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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Perhaps I can try to respond. On the last day on which we discussed these matters I tried to outline the average timetable of a potential eviction. The eight weeks may start the trigger but it takes a few more weeks before anything happens in relation to eviction. Of course, through that time, if the rent is paid, the clock ceases to tick and the process stops. The time therefore is a little more than eight weeks.

We are not quite up against the eight weeks' barrier. A tenant having trouble getting his housing benefit agreed would have a little more time than that. But timetables work both ways. I would be reluctant to suggest an alternative to the seven and 10 days contained in the amendment, which is what the noble Earl is inviting me to do. The fact that 83 per cent. of claims are determined and paid within 14 days is important and we would like local authorities to improve on and continue to live up to that situation.

The noble Baroness drew attention to the fact--although, I believe, not meaning it to help my argument--that if a local authority was unable to determine a claim within 14 days it is required to make a payment on account. That can be done, although on that matter the noble Baroness put in the qualification that she believes that we should remember. The irony of it is that when asked for a piece of information the tenant has four weeks in which to supply it. The timetable is quite lax, if I may use that word, on the part of the tenant, although on the part of the authorities, 14 days after the claim is certainly quite tight.

I always contemplate what has been said in these debates. I suspect that it would be rather difficult for the authorities to run on seven and 10 days. That could have consequences in some cases which are the opposite of those which the noble Earl is looking for. It may be unhelpful rather than helpful to the tenant. I hope that with my explanation we can leave the matter and all think about what we have said.

Earl Russell: Before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may ask him one further point of clarification. He quoted the figure of 83 per cent. of claims being determined within 14 days. Can he clarify--within 14 days of what event?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I thought I had said that. It is within 14 days of receiving all the required information--in other words, the claim being available in a way in which it can be dealt with.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I hope the Minister will agree that there is a real problem here. At the very

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same time that the Government are empowering the landlord to evict the tenant earlier, usually for rent arrears, they are not willing to ensure that the money with which the tenant pays the rent is getting to the tenant or the landlord speedily enough. There is a real problem here, and the result is that if we do not do something about the supply side of the money as opposed to increasing the demand powers of the landlord, we shall see more evictions and more pressure on the local authority of homelessness, which is not the tenant's fault.

There is a problem here and the Minister must help us address it. We are not particularly fixed on the wording of this amendment; there may be other ways of going about it, including the Minister making it much more clear in what circumstances payment on account may take place. Perhaps I may give one example. A CAB in Norfolk reported on a single parent who moved into a housing association property in July and claimed benefit. By September no payment had been made and she received notice to quit, with all the worry that comes with it. In October she was threatened with court action for arrears of £683. This is a good, social-renting association. Benefit was finally paid after 11 weeks. The housing benefit department claimed that it had been waiting for information from the Benefits Agency, but there was still a month's delay even after the CAB had intervened.

It is not necessary that this should be the particular fault of any one person. It may be a problem of getting information for part-time employees and from, say, the Benefits Agency as regards family credit and from the claimant himself. There may be some slackness in the local authority system. But by putting those factors together one is increasing the landlord's powers to evict without at the same time ensuring that the money to stop that eviction will be paid on time. As I say, there is a problem here and we hope that the Minister will help us address it. At this stage I beg leave to withdraw the amendment, but I may seek to come back to it at Report stage.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 255CBB:


Page 70, line 29, at end insert--
(" "( ) As it has effect in relation to housing benefit subsection (1)(k) shall apply so that where a claimant is entitled to income support and--
(a) has included in the calculation of his applicable amount the pensioner, the enhanced pensioner or the higher pensioner premium, or
(b) although not in receipt thereof has included in the calculation of his applicable amount the pensioner, the enhanced pensioner or the higher pensioner premium,
the award of housing benefit shall be made for the equivalent period of that entitlement.").

The noble Baroness said: This is an amendment to bring the payment of housing benefit to pensioners in line with the payment to them of other social security benefits. At the moment current housing benefit claimants have to renew their claim every 12 months otherwise they are struck off the list and the housing

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benefit fails to be paid. That is obviously sensible for someone of working age whose circumstances may change significantly. They may be in and out of work or the family size may alter. It is right that there should be an automatic check and reapplication, not merely relying on the tenant to notify the authority of changes in circumstances, which might just slip the mind.

As we know, the situation is not the same for pensioners. Their income fluctuates very little indeed, if at all. They are not in and out of work and family circumstances remain constant unless there is some major change such as the death of a husband or wife. The Government have accepted this provision in the field of income support. Pensioners are not required to sign on: they get special SPI forms. That means that income support is paid indefinitely unless the pensioner notifies the department of a change of circumstances.

