HC Deb 19 November 1987 vol 122 cc1235-300 5.20 pm
The Minister for Social Security and the Disabled (Mr. Nicholas Scott)

I beg to move, That the draft Housing Benefit (General) Regulations 1987, which were laid before this House on 3rd November, be approved. This debate is a sequel to the debate last week on the regulations on income support, claims and payments and uprating of social security benefits. The scope of the regulations before us today, which introduce important and fundamental reforms, fully justifies them being taken separately in the House. Nevertheless, it is important for the House to recognise that they are part of the strategic review undertaken by the Government of the whole structure of income-related benefits over a period of four years.

Housing benefit is clearly a very major element in the social security system, first, because it relates to one of the most basic family needs—a place to live; and secondly, because over the years it has greatly increased as a programme both in terms of costs and the numbers in receipt of benefit. Expenditure this year is expected to be in the order of £5.25 billion. I will use figures for Great Britain throughout the debate. The equivalent help at constant prices being given with rent and rates when we took office in 1979 was £2 billion. Similarly, the number of households receiving help with rent and rates has increased steadily over the period. We estimate that over 7 million households will receive help with their rates and/ or their rents this year. The equivalent figure in 1979–80 was about 5 million. Since total households in Great Britain number about 21 million the figures mean that no fewer than one in three households is receiving help with rent or rates.

The other general point I want to make to the House in introducing the debate is that, as with other parts of our programme, the Government have shown themselves willing and able to examine the fundamental structure of the existing pattern of provision and to undertake major reviews and reform. It was this Government who tackled for the first time in 1982 the long-standing issue of the entirely different administrative structures for giving help with rent and rates. For many years, expert observers— perhaps, most importantly, the Supplementary Benefits Commission—had criticised a system where people were often receiving less than their potential benefit because they went to a local authority rather than to the DHSS office and vice versa. The 1982 reforms provided a single administrative roof for all households seeking assistance with their housing costs. This was an important step forward and we could not have achieved the new structure proposed in the regulations before the House if we had not taken this first important step in 1982.

I acknowledge at once that the first attempt at achieving sensible administrative reform ran into difficulty not least because many local authorities found it hard at first to administer the housing benefit scheme. In most places those administrative difficulties have been overcome. Equally, there are issues in our latest proposals which will no doubt be the subject of intense debate, including the limits we are seeking to place on the growth in expenditure and caseload. However, the point I want to emphasise this afternoon before I describe the proposed changes in more detail is that we have a coherent strategy and the will to undertake the necessary reforms within a sensible and responsible framework of public expenditure.

While the Opposition will wish to exercise their proper constitutional duty to criticise the proposals of the Government, I hope they will find it possible to say what they would propose to put in place of our suggestions. In particular, it would be useful for the House and the public to know whether the Opposition agree that there should he a common framework for income-related benefits and that available resources should be directed towards those most in need. On the scope of the scheme, I wonder whether those who do not wish housing benefit to be kept within bounds have a figure beyond £5 billion which they would like to offer as a sensible public expenditure target. Finally, do they share our concern about the numbers now receiving benefit? Is one out of three households too high or too low a figure for any scheme that they might want to put in its place?

I put these questions to the Opposition in the hope that when they respond to my opening remarks they may feel it possible not merely to exercise what I recognise as their proper constitutional duty to criticise us but to let the country know what they would like to put in place of our proposal. As with other debates on social policy, I fear that, instead of a coherent response, we shall simply have suggestions that more money should be spent on one group or another without any idea of the framework that should be achieved or without an attempt to set any coherent set of priorities.

Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston)

Perhaps I may remind the Minister of the statement that has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), the shadow spokesman on housing, who has repeatedly offered to meet the Government to discuss a new framework for housing subsidies on the clear understanding that such a framework would have to he fair to the purchase and the rental sectors and fair within them. Provided the Government are prepared to accept the principle of equity between the two sectors and the principle of equity on the basis of income within them, we are prepared to sit down with them to devise a permanent new system.

Mr. Scott

That would not for one moment prevent the hon. Gentleman or, if he does not feel able to do it, his hon. Friend from standing up to say what suggestions they would put forward within the current framework for a sensible system of housing benefit. It is easy to talk about more radical solutions and changing the whole system fundamentally. We are not talking about the whole structure of housing policy but specifically about housing benefit and the way that we respond to those needs. It is in that context that I think it lies within the remit of the hon. Gentleman himself to come forward with specific proposals.

Mr. Robin Cook

I have a high regard for the Minister's intellect which I have admired over a number of years in the House. I do not believe that he has been subjected to the lobotomy which would be necessary to say that housing benefit should be considered in isolation from housing policy. The point that I put to the Minister is that we are willing at any time the Government indicate to sit down and discuss with them a permanent and rational structure of housing subsidy that will bear a relationship to the future of housing policy and which also will be equitable between the sectors. Until the Government are willing to enter that negotiation with us they can hardly object if we take their proposals at face value.

Mr. Scott

Which means that the answer to the question which I put to the hon. Gentleman is no, he is not prepared this afternoon to come forward with suggestions particularly about the operation of housing benefit itself.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

I am sorry to disagree with my hon. Friend but I think he is wrong. The hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) has come forward with a very positive suggestion which I presume is now Labour party policy—that is, to do away with mortgage relief on house purchases.

Mr. Scott

It is perhaps not for the hon. Gentleman but for whoever holds the portfolio on housing policy as a whole to come forward and explain exactly Labour's proposals in that regard.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

I want to make it quite clear that at the moment I have received no reply to my offer from the Government. The other assumption that I have built in is that it must be introduced in such a way that it does not throw people into economic distress whether they rent or buy. The Minister has an opportunity here. If his colleagues in the Department of the Environment have yet to decide, he at least can offer to talk about his part of the package.

Mr. Scott

This is a remarkable constitutional proposition. The Labour party which has managed to lose three general elections on the trot wants to negotiate with the Government about the pattern of housing policy—[Interruption.] This is the forum in which the Opposition can put forward their suggestions about the development of housing policy. I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of the Environment will welcome debates on housing policy in this forum and I am sure that our ideas will carry the country as they have carried the country successively in general elections over the past few years. Let us not talk about negotiation, let us sort these matters out on the Floor of the House.

In presenting and explaining to the House the detail of the regulations, I will seek to divide them into four broad areas. The first will cover the main features of the current housing benefit scheme, which are in most need of reform. The second is how the regulations achieve these reforms through a new structure which is both simpler to understand and has a common framework with the new income support scheme and family credit system. Thirdly, I will refer to the timetable and role of local authorities in implementing the new arrangements. Finally, I will set out for the benefit of the House the broad effects of the proposals, including our revised estimates of overall caseload and expenditure.

As I said earlier, housing benefit brought the administration of assistance with rents and rates together under one roof for the first time. It resolved the so-called "better off' problem, which was the target of much justifiable criticism from the Supplementary Benefits Commission and others in the late 1970s. It made for far more sensible and efficient administration, in that millions of households had their bills rebated at source for the first time, instead of having to take the money handed out by an arm of central Government and immediately pass it on to the local government offices down the road.

The main shortcoming with the current housing benefit scheme lies in its basic structure. Many hon. Members who have experience of constituents' difficulties will recognise that. Although the 1982–83 reforms unified its administra-tion, in structure it remains essentially an amalgam of the two separate schemes that preceded it. The jargon of housing benefit divides the world into standard and certificated cases and ne'er the twain shall meet. The assessment of needs, of income and many other features of the scheme are different according to the category into which people happen to fall. On top of that, the entitlement calculation for standard cases is one of the most complex and obscure in the entire benefits system. The scheme includes needs allowances, which virtually no one understands and which are not in effect allowances at all, positive and negative tapers, local variations to the national scheme, supplements and additions here, deductions there, and they seem almost deliberately designed to bewilder both the claimant and the counter clerk. Even——

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Scott

The hon. Gentleman is aware that I always give way. I will gladly give way once I have finished my sentence.

Even Ministers at the Dispatch Box have been known to be puzzled by some of the intricacies of the scheme.

Mr. McCartney

I am amazed by the Minister's admission. The scheme introduced in 1982–83 was an utter national shambles. Does the Minister not regret the fact that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench and the local authority associations also warned him that that would happen? He rejected their advice then, as he will reject advice over the present proposals. The shambles since 1982–83 has meant that hundreds of thousands of people are living in real hardship and poverty. It ill behoves the Minister to come here tonight and apologise for the introduction of that legislation and try to get round that by introducing an even more draconian measure.

Mr. Scott

I have not come here to apologise. I have acknowledged that there were administrative difficulties in the introduction of the 1982–83 reforms. The outcome of those reforms was a substantial improvement on the previous position. To a very large extent that scheme has now settled down and is working reasonably. However, as I was in the middle of explaining to the House when the hon. Gentleman intervened, that scheme has structural weaknesses. The purpose of the reforms that I am announcing today is to settle those structural weaknesses and differences and so get us on to a better system. The dual system which proceeded the 1982–83 reforms was absolutely indefensible and we were right to tackle it. We are now ready to take the next step forward.

Two particular features of the present scheme illustrate the structural weakness to which I have referred and which I freely admit exists. One is the high-rent scheme, which is a variation of the normal entitlement calculation that can be used in some circumstances when the normal formula delivers an inadequate amount of benefit to those with unavoidably high rents. The second, which many hon. Members who are concerned with policy in this area will know only too well, is housing benefit supplement. That is a notorious paper chase of a benefit that is sometimes described as a piece of sticking plaster used to bridge the gap between the two systems of help which make up the housing benefit scheme.

To put it on the record, it is worth explaining to the House how housing benefit supplement works. A person must first claim supplementary benefit from the local DHSS office, even though he knows that he will not receive it. He also claims housing benefit from the local authority. After assessing the claim, the DHSS office informs the local authority of the amount by which the claimant's income exceeds his supplementary benefit level. The local authority assesses housing benefit entitlement in the normal way. Then, if housing benefit is payable, it compares the excess income figure notified by the DHSS with the claimant's rent and rates after deducting amounts for non-dependants and amenities included in the rent. If the resultant figure is more than the housing benefit payable, housing benefit supplement makes up the difference.

However, the procedure does not end there. The local authority must then send a copy of its calculation to the DHSS office for it to be checked and authorised. The DHSS returns the notice to the local authority either authorising the calculation or with an amended figure. That whole process must be repeated every time a claimant's circumstances change. I believe that it was right for us to change to a new system in 1982–83. However, I am equally sure that the time has come to tackle that kind of structural weakness and move to something which will be much easier for claimants and those who administer housing benefit to understand.

The shortcomings that I have discussed are complex and a source of great confusion to the general public. They are also fundamentally inequitable. It cannot be right to treat people differently according to whether they are in or out of work so that a man who takes a low-paid job and claims a rebate may find himself worse off than if he had stayed on supplementary benefit. It is not right to treat an occupational pensioner differently from a supplementary pensioner, in many cases forcing the former to enter the labyrinth of housing benefit supplement if he or she is to receive a full entitlement and remain above basic safety net levels.

As I said earlier, there has been legitimate concern about the growth in housing benefit expenditure and caseload. That partly reflects the increase in those on supplementary benefit and increases in rent and rates. Yet despite the supposed "cuts" in housing benefit, it has continued to grow in cost and numbers each year. The measures we have introduced have merely constrained growth. Our aim must be to concentrate help on those most in need.

All the factors of which I have spoken were part of the background against which the independent review of housing benefit was first established in 1984. The problems and concerns that I have outlined to the House, coupled with a number of serious administrative problems in certain areas of the country, meant that the review and reform process started slightly earlier for housing benefit than for the other income-related benefits. However, the housing benefit review rapidly became part of the wider social security review which led, through the Green and White Papers of 1985 and the Social Security Act 1986, to the various sets of regulations that the House has been debating during the past two weeks.

It is a great credit to Jeremy Rowe and his colleagues, who carried out the original housing benefit review, that almost all of the basic ideas in his 1984 report are reflected in the regulations that the House is discussing today.

Mr. Robin Cook


Mr. Scott

If the hon. Gentleman can contain himself for just a moment, I shall give way. Perhaps he will calm down while I continue what I am saying.

I would also like to pay tribute to the contribution of many individual local authorities and their representative organisations, which had been consulted on the regulations since the beginning of this year, and which have provided invaluable technical advice.

Mr. Cook

If the Minister is going to praise the housing benefit review team for having recommended the structure that he is commending to the House, will he refer us to the passage in the team's report that recommended exclusion of one fifth of rates, and will he tell us why he rejected the team's explicit statement that it did not recommend exclusion of any part of rates from housing benefit?

Mr. Scott

I am not saying for a moment that every detail of what Mr. Rowe and his colleagues put forward should be accepted. Governments do not set up reviews so that they can accept every single piece of advice that is issued. They ask for them so that they can provide a background of information, and a set of recommendations, which can then quite properly be subject to the political judgment of Ministers—and, ultimately. to the political decision of the House of Commons.

Having set out the background to the regulations, let me now discuss the main features and effects. The most important feature is a word that I have used several times in our recent debates: alignment. Nearly all of the structural problems inherent in the current housing benefit scheme arise from its disalignment from the rest of the social security system. Alignment removes many of them —I was tempted to say, "at a stroke", but I shall not use that particular phrase.

However, we do not consider that it would have been possible to achieve such alignment alongside the current supplementary benefit scheme, with its complex pattern of additional requirements. In other words, the reform of supplementary benefit, and the change to income support, is in itself a fundamental feature, and makes possible the change to the new system of housing benefit that the regulations will provide for—assuming that the House approves them today.

What alignment means is quite simple. For a start, several important sections of the regulations are substantially the same as their counterparts within the Income Support (General) Regulations which the House approved last week. I refer in particular to the parts that deal with membership of a family, and the assessment of both needs and income and capital. The latter part is also largely the same as its counterpart within the Family Credit (General) Regulations which were discussed and approved by the House last night.

From the claimant's—or the counter clerk's—point of view, this means that for the first time housing benefit has a simple, logical and coherent conceptual framework.

Anyone on income support, or whose net income is at or below the income support level—even if he is in work—will normally be entitled to maximum housing benefit. Above that level, benefit will be reduced according to a simple percentage or taper related to net income, with separate tapers for rents and rates. The need for the housing benefit supplement and high-rent scheme is immediately removed, and there is a built-in incentive for unemployed people to take employment in the knowledge that their housing benefit entitlement will not leave them below basic income support levels.

These are major achievements of which I hope all hon. Members will approve, even if they disagree with some of the details.

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton)

In assessing the taper for housing benefit, will the Minister take into account the concessionary fuel allowance that widows of retired and former mineworkers receive? Does he agree that that concession should be disregarded in the assessment of housing benefit.

Mr. Scott

I shall ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to deal with that point when he winds up the debate, rather than interrupt the outline of the housing benefit scheme that I am trying to give the House.

I hope that the House will find it possible to approve at least the fundamental structure of the scheme. Let me point out some of the other advantages that flow from alignment. For one thing, the enhancements built into the income support scheme for the elderly and disabled will also automatically be reflected in the calculation of housing benefit for those on higher incomes. Those enhancements will replace their somewhat inadequate counterparts in the current needs allowances.

It will also be much clearer to those assessing housing benefit how particular types of income or capital should be treated. I would not accept that, by significantly expanding the number of regulations covering the assessment of income and needs, we have created unnecessary complexity. Clarity and precision frequently require comprehensiveness, and the vagueness with which such matters are treated in the current scheme has helped neither the claimants nor those who administer the scheme.

In only one area have we breached the principle of alignment, and we have breached it in the right direction from the viewpoint of incentives and similar considerations. We have accepted the argument put to us that lone parents, whose needs are currently assessed as a couple under the standard housing benefit scheme, would, whatever the theoretical logic of such a move, fare disproportionately badly from alignment with income support. We have therefore set the housing benefit lone-parent premium significantly higher than its income support counterpart, to offset that effect.

I do not intend to dwell in detail on the other features of these regulations. My colleague the Under-Secretary can respond to specific points that are raised. In many of the areas I have not so far covered, our policy has not significantly changed, although we have tried to make the wording of the regulations more precise. I will mention in passing a couple of the more important details, starting with non-dependant deductions. We have significantly simplified the rules, and have introduced a new criterion for applying the higher rent deduction — namely, that the non-dependant should be in remunerative work for more than 24 hours a week. That will be a welcome improvement for many non-dependants on training courses or other social security benefits, who are at present assumed to be contributing the same as a non-dependant in full-time work.

We have also greatly clarified the rules for converting monthly rents and annual rates into weekly amounts, and we have provided more detail on the assessment of students, the handling of overpayments and the procedures to be followed when a claimant wants his case reviewed. We have set out the sort of information that we think should always be sent to a claimant when his claim has been determined. There are many other improvements or clarifications, too numerous to mention. If any hon. Members wish to raise particular points, my hon. Friend will try to deal with them when he winds up the debate.

Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury)

In general, I welcome the lines on which the reform has taken place. However, I am concerned about the capital limit of £6,000. May I briefly illustrate the point with a constituency case?

I was visited the other day by one of my constituents, a divorced lady. The divorce settlement had taken the form of a so-called "clean break". The lady was given a capital sum, on the income of which she was living. Not surprisingly, that capital was above the £6,000 level.

As a consequence of the new regulations, if I understand them correctly, that lady will certainly lose rate rebate, and it seems to me that a substantial number of people will be affected by the £6,000 capital limit. We are discussing unamendable regulations, but I hope that my hon. Friend will at the very least give us an assurance that the next time that this matter is examined — which I hope will be soon—the capital maximum will be viewed sympathetically. Otherwise, I think we shall see real hardship.

Mr. Scott

Before I conclude my remarks, I intend to deal with the capital rules. I do not believe that the rules will do anything to help the case that my right hon. Friend mentioned. Nevertheless, a proper system for the treatment of capital is an important way of helping to concentrate help on those who most need it. In due course, the House may discuss whether the £6,000 figure should endure for ever. When we give people help with their housing costs, it is rational to take some account of the capital resources that are available to them.

It is important to emphasise that the clarifications are just as important for the local authorities administering the scheme as for the claimants who are applying for benefit. A few moments ago, I mentioned the important role that local authorities have played in the consultative process that preceded the regulations being laid before the House. We have been concerned throughout to develop a reformed scheme that is workable and makes sense in the context of the modern, computerised systems that most local authorities possess. We want to encourage and promote better administration of housing benefit, so that, ultimately, all local authorities can attain the high standards that are already operating in some areas.

Our proposals for reimbursing local authorities for the costs of running the scheme are another element in the package, although they are not actually part of the regulations before the House. Our aim has been to ensure that local authorities receive fair recompense for their duties, while having greater incentive than at present to administer the scheme efficiently and effectively, particularly in areas in which they have some power to influence. This is why the basic rate of benefit subsidy which we are proposing—97 per cent.—is roughly equal to the current rate of subsidy, while a lower rate, which will normally be 25 per cent., will apply in a few selected aspects such as overpayments and excessive rent increases. The same approach underlies our proposal to link administration subsidy more closely to workload. We have also developed, in consultation, I emphasise, with local authority representatives, a comprehensive management information system, which will ultimately enable local managers and central Government to see that appropriate standards are being met in all aspects of the scheme's administration.

In considering the role of local authorities in the reform process, I do not for one moment underestimate the task which they, like local offices of the Department of Health and Social Security now have to face to deliver the reformed scheme next April. Reform timetables are always tight if consultation is undertaken and taken seriously. I am optimistic that local authorities are much better placed than before the 1982–83 reforms to plan for and implement the new scheme. Quite apart from the advantages that will flow to them and to others from a simpler structure and clearer regulations, local authorities have had much longer to prepare for the changes. They saw a first draft of the regulations at the start of the year and a further draft in May, which was little different from the final set we are discussing.

