HC Deb 26 April 2004 vol 420 cc630-1
12. Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab)

If he will make a statement on the reform of housing benefit. [167688]

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

We have already made considerable progress, both in improving administration of housing benefit and towards creating a simpler, fairer system, enhancing work incentives and cutting the risk of fraud and error. In the private rented sector, we have introduced our new local housing allowance, which is a flat rate allowance based on size of family and the area in which people live, and we are exploring how we might extend reform to the social sector, although we are mindful of the two sectors' different characteristics.

Dr. Whitehead

Will my hon. Friend accept that reform of housing benefit in the private sector was well overdue, with about eight out of 10 recipients of housing benefit in private rented accommodation, including a large number of my constituents, not being able to cover their rent from housing benefit? Have the standard housing allowance arrangements in the pilot areas addressed that problem?

Mr. Pond

These are early days in which to assess the impact of the local housing allowance in the pathfinder areas, which started moving over to the system between November and February, but the early indications are that the local housing allowance works well. To take account of local circumstances, the housing allowance in each area is based on the local reference rent. To date, the indications from the pathfinders are positive, and the early scare stories about landlords walking away from the system or of tenants absconding without paying have not proved founded.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con)

Will the Minister confirm that identity cards should be one of the tools in the reform of housing benefit to rule out fraud?

Mr. Pond

My Department is in favour of the move towards identity cards, which could, in a number of respects, reduce fraud in the system, and that is as true of housing benefit as it is of other benefits. These are early days in the development of those proposals, but we favour the principle.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op)

May I congratulate the Department for Work and Pensions on its success in using housing benefit to reduce the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation, especially in Greater London? I understand that it is considering making changes, however, and I ask the Minister carefully and specifically to examine any policy to pay housing benefit directly to tenants, which might lead to the loss of accommodation in London.

Mr. Pond

We carefully examined whether direct payment to tenants has the effect that my hon. Friend suggests, and we will continue to consider the matter in our examination of the pathfinders. He knows that the reforms have safeguards built into them—for example, once payment is more than eight weeks in arrears, it reverts to the landlord, and vulnerable groups are exempt from the scheme. We have a pathfinder in London, and we will examine its impact especially carefully.