHSS would frown upon it even making back payments to which people thought they were entitled.
It has not ended there. There is still total confusion. I contacted Castle Morpeth borough council about other people who had been denied the back benefit, and was told that the council was still unable to come to a view on the matter and would probably be unable to come to a view at its next monthly council meeting because it had still not received satisfactory clarification from the DHSS of what it understood the position to be.
While this bureaucratic tangle is taking place, the Minister thinks he has carried out a nice, clean operation. He thinks he has neatly brought in new regulations which everybody understands and cleanly brought to an end the old arrangement. But there is nothing clean about it because some have received benefit and some have not. Of course, from now on eligibility has been greatly narrowed in the way hon. Members have described.
I plead with the Minister at least to get his officials on the telephone to the local authorities to sort out the mess. Those to whom I have spoken in local authorities are genuine local government officers. They are not motivated by any political or other view. They are in real confusion about the interpretation by the DHSS and are genuinely looking for guidance. I do not think the Minister can be satisfied when sums of £200 or £300 for housing benefit have been paid out reasonably to some of these "living in" youngsters who are on strike, while others, whose families are in equal need, are not getting a penny.
I urge the Minister to shut from his mind the idea that he is dealing with a group of people who are making a fast profit or who have somehow come into the money. He will have to look much nearer this building if he wants to find people who are in that position. If he goes among my constituents in the areas which are deeply affected by the strike, he will find real hardship which has been made worse by the regulations and sustained by the chaos and confusion over what back payments should be made under the original regulations. In many cases the hardship has nothing to do with any decisions which were taken by the elderly and hard-up parents of those young people.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
Most of the points that I wanted to refer to have been made. A debate later this evening will deal with another way in which the Government operate in their attacks against the poor and the most vulnerable.
There is no doubt that the reason why the Government brought in these regulations was that the National Union of Mineworkers, miners and the women's support groups had managed to find a loophole that enabled many local authorities, including Bolsover district council, to make these payments. No sooner had the local authorities started to put the plan into operation than the word was buzzing around here that the Government would take retaliatory action. It was not long before they did. Fortunately, many 437 local authorities took advantage of the scheme and paid out money to miners who had been advised to apply for it, whereas other authorities that were Tory-controlled did nothing. They abided by what were, no doubt, the Minister's instructions. I suppose that, like the Prime Minister, he will claim that he had nothing to do with it. They continued to refuse to pay the benefit.
Although the provision does not affect the National Union of Mineworkers now, some miners did not put in their claims in time. Some miners in my constituency were not aware of the position. For example, someone living with a widowed mother might not be aware of the position. They are being penalised, yet they live next door to and under the same authority as others who are not penalised. Bolsover district council has been doing its utmost to get around the regulations. No doubt other authorities in north Derbyshire have been doing the same.
§ Mr. Beith
Should not the Minister make it clear today that, when the local authorities have not even decided whether they should pay out, it is a scandal that people are being told that they are no longer entitled to claim back payments for that period? If local authorities do not know where they are, the individual can hardly be criticised because he has not yet made a claim.
§ Mr. Skinner
That is a valid point, and one that has been exercising the minds of local authorities in north Derbyshire. I am sure that the coalfields throughout the country have run up against the same problem. It is all part of the Government's policy against the miners. They use every echelon of the establishment to try to hammer them into the ground. They have used the judges and the law courts to try to get them down. They have used the police—who are known in my area as Mrs. Thatcher's private army—to try to smash the miners and the NUM. They have uprated the £15 deemed strike pay to £16 in an attempt to starve the miners.
That was one aspect that Ridley had not —[Interruption.] It was called the Ridley plan. I am talking about the Secretary of State for Transport, but it goes under the name of the Ridley plan. It was an attempt to use all parts of the establishment to attack the miners. However, this benefit was no part of that, so when the Government came up against it they decided to have a go at that as well. The amount of money involved pales into insignificance when compared with the news from a leading Tory, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Energy, that during the miners' strike the CEGB has lost £2,000 million. That is all part of the folly of the Prime Minister in taking on the miners. These regulations are yet another example of a Government Department using its power to try to smash the miners.
This is happening in a week when, according to the newspapers—
§ Mr. Christopher Hawkins (High Peak)
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Labour party would give an undertaking to keep open all uneconomic pits and that it would not take on the miners, when its leader—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)
Order. We are discussing regulations and must relate our remarks to them.
§ Mr. Skinner
As I was saying before that intervention, which you kindly dealt with Mr. Deputy Speaker—I am pleased that someone else can be out of order—I was 438 with the Deputy Speaker on Saturday when I bumped into one of those who have been deprived of the benefit. We were speaking at a joint rally in Doncaster. Mr. Deputy Speaker was put in his place because he was smoking on the platform.
