HC Deb 05 June 1996 vol 278 cc618-43

4.8 pm

Mr. Keith Bradley (Manchester, Withington)

I beg to move, That the Housing Benefit (General) Amendment Regulations 1996 (S.I., 1996, No. 965), dated 28th March 1996, a copy of which was laid before this House on 2nd April, be revoked.

There are two main provisions in the regulations, both of which could have a devastating effect on young people's ability to live in safe, sound and affordable rented accommodation. They may be summarised as follows. First, the regulations laid before Parliament on 2 April 1996 restrict housing benefit payments for single people under the age of 25. To be specific, that involves restricting full housing benefits payable to single people under the age of 25 to the average cost of shared housing—known as the single room rent—in any given locality. Local authority and housing association accommodation is exempt from the restrictions.

The proposals will severely affect all new and change of address claims made on or after 7 October 1996, and existing claims assessed under arrangements since 2 January 1996, from the first benefit review date on or after 7 October 1996. The single room rent will become the maximum limit for housing benefit payable to a young single person. It will be determined by rent officers as the average cost of shared accommodation in the local area. Local authorities will have the discretion to pay rents above the single room rent in cases of "exceptional hardship", but the subsidy available will be subject to an overall cash limit determined by central Government.

Some groups of people will be exempt from the proposed restrictions. Following the consultation exercise after the original draft regulations were laid, two further groups of people have been included in the exempt list—first, some care leavers, but not including care leavers in Scotland, and in any case only young people subject to care orders, and even then only until their 22nd birthdays; secondly, all young people living in housing association properties.

The second key component of the regulations is the changes in payment arrangements for housing benefit for all new claims from 7 October 1996. Those changes will mean, first, the shifting from payment of benefit in advance to payment in arrears; secondly, that direct payments to landlords will be paid four-weekly or monthly; thirdly, that local authorities will have discretion to make first payments of benefit payable directly to the landlord. We believe that all those changes will add considerably to the problems faced by young people seeking rented accommodation.

Let us consider the two sets of proposals before us. First, there is the ceiling for single people under 25 years of age. The proposals in the regulations to restrict benefit rights have to be seen against the background of the severe restrictions on housing benefit entitlement in the private rented sector that have already been in effect from January 1996.

Those draconian measures include a mandatory limit on benefit levels based on a comparison with average rents for the type of accommodation and known as the local reference rents; a removal of the previously existing protection from benefit restrictions for vulnerable groups such as the disabled, the elderly and families with children; and a very narrow cash-limited discretionary power for local authorities to pay higher levels of benefit in cases of exceptional hardship.

The result is that many people making claims since January 1996 have found that their housing benefit entitlement falls far short of the rents they have to pay. There is already evidence that that is causing severe hardship and leading to many people losing their homes.

The further restrictions on housing benefits for single people under 25 must be seen and judged against the background of the changes that have already been introduced.

How do the Government attempt to justify these further changes? From their statements, they seem to be making several arguments. First, they claim that the number of young people living independently has grown over the past 15 years and is projected to continue to grow. Secondly, they claim that young people who live independently expect to live in accommodation at the cheaper end of the market—usually in bed-sits, or in rooms in shared accommodation. Thirdly, they claim that most young people have comparatively low incomes, and that housing benefit should not assist young people to meet rents for larger accommodation, as that would act as a disincentive to find work and to come off benefit. Fourthly, they seem to argue that housing benefit should not act as an incentive for young people to leave the parental home.

I think that it is worth considering each of those contentions. First, absolutely no evidence has been presented to support the Government's contention that most young people living independently are not in self-contained accommodation, or that young people on housing benefit are any more or less likely to take on unnecessarily large or expensive accommodation. Although the Government estimate that 144,000 out of the 177,000 young people on housing benefit in the private sector will suffer benefit cuts from these measures, no evidence has been presented to support the view that those young people are occupying overly large accommodation. I should be grateful if the Minister will today present the House with the evidence on which that contention is based.

Secondly, the Government's case that young people have lower incomes is certainly true in respect of those who are claiming benefit. Since the introduction of income support in 1988, single people under the age of 25 have been paid at a lower rate of income support—amounting to a shortfall of about £10 a week—with a correspondingly lower level of housing benefit for those not on income support. So there is already a financial imperative for single people under 25 to occupy accommodation at the cheaper end of the market.

Under these proposals, many young people will suffer the double disadvantage of a cut in their housing benefit, leaving potentially large rent payments to be made up out of an already reduced income support level. As the Government's Social Security Advisory Committee commented in its report on the draft regulations, that situation could lead to young people being

harassed by landlords because of rent arrears, leading to possible eviction and homelessness.

The Social Security Advisory Committee also registered its concern at the lack of any evidence about the living situation of young people to back up these cuts, and about the perceived use by young people of housing benefit to pay for unnecessarily expensive accommodation. The Government have not cited any such evidence, and I again call on the Minister to put before the House today the evidence on which that contention is based.

Thirdly, the Government's concern that housing benefit should not act as an encouragement to young people to leave home, and that it should not enable them to take accommodation that their contemporaries not on benefit would not be able to afford, is of central importance in these changes. Again, however, no evidence has been presented to support either of those concerns. The regulations seem to be based on the view, first, that young people under 25 ought to live with their parents, and, secondly, that such young people should not live in self-contained accommodation.

In response to those views, the Social Security Advisory Committee commented: young adults have the same general preference for independent living and self-contained accommodation as the rest of the population. The Government have clearly encouraged that for owner-occupiers, 850,000 of whom are now young people under 25.

The Social Security Advisory Committee also concluded: We consider that the proposal is unlikely to have any significant impact on persuading young people to remain with their parents. If it does succeed to any extent it will make people less mobile 2026 Many have legitimate reasons for leaving the parental home, while many do not have the choice to return to one.

We support those conclusions, and we further believe that the restrictions on benefit levels are likely to make it harder for young people who need or choose to live independently to find affordable accommodation, and to act as a disincentive for those who do not have accommodation to risk moving for work or for other reasons.

The Government have said that they are concerned about incentives to take work, but the restrictions are likely to act as a strong disincentive for young people, especially those on benefit since January 1996 and so protected from these changes, to change their circumstances by taking work or moving to find work, for fear of not being able to afford the rent if they subsequently have to claim benefit again.

Surely the Government should be encouraging young people to take jobs and look for job opportunities rather than establishing in the proposals a further barrier in the benefit system to their moving to seek the work they so desperately need. Will the Minister explain why the proposals have been set up so as to provide a further barrier to job opportunities?

Imposing a new ceiling on housing benefit for young people is likely to force them into poorer accommodation, always assuming that the supply of shared accommodation increases to make it available. Once again, the Social Security Advisory Committee commented on that contention: There appears to be no firm foundation for the Department's assessment that the market for private rented accommodation is sufficiently flexible to respond positively to the new ceiling by providing more, inexpensive, shared accommodation. Again, we share that view. We share the concern that the response of landlords is likely to be to withdraw from providing accommodation for young people.

In addition, the proposals seem to fly in the face of the tremendous efforts across the country by local authorities—I pay tribute to my own in Manchester in this respect—which have vigorously tackled the wide range of problems associated with houses in multiple occupation. Authorities have been working with landlords and often forcing them to convert accommodation into single units, thus providing a decent supply of affordable, safe and sound accommodation for single people.

