Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Housing Benefit

6. Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): What proposals he has for the future of housing benefit. [58371]

16 Nov 1998 : Column 597

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): We are taking forward a wide-ranging review of housing benefit in consultation with local authorities and other interested parties. This review will aim to simplify and improve both the benefit itself and the way in which it is delivered. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has announced an improvement to the extended payments scheme to make the transition into work easier for housing benefit claimants who are unemployed.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: What is the Government's estimate of the cost to the taxpayer of landlord fraud perpetrated on the housing benefit system? Can my hon. Friend tell us how many landlords have been successfully prosecuted for such fraud?

Angela Eagle: The Government's estimates of the extent of landlord fraud range from £100 million to £150 million. Unfortunately, we do not collect figures for fraud prosecutions by type, so I cannot answer my hon. Friend's second inquiry.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): Following the revelations of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), is it not an open secret that when decisions are eventually taken on this matter--or, more likely, when the Government definitively run away from them--as with all the other decisions on which we are waiting for them to pronounce, such as welfare reform and pensions, they are determined not by the Department of Social Security but by the Treasury and the No. 10 policy unit? Will the right hon. Gentleman answer a simple and, for him, fundamental question: if the Benefits Agency and, in the case of housing benefit, local authorities, have the job of handing out the money, and if policy decisions in Whitehall are taken by the Treasury or No. 10, what is the point of having a DSS at all?

Angela Eagle: First, I should like to point out that I am an hon. Lady, not an hon. Gentleman--in case the hon. Gentleman did not know.

The simplification project that we are carrying out with local authorities is seriously intended to make housing benefit simpler to administer and easier to understand. Delays and complexities in housing benefit are major barriers that prevent people from entering work, and we are determined to tackle them.

Child Support Agency

9. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): How many outstanding cases are presently with the Child Support Agency waiting to be closed where the child concerned is of employable age. [58374]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): A parent with care is required to notify the Child Support Agency if a child stops receiving full-time education. Because those changes are recorded only when the assessment is reviewed, it is not possible to say how many cases are waiting to be closed.

Helen Jackson: I was always struck by the promptness and efficiency of the family allowance system, because

16 Nov 1998 : Column 598

the week my children left school and ceased to be dependent, my family allowance stopped. Why cannot the Child Support Agency be as efficient when dependants for whom people pay out of their earnings reach independence? People often find themselves paying deductions from earnings orders for six months or more after that threshold. Is that not another symptom of the gross inefficiency of the CSA, which has come to epitomise the muddle and incompetence of the former Administration that set it up?

Angela Eagle: I have considerable sympathy with my hon. Friend's point. Believe it or not, as part of the Tory legacy that we inherited, the child benefit computer system cannot talk to the child support computer system and identify when the children whom it was set up to support have reached a certain age. We are doing all that we can to remedy that, and will be in a position to identify that fact manually by next year. As part of the ACCORD computer procurement project announced recently, we hope to put that right permanently.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): Neither the previous question nor the answer were fair. Unlike family allowance, child support does not finish when a child reaches employable age. An absent parent has always provided support while a child is in full-time education or training, which is why child support will always be a much more complex benefit. There will always be circumstances in which teenagers will go on to full-time education or training, and they should be supported by the absent parent if he or she is in a position to support them.

Angela Eagle: Child support is bound to be more complex than child benefit, but the system should not have been as complex as the Conservative Government made it when they introduced it. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that child support does not automatically stop at the age of 16. However, there remains the issue of whether, once education is finished, whatever the child's age, child support is still payable. If those computer systems could talk to each other, at least a prompt would be given so that members of the CSA could check with the parent with care to see whether those circumstances had changed. At present, the parent with care has to notify the CSA to get changes made. Inevitably, that takes time and some people forget to do it.

10. Helen Jones (Warrington, North): What action his Department has taken to improve the support for children provided by the benefits system. [58375]

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Darling): We have increased the premium for children under 11 on income-related benefits from this November and we are also increasing child benefit by a record amount from April next year.

