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Lord Dubs: I thank the Minister for his reply, which is reasonably helpful. I agree with him that it would not make sense to have such a requirement permanently on the statute book. I have achieved what the amendment sought, which is a positive response from the Minister. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 255CB not moved.]

5.30 p.m.

Clause 106 [Payment of housing benefit to third parties]:

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 255CBA:

Page 70, line 29, at end insert--
(" "( ) Regulations relating to housing benefit under subsection (1)(h) above--
(a) shall require a request for information or evidence by the determining authority to be made in such a manner and within such a period as may be prescribed, not being more than seven days from the date on which the new claim is received at the appropriate Department of Social Security office, or the designated office, whichever is the earlier, and
(b) where it appears to the determining authority that further information or evidence is required, shall require that request to be not more than ten days from the date on which the claim is received.").

The noble Baroness said: With this amendment we move onto the next part of the Bill dealing with housing benefit. I do not know which noble Lord on the Government Front Bench is handling it but if, as I believe, it is, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, may I congratulate him on behalf of these

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Benches on his appointment as a Privy Counsellor which is well merited. We are delighted to be able to express this here on the first occasion on the Bench.

Noble Lords: Hear, Hear!

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: As this is the opening amendment on this part of the Bill perhaps I may make a few general remarks before going into what is a fairly modest amendment. We are all very worried about the future administration of housing benefit. The system is breaking down. We have very high rates of error, very high rates of fraud and a too low take-up figure with too long delays in paying out housing benefit.

Let me look at the first of these--fraud. I will come back to this in a later amendment. Somewhere between £1 billion and £2 billion of the £10 billion paid out in housing benefit may be fraudulent, mostly paid to fraudulent landlords who invent fictitious tenants. Until recently, local authorities had to pay back any money that they recovered, which was effectively a tax on crime-busting, so they did not do so. Wisely, however, the Government have changed their policy on this and given local authorities encouragement to pursue fraud. But it requires time, it requires staff and it requires detailed information--validating the income, perhaps, of the self-employed or checking the landlord's property and the identity of tenants in a floating ethnic minority community. There is a problem of fraud and all the evidence suggests that parties on all sides of this Chamber have under-estimated the amount of fraud that is occurring in housing benefit.

Secondly, the Government have also, in my view very foolishly, introduced changes in housing benefit which allow landlords to repossess property after eight weeks rather than after 13 weeks in arrears. The more careful the local authority is to check on fraud--and that takes time--the longer it takes to pay out a housing benefit claim, the more impatient landlords get, and the more keen they are to evict.

To that has been added a third pressure. Housing benefit is now paid four weeks in arrears, which I can tell the Committee is really popular with landlords. It is the requirement now that when a local authority has collected all the information it needs the clock starts ticking and the local authority has to pay the housing benefit within 14 days of receiving that information. Even so, only 70 per cent. of authorities achieve the target figure of meeting 80 per cent. of the claims within 14 days. It can take weeks--eight, 10 or 12 weeks--to collect information, especially if a claimant is self-employed or the employer is reluctant to co-operate or where there is a particularly difficult situation involving hours of work that fluctuate because of part time or casual labour. In the meanwhile, the landlord gets impatient and seeks possession. If the local authority does make a payment on account and it turns out not to be justified, which I suspect may be the ministerial answer, it is very hard to recover and the local authority may well be criticised by the district auditor.

The Government have boxed in the local authority and the tenant. We need to have the claims thoroughly checked to avoid fraud but, in so doing, it takes longer

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to pay out whereupon the landlord is more likely to evict. That process is made worse by the fact that housing benefit is now being paid in arrears. All that makes the tenant increasingly vulnerable.

What we are trying to do with this amendment--it is a very modest amendment but I felt it was right to try to state the nature of our concerns--is to reduce the time that the local authority has in order to seek additional information before the clock starts ticking. This amendment would say to the local authority, "You have seven days to request the information you need to check on this claim and beyond that you have a further 10 days for any additional information." Thereafter the clock starts ticking. We bring a sense of urgency into the system and we hope that as a result we will be both scrupulous in the handling of public money vis-a-vis the landlord, but also I hope we will protect the tenant from coming under pressure from the landlord for eviction. I beg to move.

Earl Russell: I must apologise to the noble Baroness for my discourtesy in missing the first minute of her speech. I have agreed with what I have heard and I am happy to support this amendment for the time being.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: And trust me on the rest!

Earl Russell: I certainly trust the amendment, which is what I am here to support. One extra reason for supporting this amendment is that I hope the Minister might feel that it will save us from some occasionally fruitless and vigorous exchanges across the Chamber, the last of which happened while we were engaged on the housing benefit regulations only a few weeks ago.

Before I go any further, I take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister most warmly on his elevation to the Privy Council, which is a very just honour in which I take a great deal of pleasure.

The trouble is that the Minister is always expressing with confidence figures about housing benefit delay which appear to those of us with experience of the subject on the ground to be absolutely incredible--particularly incredible if our experience happens to come, as mine does, from the London Borough of Brent. The reason why we have this trouble with information is that we are measuring different things. The 14 days within which the landlord of the housing benefit authority is supposed to determine the housing benefit runs from the day it receives the last bit of information. When information does not come in, it is extremely easy and sometimes correct to blame the tenant, but it is not always correct to do so. Local authorities, especially if they are cash-strapped, overcome by a flow of business or generally crippled by the weight of what they have to do--as sometimes happens, particularly in inner city authorities--simply may not get round to sending out requests for additional information.