We are debating this matter in the same week as Members of Parliament have been given the green light to get their housing benefits second time around. I understand that they can now use the £6,500 to buy a second home. The way in which the Government are tonight attacking people — not only miners but many others who are trying to make ends meet on a few quid a week—shows the double standards of the Tories.
It is worth remembering that the Government, who are attacking people living on the edge of poverty, are headed by a Prime Minister whose Private Office at 10 Downing Street cost £1,229,000 a year to maintain when she took office and is now costing £2,889,000. We can loosely call that her housing benefit. The right hon. Lady has three subsidised homes, one at Chequers, one in Downing street and one subsidised by the National Trust in Kent.
The Government have used every opportunity to try to bully and starve the miners back to work, but they are not succeeding. They could stop the drain on the pound and add no further to the £5 billion that it has cost the state to finance a strike that was engineered by the Prime Minister and her crown princes. The strike could be settled and we would not need to debate these regulations, which were born out of the strike and out of malice on the part of the Government. That is why I shall vote against them tonight.
§ Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South)
Yet again today we are commenting on ill-conceived, hasty and ill-directed Government action. I use the word "commenting" deliberately, because we are not debating. As my hon. Friends have pointed out, the regulations were made on one day, laid the next and brought into operation on the third. It is impossible to debate legislation with any degree of credibility when it has already been in operation for two months.
§ Mrs. Beckett
Because there are people in a good deal of poverty for whom the loss of just under £9 a week is a desperate matter.
§ Mrs. Beckett
The hon. Lady has made several interventions. I will give way to her later. There are people in desperate poverty who cannot afford to lose this money. They will be hit by what the Government are doing. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) seems not for a second to understand their anxieties, fears and desperate concern for how they are to meet their bills.
§ Mrs. Currie
If it is a matter of such great concern to Opposition Members, why are so many of those hon. Members who signed the prayer which we are debating not present?
§ Mrs. Beckett
The hon. Lady is fond of making that point. When she last made it—not in this Chamber but on BBC radio—she was vocal about the fact that, when certain matters were debated, my hon. Friends would not be present but that she would. The following day they were debated and she was absent. I advise her to be careful when she makes that type of point.
§ Mr. Robin Cook
The percentage of the parliamentary Labour party present in the House is precisely the same as the percentage of the parliamentary Conservative party that is present.
§ Mrs. Beckett
We are told in the circular that the Government are consulting the authorities and the Social Security Advisory Committee. It is difficult to see how such bodies can be consulted when the regulations have been in operation since 19 December, and many authorities did not even get copies of the regulations until the middle of January. How can that be described as credible consultation?
The explanatory note to the regulations says that the matterwill be referred to the Social Security Advisory Committee.Have the regulations been so referred? If not, will they be? Is any reaction from that committee available? I raise those questions all the more because of the reactions that the SSAC has already had to these non-dependant deductions.
This depressing little measure is an attempt by the Government — perhaps it is unnecessary — to prevent people from avoiding these non-dependant deductions which the Government introduced at such an excessive level almost a year ago. Even if one argues that such a deduction is justified—the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) made this point—it is difficult to understand how the deduction can be justified at that level. When the increase was announced, it was pointed out that it was much more than the rate of inflation. According to the SSAC, the previous increase was beyond what was "fair and realistic". When the increase was announced the level of deduction in respect of rent was almost half the average local authority rent. That gives strength to the remarks of my hon. Friend for Livingston (Mr. Cook) and alliance members about the scale of the imposition on the families involved.
The Minister's predecessor, the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson), justified these deductions with a fine head of steam and indignation which was very much in the hon. Gentleman's best manner. His justification was that the Government were dealing with the selfish young. They were dealing with those who were living at home and earning — this applies also to those who were not earning — and who should be contributing to the household. He felt that the Government were teaching those young people manners, taking them in hand and enforcing a deduction which their parents would claim from them. For a variety of reasons, in many households — I think that many of us would understand these reasons if such circumstances occurred within our families — parents are unwilling or unable to extract contributions from their young relatives.
I have referred to constituency cases and the dozens of letters I have received as a constituency Member and as the shadow Minister, and this is one reason why I am especially concerned. I have referred to individuals who have come to my advice bureau in tears, saying that their working youngsters—for whose ability to obtain a job they had previously been grateful—are earning very low wages and, contrary to the supposition of the hon. Member for Brent, North, are paying substantial sums in board and lodging payments and towards rent and rates. Most young people are not as the hon. Member for Brent, North described them. Now such families are faced with a loss of income, because of the non-dependant deduction.
