Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. David Davis: As the Minister will know, I was thinking on my feet when I responded to that question. Letters of direction might involve commercial confidentiality or security implications, both of which would be inappropriate to be placed in the Library.

Mr. Timms: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about that. He and the hon. Member for Newbury are right to suggest that, in general, such action should be considered, and I shall certainly consider it. Such letters are already copied to the CAG, who may investigate them if he wishes.

Mr. Rendel: I am slightly confused about whether the Minister can choose whether such letters should be placed in the Library. I should have thought that the Chairman of the Committee--or perhaps the whole Committee--would choose whether the letters should be placed in the Library, although the Minister might wish to consult the Chairman.

Mr. Timms: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; I shall also reflect on that point, together with the right hon. Gentleman.

As always, this year's debate on public accounts has been reassuring and instructive. It has been reassuring because it shows that the long-established parliamentary scrutiny on which we pride ourselves is as effective and searching as ever. It has been instructive because that scrutiny provides an opportunity to show how procedures can be improved, as well as providing a vehicle for justified criticism when projects are not properly thought through. Of course there will be disagreements from time to time, but such debates help to take forward the wide range of concerns that the Government and Committee share.

14 Dec 2000 : Column 865

I conclude from the debate that the Government need to focus on two matters. First, we must continue to improve the management of the systems by which public money is collected and deployed. Secondly, we must continue to improve the management of projects to deliver public services. The Committee's reports continue to make those priorities clear, and I am happy to endorse them.

Question put and agreed to.


14 Dec 2000 : Column 866

Housing Benefit

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Touhig.]

4.36 pm

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise this issue, which is of considerable importance to my constituents and to claimants across the country. When I was a little girl and asked my mother, "What shall I be?" in the Doris Day tradition, she never suggested as a career becoming a housing benefit nerd. I fear that it would have been sensible if she had given me that advice because I have taken the path of housing benefit nerddom.

I make no claim to have housing benefit expertise. Probably only four people in the world understand the housing benefit system--one more than those who understand the Schleswig-Holstein question. I have never attempted to include myself in that august elite, but I have donned the honorary anorak of housing benefit obsession, especially in recent months as the implications of the near collapse of housing benefit administration in my constituency have become clear. I lost the bloom of youth serving on housing benefit review tribunals during my career in local government in the early 1990s. Since then, as my hon. Friend the Minister is aware, the Select Committee on Social Security has examined several housing benefit administration issues.

The reason I have that underlying obsession is that, although housing benefit has never been a topic of conversation guaranteed to enliven parties, it matters a great deal, especially to the most vulnerable people in society--those who depend for the security of their homes on their housing costs being met efficiently and promptly. When the housing benefit system goes wrong, as it has in my constituency and many other parts of the country, it causes levels of distress and anxiety that no one should have to suffer, as I shall show during my speech.

I want to make one or two other points before I deal with the main issue. Although the task will be fiendishly difficult, I strongly believe that housing benefit reform must be one of the next Labour Government's key priorities. I do not underestimate the difficulty and complexity of the task, but simplifying and improving the housing benefit system is an absolute precondition if we are to build on the excellent foundations of the taxation and social security system and to improve work incentives, tackle poverty and ensure choice in the housing sector. Many policies have cried out for change.

Those issues were set out in detail by the Select Committee on Social Security and include single room restrictions for the under-25s, the high levels of non-dependant deductions and the operation of emergency payments for families on low incomes facing housing benefit restrictions.

Although I have not studied them in detail, I am aware of the welcome announcements made this week by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security. No doubt my hon. Friend the Minister will refer to them. I am also aware of the content of the Government's response to consultation relating to the housing Green Paper. I warmly welcome the indication, in both those responses, of changes that will be made in the tackling of problems with the administration of housing benefit, and of flaws in policy.

14 Dec 2000 : Column 867

I am very pleased that the Government have decided not to restrict backdating of housing benefit, following consultation and advice from the Social Security Advisory Committee and lobbying from local authorities and other specialist organisations. The restriction of backdating would have been seriously damaging to vulnerable clients, especially in view of the enormous difficulties experienced in many parts of the country with the delivery of housing benefits.

