HL Deb 21 November 1985 vol 468 cc668-90

3.54 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Security (Baroness Trumpington) rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 12th November be approved. [2nd Report from the Joint Committee.]

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move that the first order standing in my name be approved. It seems to me that we have been down this road before. I feel a sense of personal embarrassment because I spent a considerable time both inside and outside this Chamber endeavouring to reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, in good faith, that the earlier set of regulations we laid before your Lordships last month were of a satisfactory nature. Today we are debating this further set of regulations, and my task is to explain their necessity. May I also express the pious hope that we shall not go over all the same arguments we have heard before.

I should first of all like to emphasise to your Lordships that the regulations we are debating today do not introduce major new changes of policy. Your Lordships debated the policy when earlier regulations were introduced last April. This set incorporates essentially the same proposals, although there are some changes.

The need for regulations arises from a court case in July brought by a Mr. Cotton. In that case Mr. Justice Mann ruled that the Secretary of State did not have power to introduce regulations enabling him to designate general limits for people claiming supplementary benefit for board and lodging. The point at issue was a technical legal one: whether regulations could be introduced giving the Secretary of State power to take decisions—such as designating general time limits and areas and financial limits—that affected a class of case rather than just an individual. The Secretary of State's ability to introduce regulations which give him the power to take decisions in individual cases has not been challenged.

During that case we undertook not to apply the limits on how long certain young people could continue to receive supplementary benefit as boarders until any appeal or new regulations. The judge felt that that undertaking made possible some sensible interim provision. The Secretary of State has appealed, and that case is to be heard next week. Obviously, we do not know when judgment will be given, or what the outcome of that hearing will be; and a wide variety of outcomes are possible. For example, it could well be that there would be no clear basis for deciding how much benefit should be paid. It would be quite wrong to allow such uncertainty for both claimants and staff. As well as reducing any such uncertainty, these new regulations are needed to secure the increase in limits for board and lodging payments to people in residential homes, which go up by £10 per week, and nursing homes, which go up by over £30 per week, from next week. This increase was originally to be introduced under powers on which doubt has now been cast by the original court decision. These new regulations, therefore, provide a clear statutory basis for that increase.

Your Lordships will recall that I made a Statement on 21st October announcing that we had laid new regulations. Those regulations were criticised by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments because they felt that they still included provision for which the Secretary of State did not have the power following the court decision to which I have referred. We had not intended to use any such provision until after the appeal court judgment, but we included it in those regulations so that the flexibility that those provisions would have given to the Secretary of State could be used if we had won the case in the Court of Appeal. Nevertheless, in the light of the comments of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments the Government decided that the best course was to withdraw those regulations in favour of new ones.

I now come to the regulations under debate this afternoon. These re-enact, in permanent form, the board and lodging provisions introduced in April. The time limits and areas that apply to certain young people and the financial limits that apply to different categories of board and lodging are re-introduced. But there are no powers that enable the Secretary of State to make decisions which affect classes of cases. These changes meet the concerns of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, which has considered the regulations. It has not drawn the attention of the House to these regulations on any grounds.

I should now like to draw your Lordships' attention to the aspects of these regulations which are different from previous ones. As I have already said, they secure the increased limits that can be paid to people on supplementary benefit in residential care homes and nursing homes. Existing young people in board and lodging will not be affected by time limits until July of next year (rather than April, as we proposed in the previous set of regulations). That date has been selected to coincide with next year's general uprating of social security benefits.

The regulations also include wider scope for the Secretary of State to exercise discretion to extend transitional protection in individual cases of exceptional hardship—and I emphasise the word "individual" because of course there is doubt about the power of the Secretary of State to go wider than individual cases.

Finally, they introduce a new discretionary power for the Secretary of State to give the benefit of transitional protection to certain individuals. Those are people who were in residential care or nursing homes last April but who did not claim supplementary benefit until later. For example, they might have been meeting their fees out of savings and only needed to claim after April. For people in that position, the new power enables the Secretary of State to pay benefit at the rate which would have been paid before April if that is necessary to avoid exceptional hardship.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Baroness?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, could the noble Earl not wait until it is Question Time? I think he could.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, this is not Question Time; it is a debate. I am merely—

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the noble Earl will have his moment to ask. I am sure that your Lordships will welcome those improvements. Apart from those points, the regulations replicate the same provisions as before, namely: they replicate the financial limits for the maximum amount of supplementary benefit that can be paid to people in ordinary board and lodging, ranging from £45 to £70 according to area; they also replicate financial limits for the maximum of board and lodging that can be paid to people in hostels, residential care, or nursing homes, with different limits according to the category of care that the home is registered to provide; and they also replicate the time limits for boarders under 26 on supplementary benefit (two, four or eight weeks according to area), with exemptions for vulnerable groups. Those time limits apply to new cases, so they know in advance how long payment as a boarder will continue. Existing cases have until July before time limits apply.

The technical difference about those new regulations is that the limits and exemptions cannot be changed under these regulations by the Secretary of State. The regulations include extended powers for the Secretary of State to exercise his discretion to avoid exceptional hardship in individual cases, as I have described. But we believe that the House would still wish Ministers to have the further flexibility to respond rapidly when a need for change becomes evident. Under these draft regulations it will, for example, be necessary to come to the House whenever we want to make a minor adjustment in the board and lodging areas or to create a new exemption category. This does not seem to be a sensible use of the House's time. Our intention is therefore that, if the appeal on the Cotton case is decided in our favour, we would at a convenient opportunity introduce new regulations to seek to restore to the Secretary of State general discretion of the type that he had under the April regulations.

These measures are the Government's response to the need to control expenditure on this aspect of supplementary benefit. Between December 1982 and 1984 annual expenditure increased from £166 million to £380 million on ordinary board and lodging, and from £39 million to £190 million for board and lodging payments in residential care and nursing homes. In addition, there were many specific examples of abuse. Our measures are designed to achieve a sensible balance between the needs of the claimant, the proprietors of boarding establishments and homes, and the taxpayer. We have accepted that the limits need to be kept under review, and have undertaken to do that in the early part of next year. We have already demonstrated our flexibility in response to problems—notably the increase in supplementary benefit limits for residential care and nursing homes, which these regulations put on a secure basis.

