§ 3.31 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Hollis of Heigham)
My Lords, I should like to repeat a Statement made in the other place by my right honourable friend Andrew Smith MP, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. The Statement is as follows:
"With permission, I should like to make a statement on the reform of housing benefit. I am today publishing a prospectus setting out our proposals—Building choice and responsibility: a radical agenda for Housing Benefit.
"The system we have inherited is complicated, costly to administer, vulnerable to fraud and difficult for tenants to understand. For too many people it means endless form filling and delays in payment. It is often a factor preventing people from making the move from welfare into work.
"Currently we expect local authorities to reassess 4 million individual claims every year, whether they have changed or not. Nearly 2 million pensioners whose circumstances rarely change are expected to fill in a 40-page form every year just to get their housing benefit renewed. Local councils are compelled to deal with a bewildering array of overlapping rules for tenants in the private rented sector. This cannot be right.
"We need a system that puts real choice and responsibility in tenants' hands, one that supports work, and cuts the risk of fraud. Both the Work and Pensions Select Committee of this House and the Audit Commission have highlighted the need for change, as have many outside observers. It is time to get on with this reform.
"It is clear that we need to break fundamentally with the past and bring in a fairer, simpler system. So we propose to introduce standard local housing allowances for private rentals—initially in 10 pathfinder areas. The allowance will be flat rate, based on area and family size. The amount paid will, as now, be income related. It will be paid direct to the tenant, except where vulnerable tenants are unable to manage their own affairs, or where substantial arrears have built up.
"No one will be worse off when these pathfinder schemes start next year. In fact, tenants who find a suitable home with a rent less than the standard allowance will be able to keep the difference. This puts the decision and responsibility in their hands.
962 "The reforms will build on the steps we have already taken to improve administration and to begin the process of restructuring rents in the social rented sector. It is our intention to roll out reforms nationally and to develop ways of bringing in the social housing sector. This will be carefully informed by our assessment of the initial pathfinder areas where we will work closely with local authorities, landlords, tenants associations and advice agencies. Consultation will be led by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-secretary, Mr Wicks, for whose work on these proposals I am very grateful.
"The reformed system will offer greater simplicity and certainty for tenants and landlords; extend tenant choice and responsibility; dramatically cut delays, and support our wider aims of improving public services, tackling poverty and extending opportunity.
"Because they are simpler, standard local allowances will speed up the claims process, reducing the uncertainties people face as their circumstances change and make trying a job a more attractive option. What is more, later this month right across the country we will start introducing a rapid reclaim facility for when a job does not work out. We will also remove the need to make a new claim when someone gets a job. This means that housing benefit will simply run on until the in-work rate is calculated.
"We are taking other steps to improve the service for everyone: Jobcentre Plus clients will be able to make claims over the telephone, and from next autumn pensioners will no longer have to fill out a new housing benefit form every year.
"We are committed to working in partnership with councils to improve performance through clearer standards and increased accountability. We are already seeing progress. In March we set out clear standards for housing benefit performance. We will build on this by providing £200 million for training and modernisation over the next three years to help councils committed to improvement. We shall also challenge poor performance and stand ready to intervene where local authorities fail to deliver an acceptable service.
"It is crucial that we also crack down on fraud. This package of reform will do just that. First, it will simplify the housing benefit system in order to free resources for the fight against fraud. Secondly, the perverse incentive for corrupt landlords to collude with tenants to set high rents will be removed. Thirdly, we are providing £60 million to support the tighter checking of claims, stopping fraud getting into the system in the first place.
"The Government are committed to taking action against rogue landlords who abuse the system. As soon as parliamentary time allows, my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister intends to legislate to tackle the minority of rogue landlords and boost our drive against poor conditions.
963 "It is also important that tenants understand their obligations to behave in a neighbourly way. As we made clear following the Private Member's Bill of my right honourable friend the Member for Birkenhead, the Government are looking at housing benefit sanctions, as part of our wider strategy to tackle nuisance neighbours through stricter tenancy agreements and improved anti-social behaviour orders.
"The reforms I am announcing today—by making tenants responsible for payment of their rent—reinforce the link between rights and responsibilities.
