HC Deb 02 July 1985 vol 82 cc285-305 10.23 pm
The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Tony Newton)

I beg to move, That the draft Supplementary Benefit (Requirements) Amendment Regulations 1985, which were laid before this House on 26th June, be approved. At the outset I shall speak fairly briefly, and later I shall respond as fully as I can to the points that I know a number of hon. Members on all sides of the House wish to make.

As is the convention on these occasions, I shall first outline the main points of the regulations.

The first part of the regulations relates to the financial limits rather than to the time limits for board and lodging and increases the flexibility of the transitional protection arrangements that are contained in the original regulations. Those arrangements allowed for 13 weeks' transitional protection of the charge being met immediately before 29 April 1985 for people in ordinary board and lodging accommodation over the age of 25, and for those aged 16 to 25 who fell into any of the categories that are exempt from the time limits. Under the amending legislation the 13 weeks can be extended, at our discretion, for particular cases or classes of case.

The second part of the regulations extends the categories of claimants who are exempt from the time limits on boarder status to cover those young people under the age of 26 who are living with their parents or stepparents in board and lodging accommodation. We know, for example, that the absence of this exemption has been causing particular anxiety among young refugees, many of whom live with their parents in such accommodation. That was not our intention. I hope that hon. Members will be pleased to know not only that we are making this further exemption but that we have made arrangements to make ex-gratia payments to claimants who fall into this new category until the regulations come into operation.

Thirdly, the regulations also provide generally for greater flexibility in the area of exemption categories. As I said in my statement last Tuesday, we believe that our original list of exemptions generally covers those vulnerable young people who genuinely need to be in board and lodging accommodation for more than a short time. However, we want the ability to move swiftly to cover other categories, should it prove to be necessary. The regulations therefore provide for the Government to extend the list of exemptions, if it should become clear that there are other groups to whom the time limits should not apply.

I should also record that the regulations are being made under the urgency procedures so that their wholly beneficial provisions can be introduced as soon as possible. They were not, therefore, referred to the Social Security Advisory Committee before being laid before the House, but they were referred immediately after they were laid. I am glad to say that I understand that the Committee has considered the regulations and, because of their beneficial nature, has decided that it does not wish the regulations to be referred to it for report.

Part of our purpose in these further regulations is to provide additional flexibility to respond without delay to problems, as they arise, that affect non-exempt groups. We have identified two situations where we think that it would be appropriate to use this new power at once. First, we propose to extend the exemption list to cover ex-foster children living as boarders with their former foster parents, a point that has been raised by, among others, the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). Secondly, we intend to extend the list to include young people on bail where the operation of the regulations would otherwise conflict with the conditions of their bail—for example, if there is a requirement to remain in the area. These are two groups where it is clearly right, within the purpose of the policy, to exempt those concerned from the time limits.

I indicated, both in my statement last Tuesday, and in response last Friday to the Adjournment debate of the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), that we have reinforced our guidance to local officers about the administration of these regulations, in particular to ensure that notification letters to claimants not only ask the claimant or, equally important, anybody acting on the claimant's behalf, to let the office know immediately if he thinks that he falls into one of the exemption categories but to let it know of any special circumstances that may show a need to be in board and lodging accommodation. That is not only to enable us to ensure that the regulations are administered as effectively as possible but to assist us in examining whether there are any further exemption categories that need to be covered and taking the appropriate action, if need is shown.

The hon. Member for Livingston raised a number of points in last Friday's debate, which he asked me to consider. I am pleased to be able to respond tonight to one of those points. We have asked local officers to draw up a list of places and agencies in their area, including the DHSS office, where claimants will be able to seek help and advice over, for example, finding accommodation or understanding how the exemption categories may apply to them. I hope that that news will be welcomed on both sides of the House.

I cannot respond in the same way to the other suggestion that the hon. Member for Livingston made about what might be called the administrative side — in effect, that we should communicate to such agencies the names of people to whom notices under the board and lodging regulations had been sent — for the obvious and I hope simple reason that it would not be appropriate for the DHSS routinely to send information about claimants' affairs to other bodies. I hope that the House will appreciate the difficulty that such a proposal would cause.

Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)

I welcome those relaxations, but the Minister said that if special cases warranting exemption arose they would be considered sympathetically by his Department. What time will elapse between a category arising and the finding of a solution? One of the points made by the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) was that there could be problems with suicides and other such unfortunate events.

Mr. Newton

One of the advantages of the amending regulations and the reason why we have brought them forward is that they provide a mechanism for extending the exemption categories by enabling the Secretary of State to specify classes of case to be added to the exemption list. It is a process which can take place quickly. It would depend only on the decision-making process within the Department which would, of course, involve Ministers. I hope that that can be done quickly, if the need is shown. The decisions can be communicated quickly to the local offices.

The merit of what I am proposing is that it enables us to respond quickly. I must emphasise, so as not to mislead the House, that the power is to specify types of case that would be exempt; it does not extend to the use of discretion about individual cases. That would raise rather different legal issues.

When we introduced the new regulations in April we promised to monitor them closely and to be willing to make changes if the need were shown. These regulations are evidence that we meant what we said. That monitoring will continue through regular returns from all our offices and in other ways. In particular, we have asked the social security policy inspectorate to extend its earlier work on board and lodging and to consider also the effects of the new regulations. We have also commissioned a firm of management consultants, Ernst and Whinney, to undertake a detailed study for us of residential care and nursing homes. The study will have the following terms of reference: To provide information on the operation of the market in private and voluntary provision of residential and nursing care, with particular emphasis on the impact of social security payments to residents in homes. We have asked the consultants, within that broad framework, to examine the relationship between charges and costs; cost differentials in different categories of homes and different parts of the country; and the effects of benefit levels on the operation of the market. Many organisations have expressed their willingness to assist in a factual examination of those issues, and I am sure that the consultants will receive full co-operation.

We expect a report within about six months, and intend to take account of the findings in the review of these matters which we have, in any case, undertaken to carry out within a year of the implementation of the regulations.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

How much will the Minister pay the consultants?