We have been at pains to assist local authorities' training needs by funding the local government training board to produce a central training package, and a video which has been sent to all authorities. Computer software houses have also contributed to the discussions on the draft regulations, and my Department funded a short computer systems handbook from a firm of management consultants, which was circulated to all authorities in the autumn. We have also provided £25 million towards local authorities' implementation costs. The Department will continue to contribute all it can in terms of expertise and guidance towards a successful implementation of the reforms, and I firmly believe that we are well on course towards that goal.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

The Minister has usefully spent some time in explaining to the House the strategic rationalisations realignments and the basic ethos of the reform. In principle, I go along with much of his rationalisation. Are the original savings of £450 million still the savings that the Department expects to make?

Mr. Scott

If the hon. Gentleman will be patient with me, I shall deal with that matter in due course.

I want now to refer briefly to the impact of the changes and to comment on a couple of the specific features that attracted criticism in the weeks leading up to the debate. But I should make one point clear at the outset. The housing benefit reforms cannot be seen in isolation from the other changes that we shall introduce next April. Indeed, one of their strengths is that they go hand in hand with the changes to income support at that time. For example — we have always been perfectly frank about our intentions in this regard — the housing benefit changes are consistent with the significant reduction in caseload and expenditure. In our view, income support and family credit offer a better and more efficient way of delivering such support, and I do not see that we need to feel defensive about that.

Some Opposition Members have talked about cuts. Such talk is quite misleading. There will he a significant reduction in expenditure on housing benefit of about £640 million. That will be redirected to additional payments on other benefits. In fact, we shall pay out £420 million more in weekly payments of income support than would have been the case if the supplementary benefit scheme had continued with a normal uprating, and family credit will cost £220 million more than if the FIS scheme had been continued. Overall, expenditure on weekly payments of benefit will not be lower, and it will be better targeted.

Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South)

The Minister said that £400 million more will go into income support. The implication of the figures is that all the money being saved on housing benefit will go back into other schemes. Surely at least half of that amount is transitional protection to look after people who will be worse off under the new scheme unless transitional protection is given. That is only a temporary measure.

Mr. Scott

Temporary, but, in effect, for the coming year, it will mean that the figures balance out. It is worth reminding the House that, in shifting to the income support scheme, we shall be targeting the money that is available for social security support in its broadest sense much better than we are doing under the present scheme.

The same point that I made before I gave way applies when considering individual cases. A supplementary pensioner, for example, may well find that her housing benefit is reduced because of the 20 per cent. minimum contribution to rates. But, equally, she should find her income support increased, not least because of the compensation for the minimum contribution that we have built into the rates of benefit. If her disposable income is increased overall, it would be misleading in the extreme to concentrate solely on any reduction in her housing benefit. That is why our published tables show the effect of the reforms as a coherent whole.

Those who experience significant reductions in their housing benefit will generally be the better-off, and those who lose all entitlement to it will generally be those whose entitlement was quite small in the first place. We have sand before—the figure has not changed since the technical annex to the White Paper two years ago—that we expect the reforms to lead to a caseload reduction of just over a million. There are three main factors which contribute to this, and I shall briefly explain them to the House.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

Before my hon. Friend leaves that point, what calculation has he made of the maximum amount of housing benefit that will be lost each week with effect from 1 April next year as a result of the proposals? What would he say to a person who has been thrifty throughout his or her working life, who has savings of £6,000 and who might be tempted to say that those who have been feckless and spendthrift continue to benefit, but those who have saved and have been thrifty do not'?

Mr. Scott

As I said, I shall deal with capital—that Is to say, those with savings of £6,000 or so—towards the end of my speech. It is difficult to put a figure on the amounts that individuals may lose. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State may help in that regard. It is clear that some people may lose all the housing benefit that they get at the moment. In general they will be people who are better off or people whose entitlement to housing benefit consisted of quite small amounts under the existing scheme. The underlying figures have not changed a great deal since the technical annex was published two years ago.

I shall mention the three main factors that contribute to the reduction in the caseload. The first is the minimum contribution to rates, which I have already mentioned. We have debated this issue before on several occasions, and I believe that the arguments are well understood even if there is not agreement across the Floor of the House. We still believe that local accountability is a vital part of the democratic system in this country and that it must be right in principle to expect all those who use local services to feel the impact of their cost. In this respect, the minimum contribution is a step on the road to the community charge which we shall introduce in due course.

We firmly believe that only by widening the numbers who contribute to the cost of local services will we ensure that proper democratic control is exercised over those who spend the money. The alternative — a housing benefit scheme based on 100 per cent. of rates, which would considerably have increased the numbers wholly insulated from the effect of rate increases—was not acceptable for those reasons. I do not intend to dwell further on this aspect, except to remind the House that this proposal was well understood when the Social Security Act 1986 was passed, since when we have decided to build compensation for the minimum contribution into the income support rates.

The second factor contributing to the caseload reduction is the steeper rent taper. The rates taper is roughly the same, for someone paying standard tax and national insurance, as the existing one. The rent taper is steeper, even after the conversion is made, and five percentage points higher than our original illustrative figure two years ago. However, the House should not be misled into looking at the rent taper in isolation. It has to be viewed alongside the decision to build 100 per cent. of the claimant's rent into the calculation in all cases, instead of 60 per cent. as at present for standard cases. The effect of this is generally to work in the opposite direction to the taper change.

I am not denying that the rent taper is steeper than its current equivalent, but people with unavoidably high rents — two or three times the national average — will generally find that the new scheme delivers them more, not less, help with their rent, right the way up the income scale, as a consequence of the 100 per cent. starting point. That is why I reject any suggestion that the steeper rent taper is incompatible with our housing policy initiatives.

I hope that the Opposition will acknowledge that, even at below average rents, the new scheme will still deliver more help with rent to the poorer households—up to the level of the current needs allowances, for example. This group, which includes many occupational pensioners, is precisely the people that the reform process has always been aimed at. I do not apologise for the fact that there is an element of redistribution towards poorer households inherent in our proposals.

Finally, the upper capital limit of £6,000 will contribute to the caseload reduction. Again—I understand some of the criticisms made—this proposal tends to be viewed as one aspect of the reforms in isolation from other proposals. As a whole, within the changes that we are introducing next April we are introducing capital rules that are more rather than less generous than at present and £6,000 is twice the present supplementary benefit level: capital below £3,000 will be wholly ignored for the first time in housing benefit. The present arrangements —whereby supplementry benefit ignores investment income but takes capital into account, whereas housing benefit ignores capital but takes investment income into account —surely cannot be defended as a rational way to run a coherent income-related benefit system.

I should emphasise that the improvements built into the income support capital rules, such as the total disregard of the surrender value of life insurance policies and the disregard, in normal circumstances, of personal possessions, will also be built into housing benefit. It is not right to consider the proposal for the £6,000 limit in housing benefit in isolation from the improvements that we are providing for the treatment of capital across the range of income-related benefits.

I want to conclude where I began: I welcome this debate and the chance to explain and defend our proposals. I am sure they will bear critical examination. But I shall not regard criticism of isolated features of the regulations, which take no account of other offsetting changes or of the wider context, as a constructive contribution to the debate. The package of reforms that we are introducing next April should be considered as a whole. I ask Opposition Members who wish to speak from the Opposition Benches to state not just what details of the reform they do or do not like, but where they stand on the big issues. How would they fit assistance with housing costs into an overall package of income-related benefits? What do they regard as the proper cost and coverage of such a scheme? The House has a right to hear those as well if we are to have a balanced and constructive debate.

The Housing Benefit (General) Regulations 1987 are the last but not least in our package of social security reforms. They tackle the problems of the existing system and provide a sensible framework against which future adjustments, which may arise from policy changes elsewhere, such as the community charge can be taken into effect. Most important of all, they place housing benefit firmly within the context of a coherent structure of income-related benefits.

6.6 pm

Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston)

On one point I would cheerfully agree with the concluding remarks of the Minister. The regulations must be regarded as part of an overall package of changes in the social security system —I avoid the word reform—that will hit claimants next April.

We debated a large part of the rest of the package last Thursday and the Minister heard precisely what we thought of them. We did not think very much at all of them ; they will result in a reduction in entitlement to benefit of 4 million claimants of supplementary benefit, so we think equally little of these regulations.

One reason we object to means-tested benefits in principle is because under this Government means-tested benefits have a nasty tendency to become meaner. The Minister said that these regulations would achieve administrative streamlining and greater equity between claimants. I shall argue those points later, but I must disabuse the House of any notion that these regulations were drafted or given birth to by a concern for administrative streamlining or greater equity. They owe their birth to a commitment to cutting housing benefit. The main motivation that has led to the debate is the Government's concern to claw back £640 million that they would otherwise be obliged to pay under the previous system. That is the mainspring of the Government's motivation.

One million people will lose all benefit altogether, or, to use the euphemism that the Minister used on four successive occasions, there will be a reduction in case load of 1 million claimants.

I should like to pursue the Minister through the major reasons for that reduction in case load. I shall begin with the point that he, wisely, left until last—the exclusion of claimants from benefit if they have a capital sum ; particularly if they have £6,000, after which point they will lose all entitlement. On many occasions you have sat in that Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and heard us being taunted with being envious of the wealthy. I assure the House that I do not regard people with savings of £6,000 as being, to use the Minister's own term, better off.

That category includes many households who, by anybody's definition, have modest circumstances. It will include many unemployed people with redundancy payments in excess of £6,000. It will certainly include large numbers of pensioners. Indeed, it will include the pensioners who have taken the Government and the Conservative party at their word and have put by for their old age and created a nest egg. They wish to preserve that nest egg for a rainy day or for particular expenditure that may be required on their house or family. They do not wish to diminish that capital in order to meet the weekly outgoings on their housing costs.

We are not talking simply about cash in the bank. We are talking about realisable assets such as BP shares. Housing benefit officers may find that they are obliged to advise claimants that they will have to sell their shares in order to pay their housing costs. I doubt whether the stockbrokers would agree with that advice in the present circumstances.

The irony is that this measure will hit the constituents of Conservative Members the hardest. Some of the London boroughs have done calculations. I have the calculations for the borough of Barnet, which is a particularly interesting borough, in that it contains the constituency of the Prime Minister. If we look at the owner-occupiers in Barnet who are currently in receipt of housing benefit we will see that two out of five pensioners will lose all entitlement to housing benefit under the regulations. If we look at the private tenants in Barnet who are currently in receipt of housing benefit, we will see that one out of five pensioner householders will lose all entitlement to housing benefit. The address of the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) is well known and I hope that many of her constituents will write to her on that point.

We are aware that, unfortunately, the numbers affected go well beyond the Prime Minister's constituency. The last estimate we have goes back to 1982 but even then there were 750,000 claimants for housing benefit who had capital of over £3,000 and half of them were thought to have had capital of over £6,000. In other words, over 350,000 claimants will lose their housing benefit entirely as a result of this rule and the overwhelming majority of them will be pensioners.

At one stage, the Minister appeared to he saying that the changes are introduced by humanitarian impulse because of confusion among pensioners about the present system. It is certainly the case that, once the regulations are enacted, there will be fewer pensioners around to be confused by the system because there will be fewer pensioners in receipt of housing benefit.

The next major change that will result——

Mr. Scott

Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House whether he welcomes the improvements in the capital rule as applied to income support from next April? Will he tell us whether he believes that there is virtue in aligning the capital rules between the income support scheme and housing benefit? Will he say whether there is any level of capital that should prevent people from being helped with their housing costs and, if so, what the level would be?

Mr. Cook

The answer to the Minister's question is perfectly simple. There is no great mystery about it. The Minister talked about capital as if it is wholly disregarded by the present system. That is nonsense and a moment's reflection will tell him that is the case. What is taken into account by the present system — it is perfectly proper and we make no objection to it — is the income flow from the capital available to the claimant of housing benefit as a resource with which they can meet their expenditure requirements. It is perfectly reasonable that that income flow should be taken into account. However, it is wholly unreasonable that they should also be required to diminish their capital in order to meet their weekly revenue outgoing. That is precisely what they will be obliged to do as a result of the change. The Minister is saying, "Irrespective of the income you obtain from capital, because you have capital of a modest sum you will lose all entitlement to weekly assistance."

The next change that results in the reduction of caseload is the increase in the tapers. In a spirit of moderation and in seeking to find common ground, I can say that I agree that it makes sense to place the tapers on net income rather than gross income. I accept that as a sensible structural change and an improvement. However, we have to measure the impact of the change in the context of the increase in the tapers. When the Government took office, the combined rent and rate tapers were at 23 per cent. of gross income. As from next April, the combined rent and rate tapers will stand at 56 per cent. of gross income. In the past eight years the Government have doubled the rate at which housing benefit is reduced for every successive increase in income. They are constructing a ferocious poverty trap.

Any family with children that is entitled to housing benefit will almost certainly be entitled to family credit. Indeed, they may even be receiving family credit. We are assured repeatedly that the take-up rate of family credit will be higher. The wonderful circular reasoning given to my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) in a written answer last week said that the take-up rate will be higher because more people will be receiving it and therefore it will be better known.

The taper on family credit will be 70 per cent. If we add together the tapers on housing benefit and the tapers on family credit and look at how they interact with each other, we find that families entitled to both and claiming both will be paying a marginal rate of taxation of 98p in every pound. For every additional pound in income they will lose 98p in benefit. No Conservative Member pays a marginal rate of taxation approaching that figure. Indeed, over the years the Government have taken great care to ensure that they do not have to face that rate of taxation.

When the Government took office in 1979, the top rate stood at 97 per cent. It now stands at 60 per cent. It has gone down over the same period by almost the identical amount as the marginal rate of tax on claimants of housing benefit has gone up. The effect will be to melt swiftly the entitlement to housing benefit of anybody with an income above income support.

For example, a single person paying an average rent will have their entire entitlement to housing benefit extinguished when they achieve a net weekly income of £60. At that point they will be part of that reduced caseload. A married couple with one child on an average rent will find that their entitlement to housing benefit is extinguished entirely when they achieve a net weekly income of £95. In other words, their entitlement to benefit will disappear when they are still on less than half average income.

The effect on young people is particularly draconian. However — this is the point at which I recognise that there is a structural improvement in the regulations—I agree that there is a good and profound attraction in aligning the thresholds for income support with the needs allowances for housing benefit. However, that is a general principle and should not be pursued mindlessly. One of the consequences of pursuing it mindlessly is what happens to young people. As the Minister will be aware, people under the age of 25 are denied the full adult rate of income support. Therefore, under this scheme, they find that they do not qualify for the full adult rate of needs allowance either. The full adult rate is denied them until they reach the age of 25 and until that time they will have a needs allowance of £26 a week. That means that any income over £26 a week will be offset against their housing benefit entitlement.

I am indebted to the Shelter housing aid centre for a calculation concerning one particular youngster. That youngster was paying a rent of £15 a week. That is a perfectly reasonable rent because it, happens to be the average rent for a local authority house with one bedroom. If he has an income of £26 a week, whether on income support or not, he will receive 100 per cent. housing benefit. If he obtains work and is successful in increasing his earnings to £70 per week, his income, net of housing costs, will rise not to £70 but to the grand total of £36 a week. In other words, because of the effect of the poverty trap that young person will have experienced an increase in income of £44, of which he will be left with only £10 in his hand.

It would be difficult to come up with a scheme better designed to discourage young people from seeking work and from seeking to maximise their earnings. [Interruption.] We produced no scheme that penalised young people in this way and at no time before the Minister took office did any Government have the benighted idea that people under 25 have lower housing costs and lower personal expenditures than those over 25.

Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)

The hon. Gentleman has not yet drawn attention to the fact that more than 1 million low-paid people have been taken out of income tax by the Government. Furthermore, he has not yet answered the question put to him by my hon. Friend the Minister: how many people should receive housing benefit? Already 7 million people receive housing benefit. How many people does the hon. Gentleman suggest should go cap in hand to ask for housing benefit?

Mr. Cook

First, may I take the gravest exception to the hon. Gentleman's use of the phrase "cap in hand". If he had been in the Chamber throughout the debate he would have heard many of his hon. Friends express perfectly proper and legitimate concern on behalf of constituents who will be denied housing benefit under the regulations. The hon. Gentleman would have grave difficulty in avoiding seriously provoking an audience of elderly citizens if he told them that those pensioners who apply for housing benefit because they need it are going "cap in hand" to ask for it. Such people have worked for this country for most of their lives and some of them have fought for this country and they deserve the support that the Government now want to diminish.

I want to pause here — in a sense, the hon. Gentleman's intervention helps me in these comments—to compare the Government's attitude to those who receive housing benefits with their treatment of those who require subsidy for their mortgage costs. I imagine that the hon. Gentleman will not tell us that they go cap in hand for mortgage tax relief. We subsidise mortgages by an arrangement that relieves the interest of liability to tax. It is a very real cost even though it is a tax-free system rather than a payment system. Indeed, the system costs more than we pay out in housing benefits. In 1983, the cost of mortgage tax relief was £200 million more than the cost of housing benefit in the rented sector. In 1987 it was not only more; it was very much more. By then the gap between the cost of tax relief on mortgages and the cost of housing benefit in the rented sector was not £200 million but £1,100 million. And the gap has got five times larger.

In spite of that we have no proposal from the Government to bring the ballooning cost of mortgage interest relief under control and no regulation providing that owner-occupiers with capital of more than £6,000 should apply it to reducing their mortgage costs, although that would be more rational than asking people to apply it to reducing their rent because those with mortgages would at least be left with an asset to show for it. We have no regulation providing that tax relief should be tapered off with increases in income; on the contrary, the higher one's income and the higher one's tax rates, the more valuable mortgage tax relief becomes.

Of course, it is possible to defend that system on grounds of social policy and to say that it encourages people to invest in homes and makes decent housing accessible to people who would not otherwise be able to afford it. However, it is not possible with any intellectual integrity to adopt that argument in relation to those paying mortgages and simultaneously to adopt the vindictive, punitive approach to poor tenants that the regulations display.

I will give the Minister this: in one regard, he is putting owner-occupiers on an equal footing with tenants—that is in his proposed treatment of applications for benefit for the payment of rates. Hitherto, rates have qualified for full coverage by housing benefits, but not any more. From next April. the first fifth of a rates demand will be excluded from cover. There is no logical reason for that step in any assessment of housing need or any of the workings of the benefit system. The Minister was good enough to admit that the housing benefit review team rejected the proposal. It has also been rejected by the Social Security Advisory Committee, by every local authority organisation and by the Select Committee on Social Services.

The Government have run out of people to ask in their search for someone to agree with their proposals. The measure is purely political in its objective, which is to make the experience of local government as nasty and expensive as possible by forcing it to oblige residents to pay a local tax by going without food or heating. That is exactly what the Government are saying in their proposal that those in receipt of income support will be obliged to meet part of their rates out of their income.

The Government have not protected those on income support from the effects of the measure. If the Minister seriously wishes to maintain his claim that they have, I must repeat to him the question that I asked him last Thursday, to which he did not reply. The Minister can have it one of two ways. Either the Government have fully uprated the 1985 figures in the White Paper, in which case they have not compensated income support claimants for the effect of the new rates burden, or they have compensated those claimants for the effect of the new rates burden, in which case they have not honestly uprated the 1985 figures. The Minister can have it one of those two ways. He cannot have it both ways. I am perfectly happy to give way to him so that he can clarify the position.

Mr. Scott

We have provided compensation for the minimum contribution to rates. The 1985 figures were illustrative figures used to show how the scheme would work. When we came to introduce income support, we were perfectly entitled to set the benefit levels as we thought appropriate, but compensation has been provided for the minimum contribution to rates.