"In conclusion, reform of housing benefit is essential. These proposals combine simplicity and streamlined procedures with greater individual choice. They offer a better deal for tenants, a better deal for landlords and a better deal for local authorities. We must now work together to make them a success".
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
§ 3.38 p.m.
§ Lord Higgins
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement on housing benefit made in another place. However, it begins rather strangely by referring to the deficiencies of the system which this Government inherited. But, of course, they inherited the system a considerable time ago. Indeed, the 1997 Labour Party manifesto put much stress on that. Since then, there has been little by way of action. A Green Paper was produced which I believe had only one chapter on housing benefit. Reports have been produced by the Social Security Select Committee and by the Audit Commission but I believe that this is the first time that specific proposals have emerged in this detailed area.
The 2001 Labour Party manifesto stated that the Labour Party would,simplify housing benefit and its administration, distinguishing between people of working age and pensioners".I did not quite understand that at the time. Does the proposal that we are discussing do anything to fulfil that manifesto commitment? What is involved as regards legislation? Can these proposals be implemented by secondary legislation or do they require primary legislation both with regard to the pilot scheme and any extensive schemes which may develop from that? I am glad that the Government will consult the Social Security Advisory Committee which they seem to have neglected to some extent. Can we have an assurance that its views will be taken into account before the pilots are introduced?
There are one or two aspects of the Statement that, being a simple soul, I find rather puzzling. Page 3 of the document states that the present system,is tied too closely to actual rents, not to the local market".I do not understand what the local market is apart from actual rents. Perhaps the Minister can explain.
I turn to more detailed aspects of the Statement. The Minister said very clearly in the Statement that no one will be worse off and estimates that half of housing 964 benefit claimants in the deregulated market will gain. The combination of those two claims seems to imply a considerable increase in public expenditure: perhaps the Minister will tell us what that amounts to.
The Minister clearly told us that if what is now described as the standard local housing allowance is greater than the rent being paid, the individual will be allowed to keep the difference. That is a somewhat strange proposal because housing benefit is presumably intended to enable someone to have housing, and an adequate amount has to be provided. However, if the amount provided is greater than the actual rent, it is difficult to see how that balance can be described as a housing allowance. What happens if the standard local housing allowance is less than the rent being paid, given that this is a means-tested benefit? How is the individual supposed to pay the rent?
I have difficulty understanding some of the concepts involved. A combination of such points seems to involve considerable cost. When we see the Chancellor's Autumn Statement, will the amount being paid be the same as it is now or will it show a steady increase over time?
Will the Minister tell us exactly what is meant by "local" in the context of the standard local housing allowance? Will it be a standard amount for each local authority or will the amount be larger or less than the amount taken by local authority areas?
The Minister rightly referred to the question of fraud, which we debated in great detail during the passage of the Social Security Fraud Act. At the time of the 1997 manifesto, the then incoming government estimated that fraud was £2 billion a year. What is the Government's current estimate of housing benefit fraud
There is grave concern—we on these Benches have previously stressed it—about the relationship between central government and local authorities so far as the prosecution of offenders is concerned. A year ago, I believe, a Written Answer stated that for 2000–01 there were 100,000 or so cases in which fraud was established but that only 1,100 had been successfully prosecuted. Why is that so? Will the Minister give us up-to-date figures, which presumably are now available? There does not appear to be the degree of co-operation with central government that one would like from local authorities in tackling fraud.
Finally, will the Minister give us some idea about timing? The document states that the achievement of the universal standard rate will be achieved only towards the end of the decade. Does that refer to both markets: the social housing market and the private market? If so, when do the Government expect—perhaps I should say "hope"—that that change in the system will be introduced? I refer to the completion of the pilots and to the wider extension of the scheme. During that interim period, will only new applicants come on to the new system, not those in the present system, or will there at some stage be a big bang, as it were, by which all claimants who currently receive benefit will be included and changed to the new system?
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, I have come to the conclusion that it is a capital error to prepare one's response to a Statement before it is delivered. This morning I picked up reports that the Government intended to introduce the flat-rate system. My party had considered the flat-rate system and in 1996 I had the honour of serving on the working party. At a consultation session at our Edinburgh conference, we turned that system down by 48 votes to nil.