440 One mother said to me, "My son pays me more than he can afford out of his income. I cannot possibly ask for almost another £9. If he pays that sum to me, he will not be able to afford to go to work and pay for his meals." She was extremely distressed about how her family was to manage. The point is that the Government are taking this income from the family.
The regulations purport to deal with avoidance. We know that the Government are concerned more about avoidance in this respect than about tax avoidance. These ill-thought-out regulations will affect bona fide claimants as well as those about whom the Government are so concerned.
I have noted the reference in the Government's consultative document, a copy of which eventually reached local authorities. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed mentioned how confused local authorities are and how difficult it is for them to sort out what they are supposed to be doing. The circular is not especially forthcoming. It says:Authorities will need to make further enquiries about the joint tenancy/agreement and the circumstances in which it was created. Authorities do not need to make enquiries in respect of every claim".No doubt that is very generous. Fear of the Department of the Environment and worry about possible demands from local authorities for extra staff crept in here. The advice continues:Authorities do not need to make enquiries in respect of every claim from a joint occupier but they should do so where it appears that the tenancy/agreement may have been entered into in order to take advantage of the scheme, for example where the joint tenancy/agreement was recently created and is between a parent and adult child.It has already been said that the main purpose of the regulations has already been served. The powers that the Government sought to introduce through these regulations already exist. In that sense, the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston and by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed about the mining dispute showed that that has had a great bearing on what the Government have done. What reason could there be, other than the Government's determination to put further pressure on local authorities and families, for introducing unnecessary regulations, whose only effect is to shift the burden a little towards presumption of guilt rather than innocence, and to place local authorities under some threat?
Local authorities are confused about what they are supposed to do, about what their duties are and about the threats made to them by the Government that if authorities make payments—theoretically, that is left to authorities' judgments—the Government might refuse to reimburse them. What can the Minister tell us that would cast some light on how those matters are to be judged and on the criteria that the local authorities are to use? Even more to the point, what criteria do the Government propose to use when a local authority, having done what has been urged in the debate and examined the circumstances and the families, some with striking miners, decides to make the payments?
I note that if the Government decide that they will not reimburse, that will place local authorities in a difficult position. I do not know where they will stand with regard to the district auditor. I hope that the Minister will be able to allay an unworthy suspicion that arises — that the reimbursements that will be scrutinised will be those from 441 Labour authorities or authorities that operate in mining areas. I doubt whether the Minister will be able to allay those suspicions.
We are speaking in the same context as the reductions that were made in the entitlement to benefit of the families of striking miners, because people on strike are not entitled to benefit. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) put his finger on the point. The Government deduct £16 from the benefit of families of striking miners. Single miners and their parents have no entitlement, but in this case the Government will continue to make a deduction from the housing benefit.
I am sure that we all recall the number of occasions on which the Prime Minister has told us how much she values Victorian standards. Some 150 years ago, there was a long dispute in a silk mill in my constituency. People were denied Poor Law assistance, specifically in the case of a poor widow, on the grounds that her children smelled of trade unionism. The Government appear to apply a similar standard today.
Most of all, in the context of the regulations, we are concerned about the confusion in the ill-thought-out treatment of non-dependants that seems to run throughout what the Government do. In the Housing Act 1980, the Government actively encourage joint tenancy, especially if that assists families to purchase their homes. Government assistance is used specifically to help families which are slightly less poor than many and which are able to purchase their houses with such help.
Under these regulations adult children are treated as dependants. The thrust of what the Government have in store for us is that adult children, in relation to board and lodging payments, must be treated as dependants. They must not be allowed to be away from home for more than two or three weeks if they are to claim board and lodging allowance. They are to be treated not as independent people, but specifically as children. Financially they are being encouraged to return home.
There are rumours about the Government's intentions for supplementary benefit entitlement for teenagers. A specific decision is being taken to treat them as children without any separate income. These regulations are different. They state that teenagers are to be regarded as non-dependant.
One theme runs through the Government's decisions, and it certainly does not involve logic. The Government adopt whatever course will save them money. Even the definition of "close relative" is different in these regulations. The definition does not refer to non-dependants giving domestic assistance to the disabled. The definition appears to be new. Perhaps the Government think that it will bring in the greatest trawl of financial saving.
What is meant in the regulations by the "commercial" basis of a tenancy. Who will define it? Will it be the local authority or the Government? If the authority is thought by the Government to get it wrong, will the authority lose out?
We are worried that many bona fide landlords and tenants will be affected and discouraged from letting accommodation. As the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said, the regulations will encourage under-occupation.
We can contrast the treatment of the poorer young people and their families with that of those of families who are sufficiently well off not to be involved with the benefit 442 system. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South said earlier that since such young people were earning money, they should contribute. I hope that if that is the Government's attitude, the next Budget will contain tax changes so that earning non-dependants, or dependants who receive benefit, will be forced to contribute to the household's income and housing costs, irrespective of the way in which financial assistance is received from the Government.
