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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business),

Question agreed to.

Lords amendments further considered.

Amendment (b) to the Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendment, as amended, agreed to [Special Entry].

Lords amendment No. 65 agreed to [Special Entry].

Clause 53

Contributions paid in error

Lords amendment: No. 66, in page 35, line 33, leave out ("a period falling in")

Mr. Denham: I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 67 to 70.

Mr. Denham: Amendments Nos. 66 to 69 will ensure that clause 53, which applies to contributions paid in error, is not applicable where the error has been

13 May 1998 : Column 475

discovered and the contributions have been refunded to the contributor. The amendments also introduce drafting changes to improve the clarity of the clause. Those technical amendments do not impact on the purpose of the clause. Amendment No. 70 is a minor technical amendment to clause 56, which is designed to clarify the legislation. I commend the amendments to the House.

10.15 pm

Mr. Waterson: I agree with the Minister that the amendments are largely technical. As he said, amendments Nos. 66 to 69 are purely technical and, as far as I can tell, ensure that the policy behind the clauses is what is delivered. They introduce references to "year 1", "year 2", and so on. Amendments to deal with where a mistake has been identified and a refund made in the relevant time limit are very sensible.

I should like to raise one or two questions. I hope that answering them will not detain the Minister long. Does he agree that the amendments, especially the reference to regulations on when the section will become effective, extend the Government's regulatory powers? Is he able to tell us today when the Government intend the sections to come into force? How does he think that the clauses and the amendments fit the Government's approach to back dating in other parts of the Bill, which we shall come to very shortly?

Mr. Denham: The reference to the coming into force of section 56 reflects the fact that different parts of the Act will come into force at different times. Some sections will come into force on Royal Assent, such as the provisions on restrictive covenants in clause 50. Other sections, including section 56, will be brought into force by way of a commencement order. Amendment No. 70 makes it clear that the period referred to in clause 56(7B)(8) is the period before section 56 is brought into force by way of a commencement order.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 67 to 73 agreed to.

Clause 67

Rates of short-term incapacity benefit

Lords amendment: No. 74, in page 46, line 4, leave out ("£62.45") and insert ("£64.70")

Mr. Denham: I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendment No. 75. I should inform the House that these amendments involve privilege.

Mr. Denham: Amendments Nos. 74 and 75 change references to amounts of benefit in clause 67 to reflect the increased rates of benefit provided for by the social security benefit uprating order of 1998. They are purely technical, and I commend them to the House.

Lords amendment agreed to [Special Entry].

Lords amendment No. 75 agreed to [Special Entry].

13 May 1998 : Column 476

New clause

Lords amendment: No. 76, after clause 67, to insert the following new clause--Validation of certain housing benefit determinations--
".--(1) Subject to subsections (3) and (4) below, in so far as a housing benefit determination made before 18th August 1997 purported to determine that housing benefit was payable in respect of--
(a) charges for medical care, nursing care or personal care; or
(b) charges for general counselling or any other support services,
it shall be deemed to have been validly made if, on the assumption mentioned in subsection (2) below, it would have been so made.
(2) The assumption is that, at all material times, such charges as are mentioned in subsection (1) above were eligible to be met by housing benefit where the claimant's right to occupy the dwelling was conditional on his payment of the charges.
(3) Where the effect of a review carried out on or after 18th August 1997 was to revise the amount of housing benefit payable in respect of any validated charges--
(a) the revision shall be deemed not to have been validly made in so far as it had the effect of increasing that amount; and
(b) housing benefit shall cease to be payable in respect of those charges as from the beginning of the period for which the first payment of the revised amount of benefit was made.
(4) Housing benefit shall not be payable in respect of any validated charges for any period falling after--
(a) 5th April 1998 where the rent is payable at intervals of a whole number of weeks; and
(b) 31st March 1998 in any other case.
(5) In this section--
"the dwelling", in relation to a housing benefit determination, means the dwelling in respect of which the determination was made;
"housing benefit determination" means a determination under section 130 of the Contributions and Benefits Act or the corresponding provisions of the Social Security Act 1986, or a decision on a review of such a determination;
"medical care" includes treatment or counselling related to mental disorder, mental handicap, physical disablement or past or present alcohol or drug dependence;
"personal care" includes assistance at meal-times or with personal appearance or hygiene;
"validated charges" means charges in respect of which housing benefit is payable only by virtue of subsection (1) above."

Mr. Keith Bradley: I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this, it will be convenient to take Lords amendment No. 91. I should inform the House that the amendment involves privilege.

Mr. Bradley: Amendments Nos. 76 and 91 propose to legitimise, from the date of Royal Assent, payments of housing benefit that have incorrectly met charges for personal general counselling and support or "personal care".

As Baroness Hollis explained in the other place, the measure has a long history. We inherited a situation whereby many thousands of vulnerable people had come to rely on housing benefit, which is generally intended

13 May 1998 : Column 477

to meet only accommodation-related support services that relate to the "bricks and mortar" of a dwelling, to fund the support services needed to keep them in the community. The previous Secretary of State had commissioned an interdepartmental review to consider the long-term funding of that sector.

The trigger for the amendments was a divisional court judgment in July last year to the effect that only service charges that relate to the fabric of a dwelling are generally eligible for housing benefit. Evidence suggested, however, that most local authorities may have been meeting a wider range of service charges for personal support from housing benefit than was originally intended.

The ruling meant that there was a danger of a potential crisis in community care. The Secretary of State therefore immediately announced interim measures legitimising the vast majority of such payments in order to provide stability for tenants and landlords in "existing supported accommodation" pending the implementation of a sustainable long-term funding regime that could protect and maintain that important component of community care.

The measures consisted of interim regulations that took effect from 18 August 1997, which enable all reasonable charges for general counselling and support in "existing supported accommodation" to be met from housing benefit, and a compensation scheme to enable authorities to compensate providers that had lost income because housing benefit was no longer meeting charges for "personal care".

The new clause is designed to provide stability for local authorities that have previously met a wider range of support charges from housing benefit than was originally intended, by similarly legitimising such payments as having been properly made.

I must stress that we did not reach that decision lightly. In proposing to legitimise such payments, however, we have given due weight to the fact that they have enabled, and presently continue to enable, many thousands of vulnerable people to live independently in the community.

Most such payments will be for personal general counselling and support, which will be eligible under the interim regulations from 18 August 1997. We therefore propose to validate such payments up to that date. Remaining payments not eligible under the interim regulations, which will mainly be those where housing benefit has previously met ineligible charges for "personal care" in "existing supported accommodation", which are eligible for help under the compensation scheme, will be validated until either the benefit payable in respect of the charges is reviewed and revised following the introduction of the interim regulations on 18 August 1997, or up to the final cut-off date of 31 March/5 April this year, whichever falls first.

I commend the amendments to the House.

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