I believe I am right in saying that the London Borough of Lambeth discovered three sacks of housing benefit mail which had been left unopened for three months. In such a case this amendment would apply, because it would mean that the clock would start ticking

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and the local authority would have to get its finger out and do something about it. It would therefore relieve a great deal of hardship among tenants whose claims are frequently delayed through no fault of their own; it would relieve the pressure on homelessness (whatever we think of Part VII of the Bill, we all agree that that pressure should be relieved); and it would relieve public funds since homelessness tends to be expensive. It would also save a great deal of often useless acrimony in debate when we are not discussing figures on the same basis.

For all those reasons I am delighted to support the amendment; I am glad it was tabled and I thank the noble Baroness for moving it.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Earl for their kind words on what the noble Earl described as his pleasure at seeing me elevated to the Privy Council--a pleasure I share. I thank them for their kind words and the Chamber for its assent in those congratulations.

Amendment No. 255CBA would require local authorities to request the information or evidence required in connection with a claim for housing benefit within seven days of that claim being made and, if they need further information, that must be requested within 10 days of the claim being received. The noble Baroness indicated 10 days thereafter. In fact, though that may be what she meant it is not what the amendment says. The amendment allows only a further three days.

The purpose of the amendment, as the noble Baroness and the noble Earl explained, is to speed up the claims process in order to get benefit to claimants more quickly. But it may well have the opposite effect.

Under this provision, authorities would have just two opportunities to obtain all the information needed to determine and maintain a claim. Once the seven days had elapsed, a local authority would only be able to seek further information within the next three days, giving the claimant no realistic time to reply to the first inquiry. If they failed to request any item of information within the statutory time limits, no matter how important, they would either have to do without or press ahead with a request for which there would be no statutory backing. In the event of the latter, the claimant would arguably be within his or her rights to refuse to co-operate. Faced with that dilemma, an authority could only determine the claim on the basis of the available evidence, which might result in benefit being overpaid, underpaid, or in the claim being rejected.

And the difficulties would not end there. Once the time limits had passed a local authority would not be able to seek any further information in connection with any subsequent review of a claimant's circumstances. Instead, the authority would have to rely entirely on the claimant reporting every relevant change correctly. The consequences of such a course and the opportunities it presents for fraudulent claims are unthinkable. I am sure that that is not the outcome the noble Baroness desires; indeed, she expressed quite contrary terms. But that may be one of the conclusions if the amendment is accepted.

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There are already measures in place to help speed up the claims process, including demanding targets that staff must meet in connection with the determination of claims.

In 1994-95 local authorities determined 83 per cent. of claims within the 14-day target. Of course there must be a target of receiving all the required information; it cannot be expressed any other way and local authorities are steadily improving their performance.

The noble Earl suggested that some local authorities may not get round to sending out for the additional information and referred to three sacks of mail waiting for three months. I am sure the noble Earl would accept that that must have been due to different circumstances and would not be a deliberate policy of the local authority or its housing benefit staff. I am sure they try to get on with the job as quickly as they can and that the benefit claim is dealt with as speedily as possible. If it is not dealt with speedily and the tenant is not able to pay his rent for some weeks or months, then the person may land in the local authority's lap as a homeless person. It is not therefore in the authority's interest to stall those decisions, for whatever reason, and it is not in their interests to be inefficient.

We know that most claims are dealt with promptly and I am sure that there is not a deliberate intention on the part of the authority staff to delay claims. One must therefore be careful when one lays down procedures in law because they may hinder rather than improve efficient customer service.

I hope that with that exploration of the issue of the speedy determination of claims, the noble Baroness will be able to withdraw the amendment which makes the timetable extremely tight and could act in a contrary manner to the way in which we all wish to see local authorities act.

5.45 p.m.

Earl Russell: I am grateful to the Minister for that careful and thoughtful reply. But I wonder whether he puts a little too much weight on the argument that it is not in the local authority's interest to delay. It is not in anybody's interest to drive too fast for safety on the road; but it does happen from time to time. It is necessary that the law should restrain it, as it properly does.

I admit that the example of three unopened sacks was unusual. It came from the London Borough of Lambeth which for a long time has been unusual. I make no party point; it was simply an exceptional authority. But these things happen. I take the point the Minister made that there are a considerable number of targets on the local authority. Perhaps he could clarify one specific point.

Is there a specific target on the local authority for sending out requests for information within a certain time? If not, perhaps the Minister could give an undertaking that in future there will be such a target. That may go some way to meet the point of the amendment. It is a serious point. If the Minister does not want to meet it that way, perhaps when we come back to the Bill at Report stage, he can meet the point in a different way under Clause 94 which shortens the

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period for eviction for non-payment of rent from 13 to eight weeks. It would help considerably if that period were to run not from the beginning of the request from the tenant for housing benefit, but from the completion of the requests for information.

There are a great many delays in housing benefit which run well beyond the 13 weeks. Therefore, if nothing is done, people will be evicted through no fault of their own. Though the Minister made a lot of fair points, I hope that he made them with a view to finding a better way of meeting a genuine difficulty.

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