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Lord Higgins: My Lords, I shall look at Hansard with interest because normally I propose the amendment at the beginning. I have found from experience that if I do not propose then, I forget to do so at the end. We will see what transpired. The amendment is still before us.

As far as concerns a difference of opinion on whether the finance provided by central government is adequate for local authorities, that may be a matter that is not wholly reconcilable. As regards the point about a possible misunderstanding, certainly we will have to go into matters further at Third Reading. That may be illuminating for the Minister or the local authorities but not both. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 25 and 26 not moved.]

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Clause 5 [Exchange of information by authorities administering benefit]:

Lord Higgins moved Amendment No. 27:

    Page 10, line 11, at end insert--

("(2) Any directions given by the Secretary of State under this section shall include such directions which place a duty on authorities to which this section applies to adopt a code of practice as the Secretary of State shall from time to time provide.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, effectively this amendment argues that local authorities should have a standardised code of practice between them. In the light of what the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, has said about this, it may be that we will have to wait until the matter arrives in another place at least as far as concerns the local authority aspects of the code of practice.

My understanding is that some local authorities farm out responsibility for some of these matters to organisations--one called Capita has been brought to my attention. It may be that they appear under the earlier debate on agents and servants, but I ask whether they will be required to provide information or whether information will only be required in the context of the local authorities themselves. I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, agrees given the earlier discussion on the code of practice and the fact that the terms or conditions under which local authorities handle their concerns on housing benefit will be shaped by the code. There will be ample opportunity to discuss that with those bodies.

Clause 5 deals with the manner and form in which information is obtained from authorities administering housing benefit. We use this information to make decisions about the administration and design of the housing benefit scheme. I was a little baffled as to how we could put this into the Bill or into the code or practice as laid out.

Did the noble Lord have any further concerns? It is the case that Capita is an agent. The noble Lord is right to assume that Capita would be required to supply information as shaped by our previous discussion. Those were the points that he raised, and I hope that I have addressed them.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, on that basis I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 28 not moved.]

Lord Higgins moved Amendment No. 28A:

    After Clause 5, insert the following new clause--

Housing benefit documentation

(" . The Secretary of State, or the relevant Minister, shall revise and review the current documentation for an application to be made for housing benefit to ensure that the information provided will facilitate any inquiry to detect fraud, and following consultation with such relevant bodies as he thinks fit, issue a draft document which shall be used by each relevant administering authority.").

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The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have pursued this matter with the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, for some years. It relates to the documentation that local authorities use for housing benefit claims and operations in the housing benefit scheme. It seems to be extraordinarily diverse. Some documentation is a great deal better and more helpful in preventing fraud than other kinds. There does not seem to be any argument for different local authorities using significantly different forms. This amendment suggests that the Secretary of State, or relevant Minister, shall revise and review the current documentation and that a standard system should be employed which is specifically designed by the department to ensure that the commitments and statements made, perhaps with reference to national insurance numbers, may be as appropriate as possible for this purpose. I do not understand why there is diversity. No doubt, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, can tell us why or alternatively accept the amendment. I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the short answer as to why there is diversity is history. The amendment seeks to introduce a standard claim form for housing benefit to be used by all authorities. Currently, local authorities have some freedom to produce forms to suit their own circumstances within the framework of legal requirements. They are also expected to follow good practice guidelines issued by the department. This freedom has some advantages.

We accept that the forms used could be improved. We have already done something about it. It was clear that my right honourable friend, the Secretary of State for Social Security, was aware of the noble Lord's amendment even though I was not until this morning. The Secretary of State was very concerned about it and it has dominated his thoughts over the recent Recess. The Secretary of State is issuing a new model claim form today. It has been developed by the Benefits Fraud Inspectorate as part of its work to help local authorities improve administration. It gives local authorities a standard from which to work and a bench-mark of good practice both in terms of design and content. We believe that this model will help local authorities to produce better claim forms that will be more efficient for them and easier for tenants to complete.

So we share the spirit of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. But we do not go as far as his amendment, which seeks to impose this form on local authorities. Let me explain why.

First, the cost of doing so would be considerable. In order to comply, every local authority would need to reprogram their computer systems--they all have different computer systems--so that the information could be input in the order and in the format set out on the model. In many cases that would be an unnecessary diversion of resources and wasteful.

Secondly, there is of course the interrelationship with council tax benefit. In some authorities housing and council tax benefits are administered separately and in others they are administered together. That

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determines whether or not the claim form is designed to capture information for both benefits at the same time. We can therefore respect the need for some local flexibility to cater for that.

Thirdly, many local authorities add additional sections to the housing benefit claim forms to gather extra information for other benefits for poorer residents--for example, for school uniforms or council nursery places. A national claim form would mean that local authorities would have to issue supplementary forms either with the housing benefit form or after receiving the housing benefit form back. That again could lead to delays or waste of costs.

For those reasons we do not believe that a statutory standard claim form is the way forward at the moment. As I said, the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate developed a model claim form which is in the process of being issued to local authorities along with general guidance on good design of claim forms. That has been developed in full consultation with those authorities and we fully expect it to be used as the minimum standard. Of course the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate will continue to monitor the standard of claim forms in its visits.

Finally, we are making further and much needed changes to the claims process. As part of our modernisation programme we are developing a single claims process for income support, JSA allowance and incapacity benefit, which will also capture and transfer to local authorities information for assessing housing benefit claims. For people of working age it is intended that initial information for claims be gathered over the phone; any evidence subsequently provided will be verified for the purposes of all related claims, and that should prevent some of the duplication which is at the moment taking place and which is wasteful.

I hope as a result that those people who need to claim a variety of benefits will receive an integrated service because they will be using integrated claims forms in the procedures. For those people claiming just housing benefit, our model claim form will enable local authorities to improve and enhance the service they give. It may be, as local authorities re-tool their computer systems, so they will gradually take over the model claim form and it will become a common basis of usage across the wide range of local authorities.

I hope in the light of that response we indicate that we are addressing some of the concerns raised by the noble Lord--issuing a model claim form and encouraging local authorities, where appropriate, to take it up. However, we do not believe it is appropriate at this stage to deny them the flexibility that they have to use the forms for other purposes as well, such as council tax benefit and take-up campaigns of various sorts to identify various forms of need such as council nursery places.

We are therefore treading a line with the consent and support of local authorities, which I hope the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, will feel he is able to respect and which will enable him to withdraw his amendment.

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