I had prepared my preliminary response along those lines. I have not exactly torn up that response because there are still one or two valid points in it that I want to make. However, the majority of it the Minister will never hear; it will not see the light of day.
I had not anticipated the delightful ingenuity of the provision of paragraph 17, which states that if the tenant can find a property that is cheaper than the amount of housing benefit, the tenant will keep the difference. That creates a genuine incentive to look for a cheaper property. It brings us somewhere nearer to a genuine market and it meets the main concern of my party about the flat-rate proposal. We accepted the principle of the 1986 Act that income support is not meant to be used to pay the rent and that there is enough pressure on income support already; anything that meant that people would have to pay their rent out of income support would cause us great dismay.
The Government have found a way out of that. Remembering our debates on the Tax Credits Act, I am tempted—I appreciate that the Minister cannot possibly respond to this—to suggest that I see the Minister's own hand in the proposal. It involves her sort of ingenuity. If it is hers, I congratulate her on it; if it is not hers, I should like her to pass on my congratulations to those who are responsible.
I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins; that is, that there will be a public expenditure consequence. If the Minister can enlighten us on that, I should be glad to hear her response. If people cannot be housed, they cannot work, and if they cannot work they cannot pay income tax. That, too, has a public expenditure consequence. If we are to attempt to calculate the public expenditure consequences, we should take both points into account. Netting will be an extremely difficult operation but if it is not done we shall not have any idea of the net gain or loss. I am inclined to think that the gain may perfectly possibly be greater than the loss. In any case, the increase in the sum of human happiness would justify what is being done.
I also warmly welcome the run-on provisions in paragraph 26 of the Statement. That builds on Kenneth Clarke's idea of the original arrangement, which I believe lasted only eight days. In fact, I believe that the claiming period lasted only eight days; people were not always told within those eight days that they had to make a claim. I thought that the Minister had probably spotted that; I am very relieved that she has. If she can provide the details, I should be grateful.
966 Some questions still need answering. The first question that concerns me is whether housing allowances will be automatically uprated for inflation. If the answer is no, they will very rapidly lose their value and we might run into a considerable problem.
Secondly, I am concerned about the choice of area. The Minister mentioned 10 pathfinder areas. That is significantly different from the 11 regions that function as European parliamentary constituencies. I am interested in the reasons why there is a difference.
Thirdly, I am concerned by the fact that, in an area, rents are very different in different parts. Consider London, for example. Suppose that the allowance is sufficient to pay a rent in Plaistow and the person works in Golders Green. It certainly would not pay a rent in Golders Green. If he must live in Plaistow and travel to Golders Green, the fares will rapidly eat up a great deal of the benefit. Therefore, as the system beds down, I wonder whether there may be a case for considering rather smaller areas or rather greater allowances for variations within the areas. Off the cuff, I am not sure, having only just seen the proposals, what the answer is. But I am certain that some answer will need to be considered.
I also want to raise on behalf of my noble friend Lord Avebury, who has either departed or is about to depart to attend a Select Committee, the question of what is being done about housing benefit on gypsy sites. I understand that the Government have already promised to take action on that, and I hope that that promise is something on which action is being produced.
I believe that other matters need to be examined in relation to housing benefit. Some of them may be referred to in the White Paper, which I have not yet had time to read. It is possible to consider having one and not two forms of housing benefit and thus not having to fill in two separate forms—one for the Benefits Agency and one for the local authority. It is possible to use a fax machine and to send one form from one place to the other. But relations between those two authorities, which deal with housing benefit, have not always been happy. If the Minister could construct a way of producing greater collaboration between them, I believe that that would improve matters very much.
I must also—not for the first time—ask the Minister to pay attention to RATS. That does not refer to rodents; it refers to the remote access terminal system. It is the system by which local authorities are supposed to be able to communicate with the DSS in order to obtain information about housing benefit cases. I am advised by people who have been a great deal nearer the coalface than I have that the response of the Benefits Agency, when contacted through RATS, often leaves a great deal to be desired. If that could be improved, it would make the system work a great deal better.