I never wish to be rude to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, but I thought it as fair to him as to me for him to hear all that I had to say, which I hope perhaps may have covered the point he wished to raise. Of course, if it has not I shall do my best to reply to him when the Front Bench speakers have opened. In the meantime, I commend the proposals to your Lordships' House.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 12th November be approved. [2nd Report from the Joint Committee.]—(Baroness Trumpington.)

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, I was very surprised when these regulations were laid before us, because I remember—and the Hansard reference is 14th October 1985, col. 342—that when the question was raised the noble Baroness said in reply to me: My Lords, we have obeyed the High Court judgment and, as I said in my original reply, we are waiting to see what is the outcome of the appeal". I understand that the appeal is being heard on 25th and 26th November, so I hope I shall be forgiven my confusion in wondering why we have these regulations laid before us before the result of the appeal is known. I honestly cannot understand why this should happen.

I understand from a briefing—and I thank the noble Baroness for her co-operation in helping me to understand the ununderstandable—that local officers have been told that the reason for bringing the appeal is that, The Department has a responsibility to the taxpayer, claimants and staff to ensure the legal position is clear whatever the outcome of the appeal". I submit to your Lordships that nothing could be less clear than trying to pass regulations before the outcome of the appeal, and it is to my mind the department's action which is conducing to unclarity, rather than the present situation. We are only talking about a week. It seems to me that to have waited would have been much fairer and would have caused much less confusion among claimants and DHSS staff, with whom I have had discussions about this present situation.

I am also put in a state of great confusion—for which I apologise—when I look at the regulations. They are most strange regulations. At the beginning it is stated that the department has decided not to refer the proposals to the Social Security Advisory Committee since it appears that, by reason of urgency it is inexpedient to do so". I wonder what "inexpedient" means in this context. According to the Oxford English Dictionary there is a very interesting meaning of "expedient", which is: Useful, politic, as opposed to just or right". I think that is a very fair comment on the situation today.

I know why the Government have not referred these proposals to the Social Security Advisory Committee. It is because that committee has stated previously: A long term solution has to lie in housing policy, not merely to develop a greater range of accommodation available to single people, but to improve quality and value for money in existing board and lodging accommodation". It said on another occasion: It is important to remember that the vast majority of claimants are honest and should not be subject to punitive restrictions". Perhaps I may bore the noble Baroness the Minister with a reference to the report of the Social Security Advisory Committee made in accordance with Section 10(3) of the Social Security Act 1980, where in paragraph 9 it said something very similar: We are deeply concerned that in attempting to limit spending and control abuse where it exists, the proposals are likely to affect large numbers of unemployed claimants who have no real option but to stay in board and lodging accommodation, and whose ability to search for jobs will be much impeded by the restrictions on place and length of stay as a boarder". No wonder the Government did not want to refer back to their own advisory committee, in the light of those remarks.

I understand the reference of the noble Baroness to the increasing costs of the accommodation, and I am concentrating on that part of the instrument before us. But in my view, and I think in that of many people of different parties, the high costs are not a measure of government generosity, nor of the cupidity and dishonesty of applicants, but more of the Government's failure to deal with youth unemployment and the housing problems of single people.

I hope that all noble Lords have read the regulations before us. There is one extraordinary aspect. They are supposed to set out rules about the areas in which people can stay and the limits of expenditure in those areas, but there is nothing in the regulations about that. No noble Lord or noble Baroness should think that he or she can discuss the question on the basis of the paper before us because it does not set out the limits of expenditure or describe the areas of limitation. All it does is tell us to refer to a publication called Supplementary Benefit Maximum Amounts, Initial Periods and Board and Lodging Areas, which is published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office, is numbered ISBN 0 11 761229 4 and is available from the Stationery Office; and I have to tell your Lordships that it costs £7.

I have been in this or another place for many years, and I must say that in my experience it is most unusual for statutory instruments laid before the House to depend on a cross-reference to a Stationery Office publication. I do not understand the statutory legality of the situation. I suggest that no one is entitled to take part in the debate unless he is also debating the publication which is, in theory, not before the House.

I find this a most extraordinary publication. It sets out in an arbitary and fortuitous way lists of places where people can stay. I must share this fascinating knowledge with the House in case any of us is in need of unemployment benefit! One can stay in Chippenham for four weeks with a limit of £60. I think that Chippenham is probably a very pleasant place in which to stay. One can go to Canterbury for only two weeks for £55. One can then pack a bag and go to Bracknell for four weeks at £65. Then there is Wigan—oh, I love Wigan! One can go to Wigan for eight weeks for £55. But a person can to to Blackburn for only four weeks at £50. I submit to your Lordships that that must be difficult for claimants to understand. It is certainly beyond my comprehension.

Because I am very fond of Scotland—although I do not go there more often than I have to!—I think that I should share this precious knowledge with your Lordships. A person can go to Campbeltown for four weeks for £60 a week, but if he wants to go to Glasgow, he can stay there for eight weeks for £60—as if anyone would want to stay in Glasgow for eight weeks! Luckier people can spend four weeks in Aberdeen for £65.

I suggest quite seriously to your Lordships that that is no way to deal with a serious situation. The rules are difficult enough for us to understand, but what about young people who are unemployed, homeless and rootless, being pushed around from one place to another? Surely there must be a better way to deal with the situation. It is a serious point that I am trying to make. It is not right for us to have in front of us statutory instruments which cross-reference with other documents in this way.

4.15 p.m.

I do not know what is the status of HMSO publications. I was once chairman of a working party on sewage disposal. That working party report is an HMSO publication, and I am pleased to think that those publications are acquiring such legal status. I hope that all that I said then will be considered of similar importance.

I tried to find out a bit about what is happening so far as the claimants are concerned, and I have a copy of a most extraordinary letter which the department has sent to claimants. It is not at all helpful. It is a circular, which of course one understands, and it was sent to unemployed boarders aged 25 or under: We are writing to you about your claim as a boarder in this area. We can pay you as a boarder for [blank] weeks"— that is according to whether the young person is in Wigan or in Aberdeen— This means that if you remain unemployed we can only pay you as a boarder until"— and the date is put in. After that we will pay you as a non-householder and you will get less money". It does not say how much less. It goes on to say: If you disagree with this decision … You have the right to appeal". That means that the decision has already been taken; otherwise, why does the letter say, "If you disagree with this decision"?