The policy tries to reverse that trend, a view supported by the National Association of Estate Agents, which, in its response to the draft regulations, said: It is also, in the opinion of a number of our members, going to create an impossible position as the availability of shared accommodation is on the decline as many landlords have over the past few years been busy converting these type of HMOs into self-contained units. As such, these units will command higher rentals and, therefore, any assessment based on bedsit accommodation with shared facilities made by rent officers will make it nigh impossible for the under 25s to rent this type of accommodation if it is not there to he had. Surely the Government should recognise the problem and seek to ensure a supply of affordable and safe accommodation for young people.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North)

Does that not show how the housing benefit system has distorted the accommodation available on the marketplace in terms of over-emphasis on quality? It is not right that young people should expect the taxpayer automatically to fund self-contained accommodation for them, come what may. Most citizens expect young people to look for jobs before they enjoy such luxuries.

Mr. Bradley

It is extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman suggests that quality accommodation should not be the norm. Presumably he wants low-grade accommodation and little provision of basic facilities for our young people. That view is not shared by many organisations that represent housing groups, or even estate agents, who perhaps should want taxpayers' money to be involved. Clearly the hon. Gentleman does not understand the conditions to be found in many houses in multiple occupation. Forcing young people to live in such conditions is quite scandalous.

It is important to make four further crucial points. First, the Government claim that the changes will save £65 million a year, but they do not seem to have costed spending to deal with the subsequent rise in homelessness, and the further cost of administering the new regulations coupled with the changes that were made to the regulations in January. Will the Minister provide the net cost of those proposals, taking into account the factors that I have just identified?

Secondly, I turn to discretionary payments to vulnerable people. The discretion to pay above single-room rent will be cash-limited. Local authorities simply cannot exercise discretion properly when they are expected to do so within the confines of a cash-limited budget. For example, a single person under the age of 25 who applies for a discretionary payment in, say, December of this year may be successful, but someone in identical circumstances who applies in, say, February next year could be unsuccessful, on the sole ground that the cash-limited budget has already been spent.

We have ample experience of the way in which people are treated unfairly under the social fund. People in identical circumstances are not receiving help when it is desperately needed. Will the Minister comment on the cash-limited budget for discretionary payments?

Thirdly, I turn to exemptions. The Opposition believe that the safeguards built into the regulations are wholly inadequate. I should like to return, as I said I would, to care leavers. As I understand the regulations, only care leavers who have been subject to care orders under the Children Act 1989 will receive exemption from the proposals—but, even then, only until their 22nd birthday. Young people who are looked after voluntarily or following agreement with parents are not to be exempt from the changes for any period.

In March 1994, of the 45,200 young people looked after by local authorities, 53 per cent., or 24,400, were subject to care orders, whereas 20,800, or 47 per cent., were accommodated but not subject to such care orders. The source of that information is the Children Act 1994. The trend is that the number of people accommodated but not subject to care orders makes up an increasing proportion of all young people in the care system.

Scottish care leavers will have no such exemptions, as the Children Act applies only to England and Wales, and the regulations exempt only care leavers who are subject to an order under the Act. The Government have so far given no explanation of why care leavers in Scotland and the other group I have identified should be treated more harshly. Will the Minister confirm my interpretation of the regulations, and if it is correct, explain why it does not apply in the way I have described?

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

To supplement my hon. Friend's point, we have received representations from Glasgow Women's Aid, which is absolutely desperate about the matter, especially since Strathclyde region, which was extremely helpful, has been dismantled. I shall give the documents to the Government for their comment.

Mr. Bradley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reinforcing the point, and look forward to the Minister's response to the problem.

Time is short, so I shall make my fourth point briefly. It relates to the Government's policy on non-dependant deductions, which seems contradictory to the regulations. I obtained figures from the Library that showed—it is complicated because of the different income bands—that, on average, there has been a 50 per cent. increase in the non-dependant deduction, but, at the same time, only about a 9 to 11 per cent. increase in the income band s to which the deduction applies.

That would seem to encourage young people to leave the parental home because there is an imposition through the benefits system on non-dependants who remain within the family home, but the Government's stated rationale is to stop young people leaving the parental home. I should be grateful if the Minister could explain the apparent contradiction between the two policies—between non-dependant deductions and the proposals before the House.

I turn now, briefly, to the other key changes to the housing benefit system in respect of future payments. Although it could be argued that the proposed changes are merely technical and will not have a substantial effect, we believe that many claimants will be seriously disadvantaged.

The Government's reason for the changes is primarily to avoid overpayments. Although that may occur, it is important to stress that housing benefits payments are made only two weeks in advance, so there is only limited scope for overpayments as a result of payments in advance. However, the negative effects on claimants of a shift to payments in arrears may well be serious.

Most landlords require rent to be paid in advance. Therefore, it is reasonable that housing benefit should be paid in advance. At the start of a tenancy, claimants are often faced with demands for a deposit and a month's rent in advance. There is no provision in the benefits system for deposits, and only limited provision for loans for rent in advance from the social fund. If claimants have to wait longer for their first housing benefit payment, it will be even more difficult for claimants to gain tenancies, and landlords will become more reluctant to grant tenancies to housing benefit claimants. I would welcome the Minister's comments on that point.

Many organisations are concerned about the shift to payment in arrears, coupling it with the shortfalls in rent caused by the January 1996 benefit cuts and the proposals in the Housing Bill to reduce the period of rent arrears that justifies a possession order from 13 weeks to merely eight weeks. That may cause great hardship and insecurity for families and single claimants in private rented accommodation.

We believe that the draconian regulations to restrict housing benefit to single people under 25 further constitutes a form of age discrimination within the means-tested benefits system, and is likely to force young people into unsuitable housing and lead to an increase in youth homelessness.

The Government have refused to accept the main recommendation of the Social Security Advisory Committee that the proposal should not be implemented in its present form. We agree with that, and with the SSAC's devastating conclusion that the consequence of the proposals could well be that some people dependant on benefits will face a choice between homelessness and living in accommodation of an unacceptably poor standard. That is why we prayed against the regulations, and that is why we will vote against them tonight.

4.32 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Roger Evans)

We now know that Labour's considered position is that the regulations are draconian and age discriminatory. The Labour Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley), has invited his hon. Friends to vote them down. I am disappointed to hear that, as the Opposition have made no alternative suggestion as to what should be done to restrain the growth in housing benefit or as to what the alternative possibilities in their minds might be.

I have in mind the observation in The Times on 18 May, when the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) was reported to have emphasised his message to Shadow Cabinet colleagues that they must make no spending commitments before finding savings. If the regulations do not take effect, there will be costs, to which I shall return later, but we are debating whether they are appropriate measures in their own terms. I appreciate that that is what primarily concerns the House, but the country will be interested in the political point as to exactly what Labour's spending proposals are.

There is a pressing need to tackle the rising costs of housing benefit and the abuse of public funds which, unhappily, has been associated with it. The housing benefit bill stands at more than £11 billion a year, and a significant part of that is spent needlessly and wastefully.

Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon)

The Minister expresses concern about the abuse of public funds. Does the Department of Social Security ever talk to the Department of the Environment? While his Department is proposing these measures, which will increase poverty, homelessness and unemployment—as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) so eloquently explained—the DOE is proposing nearly to double the amount of financial work that is to be exposed to competition. How will farming out the administration of housing benefit to private agencies assist the DSS in what ought to be its crusade to root out fraud? How will that assist the DSS in its duty to ensure that housing benefit is properly paid on time?

Mr. Evans

I am interested in all those points, most of which do not arise from the regulations. However, the hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Departments do talk to each other, as he well appreciates. The measures to which he referred, which deal with the administration of housing benefit, are designed to promote efficiency and to save money.

The hon. Member for Withington made some detailed points on two parts of the regulations. First, he referred to young persons under 25 years of age who are single and have no children. The Government considered what should be done, and the basis of our argument is fundamentally this: that single people under 25 without children and in employment are not normally in a position to afford expensive self-contained accommodation. They have not yet reached the point in their earnings career where they have made enough to justify such expenditure. Undoubtedly, the odd yuppie might be in a different position, but the vast majority of young people who are in work do not expect to rent separate accommodation. They muck in with their friends and share accommodation, as that is the ordinary thing to do.