With regard to the subject of change of circumstances, I had a great deal to say but I believe that, along with the principles of the Tax Credits Act, the Minister has already met most of my queries. Therefore, I do not need to detain the House with it.
967 However, I am afraid that I conclude on one note of regret, and that is that thought is still being given to the proposals in Mr Field's Bill concerning housing benefit sanctions. As the Minister knows, my party has fought that tooth and nail and will continue to do so. When questioned by my honourable friend Mr Davey about what would happen to the people who were deprived of their housing benefit—the same question that I asked the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, last week—Mr Field replied that he simply did not care. We found that an unacceptable reply. Therefore, if such a measure is to come before this House, which I hope it is not, I hope that the Government will be able to answer that question before the Bill makes its appearance.
That is my one serious note of reservation on the Statement, which showed an ability to square the circle. That surprised me considerably and I believe the Minister is to be congratulated.
§ 3.53 p.m.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, I have only five minutes in which to respond to many questions from both the noble Lord and the noble Earl. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I try to deal with the main ones and follow up some of the detailed ones in writing. I shall treat the questions as a shopping list rather than dissect them because your Lordships have had the benefit of the Statement.
The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, asked, first, whether the legislation was secondary or primary. It is secondary and will be dealt with by regulations. Secondly, he asked whether we would consult the Social Security Advisory Committee and take heed of its advice. We always have regard to the views of that committee.
Thirdly, he asked what counts as "local"—a point also raised, I believe, by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. In terms of the 10 pathfinder areas, in particular—there will be one in Scotland, one in Wales and others in inner London boroughs and rural areas—they may be coterminous with a local authority area but basically the rent officer will decide what local areas to set, based on the local housing market.
Essentially, the rent officer could decide that in, say, Norwich, the local reference rent for a three-bedroomed family house which housing benefit would meet would be, say, £65. That would then be publicly available in the Jobcentre Plus office. Anyone on income support or JSA who came into that office and who was entitled to a three-bedroomed house by virtue of their family size before the income calculation came into play would know that, when they went to look for a property, they could obtain housing benefit of £65. If they spent less than that, they would keep it; if they spent more, that would be their choice. If they needed to spend more because of exceptional circumstances—for example, they might have a disabled child whose needs called for an extra bedroom, whereas a child 968 of that age would not normally have such a requirement—they would be entitled to discretionary payments.
As of last year, a £50 million budget has been in place, of which the Government put in £20 million, and local authorities are still spending less than half that money—only 40 per cent. Therefore, there is headspace to respond to that type of circumstance as well as to protect vulnerable people. That is how the system will work. No one will be worse off; indeed, 60 per cent of people will gain, and the average gain will be between £10 and £15 a week.
I was asked about the cost of pathfinders. The cost is £20 million for the 10 pathfinders, which will cover some 5 to 10 per cent of tenants in the private rented sector.
The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, asked about fraud. Our current belief is that fraud is running at between £800 million to £1 billion a year. We are driving it down. We hope and expect to do so by at least 25 per cent by the year 2005–06. When we came to power in 1997, local authorities made 700 prosecutions. Last year, there were 1,700 prosecutions. In addition, the noble Lord will recall that in 1997 we introduced a new penalty in the fraud Act. In total, there have been 2,600 cautions and penalties. Therefore, whereas 700 prosecutions were made in 1997, the figure is now 4,000. However, we still have some way to go, and I would not dream of saying otherwise.
In terms of timing, if the pathfinders scheme proves satisfactory, we shall roll out the national scheme in approximately 2005–06. It cannot be introduced into the social rented sector—a point on which the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, pressed me—until the restructuring of social rents has taken place. We expect that to take until the end of the decade. As the noble Lord knows, local authority rents are based on pooled historic costs of construction as opposed to national averages reflecting current market values.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, knows that, at present, any individual seeking housing benefit must look at a property and then apply to the rent officer for a determination. In future, because that information will be known in advance, we shall be able to simplify and speed up the process. It is hoped that error and fraud will be reduced. No one will be worse off and half the people will be better off. As a result, I hope that the welcome offered today by the noble Earl will be fully endorsed by other Members of your Lordships' House.