Mr. Newton

I cannot give an estimate of that at this stage, but I shall see whether I can provide one when I seek to reply or at some later stage. It will to some extent depend upon the work involved.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

When the inspectorate's work is complete, will it be published?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have made it our practice generally to publish social security policy inspectorate reports. I do not wish to give a definite undertaking, but I shall consider that point sympathetically.

In conclusion, I wish to remind the House of the main reasons for the action that the Government have taken. The figures of escalating expenditure are now well known. Ordinary board and lodging rose from £52 million in 1979 to an estimated £380 million in 1984. The total of board and lodging payments, including residential care and nursing homes, rose from about £60 million in 1979 to an estimated figure of nearly £600 million in 1984. To put those figures in perspective, I make the point that they would pay for almost all the significant improvements in benefits for disabled people which are frequently urged upon me by both sides of the House. It would be hard for anyone to justify expenditure on such a scale for this purpose alongside the other pressing needs which many perceive in the social security system.

Frankly, however, cost alone was not by any means the only reason for moving in this direction. I have already referred to the study that we have commissioned by Ernst and Whinney in the residential care and nursing home sector. I ought to tell the House that some months ago we commissioned a study into the board and lodging market by the same firm of management consultants. The report, which we have recently received and which 1 am arranging to have published and placed in the Library shortly, contains some revealing points. In three of the six areas that it studied, landlords set their charges by reference to the Department of Health and Social Security supplementary benefit limits. In half the areas, there was evidence that landlords were charging higher amounts for DHSS claimants than for other residents, sometimes as much as £15 higher. In four of the six areas, a high proportion of advertising by landlords was directed specifically at DHSS claimants and, of course, many landlords acknowledged that claimants were their primary market.

Those findings are, I think, some indication — together with figures that showed an increase in Reading of 37 per cent. in the number of board and lodging claimants in less than six months — of a degree of abuse and exploitation that was widespread and on which, in my judgment, action needed to be taken. There was considerable abuse and exploitation, not only by claimants but also by landlords. There was a pattern of encouragement of inappropriate use of board and lodging accommodation and, not least, a position in which a growing number of young people were effectively trapped in that they could not afford to take work because there was no way, once they had taken a job, in which they could continue to pay for the accommodation in which they were living.

In moving to curb these problems, the Government were at least equally anxious to protect those with real needs, hence the extensive range of exemption categories and the further action that I propose to the House tonight.

I do not believe that any hon. Member seriously doubts that some action was necessary. As I said last Tuesday, the aim of our action is to strike a proper balance between curbing that undoubted abuse and ensuring that genuine social security needs are effectively met. The purpose of the regulations is to help us further that aim.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

I remind the House that the debate should be restricted to the specific provisions of the regulations, which deal with the extension of board and lodging allowances for persons under 26, and to the transitional arrangements for persons in ordinary board and lodging accommodation.

10.38 pm
Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South)

We have listened with interest to the Minister tonight, and noted that once again he has explained facts of which, as my hon. Friends have already pointed out, we were fairly cognisant, facts which we took pains to try to point out to the Government when they brought before the House the temporary regulations, which the regulations now under consideration seek to amend.

Perhaps some people were exploiting a loophole that the Government opened. It was not the claimants who were exploiting the loophole, but the landlords, yet it is against the claimants that the Government have taken action. This is one of our main concerns.

The Minister has had to return to the House within a short period with urgent amending regulations. Unless he suspends or withdraws them, he will speedily return with yet more amendments and changes, even though he has taken powers under these regulations to make some of the changes that might be necessary.

A week or so ago, I was present at a meeting of claimant advisers from a range of areas and agencies in my constituency. The meeting had been arranged some time before to discuss issues that the advisers believed to be of prime importance. The advisers talked for more than an hour about nothing except board and lodging regulations. I asked why they were concerned mostly about these regulations, and they replied that the nature, extent and scope of the problems that they were facing as advisers had swamped every other aspect of social security work and had completely destroyed all the other advice work that they sought to do. That is the nature of our concern about the regulations. Do they go far enough? Will they allow the Government to do enough? Will the Government use the powers that they have been given? The Minister touched only lightly on that last aspect.

The regulations fall basically into two parts—those that mostly affect the young with regard to time limits and those that affect all claimants, including those in need of care who are in homes of one type or another and are affected by the limit on payments. Despite what the Minister said about reports, the common thread that runs through the background to the regulations has been the wish to save money. The hon. Gentleman referred to a recently received report from the same management consultants who are inquiring into residential homes. I suspect that the report was received after the amending and original regulations were drafted and introduced. It is unfortunate, to say the least, that the Minister is commissioning a study of the effects on residential homes only at this stage. Those effects will have been felt for nearly a year by the time the report is published. It is a pity that the studies were not conducted first. When the Social Security Advisory Committee looked at the regulations, it pointed out that the Government seemed to have little evidence to support their action, although they had plenty of stories and anecdotes and made plenty of horrified remarks.

We are dealing with the effect of Government action, yet the burden will fall on the claimants. It is worth restating the basic nature of the problem. Increased homelessness and unemployment have contributed to the tendency that the Government so deplore. Conservative Members do not seem fully to understand that point. About a week ago, the Under-Secretary of State said: Nobody in need can slip through that net of exemptions. Presumably that has been overtaken by events, or we would not be considering these regulations.

The hon. Gentleman continued: Opposition is coming solely from those individuals who cannot be bothered to look for jobs and prefer to live without effort off the B and B allowance. Those remarks were insulting but, more unfortunately, they were singularly inaccurate.

The basic problem is that the regulations are utterly unrealistic. They had their genesis during the reign of the former Minister for Social Security — the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) — whose measures have had many unfortunate effects. The regulations are governed by the "Gillick syndrome", which the Government seek to attack in the other place and against whose effects they seek to defend us. The syndrome assumes that all young people have happy relationships with their parents, that all parents have adequate resources and that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Unfortunately, the reality is emerging so quickly that, even before the regulations come fully into effect, we are seeing the effects on the large numbers of vulnerable claimants who are not protected by the exemptions, and who will not be protected by the amended regulations, and on those who are not regarded as sufficiently vulnerable to be in exempt categories but who often are genuinely unable to find suitable alternative accommodation. We recognise that accommodation is also a matter for the Department of the Environment. While the Minister is having consultations and getting reports it might be as well to consult that Department about how to deal with the problems of inadequate housing.