Under the housing benefit arrangements that applied previously, there was a perceived unfairness that an unemployed person on housing benefit would be treated in exactly the same way as someone who was very much older and who had different expectations. Our principal argument is that the previous arrangements were a disincentive and were unfair.

Mr. Bradley

How many young people under 25 are in shared accommodation and how many are in single-unit accommodation?

Mr. Evans

There is statistical evidence of one sort or another that gives a general impression of such a factor, but this is a point of principle. The arrangements were wrong in principle and we do not believe that they should continue and, accordingly, the statutory instrument was laid.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin

If there are no young people on housing benefit in self-contained accommodation at excessive rent levels, this modest measure is not likely to have the detrimental effect that Opposition Front Benchers anticipate. But if there are, the measure is necessary.

In his response to my intervention, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley)—on behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition—implied that every young person had a right to self-contained accommodation, whatever his means and circumstances and, if necessary, at public expense. How much would that cost?

Mr. Evans

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct on that second point, and that is the ineluctable logic of what has been contended for by those on the Opposition Front Bench. We do not believe that to be right and we do not believe that the taxpayer believes it to be right. I should make it clear that there are a large number in the category of people who are single, under 25 and childless, who are in receipt of housing benefit-according to the 1994 figures, there were 177,000 of them and the cost was just under £500 million. We are talking about a large sum, which was growing and which should be diminished, as the instrument provides.

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Will the Minister tell us how many under-25s have mortgages on which they get mortgage tax relief? Will the next proposal from his Government be to withdraw that mortgage tax relief?

Mr. Evans

I am interested in that statement; I wonder whether those on the Labour Front Bench will adopt it. Those who are paying mortgages are working and earning and they are entitled to the fruits of their prosperity. We are debating whether welfare payments are properly targeted by providing for under-25s who are unemployed self-contained accommodation that such people would not expect to afford if they were in work. That is the point of principle, and that is why we have introduced the measure.

Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East)

The Scottish National party opposes the measure in principle. I fear that the Minister is about to add an unfairness to an unfairness as he applies exemptions to young persons leaving care, given the different scheme and arrangements in Scotland. What will he do to rectify that anomaly?

Mr. Evans

I shall come to those exemptions in order, but I can anticipate my remarks and offer some reassurance. We shall be laying amended regulations before the instrument comes into force, to deal with the Scottish position. I shall explain why that was necessary and why it has been done in that fashion. The hon. Gentleman's concern, which was also expressed by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), who intervened on the hon. Member for Withington, is valid. It is important to get the arrangements for Scotland right, and I shall explain the difficulties in a moment.

Before I refer to the specific exemptions, I should like to complete my analysis of the principles behind the regulations. We do not anticipate that the type of accommodation that we are talking about will not be available. There is a fundamental point, which I am sure my hon. Friends believe in as a matter of principle—demand creates its own supply in a free market. The number of households in the independent private rented sector, which for the first time since 1919 the Government have deregulated and in which they have created opportunity, has increased significantly, by about 350,000, in the past six years. That is an extremely important achievement, and that market will continue to grow as long as the Government's policies continue.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

When the Secretary of State appeared before the Select Committee on Social Security, he doubted whether we have a free market in housing in some areas because of the size of the housing benefit bill.

Mr. Evans

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the housing benefit bill and the payment of that benefit prior to the regulations had perverse effects occasionally, which contradicted a free market. As a simple, directly relevant example, if one was young, under 25, single and without children, one might as well have got a seaside flat in one of our coastal resorts. Such was one of the incentives until we introduced the regulations.

I accept that, for all sorts of reasons other than the subject of today's debate—for example, planning controls and other policies involving rent arrangements—the housing market is not a perfect free market. We accept as a matter of principle, however, that a free market of the nature that we have will produce the supply talked about.

Mr. Field

The Minister has just said that demand creates its own supply, but only if one has a free market. Surely the Minister has a duty to establish that free market if he believes that that philosophy will work.

Mr. Evans

We have been steadily and successfully achieving that objective in the past 18 years, and will continue to do so. I do not suggest for a moment that the objective has been entirely accomplished, but we intend that it shall be.

I should like to deal with the specific, necessary exemptions. It is not true to say that no consideration was given to young people who might need extra help. We have made a number of specific exemptions to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected from the change. It is important for the record that they should be spelt out. Persons needing care, support or supervision are wholly exempted, provided that their landlord is either a housing association, a registered charity or a voluntary organisation.

Mr. Field

If we are trying to protect those coming from care, why are just those particular groups exempted? Do we fear that private landlords would be exploitative?

Mr. Evans

I have indulged the hon. Gentleman several times, and each time he has simply moved on to the subject of my next paragraph. I shall explain this point at length, because the issue of people leaving care is extremely important. I shall explain it in two parts.

As the hon. Member for Withington pointed out, the instrument before us states at regulation 2(b): who has ceased to be the subject of a care order pursuant to section 31(1)(a) of the Children Act 1989". Two points arise from that. The first and major point is that it does not apply in Scotland. Secondly, as the hon. Member for Withington said, it does not cover all those who have had contact with local authorities under the broader provisions of the Children Act 1989. The hon. Gentleman quoted figures, with which I respectfully agree. There is a wider category.

I shall first discuss Scotland and then return to care orders. The problem in Scotland is that the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 introduced a very different regime from that appertaining in England for dealing with local authority powers over children, one of its aspects being that people who have been subject to courts and arrangements of that sort are dealt with similarly to those who have been taken into care in England for social reasons. There is no obvious easy way of drawing the line, and I am afraid that we were unable to achieve a happy resolution of the matter at the time when the regulations were laid, but work is continuing and I assure the House that we shall make provision for Scotland similar to that which is made for England, in time for the coming into effect of the regulations in the autumn.

Unhappily, the matter is made more complicated by the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, passed by the present Parliament, which sweeps away the older arrangements of the 1968 Act in Scotland. Some parts of the 1995 Act are already in force, but as far as this instrument is concerned, the relevant parts are not yet in force, and I understand that they are not expected to come into force until April 1997. That is a matter of importance. We shall sort it out.

Mr. Dalyell

Briefly, all I ask is that, in this consideration, specific reference be made to the concerns of Glasgow Women's Aid and Women's Aid throughout Scotland about legislation being amended, so that they can continue to be paid weekly. I shall give the Minister the papers. If he gives me the assurance, I shall not interrupt again.

Mr. Evans

I give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that I shall carefully look into that matter. We propose to make provision specifically for Scotland as soon as we can, and in any event before 7 October.

Mr. Welsh

I welcome the Minister's assurance and hope that he can deliver the goods when the time comes, but I am concerned that this situation arose in the first place. Why was it not noticed that Scotland was in a different position? Scottish Members of Parliament have a right to ask that, because we have specific legislation. Was it simply an oversight? Why did that situation arise?

Mr. Evans

It was not an oversight—we do not overlook Scotland, but it is difficult to fit the pattern of the English and Scottish legislation together so that a convenient dividing line can be drawn, which achieves what we wish to achieve. We shall do what we can to sort that out, and we intend to lay regulations to amend the position for Scotland.

A second issue, connected with the Scottish issue, is whether, in England, we have drawn the legislation too narrowly in respect of specific care orders. I have listened to the representations made to the House this afternoon. Other representations have been made to us. I give an assurance that we shall go away and reconsider that aspect as well.

Mr. Clifford Forsythe (South Antrim)


Mr. Evans

I shall give way to deal with Northern Ireland as well, if I am asked to.