As to the matter of the run-on, the situation is even better than the noble Earl described. Currently, if a person starts work, the run-on of his full housing benefit will continue, if he receives JSA, for four weeks. However, in future, he will continue to keep his existing housing benefit until the local authority has made the new determination. If the local authority takes 10 weeks, the tenant will enjoy it for six weeks and will not be expected to refund it. Therefore, there is a powerful incentive to local authorities to speed up their processes.
969 I was asked whether the benefit would be automatically uprated for inflation. It will be uprated by rent officers, reflecting movements in the local rental market. As the noble Earl will know, different areas increase their rental levels considerably over a year as compared to other areas, according to housing pressures. Therefore, an automatic national increase would simply not be reasonable or fair.
I have talked about pathfinders. Perhaps I may write to the noble Earl about gypsy sites. With regard to the Frank Field issues of antisocial behaviour orders, I was careful to say that the Government are seeking to make effective antisocial behaviour orders—very often at the request of local authorities. The people who most hate and detest antisocial behaviour are tenants in otherwise respectable council estates who find their lives made miserable by young thugs, graffiti, burnt-out cars, vandalism and drug purchasers, addicts and the like. It is in their name that we seek to act.
§ 4 p.m.
Lord Campbell of Croy
My Lords, I am glad to hear that reform is in prospect for housing benefit. Does the Minister agree that a large proportion of total benefit fraud in recent years has been in housing benefit? Is she aware that tightening the eligibility requirements and the monitoring system would be of real advantage, in particular to eligible disabled people? Is she entirely confident that the proposed changes will reduce fraud?
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, yes. As the noble Lord will know, and as has been discussed in this House, the problem at present is that housing benefit is a high value benefit. It can be worth £450 per month in London. It is also a complex benefit to administer. There is also a steep withdrawal rate when a person moves back into work. If we put those three things together, we have a recipe for fraud. Local authorities continually seek to balance accuracy, given that it is a high value benefit, against speed of delivery, which allows tenants to make a quick decision and to go back into work or, if necessary, to come back out of work.
By moving in the direction we have today, I genuinely believe, in the words of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that we are squaring the circle. It will allow for much greater simplicity. Everyone will know where they stand. At present 60 per cent of private sector tenants' rent is paid to the landlord. This fraud is often a landlord fraud. In future it will be paid primarily to tenants unless there are good grounds not to do so. That, too, should reduce fraud. By virtue of its ease, simplicity, transparency, the supporting administration and the direct payment to tenants, I am confident that we should be able to address the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy.
§ Baroness Carnegy of Lour
My Lords, I understood the noble Baroness to say in the first part of the Statement that deregulation would happen by secondary legislation. Will that happen under 970 deregulation legislation? I do not want to waste the time of the House. Perhaps the Minister can tell me whether that will happen.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, this is not about the deregulation of rent; it is about producing an "upfront" housing benefit payment. Therefore, it will be passed in the ordinary way by secondary legislation. It has no connection with the deregulation of rents. We are talking ultimately about restructuring social housing rents, which is a different issue. At present about 90 per cent of private sector rents are deregulated. As far as I know there are no proposals to change that.
§ Baroness Carnegy of Lour
My Lords, perhaps the Minister can clarify one matter. Does that mean secondary legislation to existing legislation, which allows for secondary legislation?
§ The Earl of Listowel
My Lords, I hope noble Lords will forgive my ignorance in this matter. This may affect a concern raised with me by mothers in temporary accommodation in Paddington about long waits in offices with shabby, unwelcoming interiors and little provision for children. Will the new measures allow an opportunity to consider where the distribution of and inquiries about housing benefit take place? Am I right in understanding that there will be fewer visits as a result of these measures and therefore less trouble for such parents?
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, as regards the second point raised by the noble Earl, one proposal is that people will be able to make their housing benefit application by telephone. More generally, most people on benefit will normally be coming in and out of the new Jobcentre Plus offices. As the noble Earl will know, these new offices integrate the old employment service and benefit offices. If he has the opportunity to visit the new offices, I believe he will be as impressed as I was. They look like airport lounges with stripped pine floors and comfortable seating. When I last visited, there was free orange juice for the children. They are extremely comfortable and welcoming.
