HL Deb 21 October 1985 vol 467 cc859-63

5.3 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Security (Baroness Trumpington)

My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement which is being made in another place on supplementary benefit board and lodging payments.

"In April the Government took action to control rapidly increasing expenditure and to help curb abuse. Between December 1982 and December 1984 spending rose from £166 million a year to £380 million a year. At the same time, the number of boarders under 26 had more than trebled from 23,000 to around 85,000.

"Regulations were introduced which provided for the maximum weekly amounts for board and lodging to be determined by Ministers, rather than by local offices. In addition, the regulations limited the period during which certain unemployed people under 26 could be paid as boarders. There was a wide range of exemptions to protect the most vulnerable who needed to be boarders, such as families with children. The regulations were scrutinised by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and debated and passed by both Houses of Parliament.

"On 31st July, after Parliament had risen, the High Court decided an application for judicial review on the regulations. Mr. Justice Mann rejected the argument that we had failed properly to consult the Social Security Advisory Committee and he also rejected the argument that the time limit of four weeks applied in this case was unreasonable. The judge did, however, find that the powers in the 1976 Supplementary Benefits Act were insufficient to make regulations enabling Ministers to determine board and lodging areas and limits.

"In other words, the judge's view was that the regulations would have been in order if they had themselves contained the board and lodging areas and limits. Mr. Justice Mann declined to make a formal order on our undertaking not to apply the time limits pending the making of new regulations or the outcome of any appeal. Immediate action was taken to put this undertaking into effect and I should like to pay tribute to the efforts of local office staff in carrying out this work.

"We have lodged an appeal against the judgment and arrangements have been made for an early hearing in the Court of Appeal. This will take place at the end of November. However, as Mr. Justice Mann specifically recognised, there is a need for a sensible interim operation. It is in the general interest that there should be stability during which the outcome of the appeal can be given proper consideration and the review, which we are committed to carrying out, completed.

"I have accordingly laid draft regulations today. They include temporary provisions—which will expire at the end of April 1986—to meet the judge's points. There are two important differences from the regulations passed by the House in April. First, time limits will not apply to existing boarders on benefit. They will apply only to new claimants. The second important difference is that I am also taking powers, in addition to the exemptions in the previous regulations, to exempt claimants from the time limits who would otherwise suffer exceptional hardship.

"The House will appreciate, in view of what I have said, the need to clarify the position. The regulations achieve this without in any way prejudicing the outcome of the appeal. The House will have the opportunity to discuss them when they are debated next week. We hope in this way to restrain spending, tackle abuse, but at the same time protect the interests of genuine claimants."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that Statement. I am sure your Lordships will be relieved to know that, in view of the fact that there is to be a debate next week, I do not intend to reiterate the sincere belief held by my noble friends and myself that this problem is caused by lack of employment for young people and lack of housing at affordable costs and that it is these factors that are at the heart of the problem. I shall confine myself to just a few questions.

First, I should like to ask the noble Baroness whether the review to which she referred will deal only with the time limits, or will it deal also with the amount of payments to be made and the limitation of payments? Next I have to ask whether she can make clear at what date people are to be designated as new claimants. Do they become new claimants in April, 1986, or are they new claimants as from now, in which case it would appear to contradict the fact that the judgment quashed all time limits; or is there some other explanation? If the time limits are to apply to new claimants as of now, pending the appeal, then there would seem to be some contradiction of the court's decision.

On the point of people who suffer exceptional hardship, can the noble Baroness tell us a little more about who is to decide exceptional hardship? What advice will be given to local officers? Will this include special consideration for the refugees, about which we have had some correspondence, and for people newly discharged from mental hospitals and psychiatric units who need support for longer than the time limits at present in force allow? Can she also say whether there will be in the review any variation of time limits as there is now in different areas? Will there be this geographical difference whereby someone can stay for two weeks in one place and for four weeks in another place? This causes a good deal of confusion and there is a lack of clarity here. Those are the main points which arise from the Statement, for which again I thank the noble Baroness the Minister.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement. I am appalled by the attitude and by the tone of the two Statements that we have heard this afternoon. In both cases the Government appear to be treating with very severe arm's length disdain the fact that they themselves have caused the troubles which the community is now reaping. This was so when we were talking about the rioting; it is so when we are talking about the very real misery which is being imposed by some of these regulations on board and lodging payments which have indeed resulted in the past in suicide and a very great deal of distress.

The Statement says that the number of boarders under 26 has more than doubled from 23,000 to around 85,000, as if that were an act of God. It is not an act of God, my Lords; it is an act of this Government. The next paragraph of the Statement says that: The regulations were scrutinised by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and debated and passed by both Houses of Parliament". The noble Baroness will remember the debate in which your Lordships' House passed those regulations. It was one in which the noble Baroness had her baptism of fire on the Front Bench. It was most unfortunate that she had to put them forward because they were wholeheartedly condemned by every Member of your Lordships' House from every side of the Chamber.

