HC Deb 20 October 2003 vol 411 cc366-8
10. Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart)

What progress he has made with his plans to reform housing benefit. [132610]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Chris Pond)

Our priorities for reforming housing benefit are to improve administration, promote choice and responsibility, enhance work incentives and reduce levels of fraud and error in the system. We have already made considerable progress. In particular, our major structural reform— the local housing allowance—will begin in the first pathfinder authority next month. That is the single most radical reform to housing benefit since its introduction in 1988.

Mr. Harris

Does my hon. Friend agree that, although withdrawal of housing benefit from antisocial neighbours should be used only as a last resort, where it is used it might prove to be an effective sanction? If the Government choose not to use such a measure, is there not a danger that they will be accused of, in effect, subsidising antisocial behaviour by tenants whose rent, after all, is being paid by the Government?

Mr. Pond

My hon. Friend and the House will be aware that we have consulted on proposals to introduce powers for local authorities to apply housing benefit sanctions to those engaged in antisocial behaviour. The consultation ended in August and we are considering the responses. My hon. Friend will not be surprised that many organisations were not overenthusiastic about the idea, but I am sure that his constituents, like mine, believe that the right to housing benefit should be balanced by the responsibility to ensure that individuals receiving it do not make their neighbour's lives a misery through loutish antisocial behaviour.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

Whatever the need to change and reform the housing benefit system, are the Government having any more success in tackling the many abuses in housing benefit fraud? The Minister may know that I have been asking questions of the Government for the past two or three years. Can he report any significant progress in dealing with this costly fraud?

Mr. Pond

The hon. Gentleman will know that for the first time ever we have an explicit target for dealing with fraud and error in housing benefit. We are making that a priority, and are putting the necessary resources in to ensure that we deal with fraud and error. We are rightly putting a lot of resources into the housing benefit system, but we want to make sure that those resources go to the people who need and deserve that help, not to the cheats and fraudsters in the system.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)

Does the Minister have any good news for my constituents, as payment of housing benefit by Swale borough council is now seven months behind? My poorest constituents have taken out overdrafts, which have been called in. They have then foolishly taken out loans on credit cards, but those credit card facilities have been called in. It is desperate. What good news does the Minister have about housing benefit in my constituency?

Mr. Pond

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the impact that failure to administer housing benefit effectively can have on both his constituents and all of our constituents, which is why we want to work with local authorities to ensure that we improve performance. Again, we have established firm targets for the performance levels that we expect, and we are investing £200 million over three years to improve local authorities' performance. However, if they do not respond to that assistance and if we are unable to achieve an improvement in performance in other ways, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has the ability to direct local authorities to take appropriate action. In certain cases, we must consider whether constituents' interests desperately need such intervention.