Mr. Cook

Shorn of the persiflage, that statement is perfectly clear and I commend the Minister at least for his honesty. He is claiming that he has compensated claimants for the new rates burden but that he has not fully uprated the 1985 figures. He is saying that the illustrative figures were too generous and that when I referred last week to the fact that the figures had not been uprated — although the Minister shook his head at the time—I was perfectly correct. The real level of benefit provided in last week's regulations is lower than the 1985 level.

The consequence that the Minister must now face is that, unavoidably, inexorably and arithmetically, there are more losers from his income support system than there were under the 1985 figures. The Minister cannot maintain that he has not uprated the 1985 figures and then argue that there are fewer losers.

Mr. Scott


Mr. Cook

With respect, the Minister's figures assume that the compensation for the new rates burden is part of the uprating. He has just told us that that compensation is to be provided specifically to meet that new burden. If he says that, he must take that rates burden into account in his tabulation of losers, which unfortunatly he has not done. There will be more losers than the Government admitted last week.

Mr. Scott

indicated dissent.

Mr. Cook

There is no point in the Minister shaking his head because he has created the logic that leads us inevitably to that conclusion. If the figures are lower than the 1985 figures there are bound to be more rather than fewer losers.

So far, I have dealt with only the major cuts that the regulations contain. However, if one lifts any one of the 105 paragraphs, out of it scuttles a further minor cut. At risk of distressing the House, let me hold up to the light three of these nasty little beasts, all of which will cause severe hardship to one group or another and all of which could be dropped with minimal cost. In the old days, when we had Governments who listened to the Opposition, it might have been possible to amend these provisions in Committee, but we cannot do that tonight because we must swallow the regulations whole or choke in the attempt.

The first of the minor cuts is the exclusion of amenity charges from coverage by housing benefit. That will also overwhelmingly affect the elderly. Heating is specifically excluded from housing benefit. This is the season when we are increasingly conscious of the dangers of being old and cold. yet at this point in the annual cycle the Government have introduced a regulation which specifically excludes heating from housing benefit. Almost all those who will find that they are affected by the measure are frail elderly tenants living in sheltered housing schemes with communal heating which is not under their control. They will find that the amount of heat that they use cannot be affected by them, so the size of their bill cannot be affected by them, but they will now get no help with the heating bill that they cannot reduce.

Similarly, along with the exclusion of heating charges, there is the specific exclusion of alarm systems in dispersed houses, although it is much cheaper and more desirable to provide an alarm system to enable people to live in the community than to oblige them to go into hospital. The Government have said that that specific provision is necessary to remove doubt about whether alarm systems are covered. I presume that it is typical of the Government that, faced with doubt, they have removed the doubt by prohibiting cover rather than by making sure that alarm systems could be covered by the housing benefit system.

Secondly, among the other minor cuts is one affecting people in hospital for a lengthy period. It is a striking example of the lack of common sense in the regulations and one of the most mindless examples of alignment with income support. After six weeks stay in hospital, entitlement to housing benefit under the regulations is reduced dramatically. No one in the Chamber would argue that housing costs would fall dramatically after six weeks in hospital. I know of no local authority which is prepared to say to any of its tenants who have been in hospital for over six weeks that they can forget the rent because it will cancel it. Indeed, if there were any such local authority, no doubt these days it would be hauled before the district auditor to explain its attitude.

I very much hope that the Secretary of State will not be in hospital for six weeks. As he is paying £195 a night, it is natural that we wish him a speedy recovery. But there is an irony in the regulations ; that is that, if the Secretary of State was on housing benefit, his stay in hospital would not affect his entitlement to housing benefit because he is in a private hospital and the regulation that provides for housing benefit to be taken away from patients in hospital for over six weeks specifically excludes patients in private hospitals. Having listened to many lectures from the Dispatch Box about how important it is to target help on those who need it most, it is sheer effrontery to bring to the House a measure that withdraws help from patients who go into a state hospital while preserving that benefit for those who go into a private hospital.

The Under-Secretary of State says that that has a long precedent. I am sorry to have to disabuse him, but this is the first time that any Government have suggested that housing benefit should be withdrawn after six weeks in hospital. It does not have a long precedent. It is an entirely novel and extremely illogical proposal from the Government.

Thirdly, there is the extinction of the discretion of local authorities to add to their housing benefits system and to make it more generous by up to 10 per cent. of total cost. This is being extinguished by the Government on the ground of consistency. That is an odd argument, since the whole point of having locally elected local authorities is that they should be inconsistent, or at any rate have the right to be different, so that they can legitimately respond to local circumstances and needs.

This particular extinction is all the more vindictive since the Government do not subsidise that 10 per cent. by one penny. They will not save one penny in Treasury money by cancelling it, and it would cost nothing to drop that provision from the regulations. It would be a diplomatic gesture to local authorities and I must advise the Minister that he should make such a gesture to local authorities for whom the regulations pose a major administrative challenge.

Local authorities were promised 12 months' clear notice of the regulations. We are debating regulations that were laid a fortnight ago, which must be implemented five months from now. Major changes were introduced at a late stage. The increase in the rent taper from 60 to 65 per cent. took place only last month. It is important to grasp the scale of the administrative burden that we are placing on local authorities. They will have to reassess every claimant from gross income on to net income. They will have to obtain information about the capital circumstances of every claimant. They will have to administer the new rates demand to 4 million people who at present have no rates liability. While doing all that, they will have to cope with 6 million people queuing up at housing benefit offices wishing to know why their housing benefit has been cut or, in 1 million of the cases, wishing to know why they are part of the reduction in caseload.

If the local authorities fail to match up to the task, the Government, being the Government that they are, will be tempted to put it all down to the incompetence of local government and the sleepiness of the public sector. It is too bad of local authorities not to be able to do in five months what it has taken the Government two years to decide upon.

Unfortunately, I must advise the Government that one of the main reasons why local authorities will have difficulty in implementing the regulations for next April is that the private sector is letting them down. IBM and ICL have now advised all those many local authorities with whom they have contracts that they cannot deliver on their software package in time for 1 April. That is hardly surprising. There are 105 paragraphs which are hardly designed to achieve simplicity.

There are 19 separate references in the regulations to people in polygamous marriages. There is a special disregard for the earnings of part-time firemen or auxiliary coastguards and the schedule that provides for the disregard for part-time firemen and auxiliary coastguards has special mention and exemption for those part-time firemen and auxiliary coastguards who are in polygamous marriages. I invite the Minister to try to develop the computer package that could cope with such variety and diversity.

It is worth stressing those problems, because a number of local authorities have already been to the Government to say that they cannot do the work by next April. One of the local authorities that has notified the Government that it cannot deliver is Croydon, the borough which contains the constituency of the Secretary of State for Social Services.

I pause there to review all those people involved in critical decision-making in the Government, who are hitting their own constituents. The Prime Minister is hitting her own pensioners disproportionately. The Minister, who has a high rates burden in his constituency, is excluding his constituents from cover of the rates. Finally, the Secretary of State himself has a local authority that cannot implement his own scheme in time. To save the Prime Minister and the Minister from the consequences of their actions, I urge them to reconsider and at least to allow a transitional period for the introduction of their scheme.

We were earlier reminded of the shambles of 1983. It was, according to The Times, the biggest administrative fiasco in the history of the welfare state when housing benefit first began. I vividly remember it because in Edinburgh we had to call the police to remove 200 private tenants from the housing office where they were rioting because they faced eviction if they could not obtain their benefit in time. We shall be faced with similar scenes unless the Government recognise that they cannot possibly get the scheme up and running in time for 1 April and must consider transitional protection.

It is extremely moderate of me to seek transitional phasing for a scheme that I find deeply repugnant and objectionable. However long the Government take to bring in the scheme, its consequences are plain and will be harsh and unjust.

First, many ratepayers, especially the elderly, will find themselves in arrears with their rates. The penalties for rates arrears are severe. In Scotland they are warrant sales and the sale of furniture. In England they are appearance in court and fines on pain of imprisonment. As a result of this measure, some people will lose their furniture and others will face the threat of imprisonment.

The second consequence is that many private tenants will fall behind with their rents. Many of those will find themselves being evicted. They are the most hapless victims of a Government who cannot make up their mind between two contradictory impulses—on the one hand to let private rents go out of control and on the other hand to keep the cost of housing benefit under control.

Lastly. in the public sector local authorities will face a sharply escalating problem of rents and rates arrears. To put it in terms that Conservative Members may understand, the Government are shooting the local authorities with both barrels. On the one hand they are increasing their costs, and on the other hand they are diminishing their revenue.

I want to end with a specific illustration of the consequence for an individual family. It is an illustration provided to me of a real family — a couple with two children—in Newcastle on a gross wage of £110, which is half the national average, who have a current rent of £18, which is typical because £18 happens to be almost exactly the average rent for a three-bedroomed council house. That family, on their wage of £110, have a current weekly charge for housing costs — rents and rates—of £12.86. After 1 April that same family, on their same income and rent, will face a weekly charge of £26.39. Even if there is no rent or rates increase, they face that increase of £13.50 a week simply as a result of the changes in the regulations.

I invite those right hon. and hon. Members who think that new charge reasonable, who consider that increase fair and who are prepared to face that family and say that that increase is fair and that that new charge is reasonable, to vote for the regulations tonight. I invite all other hon. Members who regard such an increase as a scandal, to join me in the No Lobby.

6.42 pm
Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)

Often when Parliament tries to help people to meet necessary or socially desirable expenditure, it overlooks the long-term effects that flow from the introduction of a benefit, subsidy or relief. For example, regional subsidies may well provide work for one city but take it away from another. Mortgage interest relief, to which the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) referred, often has unexpected effects. One obvious effect presently being experienced in the south-east is that it puts up house prices. The more people can borrow, the more vendors charge for properties. That was not expected at the time mortgage interest relief was introduced. However, it can still he argued that the advantages of that and of regional subsidies outweigh the disadvantages, but it is unwise ever to forget the other side of the coin.

Housing benefit is no exception to the rule that every benefit, subsidy or relief creates its own special problems. One problem that hon. Members on both sides of the House will immediately recognise is that of landlords who know that they can hoist the rents of those on low incomes or supplementary benefit, knowing that the taxpayer will pick up the tab. Landlords of that ilk are only interested in letting to those on supplementary benefit because most people in work would find it impossible to pay the rents they charge.

For every person who is entitled to help with his rent, there are two persons entitled to assistance with their rates. It is on that narrower aspect that I wish to concentrate, as it is here that the effects of housing benefit have been even more far-reaching. My hon. Friend the Minister pointed out that there are now 7 million ratepayers whose rates are subsidised under the housing benefit scheme. Of those 7 million, 2 million pay income tax. In reply to a recent question by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden), it was disclosed that 1 million occupational pensioners both pay tax and receive housing benefit.

With 7 million ratepayers being subsidised, it is no wonder that irresponsible local authorities have been spending as if there is no tomorrow. It is now widely accepted, certainly by Government Members, that too few voters with an interest in containing local government expenditure leads to higher and higher local government expenditure. In Manchester, for example, 57 per cent. of all ratepayers receive rate rebates. With 57 per cent. receiving rebate, quite apart from all those who do not pay rates at all, it is no wonder that Manchester city council is not interested in containing spending.

Mr. Robert Litherland (Manchester, Central)

The hon. Member is paranoid.

Mr. Favell

He is also correct.

Until 1966, rate rebates were extremely limited, and local government almost invariably acted in a responsible and careful way. In 1966, a limited national rebate scheme was introduced and in 1974, that national rebate scheme was greatly expanded. Since then, the number of full ratepayers has gone steadily down while the number of irresponsible local authorities has gone steadily up. For the first time since 1974, my hon. Friend is now reducing the number of those on housing benefit. He is to be congratulated. That move, together with the community charge that is shortly to be introduced, will restore sanity to local government. Once again, town halls will be truly answerable to the voters, and as sanity returns to the town halls, spending will return to sensible levels. That is the only true and lasting way to assist those hard-pressed ratepayers who have been fleeced by town halls for too long.

6.46 pm
Mr. Robert Litherland (Manchester, Central)

A chill goes down my spine when the Government refer to reforms, because I substitute "reforms" for "cuts". I think that is what the whole exercise is about. I will not go down the same road as the hon. Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell) because I know that he is paranoid about Manchester city council. If he paid as much attention to Stockport, I am sure that his constituents would have their interests better cared for. I am concerned about the effects on my constituents of the change to the regulations. Why do we have benefits at all? Why are benefits required? Who are the people who need and depend on benefits? It is certainly not the Ministers who are putting forward the proposals to cut housing benefits, or the series of social security changes that has already been discussed. People in the inner-city areas claim because they depend upon benefit to exist.

Manchester spends well over twice as much on housing benefit as the national average. The reason is the extent of massive unemployment in the inner-city area, low pay, poverty, the crime of getting old and becoming a pensioner, sickness and disability. That is why rates and rents are above average in Manchester. It is because of Government cuts that the Manchester local authority has to provide extra resources. Manchester has made tremendous efforts to encourage residents to take up housing benefit entitlements. The city council has estimated that the cuts will hit its residents dispropor-tionately and that the benefit loss will be at least £9 million, an average weekly loss of £1.50 for each household on housing benefit. It is also estimated that, on the basis of the Green Paper, 105,000 out of 112,000 people will lose some or all of their housing benefit, which is more than nine out of every 10 on housing benefit.

We had worked on the assumption that grant-aided students would be prevented from claiming housing benefit. Now we know the facts. Nearly 7,000 such grant-aided students receive housing benefit from the city council. The average amount is about £214 per academic year and the total cost of that help is £1 million. If, as we expected — we now know — the Government prevent students claiming housing benefit, that will either further penalise individual students or require additional expenditure from hard-pressed local education authorities. What will be the effect of that on the local authorities' resources? The city of Manchester has always taken the view that because of its income support role, the housing benefit scheme should be a national responsibility that should lie with the Department of Health and Social Security.

The imposition of transferring further work to local authorities, while reducing subsidies, implies that local authorities cannot be trusted with the discretion of assessing the needs of their community. Therefore, the Government are forcing incentives to maintain costs on local authorities. That is the crunch of the regulations and it is another blatant infringement of the democratic procedures that have been the prerogative of local authorities in the past.

It is considered inconceivable that two separate agencies should operate the assessment of need and income for the same claimants. My local authority rejects that nonsensical and bureaucratic set-up and believes that redistribution of income can be based only on a national programme. To overcome the severe local and regional disparities, we envisage that those responsible for expenditure must have the power to raise revenue on a national basis. I discussed that matter only this week with the officer in charge of the housing benefit department at Manchester city council. He informed me that his department will have to take on about 30 extra staff to administer the new regulations. It is essential that there are sufficient staff to protect the most vulnerable.

The council is also the major provider of benefits. Every year, 150,000 Manchester residents receive help with their rent and rates from Manchester's housing benefit office. In administering that complex scheme, the city council has resolved that the regulations should be interpreted for the maximum benefit of its residents—and rightly so. Since April 1984, the city council has twice resolved not to carry out national cuts in housing benefit. Instead, it has maintained the level of benefit by operating a more generous local scheme for Manchester residents.

What will be the consequences of the regulations for my constituents? I hope that in replying to the debate the Minister will answer some of the points that have been raised. My constituency has one of the highest percentages of people claiming supplementary benefit, free school meals and housing benefit. I should illustrate the massive unemployment in my constituency. In one area of the Manchester, Central constituency there is 46 per cent. male unemployment. It is now estimated that one third of all residents claim some form of benefit. As I think we would all agree that not everybody claims benefit, it is therefore estimated that about 50 per cent. of Manchester's population are below the poverty line.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) has said, some of the hardest-hit are pensioners. About 80 per cent. of Manchester's pensioners are now poor enough to qualify for supplementary or housing benefit. Many people who live close to the city centre are poor and depend on benefits. Indeed, 39 per cent. of personal incomes in Manchester come from welfare benefits and about £80 million is paid out in housing benefit.

In my constituency, people do not fall foul of the ups and downs of the Stock Exchange. They fall foul of loan sharks—those vultures and parasites who prey on the demise of the poor. That is a growth industry in Manchester, and the Government always welcome that type of entrepreneur.

There are no areas of escape from poverty and its humiliations. I could list the areas and districts in Manchester—for example, in Openshaw, 38 per cent. of my constituents receive benefit. In other areas, 50 per cent. of schoolchildren receive free school meals. That is the situation in Manchester and I hope that the Minister will be able to tell me how my constituents will benefit from the regulations. By imposing such cuts in the housing benefit scheme further hardship is being heaped on communities that are striving to survive. As about 1 million claimants are expected to lose all help with rent and rate payments, surely, as night follows day, many of my constituents will be affected.

I have already mentioned the massive unemployment in my area. There have been closures of steelworks, of heavy engineering factories and of the finest wire manufacturers in the world. Major employers in the area have thrown workers on the streets with only their redundancy money in their pockets to show for a lifetime of work. Many who are only in their 50s are possibly too old to gain full-time employment again and must now face the further indignity of losing their housing benefit entitlement. That is the Government's thanks to the workers of this country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Livingstone mentioned pensioners. Such people have devoted their working lives to creating the wealth of the City and the nation, but they are not excluded from the cuts. In my area 25,000 pensioners receive standard housing benefit and more than half the city's pensioners receive either supplementary or housing benefit. We recognise that not all elderly people are poor but many are clearly on low incomes and are forced to claim benefits.

National statistics suggest that the most vulnerable people are elderly people and those who live alone. As long ago as 1983 a survey showed that 54 per cent. of that group were dependent on state benefits. In Manchester there are more than 30,000 lone pensioner households—that is 17 per cent. of all households. As an estimated three quarters of a million claimants — mainly pensioners — will face benefit cuts, by the law of averages, the pensioners in my constituency will be severely affected. As my hon. Friend said, many are independent. They have scrimped and saved all their working lives for their retirement and for the possibility of enjoying that period of their lives. The cuts will inflict hardship and distress on them because of their thrift. That is the reward of the caring Government.

The Low Pay Unit calculated recently that there are about 430,000 low-income households in Greater Manchester. That means that 44 per cent. of the work force in the Greater Manchester area earn poverty wages. In the city, the percentage will almost certainly be higher and, as we have heard, many of those unfortunates will lose benefits. With £500 million being cut from housing benefit, there will be many losers who can ill afford further cuts in their living standards. How could it be otherwise when the number of Manchester council tenants taking up certificated housing benefit amount to 59 per cent. of the population, and about 34 per cent. of them are in receipt of standard housing benefit? Private sector households do not escape the need to claim benefit—one third of them claim standard or certificated benefit.

These facts, figures, percentages, estimates and forecasts cannot demonstrate the profound hardship that these human beings will suffer. That is an indictment of our so-called affluent society. Many kids in the Manchester area will face a barren Christmas, relying on charity handouts for presents. These things should he exercising the conscience of Scrooge-like Ministers, with little or no compassion. How can they claim to have compassion when the Government's cuts will add to the misery, poverty and sickness that already exist?

There is a recognised correlation between poverty and ill health in our area. In the Manchester inner-city area there are 80 per cent. more deaths among people under 65 than the national average. Not a single person there will be able to afford the luxury of being pampered in a private hospital at £195 a day like the Secretary of State who was instrumental in pushing through these provisions. That is an insult to the poor. We live in a sick society in which more resources can be heaped on the greedy while the lifeline for the needy is being cut. I hope that Tories with consciences will come into the Lobby with us tonight.

7.1 pm

Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

I strongly resent the attack that has just been made on my right lion. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. It was perhaps symptomatic of the Labour party's extraordinary view that those who already receive large salaries should receive still more to help them when they are sick. The Secretary of State earns his salary daily, and nightly, and it is right that he should spend some of it on paying for his own health care, so leaving a bed for someone who cannot pay.

