§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heppell.]9.56 pm
§ Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)
Many people outside the House find it difficult to understand how we can find half an hour to discuss the toe clippings of activities in this House and not debate the real issues that our constituents face. Nevertheless, I am grateful to have an extra three minutes or so to discuss the case of my constituents, the Rev. and Mrs. John and Stella Celia. I am grateful to the Minister for being present to respond to the debate. I look forward to hearing his response. My constituents' case highlights something that is common in the experience of many disabled people in the United Kingdom and serves as a salient example of why a particular regulation needs to be changed, and perhaps of why many benefit regulations need to be reviewed in the light of the progress that we have made towards disability equality and against disability discrimination in the past few years.
The Rev. John Celia suffered a brain stem stroke some four years ago. Before then, he was a very well-known personality. He gave advice to the previous Conservative Government on the issue of cults. His charity, a Christian charity, was heavily involved in rescuing people from cults and fighting the indoctrination of extreme religious cults. He therefore gave hugely to the civic and religious life of this country. Indeed, on the day when he suffered his stroke, his ill fortune was announced on national television, such was his status at the time. His wife, Stella, has given him sterling support and has herself worked in the community for many years. For 20 years, both of them have worked and dedicated their lives to their charity and the work in which they have engaged.
Their work continues. Despite his disability, John Celia is now a volunteer in the local day centre in Aberystwyth, and Stella, Mrs. Celia, has just become a trained magistrate. I welcome her to the JPs' bench in Ceredigion, where I am sure she will make an enormous contribution with her experience.
So these two people have contributed greatly to society over many years. I say that to the Minister not to distinguish between some sort of deserving and undeserving disabled person in respect of the regulations, but to underline the deep dissatisfaction that some people feel when, after giving many years of service, they find that the regulations and Government attitudes are hardening against them because of some ill fortune that they have suffered because of illness or disabilities.
Many people who may be healthy and fit now, such as ourselves, do not realise just how debilitating suffering disease or disability can be, not because of the disability itself, but because of all the obstacles that seem to appear from bureaucracy and government in the face of it.
§ It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jim Murphy.]
A Government who promised to restore dignity to disabled people seem to have achieved very 713 little in practical terms. We must judge our society by the way in which we treat the worst off and the poorest within it, and the case of the Rev. and Mrs. Celia highlights that.
Their case turns on housing benefit entitlement. More than two years ago, they were advised by their general practitioner on medical grounds to move from their one-bedroomed house to a two-bedroomed house. The stroke that John had suffered made his medical needs intensive. His main carer is his wife, and their GP felt that it was better that they should not necessarily share a bedroom at night, so that his wife could have a decent night's sleep. John's rest is very disturbed and he does not necessarily have a good night's sleep, but it is important that his main carer, his wife, is able to do so. Thousands of married people must be in a similar position whereby one or both have become disabled and have specific medical reasons for not sharing a bed—for example, because of medical equipment.
As the Minister will know, under housing benefit regulations a rent officer can give a rent judgment only on the basis that a married couple should occupy a one-bedroomed property. There is no leeway or discretion in that. People who are married must be judged as though they occupy a one-bedroomed property. Those who have to occupy a two-bedroomed property for medical reasons or for reasons of disability have to meet the extra rent that may be payable because they will not get full housing benefit to cover it. As Mrs. Celia told me when I first met them two years ago, they would be better off divorced and living in sin, which is a bit much to expect from the Rev. and Mrs. Celia.
At the moment, they pay £85 per week in rent for a two-bedroomed house in the wilds of Ponterwyd outside Aberystwyth. That is not an awful lot these days for a two-bedroomed house in Ceredigion—in fact. it is a little on the cheap side. The rent recently went up by £10—previously, at £75 a week, it was very reasonable. They receive £18.50 a week as a discretionary housing payment, which used to be called the severe hardship payment. That is in recognition of the fact that they have strong needs and deserve a two-bedroomed house. The payment is controlled by the local authority, and it can stop at any time if the local authority runs out of funds for it. The couple have already received at least five payments, which is highly unusual in my experience. I once served on a local authority panel that judges such payments, and I never knew of anyone who had received five payments. They were good enough to suggest that it would not have happened had it not been for my advocacy. In fact, it is simpler than that—the local authority recognises that their case screams out for some measure of justice within housing regulations and has given them every assistance that it can, five or six times now, by providing a discretionary housing payment. However, the most recent letter received by the couple clearly states that this must be the last time that such a payment can be made.
Two letters illustrate the situation in which the Rev. and Mrs. Celia find themselves. On 11 July 2001—about a year ago—they received a letter from Ceredigion county council's finance department regarding their housing benefit. It said that the total income for benefit purposes 714 was £126.15 and that the weekly eligible rent—that is, the rent upon which the housing benefit is based—was £60 a week.