Mr. Forsythe

What consultation has the Minister had with the social security people in Northern Ireland about this matter? As he knows, it is handled differently in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Evans

Northern Ireland is not directly comparable because it is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I shall convey the concerns expressed to him.

I was dealing with the exemptions to the under-25 principle, which I have illustrated. The third one is that we have exempted registered housing association tenants. Persons who are living in a household where a death has occurred are exempt for 52 weeks, and persons who could afford their rent prior to claiming benefit are exempt for 13 weeks. By drawing the exemptions in that fashion, we are targeting those in need and making arrangements which, coupled with the subsidy to local authorities to make discretionary payments in exceptional hardship, will provide a satisfactory outcome. I do not accept the point made by the hon. Member for Withington about discretionary budgeting in the course of the year. It is for local authorities to operate that scheme.

To summarise the first part of my speech, the changes for the under-25s will affect only single childless people who, basically, are seeking while on benefit to live beyond their means.

Before dealing with the second topic, I should make it clear that we shall monitor the change carefully to see what impact it has upon the market as a whole, as well as looking at the effectiveness of the change in respect of young people's choice of accommodation.

Mr. Frank Field

If it is shown during the monitoring that an increasing number of young people become homeless, what will the Minister do?

Mr. Evans

That is the most hypothetical of hypothetical questions. I shall monitor the change carefully and we shall see what happens. Obviously, it would be of concern to everybody in the House if the adverse consequences mentioned by the hon. Gentleman were to occur, but let us see.

I am conscious of the fact that, because I have given way, I have been speaking for longer than I had intended. I shall deal with the periodicity changes. Housing benefit is currently paid wholly or partly in advance at one, two or four-weekly intervals. It is normally sent to the claimant, who is then responsible for using it to pay his rent. In some circumstances, in order to protect the tenancy, the benefit is paid directly to the landlord, again normally in advance.

In practice, what happens now—before the instrument has come into effect—is that rent tends to be paid two weeks in advance and two weeks in arrears because of the timing of the administration. However, payment in advance is inherently unsafe. It allows changes in circumstances that affect benefit entitlement, such as earnings from employment, to be taken into account at a later stage than they should be. Sometimes that leads to underpayment of benefit, thereby temporarily disadvantaging the claimant until the correct entitlement is restored. I am sure that we do not want that.

The serious concern for the Government in the context of the debate is that payment in advance sometimes leads to overpayment of benefit. Unfortunately, there are far too many overpayments—nearly £2 million in the private rented sector during 1994–95. Many of them are incurred quite innocently, but innocent or otherwise, I am sorry to say that it does not mean that recovery is not difficult.

We estimate that overpayments total about £400 million a year, including a staggering £165 million due to claimant error in the private rented sector alone.

Mr. Alan Howarth

The hon. Gentleman expressed concern that payment in advance is inherently unsafe. Has he considered that his policy could have been calculated to generate a culture of fraud? In future, paying housing benefit in arrears—four weeks later—will put young people particularly under great pressure to fail to conform to their contractual obligations, because landlords invariably seek payment in advance. Has the Minister considered that? Will he also consider for whom it is inherently unsafe? Has he considered the position of tenants on very low incomes, who will be placed in immense personal difficulty as a result of having somehow to find the money not only for the first four weeks' rent but for a deposit?

Mr. Evans

The hon. Gentleman raised a variety of points. Perhaps the most striking is the statement that landlords always expect their rent in advance. That is a result of market distortion arising out of rent restriction controls. Until 1919, the invariable practice was for rent to be paid in arrears. In the old days, the rent collector came round at the end of the week, not at the beginning of the week before the tenant had even lived there for a day. The long history of rent restriction this century has diminished the number of properties in the private rented sector, and landlords left in the market have been able to take advantage of the circumstances—partly created by the payment of housing benefit—and to demand rent in advance. In that situation, a form of bidding by the landlords takes place, based on the fact that the state will always pay.

We believe that there is a more appropriate way to help those faced with that situation, apart from removing the distortion in the market. Various rent deposit and guarantee schemes, run by local authorities and voluntary organisations, are springing up in different areas, and they are extremely successful. I have visited the scheme in Bristol and I was especially impressed that the guarantees are not usually called on, because all sides have played fair.

There is a real fraud problem, as the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who chairs the Select Committee on Social Security, will be aware as a result of his report, to which the Government replied today. The purpose of payment in arrears is to remove one possibility for fraud.

The hon. Member for Withington quoted the Social Security Advisory Committee repeatedly: and that committee has said that it is legitimate for the Department, to aim to reduce overpayments of housing benefit, and that some overpayments would be avoided or reduced by the proposal to pay in arrears.

The regulations will deal with another, smaller, fraud—the abuse of the first payment. Under the advance payment scheme, in some cases the claimant took the cheque, vanished, and never turned up at the landlord's property or paid the money over. Under the regulations, the cheque will be given to the claimant, because it is his benefit, but it will be made out in the name of the landlord, so that it can be used only for the purpose that Parliament intended. That was described by the SSAC as a sensible precaution, and I respectfully adopt it.

I invite my hon. Friends to reject the motion. Considerable savings will result from the regulations. For payments to under-25s, in the first year, the saving will be £15 million; it will be £60 million in the second year; £65 million in the third year; and £65 million a year thereafter. The periodicity changes will save £105 million in the first year; £120 million in the second; £75 million in the third; and £25 million a year thereafter. That totals £120 million in the first year; £180 million in the second; £140 million in the third; and £90 million a year thereafter. The interesting political question to which the country and the House will want to know the answer is whether, if the hon. Member for Withington were to invite his hon. Friends to vote against the regulations, we would see another Labour spending commitment on top of some £470 million made at Question Time on 21 May.


Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Groups ranging from the Young Homelessness Group to the Government's Social Security Advisory Committee, the Small Landlord's Association and the National Association of Estate Agents oppose the regulations. The Minister said that the regulations are designed to deal with abuses, yet he cannot give any real explanation of those abuses and how they will be dealt with. In its report "Housing in England, 1994–95", which was published in April, the Central Statistical Office found no evidence of such abuse by young people under 25.

The Government seem to think that housing benefit encourages young people to leave the family home and set up in luxurious apartments. There is no evidence for that. On the contrary, most young people who are forced into leaving home are not in a position to provide for themselves and they do not live in accommodation much different from that of others in their age group. As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) said, thousands of under-25s buy their homes, and they have been encouraged to do so by the Government and by a system under which it is better to get mortgage interest tax relief than no benefit. They are to be penalised.

There is no evidence of the kind of abuse that the Government say the regulations are designed to tackle. The real issue, which was admitted by the Minister, is tackling the rising cost of housing benefit. Who is responsible for that rise? The blame must be laid fairly and squarely at the door of the Government and Conservative Members. When the Government repealed the Rent Acts that regulated private rents, they knew that people would not be able to afford market rents.

In 1988, the then Secretary of State for the Environment, Nicholas Ridley, said that housing benefit would be available to help tenants who could not afford the full market rent. He said that that was the key component of the Government's policy, and that it would ensure that deregulation did not price lower-income households out of the market.

As a result of the regulations, the housing benefit bill for the private rented sector will be about £4 billion a year and will accommodate a small fraction of the population. However, the bill for council housing will be £5.5 billion for a sector that is occupied by nearly a third of the population. The reason for the rise in housing benefit is clearly that private rents are high and because private landlords are able to demand them, but the public sector can produce housing at much lower cost.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North)

The question seems simple. To hold down rents, we either have artificial rent controls and controls on what landlords can charge, or we set limits on what people should pay. The hon. Lady advocates state control of rents, but we simply say that we should limit what people should be expected to pay. If we do not do that, rents will continue to be forced up by the unlimited availability of housing benefit to pay the reference rent in particular areas. Reference levels have drifted up and up because they are underwritten by the state. Surely that must stop.