Whenever the House debates matters of this type, we are regaled with a briefing from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. We all turn eagerly, leaving aside the rest of our mail, to see what that Labour-controlled organisation has to tell us. Tonight's debate is no exception. I turn to my AMA parliamentary briefing and see in the first paragraph—surprise, surprise—that the association does not like the new benefit scheme. It says: It will reduce benefits available to claimants, will be more difficult to administer, and result in further financial losses to authorities. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell) has with admirable economy already dealt with the charge that there will be more financial losses for the authorities, so I shall not burden the House further with that. His remarks were extremely relevant and knocked the AMA case into a cocked hat.

The association says that the scheme will he more difficult to administer. That surprises me because the Government's aim is to simplify the system by making it easier for claimants to understand and staff to administer. That is a good aim. Often claimants do not know to what they are entitled because the system is so complicated. Therefore, our striving to simplify the system for people who cannot understand its complexity is a worthy and proper aim. We shall have a more clearly defined structure of income-related benefits, with help based on easily identifiable and understood criteria. The rules for assessment of income-related benefits will be standardised, and administrative rules across the whole range of benefits will be aligned.

The regulations simplify what has been a complicated matter in other ways, too. The evidence against the AMA's claim, and for the Government's view on the matter of simplification, is overwhelming. Aligning income support and family credit must surely make the system simpler, because the assessment will he on net, rather than gross, income.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

As the hon. Lady could not be present for the whole debate, she missed a telling intervention by her hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), who expressed worries on behalf of his constituents. He asked how the Government arrived at the figure of £6,000, beyond which elderly people in his constituency will be penalised. His view is shared by the AMA. Does the hon. Lady think that her hon. Friend was wrong, too?

Dame Jill Knight

I cannot be responsible for the opinions of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow). I can only be responsible for my own. Mr. Speaker was well aware of why I could not be in the Chamber for part of the debate. Heavens alive, the regulations have been before us for 16 days. I do not know what the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) does with his time, but I am capable of reading them in 16 days.

The system will also be fairer because people will he treated alike. That has not happened until now, but it is right that they should be. Whether they are in or out of work, they will be treated in exactly the same way. Providing people on benefit with a regular income upon which they can rely and plan seems a good idea. I am pleased to deduce from the regulations that that is what will happen. As an individual's income rises, his benefit will be reduced progressively, which seems perfectly sensible. The more he is paid, or the more money he receives, the less money the public will put in his pocket. It will be done by a fixed proportion of the amount by which his income exceeds a needs level. It is right that that level should be set by the Government at what the regulations call an applicable amount. That will usually be the same as the individual's income support level, which seems perfectly fair.

Mrs. Beckett

I have been following with interest the hon. Lady's argument that benefit should be withdrawn as income rises. Does she apply the same argument to the subsidies that are given to mortgage interest tax relief?

Dame Jill Knight

The hon. Lady brings in the most extraordinary red herrings from time to time.

No one who looks at the regulations will deny that they are extremely complicated. It is not an easy matter to establish one's entitlement to help. We are dealing with people who frequently do not find it easy to explain what their needs are. I am absolutely astonished that the AMA is apparently not aware of that. Most hon. Members have received a tremendous number of complaints about the complexity of the present system, so how the AMA can have the bare-faced nerve to describe the new scheme as difficult to administer I cannot understand, given that we are trying to make it simpler for ordinary people to claim.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Dame Jill Knight

The hon. Lady will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I must say that this will be the third time. If I go on like this, I shall talk for far longer than I had wished, in courtesy to other colleagues who wish to speak.

Mr. Kennedy

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. This will be a brief intervention. The hon. Lady is making a great cry about the reform and simplification that the Government are introducing with this measure, but surely what they are reforming and trying to simplify is their own mess when they introduced housing benefit to begin with?

Dame Jill Knight

The hon. Gentleman must understand that the Government have already conside-rably simplified the complications that lay in their way after previous elections. This is one more step on the road and it is advisable for the sake of claimants.

The AMA document talks about the reduction of available benefits and paints a picture of gloom and doom. It says that more than 1 million people will lose eligibility to benefits. Shock horror. We are back to the stage where Labour keeps putting foward the curious view that public money should be lavished on the un-needy as well as the needy. Our simple point is that the money available for people in need should be restricted to them only. I know that that is a simple point, but apparently it is too complicated for Opposition Members to take in.

If one has savings of £6,000 or more, one really cannot be described as a poor person in need of public help. That sum does not involve a house or money tied up in jewellery or clothing; it is money available to spend there and then. I believe that there can be no possible justification for the argument that people who have quite a substantial amount of money in the bank, at their disposal, should be given more money out of the pockets of those who perhaps do not even have £50 in the bank. I do not know how Opposition Members justify that.

Mr. Keith Bradley (Manchester, Withington)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Dame Jill Knight

I have made it quite clear that I will not give way again.

The situation that I have just described is the system that is in operation at the moment. Many people who pay tax today have less than £50 in the bank. It is not fair to take their money and give it to those who already have a lot. The old Labour party of years ago would have been on my side about that. It would have said, "You don't give vast amounts of public money away to people who have got that money already and who don't have a need." I believe that the thrust of our tax reforms means that we are trying to alleviate the problem faced by those poor people — there are many — who are paying taxes. We want to raise the threshold. Again, we are always under attack from the Opposition about tax cuts, but we are trying to help the very people whom the Labour party ask to fork out to help those who have no need.

An important and significant shift for Britain is to try to get back to the days when healthy people, in work, shouldered their own burdens. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!") Opposition Members may groan, but that idea makes a lot of sense to people outside the House. Of course there are people who cannot bear their burdens, and they must certainly be helped. The difference between the Conservative and Labour Benches is that we want to give more money to the people who cannot help themselves, but they want to give more money to the people who have already got it. That is absolutely crazy.

Currently, we are making fools of ourselves. For too long we have encouraged the view that the state will meet every reverse in fortune suffered by any individual from the womb to the tomb. We must return to the acceptance of the idea that we all have our own burdens. We should fight to carry them and not ask the rest of society to carry them for us.

Three great evils have arisen from the idea that the state will always meet every problem—an idea fostered for so long by the Labour party. First, it saps human will and initiative if someone else is footing the bills and solving the problems. Secondly, a system that allows such a thing to continue means that so much money is taken away in tax that people are incapable of carrying their own burdens. We should consider that. Thirdly, it leads to Government overspending all the time. That, of course, leads to inflation, and again we hit the very people who need to be protected.

The AMA document — hon. Members must understand that I have not had it under my pillow for the past three weeks, but at least I have read it extremely carefully since it arrived—complains about the change from 100 per cent. alleviation of the payment of rates to a mere 80 per cent. alleviation.

If we had a system whereby people who were lucky enough to get benefit could go into a shop and have everything free, it would be incredible. Even if they were told that they were being asked to pay only 20 per cent. of what everybody else paid, I think that they would cheer. I believe that that is a pretty good bargain if one gets one's rate bills settled by having to pay only 20 per cent. Many people would be absolutely delighted with that.

Mr. Favell

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dame Jill Knight

I did say that I would not, but since it is three to one, I will.

Mr. Favell

My hon. Friend has come to an extremely important matter. What is the AMA frightened or? Is it perhaps that it is frightened of facing its electors?

Dame Jill Knight

My hon. Friend makes an interesting and valid point. I believe that that is probably one of the things that frightens the AMA.

When people pay even a tiny percentage—20 per cent.—of the rates, they will be much more interested in how that money is spent. All the vast sums being spent on one-armed homosexual window-cleaners' social clubs will come to public notice. "Hallo," they will say, "that is not what I pay my 20 per cent. of rates for." That is a good thing. Let the searchlight of public understanding fall on some local councils' expenditure and we will be all the better for it.

I am extremely glad that the preferential treatment built into the income support for disabled people will be reflected in the housing benefit calculation. That gave me particular pleasure. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, yes!"] Opposition Members do not have a monopoly of care and concern for the disabled. They should also learn a few manners.

Those on income support will continue to get full help with rent, and that is right. Indeed, more than four fifths of those on income support will be either better off or stay the same as now. Having read about such provisions in the regulations and having listened to some Opposition Members' speeches, I cannot equate the two views. The hard cases that the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Litherland) discussed will surely continue to be helped in the same way as they have been until now.

Mrs. Beckett

No, they will not.

Dame Jill Knight

Oh yes, they will. Sixty per cent. of housing benefit goes to pensioners. One must examine their needs, because they will be the group most affected. I understand from the figures that half will gain and half will lose. However, those who lose will be the ones to whom I have already referred — those who have more than £6,000 in the bank.

I do not know how Opposition Members were brought up, but I would have thought £1,000 in the bank to be a fortune, let alone £6,000, when I was growing up. As long as people are able to meet their needs from their disposable income, how can it be right for the taxpayer to be asked to do it for them? I welcome the regulations, the thought behind them, the extra simplification and the recognition that some people need help and must continue to get it.

With great enthusiasm I shall support the regulations.

7.20 pm
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye)

Before I follow the interesting excursion of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Darnel Knight) into the equity of the Government's behaviour, I must apologise to the Minister for missing the early section of his speech, because I was delayed in travelling. However, I must compliment the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) on an analytical and excellent demolition of the Government's case. I fully associate myself with his comments.

Housing benefit is an issue which successive Conservative Ministers have come to the House to simplify, extend, alter and reform. They are still trying to achieve that aim this evening. It is nonsense for the hon. Member for Edgbaston to boast about the Government's magnificient achievement in bringing forward this simplification. All hon. Members who have dealt with constituency cases involving previous simplifications tend to say, "We will see what happens with this one." It is a bit much for the hon. Lady to hold this up as a great achievement, when the Government are trying to sort out the entrails of their predecessors' efforts to minimise and restructure the system, which have resulted in shambles, as the Minister is aware.

The Minister was determined to talk about the plight of pensioners. Hon. Members on both sides of the House know that several years ago many pensioners who had never been in debt in their lives received notification from local authorities of considerable debts about which many of them were almost worried to death. They came to hon. Members and asked what could be done about it. That was the administrative nightmare that the system introduced.

Although any simplification will be welcome — and we cannot make a final judgment on that tonight—the Government should be a little more careful when claiming so much credit for what is, after all, a mess largely of their own making. The hon. Member for Edgbaston kindly took an intervention from me, but told us that she did not want to take too many others. I was less worried about the interventions. Indeed, the quality of her speeches would be improved by more interventions from Opposition Members and fewer contributions to the detail of her speeches from what I presume is Conservative central office. I found the image of society in Britain that she painted to be far removed from the lives of too many people in Britain.

Dame Jill Knight

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I suggest that he has no right to tell me whence I get my material. The main thrust of my argument was that it was ridiculous and wrong to give public money to people who do not need it. Does the hon. Gentleman agree or disagree with that?

Mr. Kennedy

Every hon. Member will agree that public money should be effectively used. There is no argument about that. In an intervention during the speech by the hon. Member for Livingston, the hon. Lady's hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell) asked how many millions more people will be on housing benefit. The Prime Minister talks about the evils of a nanny state and people being too dependent. Because of their economic policy, the Government have made more people than ever before dependent on the welfare state.

Dame Jill Knight

That is nonsense.

Mr. Kennedy

I do not understand how the hon. Lady can say that that is nonsense, given the present levels of unemployment and dependency. Many Conservative Back Benchers complain about the number of people who are eligible for housing benefit. They should ask themselves why so many people are eligible, even under a scheme that successive Ministers have attempted to restrict. It is because so many people have an income that is so low that even this Government are forced to concede that it is inadequate in a civilised country like Britain. Government policies have caused that situation and the humbug and hogwash that we hear about targeting resources most effectively is like looking at a glass of water and arguing that it is not half full but half empty. The Government are standing logic on its head by claiming credit for a situation to which their own policies have been the major contributors. The oozing self-congratulatory selfishness that comes from Ministers and Conservative Back Benchers does not commend itself to the millions of people who will be affected by these proposed changes.

I shall touch briefly on one or two of the main points that arise from this measure. I shall deal first with the 20 per cent. rates contribution. The hon. Member for Edgbaston is attracted to this, but I doubt very much if those who will have to pay it will be attracted to it. The hon. Lady will not find the public fascination with this 20 per cent. rates contribution that she predicted. The level of interest on the part of the public will be restricted to those poor people who will be aware that they will have to pay a 20 per cent. contribution that at the moment they do not have to pay. The interest will end there. It will not extend, as the hon. Lady said it will, into a higher level of participation in scrutiny of local authorities.

We are told that this extra payment will be offset by increased income support. I think that the amount being discussed is about £1.30. However, that does not take account of areas in which there is high rating and in which, obviously, that offsetting amount in income support will be inadequate.

I have no more brief than the hon. Lady for a Labour organisation. However, I listen to experts. The Association of Metropolitan Authorities has argued with considerable force that we could well end up with a nonsensical scheme that is difficult and expensive to administer compared with what it brings in. As the hon. Member for Livingston said, in Scotland that will lead to an increased likelihood of warrant sales which must be one of the most offensive and unacceptable things on the local government statute book —if I may put it that way—north of the border. We do not wish to see that happen.

The rent taper is increased by 5 per cent. to 65 per cent. Obviously, its application on net instead of gross income is sensible and welcome. However, the 65 per cent. rent taper amounts to a cut of about £150 million in housing benefit. It will also mean an increase in the poverty trap, because the marginal tax rates for households paying tax and 9 per cent. national insurance and receiving help towards rent and rates has risen from 61.75 per cent. over the past four years. As a result of this measure, it will go up to 91 per cent. The highest rate of income tax over the same period and, indeed, before is now down to 60 per cent. and is paid on only taxable income above £41,200 per annum. That shows that there is a gross distortion in the way in which the Government are dealing with and handling public finance in terms of the distribution of wealth in Britain. That is why the double standards of the Government are so unacceptable.

In terms of the capital rule, the hon. Member for Edgbaston thinks that £1,000 is a great deal of money and that £6,000 is an absolute fortune. When Invergordon aluminium smelter closed in my constituency several years ago, there were significant redundancy payments. However, alternative employment for those people made redundant has not found its way to that part of the country and they have been living on dwindling assets. For that reason, the £6,000 capital limit that the Government propose is not in any way related to the reality of the predicament in which those people find themselves.

On average, local authority rents have increased by 155 per cent. since 1979. Over the same period, housing benefit has been reduced on four occasions and another cut is due in April. Given a track record like that, there is no guarantee that further cuts will not follow. The Government's record on that is deplorable and it shows consistent negligence on their part that they have not addressed the housing benefits system with a good deal more equity and fairness than this measure suggests.

The Government's White Paper on housing proposes decontrol of rents. In areas such as London, rents will be all too liable to rocket if landlords are able to charge an amount that the market will bear. There is a contradiction in that because, in a sense, the Government, given their market fascination, wish that to be allowed to happen while at the same time restricting the degree of application and support of housing benefit. That is a mark of the inconsistency of the Government's approach. That will mean a reduction in living standards unless housing benefit goes up accordingly. Four cuts since 1979 and another one promised in April is hardly the basis on which we can have much confidence that that will happen.

My final point is about the recovery of overpayments. In many ways this is one of the most remarkable sections of the publication that is before us. It would have been wonderful to sit in at the meetings between civil servants and Ministers when they decided on the definition of an overpayment. To have the gall to institute measures to recover overpayments from this category of person is quite remarkable. At the moment the maximum that can be taken from benefit to recover an overpayment is £4.65 a week. The limit—surprise, surprise—is one of the few things that will go up because of this measure. Another is the taper percentage increase. Therefore, people receiving supplementary benefit or income support, when it is introduced, are already on the poverty line, according to the Government's own official definition ; otherwise they would not be eligible for such support. To talk about increasing the amount for the recovery of an overpayment for people in that income category is ridiculous.

We shall certainly oppose these regulations. They highlight the great distortions in housing policy in Britain, in that those who are unfortunate enough to be in receipt of income which enables them to be recipients of housing benefit are castigated by hon. Members such as the hon. Member for Stockport. It is said that people at the worst end of the income spectrum are going cap in hand for support from public finance, but the public finance should be there by right to alleviate their distress.

People like me who are in employment and at an age when overheads in terms of dependants are not high and who benefit from mortgage interest relief continue to enjoy a straightforward subsidy. Mortgage interest relief should continue, but not at the higher levels that we see at the moment. It should be restricted to people who pay standard rate income tax. It would be equitable if the Government were to come forward and do something even-handed like that while trying to restrict housing benefit or simplify the system. Of course, that would inevitably lead to losers.

If the Government acknowledged that many people are doing very well while many of their fellow citizens continue to get poorer, they would get a more reasonable hearing in the House. However, they will not do that. All their energies are concentrated on restricting the rights of the poorest people while not addressing Britain's tax distortions. They need to be addressed and I hope that the Chancellor will yet address them. The Government's attitudes point to inconsistency and a completely irreconcilable conflict in the approach that the Minister is taking. I cannot believe that the Minister is proud of these regulations or can take much satisfaction from them. He has a reputation as a humane man. I hope, therefore, that he will implement them in that manner.

7.35 pm
Mr. Chris Butler (Warrington, South)

It has been accepted by Governments of all political persuasions that budgets should be set and then adhered to. There is no unlimited pot of taxpayers' money that the Government can spend. Therefore, as the global total is limited, it is hon. Members' responsibility to ensure that that money is spent wisely and that the best priorities are placed upon it. I hope that Labour Members will not regard the proposition as jejune, but I believe that taxpayers' money should be concentrated on those who are least well off in society. If not, those least well off will be penalised and those relatively better off will enjoy the extra benefits.

It is remarkable that the Labour party has sought to defend the relatively better-off sections of the community in this respect. There is a natural tendency for social security expenditure to expand beyond the limits originally conceived. This can happen for a variety of reasons. For example, the original legislation may have unforeseen consequences. Often people use human ingenuity in exploiting the flexibility of the regulations. There is also a tendency for the creeping establishment of precedents by social security Commissioners as they respond to the reasonable and understandable human difficulties before them.

We have had help with housing costs for many years. Back in 1975–76, the Labour Government spent £259 million on rent rebates for 1 million households and helped with housing costs for a further 1 million households through the supplementary benefit system. However, in 1979–80 the Government helped 5.5 million households with housing costs at a cost of £1.24 billion. In 1986–87 the Government are helping 7 million households at a cost of £5.1 billion. That is equal to one third of all households in this country.

I would like to ask the Minister an important question. What was the original concept of housing benefit in this respect? What was meant to be the original catchment of housing benefit? As an ex-civil servant, I ask myself whether this may have been yet another example of, "Yes, Minister". When such a benefit extends to a third of the population, it seems to have engendered a remarkable expansiveness. Of course, housing benefit will be a welcome addition to the income of those who are relatively well off. I do not dispute that. I am sure that some of my constituents will nag me when they lose that benefit, but few of them would be content to be regarded as financially disadvantaged or poor. Indeed, some would be quite offended by that.

At present, real, personal disposable incomes are at record levels and, in all parts of the income distribution, standards of living are higher than they were in 1979. The Opposition may prefer to talk about cuts rather than targeting. I agree that savings of £640 million are implicit in the measure. That too has to be set in the context of an increase in social security expenditure of 35 per cent. since we came to power in 1979. Of course, some of that will be demand-led but a large proportion of it is due to real increases in benefits to those in need.

The Opposition have said that pensioners will be hit, particularly those with capital of £6,000. I was surprised that the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) defended the income rule instead of the capital rule. That would mean that a pensioner could have £100,000 underneath his or her bed and still get housing benefit. What kind of Socialism would that be?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not sure that I heard the hon. Gentleman correctly. Did he understand what my hon.

Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) was saying? My hon. Friend said that people with large sums of capital should have the income from that capital taken into account. It would be unlikely, unless he had an extraordinarily unwise adviser, that anyone with £100,000 would have so little income that he was entitled to housing benefit.