This year, on 13 June, they received a similar letter, which again set out that their total income for benefit purposes was £128.30. It has increased by £2.15 in a year. However, their weekly eligible rent is £51.40. That means that the Rev. and Mrs. Celia's rent entitlement has decreased by £8.50 a week while their income has gone up by only £2.15 a week. There is no justice in that. How can there be justice in a decrease in rent entitlement for the same property in one year when income has increased only slightly? The justification is that rent has been reassessed in the area. I fail to understand how rents have decreased in a year when house prices in Ceredigion, especially in rural areas, have increased substantially.
There is a problem about the way in which housing rents are calculated and the way in which the valuation officer works. Perhaps that is wider than the scope of tonight's debate, but it is pertinent. The housing valuation officer takes the highest, lowest and middle rent in an area and calculates the average. It is not a serious study of genuine rent levels in an area. Perhaps that accounts for the perception of decline in rents. For example, one of the properties that the valuation officer used for his re-evaluation was a three-bedroomed house that was available at £42 a week. The reason for that was that the farmer was letting it to his daughter. No wonder the rent was £42 a week. Some of the property rents are crazy.
The Rev. and Mrs. Celia's income has increased by £2.15 a week but their housing benefit has decreased by £8.50 a week. They have been forced to meet the difference from their pockets. As Mr. Micawber said, the difference is between happiness and misery. The Rev. and Mrs. Celia are in an increasingly desperate position, whereby their income is considerably less than it was two or three years ago compared with their rent. It would be easy to contrast their position with that of Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, who live in Kensington palace or perhaps even the Deputy Prime Minister with his access to an RMT cheap flat. That would not be irrelevant but I do not want to make such a comparison until we treat disabled people with a modicum of respect. In particular, we should consider the housing benefit regulations and ensure that they do not discriminate against disabled people.
As the Minister knows, the relevant order is the Rent Officers (Housing Benefit Functions) Order 1997. That is simply an update of the 1987 order, and it did not change anything. The Child Poverty Action Group stated in a letter to me that the order did not reflect advances in views about the needs and rights of people with disabilities. That is true. The order appears increasingly to go against the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.
The Rev. and Mrs. Celia would probably not have a case under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Section 59 states:Nothing in this Act makes unlawful any act done…in pursuance of any enactment; or…in pursuance of any instrument made by a Minister of the Crown under any enactment; or…to comply with any condition or requirement imposed by a Minister of the Crown…by virtue of any enactment.It is clear that actions by Ministers of the Crown are exempt from the 1995 Act. That needs review.
715 A briefing that I received for the debate from the Disability Rights Commission recognises that we are considering part of a wider problem of statutory duty exemption under the Disability Discrimination Act. In 1999, the disability rights taskforce said that that should be changed. It recommended that statutory bodies should be under the same obligations as other service providers under the Disability Discrimination Act. The Government have agreed to that in principle. When will that happen? It has been suggested that we shall have a new disability Bill, which may be announced in the Queen's Speech. Will that happen? Is that how the Government intend to deal with the position of people as the Rev. and Mrs. Celia?
The Child Poverty Action Group is interested in the effect of regulations on disabled people such as the Rev. and Mrs. Celia. Indeed, it is keen that they should be a test case under the Human Rights Act 1998 to ascertain whether section 2 of the 1997 order can stand up in court.
The Rev. and Mrs. Celia do not have access to the funds necessary to bring a test case; nor do they necessarily want to do so. They certainly want to take forward this debate with the Minister, however, and I hope that he will respond to some of the issues that they have raised with me and with the Child Poverty Action Group.
It has been suggested that article 14 of the European convention on human rights, which outlaws a discriminating manner, or article 8, which relates to a person's home, family or private life, could be used to protect people such as the Rev. and Mrs. Celia. It is surely detrimental to a disabled person's home life to discriminate against them on the basis of their medical condition, yet that is what the present housing benefit regulations seem to do.
I have to say to the Minister as an aside, albeit an important one, that there is also a religious discrimination aspect to this matter. I understand that orthodox Jews are forbidden under Mosaic law from sharing a bed with their wives during menstruation. That is an orthodox tenet of faith that would underline a religious need for the recognition in legislation of two bedrooms for married couples. The blanket application of the rule that married people must share a bedroom must, therefore, fly in the face of the needs of disabled people, the needs of people with strong medical grounds for separate bedrooms and of the religious needs of strict orthodox Jews.