Dr. Jones

That is correct, but the people who rely on housing benefit are not in a bargaining position. There is a shortage, despite what the Government say about the increase in houses available in the private rented sector. The number has increased, but largely as a result of the collapse in the home ownership market because of falling prices. There is still a shortage in relation to demand, and I predict that, if the home ownership market picks up, which the Government hope will happen, there will be a further collapse in the availability of rented houses, particularly for students. I could give much evidence of that in my constituency.

Rents have been deregulated and gone up, councils are not able to build new homes, and vulnerable people are forced into the private sector. They have little bargaining power and they have to pay the rents that are demanded of them. Responsible local authorities have attempted to intervene in the market and to develop good relationships with the private sector. That has happened in Birmingham. In a debate last year, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment said: In particular, we are keen to expand the role played by the private rented sector in offering accommodation to people in housing need. It is a mistake to assume that private rented accommodation will, by definition, be inadequate … Local authorities themselves have also done a great deal. A number have introduced imaginative schemes to encourage local landlords to co-operate with them in housing families and others in need. Private landlords are reluctant in normal circumstances to house people who are poor and in need, and that is why local authority interventions have been necessary. The Minister continued: One approach that is achieving impressive results is the introduction of rent and deposit guarantee schemes. They give landlords the reassurances that they may require to house low-income tenants and can dramatically increase the chances of such households gaining access to rented accommodation."— [Official Report, 8 March 1995; Vol. 256, c. 315.] That was a recognition by a Minister last year, which was recognised again by the Minister today, that people in housing need and on benefit need a leg up in getting private landlords to take them on, but while commending such schemes, the Government are undermining them.

I am the chair of the Birmingham bond scheme. We have arrangements with landlords on our approved lists, and we give rent deposits only to landlords who offer reasonable accommodation. That includes bed-sits. They are happy to co-operate with us because they know that the rent deposit will be guaranteed and because we have a good relationship with housing benefit agencies and can help to iron out any problems with bureaucracy. The effect of the regulations on rent, and the demand for payment of rent in advance, would undermine that scheme at a stroke.

These proposals follow those that were implemented in January and which limit rents to local reference rents. For those under the age of 25, there is no top-up allowance for the difference between the average rent in an area and that which the rent officer deems reasonable. Rents are being held down and will have to be paid in advance. I shall give an example of what that will mean to our scheme.

At the moment, our market-based rents are about £45 to £50 a week for a bed-sit and £65 to £80 a week for a one-bedroomed, self-contained flat. The rent officer has now restricted the rent for such properties to £32 and £45 a week. That means that landlords will no longer be willing to take on tenants. I have given the rents for reasonable accommodation that can be let, but people on low incomes will increasingly be forced into poor standard accommodation. At a stroke, the Government will undermine the good work that we have been doing and which has been commended by them.

The proposals are a crude device and do not offer adequate protection to vulnerable young people who cannot live with their families. I do not know why we think it so desirable that young people should continue to live with their families for as long as possible. I left home at the age of 18 when I went to university; I suspect that most Conservative Members also left home at an early age and were probably able to afford reasonable accommodation and may have been able to buy houses. When I was 22, like many of my colleagues, I was able to buy a house. Many people under the age of 25 want to live in reasonable accommodation. It is a good idea that, at the age of about 18, they should start to live in some kind of furnished accommodation, perhaps even in bed-sits if good quality ones are available.

I checked today on the rents for student accommodation that is offered in halls of residence in Birmingham. The rent for accommodation in a four-unit bed-sit is £30 to £50 a week. That is the kind of supportive environment in which we might want under-25s to live. However, quality bed-sit accommodation is not available. The Department of the Environment's consultation document on houses in multiple occupation states that 44 per cent. of HMOs were unfit.

Mr. Jenkin

It is always risky to talk in this place about our own experiences, but I shall join the hon. Lady in taking that risk. When I came back from university and started my first job, I lived at home for more than a year and then rented a room in a house. It was furnished accommodation at modest cost. Is not that what we would expect young people to do? I was in my early 20s, but I did not become a home owner until my late 20s. The hon. Lady was a better capitalist than me. Young people are in a better position to make do, and we should expect them to take that course rather than to expect self-contained accommodation as of right at public expense.

Dr. Jones

It is reasonable for young people to progress from some kind of supported accommodation when they first leave home—that might not necessarily be the case—but I would expect it to be of reasonable quality. Rents for bed-sits of reasonable quality in Birmingham are between £45 and £50 a week, but much of the stock is inadequate and nobody wants to move into it; 44 per cent. of it is unfit and much of it is a fire risk. The Government, through these regulations, are encouraging the supply of substandard accommodation.

The combination of the one-room principle, the local reference rent and the demand for rents in advance has undermined the efforts to provide reasonable accommodation for young people. Most young people stay at home and, perhaps, do not want to leave, but many of the people we are talking about do not have a choice. They are forced out of their homes for reasons beyond their control.

I was fortunate in that I went to university, but if I had not I would not have been able to stay in the family home. Indeed, I was not able to do so during the vacation. I did not have the luxury of going back to what I would imagine in the case of the hon. Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) was a pleasant, large family home. I lived in a two-bedroomed council flat, which I shared with my sister, and had a mentally ill father. Those are the circumstances in which many young people live today.

In Birmingham, it is estimated that 4,000 to 5,000 people will be affected by these cuts. Young people who move into average accommodation today, where the full rent will be met, are likely to experience a cut of £15 to £20 per week in their benefit when it is reviewed in October. Let us also consider the young people who are currently working and, perhaps, renting a one-bedroomed flat. If they lose their job and fall on hard times, or if their income is cut and they are forced to rely on housing benefit, they will be given 13 weeks in which to find somewhere else to live. They will be forced to move out of their accommodation by these regulations. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Colchester, North thinks that that is a good thing.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Withington said, there is also a disincentive for people who are currently in receipt of housing benefit, and who live in reasonable accommodation, to get work because they are worried that, if they fall on hard times, they will be forced out of their accommodation. They have little bargaining power. If they are on income support or are in work, they are expected to live on £37.90. That is what the benefits system assumes they need if they are on a low income and need housing benefit to top up their wages. That is £10 less than the figure for the over-25s. As a result of the regulations, young people will be under pressure to go down market into unsafe, unsuitable accommodation, and they will boost the market for cheap and poorly maintained properties.

Whether young people are in self-contained accommodation prior to January, or in supported schemes which are exempt, it will become impossible for them to move on while still on benefit without accepting a lower standard of accommodation. Places in supported schemes will then become blocked, making it impossible to provide appropriate accommodation for newly homeless youngsters escaping abuse or overcrowding.

If the Government are concerned about containing the housing benefit bill and about giving a reasonable chance in life to young people—nobody expects them to be able to live in luxury—they should reconsider their policies on housing and social security. They should encourage, for example, the provision of foyer-type schemes and support responsible local authorities that are setting up schemes with private landlords. In Birmingham, we have a landlords' charter. We have responsible lodging schemes, which January's regulations have affected. Schemes that were supported by social services now have to take a cut of some £60 a week. The unscrupulous who are providing accommodation for vulnerable people will continue to do so and charge the highest rent possible while providing appalling conditions for the young and vulnerable and mentally ill people.

The proposed regulations are an absolute disgrace and have been introduced as a result of the Government's disastrous housing policies. It is the Government who have forced up the cost of housing benefit.

5.14 pm
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North)

I enjoyed listening to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones), but she rather spoilt her speech at the end because she failed to offer any solution other than the old failed solutions. We can only assume that that is what she was offering, because she did not offer anything.