We give the interim measures which the Government are proposing to take now a modified welcome, though I certainly wait with interest to hear the answers to the questions which the noble Baroness asked. I should like to ask a question about the review which the Statement says, we are committed to carrying out Is the review awaiting the outcome of the appeal in any sense, or is it in fact going on at the moment? Is there going to be an appeal anyway; or if the Court of Appeal reverses the judgment will there then not be a review because the Government see that there is very little to do? There is a very great deal to do.

I too will not add more to what I am saying today because there is going to be a debate on the subject which I suspect will result in a real condemnation of the insensitive and harsh measures by which this Government seek to cure the economic problems of this country by taking it out on the lives of the poorest and weakest members of the community.

5.15 p.m.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, for the brevity of her speech. The noble Baroness would not wish me to comment on her opening remarks. She asked about the time limits. The time limits are currently suspended. Under the new regulations the time limits will remain suspended for existing boarders. The difference is that the new boarders who become boarders after the regulation comes into force on 4th November will be subject to time limits, unless of course exempt. With regard to financial limits, they have never been suspended and continue to apply. On the Notting Hill case, which is the other case which was involved, we have not suspended the financial limits, in line with normal practice not to implement tribunal decisions pending the outcome of an appeal.

When I was answering a question from the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, last week, I should really have said that in regard to the findings in the case the only position on which the judge did not agree with the DHSS was over the fact that it lay in the Minister's power under the regulations as they were originally put through both Houses—on neither of the other issues raised did he disagree. So there is no contradiction of the court's decision into what is happening now.

The noble Baroness asked me about refugees. Our view has always been that refugees should be among those protected by the categories originally drawn up for exemption from the time limits which apply to benefit at the boarder rate for certain unemployed young people. But I acknowledge that difficulties were being encountered initially in some cases. Instructions have just been issued to our local offices about the further changes in the arrangements concerning boarders; in particular, headquarters should be approached by telephone in any case where it appears that a refugee may not qualify for exemption. I trust that this additional safeguard will remove any remaining cause for concern on the question of time limits as they affect refugees. The noble Baroness also asked me about discretionary powers for exceptional hardship. These will be exercised by experienced people in headquarters.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, painted a picture which is simply not the case. The reason why the new arrangements were brought in was that originally the maximum amounts payable for board and lodging were determined locally for each local security office. This local limits system simply reflected local patterns of charges determined by landlords without any checks on unreasonable increases. It facilitated cartel type activities by groups of proprietors and charges were being pushed up far in excess of the rate of inflation. Young people could receive large amounts of money as boarders—in some cases more than £100 a week—and this far exceeded what many of them could earn and is a considerable work disincentive. It is also much more than they would receive as householders or non-householders.

The Government recognised that the benefit system gave excessive encouragement to some people to leave home. As a consequence they became trapped in accommodation they could not afford if working. This was of no service to the taxpayer and of no service to claimants themselves. There were indications of a growing market specifically for DHSS claimants, sometimes at higher charges for people on benefits, as shown by the rapid growth in new establishments.

Some proprietors were making very high returns on letting at the local limits.

With regard to the changes being kept under review, we have said that we will keep them under review. We realised that the measures were not the last word on the subject and so the Government are continuing closely to monitor the operation of the new rules and are undertaking further research, including a study by a firm of management consultants into the operation of the market for private and voluntary care. The result of those exercises will be considered carefully when they are completed in about six months' time, before the full review of all the limits is made next year.

With regard to suicides, the Government very much regret the recent tragic occurrences. In introducing a new board and lodging regulation, steps were taken to protect those vulnerable young people who need to be in board and lodging accommodation for more than a short time. A number of the cases brought to the Government's attention would appear to have been covered by the exemption categories had the full facts been made known to the local DHSS office. The Government introduced regulations to allow the exemption categories to be extended quickly should the need be shown. Also, the new discretionary provision should and will help. As the noble Baroness said, we shall be having a full debate on this subject next week, and so I hope that I have answered sufficient questions for the time being.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, I apologise for speaking again but there is one point about which I am still not clear. It is one that affects very many people. The judgment was made during the Recess that the time limits should be quashed. I understand that there is to be an appeal heard at the end of November. The noble Baroness stated that after 4th November new claimants will be subjected to time limits. I understood that to be what the noble Baroness said.

Therefore, between 4th November and the date of the appeal at the end of November, surely the Government will be disobeying the order of the court? I am interested to see that the noble Baroness is shaking her head because I want to have it on the record what the case is. This point has caused much confusion.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, Mr. Justice Mann clearly envisaged the possibility of amending regulations and framed his judgment accordingly. It is in no one's interest that there should be uncertainty over the next month. Regulations will expire after six months—the period during which the Court of Appeal and the parties concerned will decide upon any further action any of them may wish to take. I repeat that the regulations will not affect those living in board and lodging accommodation at the time when the regulations come into force.