In local government terms, the Government seem to have fettered their discretion. They have painted themselves into a corner, from which they cannot respond to people's genuine needs. In local government terms, that would be ultra vires. In central Government terms, it is not, but it is open to challenge. The order that was made in 1997 states:The Secretary of State may by order require rent officers to carry out such functions as may be specified in connection with housing benefit and rent allowance subsidy".The use of the word "may" makes it clear that the Secretary of State has discretion as to the form of order that he might make, and it is surely a fundamental principle of public law—and particularly of the Human Rights Act 1998—that a Secretary of State must exercise such discretion in a lawful manner. I suggest that the discretion that the Secretary of State is currently exercising under the order is unlawful under the Human Rights Act and certainly discriminatory, and that it needs to be reviewed.
716 The Disability Rights Commission takes a similar view. In a submission to me, it states that the Rent Officers (Housing Benefit Functions) Order 1987—and the subsequent 1997 order—constitutes indirect, unfair discrimination against the Rev. Celia. The Commission believes that stating the eligibility of a married couple to claim benefit on the basis of having a shared bedroom places the Rev. Celia, and other disabled people in similar circumstances, at a clear disadvantage if, for a reason relating to a disability, a married couple are advised to sleep in separate bedrooms. The Commission wishes to pursue this matter in the review of legislation that it is currently undertaking.
The Child Poverty Action Group, Shelter, Age Concern and Help the Aged all agree with the Rev. and Mrs. Celia's—and my—analysis of this matter, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's justification of this position. We have to remember that 50 per cent. of disabled people have an income of less than half that of the general population, so there is a double discriminatory whammy here. These people are told that they cannot have recognition of their true medical needs, or needs based on their disability under housing benefit regulations. In addition, they are penalised financially under those regulations, which places them further down the financial pecking order in society.
The central issue is this: we all know that every order, regulation and Bill that comes before the House bears an undertaking from the Minister concerned that it meets the obligations set out in the Human Rights Act 1998. That is now enshrined in our constitutional procedures. This is important; I have seen several challenges to Ministers across the Dispatch Box as to whether a Bill really meets our obligations under the Act. Ministers are called to account by saying, "Yes, it does" and by coming to the Floor of the House and justifying their position.
I want to ask the Minister whether he would sign the 1997 order now, in the light of the experience of the last few years in relation to the way in which people are discriminated against in society, and to the way in which disabled people suffer discrimination. The order might have suited the times in 1987, and we might just have got away with it in 1997, but, in post-Human Rights Act times, I can see no justification for it. I believe that it is flawed and cannot stand up to a challenge under the Human Rights Act.
I should like the Minister to respond to that. I should like him to respond to the comment by the Disability Rights Commission that the rule constitutes indirect unfair discrimination against my constituents. I should like him to respond to the recommendation of the disability taskforce that the Government's actions should be within the remit of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. I should like him to say when statutory bodies will be brought within that remit, and I should like him to explain to my constituents how he expects them to live on an ever-decreasing income while making an ever-increasing contribution to rent.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) on initiating the debate on behalf of his constituents. I listened to his speech with great interest. I acknowledge 717 the important contribution that the Rev. Celia and his wife have made to the national and the local community in recent years, and I am sorry about the position in which they now find themselves.
I shall stick to the main point—housing benefit—although the hon. Gentleman's speech ranged fairly widely. I should welcome an opportunity to discuss with him, on another occasion, the Government's policies on disability and a policy for carers. I think our record will stand any assessment, and I have an interest as a sponsor of the Bill that became the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995. However, I want to concentrate on the key subject of housing benefit. Let me begin by explaining our policy on the benefit in relation to private sector tenants, and explaining why we have rules such as the size criteria.
Unlike social housing, the deregulated private rented sector is not subject to any internal rent controls. It is essential that we exercise control over housing benefit expenditure, so that the needs of people receiving benefit are balanced against those of taxpayers—indeed, those of the wider community. Surely it is a fundamental principle that people receiving housing benefit should not have their rent met in full if the level exceeds the broadly average rent level for an appropriately sized property in the area where they live.
Rent officers play an important part in the administration of housing benefit in the deregulated private rented sector. In carrying out his or her functions, the rent officer will make a determination based on certain criteria. He or she may make two or more determinations on a particular decision if those criteria apply to the same property. One is the size-related rent, which is the main subject of this debate.
The size criterion works like this. If a claimant lives in a property that exceeds the defined size criteria for his household, the rent officer must determine a rent for a similar tenancy of the appropriate size for that household in the vicinity. By "vicinity" we mean the immediate surrounding area. The defined criteria provide for one bedroom per couple and one for each single person over 16. The rules also state that two children—under 16—of the same sex should share a bedroom, as should two children of different sexes under 10. Any child who does not come into those categories is allowed his or her own bedroom. We also allow the household to have up to three living rooms, depending on how many people live in it. A one, two, or three-person household can have one living room, four people can have two, and three are allowed when there are more than four people in the household. We pay some attention to household circumstances.