People now in board and lodgings because it is difficult or impossible for them to find other accommodation will be even less well placed when the regulations come fully into effect and they have to move on every two, four of eight weeks. They will then never be able to qualify for local authority housing in the normal way. They will effectively lose their right to vote and their right to sustained medical treatment because they will not be in the same area long enough to enjoy the normal rights available in a civilised society.

There are then those who are potentially exempt, or who should be exempt if we are to be stuck with the regulations, but who are not allowed exemption. There are enormous problems of definition. There are supposed to be exemptions for those who are chronically sick. I understand that that may cover relatively minor but longstanding illness. Those refused exemption in that category include an unstabilised epileptic, an asthmatic who has severe attacks and a diabetic who has to inject himself daily. The former need stability and supervision while the latter needs a clean environment to maintain health.

Others who should be exempt but have been refused include a young man of 20 who is educationally subnormal and has anxiety and other medical problems. As it happens, he is living in board and lodgings with his brother, both of them having been in care most of their lives. The brother is exempt because he is only 17, but the 20-year-old has been refused exemption despite a letter from his doctor supporting his claim. Another young man of 20 is backward, suffers from chronic epilepsy, has lived in board and lodgings since he was 17 and has no parents, but the local officer has ruled that he is not exempt because board and lodging accommodation is not the only form of accommodation suitable for him. Another young man who is registered disabled, spent most of his childhood in care and has no parental home has been told that he could reasonably live in accommodation other than board and lodging. There are many other cases.

Then there is the exemption for young people who until very recently have been in the care of a local authority and have no parents, but there is an age limit of 19. What is an orphan over the age of 19 supposed to do? When these rules were first proposed, the then Minister peddled the theory that all these young people would just go home to their mothers and fathers. Orphans do not have mothers and fathers, but it is still assumed that they will go "home".

A 17-year-old who has been living alone for two years comes from a broken home and has lost contact with his step-parents, but the local authority will not accept responsibility for him as a homeless person and he cannot register on the housing waiting list until he is 25, so he has eight years to be pushed around from pillar to post under the Government's regulations because he has been told that he is not exempt.

A young man whose father has remarried and moved away and whose mother lives in a bedsitter and another who is unwilling to produce evidence of violence against him have also been told that they are not exempt.

I could cite a whole series of cases of young people who have no possibility of going "home" because their parents are abroad or whatever but who are told that they must move on because the DHSS takes the view that they should somehow be able to return to a non-existent parental home.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Beckett

I would rather not, as the hon. Gentleman usually has nothing new to say.

Mr. Gale

Why are young people being told to move on when the non-householder is available? From experience in my constituency, my understanding is that if it is possible to find accommodation other than in an organisation which seeks to make a profit out of it, accommodation can be found in the person's own area at the non-householder allowance level, so the young person is not required to move on. With respect, unless the hon Lady can substantiate her claim, she should withdraw what she has said.

Mrs. Beckett

I knew that I should not have given away to the hon. Gentleman, because it is almost always a waste of time.

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)


Mrs. Beckett

I am prepared to answer the hon. Lady; in her constituency and mine about 1,000 young people live in board and lodging accommodation because there is nothing else. In the hon. Gentleman's constituency, people may be more fortunately placed, but little rented accommodation is available in my constituency.

Mrs. Currie

rose— —

Mrs. Beckett

I am sorry, but I shall not give way. It is a short debate, 1 have a great deal to say, and I am not interested in allowing Conservative Members to score points on a serious matter.

In most places there is insufficient alternative accommodation available. Most young people do not choose to live in that accommodation. If the hon. Gentleman had ever seen it, he would know that nobody would want to live in it. The young people certainly do not choose to pay the exorbitant prices that have caused the DHSS to introduce these regulations, which in any case affect the claimant rather than the landlord. They live there because they have nowhere else to go. If the hon. Gentleman listened more to those people and the agencies that represent them, he would know that that was true.

The categories of exemption apply to those who are said to be in physical or moral danger. In my constituency, I came across a young woman who had to sign a formal legal statement that she had been sexually attacked by her father to qualify for exemption. Even if a person can justify that he or she has been in physical or moral danger, what on earth leads the DHSS to imagine that that will cease with the wave of a magic wand when that person reaches the age of 19?

There is the case of a young man who has twice been put in hospital by his stepfather and who, not unnaturally, is unwilling now at the age of 20 to return to the step-parental home. Yet under the regulations he is in danger of being forced to do so. It is unrealistic of the Department to imagine that the provision is workable.

There is the question whether people in employment or education are eligible for exemption. The local office has been asked to pronounce on whether full-time and part-time places on YTS and the community programme count. It seems that, if places are part-time, they do not. If a person can get only a part-time community programme place, they lose their accommodation and whatever hope they have of getting a job.

The category of people who are told that they are exempt includes refugees. When we last debated the issue, we asked the Minister whether he would make refugees an exempt category. When the Government wrote to the British Refugee Council saying that the children of refugees in Clapham were exempt because they were undergoing rehabilitation or resettlement, the local DHSS office, on the advice of the chief adjudication officer, sent letters to say that they were not exempt and that their benefit would be cut. There is a great deal of argument about how the exemption categories work now, and whether the definitions are adequate.

I suggest to the Minister that the present categories are not working well, and that some people should not fall outside them. At present there is no exemption, as there should be if the Minister is considering extending the list, for those who have lived away from the parental home for some years, and whose partner has died or left them. They are expected to return to the parental home. Under the regulations, separated people may be required to leave the area where their children live, although their access arrangements to those children depend on their being in the area. I have heard of a young woman who threatened to remove her child from foster care because if she were forced to leave the area she would no longer have access to the child. The stability of the arrangements for the care of that child are threatened. Many youngsters are simply estranged from their parents and have little possibility of returning home and many need the support that good hoard and lodging accommodation can give.