Mr. Butler

In that case what is the objection to a capital rule? If income is to be taken as a strict analogue of capital, why was the hon. Gentleman pressing for an income rule?

I would have more sympathy with the Opposition if they concentrated on those deeply in need of benefits and if, instead of belabouring my hon. Friend for taking away benefit from the relatively well off, they belaboured him perhaps for not targeting these benefits more precisely.

I am the son of a general practitioner. He has undertaken a large number of assessments for attendance allowance. I have read many of those assessments and I have been greatly moved by the dedication and selflessness of the families of the claimants. Year after year they show altruism that makes me proud to be a human being. They save the National Health Service millions, or perhaps billions, of pounds a year. I shall regard my work in the House as incomplete if at the end of my days here attendance allowance does not reflect more closely its deserts. I hope that I shall always be careful to distinguish between defending benefits for the better off and the sensitive prioritisation of expenditure on those who desperately need it.

7.42 pm
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North)

The regulations have to be judged by the House against two crucial tests—who will gain and who will lose, and what general effect will the change have on the provision of decent housing for those in housing need? As to who will gain and who will lose, the Government must concede that when more than £500 million is taken out of the system some groups will lose. One group that has been discussed in detail is the elderly who may have problems following retirement.

In that context I should like to quote from a letter from Mr. Michael Corp, the group director of Anchor. a housing association, a body which has a fine record in providing suitable houses for the elderly. So far as I know, Mr. Corp has no connection with the Labour side of the House and has no political axe to grind. He felt moved to write to hon. Members in these terms: We estimate that at least 50 per cent. of our 22,000 tenants (a far from wealthy group as you may know) will lose benefit entirely or suffer a considerable reduction in entitlement. Unlike those in employment older people have no option or opportunity to increase income to meet the shortfall. That is an objective comment by someone who is heavily involved in providing housing for the elderly. I find that comment disturbing. The Government have to be more convincing about who will lose, particularly among the elderly, before they will get sympathy for the changes in the regulations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Litherland) has described vividly the effect of the change on the residents of Manchester. Knowsley and Manchester are not dissimilar. We have unemployment, urban deprivation, low incomes and all the usual desperate problems that urban areas have been confronted with since 1979. I have done research on the effects of the change on the people of Knowsley. I want to give two examples, although I shall not give the names. A couple of pensioners on a small occupational pension which brings their overall income to £1.03 above the supplementary benefit level will lose £5.98 a week. Another single parent with two children and a net income of £81.44 a week will lose £5.19 a week.

Of the 30,000 people in the borough of Knowsley currently receiving housing benefit at varying levels it is estimated that 7,500 will lose because of the changes in April. Of those 7,500, 2,000 are pensioners. That is the effect that the changes will have on people in the real world outside.

We have to be realistic about the situation nationally. About 1 million of the 7 million who receive benefit will be taken out of the system. The hon. Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Butler) talked with some pride about the fact that 7 million people receive housing benefit. Why have 7 million been drawn into the system? The truth is that poverty among the old, the low paid and the unemployed has increased inexorably since 1979. That is why 7 million people qualify for housing benefit.

I shall not shrink from dealing with one further subject in detail. One cannot consider housing benefit without contrasting it with the system of mortgage tax relief which runs parallel to it. Currently £4.75 billion of revenue lost to the Exchequer is spent on mortgage tax relief for owner-occupiers. Fifty-five per cent. of those who receive mortgage income tax relief earn between £10,000 and £20,000 a year. Worse still, 26 per cent. of those who receive mortgage subsidy through the tax system earn over £20,000 a year. That is the reality of the two systems that are operating side by side.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Is the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's remarks that the Labour party is now advocating the removal of mortgage tax relief?

Mr. Howarth

I will state my opinion on that in a moment. I do not purport to speak officially for the Labour party on this subject.

It is incredible that the two systems operate in parallel and that the major benefit of the two systems goes to high earners. Basically that is the reality of the statistics. I am in pretty good company for a change in my views on this subject. The Archbishop of Canterbury's report "Faith in the City" recommended a total and thorough-going review of the whole system of housing subsidy, and the National Federation of Housing Associations' inquiry into British housing made similar recommendations. Indeed, that inquiry was chaired by Prince Philip.

In response to the point raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), I support the proposals of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, and that is not a great revolutionary or Left-wing body. It recommended that mortgage income tax relief should be phased out and a single universal system of housing allowance phased in. Sooner or later this Government—like a future Labour Government—will have to bite on that bullet because of the growing and spiralling costs of mortgage tax relief. Any Government of whatever political complexion will have to consider that proposal seriously.

My next point relates to the effect that the proposals will have on the provision of good quality housing for people with housing needs. We must consider what the experts have said. The Merseyside regional council of the National Federation of Housing Associations—a group of professional people who are concerned about the provision of decent housing—stated: Associations will be looking at levels of Housing Benefit payable over the next 5 years, and what tenants can afford to pay. With private finance, the level of voids and fear of losing resources, associations will be looking for safer tenants, those able to pay. In other words, because of these and other measures in train, instead of seeking to help people in greatest need, the housing association movement will be looking for those who can afford to pay for housing that was originally designed for people in need. That is rather strange.

Ministers, including the Prime Minister, have applauded the development of housing co-operatives around the country and particularly on Merseyside for providing good quality housing for rent. Indeed, they have applauded them because there is an element of self-help and they claim that co-operatives are wonderful since they enable working class people to have the opportunity to design, run, manage and maintain their own homes. I agree with that praise. I am very concerned about that issue.

However, the National Federation of Housing Cooperatives is also concerned about the regulations. It is concerned because housing co-operatives do not have the resources of housing associations or local authorities and the delays that the system will inevitably introduce in terms of registration will lead to difficulty in planning, and uncertainty and difficulty for housing co-operatives. The federation also believes that the confusion over the reasonableness of market rents and the effect that that will have will cause problems in attracting private finance for new schemes. The proposals are set out in the White Paper shortly to be presented to the House in the new Housing Bill. Those bodies are deeply concerned about providing rented housing. They are desperately worried about the consequences of the regulations and the proposals in the impending Housing Bill.

The regulations and the proposed Housing Bill are shoddy measures. The regulations will affect the old, the poor and the low-paid very greatly. By continuing to subsidise those who do not need assistance in terms of mortgage tax relief and withdrawing subsidy from those in need through the housing benefit system, the Government are operating a shoddy system that discriminates against those in need in favour of those who need less. The regulations are disgraceful and they deserve to be thrown out by the House. Sadly, that probably will not happen.

7.55 pm
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

This debate takes place against the background of a topic that is very seldom discussed in the House — the doctrine of relative deprivation. It is perfectly true that there are psychological disadvantages when one's neighbours can afford rather more this year and even more next year than oneself. That is clearly difficult to put up with. However, the introduction of the doctrine of relative deprivation—and when I used to teach social policy, relative deprivation was a great talking point among the students—has meant that without fail there will be a block of the poor so defined because there is a moving boundary.

It is very important for us to remember that, as one of my hon. Friends has already explained, by and large there is growing prosperity and there are more prosperous people in this country than ever before. In those circumstances it is entirely absurd to have one household in three, some 7 million people, drawing a benefit that was clearly designed to ameliorate some of the difficulties encountered by what was always imagined to be a small minority of people in a hostile housing market.

Mr. George Howarth

Is it not equally implausible to have a benefit through the tax system for owner-occupiers which is equally undiscriminatory?

Mr. Rowe

I believe that it would be good if the Conservative party could return with more zeal to the pursuit of what the party originally came to power to achieve, the removal of all forms of perk. All perks distort the working of the economy and I have often said in this House that I believe in a guaranteed minimum income which would remove many of those specific allowances and grants — for example, mortgage relief or housing benefit — the effect of which is always to distort the market. Given that we are a long way from achieving that now, I want to support the tenet of my hon. Friends to reduce the number of households dependent on housing benefit.

The rates payment is particularly absurd. The idea that one should meet public expenditure costs out of public expenditure by paying for it through an administrative system which adds enormously to the cost of the whole system is wholly absurd. The hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) said that the cuts in housing benefit will affect the quality of housing provision. One of the most disquieting features of the housing benefit system as a whole is that many people are making a very fat living out of providing substandard housing, simply because they know that the state will meet the cost. This is not the debate in which to try to work out ways of preventing that, but I consider it one of the weaknesses of the system.

The hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) made much of the poverty trap in which the young may find themselves. In my view, people over 50 or 55 who decide, with perfect rationality, that it is not worth getting up early, waiting for a bus and paying a large fare to go to a job that will yield them only £5 or £6 a week more than they would receive on benefit are fully entitled to remain at home. However, that is surely the worst decision that young people can make. Hon. Members who tell them that they have no need to go to work and that it is disgraceful to expect them to do so, because they will receive only £5 or £6 more than the benefit level, are doing them a serious disservice.

I realise that, in some parts of the country, young people experience enormous difficulty in finding work. In my part of the world, however, work is plentiful at present. Young people who decide to work, even if it is for a very small net reward at the beginning, frequently rise quickly to a level of wages considerably higher than the level on which they began. They also find it very much easier to move from one job to another. It is the old story: it is far easier to get a job from a job. It may sometimes be very tempting for young people not to work, because they are told by their elders, and by those who ought to know better, that it is not worth it because the differential between wages and benefit is not enough. Such people are doing themselves and their future careers considerable harm.

A curious outcome of the widespread and radical reforms gradually being introduced in the system of income support, rating and so forth is that some of the poorest of my constituents will receive considerable benefits. By a strange quirk, when the community charge is introduced, they will be reimbursed on the average level for the 20 per cent. they are expected to pay. That is because the frugal local authorities, which are very well run in my part of the world, have succeeded in keeping down their expenditure to a remarkable degree. I realise that that does not operate throughout the country, but it nevertheless underlines the enormous benefits to be derived from living in an area with a good record of frugal local government.

We are aiming not only for clarity, but to reduce the number of people in the trap—for trap it is. While, as always happens, some unfortunate families and individuals will lose considerably, and others will lose slightly, the majority of those who will be excluded from housing benefit will find that they can survive far better than they ever expected. One of the emasculating effects of a large benefit programme is that more and more people are sucked into it, because it becomes less and less attractive to make the effort to avoid it. I do not blame them; it seems an entirely sensible thing to do. Nevertheless, it is a worrying phenomenon that the number of people eligible for housing benefit is rising, at a time when unemployment is falling sharply.

I remind hon. Members that, although the capital sum is low, it is higher than it was before the introduction of the regulations. One of the hardest questions of public policy is, "How do we look after the frugal ant, rather than the frivolous grasshopper?" How do we persuade those who have carefully set aside—often with considerable difficulty — a proportion of their earnings over many years, and built up a small sum against a rainy day, that it is just to give virtually the same benefit at the end of the day to someone who has not done that, and may even have gloried in not doing it?

The more that my hon. Friends can do to secure a higher capital sum over the years, the better I shall be pleased. I agree with Opposition Members that £6,000 is not a very large sum, although many more people now have such a sum, partly as a direct consequence of the present Government's taxation policies. I shall be delighted if I discover that the new-look Labour party's policy is so to operate the taxation system that it too will increase the number of people who find it relatively easy to build up substantial lump sums. We have already heard that the Opposition's target would be a much higher sum.

I should prefer to move in one fell swoop to a guaranteed minimum income, of which housing benefit would be just a part, rather than an entirely separate benefit. However, I support the regulations.

8.7 pm

Mr. Keith Bradley (Manchester, Withington)

Before I discuss the regulations in detail, let me make one or two comments about the surprises I received from the Minister's opening remarks. For instance, I was surprised that the hon. Gentleman suggested that the measures would simplify the previous system, without pointing out that it was the present Government who caused chaos throughout the country with the regulations that they brought in in 1982–83. They are responsible for the misery that many claimants suffered in my city of Manchester at that time.

I believe that the new regulations will again cause misery and chaos, because not enough time, thought and effort has been allowed for local authorities to introduce them properly.

I was also surprised that the Minister tried to isolate housing benefit from housing policy in general. Only recently, the Minister for Housing and Planning, when discussing the move to deregulate all rents in the private sector, said publicly and openly that he would turn to the Department of Health and Social Security to support that deregulation through housing benefit. The Minister denied any relationship between housing benefit and the Tory Government's general housing policy.

I was surprised to hear that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) believes that, if one has £6,000 in the bank, one should not receive any benefit from the state. Does she say that, if one has £6,000 in the bank, one should not receive mortgage tax relief? It is exactly the same. She wishes everyone to have an open-ended commitment to mortgage tax relief, but she denies poor people's rights to housing benefit if they have £6,000. What hypocrisy we hear from the Tory Government.

I distance myself from the comments that were made by the hon. Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell), who said that one goes cap in hand to receive benefit if one is poor. Before I was elected to the House, I worked for the Stockport health service. I saw the poverty and the needs of the people of Stockport. To make ends meet, they rely on income support through the housing benefit. It is deplorable for the hon. Gentleman to represent such people, claim that they go cap in hand, and, at the same time, accuse Manchester of helping needy people. We should dissociate ourselves from such remarks.

I shall identify the proposed changes in the backdating arrangements for housing benefit, the provision for extra housing benefit in exceptional circumstances, and the abolition of the local housing benefit scheme. Before I refer to them in detail, I associate myself with remarks made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Litherland), who made a strong case for Manchester. I also represent a Manchester constituency. My hon. Friend said that the cuts, which are estimated at £500 million—the Minister admitted that we are talking about £640 million—will seriously affect the people of Manchester. On the basis of the £500 million cut, we estimated that nine out of 10 Manchester claimants will lose some of their housing benefit, and that one in 10 such claimants will lose the benefit altogether. The Government claim that the combination of the changes in income support, family credit and housing benefit will alleviate the effects of the cuts and that no one will be made worse off. The Minister admitted that his figures do not give a realistic impression of the amount that will be cut from housing benefit.

We in Manchester computed the effects of the combination of the changes to family credit and housing benefit. We found that practically all low-income families will be no better off and that many will be worse off. Taking into account different combinations of family types, incomes, rents and rates, we found that there were poverty traps. No one on a low income will gain anything from the changes. Also, taking into account the Government's unforgiveable decision to limit free school meals to families who receive income support, the effect of the changes will be even more dramatic. In Manchester, families will lose £2.25 per child each week. We have estimated that 11,000 children will suffer. That will compound the effect of the cuts that we are discussing.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Michael Portillo)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), who believes that benefits should be paid in cash and not in kind?

Mr. Bradley

We are talking about income support for all families. A crucial element of income support is free school meals. Up to 80 per cent. of schoolchildren in my constituency rely on free school meals. The cuts will cause them severe hardship. Free school meals will be denied to them.

Furthermore, housing benefit claimants will be the only ones to suffer no transitional protection from benefit cuts. That will seriously undermine the budgetary arrangements of many low-income families.

Pensioners will be seriously affected by the cuts. One in five people in my constituency are pensioners. Many of them live on state retirement pensions. Many of them have been thrifty and have managed to put a little money in the bank. Conservative Members claim that £6,000 is a lot of money. It is not a lot of money for pensioners who have worked throughout their lives. Their benefit will be removed and they will suffer because they have put some money in the bank for emergencies or for peace of mind in old age. The Government are attacking the peace of mind of old people in my constituency of Manchester, Withington.

The regulations presently allow a local authority to backdate a claim for housing benefit for up to 12 months, if, in its opinion, the circumstances are exceptional. The regulations allow authorities a wide discretion for backdating to alleviate hardship. I have sat on numerous housing benefit review boards. They have used that discretion to ensure that people who are entitled to their benefit receive it. We have used it to ensure that their hardship is alleviated. From April 1988, when the regulations come into effect, backdating may be used only if the claimant proves that there is good cause for his failure to make that claim throughout the period for which the backdating is sought. That is a much more restrictive measure.

Many of the circumstances that are currently used for backdating will be denied. Many local authorities will not be able to use the circumstances that now constitute the interpretation of good cause. For example, ignorance of entitlement— I stress the word "entitlement" — will not be considered to be good enough cause for backdating. Matters such as illiteracy or limited English in respect of the interpretation of forms will no longer qualify a claimant for backdating. I hope that the junior Minister will say that backdating will be used as widely as it currently is used by local authorities.

It is hard to understand why such restrictions are considered to be fair when they refer to a person's legal entitlement to benefit. For example, a taxpayer is allowed seven years in which to rectify the backdating of his income tax assessment. So he may refer back seven years, without penalty, to receive the income tax refund to which he is entitled. We are talking about restricting housing benefit for 12 months. It is another example of the Government looking after the rich and denying the rights of the poor.

Backdating is further exacerbated by the change in subsidy arrangements. Currently, backdating attracts a 90 per cent. subsidy. From April 1988, it will be cut to 25 per cent. The Government have stated that their objective is to encourage responsible administration by local authorities. The effect of the subsidy change will be precisely the opposite. It will discourage authorities from carrying out their legal duty to pay backdated benefit, even when the regulations require it.

I now refer to the extra housing benefit for exceptional circumstances. Currently, extra housing benefit can be paid to cover all general and water rates. With the draconian decision to force all claimants, however poor, to pay water rates and 20 per cent. of eligible rates, it is not clear to me whether local authorities will have an opportunity to give extra help to poor people who cannot afford such bills. If this facility is not made available, many more people will suffer severe hardship. But if it is, since no subsidy is payable on such extra help, the cost to hard-pressed local authorities to alleviate such hardship will be astronomical and prohibitive because of the cuts in support that they have suffered. I hope that the Minister will clarify what is eligible for housing benefit payment over and above the 20 per cent. that local authorities now have to pay.

My next point, which is crucial to Manchester, concerns local housing benefit schemes. The present legislation allows local authorities to operate schemes on a more generous basis than the national model scheme. Since 1984, Manchester has used that power to enhance standard housing benefit claimants, thus benefiting such claimants. In 1986–87, it cost £1 million. It did not attract subsidy, but we considered it essential to eliminate hardship among low-income families and to allow local needs to dictate how we interpret and use the housing benefit scheme. That power is removed by these regulations. The loss of such a local scheme will increase the general losses of claimants in Manchester. We have estimated that over 30,000 claimants will be worse off and will lose benefit because of the abolition of the local scheme.

In Manchester we shall publicise these changes because we believe it right that people should know what their entitlements will be. We know that the Government will support that view because we have seen, time and time again, how keen they are to publicise changes in legislation. They spend thousands, if not millions, of pounds on advertising new policies such as the right to buy or those in other sectors of social security payments. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will spend the same amount of money to tell people exactly how much benefit they will lose under these regulations?

We have been told that we should not consider these changes in isolation, and I certainly will not. I was elected as the Member of Parliament for Manchester, Withington, in June. It was a seat that we won for the first time, and that was precisely because over the past eight years many people have been ground down by cut after cut in pensions, benefits and housing benefit. Cut after cut of housing benefit has ground them into poverty, so they reacted by kicking out the Tory at the election.

Since I have been in the House I have witnessed a continuation of that policy. In the past few weeks there have been further miserly increases in pensions, the freezing of child benefit and cuts in the real value of benefits. We are now debating the introduction of further cuts in benefit. People in Manchester have said that enough is enough. We shall oppose the Government all the way on these issues. We in Manchester will ensure that people understand that when their rents or rates increase and they are in financial hardship, the blame should be placed squarely on the shoulders of the Tory Government.

8.23 pm
Mr. James Arbuthnot (Wanstead and Woodford)

I have enjoyed the style of Labour Members' speeches, but I have been increasingly surprised by their content. Nobody could deny that the existing rules on income-related benefits are anomalous and odd. The rules on eligibility for supplementary benefit say one thing and those for housing benefit say another. For supplementary benefit, investment income is ignored, but more than £3,000 of capital deprives one of benefit altogether. For housing benefit, capital is ignored but investment income is taken into account. That is not particularly sensible, and it creates anomalies. However, just as important, it creates confusion in the minds of people who need housing benefit. We must remember that we are talking not of want but of need. People at the poorest end of the income scale are not often best placed to be able to understand the welter of different regulations that apply to different benefits. I can say with confidence that few people understand the differences between these regulations and still fewer understand any need for them.