The rules are set out in the Rent Officers (Housing Benefit Functions) Order 1997, which covers England and Wales, and the Rent Officers (Housing Benefit Functions) (Scotland) Order 1997.
The rent officer has no discretion to alter the size criteria for any particular case—for example, where, due to health reasons, a husband and wife would find it difficult to share the same bedroom. That could, as in the case of Rev. Celia and his wife, result in a shortfall in housing benefit where the property exceeds the size criteria.
718 In such cases—it is an important point—discretionary housing payments are available. Indeed, that was acknowledged by the hon. Gentleman. Those are free-standing payments—they are not payments of housing benefit or council tax benefit—that can be made at the discretion of the local council where the claimant has a shortfall in housing benefit or council tax benefit and requires further help with rent or council tax.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, an overall cash limit is set on the amount that local authorities may spend on discretionary housing payments in any one year, and we contribute towards that limit. For this year, we have set the national limit at some £50 million: £20 million of that is the Government contribution, leaving £30 million that authorities may spend from their own resources.
Rev. Celia is receiving discretionary housing payments, as has been acknowledged, although they do not mean that his rent is met in full. I appreciate that that tight definition of the size criteria may seem inflexible but, as I said earlier, in housing benefit—as is perhaps always the case, sadly, with public expenditure—we must balance the needs of claimants with taxpayers' interests.
It would clearly be irresponsible to have no limit on the number of rooms in any given property for which housing benefit is paid, and to do so would put claimants at an unfair advantage perhaps vis-à-vis their working peers, who might not be able to afford to live in larger properties. There is an issue of equity that we must allow for in this area of housing and social security policy.
Having said that, I have listened with concern to what the hon. Gentleman has said. We need robust rules for housing benefit, but that does not mean that we do not listen to constructive argument, or that we are inflexible, and I can see how the situation faced by Rev. Celia and his wife is a particularly difficult one.
In balancing our sensitivity and concerns about the individual with a sickness or disability, we need to recognise, perhaps with equal force, as the hon. Gentleman has done, the needs of the carer, in this case the reverend's wife. In these situations, we need the carer to have a proper night's sleep and to be looked after in all sorts of appropriate ways. Therefore, although I cannot make any promises immediately to the hon. Gentleman, I have asked my officials, with whom I discussed the matter today, to re-examine the size criteria rules to see whether, in the circumstances before the House, with which I have much sympathy, the rules can be changed to accommodate this sort of situation. We will need to exercise care to ensure that we do not open housing benefit to abuse, with perhaps a large number of people claiming that they would rather have a second bedroom, but we will review the rules nevertheless.
If change is possible, we will consult, as would be our normal practice, the Social Security Advisory Committee and the local authority associations in the normal way before laying the necessary legislation before the House.
§ Mr. Simon Thomas
On that point, I am very pleased to hear what the Minister is saying. I accept his point that we do not want to drive a cart and horses through the rules. We do not want people to claim snoring or some other spurious reason, but Rev. Celia is on invalidity care benefit—the long-term rate. He is on disability living allowance, higher care allowance and mobility allowance. Where high disability pensions and benefits are paid to 719 such individuals, it is clear that they have true disability needs. Those are the cases where the Minister might find some flexibility in a new set of rules.
§ Malcolm Wicks
If we can make progress—I stress "if"—establishing such criteria would be important in our deliberations.
I should make it clear that Rev. Celia's property is, in our judgment—this may be a matter of controversy—relatively expensive for the locality, although I heard what the hon. Gentleman said about locality rates. The fact that Rev. Celia's benefit is restricted is in line with our policy that housing benefit should not cover in full rents that exceed the broadly average rent for an appropriately sized property in the same area. Even if the size criteria were to be modified, it is unlikely that Rev. Celia and his wife would have their full rent met, although his housing benefit entitlement would rise.
720 I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising the issue. It is when we judge social policies against the hard reality of our constituents' experience that we are sometimes able to make better policy and better public administration. I have found this to be a good opportunity to consider these matters.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman said that Rev. and Mrs. Celia had judged at one stage that should they ever live in sin—of course they never would—they might be better off. Our social security regulations, as always, understand that point. I assure the hon. Gentleman—an assurance that Rev. and Mrs. Celia will want to hear—that they would be no better off living in sin under our no-nonsense social security regulations. Whatever crises the churches face in our modern society, this is not a temptation that we are able to place before them.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Ten o'clock.