I shall use this opportunity to step back a little and look at this conceptually. There is a growing consensus across the House—I regret that the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) is not in his place—that there is too much means-testing in our benefits system. The more the benefits system grows, the more people are drawn into means-testing and the more people are subject to the perverse effects of means tests. The more generous housing benefit provision has become—even if only by virtue of the fact that rising rents have led to rising housing benefit, and increased unemployment has led to rising benefit levels—the more people have adapted to qualify for it. There is a consensus in the Social Security Select Committee that people adjust their circumstances to qualify for means-tested benefits. More people end up on benefit, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation will say that they are poor because they are on means-tested benefits.

How do we stop that trend? The Opposition complain about means testing, but they want to maintain the excessive generosity of such benefits and end up supporting the mechanism that creates the very problem that we need to deal with. Public expenditure grows as means-tested benefits generate their own demand.

Means tests generate a perverse moral climate. As the hon. Member for Birkenhead increasingly tells us in the Select Committee, what message does that send to people who are trapped in adverse circumstances? What a message to send to young people starting out in life: they can afford better accommodation if they take housing benefit and remain unemployed. Naturally, the Government are absolutely right to do everything possible to make a contract between the unemployed receiving benefit and the Benefits Agency. One must be actively seeking work. That is certainly an improvement, but we can do more to remove the disincentives.

Are we happy with a system that effectively proclaims to every young person, "If you leave home without a job, the state will provide you with self-contained accommodation as a right"? Are we happy that the benefits system should in effect proclaim to parents, "Throw your teenagers out with impunity; the state will provide; you needn't be responsible for the people whom you have brought into the world"? The Labour party seems to be saying, "Your son and daughter will be given self-contained accommodation as a right."

Most working people who pay taxes, including a great many poor people, are aghast at the way in which the benefits system seems to subsidise life styles that people, particularly older people, never dreamed they would enjoy, even in their later years. Many young people on benefits are not just claiming benefits. Part of the perversity of means-tested benefits is that we encourage people to hide their entrepreneurialism, their natural affinity to work and to earn. Very often, people are taking a bit more on the side than they are letting the Benefits Agency know about.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

Does my hon. Friend agree that all too often the state appears to be taking over from human parents, to become an individual's parent in terms of financial and other support, which does not encourage personal responsibility among young people?

Mr. Jenkin

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Concepts that are popular among Opposition parties include social exclusion and social cohesion. The worst way to create social cohesion is to atomise society by making the state more and more responsible for the individual's circumstances, instead of allowing the natural institutions of society—the family and community— to take their share of responsibility.

Dr. Lynne Jones

What evidence does the hon. Gentleman have of the abuse that he claims? The Social Security Advisory Committee recommended that the Government should collate evidence to justify views of the sort that the hon. Gentleman is espousing—and only then introduce the regulations.

Mr. Jenkin

The Social Security Select Committee has just completed an extensive investigation into housing benefit fraud. It is argued that we have only scratched the surface and that Government figures grossly underestimate the scale of the problem. I do not fully accept that evidence, but that is erring on the side of caution. Labour Members have used the fraud issue to suggest that the Government are not exercising enough control.

Dr. Jones

I was referring not to abuse but to evidence to support the allegation that young people deliberately leave home to be mollycoddled by the state, and that it pays housing benefit to allow youngsters to live in luxurious accommodation.

Mr. Jenkin

I do not intend to produce such evidence now because the hon. Lady is using language that I did not use. The more generous housing benefit is and the greater its availability to young people, the more they are likely to avail themselves of it. The only way to restore society's natural values is to make people more responsible for the consequences of their actions and to ensure that families take more responsibility for their young adult offspring.

These regulations are conceptually adjusting the priorities. It is just at the margin. We are not creating a revolution. We are only questioning the hierarchy of priorities. Is it that young people should take jobs and that families ought to take responsibility for them—or is it that young people should as of right occupy self-contained accommodation funded by the state? Obviously all young people have a right to dignified accommodation, but as its quality increases, who should be responsible for its provision? Should it not be more the responsibility of the individual and his or her family and less the responsibility of the state?

I look forward to the time when the values and expectations of people in this country have radically altered. New Labour is interested in the so-called stakeholding society of Singapore. When the Select Committee visited that country, it was interested to find that Singapore's equivalent of our Department of Social Security is determined to avoid the mistakes that western societies have made in creating state dependency and poverty traps. It is difficult to imagine how that determination is manifested without observing it at first hand. It is ironic that new Labour is so enamoured of the stakeholder model of Singapore but shies away when that country's social policies are implemented in the United Kingdom. Labour wants to cherry-pick one or two aspects of the Singapore model but leave the rest behind.

The key challenge to those of us who take an interest in the future of the UK social security system is in devising ways of restoring individual and family responsibility, by gradually removing from the state as humanely as possible the excessive responsibilities that it has taken on. The regulations do exactly that. They chip away at the expectation that young people should receive so much from the state so early in their lives.

The Labour party offers not a policy that tends towards responsibility, self-determination and individual empowerment but opposition that is very much old Labour. We heard in the speech of the hon. Member for Selly Oak a call for a return to rent controls, large public housing schemes and an ever-rising bill for housing benefit. That is not the recipe that has brought success to housing or social security policy in this country or any other in Europe or elsewhere in the world that has tried using large-scale public expenditure to solve social problems. We should aim at eventually achieving alternative models that give people social security in the fullest sense—not just satisfy our consciences by doling out large sums of public money.

5.26 pm
Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale)

We cannot consider the regulations in isolation but must view them together with all the other Government measures that have affected under-25s. Since 1988, that age group has received lower income support. I have never understood why younger people are supposed to manage on less money than any others. Their food, clothing and other costs are exactly the same.

From October, the unemployment benefit element of the jobseeker's allowance for the under-25s will be reduced to income support level, yet again penalising that age group. That double action will mean that £10 a week will be lost to those young people.

We want facts, figures and other evidence from the Government to back their claims. The Government say that young people expect to live in bed-sits or shared accommodation, that housing benefit is an incentive for young people to leave home and that the current level of housing benefit encourages them to do so. Have any surveys been undertaken? If the Minister has time to reply, can he cite evidence to show how many of the 870,000 young people in question live in self-contained accommodation? We must have that figure before we can judge how the regulations will work.

Where is the evidence that young people are more likely to request or occupy more expensive accommodation than their contemporaries who are in employment? The Government have produced none. The Government talk about young people milking the system, but where is the proof? How many people go into shared accommodation?

The Government are attempting to change young people's life styles without giving us the facts behind their proposal. Even the Social Security Advisory Committee said that young unemployed people aged under 25 had the same general preference for accommodation as those in employment, and that no evidence suggests that young people are encouraged to leave home because they could get a flat on their own.

I fear that the regulations will make young people less mobile. The Government must deal with the fact that there are many legitimate reasons why young people leave home. They do so because, in some cases, they have been sexually or physically abused. They do not talk about it and they do not want to involve social services, but that is a good reason for their leaving home. It is not, therefore, that they are encouraged to leave because they are going to get a good housing benefit level. Some of those young people have genuine reasons.

Young people in self-contained accommodation are not going to move to find work. Surely the Government want young people to move around the country to find work, but, if they are in self-contained accommodation in one region, they will find that, if they move to find work but do not do so, they will end up in a bed-sit.

These changes could cause severe hardship for youngsters under 25 because the shortfalls between the rent and housing benefit must be met from somewhere. If those young people cannot find rented accommodation at the rent levels that will be set, because of the jobseekers' provisions and all the other debts that they will get into, they could face poverty. In the long term, quite a few of them could face homelessness.