We hope that people will receive at that point an holistic service. They will be able to discuss their benefit entitlement; try to work out whether they could or should go into work; whether they should change their accommodation; and whether they can come out of a half-way house into full accommodation and like matters. All of that information will be available at Jobcentre Plus. Particular issues about individual claims will be a matter for local authorities. But at Jobcentre Plus all the information I have mentioned will be available to them.
§ Baroness Maddock
My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what criteria the Government will use to 971 judge the success or otherwise of the 10 pathfinder areas? How will young people on single-room rent benefit fare in these areas?
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, first, anyone who is on single-room rent benefit will not be worse off. A substantial number of such people will be better off. At present, approximately 15,000 tenants receive single-room rent benefit; that is, around 2 per cent of all private tenants. Approximately three-quarters face a shortfall because they are in more expensive accommodation than the rent benefit provides. That is not just because of the way that housing benefit is set by the local authorities but by the way it is administered by local rent officers. Often they appear to have different interpretations of eligibility for single-room rent benefit. The proposals should help that situation considerably. It is also the case that many will gain, as will all other private rented tenants.
Perhaps the noble Baroness would be kind enough to repeat her first question?
§ Baroness Maddock
My Lords, what criteria will the Government use to judge whether the 10 pathfinder areas are successful?
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, normally this question is one asked by the noble Lord, Earl Russell. The 10 pathfinders will be independently assessed and evaluated by an independent research body. The tenders for the research assessment, whether that is to be done by a university body or whoever, are going out now. They will be properly assessed and reviewed and that information will be made available to us.
We are seeking to discover, first, whether this provision speeds up the claims for housing benefit; secondly, whether it reduces the claims for fraud; thirdly, whether it makes it easier for people to move into work and, finally, whether landlords and tenants as well as local authorities feel that as a result they are offering a better service to tenants.
§ Lord Best
My Lords, I warmly welcome the Statement and apologise for trying to ask a question too soon in the proceedings. The Rowntree Foundation has published a pile of reports about housing benefits. The Statement appears to answer nearly all of our long list of problems concerning what has been recently an abysmal benefit.
My question concerns the social housing sector and housing associations. I appreciate that the new measures will apply only to private landlords and that the new standard local housing allowance with its shopping incentive is appropriate only in relation to the private sector. Nevertheless, a number of features of the housing benefit system which are entirely wrong and a number of the complexities and bureaucratic delays built into it apply equally to the social housing sector and to housing associations.
I declare my interest as director of the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust as well as of the foundation which produces the research reports. Our tenants remain disturbed by the way in which they have to wait interminably to receive their housing benefit. The 972 40-page document which, as has been explained, pensioners must complete to continue to receive the benefit they received in the previous year falls upon the tenants of social landlords and housing associations just as much as in the private sector. Will the pilot study and the wonderfully important measures that will proceed—I do not refer to standard local housing allowance—such as speed and simplicity apply also to housing associations?
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Best, is expert in housing matters. One warmly welcomes him to discussion on the Statement. He is right: we can reform housing benefit but unless the performance of local authorities—I refer not just to administering housing benefit for the private sector but for social rented housing apart from their own local authority housing—improves, the associations more generally and tenants in particular will continue to be at an extreme disadvantage.
The noble Lord will know, as well as I do the efforts being made to strengthen the administration, including simplification, of housing benefit in local authorities. For example, at present all housing benefit claims run for a maximum of only 60 weeks, and sometimes only 26 weeks. In future, as with income support and JSA, they will run continuously until there is a change of circumstance notified, although obviously there will be checks on that. People will not need to make repeat claims, which should reduce the workload for local authorities. When people move into work they will not have to complete a brand new form with all personal details, just the change of circumstance. Again, that will reduce the workload. There will be a rapid reclaim system if someone falls out of work within the first 12 weeks of starting work. Immediately he or she will receive the previous benefit, which will reduce the complexity and the amount of work involved.
