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Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, is it a fact that the rents set for accommodation for which housing benefit is payable are determined by a valuation officer? Is it also correct that in central London the rent for a one-bedroomed flat is £185 a week, £250 for a two-bedroomed flat and £350 for a three-bedroomed flat? People who are in such accommodation in central London have a tremendous disincentive ever to take employment. How could they afford, in anything but the highest paid job, to pay those sort of amounts per week out of a net income? Would it not be wise for the Government to consider setting a ceiling upon housing benefit? I understand that some central London rents are being paid from housing benefit at £900 a week.
Lord Haskel: My Lords, the noble Baroness has a point. Rental variations occur throughout the country. The housing benefit system at the moment does not differentiate between those tenants who need to look for more economic premises and those who do not.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, can the Minister say whether it is still the case that the Government abide by the principles of the 1986 Act; namely, that income support is not normally intended to cover rent? Is it still seen as a separate issue from the rent which people have to pay?
Lord Haskel: My Lords, on the whole, income support is not intended to cover housing costs. We have a separate housing benefit scheme which pays up to 100 per cent. of rent. It is not our intention to leave claimants out of pocket. However, for home owners, income support, with the mortgage interest scheme, provides a contribution towards mortgage interest payments for the purchase of a home and for some repairs and improvements to it.
Lord Higgins: My Lords, the Government's document, A New Contract for Welfare, contains a large section on housing. However, when it comes to success measures, all it says is that there has been an improvement in the quality of housing and housing management. That is so vague as to be utterly meaningless. Will the review being carried out include quantitative measures as to whether or not the Government have been successful?
The Earl of Drogheda: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. But does he not agree that it is a shame to spend large amounts of money on a garden which is already very beautiful and which will certainly not be improved by that money? Does he not also agree that many areas of London are in great need of parks and gardens and would benefit not only from them but from the accompanying tourism, which would cause great detriment to the area around Kensington Gardens?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Committee has been meeting since January of this year and has received more than 10,000 submissions with suggestions as to what projects should be undertaken in memory of the Princess. Overwhelmingly, the largest single response was in the form of requests for gardens and in particular for an enhancement of Kensington Gardens. Whether we like it or not, Kensington Gardens are already a place of memorial for the Princess. The numbers of people going there have increased from 2.8 million a year in 1995 to 5 million in the past year. This is simply a recognition of what people want. As to the point about other parks and gardens, of course they can be considered and the Government Office for London and the London Planning Advisory Committee are carrying out a major study of the adequacy of provision of parks and gardens in the London area.
Lord Strabolgi: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that a site to the north of Kensington Palace would be preferable and slightly less disruptive than one to the south, which I think is quite unacceptable? Has he considered the effect this will have on the embassies in Kensington Palace Gardens? Many of their gardens abut on Kensington Gardens and they will be considerably disturbed. I am thinking particularly of the residencies of the French Ambassador and the Russian Ambassador.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I do not want to anticipate the consultation process which will start on Friday but I do not think it is unreasonable for me to say that the intention is that any changes in the southern part of the western end of Kensington Gardens should be as simple as possible and that in the northern end, which has better public transport and already has a coach park, it will be more possible to carry out imaginative changes such as more provision for children and the disabled. As to the embassies, the Paddock lies between Kensington Gardens and the back gardens of the embassies.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, we are a long way off that. After consultation there will be further proposals. My understanding is that when those further proposals are developed it will be treated as Crown development under the 1984 order.
Lord Montague of Oxford: My Lords, can consideration be given to the Mile End Park, which is to have some £20 million spent on it almost immediately, £10 million of which is coming from the Millennium Commission? As my noble friend will know, the park is only one mile away from the City. It is a fine park and is in an area where Princess Diana did a great deal of wonderful work for the people and where the thought of her presence would be greatly welcomed.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, that is a welcome and valuable suggestion which I am sure the memorial committee will consider. My noble friend is right about the Mile End Park, which has been a very long time in development but is now starting to show its true potential.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am only reflecting, on behalf of the Government, the representations which have been made to them by the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Committee, which includes a representative of the Royal Household, representatives of her family, and others who are concerned. The individual feelings of all of us must play a part in our response to that. But there can be no doubt that there is a public outpouring of feeling and that there are many people who believe that that should have a physical expression in the form of the projects which the committee is proposing.
Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, would it be possible to extend the consultation period from four weeks? Whereas the memorial committee has had six or seven months to consider the matter, the residents of Kensington and other people who are interested will have only from 10th July to 7th August to do so. Bearing in mind that summer holidays and other things are going on at the moment, would it not be possible to extend the period by around four weeks?
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