What happens today in a family poor enough to receive housing benefit is that the earnings of children are taken into account. By contrast, children in a better off family can earn as much as they like—as much as a Minister or the Prime Minister — and the Government will not care tuppence how much tax relief is given or what that means in terms of housing subsidies.
§ Mrs. Beckett
Why should they not? Why should poor families, dependent on the benefit system, be charged in this way when earning children in better off families do not have to make a contribution? I see no justice in that, and I find it hard to understand how the hon. Lady sees any justice in it.
§ Mrs. Currie
Is the hon. Lady really saying that families in which people earn a lot of money should have unlimited tax relief on their mortgages? I correct her if she is under that misapprehension. Is she suggesting that such families do not pay tax on their income? They do; and they pay a higher rate. What she has just said is a little misleading.
§ Mrs. Beckett
The hon. Lady cannot have thought through what she has just said. Of course I recognise that such people pay taxes, as do the working young adults in the families we are discussing. What I am saying is that the mortgage tax relief received by the better off parents is unaffected by the earnings of their children. That is the point. If the hon. Lady has not grasped it, she should stay out of the debate.
The problem is that these regulations, as is so often the case, are a hotchpotch, a mess, and unnecessary. They are introduced in a panic, because the Government read a story in a newspaper that someone might be able to extract more money, but they did not realise that they had the means to stop that under existing regulations. They have been tabled with what one can only describe as a degree of vindictiveness to try to prevent people from gaining a small degree of relief from the exorbitant charge—by anyone's judgment, including that of the SSAC—that the Government have imposed upon them through these non-dependant deductions. They are tabled on the criterion which seems to be the only one about which the Government care—cutting public expenditure.
The regulations have produced and will produce neither effectiveness nor justice, and that is shared by most of the other policies of the Government.
§ 11 pm
§ The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Tony Newton)
It has been an interesting and rather instructive debate, although there was a moment when I did not care to he in the direct line of fire between Derby, South and Derbyshire, South.
As is clear, the regulations put into effect a number of changes in relation to housing benefit, to establish what 443 had always been thought to be and was intended to be the position rather than to make savings in public expenditure in the way that the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) suggested. They were intended to prevent a rise in public expenditure that might otherwise have taken place.
The debate has concentrated on two aspects only of the regulations, the first being to close the unintended loophole relating to non-dependants and their potential claiming of housing benefit, and the second, on which a great deal of the latter part of the debate has concentrated, relating to contrived tenancies. There is an entirely beneficial third change in the regulations to which no one has drawn attention. It is designed to rectify an omission in the definition of rent which, although it was technical, placed a few people at an unintended disadvantage.
Although I cannot pretend that the sums of money at stake in those provisions which Opposition Members regarded as unattractive is on all fours with the sum of money that they found so attractive that they preferred not to mention it, it is fair for me to make the point that there is some balance in these regulations in that respect.
The unintended loophole allowed people living as members of their families' households to qualify for housing benefit if they made a payment for board and lodging that included an amount falling within the housing benefit definition of rent.
I believe that I can speak for previous Administrations in relation to the housing benefit scheme when I say that it was never the intention that people living in someone else's household, other than as commercial boarders, should be eligible for housing benefit. It was not allowed for under the old rent and rebate and rent allowance schemes which housing benefit replaced, and, as far as I am aware, at no stage did the hon. Lady or her predecessors in Government suggest that those former schemes should be amended to make possible what is now being demanded with such vehemence tonight. Such people cannot obtain supplementary benefit to meet the costs of their board and lodging.
The loophole would have allowed housing benefit to be paid to, for example, an adult son or daughter living in the parents' home where the only separate accommodation was the bedroom. In the light of what the hon. Lady has said tonight, I should be interested to know whether it is her party's policy to pay housing benefit under those circumstances, and if so whether she regards that as a priority for expenditure which we estimate could rise to some £200 million a year and which could be used for many more productive purposes whether in health, social services, social security or a number of other things.
§ Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)
That is interesting, because some of what has been said in the debate relates to the payment to single miners who have been on strike for the past 11 months. The Minister quoted a figure. Did he see the Channel 4 news tonight which said that the strike has cost the CEGB £2 billion so far? In those circumstances, many Opposition Members think that it is very harsh of the Government to have introduced the regulations as swiftly as they have to stop the payment of housing benefit to single striking miners.
§ Mr. Newton
The comparison that the hon. Gentleman is making is pretty far-fetched. Like many other hon.
444 Members — it happened again at Question Time yesterday—I must frankly say that I am absolutely fed up with hearing claims about the costs of keeping the fuel industries going during the dispute against a background in which the miners have caused hardship to pensioners and others by their actions.