The circular gives minimal advice and encloses a list of reasons under which the young person may claim exemption from the rules. The trouble is that he himself has to establish his right to exemption. I should have thought the department's local office ought to decide whether, for reasons of health and so on, he should be exempt. The burden of claiming exemption should not be put on the young people themselves, many of them being in their situation because of difficulties that they have, especially in dealing with officialdom. I think that the standard letter is most unhelpful.

The letter tells them that they can be paid as boarders only for so many weeks "in this area". But it does not tell them what the area is, and unless they buy a £7 book from HMSO they will not know. Who is to tell a young man or a young woman in Croydon that if he or she moves all the way to Finchley, he will still be in the same area? I wish that they would all move to Finchley before 10th October and get themselves on the electoral register! I think that Finchley would be a very good place. But if the young person moves down the road to Redhill, which is nearer, that is a different area. These are confusions which unemployed, homeless and miserable young people really cannot deal with.

I hope that no one advises a young person to go to Brighton because he can stay there for only two weeks. The young person, having been told that he will get less money, has no way of knowing how far he will have to move or by how much the board and lodging charge would have to be reduced to enable him to stay put. Those difficulties show no sympathy for people about whom we are all anxious—and I accept that we are all anxious about them. We ought to try to have a meeting of minds on the best way to help them. No one on this side of the House condones abuse, but if the Government want to tackle abuse, surely they could use their administrative and legal procedures and not adopt a punitive policy for all concerned.

I understand from a debate in another place that about 30 prosecutions are pending. Does that mean that of the over 80,000 young people affected there are only 30 cases in which the department feels that there should be a prosecution? Surely, my Lords, this is not the way to deal with the situation.

There is a cruelty in the present system against claimants. I am trying to be constructive and helpful because I have a lot of experience of this sort of problem. I should prefer the limits to be upon what the landlords can charge and not upon what claimants are expected to pay. Many of these limits, in my practical view, are not ungenerous considering the appallingly low standards of much of the board and lodging in which these young people are staying. Here again, I assure the Minister that I want to be helpful. I would like to see a system where no money is paid from the DHSS for board and lodging except for registered accommodation that has been inspected and is adequate. With licensing, we could be sure that taxpayers were not being taken for a ride, as they are in many cases, and that the young people themselves were not taken for a ride. It seems to be that some of the payments are made too easily and for most inferior accommodation. Many places that I know which are described as board and lodging hardly supply any board at all, except perhaps an electric kettle and a tea bag.

At the heart of the matter there is, of course, the housing problem of single people. This seems to me a much neglected aspect of housing policy. I do not wish to keep the House much longer although, as this is such an important problem. I do not see why I should not. There have been references to what has happened in Euston and King's Cross. That is my old constituency. I know practically every paving stone there. I know, too, every rotten boarding house as well as every good one there. Part of the problem is the feeling of rootlessness that comes to these young people. If you are told that you can stay somewhere for only a fortnight and somewhere else for four weeks, you do not get on the electoral register. The chances are, too, that you do not get on to a doctor's list, that you do not join clubs and that you do not get to know very well the people in the DHSS office, for many of whom I have the greatest regard in what is very difficult work. There is a sense among these young people of not belonging anywhere. All these chronic uncertainties erode any sense of personal pride or sense of citizenship. It is no use talking about delinquent young people when the Government are pursuing a policy that has this effect upon many of them.

I hope very much that we shall be able to debate these questions again. I do not know what will happen at the appeal next week. I should think that there are many people within the DHSS who wish that the regulations had been postponed. It seems to me that with the bringing in of regulations, then their postponement and then their withdrawal, the DHSS has managed to create a mountain of uncertainties and confusions, not only among vulnerable young people but among their own officers and among the voluntary bodies that try to help.

I shall back up what I say, because I do not want the Minister to think that this is some kinky idea of my own. There was a letter in The Times from the director of the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux on 23rd October in which it was stated: Our bureaux report genuine claimants with housing choices so limited that lodging houses provide their only hope of a roof will continue to suffer hardship and uncertainty". I hope that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark will not mind my saying how much I appreciated his letter, also in The Times, yesterday. I know that he will speak for himself. I was nevertheless very impressed with his final paragraph, in which he said: Is it not enough that we have a vast army of unemployed young people? Must we drive them out of our communities as well? What are the social consequences likely to be, as a new generation of rootless people move around the country?". I have tried to put briefly before your Lordships the reasons why we, on this side of the House, deeply regret these regulations, why we deeply oppose the policy and why we look forward to a time when even this Government will see that it has to be altered.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, if I manage to keep my remarks on this occasion brief, it is not because I do not feel deeply on the subject or that my colleagues do not feel deeply on the subject: it is because we should like to associate ourselves entirely with everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, has so admirably said. The noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, says that we have been down this road before—and a very muddy, mucky and manured road it is! She also expressed the pious hope that we shall not go over the same old arguments again. I can well understand her desire, and that of the Government, not to do so; but the view of those who are on the receiving end of these regulations is very different. So is the view of those who speak for them—bodies such as CHAR, the campaign for single homeless people, and Church Action on Poverty.

In these new regulations there are some changes for the better. There is some postponement of the results of some of the problems. But, on the whole, the basic objections and questions remain. I should like to ask one specific question and then make a major point. The specific question relates to refugees. This has been raised before in these debates, and it has also been raised in correspondence with the department, but we have not yet had a satisfactory answer. The Government's actions in this area are very difficult to understand. They say, rightly and laudably, that they wish to exempt refugees from the regulations, and they claim to have so drafted the regulations that refugees are exempt. They may be right. But it is certainly true that the regulations are so drafted and the information so dispersed that it has proved, and is likely to prove, very difficult indeed for refugees successfully to claim exemption and very easy indeed for the officials not to understand that exemption should be granted.

