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17 Oct 2002 : Column 484—continued

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Will the Secretary of State explain a little more about how his proposals will deal with private landlords who exploit the current system by not maintaining their properties, which, in effect, encourages antisocial behaviour and, as a result, accelerates neighbourhood decline?

Mr. Smith: I share my hon. Friend's commitment to tackling not only rogue landlords but the wider syndrome of degeneration, especially in some of our urban neighbourhoods. As I said, I believe that these proposals make a contribution to tackling those problems because they put more power in the hands of tenants and less in the hands of the bad landlords. They will make the situation clearer for tenants and landlords than it is at present. At the moment, when a tenant is deciding which property to live in, they are effectively shopping in the dark without knowing how much money they have in their purse. Under these proposals, they will know how much money they will be taking to get the best deal. It is right that we should extend to them the opportunity to express a choice in these situations. Of course, there is a much wider agenda here, and, as I said in my statement, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is consulting on wider measures to tackle antisocial landlords. We look forward to those measures being introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): I welcome the broad thrust of the Secretary of State's proposals and I look forward to reading the detail of the consultation paper. I especially welcome his desire to crack down on both rogue landlords and neighbours from hell. He will understand the healthy scepticism on Conservative Benches about the claim that the Government will introduce fewer bureaucratic measures than their predecessors. If they can achieve that, we would warmly welcome it and wish them well.

In my experience, many software systems that local authorities use to oversee the housing benefit system often break down and fail to deliver. Will the Secretary of State give guidance and advice to local authorities on the computer systems that they should use to ensure that they deliver the right result and that tenants can interact with them quickly and carefully?

Mr. Smith: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for our proposals. He made an important

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point: IT software often leaves a great deal to be desired. A working group is examining the matter in partnership with local authorities. The roll-out of the pathfinders and their experience will provide important lessons about the way in which we can ensure that the system works properly and delivers the standards of service that we all expect.

The system is simpler because it makes poking around every nook and cranny of the assessment of every rent unnecessary. It should therefore be simpler for IT.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): My right hon. Friend referred to overcoming the complexity of claiming housing benefit under the current arrangements. Perhaps he could expand on the way in which the new measures would achieve that. Does not Jobcentre Plus operate as a method of assisting claimants by drawing people together who are seeking both benefits and employment? Will it assist matters to close jobcentres such as that in Eckington in my constituency? My right hon. Friend saved it in the past and may consider the position again. How will people in those circumstances find it easier to gain access to the provisions that we are considering?

Mr. Smith: As I said, the simpler system will be more user friendly and make it easier for people to claim their entitlements. The wider proposals to which I referred involve replacing approximately four forms that people must currently complete with one form. We will enable and encourage making claims by telephone. Jobcentre Plus will be able to handle those claims. As the scheme is rolled out across the country, it will become a genuine one-stop service for those who are seeking work as well as benefits.

My hon. Friend referred to a specific jobcentre. My ministerial team and I will be pleased to talk to him further about its future.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): The development is welcome from the point of view of the Social Security Committee, as it was. The hurdle of housing benefit prevented people from getting off benefit and into work, and it was one of the biggest items of unfinished business since the Government were elected in 1997. This morning's announcement constitutes a significant step forward, which I welcome.

I hope that the Secretary of State will acknowledge that hon. Members would be wise to consider the detail carefully because it will make all the difference to whether the proposals are successful and fulfil the aspirations that he set out.

I want to make two brief points. First, I am slightly disappointed that the public sector has not been used for any of the pilots. I understand that the Labour party made a manifesto commitment to deal with private before public, but I hope that that does not mean that public is off the agenda for the rest of the Parliament. I would have been happier if the pathfinders had included some public sector research.

Secondly, when the Government introduced pension credit, they sensibly made it clear that the interface between housing benefit and pension credit would

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prejudice no one. Will the Secretary of State comment on the second phase of the tax credit reform that will be introduced next spring and how it will interface with the proposals that he announced this morning?

Mr. Smith: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's welcome and for the work that his Select Committee does in this important area.

In response to the hon. Gentleman's first question, I too am keen to be able to include the social sector. Clearly we must have progress on rent restructuring. Given that that is predicated on an element of tenant choice, that too needs to be reflected in the social housing sector if the benefits are to be realised. As we roll out the pathfinders, we shall actively be looking for opportunities to involve the public sector. Far from that sector being off the agenda, it is very much on it in terms of the national roll-out of such reform.

The hon. Gentleman's second question was about tax credits coming in next April. We shall be examining carefully the interaction between the two factors that he identified, and we are mindful of the work that local authorities have to accomplish next year on housing benefit systems. It is especially important that there is careful consultation with the authorities that we are minded to approach as pathfinders to ensure that they are enthusiastic about taking on the job.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): Beveridge decided not to proceed with fundamental housing benefit reform because of cost differentials in different parts of the country, which of course have increased dramatically over recent years. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the scheme works effectively in high-cost areas such as London? The number of properties in the private rented sector that are available to people on housing benefit has halved in five years. One of my constituents was told that to look for a property while on housing benefit, it would be necessary to go to Dartford, Billericay or Brentwood, 40 miles from central London. The choice agenda is critical.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure also that poverty is addressed? The shortfalls between the housing benefit that is payable and actual rents in the Greater London area are a major cause of poverty, and in turn drive households into homelessness and into public sector housing. In the application of the policy, will my right hon. Friend advise me how it will increase choice by increasing supply in the private rented sector, how it will reduce poverty and how it will reduce the flow of households, especially families from the private rented sector, into homelessness?

Mr. Smith: I am certainly mindful of the particular problems that affect high-cost areas; indeed, according to outside-London terms, my constituency is a high-cost area. I am sensitive to the particular challenge facing people and authorities in London. That is one of the reasons why we want to ensure that pathfinder areas include a London authority.

As for poverty, through these proposals no one will be worse off, and a significant proportion of tenants will be better off. There is a wider challenge facing us on housing supply, and that is one of the reasons why the

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Government have already substantially increased investment in social housing. As a consequence of the spending review, we are accelerating that investment still further.

I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to keep these matters closely under review and to examine what are the future options to ensure that the problems that she has identified, arising from a diminishing range of properties available to those in housing need in London, are effectively addressed.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I have time limited main business to protect this afternoon, in which many hon. Members wish to take part. I do not think that I will be able to call every Member who is trying to catch my eye on the statement. Brief questions and brief answers would help.

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