I welcome these new regulations because, by drawing together income-related benefits, the differences disappear and the rules are simplified. They are welcome and long overdue. However, there must be a rider to that. Confusion can be created not only by regulations, which themselves are complicated, but by frequent changes to them. The more the law is changed, whether by statute or statutory instrument, the more those who need benefits and those who administer them are kept in state of bewilderment. It is all very well to have a new law that is simpler but it does not help if the people who administer it have just caught up with the old one.

Frequent changes generate a cost in themselves, even if in the long run they are simpler and cheaper to administer. They need new books and forms, and extra training for those who administer them. That extra cost must be taken into account and cannot be ignored.

While I welcome the new regulations, I hope that they will be the last changes for a long time. There may be imperfections in them—no law is perfect—but as long as we can live with them we should leave well alone.

I welcome the regulations for several reasons. The main one is that they concentrate available resources into the hands of the poorest of our society. In that regard, the Government have two duties. The first speaks for itself —to provide support for those who cannot provide it for themselves. The second duty is just as important—not to provide support to those who can support themselves. They have a duty not to provide support to those who can rely on their own resources. If we provide support to those who have their own resources and for those who do not need it, we create a dependence on that support and on Government. I congratulate the Government on being the first to have the courage to challenge that dependence.

Protests will be made about these regulations — we have heard some this evening. The reason for them is that dependence on Government support has already gone too far and continued for too long. There will be protests from those who feel that the Government should give an ever-increasing amount of money to an ever-increasing number of people. In a sense one can accept that the motives and intentions of those people are good. However, one must remember that the Government have provided more money for social benefits than any other in history. Increased money for social benefits is a commodity that is more valuable than the promises of Labour Members. Further, the extra money that the Government provide is valuable in itself.

Broken promises and promises that cannot be kept—one has to be fair about this: promises have been broken by the Labour party whenever it has formed a Government—are not only valueless but are cruel and disillusioning. Unkept promises of extra money build expectations that cannot be fulfilled. They create hopes and spending patterns. They lead to dashed hopes, debt, disillusion and misery. That is why the Government's approach, an approach of cautious support for the poorest in our society and a support that can be delivered, is one that I welcome. It is in the interest of our society. It is the right approach, it is valuable and it works.

8.30 pm
Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston)

I was interested in the remarks about debt made by the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot). None of us likes the idea of people getting into debt. The hon. Gentleman might be interested to know that under his Government the situation in my constituency is such that the citizens advice bureau has told me that the biggest increase in the category of advice being sought is that related to debt. Therefore, I suggest that he should have a word with his right hon. and hon. Friends on that matter.

We have had a bracing doctrine advocated by Conservative Members. It is the doctrine that, by making people worse off, we are spurring them into action. That doctrine was advocated by the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford and by the hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), who represents what must be the one constituency in the country where work is plentiful. That bracing doctrine seems to overlook the fact that, of the 5 million households that will lose money, over half are pensioner households. I wonder what extra efforts Conservative Members intend to spur those pensioners to — or are they not being considered in the matter? Perhaps they are being overlooked by Conservative Members. I suggest that they should brief themselves a little better on that subject. When they do they will learn in addition that 300,000 pensioners will lose all their housing benefit. Therefore, that bracing doctrine is faulty.

During his opening speech, the Minister was asked two questions by one of his hon. Friends. As they were asked by one of his hon. Friends, I listened hopefully with the conviction that they would be answered. However, they were not. I want to return to those questions in the hope that the Under-Secretary of State will answer them in his reply. The first was: what is the maximum amount that will be lost? We did not receive any answer to that. I do not know whether the Minister has not bothered to work it out or whether he did not want to tell us. The Minister said that, however much people were losing, they would be the better off among claimants. He brought forward no evidence to substantiate that. We are entitled to ask the Minister to take the question more seriously.

The second question was: what would be the Minister's answer to a thrifty pensioner with £6,000? Again, there was no reply. There was an attempted justification for the capital cut-off, but there was no answer that hon. Members on either side of the Chamber could use as guidance when approached by constituents on that matter. My answer to such constituents will be that they should blame the Minister and the Government for taking a wholly unreasonable attitude. The Minister asked what our cut-off point would be. He was told that it is not necessary to have a cut-off point, because the income from capital is taken into account. That is by far the most sensible, flexible and reasonable way to approach the matter. It obviates the need for constantly looking at rigid capital values and altering them through the House or by ministerial diktat. We have not heard a word as to what is wrong with the present system of taking income from capital into account rather than having a draconian cut-off point.

Instead of answering the questions, the Minister engaged in some diversity tactics. He talked about complexity, especially the complexity of housing benefit supplement. We all know about that complexity. We are not saying that housing benefit supplement is the perfect answer to the problems of our constituents. In fact, we object to housing benefit supplement. Although I was not a Member at the time, I have no doubt that my right hon. and hon. Friends fought it at the time on the grounds that it was wholly unreasonable and far too complex.

Conservative Members like to engage in simplification processes, but with the result that people always lose money. There are always more people who lose than gain from their simplification. It is handy to have simplifica-tion, which saves having to give housing benefit at the present level to 5 million households and saves having to give housing benefit at all to 1 million households. What a handy disposition of events. I am sure that the people in those households would swap simplification for a little more complexity giving a little more money in their pockets.

Another red herring was the statement that implied that the coming of computerisation justified these regulations. I am waiting with fascination to hear the reply to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), who said that local authorities' computer programmes will not be working in time to operate these complicated matters. I remind the Minister of that question because I am interested in the answer.

We have heard a lot about the fact that somehow people are well off, that they should not need the benefit, that, if they do, it is because they are in some way feckless and that, if they pulled their socks up, they would see that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. I do not know what sort of problems are taken to Conservative Members when they hold their advice sessions. I can tell them that in Preston one of the biggest problems is that of fuel poverty. I think that that is the case in most of the constituencies represented by my right hon. and hon. Friends. Fuel poverty is a real killer, and it will be exacerbated by the provisions in the regulations.

Rent arrears are a difficult problem for local authorities, and it is a fact that the incidence of rent arrears will increase, because of the regulations. I wait with interest to hear the Minister's answer to those points.

Conservative Members repeatedly say that there is no bottomless pot. They examine stringently the benefits that go to the poorest members of the population and engage in the fine tuning of such benefits. They are perpetually changing the regulations. The hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford, who said that he did not want many changes, must be sorely disappointed in the Government whom he supports, because they produce changes every year in Bills of greater and greater complexity, as some of us know to our cost.

Against that background, it is remarkable that for the Government there is an absolutely bottomless pot when it comes to mortgage interest tax relief. We have two kinds of income-related benefits in this country. We have the kind of benefit that is cut when one's income increases —the kind of benefit dealt with in these regulations— and the kind of benefit that increases when one's income increases. Mortgage interest tax relief falls into that category.

Let me make it perfectly clear that I do not advocate the abolition of mortgage interest tax relief, but that I certainly advocate that mortgage interest tax relief should be granted only at the standard rate. [Interruption.] The point is that it increases at a greater rate. One gets it at the top rate. If one's taxable income is more than £41,200 and one pays 60 per cent. tax, one gets mortgage interest tax relief at 60 per cent. The rate goes up. That position is untenable. I see the Under-Secretary of State nodding. I hope that he will have a word with his right hon. Friend the Chancellor about this.

Mr. Portillo


Mrs. Wise

Oh, he is not nodding. I am disappointed.

Mr. Tom Clarke

He is just being rude, as usual.

Mrs. Wise

In that case, I shall take no notice.

Mr. Favell

Does the hon. Lady accept that while mortgage interest tax relief has been fixed at £30,000 for eight years, housing benefit has taken more and more people into the net?

Mrs. Wise

We have heard the figures relating to mortgage interest tax relief. Mortgage interest tax relief now costs £1,100 million more than housing benefit. The cost of mortgage interest tax relief has increased, and the gap between one kind of help and the other has widened at an enormous rate. I have the utmost confidence in the figures cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston. I shall be more than interested if Conservative Members wish to rebut those figures, but I doubt very much whether they will.

The fact is that the social policy that says that it is useful to help people to buy their own homes — I do not quarrel with that—is not extended to those people who cannot become owner-occupiers because they cannot take on the onerous burden of a mortgage. Those people must suffer the most. They are in a poverty trap so deep that when the regulations are introduced they will suffer a marginal tax rate of 91 per cent. if they get help with rent and rates only and of 98 per cent. if they also get family credit. As my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston pointed out, no hon. Member suffers a marginal tax rate of 98 per cent. or even of 91 per cent. Therefore, the Government's idea of targeting is partial.

In his opening remarks, the Minister appealed to us to consider the large issues and told us not to look at the detail. It is difficult to follow that advice because topics such as this involve a mass of detail — even after the Government's so-called simplification. It is especially difficult not to focus on the detail, given that the Minister's definition of detail includes the 20 per cent. contribution to be made to the rates. I know that he includes that in his definition because, when asked why he rejected the advice of his housing benefit review team, he said, "We cannot be expected to follow it in every detail." In the Minister's eyes, the 20 per cent. contribution to rates that is now to be levied as a minimum on all households is a mere detail.

There is something deeply sinister about the 20 per cent. proposal. All of a sudden, the Minister and his hon. Friends stop talking about targeting—a word that has dropped from the lips of Conservative Members over and over again during the debate but which does not seem to apply to the 20 per cent. rule. In relation to that rule, it appears that it does not matter how poor one is. One can be the poorest of the poor, but one still has to find 20 per cent. of the rates. With that proposal, targeting goes right out of the window. The Minister's justification for that is interesting—even threatening. He talks about the need to keep local government accountable and says that unless people pay towards the rates and feel the impact of the rates, local government will not be truly accountable. That is a dangerous doctrine, and it ignores the fact that one feels financial impact very differently according to one's income. I contend that the impact of having to pay 20 per cent. of rates, if one is extremely hard up, is much greater than the impact of having to pay 100 per cent. of the rates if one is comfortably off.

The yardstick that the Minister uses is extraordinarily crude. It becomes even more crude when the poll tax looms on the horizon. Then targeting goes even further into the distance because, no matter how well off one is, one will pay a flat rate. The idea that one should pay according to one's means and still have the Government accountable to one is abandoned at that stage. That doctrine is dangerous as well as unfair. Every hon. Member has been elected in part through the votes of those who do not pay income tax. It could therefore be held that there is not sufficient national accountability of Government to people.

The logical extension of their doctrine of accountability in local government is that only those who pay income tax should have a vote in national elections or alternatively that everyone, regardless of income, should be brought into the income tax act.—[HON MEMBERS: "What about other taxes?"] There is, of course, indirect taxation, and even the poorest of the poor cannot escape VAT. That is one reason why Labour Members are hostile to indirect taxation and why it is always easy to obtain our support for pleas to the Government not to extend VAT to other goods and services or to increase its rate.

We dislike indirect taxation, but surely even Conservative Members would agree that the link in the public mind between the tax they pay on the goods they buy and Government policies is tenuous. Indirect taxes are popular on the Conservative Benches because they bear on the poorest, regardless of their ability to pay, and there is no direct understanding of the burden being placed on so many people by the Government.

If Conservative Members are saying that indirect taxation is sufficient qualification for people to fulfil some democratic criterion, why can they not stretch that to cover local government as well? Why do they say that there need be no minimum income tax payment in order to qualify for a vote, yet there must be a minimum payment of rates, or of poll tax when it comes, to ensure the accountability of local government?

This is an attempt to interfere with the results of local government elections. The Conservative party has tried time and again to bring local government into disrepute by focusing attention on the high rates that they have created by the withdrawal of rate support grant. Higher rates in Britain do not derive——

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. The hon. Lady is going very wide of the regulations before the House.

Mrs. Wise

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the Minister made a strong point that the 20 per cent. minimum payment, which is part of the regulations, is justified by the need to make local government accountable. In referring to the rating system, I am really only following along the track that was first opened for me by the Minister, and, indeed, by the regulations. I promise not to go too far along that track. I understand your worries and I do not intend to treat this as if it were the Second Reading of the Bill which will implement the poll tax, which I hope will be long delayed. However, the extent of the increase in rates, and the need to remind people of the fact that it is their local representatives who fix them, has all been brought into much higher relief simply because of the withdrawal of so much rate support grant. Had it not been for that, less attention would be placed on the rates and the position that we face would be quite different.

Local and national Government are accountable to people as citizens. They are accountable not to taxpayers and ratepayers but to those human beings who make up the community. It is disgraceful that the Government and the Minister should make accountability appear to depend on any other yardstick. In the future, can we expect a new Representation of the People Act entitled "Representation of the Taxpayers Act". Any move in that direction is retrograde.

The Conservative party should remember its own emphasis on the importance of targeting when it comes to rates payments. I wish that the Conservative party would realise that, without enough income, people will be unable to pay 20 per cent. of the rates or the poll tax. That is why there will be an increase in debt—an increase in fuel debts and in rates, rent and mortgage arrears. Even now people are unable to maintain their mortgage payments. That will be the result of our passage along the road on which Conservative Members are taking us tonight. It is extremely reprehensible and unfair, but I know that it is no use asking them to think again.

The Labour party will give any Conservative Members who are seriously interested in targeting—in particular, I have in mind the hon. Member who identified himself as a son of a general practitioner and who referred approvingly to the attendance allowance—an opportunity to improve targeting of the attendance allowance by extending it to babies, and perhaps some will join us on that particular issue, if not in our views on housing benefit.

We are entitled to answers to the questions which have been put to the Minister not only by ourselves, but even by some Conservative Members also.

8.55 pm
Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow)

I want to echo the concerns voiced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) and my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) and I want to concentrate on one aspect of the regulations.

Aylesbury and Eastbourne are, comparatively, rich areas. My constituency of Walthamstow is not. It is getting more prosperous but it is not yet the Mayfair of the east end. Between 20 and 25 per cent. of my constituents are pensioners. The numbers of the elderly living alone are projected to increase. The numbers of the very elderly—those aged 85-plus—are also projected to increase.

Those pensioners have worked hard all their lives. Many of them have fought for their country. They have saved. They have a pretty poor view of those who do not work and who sponge off the state. They have retired, owning their own homes and with the income from their savings to supplement their pensions. Their savings will not be very great. They will not be greatly in excess of £6,000 but they will in many cases be more than £6,000.

So far, so good. But in April this year their friendly Labour council increased the rates by a disgraceful 62 per cent. The average rates per household soared from £450 to £720. Many people have been forced into accepting help and it is not surprising, with the increase in the pensioner population across Britain of over 1 million since 1979, and the enormous increase in rates in many Labour-controlled areas over the past 10 years or so, that the cost of housing benefit has soared.

The answer lies in the community charge, which will bring accountability to all the Labour-controlled areas. That is the short-term answer. In the long term, the answer lies with a negative income tax.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am getting a little lost. The hon. Gentleman is talking about the community charge and the negative income tax, neither of which is directly relevant to the regulations. I hope that he will address himself to those.

Mr. Summerson

I will return to the pensioners of Walthamstow who have looked to the Government with hope and confidence to shield them from the effect of the rate increases. Many of my constituents have been hit hard, but they will now be hit again by the changes to housing benefit. They do not want supplementary benefit. They do not want income support. All they need is help with their rates. But now the Government are going to take that away. The community charge will help them, but that is not due until 1990. There is a gap of two hard years which will cost them dearly. How is that gap to be filled? I ask the Minister for an assurance that that limit of £6,000 will be reviewed at the earliest available opportunity.

8.59 pm
Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)

This evening we have been treated to two appalling displays — first, of ministerial incompetence, and secondly, the violent prejudice of the Champagne Charlies on the Conservative Back Benches. The Minister so comprehensively rub-bished his own legislation that I thought that I was listening to an Opposition Front Bench spokesman. In comprehensively rubbishing his own policies and regulations, he then twisted the knife because, in outlining the changes that were necessary — the so-called simplifications — he indicated that those simplications are not to assist those on benefit, but to assist the Government in taking benefit from 1 million people and substantially reducing the right to benefit of a further 4 million people. The agument is not about simplification for those entitled to housing benefit but about the ability of the Government to use regulations to reduce the rights of many households.

It is not the first time since 1982 that the Government have tampered with passported housing benefit. This is the seventh attempt by the Government to cook housing benefit resources. It is also their second major attempt to transfer responsibility for administering housing benefits to local government, not to improve administration or to make it easier for claimants, but to put local government at the sharp end of the Government's attempt to reduce resources in the public sector and to those most in need. It is the local authorities that will face the brunt or those changes. The Government have not even got the courage of their own convictions to tackle the system of benefits and to administer that themselves. Through the regulations, they are trying to pass on the responsibility for the shambles that will ensue.

The Makerfield constituency is situated in the south Lancashire coalfield and for historical reasons has a large number of people who rely on housing benefit. In some estates, between 70 and 75 per cent. of households are on some form of housing benefit. We have the highest number of sickness benefit claimants in the United Kingdom. It is those people that the Government will affect most by the changes announced in the regulations. There has never been a Government who have made so many attempts to transfer responsibility for administering poverty from central to local government. The Government are in the business of divesting themselves of their social and moral responsibilities. Having first created massive unemployment and pools of pensioners who live in poverty, they seek to transfer responsibility for that to local government. In doing that, they hope that local government will be blamed for the loss of income, the loss of resources and the chaos that will ensue.

Conservative Members—who have shown so much prejudice this evening—have suggested that some of my constituents are frivolous grasshoppers. There are imperfections, but people go cap in hand. A Conservative Member even suggested that the lash of poverty will somehow give them the opportunity to do something better with their lives. The reality is that the lash of poverty does not provide opportunities but denies opportunities to thousands of people in my constituency. My constituents do not want to live on benefits, they want the opportunity of jobs, a decent pension and to live in dignity in their old age. We do not want to have to go through complicated legislation or continual attacks on housing benefit.

We want dignity, the right to equal opportunities and to fairness. The benefit regulations attack that. On the one hand, there are unfettered allowances for mortgage tax relief, but the benefit regulations attempt further to erode the rights of the poor in our communities. I believe that the Government will return later in this Parliament to erode even further people's rights to housing benefit. They will do so because they will have to tackle the problem of the continuing bill for mortgage tax relief. I should like that benefit to be scrapped and replaced by a universal benefit that is related to housing need, whether one lives in private or publicly owned housing.

Four groups of people in my constituency will be affected by the regulations. The first such group are low-paid single people, many of whom have been on YTS and, having come off that scheme, are now working in low-paid jobs and receiving between £70 and £80 per week gross. Such people live in housing that is hard to heat, often on council estates. As they have come off YTS after a certain date, they are now not entitled to heating allowances and, because their properties are difficult to heat, a large proportion of their income is taken up in heating costs. However, that group will be further attacked and their income further eroded.

Secondly, I should highlight the fact that in my constituency a huge proportion of families who are on benefit will receive a cut in their rights to free school meals some time in April. That will amount to a loss of about £1.80 in real benefit per week per child to families who need that service.

The third group arc pensioners on occupational pension schemes. They include miners and people who have worked for Heinz and the other big manufacturers in Wigan. Those people's rights to benefit will now be severely curtailed and they will lose benefit because of their occupational pension schemes.

The fourth group has been much discussed this evening — persons with capital above the £3,000 and £6,000 limits. At present rates, £6,000 results in about £12 per week interest. In my constituency many people of pensionable age have that so-called little nest egg for two reasons. First, they use it to help the family, to help with the grandchildren, with Christmas presents and holidays. That is something simple which, in the last years of their lives, gives them a little dignity for all the work and effort that they have put in over the years, often in industries that have exploited them throughout their working lives.