The question that I ask the Government is why this should be. Why cannot the exemption be spelt out absolutely clearly? In other fields it is spelt out. In the regulations about free health services, there are very specific statements about exemptions for refugees clearly spelt out. Why cannot this happen in this set of regulations? Please, can we have a clear answer on this? If there cannot be a clear answer, will the Government please do something about it?

I pass from that specific question to the major problem with which the Government are confronted, or which they think confronts them. This problem with which they have therefore confronted us, the House, the nation and those who are suffering under these regulations is, it seems to me, a dismal failure to understand how to deal with the economic situation with which we are faced. The free market way of dealing with situations like this, to which the Government are committed, is impossible. Free markets cannot operate in a humane society in areas where some citizens have no resources. That cannot happen. That was recognised 100 years ago, in the last century. Since then, civilised societies have built up welfare states or their equivalents to cope with the problem.

4.30 p.m.

The Government say that the situation in the welfare state which has been built up has in some ways been a failure, has not been satisfactory, has allowed for fraud, and has allowed for over-expenditure. In my submission neither of those points—the fraud and the over-expenditure—is nearly so great as the Government have made out. I think that the Government have been guilty of preying on fears and playing on people's emotions for the sake of getting votes among the comfortably-off at the expense of those who are poor.

However, in between those two areas—that of the free market which is not workable, and that of the welfare state as it has emerged, which the Government reject—there is room for several compromises. Of those, it seems that the Government have chosen the worst. They put cash limits on accommodation, but on the other hand they make no effort to see that there is sufficient accommodation at those cash limits and therefore sufficient accommodation for the homeless. They make no effort to see that there is a proper standard of accommodation. That again is one of the matters to which the noble Baroness referred, which must be built into any operative system where one is looking after the poor and defenceless.

On top of that, they force a large number of people to move at frequent intervals, making sure that the system brings multiple crises in the lives of as many people as possible and makes matters as difficult as possible for those caring agencies, whether statutory or voluntary, to produce any help. To the various instances that the noble Baroness produced of the troubles in which young people find themselves as a result of having to move on, I add one which no doubt the right reverend Prelate will also dwell on; that is, the difficulty of clergy or any other voluntary workers in any area to get into contact with and to help those young people and to stay in touch with them.

These regulations would be sensible and humane only if they were accompanied by effective government inspection and licensing of bed and breakfast accommodation, with a commitment that if there was not sufficient accommodation available at the right price the Government would raise the limits or make sure in other ways that more accommodation was available. That the Government have failed to do.

I am not an admirer of this Government's economic policies, but on the whole one can see what they are trying to do and why they are trying to do it, even if one often differs with them as to whether it is worth the cost or whether indeed it will achieve its end. But in this area it seems clear that no one has properly thought the problem through from beginning to end. In order for the logic of the Government case to work, the evil they are trying to combat would have to be far higher than anyone, even the Government, thinks it is; and the misery that they are imposing would have to be far less than quite clearly it is.

I am afraid that these regulations will be a real blot—and possibly one of the outstanding ones, eventually—on the record of this Government. In the meantime, they will cause a great deal of individual misery and hardship up and down the country. There is still time over the next few months when the result of the appeal comes through for the Government to change their mind on some of these matters, and I hope very devoutly that they will do so.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark

My Lords, I have listened very carefully to what the noble Baroness the Minister has had to say in introducing these regulations again. As she has reminded us, they are an attempt to deal with a problem which has escalated in terms of both size and cost. I suppose that this is an example of demand welfare which any Government would be facing at the present time. I do not want to dispute that. It has also to be said that the overall size can easily be exaggerated. I have noted the figures the noble Baroness has given us for the amount of increase in cost, and I should be interested to know what proportion of that would have to be paid out anyway in some form of supplementary benefit; and the actual increase in the number of claimants.

This increase has occurred for two fundamental reasons which are not directly concerned with the regulations, as the earlier speakers have pointed out. The first reason is the large numbers of young people who are unemployed—and that is especially true in the North and the Midlands and in certain pockets in London. There is also a severe shortage of housing for rent to single people of all ages at a price they can afford. That is a situation which I am afraid shows very little sign of improving, despite the autumn Budget.

Sitting behind me normally is the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, who is very much involved with Crisis at Christmas. With great delight she waved at me just now a piece of paper which said that they have just secured a warehouse on the Isle of Dogs for this coming Christmas. I am delighted. But I have to say that I am never delighted—and I have been there at Christmas when they were at Vauxhall, in my diocese—to see the huge number of people who make use of this at Christmas and realise that most of them are permanently homeless and likely to remain so.

There are certain assumptions often made which we need to uncover. They are not factual and are much more difficult to prove. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, has already referred to the assumption that there are vast numbers among this group of workshy people who are having a very "cushy" time at the Government's expense. The noble Baroness the Minister used the phrase that there are "many examples of abuse". I should be glad to know how many. I cannot find much evidence, but I have some, and it would be quite wrong to suggest that there is none. Human sinfulness being what it is—it is a proper thing for me to say—there is no question about that, and I should be the last person to deny it. But I doubt whether that is anything like as much as the amount of income tax evasion that is going on at the present time. I should like to see as much effort being given to the pursuit of that problem in this House and elsewhere if we are talking about large sums of money which are either not reaching the Government or are being misspent.

Another assumption is that young people who are out of work can and should stay at home and that the state has no business feather-bedding people who could be with their families. The reality is different. As I am sure the Minister knows, many have no home to go back to. In other cases they have been turned out and will be turned out again if they return. We might all wish that that was not so, but that is the situation. It is a fact that cannot be ignored. Futhermore, leaving home in late teens or early twenties is often regarded as a rather useful part of the process of growing up. There are many noble Lords here who did military service. I believe that the noble Baroness was in the Land Army. We can remember being conscripted at 18 or thereabouts. The experience of going away from home for a spell at that age was not a bad thing, and it was at the Government's expense or, I would prefer to say, the community's expense.

The difference between then and now is that we were being given something useful to do, or so it was hoped, and there was social interaction: we were not pushed out on our own or constantly moved on. I always felt very sorry for those who were posted from one place to the other at frequent intervals. A small proportion of young people today go to college or university. Usually they leave home and stay elsewhere at the community's expense. That of itself is usually socially valuable because it is part of growing up in the wider community.