In half my constituency--the part covering the Conservative-controlled London borough of Westminster--the outsourcing of benefit administration to Capita put the system into free fall. At one point in the spring there were 23,000 items of post backed up. I am genuinely pleased that the situation is now under a degree of control, but at the last count a wholly unacceptable 10,545 items of correspondence remained to be dealt with, and according to reliable information the number of payments to meet rent rebate claims was decreasing at the last count.

During the midsummer peak of the crisis, claimants--many of them elderly--were sometimes required to queue for three hours at Westbourne house. Some claimants have told me of having to queue for five hours. Those who have attempted to sort out their problems at housing benefit offices have been told early in the morning that there is no point in waiting. They have gone away again and again, increasingly frustrated and anxious about the implications for them if they do not receive housing benefit.

The service offered to people who try to deal with their problems in person is appalling. One lady who spoke to me had waited at the housing benefit office for two hours, with her documentation, and had then asked to use the toilet. She was told that there was not one available for public use, although she had a medical condition. I understand that a toilet is now available, but that it is kept locked and claimants must ask to use it.

Public interaction with the social security system in all its forms is critical. Claimants who are overwhelmingly genuine and, in many cases, vulnerable deserve to be treated efficiently, and with respect to their dignity. If they are not treated in such a way, their experience of Government will be undermined. That is a dangerous and unpleasant fact, but it has been demonstrated in a number of cases.

Councillor Alexander Nicholl, chairman of the council's contracts committee, told Inside Housing magazine that the situation was

I doubt that that dismissal of claimants' concerns will greatly comfort my 85-year-old constituent who made a housing benefit claim in the summer, which then became stuck in a queue along with all the other claims. Having never owed money before--as is the case with a great many claimants--my constituent is unable to sleep because of the anxiety caused by five months' rent, and is selling items of furniture to tide herself over.

My client Mr. Habboushi has not received housing benefit for more than 12 months. Set after set of original documentation has gone missing. I have referred the case to the local government ombudsman who, it seems, has also been unable to obtain a reply from the council since the middle of the summer.

14 Dec 2000 : Column 868

One young man who had been housed by the council because of mental health problems--through the community care housing policy--became so agitated by all the problems involved in sorting out his claim that, according to his carer, he handed in his key, and is now assumed to be sleeping rough. One lady has been asked on five occasions for her husband's death certificate; another lady with terminal cancer has a county court judgment against her for unpaid debts. My constituents are running up rent arrears amounting to thousands of pounds--£11,000 in one instance. They are experiencing the profound distress of receiving notices seeking possession from their landlords because of debts that are not of their making.

Following up a case with the West Hampstead housing association, which I believe is pretty typical, I was told:

What an indictment of the system--only when people are threatened with homelessness can priority be given to their claims. Can hon. Members imagine the anxiety and fear caused to parents with young children, and to elderly and sick or disabled clients, by the receipt of an awesomely imposing legal document telling them that because of unpaid debts they will lose their homes?

The problem is, of course, by no means confined to Westminster. Some authorities are undoubtedly worse, although I do not think that should let the Conservative flagship authority off the hook. The housing charity Shelter has drawn my attention to cases outside my constituency. One involves a lone parent with three children, who ended up in court in a repossession hearing after her council had lost her claim form and refused to accept that a claim had been made. The court found in her favour, but at what cost, given the anxiety and distress that she experienced?

In another case, a single man waited seven months for his claim to be processed. Only when Shelter threatened a judicial review did the council make a payment, a full 11 months and £5,550 of debt later. The man has now been notified that his benefit was stopped again in July, as the normal 52-week review period was required.

Landlords themselves, both private and public, are also suffering. Housing associations are so stricken by cash flow problems that they are resorting to issuing notices seeking possession to spur the council into action.