We are seeking to do the same thing with housing benefit. There will be several advantages. It will simplify unnecessary investigation and administration. It will leave the local authority free to handle the paperwork of those whose circumstances fluctuate and who need annual renewal. It will also avoid the situation where an elderly person perhaps becomes confused and fails to return the forms on time and as a result, to their surprise and bewilderment, find themselves cut off from housing benefit altogether. As a former councillor I have had to handle quite a number of such instances in which claims have had to be renewed and back-dated because a pensioner was confused by what was happening.

Housing benefit is complicated to administer, but there is one group for whom it is relatively simple; namely, the pensioner. If it was paid indefinitely, subject to the pensioner reporting any significant changes, it will free the local authority for the more difficult and cumbersome work. It will free the pensioner from unnecessary worry and simplify proceedings. I believe it is a very useful little amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: As the noble Baroness has explained, this amendment would enable regulations to be made requiring local authorities, who have responsibility for administering housing benefit, to make an award for an indefinite period for those claimants and their partners who are in receipt of, or have included in the calculation of their applicable amounts, the pensioner, the enhanced pensioner or higher pensioner premium. That would mean that that group of people would not have to reapply for housing benefit at regular intervals.

Perhaps I may put this amendment into context and, in doing so, explain why I am not content with it and would not suggest to the Committee that it take it on board. Housing benefit is awarded for a fixed period called "a benefit period". The length of that period is at the discretion of the local authority, but it is up to a maximum of 60 weeks. After that time the local authority must invite a repeat claim. Generally, the period is 52 weeks for the majority of claims. There is a simple reason for that. It accommodates things like annual rent increases and therefore the benefit is

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reviewed. It is likely to pick up any annual rent increase which has been made since the last time the level of benefit was decided.

In that way there is a formal statutory mechanism for ensuring that the benefit paid accurately reflects the applicants' circumstances, and not just their income, which the noble Baroness was concentrating on, but the rent being charged. The requirement to make a fresh claim for housing benefit applies to all claimants and not just to pensioners. It ensures that local authorities are administering the scheme correctly by paying the correct amount of benefit and thereby prevents either over-payment or under-payment building up.

In the past we have consulted local authorities and asked them to provide evidence for improving the administrative efficiency of the schemes through adopting easements similar to that which this amendment suggests. The evidence that they provided was inconclusive. There was evidence of over-payment. Some local authorities prefer to set even shorter benefit periods than the maximum 60 weeks.

In addition, we remain unconvinced that any administrative easement following a move to continuous awards would justify the costs involved in identifying the cases affected. Such a move may result in over-payment for which there would be subsidy implications for the local authority. Claimants may suffer because less frequent reviews of their entitlement may result in under-payment for which they would not be fully reimbursed as there is a 52-week limitation on paying arrears. So if it took a little time to pick up something that was indefinite, one could only go back for up to 52 weeks before any arrears were due.

There are some problems here and over-payment is in the same position. People may be asked to repay money which they have long ago spent. While I understand the argument of the noble Baroness, I think that distress may be caused in the way that she suggested and the other way round because of an indefinite review, allowing a good deal of time to pass and therefore missing some change which over time has built up.

There is no need for the renewal claim forms to be onerous. While the practice varies from one local authority to another, a local authority may at its discretion use a shorter claim form for repeat claims in order to avoid the need for claimants to repeat the same detail. I hope that local authorities that do not use this procedure will consider making use of it in order to help them and people such as pensioners who have no change of circumstance and for whom the shorter claim form may be perfectly suitable. I hope that with that explanation and some sympathy and understanding of the points that have been raised, the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment on the basis that distress may be caused in one direction but, with indefinite payments, in certain circumstances distress may be caused in the other

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direction if changes have not been picked up within 52 weeks, or the outside limit of 60 weeks, of the change occurring.

6 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I thank the Minister for his reply and sympathy. He referred to indefinite circumstances on the pension side. That applies equally to income support where the Government continue to pay unlimited benefit. I take the Minister's point about rent changes. I just wonder whether the Minister may be prepared to consider at a later stage an amendment which would allow the local authority discretion to go beyond the 60-week period. I envisage that discretion being exercised in the area of local authority tenancies covering the bulk of pensioners where the rent is entirely covered by the benefit and computers simply talk to each other. Therefore, there is no need to send out forms. One can simply make an in-house adjustment of the housing benefit claim to reflect increased rent, because all of that falls within the local authority purview. I accept that this would not cover the situation of a private tenant where the landlord's rent is a much more individual matter. Would the Minister be willing to consider extending local authority discretion so that the position of the two-thirds or so of pensioners whose housing benefit is paid because they live in council houses or flats, where none of the obstacles that he fears need arise, can be reviewed?


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