HL Deb 11 April 1984 vol 450 cc1148-51

3 p.m.

Lord Stallard

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

The Question was as follows: To ask Her Majesty's Government what effect changes to housing benefit introduced on 1st April will have on the incomes of pensioners and low income families.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Security (Lord Glenarthur)

My Lords, we estimate that about 4 million households, including 2½ million of the poorest pensioners, will be completely unaffected by the April changes. About 1.3 million pensioners will lose on average about 56p a week and about 460,000 families with dependent children, including some with incomes at or above the national average, will lose about 70p a week from the main change, in the tapers above the needs allowance.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, will the noble Lord the Minister confirm the figures that I have received in Written Answers, that the cuts in housing benefit announced last week will reduce the income of 1,300,000 pensioners and about 1 million other households, that 210,000 pensioners will lose more than £ 1 a week, that 90,000 pensioners will lose more than £ 1.50 a week and that 60,000 pensioners will lose more than £2 a week? Does the Minister accept the views of the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux, who have said that the scheme is inequitable and unworkable and that they reach this conclusion after long and careful study of over 10,000 cases?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, the noble Lord gave me a lot of figures. As far as I can tell, those figures are founded on the figures that I gave him earlier. I talked about average losses and those are the ones which are really important. As far as the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux are concerned to whom the noble Lord referred, I am aware that they have comments but I would not accept the remarks that they have made.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, so as to make sure that the new scheme is fully understood for what it actually is, will the noble Lord the Minister confirm that the purpose of the new scheme was not to give people greater help with housing costs but was to reduce public expenditure and to reduce the size of the Civil Service? Would he also confirm that while some people, as he has rightly said, will not be affected, others will lose money, and that the only group who actually gain from the new arrangements will be the blind?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, so far as the first part of the noble Lord's supplementary question is concerned, yes, the idea was to try to put two schemes into one—and that achieves both aims suggested by the noble Lord. The fact is that these changes have to be kept in perspective. It will still help over 7 million households. Some 2½ million of the poorest pensioners with incomes up to nearly £10 above the state retirement pensions will not be affected and over one-quarter of those affected by the taper and minimum losses will lose less than 25p a week.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, can the noble Lord the Minister help the House by telling us what informa-tion he has about the difficulties experienced by local authorities in the changes that were brought about in April? Would it be possible for the Government not to bring in further changes in November until the report which we have been promised is made available? Secondly, the Minister referred to the losses in terms of pennies. Does he agree or disagree with the report of the Government's own Social Security Advisory Committee which said in paragraph 8: From the evidence we have received, for many people the loss of income will be very severe". Can he not refer to those people and not to the average of the heavy losses?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, it is true that many local authorities for a variety of reasons experienced difficulties and delays in reassessing their 4 million existing cases and in taking on the 3 million supplementary benefit cases. Transitional regulations allowed benefits to continue under the old rules while problems were resolved. The department has set up a working group (as I think the noble Baroness knows) with the local authority association to review all the forms and pieces of paper that are involved.

On the question of deferring the November proposals, the fact that some changes are now deferred until November shows the Government's willingness to take account as far as possible of other views, including the representations made in the Social Services Advisory Committee report. But the November proposals are necessary in order to keep the social security programme within targets. My right honourable friend announced on 22nd April the appointment of the chairman of the review into housing benefits. This will look at structure, scope and simplicity and will concentrate on those most in need as well as improving administration.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, would the noble Lord the Minister not agree that, whatever analysis he places on the figures that have been given both by himself and by the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, they will be seen by the general public at large to be nothing but a squalid attack by the Government on some of the poorest people in our community?

Lord Glenarthur

No, my Lords, I entirely reject what the noble Lord suggests. As he knows full well, it is part of our overall economic strategy to reduce public expenditure. In that we are successful, and we have been extremely successful in reducing inflation. The social security budget cannot be immune from these efforts.

Lord Banks: My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether it is correct that single pensioners with an income of more than £43.80 per week and married couples (again, pensioners) with an income of more than £64.25 a week have had their benefit reduced as a result of the changes. If that is so, are these not very low levels of income at which to impose cuts?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, in the space of a minute or two, I cannot look up the exact figures to which the noble Lord referred. He will be well aware of the complexity of the scheme, in any case. What I initially said was that of those who will lose, over half will lose 50p a week or less, and well over three-quarters, £1 or less. Those figures speak for themselves.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, will the noble Lord assure the House that local authorities will not be rate capped for any additional administrative costs they incur in administering this very complex scheme?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I think that that is another question.