The second reason why they keep their little nest egg is to pay for their funeral. I have seen many people at my surgeries, both when I was a councillor and since I have been a Member of Parliament, and one of the concerns of many elderly people involves the changes in benefit that erode their little piece of capital and thus the possibility of them having the dignity of proper funerals at the end of their lives. When one considers that the average cost of a funeral in the Greater Manchester area is over £1,000. the limit of £3,000 does not go a long way. However, the Government are attacking the whole concept of maintaining that allowance.

The invidious and insidious part of the legislation is that the Government are attacking the concept of those people having capital in the first place. The Government are forcing them to get rid of that capital and until they do so their rights to benefit will either be eroded or taken away altogether. That is an insidious attack on a group of people who have contributed so much to our society in terms of wealth creation, and by their ability to fight for our freedoms in the second world war.

The taper system is an infamous piece of legislation. There is a real attempt to use it in a sharp way so that people, by the smallest change in their personal circumstances, will either lose their rights to benefit or suffer some reduction. By that simple change in the mechanism, a huge number of people will lose their right to benefit. It has been calculated that about 700,000 pensioners will come into that category. In April next year, more than 1 million people will lose their right to benefit altogether—about one in seven of all claimants. The Minister has already said tonight that the loss of overall benefits will accumulate to £640 million—£140 million more than my hon. Friends and I had calculated. So the Government have admitted that the reductions in benefit are even more severe than we had at first thought.

Contrast this with the Prime Minister's ability to earn a great deal of tax relief on her mortgage and to enjoy a £40 a week reduction in her rate bill with the introduction of the poll tax. My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) went into great detail about the way in which the taper operates and forces people into the poverty trap, forcing them into a marginal rate of taxation in excess of 90 per cent. That is a real attempt to change the balance of wealth in this country. It is part of the Government's overall policy to take away from the poorest members of the community and redistribute the money to those who already have so much.

Some of the other provisions locked away in the regulations are probably some of the most insidious of any with which we have had to deal—for example, amenity charges in sheltered accommodation. Such charges are now included in some certificated cases, but, following the introduction of the regulations, fixed charges for heating and water will be phased out. That is an attack on pensioners because it is they, almost exclusively, who are in sheltered accommodation, public or private.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) highlighted the way in which the regulations will affect water charges. From 1 April, people on supplementary benefit will be unable to have them taken into account. On the issue of unreasonable costs, I recently received a letter from the director of housing of Wigan metropolitan borough council, who said that the authority is concerned about these changes, because they take into account the Government's changes brought about by the deregulation of rents in the private sector. The private sector landlord will allow rents to rise to such a level that the claimant will be penalised, because the landlord will be able to charge whatever market rent he can get.

According to the regulations, claimants will have to pay rent levels that the local authority will not be allowed to cover because of unreasonable rent levels. So the Government are reducing people's rights in the private sector to have a fair rent fixed and, by means of another piece of legislation, they are trying to prevent local authorities from taking account of the fact that landlords are unleashing market rents on us. A large number of young people in the private sector will be affected by that.

I turn now to local government administration, which will be a shambles, just as it was before. Local authorities will be short-changed by £25 million for the introduction of the new scheme. They will spend £50 million on introducing computer systems and training staff, yet their reimbursement will total only a maximum of £25 million. Rent and ratepayers in the local authority areas will have to make up the difference.

Furthermore, the draft regulations were originally six weeks late. Then the guidance notes were a month late, and the regulations have only now reached us. Yet local authorities will have to implement them by I April next year. It has taken the Government two years to reach this point, but they expect underfunded and under-resourced local authorities to make this major change so quickly. They are doing it in such a way as to blame the local authorities if difficulties arise. I say to rent and ratepayers: "Do not blame your local authorities — blame the Government for their incompetence and malevolence towards local authorities, tenants and ratepayers."

In my constituency, part of the Wigan metropolitan borough council, the authority stands to lose something like £40,000 because of the total cost of the introduction of the scheme. That £40,000 will be borne by the local ratepayers. The people stand to lose between £900,000 and £1 million a year because of changes in the benefit regulations. That represents a massive reduction in the resources available to my constituents. It is totally unacceptable and unrealistic that Wigan should bear such costs and it represents a major attack on local government finance. At the end of the day, those least able to pay and least able to gear themselves to the changes will be most affected. Those on low incomes and young people trying to make a start in life and trying to make something of their lives will be handicapped by the introduction of the regulations.

Conservative Members will be condemned by the introduction of the legislation. We shall not let them forget what they intend to do to pensioners. We shall ensure that the constituents of every Tory who has spoken today will know what they have said about pensioners and the so-called workshy, lazy young people. We shall make sure that, back home in their constituencies, the constituents know what their Member of Parliament thinks about them.

9.15 pm
Mr. Lewis Stevens (Nuneaton)

I shall be brief. First, I must say that some of the comments by Opposition Members appear to be from people still fighting not only the election of 1987, but that of 1983, and even as far back as 1935.

The hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) suggested that we are trying to bring local government into disrepute. I totally reject that. However, the Labour party has managed to do that extremely successfully.

The policies that have initiated the regulations were established in the Social Security Bill in 1986 and were put to the electorate this year. Those policies were well understood, both in general concept and in practical effects. The simplification that has undoubtedly been brought about is important. People can now understand far better how their housing benefit will relate to them. The assimilation of the various housing benefits on to the same base is important. It is also important that those benefits will be on a net base rather than a gross base. That will give help to many people.

Although with any changes it is right to say that there will be losers and gainers, within the proposed Social Security Act there will be a considerable number of gainers. It is not surprising that the Opposition have almost totally ignored the fact that many disabled people will gain as a result of the Act and as a result of the housing benefit regulations. It is also not surprising that the Opposition easily omit the fact that the family credit system that we have introduced will also extend help to far more people than was expected or was available under FIS. It was necessary to do something about housing benefit. My hon. Friends have said several times that, with one third of households receiving that benefit, it had got out of hand.

Some people may suggest that the large number of recipients of that benefit was due to our economic policies, but they should consider the economic policies that were followed in the late 1960s and between 1974 and 1978. Those policies were likely, at some point in the future, to bring about a significant and dramatic change in the industrial life of our community. The effect of those policies was to bring about redundancy and unemployment. That was the catalyst that led to great change in the amount of social security benefits that had to be paid.

Various Acts have tried to bring about the best results and the necessary targeting of those benefits in the best way. The social security measures which will be implemented in the spring next year will achieve that to some extent. although not to the extent that many of us would wish. They do not go far enough. There are certainly some reservations about the £6,000 capital limit. It is strange that Opposition Members who once said that £1.80 was a lot of money now say that £6,000 in capital is not. Surely there is a contradiction somewhere along that line.

If we sensibly examine further attempts to put money where it is most needed, housing benefit, with some reservations, is the target at which we were aiming. I know that the House will give it the support which it deserves.

9.20 pm
Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South)

I concur with the last few words of the speech of the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Stevens). I wish that the House would give the regulations the support that they deserve, which is to be roundly defeated.

The Minister of State expressed the hope that Opposition Members would set these provisions in the wider context of the whole policy. I shall try to oblige the Minister by examining in a wider context the Government's claims that these regulations and the framework of changes target help on those in greatest need. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight), who no doubt we shall see in her place shortly, asked, in the bewildered manner that suits her so well, how anyone could oppose such a goal. I will tell the hon. Lady, and she can read it in the Official Report.

It is a question of how such groups are defined and where such a policy leads. The Second Reading of the Social Security Bill revealed that those excluded from the hon. Lady's category of needs include epileptics, the young unemployed, those with small occupational pensions and others. We accept meekly the accusation that some of our categories of need are, by her standards, far too wide. Indeed, we thank God that it is so. I shall examine what the Government said about targeting.

Several hon. Members spoke about the early years of the housing benefit scheme. Few Conservative Members have examined its wider context, as the Minister suggested. When the Government came to power, they expressed all the concern that Conservative Members could want about what they called the indiscriminate subsidy to public sector housing. They announced their intention to reduce that subsidy—and, indeed, the Government have been as good as their word. The subsidy to council housing has fallen by more than £1,500 million, and the figure must now be substantially more. When the Government made that commitment, it was pointed out that if the subsidy for council housing were reduced, council house rents would rise and that might cause problems to those in the community who are less well off. Indeed, that was the result. Equally, at the time, we were reassured that. as rents rose, those in need would be protected through housing benefit. We were told that it would be all right because housing benefit would be targeted on those in greatest need and they would be protected against rent rises.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley), in what I understand was an excellent speech, which I regret I did not hear, said that he had heard the Secretary of State for the Environment talk about housing benefit as a cushion against rent rises. Many Conservative Members argued against the cushion of housing benefit protecting those in the greatest need, and asked how it came about that still, today, 7 million households receive housing benefit. They suggest that the fact that 7 million households receive housing benefit proves that the scheme is over-generous. I can understand how hon. Members find it strange that 7 million households should still be getting housing benefit when the Government have made seven attempts during the past few years to cut housing benefit, yet so many people remain entitled to it. The answer to hon. Members' questions— which, unaccountably, the Government did not offer—is that they appear to have failed to notice that, while council house subsidies have been withdrawn, council house rents have increased by 155 per cent.

During that period when the withdrawal of the public sector housing subsidy gave rise to this colossal increase in council house rents, not only have the poorest not been protected by the targeting of housing benefit, but steadily, year in year out, and occasionally even twice a year, the Government have cut housing benefit.

As rents rise, more people become entitled to housing benefit—more money—and the Government have used the consequences of their cut in general subsidy as an argument for cutting the specific subsidy that is supposed to help the poor. That, indeed, puts the Government's devotion to those in greatest need in the wider context. That leaves aside the impact of the rise in rents, the impact on those who are entitled to housing benefit, and the effect on the millions of people who can no longer afford to pay their rent at all because they are unemployed. We have seen the numbers of such people rise substantially in recent years. Under this Government, targeting has probed to be a euphemism for cutting public support.

I shall now turn from the main issue of targeting to some of the details of how the Government are targeting in these regulations. A number of those details have been highlighted in the debate. There is the bar, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) spoke. to meeting the cost of alarms that are intended precisely for those who are living independently and who are unable to take advantage of sheltered housing which, because of the way that the Government have cut housing subsidies, is in short supply. Those people are living independently in the community. That is what the Government say they wish to see, but now those people face the prospect of the withdrawal of support for the provision of the alarms that will help them to remain independent. By living independently, those people save the community hundreds, if not thousands, of millions of pounds, because that is what it would cost if such people lost their cherished independence and had to go into homes or hospitals. The loss to those people could well be about £5 a week, because that is the amount of the payment for such alarms.

The Minister of State talked about the treatment of lone parents. He spoke with what appeared to be some pride about the way in which lone parents have a slightly higher premium in housing benefit than in income support. For some reason he did not think it necessary to say that the increased housing benefit premium under the new system in no way compensates for the loss to those people of having the same base for the treatment of benefit as a couple. That applied under a previous scheme.

There is the treatment of what are known in the Government's scheme as non-dependants. A non-dependant is somebody who is not of school age or in full-time education but who is in work. He will now be expected to contribute £8.20 a week to rent alone, and that amount will be deducted from his family's housing benefit. The total contribution that such a non-dependant would have to make on rent and rates together means that two working teenagers would probably be expected to contribute almost the whole housing cost for their family home. That is the proposal by a Government who say that they believe in the unity of the family. The Under-Secretary of State told us the other night that the Goverment believe in giving the family moral support. No doubt that is in lieu of any other kind of support.

Some hon. Members drew attention to the difference between the way the Government treat those who seek public support through housing benefit and those who seek it through the subsidy given in mortgage interest tax relief. I have just highlighted the way in which the non-dependants of people drawing housing benefit are treated. One of the issues not mentioned in the debate is that there are about 1.25 million non-dependants in households that receive mortgage interest tax relief, but those non-dependants are not liable for a single penny.

Some hon. Members spoke about the recommenda-tions of the housing benefit review team. The Minister of State was rather misleading when he spoke about that. It is from the work of that team that these proposals stem. His comments were a little misleading, although my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) in an intervention corrected him in two respects. He omitted to mention the complete opposition of the review team to the suggestion that 20 per cent. of rates should be payable by those on even the lowest income. The review team said: it would be unrealistic to suppose that even a small proportion of housing costs could be met at the expense of other personal requirements. We believe that 100 per cent. help with housing costs for those on the lowest incomes is the only fair way of meeting their needs". That could scarcely be more at variance with the Government's proposals.

I listened with astonishment to the hon. Member for Edgbaston when she suggested that people on income support should be grateful that 80 per cent. of their rates were being contributed. Presumably she had not studied with care the comments of the Social Security Advisory Committee and the housing benefit review team. That review team was handpicked by Ministers and given a remit of no increase in the scheme, so it was not falling over backwards to be generous to claimants.

Hon. Members have referred with approval to the way in which the rates taper is being increased and asked why owner-occupiers with an income or a small occupational pension should be protected in this way. I would like to — I hesitate to say remind — draw hon. Members' attention to the fact that the housing benefit review team, which studied these matters in detail, was not as restrictive as Conservative Members have been this evening. It recommended a rates taper along the lines of the Government's proposals, but it did so in the context of another recommendation—that the Government should explore the possibility of extending housing benefit support to those very individuals towards the cost of their mortgages. It was a quid pro quo that there should be support through housing benefit for those with mortgages and that, therefore, it would not be so harsh if the rates taper were at the level proposed. Again, we have deviated substantially from the Government review team's suggestions, although I recognise that the Government were not bound by those recommendations. They have taken only the less generous recommendations and ignored all those that might have been more generous.

There have been some references to the thresholds at which housing benefit ceases to be payable. I want to make just one comparison because so many others have been drawn tonight. Before April 1983, a single pensioner would have lost entitlement to housing benefit when he had an income of £94.35 a week. From next April, he will lose entitlement to all housing benefit when his income reaches £64.51 a week. The level of income at which housing benefit is payable has fallen in cash terms, never mind real terms, by £30 a week during the past few years in which the Government have been steadily cutting housing benefit.

In some cases, the marginal tax rate of households paying tax and national insurance and receiving rent and rate rebates would rise by 90 per cent., and even up to 97 or 98 per cent.—a 97p or 98p in the pound withdrawal for every pound increase. I would like to contrast that with the highest rate of tax payable at 60p in the pound and with the fact that it is paid only on taxable income above £41,200 per year. That is an interesting contrast with the level at which a single pensioner begins to lose rebate—£3,354 gross, not taxable, income per year.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan asked what would happen to the housing benefit scheme in the future. Like other hon. Members, I have been contacted by a number of housing associations and by the National Federation of Housing Associations. As the Minister of State asked, I am considering the wider context of these regulations. Those organisations are desperately worried that the combination of the Government's proposals to force them to raise money on the private market, and therefore to raise their rents will seriously disadvantage the very people whom they exist to serve.

We have a couple of interesting examples of what housing associations fear will happen once they have to charge the rents that they expect to have to charge if this package of measures goes ahead. They suggest that a London bus driver on average rostered earnings for driver-operated buses, aged about 30, married, with two children aged 7 and 11, with no other earned household income and paying the rent that they expect to have to charge of about £45 a week, will get no assistance in rent or rate rebate. In the context of the remarks made by Conservative Members about the scheme being too generous, that is a most interesting comparison.

The housing associations also use the comparison of a nurse who similarly would lose all entitlement to support at a gross wage of £158 or £159 a week. They point out that, in the case of the bus driver, the amount he is expected to contribute has gone up from 12 per cent. to 22 per cent. of his income since 1982, and, in the case of the nurse, from 20 per cent. to 38 per cent. Those figures put in clear focus the observations of Conservative Members about the over-generosity of the housing benefit scheme.

There has also been reference to the lack of transitional protection. In the income support scheme the Government made much of the fact that transitional protection will be offered and that those drawing benefit at present will continue to receive the same cash sums. Of course, that does not apply to housing benefit where, in the overall package and in the wider context, some of the worst losses will arise. I remind the House that in 1983, when the scheme was introduced, because it involved substantial taper changes and losses of £1 or £2 a week in some cases, the Government thought it right to introduce transitional safeguards. Today, when some individuals are facing losses as large as £10 and more a week, no transitional safeguards are offered. That is because the Government think they can get away with having a saving as their overall target.

Apart from the uncomfortable facts of what the Government are doing in the regulations under the cloak of targeting, a second major question arises in the wider context — the direction in which the pursuit of this policy is slowly but inexorably taking us. I want to set it clearly on record that that direction is no less than the demolition by stealth of the welfare state. The hon. Member for Edgbaston and other Conservative Members continually ask in these debates how we can object to the theory of targeting help on those in greatest need. What they seem not to appreciate is that they are targeting help not on those in need but only on those in the greatest need.

I understand that the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) favoured the House earlier with a definition about giving cautious support to the very poor. It is that which sets apart Conservative Members from hon. Members on the Opposition Benches and which sets apart a welfare state that tries to prevent poverty and enhance independence from a scheme of poor law relief.

Those schemes of the past in their many forms were based on excluding from help all but the destitute and refusing help to the merely desperate until they became destitute. 'The hon. Member for Edgbaston talked about it sapping human initiative if someone else paid the bills. Had the hon. Lady been here for the end of the debate —she was not here for the opening—I could have told her that it saps human initiative to see everything that one—has worked for and achieved—in the case of a pensioner for the whole of his life—stripped away bit by bit by bit in the name of targeting help only on those in the greatest need.

The hon. Lady referred to the old Labour party and wondered what it would think of us criticising the Government for a cut-off rate for capital of £6,000. One could see the hon. Lady on a board of guardians. Of course, it was the meanness of the means test and the effect it had on families to which the old Labour party objected so much. The hon. Lady and any other hon. Member who attempts to make a similar observation should realise that the old Labour party, today's Labour party and any conceivable Labour party exists because its members reject with every fibre of their being that tight, narrow, smug, vicious definition of means. The echo of those definitions which created humiliation and fear for so many in generations past, makes us certain that we are right to reject the regulations.

9.39 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Michael Portillo)

My hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and the Disabled opened this debate by posing a series of questions to the Opposition and hoping that they would contribute by spelling out some of their proposals. My hon. Friend the Minister is an incorrigible idealist because, unfortunately, we have listened very carefully and hearkened to what the Opposition have said, but we have been disappointed.

The Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) informed us that he had proposed some negotiations between the Opposition and the Government. I assumed that he was indulging in some kind of fantasy. He seemed to believe that the election had resulted in a hung Parliament and that we were in some sense negotiating the Government's policy. The Government's policies are quite clear. However, the Opposition's policies are unclear.

While I am on the subject of the fantasy of a hung Parliament, I want to welcome back in his absence the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy). He has returned to our debate having lost his leader and his party. He was therefore unmuzzled and his contribution was all the more interesting for that.

I notice that the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) is in the Chamber. My hon. Friend the Minister said that he would ask me to comment on concessionary coal. The position with regard to all the benefits that we are aligning is that if the family or person concerned receives cash, that should be taken into account in assessing their resources over and above the various levels of disregard that are set down. It has long been the case that concessionary coal delivered in kind has been disregarded, and it will continue to be disregarded under the new system. However, if the payment is made in cash instead of in kind, it will be treated as a resource and taken into account.

That seems to be absolutely right. Why should there be an advantage for one group of people who receive cash and no advantage for another group? The anomaly is that the coal is not valued and taken into account. However, the hon. Member for Normanton will realise that there are good reasons why valuing it would be very complex.