Therefore, what many of us find most disturbing about these regulations is that they make it almost impossible for any young person who has left home, for whatever reasons—good or bad—to settle anywhere, to try to get work and to become in some measure re-established in the community. I can understand the wish to discourage more people from flowing into London or the South-East, or maybe the seaside resorts. In London we certainly have enough problems with desperate homelessness. However, to force people to move away from their own town, from their own community or county, seems an extraordinary step to take, compounding a stressful situation and inviting the worst consequences of nomadic deprivation. I certainly know what this has done to some youngsters in the North-East, where I used to live. In London, where accommodation is in particularly short supply, more and more people are ending up in the so-called bed and breakfast hotels, to which reference has been made, where standards of health and safety are dangerously low and prices often exceedingly high.

I know that this is not the time to embark on a speech about unemployment, and I shall not do so, but is it yet sufficiently understood by all of us that it is young people who bear a disproportionate share of the heavy burden of technological change, and that this kind of sweeping regulation seems to compound the problem for them even more? Where will it end?

The noble Baroness the Minister mentioned flexibility. I did not in fact follow just how far this would extend. However, in conclusion, I should like to ask the noble Baroness one or two questions. If, in part, the desire is to reduce migration, would it be possible to remove the time limit on those who at least return to their own areas, to their own homes and to places where they were brought up? I understand that those already there will be left where they are until next July. There are people who have moved away who might be persuaded to go back—indeed, it would be better if they did—but who will now be caught by the regulations and be told that they have to move on. That is as I understand the position, although I may have misunderstood it.

Might not those who migrate genuinely wishing to find work in parts of the country where work might be obtained—after all, there is enormous social pressure on them to do just that—be given a minimum, not of two weeks but of nearer three months in order that they have reasonable time to find such work and settle in? Can something be done, and be done quickly, to increase the inspectorate—the people responsible for enforcing standards of hygiene and proper safety in hotels and lodging houses?

4.45 p.m.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, it is indeed a pleasure for me to be able to follow the right reverend Prelate because I can so readily identify myself with some of the situations that he has so graphically described. Through my work with CHAR, Shelter, SHAC and other organisations in this field, I know of the problems in that part of London as well as in other parts of London. I should like to emphasise everything that the right reverend Prelate has said; I certainly appreciate it.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, for enlightening us on the changes in these regulations, because this process is becoming rather wearisome. I had tried, with some difficulty, to find any major difference in the regulations from those which had originally been laid. However, as she said, it is true that there are one or two minor improvements, for which in the circumstances we must I suppose be grateful.

The noble Baroness mentioned the reasons for the Government pressing ahead with the introduction of the regulations, and these have been mentioned by previous speakers. For instance, the question of abuse is always mentioned and is always likely to get a headline, but there have been no statistics to accompany these charges of abuse. The only real charge that was laid under pressure in another place was in relation to some office in the Euston-King's Cross area, which was mentioned by my noble friend Lady Jeger. As for many years I represented a constituency right next door to hers and served on that local authority for over a quarter of a century, I share with her the knowledge of the problems that have existed in that part of London for many years.

It used to be said that the furthest you could carry a heavy suitcase from Euston or King's Cross was Camden Town. That is just as true now as ever it was, only there are more people going to that part of London, where we have a tremendous problem, carrying, perhaps not such heavy suitcases, but certainly packages and bags. However, the only example of abuse referred to the King's Cross area, where there are literally thousands of people claiming board and lodging allowances. Yet when I checked very recently I was told that only 10 people have ever been prosecuted. I do not think that that indicates a major problem which would merit the introduction of new regulations of the character that are being laid today over the whole national field. In spite of the thousands who claim as boarders in that area—and it is probably one of the most affected areas in the whole country—there have been only 10 prosecutions. Therefore, I do not think that the case of abuse has been proven.

There is one other case of abuse that I accept—and I am not biased in anyway. I recall the Minister for Social Security in another place saying that the new rules were necessary in view of clear evidence of a considerable degree of abuse and exploitation of the system by landlords. Most of us who have experienced this problem would underline and emphasise that. I do not think that the noble Baroness would deny that there is a great element of abuse in this field among landlords. Therefore, if that is the abuse with which the regulations are intended to deal, the Government have gone the wrong way about it. They have not even begun to tackle the abuse that was instanced by the Minister himself, but they have tried to build up a case for abuses that do not exist.

The noble Baroness also mentioned the extra cost involved. I believe that I, together with other noble Lords, dealt with that in a previous debate. The extra cost arises for a number of reasons. There are many more people involved. Before the regulations came in the figure was 50,000; it increased to 140,000 in 1984, and it has gone up by thousands ever since. Therefore, there are thousands more claimants, who add to the expenditure. Furthermore, in 1983–84 there was a tremendous increase because the Government agreed on a one-off basis to make a fairly hefty increase in allowances, which had fallen way below what was acceptable or even manageable. So there was a massive one-off injection in 1983–84 plus this massive increase in the number of claimants. Both those increases were major contributory factors to the costs.

The question of unemployment has been mentioned, and it cannot be ruled out. The cuts in housing investment, which take away any hope of a permanent solution, cannot be ruled out. It is now more profitable, and has been for some time, for hoteliers to let to the tourist trade and others; many of them will not let to the unemployed, anyway That increases the problems. The one-off furniture grant that used to be paid by the DHSS in order to allow these people, when they had found a flat, to move in has now been discontinued. Therefore, that has also added to the problem.

The Secretary of State for Social Services is trying to introduce these discredited regulations, as they have been for some time, in relation to homeless people who claim benefit while staying in board and lodgings. He has decided that he cannot wait for the Court of Appeal, although it will decide next week. It would seem perfectly reasonable to have awaited the outcome of an appeal only a few days away before getting into the position of introducing new regulations. That appeal will decide whether the original regulations were illegal or not. He is rushing these regulations through almost in the same form as they were introduced a few weeks ago.