In my constituency, two caring people are trying to run accommodation in which young people with a variety of problems can live. Some are on probation, some are not, and some are on the fringes. Because it is not yet a properly defined hostel, those two people have been told that the youngsters must move on. The probation service says that it is reluctant to lift a probation order from a young person when it knows that by so doing it will put him or her out of an exemption category. That will cause the individual to move on from lodgings where perhaps he or she is receiving the sort of support that we would all wish such people to have.

The Minister must consider the position of those who have not yet had their appeals decided. All the young men who live in the house to which I have referred have been notified that their benefit will cease. They have all applied for exemption on a variety of grounds and not one of them has received a written decision on their exemption. They have merely been told that their benefit will no longer be supplied. They have submitted appeals against their non-written decisions and asked how long it will take for the appeals to be decided. They have been told that it will take until August at least for the appeals even to be heard. Where are they likely to be by August? How will they travel back if they want to participate in the appeal? No travel grant will be available to them. Travel grants are available only if the individual is moving to a defined place at a specified address or if he is returning to the parental home.

Mr. Frank Field

Perhaps my hon. Friend is being slightly gentle with the Government. Once a claimant is put on his bike and moved out of the area in which he is living, he will have no address. He will have nowhere to instruct the Department to send his appeal papers. This is an extremely important issue and if the Minister is prepared to respond immediately, perhaps my hon. Friend will allow him to intervene now so that he can deal with it and perhaps allay our fears by clearing it up.

Mrs. Beckett

If the Minister wishes to intervene, I shall be happy to allow him to do so immediately. If he feels that he cannot answer immediately, perhaps he will be able to take up the issue when he replies. I hope that he will tell us how the Government feel that they can give some sort of understanding to claimants that their appeals can properly be heard. I should like to know how they are to travel to a new place and how they will find accommodation. How will the Department send on their papers? How long will it take for the papers to reach them. If they go to a seaside area, it might take longer than two weeks for the papers to arrive. No one can judge to what benefit they will be entitled. Some of them might be judged to be of no fixed abode and not, therefore, entitled to any benefit.

In short, the regulations are a mess. We are faced with exemptions that do not work, claimants who do not know whether they are exempt or not, claimants who cannot appeal and claimants who are not exempt and should be. We are faced with a disaster from start to finish, and unfortunately the claimants are bearing the burden.

We hope to hear from the Minister how he proposes to extend the classes of exemptions. As the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) said, we shall be interested to know when that extension can take place. We want to hear about the categories in which other decisions are to be made—for example, the limits on which the money can be paid. I understand that the Prime Minister told us this afternoon that the limits that are allowed under the regulations are quite reasonable. I am not sure how she knows that, when the study that will tell us what they will be and how reasonable they are has barely been commissioned. That is the effect of what the Minister has told us.

I note that the Under-Secretary of State told one of my colleagues in a written answer the other day that it was "believed" that 60 per cent. of the residential homes that are affected by limits under the regulations will come within the limits that the Government have set. Presumably the other 40 per cent. are expected to lower their charges or to close down immediately. How can it be said that the charges, especially for nursing homes, are reasonable? Those who run the homes have been saying ever since the proposals were drawn up that they are not reasonable. We are not talking about property-owning organisations, although I recognise that there may be some such individuals. We are discussing voluntary organisations, charities and non-profit-making organisations, which say that their expenses cannot be met within the limits that the Department has chosen to set.

In any case, I do not see how the Government can argue that their limits for nursing homes are reasonable. Let us accept for a second that the Government are right about ordinary residential care homes, and that £110 to £170, depending on the category, is a reasonable charge for straightforward residential care. How on earth do the Government argue that for a mere £28.60 more, full nursing care can be provided in homes in the parallel category?

I can remind the Minister what that means in terms of the care provided. In the south Derbyshire health authority, certain guidelines are given to judge whether a place is a nursing home. There are 10 in all, of which some are whether a person is doubly incontinent for more than a week, whether there is a need for two staff to mobilise, dress, bathe and toilet the resident, whether the resident needs care at night as well as in the day time, or assistance with feeding, such as tube feeding, or has pressure sores, a catheter and so on. These categories of care decide whether a place can be considered a nursing home, but for all that extra care over and above ordinary residential facilities, the home receives the princely some of £28.60 a week. Even by the standards of this Government, it is hard to see how that can be judged to be an adequate sum.

The Minister knows that it has long been argued by many, including the Social Security Advisory Committee, that we are lacking one category of suitable provision, that for the elderly mentally infirm. The Minister has said that he might be able to extend the transitional period for old limits, and we might welcome that — it is better than going ahead with the previous provisions. However, I wonder how he can justify the charges at the intended levels, and how it can be justified that a physically handicapped person under the age of retirement who is in a home that charges above the level will have a year to find somewhere else to live? Have the Government told them that yet?

Already, the young people affected by the other regulation have had a week's notice because the Department has not got around to sending out the letters. When will it send out the letters to the severely handicapped telling that they must move out of their home to somewhere cheaper? I feel sorry for the civil servant who has to draft that letter. It will be a work of art to make it sound reasonable.

Fundamentally, as I have said before, these regulations are an absolute and utter mess. We want to know how the Minister will take the power to extend the length of the transitional period, and how it will be administered—I understand that it might be devolved to individual offices. Will there be a right of appeal against a decision? If it is a power of the Minister, it might mean that there is no such right.

These regulations have been in place for only a few weeks. Already the evidence is pouring in, and it must be pouring in to the Minister as well as to everybody else, of claimants who are severely disadvantaged by them. The Government have emergency procedures and powers. When they first embarked on the disastrous course of action that we are discussing tonight, they began by suspending the regulations then in force. Unless, perhaps not tonight but very soon, the Minister either suspends or withdraws these regulations, he, and many other people, will live to regret it, and rather too many people might not live at all.

11.3 pm

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Croydon, North-West)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services was right to come to the House in November and tell us of the escalation in costs of DHSS payments for board and lodging. It was a scandal that could not be faced indefinitely. He rightly pointed out the other scandal of the unscrupulous landlord. On that occasion, I reminded my right hon. Friend of a number of real problems such as the appalling squalor that in which many people in board and lodging accommodation live, with particular reference to overcrowding, which is appalling in this day and age. I asked whether the Government would act and he replied, "Yes, I agree."