In addition to that kind of strengthening of the administration, there is the performance standard fund of about £200 million, strengthening the IT packages of local authorities, and the performance improvement action teams. There are also the successful help teams which have made substantial improvements in about 20 local authorities. I was told of one example where a DWP help team, with the consent of the local authorities, worked on their backlogs and their processes as a result of which their outstanding claims dropped from 14,000 to 5,000 in the space of two-and-a-half months. Those are significant changes. They can bring national experience to bear on modest-sized authorities. On top of that, there are help funds for which local authorities bid. If at the end of all such incentives, encouragement, support systems and IT packages a local authority still fails to deliver, we can introduce directions, as we have with four local authorities, requiring them to abide by certain behaviours.
We are well aware, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, said, that unless a high value benefit is speedily but accurately delivered and claimed and reclaimed, all our efforts of welfare to work will flounder and many 973 people will continue to experience insecurity and a risk of homelessness. Much rides on getting housing benefit administration right.
§ Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville
My Lords, this is a trivial observation, but we appear to have time on our side. At first blush I cannot see any reference to a publication date in the document Building choice and responsibility: a radical agenda for Housing Benefit. I would not be so cynical as to follow my noble friend Lord Higgins in suggesting that that was intended to disguise the Secretary of State's reference to the system that has been inherited. I acknowledge that there is some internal evidence, but I believe that in the future scholars would find such a document more helpful if it contained a publication date.
§ Lord Greaves
My Lords, like most government documents nowadays it does not contain an index. Although this one is not as long as some, the point has been made from these Benches before and it will continue to be made.
Another point, which noble Lords may consider superficial, is one of potential confusion. On page 13 the paper refers to proposals that the Government are already carrying out and states:Work is now under way to deal with the causes and consequences of low demand in nine of the worst-affected areas".Such areas are known as "pathfinder areas" and include east Lancashire, which is the one that I know best. In those areas structures are being set up, new committees are being formed to which people are being appointed, people are applying for funding, and so on. Inevitably, the Government call them pathfinders, as do local people. If there are nine pathfinder areas in areas of low demand based on housing renewal and social renewal—that is what they are supposed to be about—and we are to have another 10 pathfinder areas dealing with something quite different, one wonders how many other issues there are for which the Government will create pathfinder areas.
As seems likely, if one or two of the areas are the same, or they overlap, there will be great confusion. Can the Government find other trendy, spin-like titles for their new projects rather than giving them all the same title thus causing confusion?
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, I cannot see why the noble Lord believes that we should find nice spin-words for the description of such socially worthy causes. Spare the thought.
We are talking about pathfinders or pilots. When in opposition I regularly used to criticise the government Front Bench for not trying things out first and for not learning from experience. We are trying to build in a learning loop so that we can try things out and see whether they work and so that decisions are informed by the best research. In practice all kinds of things may happen and consequently we need to evaluate, revise and adjust matters.
974 Perhaps one of the differences between a pathfinder and a pilot is that a pathfinder carries with it a greater expectation of rolling out the scheme nationally. Quite rightly, so far as I am aware, the Government in all their interventions in social policy, which are not just about raising rates and so on, try to build in a learning loop. Perhaps the noble Lord would like to send me a Roget's Thesaurus of alternative words to "pathfinder" and "pilot" and I shall ensure that that is drawn to the attention of the correct person.
§ Baroness Barker
My Lords, I have two points. First, the issue of hospital downrating, which we discussed on the State Pension Credit Bill, and how it will be covered by the new proposals—particularly how the new systems will work with those of the NHS—is not mentioned in the document. Secondly, on implementation, how will the proposals overlap with "supporting people" initiatives and transitional housing benefit which are underway at the moment? Can the Minister tell us anything about that?
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, unless I have missed the point, I do not see how it will have any interaction with hospital downrating. The policies on that have already been determined. Anyone in receipt of existing housing benefit will receive that housing benefit because it is adjusted already to the local reference rent. That will continue. Therefore, all the tapers and so on that we discussed earlier about hospital downrating will continue to operate on those rents.
Essentially, we are aligning housing benefit with standard reference rents and if one is paid less than that one keeps the difference. There is no big change in terms of people's financial circumstances. Having the matter up front allows one to handle the processes with speed, transparency and security. As for the "supporting people" initiatives, although we expect tenants to be paid directly, for the vulnerable special arrangements will continue to be made.