Many of those people will be forced into potentially dangerous accommodation. Some of the standards in multiple-occupancy accommodation are not good. I do not know whether the Minister has been around such accommodation, but I have. Some of it is a fire risk and some a death trap.

Even the Children's Society was coming out against all young people being forced into multi-occupancy accommodation. It was talking about vulnerable young people, who find it difficult to communicate with each other and who would have a problem sharing a bathroom, a kitchen, a stove or washing-up facilities. The problem is that, if they could not cope with that shared accommodation, they could find themselves out on the streets.

The Minister has talked about giving concessions for young people coming out of care, and I am glad that he is considering taking that further. I am also pleased that he is considering Scotland as well, because that was an oversight. I am glad that he will deal with that problem. I am also concerned about young people in bed-sit accommodation. They could be subjected to drugs, harassment and abuse. I am not saying that that would happen in all multi-occupancy accommodation, but the Minister should be considering that point.

In relation to the change from paying rent in advance to paying rent in arrears and not paying any deposits, many of those young people will not be able to find accommodation because multi-occupancy houses will not be available and, if they are, landlords will probably not take them in.

The problem is that, once landlords know that under-25s are allowed to go into only bed-sit or multi-occupancy accommodation, standards will fall. Many more investigators will have to check the standards of those properties, because some landlords will be good and will meet their responsibility but some will not. I hope that the Minister is aware of the Government's responsibility in that.

Certain young people face a harsh future with these regulations, which come in next October. As I have said, some will face homelessness and some will face living in poor accommodation. I hope that the Government will think again before it is too late. I will vote to revoke the regulations.

5.33 pm
Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

My big concern in the debate is that I have not heard anything from Opposition Members that shows concern for taxpayers in all this. It is taxpayers who must find the money to pay for housing benefit. Often, they pay for many people to have housing benefit to live in accommodation that is better than that in which the taxpayers themselves live.

Housing benefit is a £10 billion a year benefit. It costs every working man and woman in this country about £400 a year, so it is up to the House of Commons to ensure that the benefit is paid to people in genuine need and that it is not open to abuse; one of the concerns of the Social Security Select Committee has been that, in our investigations, we have found considerable housing benefit abuse.

Many stories are around. I am sure that many Members of Parliament have been told the wide-ranging stories of abuse, some of which one may not be able to prove, but which are worrying. The fact that the Government are proposing to tighten housing benefit is to be welcomed by taxpayers and by hon. Members. We must encourage young people not to become adept at claiming housing benefit but to use their skills and abilities to obtain work.

What I have found is that no young person will suffer as a result of these changes. The evidence is that they will still be able to afford reasonable accommodation of a reasonable quality at a reasonable price. If, however, they conspire with landlords to receive a larger amount of money out of the taxpayer, as a result of the changes, that will not work.

The Opposition have been calling for evidence. I will tell them of some staggering evidence in my constituency surgery. A young person recently came in and demanded that I get him housing benefit of £100 a week for a self-contained unit of accommodation in the Dover region. I happen to know that, in that region, it is possible for many people to find accommodation costing between £60 and £80 a week.

There are many properties of below £100 a week, but that young person decided that that was the accommodation that he wanted and that he expected the taxpayer to pay for, despite the fact that many middle-aged and elderly people in my constituency are claiming housing benefit at only £40 to £60 a week, and are living in much more modest, but reasonable and acceptable, accommodation. The state should not be providing £100 a week when it is possible to live reasonably in reasonable accommodation at much less than that.

This measure is fair because it contains safeguards. Local authorities will still have the discretion to pay benefit above the average cost of shared accommodation, especially where there are examples of exceptional hardship. The other reasonable point here is that the new limit for housing benefit is to be introduced only at the average cost of non-self-contained accommodation in the region. By having regard to the average cost, the Government have been reasonable.

There are plenty of statistics around. District valuers and others are competent at assembling valuation statistics. I do not see why councils, using similar techniques, are not capable of establishing good figures on the average accommodation cost, or, therefore, why we cannot operate a housing benefit system that is much more related to real cost that can be measured and recorded.

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the question, pursuant to Order [21 May].

The House divided: Ayes 247, Noes 273.