In a later debate, I said that the fundamental problem is that there is no obligation on the DHSS or housing authorities to enforce any standards. There are powers, but no duties. I said that it was time that there were duties so that important customers might enjoy a decent standard of service. There are two sets of customers—taxpayers and homeless families. Since then, I have corresponded with my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment. When asked whether the Government would introduce measures to ensure better accommodation, he replied in a letter: As you know, the Government is concerned to see restraint in central and local government expenditure, and there must be reservations about the cost implications of proposals which impose further duties indiscriminately, of applied national minimum standards and reduced local authorities' discretion in deciding when and how to act. The Government are right to want to save money, but they should be prepared to spend some money to ensure proper conditions for the homeless. My hon. Friend continued to say that the Department was carrying out research which involved examination of the condition of housing in multiple occupation and local authorities' use of existing legislation. Local authorities have some powers, but they rarely use them. In 1982, there were 145,000 substandard houses in multiple occupation in Britain but, in the same year, only about 6,500 repair orders, notices or closing orders were served by local authorities. Less than 5 per cent. of substandard properties were attacked.

In June last year, the institution of Environmental Health Officers said: Few Local Authorities throughout the Country have a comprehensive approach or even a coherent policy. It is a scandal that, in 1985, families are condemned to living in the most appalling squalor. The House is able to act by introducing measures that insist that accommodation, for which taxpayers pay through the DHSS, is decent.

I believe that Mr. Jim Marshall introduced a Bill in the previous Parliament which would have gone some way to help. That Bill fell because of the general election. There are powerful reasons why the Government should introduce a similar measure. There are two customers. We are looking after those who pay quite well, but in a civilised age, the recipients are more important. If we are to be a caring Government, we must not open ourselves to the charge that we lack compassion on this issue. If we fail to act soon, that charge will be difficult to resist.

11.8 pm

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

I agree with the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Malins) that the Government should put much more emphasis on what is provided by landlords.

I and my colleagues have had much correspondence from people who are affected and from others who think that compassion has been missing from the Government's handling of this issue. We accept, however, that administration of the system is difficult.

What steps are being taken by the Department to assist local offices in the administration of the regulations? I know of a number of different examples of problems. Staff, in all good faith, have found differences of approach and interpretation. Some of the existing exemptions, in addition to those we are now considering, are difficult to interpret. They can be fiendishly complicated. Are additional staff and training being devoted to the problem?

I agree in principle with what the Minister said about the difficulties of the DHSS handing on details of individual claimants to other offices—whether housing or social work. We must be careful to ensure that confidentiality is preserved. But in cases where the DHSS considers people to be vulnerable, and who could be assisted by other offices, is the Minister saying that the DHSS offices should adopt a self-denying ordinance?

I wish to repeat a few points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) following the statement last week. We have come across a few cases that we think are stupid. The first is when claimants are moved on because they have run out of the time limit—whether two, four or eight weeks—but have been offered jobs in the area. If the claimant can show a written offer of a job to begin in, say, 10 weeks, it is daft to move him out of the area. Secondly, if a local authority offers a claimant a house in 10 weeks, it is daft to move on an unemployed youngster.

Thirdly, there have been television programmes about youngsters with bail conditions. All three categories are suitable for potential exemption.

We welcome the Minister's announcement about foster children. We have been pressing the Government to consider that matter.

I am concerned about two cases that have been referred to the Minister from the Eastern Borders citizens advice bureau in a letter dated 21 June. They involve women aged 16 and 19 who were moved on, although they were permanent residents in the Berwickshire area generally. I should be grateful if the Government would study the circumstances surrounding those cases.

If I correctly understand information given to me by Shelter in Scotland, there is now a trend for landlords looking for new ways around the regulations to convert some of their board and lodging accommodation into bedsits. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind when carrying out his monitoring. If various conditions apply, they can charge more money which would be recoverable through housing benefit rather than board and lodging payments. If the Minister is carrying our monitoring, I hope that he will look carefully at the amounts of money that continue to be spent in that way. If bedsits are created out of board and lodging accommodation, we shall be no better off in many respects. Shelter in Scotland calculated that the taxpayer could eventually pay more for a situation that would be less satisfactory than the present one.

The hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) raised an important point about appeals. There is a strong case to be made for exemption. I accept that it could be open to abuse, but if the monitoring arrangements are sensitive, they should be able to pick that up. When people who are subject to appeal have made appeals, in some cases they take two or three months to be heard. There is a good case to be made for giving urgent consideration to including them in the category of exemptions.

Many more detailed points could be made. There is much more evidence that I could adduce to the Minister, but other hon. Members wish to take part in the debate, so I shall conclude.

11.14 pm
Mr. Gerrard Neale (Cornwall, North)

I do not think that my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security needs any lessons on compassion from colleagues in the House. He has displayed a close interest in these problems ever since they came to light. The way in which he has handled the various complaints and comments from colleagues has shown that he is sensitive to the issues, aware of the problems, and perfectly capable of resolving them. I congratulate my hon. Friend particularly on the announcement of a factual examination relating to residential and nursing homes. That is a worthy thing to do. It will discover what is going on in that area of the board and lodging issue.

The hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) introduced a whole range of considerations, some of which seemed to conflict with her own argument. One document that she may not have studied with close interest or analysis can be found in the Library. I recommend that she and any other colleague gets a copy of "Supplementary Benefit Local Limits on Board and Lodging Payments to be adopted by the Secretary of State for Social Services under the Supplementary Benefit (Requirements) Amendment and Temporary Provisions Regulations 1984". If any colleague on either side of the House wishes to see the wide diversity of payments for board and lodging made by various homes, whether residential care or nursing homes, it is in that document. Thus my colleagues can see just what a nonsense it has become and how much justification there is in what the Government seek to do.

