HC Deb 05 March 2001 vol 364 cc18-20
11. Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds)

What plans he has to reform the administration of housing benefit. [150491]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle)

Following years of neglect by the previous Government, improving administration is the biggest challenge facing the housing benefit system. We published our strategy to achieve such an improvement in December, and one of our first steps has been the formation of the expert help team. Working in partnership with local authorities, the team will help to turn things around.

Mr. Ruffley

The Minister will have a list of the 10 local authorities with the worst record of tackling housing benefit fraud. Could she tell us which ones are Labour controlled?

Angela Eagle

As most local authorities are Labour controlled, that is a pretty pointless question.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

Does my hon. Friend recognise that housing benefit creates particular difficulties in areas with high housing costs? The threshold at which a return to work is worth while requires some people to work 20 hours just to cover the loss of housing and council tax benefit. Will she bear in mind the fact that a reform of the housing benefit system to address that issue would be most welcome in Hertfordshire?

Angela Eagle

There is a lot of truth in what my hon. Friend says. We need to work on the work-incentive aspects of housing benefit, but we will not fundamentally reform the system until after the reform of rents, which was dealt with in the Green Paper, and that will be in the medium to long term.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Given that the Government have made no fewer than 85 changes to the administration of housing benefit, does the hon. Lady rule out an 86th?

Angela Eagle

No; and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we shall shortly introduce a change to ease the single room rent restrictions, which have caused so much hardship to the single homeless. I expect that he will be against such a measure, but it will be a great help to the socially excluded.

Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)

My hon. Friend will be aware that the announcement that east Ayrshire is to be included in the housing benefit expert team project was warmly welcomed by its Labour-controlled council and by its 10,500 housing benefit recipients. I am glad that it is a Labour-controlled council in a Labour-controlled country. Under that initiative, what steps can be taken to improve clarity and simplify the form, and to reduce the mountain of paperwork and bureaucracy that is generated by housing benefit applications?

Angela Eagle

I add my thanks to East Ayrshire council for agreeing to allow the expert help team to assist it with the administration of housing benefit, which is a difficult benefit to administer.

Working with the benefit fraud inspectorate, the Department has for the first time produced a template of a housing benefit form that is readable and user friendly. It is now being made available to all local authorities, and I hope that many will take advantage of it.