We understand that he has committed himself to saving a certain amount of money for the Chancellor, and that this dictates the whole tenor of his policy. But the regulations which are now in existence after passing through both Houses of Parliament, came into effect last May/June, at the end of the transitional arrangements affecting claimants who were living in board and lodging accommodation immediately before the regulations came into force.

As the transitional arrangements came to an end, the harsh effects that the new rules were having on claimants became apparent. The press and the media were full of examples. I could have brought a whole dossier from the various organisations with which I am connected of the immediate effects on claimants of these new regulations. There was an attempted suicide in Shropshire. We know that there were at least two deaths. There was a tragic suicide in Edinburgh. 1 shall not weary the House with the details, but there are literally hundreds of examples of real hardship that we in this country ought not to even hear about in 1985, but about which we are hearing as a direct result of these regulations.

Late in June the Government announced changes in the regulations because of these press reports. Early in July some changes were debated and approved in Parliament. On 31st July Mr. Justice Mann, as has already been mentioned, giving judgment in the Cotton case, found that the Secretary of State had acted ultra vires in making Regulation 1985 S.I. No. 613.

Because the DHSS lawyers and Mr. Justice Mann himself were concerned about the chaos that would follow the judgment declaring the regulations void, it was agreed with the DHSS that if they suspended the time limits pending either an appeal or new regulations, he would not make a formal declaration on his judgment. The DHSS appealed, and that is the appeal to be heard next week.

In September a local social security tribunal upheld an appeal against the cost limits on the grounds that the regulations had been declared ultra vires in the Cotton case. Again the DHSS has appealed against that tribunal's ruling to the Social Security Commissioner. That appeal will be heard in November. On 21st October, despite all these events, the Secretary of State announced that he had laid interim regulations which would expire in April 1986.

On the following day, 22nd October, the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments in their report on these interim regulations drew: the attention of both Houses to the instrument on the ground that there appears to be doubt whether it is intra vires, and on the further ground that the Department making the instrument are aware of the doubt. That was the day after. A week later the interim regulations were about to be debated—within hours—in the other place first and then in this House. The Solicitor General appeared before the Joint Committee, and after discussion the instrument was withdrawn, and was not on that occasion debated in either House. Although, as I have said, the appeal has not yet been heard, we have before us today basically the same regulations, with minor changes which have been outlined by the noble Baroness.

Now I do not know how many of your Lordships last night were watching the Conservative Party political broadcast on television. I do not want to give it any undue publicity, and I have to be careful here, but they used a mock trial scene to refute allegations about cuts, about unemployment, about their economic policies, and so on. The judge, who was suitably bewigged and frocked in this mock trial, after taking mock evidence, announced that he would accept a majority verdict of the jury.

Let me tell your Lordships what sadly happens in real life away from the play acting of the Conservative Party Central Office. Since January of this year the real judiciary, in the real world in which the rest of us live, have held that the Government have acted illegally on eight separate occasions. Three of these judgments have involved the Secretary of State for Health and Social Security; and that is a serious indictment of any government in such a short period. Yet we are here again today being literally bludgeoned by the massive elective majority that in my view the Government sometimes abuses in the other place, to force through these regulations despite the impending appeals.

I should have thought that certainly in this House that aspect would have been understood far better than anywhere else. In my humble layman's view, if there were no other reasons for rejecting these regulations surely the Secretary of State's and the Government's general apparent contempt of the law would have been enough for us to say that we should await the outcome of the appeals and then come back with regulations. However, as my noble friend on the Front Bench has already said, there are other reasons, and we know that the question of cost and everything comes into it.

If the regulations are passed, we shall again be back in the same cycle of hardship, difficulty, and the awful and traumatic experiences which some of our youngsters have endured since the original regulations. In fact, the first evictions in London could take place in a few weeks' time, just about Christmas or New Year. A happy Christmas to those homeless who are now becoming the victims of this wonderful present from the Government!

In my own borough of Camden, the Housing Aid Centre has shown conclusively in a detailed and broad survey that, new DHSS board and lodging limits are unreasonable and will force homeless claimants to choose between sleeping rough or going without food.". I think that is serious, although a lot of people do not seem to take too much notice of it. They say that they are, dealing with claimants who without exception are having to supplement their lodgings allowance with their £3.10 daily food money.". And are having to use some of that food money for their lodgings, if they can get them.

From a survey of 229 hotels, which is a fairly reasonable survey in that borough—and the lists were provided by the DHSS offices themselves; there is no question of abuse of a list—only one hotel charged less than the DHSS limit, and it was full up. There were no vacancies. Only five charged less than the £48.30 weekly amount, and again understandably there were no vacancies. The vast majority were charging between £11 and £20 a night for a single room. Six hotels on the list charged more than £60 a night, and one hotel charged over £ 100 a night.

That puts it into perspective. I hope anyway that it gives some credibility to the remarks of both Camden and myself that these youngsters, placed in these awful circumstances, are having to choose between eating or sleeping, or a mixture of both, and we are finding that more and more are sleeping for a couple of nights, if they can afford it, and then eating and then sleeping rough on the Embankment, or in a tube station, or car parks, or wherever else. God knows! that they can be found all over London, and nobody can be happy with that situation, or even try to advocate it.

I hope that these facts, plus all the other facts mentioned in previous debates, will persuade the noble Baroness that perhaps she ought to have another talk to her right honourable friend the Secretary of State in the other place, and convince him first about the legal arguments and his impatience to save money, and secondly that this is the wrong way to approach this matter. There is a majority of opinion which understands these problems throughout the country which would say that far the better thing to do would be to take these regulations back, and to come back for further discussions and consultations with the voluntary organisations who operate daily in this field at the sharp end of these policies. Discuss with them what looks to me not only a serious problem but a problem which is continuing to grow and will get more and more serious as time goes on unless the Government, as I suggested, withdraw the regulations and come back later for a more reasoned and patient discussion.

5 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness the Minister for saying that she would never wish to be rude to me. I notice that she is the soul of courtesy and she would never be rude to me or anyone. If she refuses to give way to a single interruption there must be a serious reason. Anyone who has listened to the speeches of my noble friend Lady Jeger, the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, to the right reverend Prelate and to my noble friend Lord Stallard, will know that there is a very good reason, that these regulations are a disgrace. They are a disgrace in form as well as content.