Having listened to some of the comments by colleagues on both sides of the House, I have to say that they hardly describe the young people in my constituency who appear to be enjoying benefit under the provisions. Few seem to be incapable of working out exactly what they are entitled to, and the way in which they can make the best use of the benefits that are available to them. Opposition Members seem to chuckle in derision each time it is suggested that claimants are taking advantage of the current regulations. There is clear evidence——

Mrs. Beckett


Mr. Neale

I shall not give way.

There is clear evidence in my area that there is widespread misuse and advantage taken. I concede that there is also far too prelevant a misuse of the regulations by landlords, too. But to suggest that it is only landlords, not young people, is wrong.

I hope that my hon. Friend will give careful consideration to all the points that have been made, but will not rush in to change things on a wide scale. It is far too soon to judge what the effect of the regulations is. My hon. Friend has already introduced a range of exemptions in the original regulations. They should be given time to work through. Already, as the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) mentioned, a problem about bedsits is developing. I ask my hon. Friend to alert benefit offices to this. It is not merely a question of one room, not having a cooker and then being provided with a cooker to make it a bedsit for one person. There is evidence in my constituency of one cooker being provided for eight or 10 people and enabling eight or 10 people to change to some form of housing benefit provision. The local offices have become aware of that, and I hope that my hon. Friend will make certain that others are alerted to that situation.

The most critical point I wish to put to my hon. Friend is this. This situation has occurred only in very recent times simply because the lid was taken off the level of charges which enabled a new market to be created. The Opposition seem to recognise this but do not seem to want to show any will to change. Taking the lid off has enabled young people to become nomadic and to tour the country without any obligation to find work.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

rose— —

Mr. Neale

I would like to give way, but I have refused the hon. Member for Derby, South and there is limited time.

We already have these nomadic groups moving around. A tremendous number of them have come to my constituency. Payments to these young people have been higher than benefits payable to other local people in similar difficulties. Similarly the benefits are untaxed. What is more important is that they are largely unchecked. How the money is spent is largely unaccountable. I put it to my hon. Friend, as I put it to him the other day, that they are paid without any attendant obligation to look for work.

In coastal areas like mine, it is almost as if it is a paid holiday for young people, even a sort of early retirement. The hon. Member for Derby, South and some of her hon. Friends disputed that and said that these people were looking for work. In Newquay, where we have 30 per cent. male unemployment, anyone who goes to the local benefit office will establish beyond doubt that the vast majority of these people have nothing to do with Newquay or Cornwall. They have come in from outside. In total 2,420 people are out of work. Only 502 of them are registered at the jobcentre. Only 20 per cent. are registered as looking for work. Opposition Members may say "Ah, yes, but they can go in on a self-service basis and check. They do not have to register." If hon. Members check with the local benefits office, they will find that few of those unemployed people ever appear in a jobcentre, even on a casual basis, to look for work.

I am sure that the Minister works in close liaison with the Department of Employment and his colleagues there. I ask him to make absolutely certain that there is a clear obligation through jobcentres to provide information regarding job availability in the area to which people wish to go. Until we impose on these young people the responsibility of ascertaining the availability of jobs before they go, they will wander around and blame all and sundry because they cannot find work, and hon. Members will bleat that young people do not have a fair chance to find work. There is every facility available for them, if they use it, through the jobcentres.

My hon. Friend has commendably introduced these regulations and commendably announced that he is willing to consider the necessity for change. My plea is that he does not rush into any further change until the current exemptions have been given time to work. There is no doubt in my mind that certain agencies have done everything they possibly can to induce a sense of hype in order to frighten him — 1 know he is not easily frightened — into making changes the necessity for which at this stage is far from proven.

11.24 pm
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale) because, perhaps to the surprise of my hon. Friends and Conservative Members, there are some issues on which I agree with him, but I draw different conclusions from the analysis he put forward.

I have often made the plea to the Government for a firmer link between the payment of benefit and the opportunities, such as they are, for work. When Conservative Members make that same point, a point clearly set out in the Beveridge report, it would be good if they not only made it from the Benches but joined us in the Division Lobby to try to concentrate the Government's mind on the issue. Do not let us have division on this point tonight. Most of us in the Chamber want to see many more jobs. Even with the current level of unemployment there are still large numbers of people who get jobs at any one time. There is a need to link the payment of benefit to the jobs that are available. The move that has gone on for 10 years or more of pushing the work to the jobcentres, and of the jobcentres not having links with the benefit offices, is a retrograde step both for taxpayers and, more important, for those who are looking for work. There was a combined service but it has been broken up.

Surely the hon. Member for Cornwall, North would agree that there is all the difference in the world between how the regulations should apply in seaside towns, and how they should apply in constituencies like mine, which is Birkenhead. It may be the view of Conservative Members that we are so vindictive that in periods of high unemployment we do not want people who do not have jobs to move to seaside towns to draw benefit that they previously would have been able to draw in their own towns. I can understand people taking that stand but it is not one that I share. Much as I love my own area of Birkenhead it is not an area to which people go to have a pleasant time at the seaside when they do not have work. There is that fundamental difference. That difference is not made clear in the regulations. So I am in some agreement with the analysis that has been put forward by the hon. Member for Cornwall, North.

Mr. Neale

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that great frustration is caused in a place such as Newquay because jobs exist there, but these young people show no evidence of wanting to take them? if they took the work for which some of them have been recommended, there would be less frustration.

Mr. Field

There would be less frustration if there was a link between the payment of benefit and the jobs available. What the hon. Gentleman did not do tonight was make the error that he made when he spoke previously, when he rather welcomed the regulations because he said that people were coming to his area and taking Jobs from local people. He cannot claim that people are flooding in to take jobs, so depriving local people of the work, if at the same time he is claiming that these people are not prepared to work. He did rot make that inconsistent stand tonight although it is on the record on previous occasions.

Mrs. Currie


Mr. Field

Large numbers of hon. Members want to speak and I wish to make only a few points.

