HL Deb 01 April 1981 vol 419 cc197-8
Baroness Vickers

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government how many local authorities have suggested to their tenants that they could pay their rent by banker's order.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, this information is not available centrally. However, I understand, from a recent survey conducted by the Institute of Housing, as at 31st March 1980 a great many authorities do now offer their tenants the facility of paying rent by standing order or direct debit, although use of such methods within those authorities was generally limited.

Baroness Vickers

My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord for that reply, may I ask him whether he will encourage local authorities to take this action, as I know personally it has been very beneficial to some housing associations? Also, it saves collectors of rent being mugged. It also makes it much more convenient, because the offices are not open at the right time for people to pay their rent. If my noble friend could encourage local authorities, it might be beneficial for the local authorities and for the individuals concerned.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, my noble friend does a great service in bringing this point forward. The provisional figure for rent arrears in England at 31st March 1980 is some £71 million. Therefore, this is a matter of considerable national concern. The problem is that, whereas in a housing association like the very excellent one that my noble friend took me round, this is done exclusively and all the tenants pay in this way, it is not so easy to be carried forward into either all housing associations or local authorities, because so many tenants do not have bank accounts. Indeed, many who might like to pay in this way, apart from the question of bank accounts, are not able to easily adjust when rents are adjusted. There are all kinds of problems. So, while I applaud very much what the noble Baroness is suggesting, there are practical problems. Nevertheless, a great number of local authorities now—I am told it is well over 80 per cent.—offer this facility to those tenants who wish to make use of it.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

My Lords, can the noble Lord say what happens to the rent book? As the noble Lord is aware, council tenants, or tenants generally, regard the rent book as a very important and vital document. What happens in a case like this in which they pay by banker's order?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, there is no reason at all why they should not still have a rent book, while paying by banker's order. The position will vary from auth- ority to authority. In most of the ones that I know, certainly the larger ones, the housing estate offices and the housing offices are, I am sure, well geared for this; indeed, I am confident they mark up the rent books, if needed. There should be no such difficulty.

Lord Segal

My Lords, can the noble Lord advise either the local authorities or the banks to notify tenants that their rent has been duly paid by banker's order? Otherwise, they may find themselves saddled with a very heavy overdraft, which can often happen in the case of the variable amount of rates that have to be paid.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, the noble Lord raises an interesting point. I have not heard of it being a problem in the past. In view of what the noble Lord says, I will have it looked into.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, would the noble Lord bear in mind that, with the present level of council rents, some tenants need an overdraft, much more than a banker's order, to pay their rent.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, is not there an even more important point that the rates should be paid in this manner? Where they are so paid, there is a possibility of linking the two so that they can be paid together. Is not there the further point that the rates in many authorities are now, so far as their own tenants are concerned, a larger sum than their rent?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, council rents and rates are, in fact, paid together. Therefore, the particular problem to which the noble Viscount refers is one that pertains rather more to private sector tenants than to local authority tenants, where the problem does not arise.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he would make quite sure that more and more local authorities use the giro account?—because I would have said that the majority of local authority tenants have need to use the post office quite regularly, whether it is for family income supplement or for retirement pension, or whatever. It is at that level that there needs to be more encouragement, rather than at banker's order level.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a very helpful suggestion. I am sure that there are many tenants who can and do pay in that way. If more did so, then it would to some extent fulfil the same objective as my noble friend Lady Vickers raises in her Question.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, as this method would save the local authorities a great deal of money, would not the Minister encourage local authorities to offer a little discount to people who pay in this way?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, as I say so frequently in answering these questions, it is up to an authority itself to decide whether that would be a good thing for it to do.