I repeat one thing that was said by my noble friend Lady Jeger about the form. My noble friend Lord Stallard speaks very effectively for Camden, but I am also concerned with Camden in the sense that for many years I have been chairman of a youth centre for homeless young people in Camden. I shall say a few words from that point of view. Let us suppose that young people in Camden try to discover from this document how much they are entitled to. As my noble friend Lady Jeger explained, it would be impossible unless they are ready to pay £7 for another document from the Stationery Office. It is only 5 o'clock, so we cannot call this a very late hour (it is teatime for some people) but even at 5 o'clock I think I am entitled to read this document for the sheer absurdity of the clause which a young person would have to try to interpret. I think I have the right heading, but if I have some other clause it is because I am as befuddled as anybody. Under the heading "Ordinary board and lodging accommodation" we read this: Subject to sub-paragraph (2) below, where the accommodation provided for the claimant is not a residential care home, a nursing home or a hostel, the appropriate amount"— and this is what the young person will want to find out— shall be the amount shown as applicable in columns marked 'LIMIT' in the publication entitled 'Supplementary Benefit Maximum Amounts. Initial Period and Board and Lodging Areas' published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office in 1985 (a) in respect of the board and lodging area therein described in which that accommodation is situated". No young person however brilliant (and possibly not many older people) would be able to discover from that what they were entitled to.

With great respect to the noble Baroness, who cannot be held responsible for this, I hope she will give her civil servants a little of the treatment that is occasionally meted out by the wives of headmasters. In other words, I think she should give them some stick for planting her with this document containing the kind of thing that I have read out. It is a disgrace. Of Government documents, for which we have all had our share of responsibility, I cannot remember a more lamentable effort than this one.

Let us turn to the merits or demerits of the issue. I was talking this week to a number of young people in this centre of which I am chairman. I shall not quote all their opinions because some of them were unprintable, because their language is not quite adjusted to the tone of your Lordships in all cases. There is not time to quote many, so I shall quote one example out of several. This young man—Robert is his Christian name—is aged 23. He receives £81.50 a week. The theory is that £48.30 of that will go towards the accommodation, including breakfast which does not usually seem to be available. That in theory would leave £32.20 for food, laundry and everything else. In practice there is no accommodation at £48.30. The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, was taking examples from Camden which are perfectly true. Perhaps some of the higher ranges would not be expected to be available to these people, but there is no accommodation within this range. I think the noble Lord said there were 229 hotels being investigated and in only five could accommodation be obtained.

To follow the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, the first essential is to make sure that this accommodation is provided. I shall not go into further detail as it was put clearly by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont; but the Governnment have a terrible responsibility if they say to people that they will be given £48.30 when there is virtually no accommodation available at that figure. That is the situation.

We may ask, what do they do? What it amounts to in practice is that they take £7 or £8 a week from their food allowance. I am sure that is not the intention, certainly not of the noble Baroness or her Minister or anybody else. They just shut their eyes to it. They do not want to believe it is happening, but that is the situation.

I shall not go on further. I think the argument has been deployed so thoroughly by other speakers. I want to applaud and endorse everything that has been said by earlier speakers.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, this has been an interesting debate and we have managed to cover some new ground. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, of whom I am very fond, sometimes tries my patience and I always rise like a fish. He is very keen on reminding me that I am a headmaster's wife. As such, I charge him to go home and do his homework. I should further say that I am thoroughly in favour of these regulations: I support the need for them wholeheartedly.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, and others, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, asked why the new regulations have come before the outcome of the appeal. The Court of Appeal hearing, as your Lordships know, has been fixed for 25th and 26th November, when the appeal will be pressed vigorously. But the Government have a responsibility to the taxpayer, claimants and staff to ensure that the legal position is clear, whatever the outcome of the appeal. If the appeal were to be lost, for example, there would be considerable uncertainty for claimants and serious administrative implications for local offices. The Government are acting to avoid these possibilities.

These regulations have been laid under the urgency procedure, which means that the Social Security Advisory Committee does not need to be consulted in advance. They were urgent because, as I have already explained, we needed to have new regulations in place by the time the Court of Appeal hears the appeal in the Cotton case. The regulations have been sent to the Committee which has decided to consider them and make a report. We look forward to that report.

The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, referred to tribunal cases where financial limits were held to be invalid. The chief adjudication officer has appealed to the commissioner. The Secretary of State, as is perfectly normal, has suspended implementation of the decision until the case is heard by the commissioner. That will be after the Court of Appeal has ruled on the technical legal point.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, made us all laugh by her guide to the provinces. May I remind her, the right reverend Prelate, the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, and all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, that the whole point of this exercise is to look for a job. The idea is not to swan around from resort to resort. It is not for people to stay in accommodation that they cannot afford. It is for people to look for work and not to be landed in accommodation they cannot afford when they obtain that work. It is for that reason that we have been forced into taking these measures.

The noble Baroness in her amusing lists of establishments and their price lists said that it was unusual for regulations to refer to an outside publication. Not so, my Lords. Regulations refer to HMSO publications, to outside publications, frequently; and the publication, as a result of the cross-reference, becomes part of the instrument. It is cost-saving. I can give her a couple of examples. Babies Dummies Regulations 1976 Statutory Instrument No. 836 and Merchant Shipping Radio Installations (Amendment) Regulations 1984 both referred to outside publications.