Notting Hill housing trust provides a wide range of housing services in London--it is a valued local landlord of mine--but, in my view, none of those services is as crucial as the provision of temporary accommodation for homeless families, on behalf of local authorities. Families are often in a desperate state when they have lost their homes, but the housing trust puts them together again. Children are settled at school, and families begin to regain their self-respect and their ability to stand on their own feet.

What a disaster it is that those people must face a bureaucratic, cumbersome and badly run housing benefit service. The Notting Hill trust helps 515 families on behalf of Westminster city council. Arrears have been rising fast, from £500,000 in April to £1.3 million last month. Given the slow progress of claims, it is hard for Notting Hill, and other landlords and housing

14 Dec 2000 : Column 869

associations, to know what they are genuinely required to collect from their tenants, and what is due from the council.

Notting Hill--this is a matter of profound regret to me--recently told Westminster city council that it could no longer provide for homeless families, until the position improved. I believe that other housing associations have considered the same action. Such decisions are very serious, because they increase the likelihood of vulnerable families' going into bed-and-breakfast accommodation--something that all civilised people want to avoid.

I know that staff in Westminster city council and elsewhere are working hard to speed things up, and I pay tribute to them because I know how much stress they experience, but this is no way to run a system in the long term. We know of the problems underlying the crisis. There was an ill-considered outsourcing to companies, including Capita, which were clearly not prepared for the scale and complexity of the task that faced them. Some responsibility must fall on Westminster city council for the inadequacy of the original contract, and some must fall on Capita and other companies that patently underestimated the scale of the task.

The performance of local authorities varies, and poor performers must take their share of the blame. Nevertheless, I believe that central Government had a case to answer. Regulations have been introduced at a wholly unrealistic pace, placing unreasonable demands on local authorities--I believe that some 80 have been introduced in the last year. Moreover, local authorities have historically been inadequately funded for the administrative tasks that they are being asked to undertake on behalf of central Government.

The verification framework, while entirely laudable in principle, has placed too heavy a burden on authorities and urgently needs to be reviewed with an eye to simplification. The requirements of the verification programme place local providers, such as the Church Army, St. Mungo's and Wytham Hall which work with homeless families, in particular difficulty.

In my constituency work, I deal with many refugees whose original documentation has been locked away inside the immigration and nationality directorate, sometimes for years, thereby making it impossible for them to present the verification documentation required by housing benefit departments. There remains great scope for joined-up thinking between the Home Office, the Department of Social Security and the local government agencies under the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, to determine whether some of the documentation requirements are unrealistic and should be reviewed.

I very much welcome the Minister's indication that, at least initially in a pilot, registered social landlords may be allowed to use other verification documentation. I know that registered social landlords have asked for and would welcome that facility, which I think would significantly reduce the burden.

As I said, this week's announcements go a considerable way towards meeting my wider concerns about administration of housing benefit, and I particularly welcome the positive and constructive tone in which they have been made. They contrast with the previous Government's total indifference on the issue. Over

14 Dec 2000 : Column 870

18 years, they let housing benefit take the strain of housing costs and created many of the problems that we are now trying to tackle.

We are on the right road, but there is much more to be done to simplify the system, reduce the administrative burden on councils and remove some of the harsher policy elements in relation to non-dependant deductions, rent restrictions and the other issues flagged up in the Select Committee on Social Security.

I believe that we may be close to ending the administrative chaos that has blighted so many lives in recent months and years. Will the Government please ensure that they follow through on the proposals announced earlier this week and help to ensure that local authorities which, for whatever reason, are providing a completely inadequate service are enabled to deliver properly for housing benefit claimants?

Will my hon. Friend the Minister also promise that long-term reforms will be built on to extend and develop the proposals that were announced this week, so that we can seriously consider options such as fixed-term payment periods--for 12 months for pensioners and six months for people of working age, which I think go a little beyond the proposal that has already been announced--and a full review of the current system of rent restrictions? Will she also assure me that, in the coming months, organisations such as the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, Shelter, the Chartered Institute of Housing and the National Housing Federation--which has played a very constructive role in the dialogue on housing benefit reform--are fully consulted on the necessary changes?

Thank you very much again, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise this issue. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.

Next Section

IndexHome Page