§ Mr. Barron
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. The reason why I used that figure was that it was on the news on Channel 4 today. I am a member of the Select Committee on Energy, and the chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Lloyd), who is absent for tonight's debate, was quoting that figure.
§ Mr. Newton
If the hon. Gentleman has reached such a stage of irrationality about the miners' strike that he thinks that it is sensible to make a case for spending £200 million on a wasteful form of housing benefit expenditure merely because the miners' strike has already imposed a wholly unnecessary cost of £2 billion on the rest of the economy, it shows the extent to which he and his party are now living in the economics of the madhouse.
§ Mr. Robin Cook
The Minister argued that it would be wrong to make housing benefit available to a son or daughter who might be occupying only a single bedroom. Why, then, is it right for his Government to assume that that son or daughter will make a weekly payment towards rent and rates of £8.80 a week, which may be half the total rent and rates charged for the entire house, when only one room is being occupied?
§ Mr. Newton
It is already clear that we shall not achieve an accommodation of view on the matter any more than on earlier occasions. I must simply state my view that if it is thought to be unreasonable to suggest that a young person earning the sums that the hon. Gentleman quoted from the CPAG, which ranged up to £85 a week, should be expected to make a contribution of £8.80 a week to the housing costs of the household in which he resides, before the rest of the people in the country are expected to provide housing benefit for that household, we must just agree to differ. I think that it is reasonable, and I suspect that I carry my hon. Friends with me.
Apart from the case that the hon. Gentleman quoted from the CPAG survey, on the figures for April 1984 average earnings for men aged under 18 are £63 a week and for those aged 18 to 20 £101 a week. I do not think that the figures that are quoted as non-dependant deductions are in any way unreasonable in relation to those averages.
§ Mr. Robin Cook
The Minister will appreciate that the figures that he quoted, including the figure of £85, are irrelevant to the regulations. Where those cases are eligible to apply for housing benefit, they would not qualify on income grounds. The only people affected by the regulations and who are denied benefit are those earning much smaller sums of generally less that £50 a week. It is those people whom he is preventing from getting benefit through the regulations.
§ Mr. Newton
Nevertheless there has been running through most of the speeches made by Opposition Members the proposition that it is unreasonable to expect 445 contributions of this nature to the household costs of the households in question. I do not think that that is unreasonable.
As I said, all we are doing with this part of the regulation is restoring the position to what had always been intended, and what had been thought to exist. I should like to refute firmly the suggestion that the change is specifically directed at miners or any aspect of the miners' strike. It is simply the fact, which I acknowledge, that the loophole was discovered by the National Union of Mineworkers' lawyers in crawling over the housing benefit regulations. I pay tribute to them for their diligence. However, the loophole would have had consequences and implications going far beyond the miners' strike, and it was one that I do not believe any Government of whatever colour would have chosen to live with for any length of time. No previous Administration have sought to change the law to allow that to happen. I do not believe that a Government of whom the hon. Member for Derby, South was a member would seek to do so.
A non-householder — someone not responsible for household expenditure for supplementary benefit purposes — is not eligible for a rate rebate or rent allowance at that address. Regulation 23(2) provides that where a person resides with a person to whom he pays rent or rates andeither that person is a close relativeor the rent is paidother than on a commercial basis",he will not be entitled to housing benefit. Genuine arrangements — for instance, where a family has taken an aging parent into its home and provided separate accommodation—are unaffected by the change. In such cases housing benefit may still be claimed for any rent and rates paid.
It has been suggested by Opposition Members that it should be a major feature in the argument that some householders find it difficult to obtain payment from their dependants and that that would be a good reason for granting housing benefit. How would it be secured that the housing benefit in those circumstances was either asked for or paid over to the tenant? I know of no mechanism to ensure that the benefit would be paid over in circumstances where apparently the non-dependant is not paying over the non-dependant deduction.
In response to the request for information to explain why we felt that the change in the regulations was necessary, the existing provisions on contrived tenancies do not cover joint tenancies, on the advice that I have been given. We think it right that any adult non-dependant, such as a grown-up son or daughter living in the claimant's household, should be expected to make a contribution towards household expenses. So a deduction is made from housing benefit in respect of each such non-dependant. Suggestions began to circulate towards the end of last year about how non-dependant deductions could be avoided by creating joint tenancies, thus making the householder and former non-householder eligible to claim housing benefit on their share of the rent. Such action would be a clear abuse of the intentions of the scheme. This issue was brought out well and effectively by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie).