Mr. O'Brien

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for replying to my question. Will he also consider the fact that some of the chronically sick and disabled people from the mining industry who receive payments in lieu of fuel receive it because of their chronic illnesses? Those illnesses do not qualify for additional payment through the DHSS. Therefore, it is important that the payment in lieu of fuel sustains additional health care for retired miners and their widows. Will the Minister have some compassion for those people?

Mr. Portillo

There is no shortage of compassion. However, we must be concerned with fairness. If money is received by one set of people that is not available to others be disregarded, it is very unfair.

My hon. Friend the Minister asked that hon. Members should not treat housing benefit in isolation during the debate. Some hon. Members were good enough to follow that good advice. The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) offered us some figures which he said took account of overall effects. We shall be interested to see them, but I have some doubts about them. The hon. Gentleman embarked on a discussion about family credit in which he referred to the ending of free school meals, yet he did not mention the fact that we are building into the family credit rates of compensation for the loss of free school meals which are more generous than the free school meals. The hon. Gentleman's starting point for his argument was extraordinary.

As a number of hon. Members did not take the good advice offered by my hon. Friend the Minister and consider all the benefits together, perhaps I should remind them of the figures. We have been perfectly frank. We have set out all the figures in tables. Taken together, the reforms will produce about 3.65 million losers, of whom about 2 million are pensioners. On the other hand, they will produce nearly 5 million who will either gain or experience no change, and about 2.32 million of those are pensioners. Whether we take pensioners as a group, or take all claimants as a group, there will be more gainers than losers. Let us therefore nail the Opposition's assumption that the reforms will produce more losers.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Litherland) wanted to know what advantages he could offer his constituents. The expenditure reduction in housing benefit is matched by new money going into income support and family credit and many claimants will gain more from those benefits than they lose from housing benefit. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the difficulties that his constituents face, not only in claiming housing benefit but in claiming other benefits. The new capital rules are more generous to those on supplementary benefit, and to those on housing benefit with only smaller amounts of capital, whose investment income will be ignored for the first time. Moreover, an extra £220 million will go into family credit. The hon. Gentleman can tell his constituents about that, as he specifically said that many of them were on very low wages.

The steeper rent taper, which has been discussed a good deal in today's debate, must be seen in context. The Opposition Front Bench looked a bit puzzled when my hon. Friend made this point. It must be seen alongside the fact that the starting point for calculating rents under the new system is 100 per cent., whereas under the present system it is only 60 per cent. That is a crucial difference. It means that, even with the steeper taper, those with unavoidably high rents—for example, twice the national average — will receive more help all the way up the income scale, and poorer households, below the current needs allowance, will receive more help, even at below average rents.

The hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett), in her wind-up speech, produced a document from the National Federation of Housing Associations. The document, I am afraid, is entirely wrong, because it misses that crucial point. It applies the taper which will be introduced in April as though the starting point for rents were still 60 per cent. I am sorry to say that the hon. Lady's examples, gripping though they were, simply are not correct. The changes that the people whom she cited will actually experience are minimal.

The hon. Member for Livingston came up with his own example. He talks about a couple in Newcastle with, I believe, two children, and the loss that they would sustain on housing benefit. The hon. Gentleman has fallen into the trap of regarding housing benefit in isolation. He clearly did not bear in mind the family credit advantage that that family is likely to have.

Mr. Robin Cook

That family's current income is £110.90 net. Taking account of housing costs, loss of free school meals — that is perfectly fair, as the Minister mentioned an offset in family credit—and family credit entitlement, its net income on 1 April next year can be estimated at £99.54. That is a loss of £10.40, even allowing for the other elements of the package, and taking account of the fact that its housing costs will rise by some £3 on top of the present level. Not only does that family face a savage loss in housing benefit ; it also faces a savage loss in net income.

Mr. Portillo

If, by any chance, those figures were calculated for the hon. Gentleman by the National Federation of Housing Associations——

Mr. Cook

They were not.

Mr. Portillo

—they may be open to a certain amount of doubt. But we shall examine them carefully.

Mr. Cook

They were provided by Newcastle council.

Mr. Portillo

I am afraid that Newcastle council has not put me entirely at ease on the matter.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. One hon. Member at a time.

Mr. Portillo

Many Conservative Members were extremely interested and concerned about capital. My right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) and my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) and for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) were concerned about the capital limit. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) asked how the Government will explain to the thrifty that money will not be payable to them through their housing benefit if they have more than £6,000 in the bank. That is a real dilemma. If we have a system that gives money to people in need, how do we ensure that giving it to people who actually need it does not then discourage people from being thrifty?

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) made the point to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne that we must ask how we justify to taxpayers, many of whom may be extremely poor and have nothing in the bank, the proposal that they should pay money to provide benefits to people who have more than £6,000 in the bank. The Government have got that balance just about right. Some of my hon. Friends have asked us to look at that level. Of course, in common with all other aspects of the reforms, we shall be sensitive to the way in which they apply in practice.

I found it difficult to take the criticisms from the hon. Members for Livingston and for Preston (Mrs. Wise). They elucidated the principle that we should take account only of people's investment income. I am bound to ask why, under a Labour Government, for supplementary benefit purposes, any income over £1,200 was assessed on a tariff income — not on the basis of what people actually earned—of 25p for every £50 that people had in the hank. That is a much higher rate of tariff than we are assuming in the regulations. Of course, we are operating from a much lower level of capital.

Mr. Robin Cook

Not for housing benefit.

Mr. Portillo

The hon. Member says, "Not for housing benefit." My goodness, we invited him earlier to tell us whether he believed in aligning the benefit. I, possibly wrongly, inferred from his silence that he wants to align benefits. If he wants to align benefits and he sticks by what his Government did when they were in office, which is to have the crippling tariff income system, he must be confused.

The hon. Member for Withington had a similar shot at his own foot. He vigorously complained that, with the housing benefit, we are introducing an overpayment restriction for back claims for 12 months, and that we are introducing the concept of needing to show good cause. If he wishes to find the inspiration for that, he will find that the concept is perfectly clear in the Social Security Act 1975. We have simply extended that principle into the present housing benefit regulations.

In his thoughtful remarks, the hon. Member for Livingston was a trifle disappointing in regard to marginal tax rates. He seems to ignore the basic dilemma. If one is trying to direct help to the people at the bottom, establish a family credit system that helps people who are in work, and target any of the benefits, one will end up with high marginal rates of withdrawal. We recognise that. That is the dilemma with which we have had to wrestle. In wrestling with it, we have achieved a great deal, but the hon. Member for Livingston did not care to refer to that.

We have abolished marginal rates of withdrawal of over 100 per cent., with which the hon. Gentleman's Government happily lived. I can see no defence for withdrawing more than the amount that people are receiving in benefit, thus making them worse off as they earn more money. However, that is a position that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends put up with. After April, rates of withdrawal of more than 100 per cent. will have been abolished, and overall the total number of people with marginal tax rates over 90 per cent. will fall from 112,000 to about 70,000, which is a cause for some congratulation.

The hon. Member for Livingston referred to three creatures that crawled out of the legislation when he shook them. For the sake of hygiene, as much as the hon. Gentleman's enlightenment, we should knock some of them on the head and deal with them. Help with service charges for people in rented accommodation can be provided through the housing benefit system. The regulations do not change the conditions that presently exist. The only confusion that may have arisen is if local authorities have not been applying the regulations as they exist.

The majority of people, including pensioners who live in the community, are owner-occupiers and, by definition, qualify for any help with service charges under the rules of rent rebates or allowances, which is the main source of help within the public sector. In providing help for people on low incomes in rented accommodation there has been scope for including, within the eligible rent service charges, four amenities that are an essential part of the accommodation. Such amenities may include heating and lighting and communal sectors of maintenance such as lifts. Our policy has been to include alarm systems within this provision, where they are an essential part of the accommodation. That is carried forward in these regulations.

For those who do not live in such accommodation, but who may have a special need for alarm systems and other personal services, the main source of help, as with owner-occupiers, must come from local authorities.

Mrs. Beckett


Mr. Portillo

The hon. Member for Livingston mentioned help with heating charges, which he claimed were being excluded from housing benefit. The hon. Gentleman should look more carefully at the regulations. Heating charges are not generally eligible for help under housing benefit. The current scheme gives help to some people on supplementary benefit who pay fixed fuel charges with their rent. People on standard housing benefit receive no help with fuel charges.

Thus, apart from anything else, an important matter of equity arises—the unfairness between one set of people and another. If some people in accommodation are being forced to pay unusually high charges for electricity or heating, it cannot be right to increase subsidy through housing benefit. The important aspect must be to deal with the root causes of why the charges are high and to introduce new systems so that electricity and heating are not wasted. That is why we are phasing out these benefits over a five-year period.

The hon. Member for Livingston was wrong in his sweeping generalisation about the effect on housing benefit of a period spent as a patient in hospital. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has understood the present provisions or those that we are discussing. It is not an unthinking alignment with income support. It has been recognized—this is what I said to him from a sedentary position—for 40 years that, where the state is providing for a patient in hospital and for that person's maintenance, double provision should not be made from the public funds for that maintenance.

That has been a long-established principle, and if the hon. Gentleman looks at the regulations he will see that housing benefit will not be automatically withdrawn. If the patient is receiving income support there will be no change in his housing benefit. I think that he was far too sweeping in his assumption in that regard. Those who are not receiving income support will have their entitlement reassessed and single claimants will usually find that their benefit reduces but, because the new assessment takes account of reduced social security benefit, couples where one partner is in hospital will also find that their housing benefit does not change.

I said at the outset that I was disappointed by the fact that the Opposition did not tell us what they would do about housing benefit. They have not set out their stall for us at all. All we have heard is a good deal of whingeing about the cuts that the Government are allegedly making. We have heard a whole load of hyperbole, a great deal of wrongly directed comment and a refusal on their part to look at the reforms in social security as a whole. Those reforms are putting as much money back into the system as they are taking out. They are giving a better deal to people and are directing money to those who are most in need. It is for those reasons that I commend the regulations, which are the final element of the three packages we are putting before the House.

Question put:

The House divided: Ayes 313, Noes 188.

Division No. 75] [10 pm
Adley, Robert Devlin, Tim
Aitken, Jonathan Dicks, Terry
Alexander, Richard Dorrell, Stephen
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Allason, Rupert Dover, Den
Amess, David Dunn, Bob
Amos, Alan Durant, Tony
Arbuthnot, James Dykes, Hugh
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Eggar, Tim
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove) Emery, Sir Peter
Ashby, David Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)
Atkins, Robert Evennett, David
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley) Fallon, Michael
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Farr, Sir John
Baldry, Tony Favell, Tony
Batiste, Spencer Fenner, Dame Peggy
Bellingham, Henry Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)
Bendall, Vivian Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke) Fookes, Miss Janet
Benyon, W. Forth, Eric
Bevan, David Gilroy Fowler, Rt Hon Norman
Blackburn, Dr John G. Fox, Sir Marcus
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter Franks, Cecil
Body, Sir Richard Freeman, Roger
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas French, Douglas
Boswell, Tim Fry, Peter
Bottomley, Peter Gale, Roger
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Gardiner, George
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Gill, Christopher
Bowis, John Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes Glyn, Dr Alan
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard Goodhart, Sir Philip
Brazier, Julian Goodlad, Alastair
Bright, Graham Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Brittan, Rt Hon Leon Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Brooke, Hon Peter Gorst, John
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's) Gow, Ian
Bruce, Ian (Dorset South) Gower, Sir Raymond
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon Alick Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW)
Budgen, Nicholas Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Burns, Simon Greenway, John (Rydale)
Burt, Alistair Gregory, Conal
Butcher, John Griffiths, Sir Eldon (Bury St E')
Butler, Chris Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)
Butterfill, John Grist, Ian
Carlisle, John, (Luton N) Ground, Patrick
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Grylls, Michael
Carrington, Matthew Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn
Carttiss, Michael Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)
Cash, William Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Chalker, Rt Hon Mrs Lynda Hampson, Dr Keith
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Hanley, Jeremy
Chapman, Sydney Hannam, John
Chope, Christopher Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'Il Gr')
Churchill, Mr Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Harris, David
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S) Haselhurst, Alan
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Hawkins, Christopher
Colvin, Michael Hayes, Jerry
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest) Hayward, Robert
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Heathcoat-Amory, David
Cope, John Heddle, John
Couchman, James Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)
Cran, James Hicks, Robert (Cornwall SE)
Currie, Mrs Edwina Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g) Hill, James
Day, Stephen Hind, Kenneth
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm) Newton, Tony
Holt, Richard Nicholls, Patrick
Hordern, Sir Peter Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Howard, Michael Nicholson, Miss E. (Devon W)
Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A) Onslow, Cranley
Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd) Oppenheim, Phillip
Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Page, Richard
Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford) Paice, James
Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk) Patnick, Irvine
Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W) Patten, Chris (Bath)
Hunt, David (Wirral W) Patten, John (Oxford W)
Hunt, John (Ravensbourne) Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas Pawsey, James
Irvine, Michael Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Irving, Charles Porter, David (Waveney)
Jack, Michael Portillo, Michael
Jackson, Robert Powell, William (Corby)
Janman, Timothy Raffan, Keith
Jessel, Toby Raison, Rt Hon Timothy
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Rathbone, Tim
Jones, Robert B (Herts W) Redwood, John
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Renton, Tim
Key, Robert Rhodes James, Robert
King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield) Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater) Riddick, Graham
Kirkhope, Timothy Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas
Knapman, Roger Ridsdale, Sir Julian
Knight, Greg (Derby North) Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)
Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston) Roe, Mrs Marion
Knowles, Michael Rossi, Sir Hugh
Knox, David Rost, Peter
Lamont, Rt Hon Norman Rowe, Andrew
Lang, Ian Ryder, Richard
Latham, Michael Sackville, Hon Tom
Lawrence, Ivan Sainsbury, Hon Tim
Lawson, Rt Hon Nigel Sayeed, Jonathan
Lee, John (Pendle) Scott, Nicholas
Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh) Shaw, David (Dover)
Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Lester, Jim (Broxtowe) Shelton, William (Streatham)
Lightbown, David Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)
Lilley, Peter Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Lloyd, Peter (Fareham) Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Lord, Michael Shersby, Michael
Lyell, Sir Nicholas Sims, Roger
Macfarlane, Neil Skeet, Sir Trevor
MacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire) Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Maclean, David Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
McLoughlin, Patrick Soames, Hon Nicholas
McNair-Wilson, M. (Newbury) Spicer, Jim (Dorset W)
McNair-Wilson, P. (New Forest) Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Madel, David Squire, Robin
Major, Rt Hon John Stanbrook, Ivor
Malins, Humfrey Stanley, Rt Hon John
Mans, Keith Steen, Anthony
Maples, John Stern, Michael
Marland, Paul Stevens, Lewis
Marlow, Tony Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)
Marshall, Michael (Arundel) Stewart, Ian (Hertfordshire N)
Martin, David (Portsmouth S) Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Mates, Michael Tapsell, Sir Peter
Maude, Hon Francis Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Meyer, Sir Anthony Temple-Morris, Peter
Miller, Hal Thatcher, Rt Hon Margaret
Mills, Iain Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Miscampbell, Norman Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling) Thorne, Neil
Moate, Roger Thornton, Malcolm
Monro, Sir Hector Thurnham, Peter
Montgomery, Sir Fergus Townend, John (Bridlington)
Morris, M (N'hampton S) Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes) Tracey, Richard
Moss, Malcolm Trippier, David
Moynihan, Hon C. Trotter, Neville
Mudd, David Twinn, Dr Ian
Needham, Richard Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Nelson, Anthony Waddington, Rt Hon David
Neubert, Michael Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Walden, George Winterton, Mrs Ann
Waller, Gary Winterton, Nicholas
Walters, Dennis Wolfson, Mark
Ward, John Wood, Timothy
Wardle, C. (Bexhill) Yeo, Tim
Warren, Kenneth Young, Sir George (Acton)
Watts, John Younger, Rt Hon George
Wells, Bowen
Whitney, Ray Tellers for the Ayes:
Widdecombe, Miss Ann Mr. Robert Boscawen and
Wilkinson, John Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones.
Wilshire, David
Abbott, Ms Diane Flynn, Paul
Adams, Allen (Paisley N) Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Allen, Graham Foster, Derek
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Foulkes, George
Armstrong, Ms Hilary Fraser, John
Ashton, Joe Fyfe, Mrs Maria
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Galbraith, Samuel
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Galloway, George
Barron, Kevin Garrett, John (Norwich South)
Battle, John Garrett, Ted (Wallsend)
Beckett, Margaret George, Bruce
Beith, A. J. Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Godman, Dr Norman A.
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish) Gordon, Ms Mildred
Bermingham, Gerald Gould, Bryan
Bidwell, Sydney Graham, Thomas
Boateng, Paul Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)
Boyes, Roland Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Bradley, Keith Grocott, Bruce
Bray, Dr Jeremy Hardy, Peter
Brown, Gordon (D'mline E) Harman, Ms Harriet
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E) Haynes, Frank
Buchan, Norman Heffer, Eric S.
Buckley, George Henderson, Douglas
Caborn, Richard Hinchliffe, David
Callaghan, Jim Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley) Hood, James
Canavan, Dennis Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g) Hoyle, Doug
Cartwright, John Hughes, John (Coventry NE)
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W) Hughes, Roy (Newport E)
Clelland, David Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Coleman, Donald Illsley, Eric
Cook, Robin (Livingston) Ingram, Adam
Corbyn, Jeremy Janner, Greville
Cousins, Jim Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)
Cox, Tom Kennedy, Charles
Crowther, Stan Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil
Cummings, J. Kirkwood, Archy
Cunliffe, Lawrence Lambie, David
Cunningham, Dr John Lamond, James
Dalyell, Tam Leadbitter, Ted
Darling, Alastair Leighton, Ron
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Lestor, Miss Joan (Eccles)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly) Litherland, Robert
Dixon, Don Livingstone, Ken
Douglas, Dick Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Duffy, A. E. P. Lofthouse, Geoffrey
Dunnachie, James Loyden, Eddie
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth McAllion, John
Eadie, Alexander McAvoy, Tom
Eastham, Ken McCartney, Ian
Evans, John (St Helens N) Macdonald, Calum
Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E) McFall, John
Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray) McKay, Allen (Penistone)
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) McKelvey, William
Fisher, Mark McLeish, Henry
Flannery, Martin McTaggart, Bob
McWilliam, John Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Madden, Max Rowlands, Ted
Mahon, Mrs Alice Ruddock, Ms Joan
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Sedgemore, Brian
Martin, Michael (Springburn) Sheerman, Barry
Maxton, John Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Meacher, Michael Short, Clare
Meale, Alan Skinner, Dennis
Michael, Alun Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley) Soley, Clive
Millan, Rt Hon Bruce Spearing, Nigel
Moonie, Dr Lewis Steel, Rt Hon David
Morgan, Rhodri Stott, Roger
Morley, Elliott Straw, Jack
Morris, Rt Hon J (Aberavon) Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Mowlam, Mrs Marjorie Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Mullin, Chris Thomas, Dafydd Elis
Murphy, Paul Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Nellist, Dave Turner, Dennis
O'Brien, William Vaz, Keith
Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Wall, Pat
Owen, Rt Hon Dr David Waller, Gary
Paisley, Rev Ian Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)
Patchett, Terry Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)
Pike, Peter Williams, Rt Hon A. J.
Powell, Ray (Ogmore) Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)
Primarolo, Ms Dawn Wilson, Brian
Radice, Giles Winnick, David
Randall, Stuart Wise, Mrs Audrey
Redmond, Martin Worthington, Anthony
Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn Wray, James
Reid, John Young, David (Bolton SE)
Richardson, Ms Jo
Roberts, Allan (Bootle) Tellers for the Noes:
Robertson, George Mrs. Llin Golding and
Robinson, Geoffrey Mr. Frank Cook.
Rogers, Allan

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Housing Benefit (General) Regulations 1987, which were laid before this House on 3rd November, be approved.