It is not true, as several noble Lords implied, that young people were wandering round the country. A survey of 2,350 claimants in the South East carried out between June and August 1985 showed that some 5 per cent. of the claimants concerned moved to a different local office area, not necessarily to a different board-and-lodging area. A similar proportion remained at the same address and changed their benefit status to householder, compared with over 28 per cent. who stayed at the same address as non-householders. This study did not identify separately claimants who returned to their parental homes. A much smaller study in Scotland found that about one-third of the people who changed their address following reassessment returned to live with parents and that a further six people moved to friends or other relatives. Most of the rest became householders. Indications from local offices generally support the broad findings of these studies; so that the allegations that these regulations are making young people homeless are not supported by the evidence.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, asked why there were only 13 prosecutions if there was so much abuse of the scheme. The main aim of the exercise, in order to limit abuse rather than to seek prosecutions, was to identify those claimants who were not living at the hotels stated on their claim forms. In the event, 13 prosecutions were nevertheless brought. In some cases we have found outright fraud. We hope to bring many more prosecutions both of landlords and of claimants themselves. Many more cases of abuse and of taking advantage of the system in an unacceptable way have been found. That is why, again, changes are needed.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, asked about the rise in expenditure due to unemployment. The number of boarders aged 25 or under more than doubled from 23,000 in 1982 to an estimated 56,000 in 1984. This rapid growth in numbers is far in excess of what can be justified by factors such as increased unemployment and homelessness. It is clear that financially attractive board-and-lodging payments were too readily available. I submit to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, who also brought up this point, that no responsible Government could allow spending to continue to expand in this uncontrolled way. The noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, was concerned about the administration, and about how to claim exemption from the time limits. Most of the vulnerable cases should be covered by the exemption categories. Others will be covered by the Secretary of State's discretionary powers. Guidance to local offices asks them to be particularly alert to the problem that an individual claimant might be experiencing. Notification letters to claimants ask the claimant, or anyone acting on his behalf, not only to let the office know immediately if he thinks that he falls into one of the exemption categories but also to let the local office know of any special circumstances which may show a need to be in board-and-lodging accommodation.

I repeat the feelings that we all share about the great tragedy of the suicides. Perhaps they could have been avoided if the friends and people around those people had been able to help them when they went to offices. I have made the plea in this House before that where people are helpless a helping hand should be shown towards them.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, asked why financial and time limits vary according to area. The area limits are set according to local circumstances. The areas take account of normal living, working and travelling patterns. The limits have regard to the local cost of board and lodging. We have this system because we are anxious to be fair and flexible. The aim of the time limits is to ensure that, once young unemployed people have had a reasonable opportunity to seek work locally, they do not settle down, as I have said before, into what is often expensive and unsuitable accommodation.

5.15 p.m.

The noble Baroness again asked whether these regulations are evidence that Government policy is in a state of chaos. No, my Lords. I explained in my opening speech why we need the regulations before the appeal hearing in the Cotton case. If we had taken no action, then there would have been a very real chance of danger of confusion for claimants and staff alike depending upon the outcome of the appeal. What we are doing now is taking sensible action to reduce the risk of uncertainty.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, asked me about special exemption for refugees. I have said this before but it is certainly worth repeating. Refugees should be among those protected from the time limits by the exemption categories. This has always been our aim. I acknowledged in the House on a previous occasion the difficulties that were being encountered initially in some cases. Instructions have been issued to the local offices stating that DHSS headquarters should be consulted by the local offices by telephone in any case where it appears that a refugee may not qualify for exemption. This additional safeguard should have removed any remaining cause for concern on the question of time limits as they affect refugees.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, that is welcome so far as it goes. But why will the Government not spell this out in the way that they have in the health charges regulations? Why will they not do the same in this area?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, because they prefer to do it the way they are doing it. If the noble Lord can tell me of any cases which have gone wrong as a result of the Government's action in this way, I shall be most grateful if he will let me know.

The noble Lords, Lord Beaumont and Lord Stallard, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark ask for evidence of abuse. There were indications of a growing market specifically for DHSS claimants, sometimes with higher charges for people on benefit, it being recognised that people in work could not afford the charges. The indication was the rapid growth in new establishments, with some proprietors making very high returns from letting at the local limits. Some proprietors of hotels and guest houses advertised for DHSS claimants and encouraged them to live in their establishments when otherwise they might not have done so. These establishments were by no means confined to seaside resorts.

It was clear that the benefit system was stimulating artificially the provision of inappropriate and expensive board-and-lodging accommodation. There was widespread evidence of landlords buying, renting and converting premises and then seeking to attract claimants in order to reap significant financial returns. I can give one example. This is in Cliftonville: Accommodation in spacious house with all conveniences. DHSS fees arranged. All bedrooms have central heating, colour t.v. and tea-making facilities. £40 per week, full board. That was in 1984. On higher charges for unemployed people, examples of the practice have been found at Launceston, Elgin, York, Reading, Thanet, Southampton, Westminster, Birmingham and Nottingham. That is a list. There are newspapers to match, which have been advertising at the DHSS market.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the noble Baroness, but this is very important. Can the noble Baroness tell us what action, if any, the department have taken in these cases where the landlords, rather than claimants, are clearly abusing the revenue?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, £40 a week is actually not above the limit: the one I quoted. If the establishment is quoting above the limit, it is up to them: this is a free country. If they are stating specifically "DHSS fees arranged", then that means they are going into the limits area. They are not actually committing an offence, as such. I think the noble Baroness will recognise that.

The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, spoke about Camden's surveys of board and lodging. In view of Camden's legal action, I cannot comment in detail on their surveys. Noble Lords would be well advised to look very carefully at the basis of these surveys before they reach a view on their validity. It is worth noting, for example, that about a third of our local offices covering the London area have experienced increases in the limits as a result of the changes in April. In other words, to go back to what the noble Baroness was saying, a place may have been charging £30 a week, but when the DHSS limits went up they put their limits up. That is unfortunate, but maybe it is not for me to comment upon that; it is no crime.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, spoke about bad accommodation and what was done about it. I understand that local authorities have a wide range of powers and duties to require improvements in the management and physical condition of houses in multiple occupation. I further understand that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has commissioned some research to be done into houses in multi-occupation standards

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, and the right reverend Prelate said that the real problem is economic. I agree that the welfare state is necessary to ensure that people have money; but that does not mean that the Government should pay any amount of money to young people to live in unsuitable accommodation. I have already gone through some of the evidence of abuse.

I think I have answered all the points that were raised by your Lordships. This is such a complicated area, and those who criticise our policy in this debate should be judged on whether they have credible alternatives to suggest, and whether their proposals will achieve a sensible balance between the legitimate interests of claimants, proprietors of boarding establishments and homes and taxpayers. We believe that our proposals strike the right balance.

On Question, Motion agreed to.