We thought originally that no action would be needed on the ground that few people would wish to apply for joint tenancies for this purpose and that local authorities would 446 act responsibly in considering applications from their tenants. However, it began to appear that a small number of authorities might be planning actively to encourage tenants to exploit the scheme. We were told by some authorities that as part of their overall housing management policy it was their normal practice to grant joint tenancies whenever they were requested and that publicity would place them in a difficult position.
We therefore decided that it would be right to take steps to prevent exploitation of the scheme, and that is what we have sought to do with the regulations. It would clearly be unfair if certain households were able to avoid the deductions being made and obtain additional benefit merely by being in a position to create a joint tenancy agreement with a non-dependant member of the household. To avoid this happening, regulations 8 and 11 provide that where a joint tenancy or agreement to pay rent and rates has been created, and during the previous eight weeks the claimant was a non-dependant of the occupier at the address, he will not be eligible for housing benefit. He will continue to be treated as if he were a non-dependant unless the local authority is satisfied that the joint tenancy or agreement was not created just to take advantage of the housing benefit scheme.
Thus the local authority has discretion—I think that there has to be discretion—to determine whether a joint tenancy is being requested for genuine or exploitative reasons. The amendment does not affect joint tenancy agreements between husband and wife. It applies only to those where the agreement is clearly made to abuse the housing benefits scheme. Genuine arrangements — for example, where a son or daughter has gone to live with his or her widowed mother because she is no longer able to live alone, and has entered into a joint tenancy agreement to protect his tenancy in the future—will be unaffected by the change.
The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) asked why the change on contrived tenancies was needed, and perhaps I could explain that to him briefly. Regulation 23 allowed an authority to disentitle a person who resided with the person to whom he paid rent, or who paid rent to a member of his family where the tenancy was created to take advantage of the housing benefits scheme. It could not be applied to certificated tenancies — that is, people in receipt of supplementary benefit. Several cases arose where the claimant did not live with the person to whom he paid rent, and/or he was a certificated case, but the agreement to pay rent was clearly contrived to take advantage of the scheme.
One case that has been mentioned to me to illustrate the point was that of a man who bought a house on a mortgage, and contrived to give the house to a friend and then to repay the mortgage from a loan, and to remain in the house, in effect paying off the loan in the form of rent and obtaining housing benefit on those payments. That is clearly the sort of device that was not intended and which we are seeking to prevent.
§ Mr. Kirkwood
I agree that that is clearly an abuse, but my point was that the present provisions disqualified such people because it is a clear abuse of the system. Why do we need extra regulations?
§ Mr. Newton
The legal advice that I have been given is that the existing regulations were not sufficient to prevent such cases. In this case, given that a mortgage was 447 involved previously, it would have been certificated housing benefit — the person in question would have been in receipt of supplementary benefit, not housing benefit. That is the problem that we are seeking to tackle. I hope that I have made the point sufficiently clear to the hon. Gentleman.
The provision for contrived tenancies covers the position where, in the past, local authorities could refuse housing benefit to a claimant not in receipt of housing benefit only if they believed that the agreement to pay rent and rates was clearly contrived to take advantage of the housing benefits scheme. There is no reason why supplementary benefit recipients should be treated differently from other claimants, and the regulation now provides that in any case where an authority considers that a person who was not previously liable to pay rent and/or rates in respect of his present accommodation has created an agreement to pay rent and/or rates to take advantage of the housing benefits scheme, it may treat him as not entitled to housing benefit.
I should mention briefly the more favourable provision of the regulations, which no other hon. Member mentioned during the debate. The definition of rent in the housing benefits regulations covers payments made by former tenants if they continue to occupy the accommodation after the tenancy agreement has been terminated. It was always the intention that payments made by former licensees should also be eligible for benefit. However, we were advised that the previous definition did not cover such payments.
It might be helpful if I explained the sort of case that could be involved. One example would be a family living in Crown property, where the husband, who was the tenant, no longer lived with his wife and children in the home. Although the wife was a regular occupant of the property, she would not have been entitled to housing benefit, but she would have had to continue to make payments for rent while the family remained in the home. The amendment puts that right and enables her to receive housing benefit. I understand that this point is of special importance to some people formerly living in service accommodation.
Much has been made of consultation on the regulations. The regulations were made as much as anything to protect local authorities from the extremely difficult and anomalous tasks that they had to face as a result of one unintended loophole, and one device deliberately contrived to exploit the regulations. As I explained to the local authority associations in writing, there are bound to be occasions when we must move quickly in the interests of efficient local administration of the scheme. Of course, central and local government must work in partnership in this, and I regret that, on this occasion, one association evidently believes that we have not done so. I should make it clear to the hon. Member for Derby, South that the Social Security Advisory Committee agreed not to have the regulations referred to it in advance, because it accepted that they were either beneficial or essential. In other words, it accepted that this was a proper use of the emergency provisions under the social security legislation in relation to references to the Social Security Advisory Committee.