My other introductory point is to appeal to the Minister to grab hold of the lifeline that has been thrown to him by the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Malins). The Opposition are putting clearly on the record that large numbers of landlords exploit the position and rip off the welfare state—to use a crude phrase. We are anxious for that to end, although we want measures aimed at the landlords directly and not aimed at the landlords through individual claimants. If we are to go down the path that the Government have begun, it is important that resources, manpower and money are used for a proper system of checks on the board and lodging arrangements that exist in various parts of the country. Not only would that create an extra few jobs, but in the long run it would give taxpayers a better deal. Above all, it would give claimants who have to use these places a much better standard of living. Those are the introductory points I want to make, but I have three questions to put to the Minister. First, could he tell us more about how he will exercise the discretion he has been talking about this evening? Is he going to listen to these debates? What happens when he has listened to them, and when will we know when he has made a new decision about the extension of exempted categories?

Secondly, when the Government responded to one of the advisory committee reports in March 1985. Cmnd. 9467, they talked about the uprating limits, and I wish to quote one sentence in that report. The Government said: The Government will make a further statement on the arrangements for reviewing limits when it announces the uprating of social security benefits in June. What happened to that key paragraph in that document? Was that yet another part of the Government's programme that got lost on the way to the printers? Presumably we are to have a statement on those upratings before the end of July.

My third question has been touched on much more eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett). How will the rights of appeal of claimants be operated under this measure? If people are moved within two, four or eight weeks in a particular area, how can we ensure that those claimants are allowed to make effective their rights of appeal against what we regard as a very bad measure indeed?

11.32 pm
Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)

My hon. Friend may have been disappointed in that, when he came before the House with amendments to the regulations, which eased their operation and provided for a more generous interpretation of the rules, he did not receive a more generous response from both sides of the House. We ought to welcome what he has had to say. However, I fear that in discussing these matters the terminology that is sometimes used is unfortunate. I have had the pleasure of listening to the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) ever since he spoke at a meeting of Conservative party candidates on the subject of social security. I must make it clear that he was not a Conservative candidate. He used the word vindictive and suggested it was vindictive of the Government to say that it was improper for young people to come to a seaside town, such as that which I have the pleasure to represent, when there was little prospect of obtaining work. I would not use the word vindictive. I think it is commonsense.

Mr. Frank Field

I do not want to intervene too much, but I was invited to address that meeting as a lobbyist, and I happily did so.

Mr. Griffiths

I am happy to confirm that the hon. Gentleman was certainly not one of the audience. The tirade from the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) was not really a response to the amendments tonight but to the original regulations. My feeling is that while we may well disagree on the original regulations, we welcome these amendments. I agree with her on one point. I am quite sure that my hon. Friend will find that the payments that the DHSS makes available to residents in nursing homes will prove to be grossly inadequate following any kind of investigation he carries out. I fear that in nursing homes where there is a mix of private patients and those whose fees are paid by the DHSS, there is a great danger that if the patients whose fees are paid from public funds have their fees restricted it may well be that those who are paying out of their meagre savings will have to pay more, so that, when those savings are exhausted they in turn will become dependent on public support.

I rose to say that I very much welcome these amendments because they make it easier for us to support the original regulations. They also show that there is a genuine willingness on the part of the Government to accept that, once the principle is estabished, the way to look for a job is not to move into a seaside hotel but to move to places where there is employment——

Mr. Dobson


Mr. Griffiths

Victoria street, not more than half a mile from here, where there have been thousands of jobs ever since this Government came into office. The hon. Gentleman might care to go along tomorrow morning to have a look.

Young people should also seek more traditional forms of accommodation in hostels, with families or with friends. Given that we support the regulations, we should also support the amendments.

The Minister said that, given our welcome to and acceptance of refugees, we should not make a distinction between those under the age of 26 and their parents or seek to separate such groups. The same applies to the homeless in general. Families do become homeless, and it would be quite wrong for a different restriction to apply to the younger members of such families. I therefore welcome that part of the regulations.

The Minister said that he is willing to consider further categories of exemption. He made it clear that he was not talking about individual cases that would be dealt with and exempted separately. How many individual cases of a similar nature must be drawn to my hon. Friend's attention before he recognises that a category exists?

The situation is complicated because many young people go into board and lodging accommodation for all sorts of reasons. It may well be that from time to time, through individual cases from different parts of the country, we can show that there are grounds for bringing areas within a general exemption.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government should consider exemption when young people have been resident in a community all their lives, as is the case in Cleveland in my constituency? For arbitrary reasons, that is designated as a coastal resort area, yet under the regulations young people are now being forced to move away from the only place that they have known as home, simply because Saltburn at one time and Redcar at another happened to be seaside resorts.

Mr. Griffiths

There may well be categories of young people in board and lodging accommodation who have been associated with an area over a long period either because they do not have a home elsewhere to which they could return or because they have an opportunity to take employment in the foreseeable future. They ought to be within exempted categories. If a number of such cases are forthcoming from hon. Members, I trust that the Minister will seek to make them an exempted category.

11.40 pm
Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

In the short time available, I want to put a series of questions to the Minister for Social Security. I begin, however, with a quotation that I used when I asked leave to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 10: 'It may be that the Government reacted too quickly and without proper research to deal with a situation which happens to fit their own particular prejudices.—[0fficial Report, 25 June 1985; Vol. 81, c. 792.] The Minister's speech strongly underlined the fact that the Government are introducing new techniques into government. They will introduce a measure, see how many social problems it creates and then try to solve each social problem. Week after week there will be new exemptions. That is a ludicrous way to govern.

The Minister for Social Security said last week that the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington was not a bad bloke. As the story goes, the Minister is not a bad bloke. I am sure that his political masters have forced him to introduce this most wicked and evil measure.

The Minister ended his speech by saying that much of this accommodation is of a very low standard. That was the subject of a debate that I initiated in December 1984. We examined the lousy conditions in many of these hostels. Why are the Government not courageous enough to deal with those who are ripping off the homeless? Why do they not demand minimum standards in the hostels? Why do they not relate price to quality? Why do they not look after the weakest and the most vulnerable group, the unemployed and the homeless who have nowhere else to go because conditions in their homes make it impossible for them to return?

