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Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 166:


Page 79, line 30, at end insert--
(" "(5A) As it has effect in relation to housing benefit subsection (1)(h) above shall require a request for information or evidence by the determining authority to be made in such a manner and within such a target period as may be prescribed."").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment too relates to housing benefit, something that preoccupied us earlier today. The purpose of the amendment is to provide for regulations to ensure that, when applications for housing benefit are made, requests for information and evidence in relation to that housing benefit are made within a set or specified target period. We are concerned that delays in the determination of claims for housing benefit are a significant factor causing arrears of rent

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and even homelessness, despite regulations requiring local authorities to make payment within 14 days of receiving full information on the claim.

One cause of the delays is the current lack of any time limit on the period for requesting additional information. The amendment seeks to tackle that by introducing target periods for time limits for requests by the determining authority for additional information and evidence.

Perhaps I may give one or two examples from the citizens advice bureaux. A CAB in Norfolk reported that a single parent moved into a housing association house in July and claimed benefit. By September no payment had been made and she received a notice to quit. In October she was threatened with court action for arrears of £683.88. 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 further month's delay even after the CAB sent it a copy of the Benefits Agency letter confirming the client's income. Those are long delays. If there were targets for getting the information, such delays could be significantly shortened.

Perhaps I may give another example, again from a citizens advice bureau but in this case from Devon. It reported that a client waited eight weeks for his claim to be processed. He had been served a notice to quit for rent arrears. When the CAB contacted the department, it was told that there was a backlog and that the claim could not be speeded up.

I think that having a time limit would be helpful. It is quite common to set targets for various authorities so that they can meet adequate standards of sensitivity for their customers. It would be appropriate for the Secretary of State to have the powers to set targets for the collection of such information. It is a simple point. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I support this amendment, recognising that in doing so I am supporting some centralisation of a local provision. Nevertheless, I support the amendment for one particular reason: the importance to the smooth functioning of the private rented sector of the housing benefit system. My own experience, which I do not think is unusual, is of potential landlords refusing to make properties available to tenants on housing benefit because of their fears about problems in terms of getting paid--and getting paid promptly. It is important to keep properties available. That is why I believe the amendment is important.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has come up with a variation of an earlier amendment which we debated in Committee and which would have required local authorities to request all the information and evidence they would ever need within seven or 10 days of the date of a claim for housing benefit. Now, the noble Lord is suggesting that local authorities must request the information and evidence they need within a "target" period. Regulations would be required to lay down the length of this period. But how long would that period be? Whatever the length

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of the period, the real question is: would this amendment have the desired effect of delivering a better service to claimants? My view and that of my colleagues is that it would not.

If the "target" period is too long, local authorities could take their time about dealing with the majority of inquiries. This would defeat the purpose of the amendment, which is to speed up the process. Giving local authorities a shorter period of, say, seven or 10 days, to take the appropriate action would result inevitably--and for good reasons, such as staff sickness or an unexpected surge of claims--in some of them missing their target. That is when the problems would begin.

Local authorities would have two choices: they could do without the necessary evidence or choose to ignore the fact that they have no statutory power to ask for the evidence. Even then, claimants could refuse to provide it and there is nothing an authority could do about that. In consequence, some claimants would be refused benefit because they had not supported their claim--indeed under this amendment they might not even be told what further information was required--while others would be overpaid benefit or would suffer hardship because they were paid too little. That would be a very unsatisfactory situation.

The nub of the problem is that many claimants fail to provide the information and evidence requested on their claim form in the first place. If they did, most delays would be avoided. It is in the authority's own interest to obtain the information as quickly as possible. I am sure there is no suggestion that authorities deliberately delay taking the appropriate steps. Many authorities set their own administrative targets, which can be as low as five days, for getting information and replies to inquiries. The results are monitored by my department's officials through a programme of visits to local authorities. I can tell your Lordships that standards are undoubtedly improving. However, I am not complacent. I recognise the strength of feeling behind this amendment. I propose to monitor the position. If I am persuaded by the evidence that something needs to be done, I shall consider carefully whether a change can be introduced which meets the needs of claimants and local authorities.

But I do not believe that the way forward is to have a piece of primary legislation like this. We shall monitor the position. We appreciate the need for speedy and correct action as far as concerns these benefits. With that assurance, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I indicated earlier that my support for this amendment was a little out of character. I was glad to hear his acceptance of the difficulties experienced by local authorities in meeting a target which is a short period of time. In reviewing the targets and the workings of this matter, will the Minister bear in mind and discuss with his colleagues in the Department of the Environment the appropriateness of certain performance indicators under the Citizen's Charter which perhaps give the public the false impression that local authorities are themselves at fault

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in failing to meet targets? The underlying reasons are, as he has indicated, rather complex and not necessarily of their own making.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a valid point. On a number of occasions I have said that it takes two to tango. If the claimant does not give the information quickly and in proper form, delay is inevitable because the authority is obliged to go back to the claimant to ask for further details. That is one of the difficulties about setting targets. None the less, it is important that an attempt is made to set targets. As the noble Baroness has said, it is important for claimants that decisions on their cases are made as quickly as possible. I will make sure that the points raised by the noble Baroness are borne in mind when we look at how authorities perform.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, although the Minister has rejected the amendment it is of comfort that he agreed to review the workings of the system and to see what can be done if it is not working well. On that basis, I thank him for what amounts to a small concession and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 167:


Page 79, line 38, at end insert--
("(3) In section 5 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 (regulations about claims for and payment of benefit) at the end of subsection (1)(k) insert "and where a claimant who is a local housing authority tenant is on income support and has included in the calculation of his applicable amount the pensioner, the enhanced pensioner or the higher pensioner premium, or 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 benefit shall be made for an indefinite period."").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of the amendment is to provide for regulations which will enable claims for pensioners who live in council housing to be determined for an indefinite benefit period. At present, housing benefit claimants must renew their claims every 12 months. I suppose that for the majority of claimants that is a reasonable process. However, the renewal claims increase the administrative burden on local authorities. They often delay sending out renewal claims, do not always explain why the claimant must reclaim and can delay or lose the renewal claim.

The amendment is concerned with elderly claimants who experience stress and even the threat of eviction because either they do not know that they have to reclaim housing benefit or are deterred by the claim form. The requirement of housing benefit authorities that claims must be renewed every 12 months is the subject of the amendment. Often clients in receipt of income support do not understand the need to reclaim because they are not required to do so for income support. There are two different procedures.

As regards people below pension age, perhaps the requirement for the 12 monthly renewal of claims is satisfactory. However, in the case of pensioners, perhaps they are subjected to too many bureaucratic requirements which some find difficult to understand

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fully. Perhaps I may give two examples. A citizens advice bureau in Sussex reported that many elderly clients seek advice as to why they have received a housing benefit renewal form. The form arrives in the post without explanation. There is no local council office to approach for advice. Furthermore, a CAB in London reported the case of an elderly housebound woman on income support who lives alone in a council flat. She received a notice seeking possession from the council for rent arrears, which left her in a very distressed state. That had been caused by the cessation of housing benefit following the failure of the council to send out the yearly renewal forms.

The point is fairly straightforward. In other respects we simplify the procedures for pensioners knowing that their circumstances are much less likely to change than those of younger people. Therefore, it is appropriate to ensure that pensioners' entitlements to certain benefits, once the case has been established, should not require the frequent and repeated renewal of claims. That is the purpose of the amendment. I beg to move.


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