§ Mrs. Beckett
I was under the impression that it had been agreed that the first part of these regulations should not be referred to the SSAC but that particularly contentious regulations were to be referred to it. I believe that that appears on the back of the regulations.
§ Mr. Newton
May I look further into that matter? If I have misstated the position, I shall be very happy to correct it. I should not want to mislead the House.
The SSAC accepted that the use of the urgent procedure was appropriate. There was only a brief consultation period, because we felt that we had to move quickly, in view of the nature of the changes that we were seeking to make. We did all that we could to facilitate quick consultation, including offers to meet to discuss the proposals with the associations — offers that were not taken up. I accept that it would have been easier both for us and for the associations if more time had been available, but that would have made life acutely difficult for some of the local authorities administering the scheme, which in some places were faced with a considerable number of applications to exploit the scheme in a way that was never intended and which added unreasonably to their administrative problems.
§ Mr. Beith
The phrase the Minister has used is precisely the kind of phrase that led at least some of the local authorities to believe that the Department is telling them not even to pay those claims that were valid under the regulations before 19 December. Will he please do something to unravel this confusion and remove the injustice whereby people in some local authority areas are being told that, on the say-so of the Minister's Department, they are not entitled to benefit when in fact they are?
§ Mr. Newton
I shall turn straight away to the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised. The position, as I understand it, is that there is no provision for backdating claims to housing benefit. If a claim was made before the change in the regulations, some discretion may be available to the local authority, but no provision is made under the regulations for backdating a claim. Therefore, any claim made after 19 December could not be backdated.
§ Mr. Beith
Is the Minister aware of the injustice of that position, particularly in the case of those people who were advised before 19 December that their claims could not be entertained, because it was then thought that there was no entitlement? Therefore, people were discouraged from making claims. Is there any justice in the Minister's statement? And is not either the local authority or the Minister likely to find that they are arraigned before the Parliamentary Commissioner or the Local Government Commissioner if this line of argument is pursued?
§ Mr. Newton
I am not deploying a line of argument. I am simply stating that I have been advised that there is no provision within the housing benefit regulations for the backdating of a claim. Local authorities must make their own judgments about the legal position under the housing benefit regulations. It is not appropriate for me to determine what those judgments should be. However, the advice I have received is that there is no provision for backdating claims under the housing benefit regulations. There may be a provision for backdating an award once a successful claim has been made but that is not quite the same point.
§ Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)
Is my hon. Friend inviting the House to believe that the regulations are made by some power exterior to the House of Commons who is in his Department? If the regulations are clearly nonsense because people were told that they were not entitled to what they were entitled to, it is open to my hon. Friend or to the Secretary of State to lay amending regulations before the House. My hon. Friend cannot claim that the regulations are outside the control of the Government. He must give a proper answer to that point.
§ Mr. Newton
I am sorry if I have caused my hon. Friend some consternation. I hope that I have not in any way misled the House or suggested that I am attempting to discard Government responsibility for the housing benefit regulations or the possibility of the Government putting before the House potential changes in those regulations which the House can then seek to agree or disagree as it sees fit. All I have been seeking to do is to set before the House what I am advised is the position under the regulations, which is that there is no provision for the back-dating of claims.
Having been taken aback by the question of the hon. Member for Derby, South, let me confirm that I have been assured that the SSAC did agree in both cases that it was appropriate and reasonable for the urgency provision to be used.
I do not accept that in pressing on with the changes we have disregarded our obligation to consult. Indeed, the facts do not bear that out. There were two stages of consultation. The associations were given two weeks to comment on the proposals to close the loophole affecting non-dependants' ability to claim housing benefit on the rent element of their board and lodging charge and on the technical change in the definition of rent.
The Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the Association of District Councils and the London Boroughs Association all replied within the period that we asked, or within a day or two. They were given only a week to comment on the third proposal about joint tenancies because that issue arose at a later stage. However, we received comments from the AMA and from the other associations before the regulations were made. However inconvenient the short notice, they were able to reply; and I am grateful for that. Therefore, views were in practice sought and received, and they were taken into account in our formulation of the regulations.
However, as I have already said, I am unhappy that this problem has arisen and that the AMA in particular feels that it was not properly consulted; we shall be writing to the associations forthwith to offer a meeting to discuss how consultation might proceed in future in order to reach a better basis of understanding with them. I hope that there will be a mutual agreement about how urgent matters can best be dealt with.
At the moment, we are still unaware of what changes, if any, the AMA would wish to see in the regulations. My earlier understanding was that it did not object to their substance. If it does have comments of substance on them, we shall be more than happy to consider them. Having checked the mounting abuses of the scheme by making the regulations in December we can consider further changes to them if there are respects in which any association thinks that further change is needed. If the case for such changes is made out, there can be further consultation on the details of those changes, perhaps with less urgency 450 than we felt necessary in December when the abuses still had to be checked. We shall be writing to the associations tomorrow to explain all that.