The Minister also said that prices are rising quickly. The Child Poverty Action Group has shown that the percentage increase in the average charge for board and lodging in 1984 was the lowest for five years. Why did the Minister ignore the advice of the Social Security Advisory Committee which said on page 41 of its report that the root problem was not supplementary benefit but housing? By introducing exemption clauses, the Minister still appears to be dealing with it as a supplementary benefit problem, not as a housing problem. How can the Minister expect to solve this very serious problem without encouraging his colleagues in other Departments to provide specialised types of housing for the young homeless?

The Minister said that the Department may have to consider time limits. Has he considered providing exemption for a group of youngsters who may take the advice of the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) and apply for a job? Mention was made of jobs being available, but, I doubt that. One can stay for only two weeks in some parts of the north of England. What chance is there of getting a job if one has to say that by the time a company has replied to one's application one may no longer be at the same address? Will the Minister consider an exemption for those who have applied for jobs until they know whether their applications have been successful?

Can the Minister say how much research will be undertaken into the board and lodging problem? He has implied that legislation will be introduced on a piecemeal basis. I should like the Government to show courage and say that they were wrong, that the legislation is flawed and that it must be re-examined. Every Opposition speaker has said that the jungle of board and lodging payments creates serious problems. We want to see something done about that. I am sure that the Opposition Front Bench would be pleased to co-operate in a study of some of the aspects of the problem.

Tackling the problem in the way that the Minister has done does not help the Opposition, the Government or the people involved. It is a terrible way of legislating. The Minister might dwell on the fact that one of the problems is that some of the youngsters will not be able to vote unless they are on the electoral register. I shall advise the 100,000 homeless youngsters that one third of them should register in the constituency of Braintree, one third in the constituency of Finchley and one third in the constituency of Wanstead and Woodford, because one of the vindictive aspects of this—it has been said that it is not vindictive —is that the youngsters most affected by the legislation have no mechanism whereby they can vote against the Government who introduced the legislation, unless they register in the constituencies that I have mentioned, in the hope that those right hon. and hon. Members suffer the ultimate punishment.

I have said over and over again that this is an atrocious, terrible, vindictive and wicked piece of legislation. It solves none of the problems. I am sure that I speak for all Opposition right hon. and hon. Members when I say, let us be rid of the legislation; let us start all over again; let us tackle the problems properly; and let us see whether the Minister has the courage to say to the Secretary of State for Social Services that they should get rid of it and introduce a useful measure that has meaning.

11.46 pm
Mr. Newton

In the seven or so remaining minutes of the debate I cannot attempt to comment upon all the points that have been mentioned on both sides of the House about the categories of people that we should consider in further changes to the exemption categories. I undertake to study carefully what has been said during the debate.

I wish to make two points about the exemption categories. The first is in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale). The proposals that I made last Tuesday and this evening in the regulations, or in the powers that the regulations give the Government, are limited extensions directed towards cases that I am sure will be recognised on both sides of the House as clearly requiring exemption, rather than the major moves that he feared and Opposition Members have sought. We believe that the signs so far show that the proposed exemption categories cover most of those people who need to be included.

My worry about the examples that the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) gave, most of which I recognised as drawn from documents which have been widely circulated by two or three groups of various kinds, is that the Department has not been given sufficient detail to follow up the cases, and it is far from clear whether they have all been fully and properly discussed with local DHSS officers. I hesitate to say that they have not, because I have no basis for doing so. I wish to re-emphasise the advice that I gave last Tuesday—anyone who is worried about cases should ensure that the facts are drawn fully to the attention of the local DHSS office. We shall do our best, as we have by reinforcing our guidance to them, to ensure that all those facts are considered properly.

If genuine points emerge from that examination and the cases drawn to our attention in this debate, in correspondence from Members or in other ways, we are prepared to look openly and honestly at them and to move quickly—as I have demonstrated this evening—towards introducing small extensions to the exemption categories.

My response to the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) is that I suspect that the reason why the charges rose less fast in 1984 than previously is that the Government imposed a freeze on the limits during 1984. Indeed, I would hope that had some effect.

The hon. Member for Derby, South made some play of her view that there was no, or insufficient, evidence for the policies.

Mrs. Beckett

It is the view of the Social Security Advisory Committee.

Mr. Newton

Regardless of whether it is the view of the Social Security Advisory Committee, from what the hon. Lady said I would wish to attribute it to her.

In view of the observations that I understand were made by the Leader of the Opposition earlier today on nursing and residential care homes, I want to draw attention to what the Opposition spokesman on social security said when my hon. Friend made a statement on these same matters last November. The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) referred to the fact that private developers cashed in on a building boom which had nothing to do with providing care and attention for those elderly people in greatest need, and everything to do with raking off huge profits". — [Official Report, 29 November 1984; Vol. 68, c. 1099.] When we seek to check that process, however, we are told that we are being uncaring about the needs of the elderly and the disabled.

Mr. Dobson

The Minister is blocking the charitable ones as well.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West want on to talk about private operators — I paraphrase what he said — using every fiddle in the book to push up charges, and said that there had been nothing to stop them. When we take action in these matters, we are told that this is in some way uncaring and totally against the interests of — [Interruption.] It is a pity that the hon. Member for Oldham, West is not present. I want to know the policy of the Opposition on these matters. This has been one of the worst examples of trying to have one's cake and eat it which I have observed for a very long time.

Mrs. Beckett

The Minister knows well that we are in favour of proper control, whether on ordinary board and lodging or on care, to ensure that there is value for money, that people are not exploited and that the available money is properly used. That is not what the Minister is doing. He is penalising claimants, not those who exploit them.

Mr. Newton

Although I had hoped to keep the temperature down, I am afraid that the debate has now become a classic social security debate in which the Opposition state that they are all in favour of proper control, but the one thing that they never tell the House is what their policy would be. All we know is that every time any real attempt is made to curb abuse and to achieve proper balance in the social security system, the Opposition denounce this as an uncaring attack on the poor and the needy. It is as big a nonsense tonight as on all the other occasions which we have witnessed in the last few weeks.

I therefore ask the House to approve the regulations.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Supplementary Benefit (Requirements) Amendment Regulations 1985, which were laid before this House on 26th June, be approved.