Division No. 137] [5.38 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Blair, Rt Hon Tony
Ainger, Nick Boateng, Paul
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Bradley, Keith
Alton, David Bray, Dr Jeremy
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale) Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)
Armstrong, Hilary Brown, N(N'c'tle upon Tyne E)
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Ashton, Joe Burden, Richard
Austin-Walker, John Byers, Stephen
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Caborn, Richard
Barnes, Harry Callaghan, Jim
Barron, Kevin Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Battle, John Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Bayley, Hugh Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret Campbell-Savours, D N
Beggs, Roy Canavan, Dennis
Bell, Stuart Cann, Jamie
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Chidgey, David
Bennett, Andrew F Chisholm, Malcolm
Berry, Roger Church, Judith
Clapham, Michael Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Hutton, John
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W) Ingram, Adam
Clelland, David Jackson, Glenda (H'stead)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H)
Coffey, Ann Janner, Greville
Cohen, Harry Jenkins, Brian (SE Staff)
Connarty, Michael Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side)
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Jones, Ieuan Wyn (Ynys MÔn)
Cook, Robin (Livingston) Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)
Corbett, Robin Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW)
Corbyn, Jeremy Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Corston, Jean Jowell, Tessa
Cousins, Jim Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE) Kennedy, Charles (Ross,C&S)
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John Khabra, Piara S
Cunningham, Roseanna Kilfoyle, Peter
Dafis, Cynog Kirkwood, Archy
Dalyell, Tam Lestor, Joan (Eccles)
Darling, Alistair Lewis, Terry
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral) Liddell, Mrs Helen
Davies, Chris (L'Boro & S'worth) Livingstone, Ken
Denham, John Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Dewar, Donald Llwyd, Elfyn
Dixon, Don Loyden, Eddie
Dobson, Frank Lynne, Ms Liz
Donohoe, Brian H McAllion, John
Dowd, Jim McAvoy, Thomas
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth McCartney, Ian
Eastham, Ken McCartney, Robert
Etherington, Bill McCrea, The Reverend William
Evans, John (St Helens N) Macdonald, Calum
Ewing, Mrs Margaret McFall, John
Fatchett, Derek McKelvey, William
Faulds, Andrew Mackinlay, Andrew
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) McLeish, Henry
Flynn, Paul Maclennan, Robert
Forsythe, Clifford (S Antrim) McWilliam, John
Foster, Rt Hon Derek Madden, Max
Foster, Don (Bath) Maddock, Diana
Fraser, John Mandelson, Peter
Fyfe, Maria Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Galbraith, Sam Martin, Michael J (Springburn)
Galloway, George Martlew, Eric
Gapes, Mike Maxton, John
George, Bruce Meacher, Michael
Gerrard, Neil Meale, Alan
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John Michael, Alun
Godman, Dr Norman A Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Godsiff, Roger Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Golding, Mrs Llin Milburn, Alan
Graham, Thomas Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham) Molyneaux, Rt Hon Sir James
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Moonie, Dr Lewis
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Morgan, Rhodri
Grocott, Bruce Morley, Elliot
Gunnell, John Morris, Rt Hon Alfred (Wy'nshawe)
Hain, Peter Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Hall, Mike Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon)
Hanson, David Mowlam, Marjorie
Harman, Ms Harriet Mudie, George
Harvey, Nick Mullin, Chris
Henderson, Doug Murphy, Paul
Heppell, John Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Hill, Keith (Streatham) O'Brien, Mike (N W'kshire)
Hinchliffe, David O'Brien, William (Normanton)
Hodge, Margaret Olner, Bill
Horne Robertson, John O'Neill, Martin
Hood, Jimmy Pearson, Ian
Hoon, Geoffrey Pendry, Tom
Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A) Pickthall, Colin
Howarth, George (Knowsley North) Pike, Peter L
Howells, Dr Kim (Pontypridd) Pope, Greg
Hoyle, Doug Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Prentice, Bridget (Lew'm E)
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Prescott, Rt Hon John Stevenson, George
Purchase, Ken Strang, Dr. Gavin
Radice, Giles Straw, Jack
Raynsford, Nick Sutcliffe, Gerry
Reid, Dr John Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Rendel, David Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Robertson, George (Hamilton) Timms, Stephen
Robinson, Geoffrey (Co'try NW) Tipping, Paddy
Roche, Mrs Barbara Trickett, Jon
Rooker, Jeff Turner, Dennis
Rooney, Terry Tyler, Paul
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold
Ross, William (E Londonderry) Walley, Joan
Rowlands, Ted Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Salmond, Alex Wareing, Robert N
Sedgemore, Brian Welsh, Andrew
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Wicks, Malcolm
Shore, Rt Hon Peter Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)
Short, Clare Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Simpson, Alan Winnick, David
Skinner, Dennis Wise, Audrey
Smith, Chris (Isl'ton S & F'sbury) Worthington, Tony
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Wray, Jimmy
Smyth, The Reverend Martin Wright, Dr Tony
Snape, Peter Young, David (Bolton SE)
Soley, Clive
Spearing, Nigel Tellers for the Ayes:
Spellar, John Mr. Joe Benton and
Steinberg, Gerry Mrs. Jane Kennedy.
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Clappison, James
Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif)
Allason, Rupert (Torbay) Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Amess, David Coe, Sebastian
Arbuthnot, James Colvin, Michael
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv) Congdon, David
Ashby, David Conway, Derek
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Baker, Rt Hon Kenneth (Mole V) Cope, Rt Hon Sir John
Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset) Cormack, Sir Patrick
Baldry, Tony Couchman, James
Banks, Matthew (Southport) Cran, James
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon)
Bates, Michael Davies, Quentin (Stamford)
Batiste, Spencer Day, Stephen
Bendall, Vivian Deva, Nirj Joseph
Beresford, Sir Paul Dicks, Terry
Biffen, Rt Hon John Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Body, Sir Richard Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Dover, Den
Booth, Hartley Duncan, Alan
Boswell, Tim Duncan Smith, Iain
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Dunn, Bob
Bowden, Sir Andrew Eggar, Rt Hon Tim
Bowis, John Elletson, Harold
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Brandreth, Gyles Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield)
Brazier, Julian Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)
Bright, Sir Graham Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)
Brown, M (Brigg & Cl'thorpes) Evans, Roger (Monmouth)
Browning, Mrs Angela Evennett, David
Bruce, Ian (South Dorset) Fabricant, Michael
Burns, Simon Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)
Burt, Alistair Forman, Nigel
Butler, Peter Forsyth, Rt Hon Michael (Stirling)
Butterfill, John Forth, Eric
Carlisle, John (Luton North) Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln) Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)
Carrington, Matthew Fox, Rt Hon Sir Marcus (Shipley)
Carttiss, Michael Freeman, Rt Hon Roger
Cash, William French, Douglas
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Fry, Sir Peter
Chapman, Sir Sydney Gale, Roger
Churchill, Mr Gallie, Phil
Gardiner, Sir George Malone, Gerald
Garnier, Edward Mans, Keith
Gill, Christopher Marland, Paul
Gillan, Cheryl Marlow, Tony
Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Gorst, Sir John Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian
Grant, Sir A (SW Cambs) Mellor, Rt Hon David
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Merchant, Piers
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Mills, Iain
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N) Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn Mitchell, Sir David (NW Hants)
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archibald Moate, Sir Roger
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Monro, Rt Hon Sir Hector
Hampson, Dr Keith Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Hannam, Sir John Needham, Rt Hon Richard
Hargreaves, Andrew Neubert, Sir Michael
Harris, David Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Haselhurst, Sir Alan Nicholls, Patrick
Hawksley, Warren Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Hayes, Jerry Norris, Steve
Heald, Oliver Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley
Heath, Rt Hon Sir Edward Oppenheim, Phillip
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David Page, Richard
Hendry, Charles Paice, James
Hicks, Robert Patten, Rt Hon John
Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Hill, James (Southampton Test) Pawsey, James
Horam, John Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter Pickles, Eric
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Porter, David (Waveney)
Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford) Portillo, Rt Hon Michael
Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk) Powell, William (Corby)
Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W) Redwood, Rt Hon John
Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W) Richards, Rod
Hunter, Andrew Riddick, Graham
Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas Robathan, Andrew
Jack, Michael Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S)
Jenkin, Bernard Robinson, Mark (Somerton)
Jessel, Toby Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxboume)
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent)
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela
Jones, Robert B (W Hertfdshr) Ryder, Rt Hon Richard
Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine Sackville, Tom
Key, Robert Sainsbury, Rt Hon Sir Timothy
King, Rt Hon Tom Shaw, David (Dover)
Kirkhope, Timothy Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash) Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian
Knight, Rt Hon Greg (Derby N) Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n) Sims, Roger
Knox, Sir David Skeet, Sir Trevor
Kynoch, George (Kincardine) Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Soames, Nicholas
Lamont, Rt Hon Norman Spencer, Sir Derek
Lang, Rt Hon Ian Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset)
Lawrence, Sir Ivan Spicer, Sir Michael (S Worcs)
Legg, Barry Spink, Dr Robert
Leigh, Edward Spring, Richard
Lennox-Boyd, Sir Mark Sproat, Iain
Lester, Sir James (Broxtowe) Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)
Lidington, David Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter Stephen, Michael
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham) Stern, Michael
Lord, Michael Stewart, Allan
Luff, Peter Streeter, Gary
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Sweeney, Walter
MacGregor, Rt Hon John Sykes, John
MacKay, Andrew Tapsell, Sir Peter
Maclean, Rt Hon David Taylor, Ian (Esher)
McLoughlin, Patrick Taylor, John M (Solihull)
McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)
Madel, Sir David Thomason, Roy
Maitland, Lady Olga Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Major, Rt Hon John Thornton, Sir Malcolm
Thurnham, Peter Wells, Bowen
Townsend, Cyril D (Bexl'yh'th) Whitney, Ray
Tracey, Richard Whittingdale, John
Tredinnick, David Widdecombe, Ann
Trend, Michael Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Trotter, Neville Wilkinson, John
Twinn, Dr Ian Willetts, David
Vaughan, Sir Gerard Wilshire, David
Viggers, Peter Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Waldegrave, Rt Hon William Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)
Walden, George Wolfson, Mark
Walker, Bill (N Tayside) Wood, Timothy
Waller, Gary Yeo, Tim
Ward, John Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Wardle, Charles (Bexhill) Tellers for the Noes:
Waterson, Nigel Mr. Richard Ottaway and Mr. Roger Knapman.
Watts, John

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Before we embark on the next debate and start to use up the time allowed for it, I should like to raise a point of order on that time limit. The Order Paper states that the debate will last only one and a half hours, pursuant to Standing Order No. 14B(1).

You will be aware that, on the last page of the statutory instrument, five European Community documents are cited as the base legislation on which it has come before us. I was minded to table amendments in relation to those documents, which—if selected—would have dealt with the need for the documents, their integrity and their merits. I have refrained from doing so because of the time limit on the debate.

Could you confirm that the debate would not be confined to an hour and a half if this statutory instrument had been debated before 2 November last year and that it could have gone on until as late as 11.30 pm, which would have allowed a wide-ranging debate had I tabled those amendments and had they been selected? Could you confirm that that is the fact that now confronts the House in debating these important matters?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

That may all be true, but the current rules of the House allow only one and a half hours for the next debate. Those are the rules under which the House operates.