I hope that I have explained the regulations to the House, and, in particular, why we felt that they were needed to close the loopholes, and with some urgency. I hope also that I have been able to deal with at least some of the points that hon. Members have raised. However, I hope that, having heard those explanations and comments, the House will not accept the prayer tabled by the Opposition.
§ Question put:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 31, Noes 121.451
|Division No. 104]||[11.28 pm|
|Alton, David||Home Robertson, John|
|Ashdown, Paddy||Hughes, Simon (Southwark)|
|Barron, Kevin||Johnston, Russell|
|Beckett, Mrs Margaret||Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)|
|Beith, A. J.||Maxton, John|
|Boyes, Roland||Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)|
|Brown, Gordon (D'f'mline E)||Patchett, Terry|
|Bruce, Malcolm||Penhaligon, David|
|Cook, Robin F. (Livingston)||Pike, Peter|
|Cowans, Harry||Prescott, John|
|Dalyell, Tam||Skinner, Dennis|
|Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly)||Steel, Rt Hon David|
|Dixon, Donald||Wainwright, R.|
|Evans, John (St. Helens N)||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Freud, Clement||Mr. Michael Meadowcroft and|
|Hamilton, James (M'well N)||Mr. Archy Kirkwood.|
|Amess, David||Galley, Roy|
|Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset)||Garel-Jones, Tristan|
|Baldry, Tony||Gregory, Conal|
|Beaumont-Dark, Anthony||Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)|
|Bellingham, Henry||Ground, Patrick|
|Bevan, David Gilroy||Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)|
|Biggs-Davison, Sir John||Hampson, Dr Keith|
|Blackburn, John||Hanley, Jeremy|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Hargreaves, Kenneth|
|Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard||Harris, David|
|Bright, Graham||Harvey, Robert|
|Brinton, Tim||Hawkins, C. (High Peak)|
|Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes)||Hawkins, Sir Paul (SW N'folk)|
|Bruinvels, Peter||Hawksley, Warren|
|Budgen, Nick||Hayes, J.|
|Burt, Alistair||Hayward, Robert|
|Butterfill, John||Heddle, John|
|Carttiss, Michael||Hicks, Robert|
|Cash, William||Hind, Kenneth|
|Chope, Christopher||Holt, Richard|
|Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th S'n)||Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)|
|Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)||Hunt, David (Wirral)|
|Colvin, Michael||Hunter, Andrew|
|Conway, Derek||Jackson, Robert|
|Coombs, Simon||Key, Robert|
|Cope, John||King, Roger (B'ham N'field)|
|Couchman, James||Knight, Gregory (Derby N)|
|Cranborne, Viscount||Knight, Mrs Jill (Edgbaston)|
|Currie, Mrs Edwina||Knowles, Michael|
|Dunn, Robert||Lang, Ian|
|Durant, Tony||Lawler, Geoffrey|
|Dykes, Hugh||Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)|
|Evennett, David||Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark|
|Fallon, Michael||Lightbown, David|
|Farr, Sir John||Lilley, Peter|
|Fenner, Mrs Peggy||Lord, Michael|
|Forman, Nigel||Lyell, Nicholas|
|Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)||McCurley, Mrs Anna|
|Forth, Eric||Macfarlane, Neil|
|Fowler, Rt Hon Norman||MacGregor, John|
|Freeman, Roger||Maclean, David John|
|Madel, David||Pollock, Alexander|
|Major, John||Portillo, Michael|
|Malins, Humfrey||Powell, William (Corby)|
|Mather, Carol||Powley, John|
|Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin||Price, Sir David|
|Merchant, Piers||Proctor, K. Harvey|
|Miller, Hal (B'grove)||Raffan, Keith|
|Mills, Iain (Meriden)||Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon|
|Mitchell, David (NW Hants)||Sainsbury, Hon Timothy|
|Montgomery, Sir Fergus||Steen, Anthony|
|Morris, M. (N'hampton, S)||Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)|
|Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)||Thompson, Donald (Calder V)|
|Moynihan, Hon C.||Thurnham, Peter|
|Neale, Gerrard||Waller, Gary|
|Neubert, Michael||Warren, Kenneth|
|Newton, Tony||Watts, John|
|Nicholls, Patrick||Whitney, Raymond|
|Oppenheim, Phillip||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Ottaway, Richard||Mr. Peter Lloyd and|
|Page, Sir John (Harrow W)||Mr. Archie Hamilton.|
|Page, Richard (Herts SW)|
§ Question accordingly negatived.