Helen Jones: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. I represent a constituency containing some of the most deprived wards of north Cheshire, which have a high proportion of lone parents. In one ward, nearly a quarter of children are in lone-parent families. Can he assure the House that they, too, will share in any increases in benefits and that we will set out to tackle the poverty which undoubtedly exists in such families?

16 Nov 1998 : Column 599

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend will know that the Chancellor took a deliberate decision in his previous Budget to ensure that not only child benefit, but the premiums paid for those in receipt of income-related benefits would be increased. The help that we are giving through the new deal for lone parents and the introduction of the working families tax credit--both of which are opposed by the Conservatives--will offer substantial assistance to the very people to whom my hon. Friend has referred. That is a far better use of public money than the proposal that the Conservative party has come up with today--to spend between £3 billion and £5 billion per annum on a transferable tax allowance. It would be far better to spend that money in a far more targeted way--to help people to get back into work as well as to help those on the lowest incomes.

Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs): May I ask why a lone parent with the same income as a married couple with a single income will do considerably better under the working families tax credit? It cannot have been the Government's objective to discriminate deliberately against married couples and their children, but that is the way that the finances work out.

Mr. Darling: The Government's objective is to provide the maximum help that they can to all families--couples as well as lone parents. The working families tax credit is designed to make work pay for both types of family and to remove some of the barriers to work--the disincentives--under the scheme that we inherited. We believe that that is the best possible use of public money, because helping people into work and off benefit must and should be a central objective of any civilised Government.

Benefit Integrity Project

11. Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby): How many people have been taken off benefit as a result of the benefit integrity project. [58376]

13. Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): If he will make a statement on the replacement for the benefit integrity project. [58378]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Stephen Timms): By 30 September, 138,000 cases had been checked under the benefit integrity project. Of those, 32,500 people were found initially not to be receiving the right amount of benefit. The number fell to 29,300, after the reviews and appeals that have been completed so far.

It is right to check whether people are receiving the correct rate of benefit, but the benefit integrity project, as conceived by the previous Government, was flawed in two specific respects. First, it was insensitive to the circumstances of disabled people--we have made a number of improvements--and, secondly, it focused only on people with high rates of disability living allowance so that payment changes could, in the great majority of cases, be downwards only.

That is why we plan to replace BIP with a new system--part of the routine administration of the benefit--which is sensitive to people's circumstances and

16 Nov 1998 : Column 600

which is fair, because it will apply to all benefit rates and so result in upward, or downward, revisions to ensure that people are receiving the correct amount of benefit.

Mr. Mitchell: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, with which I agree whole-heartedly. Can he tell us how soon the new system, which needs to be introduced urgently, will come in? Can he assure us that it will not include the coercive aspects of the benefit integrity project? They have clouded the debate on disablement and benefit with a fog of fear and alarm which is felt by those who think that they are being coerced and subjected to a shake down to get them off the benefit that they had received from the previous Administration. We should deal with fraud, but not at the expense of inducing terror among those people who are entitled to benefit.

Mr. Timms: We intend to learn from the many lessons of the BIP experience and to introduce the new system as soon as possible, but it is important that we get it right. We do not want to rush into a new system without properly planning for it. We want to ensure, for example, that staff are properly trained by the time that the new arrangements start. The disability benefits forum set up a working group last week to work with us to plan how those new arrangements should work. We will put them in place as soon as we can sensibly do so.

Mr. Syms: Following the announcement of the scrapping of the benefit integrity project, people who have been assessed or are about to be assessed are concerned that they will face the double jeopardy of being processed through a new system. As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) said, it is important that we have a date and guidelines for the establishment of the new system, because there is great concern in the disabled community. I hope that the Minister will be a little more precise. Was the announcement of the new system an aspiration for the next century, or will it be implemented early next year?

Mr. Timms: No. We are in discussion with the disability benefits forum about the arrangements that will replace BIP. We are not yet able to say precisely when the new arrangements will start, but I reassure the hon. Gentleman's constituents that there will be no question of a double jeopardy as he described. The current arrangements will continue until we have a properly planned and worked-out system with which to replace them.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): Does the hon. Gentleman not understand the contradiction in the assurances that he has just given to his Back-Bench Friends? He implied that the benefit integrity project will end some time in the next century. He also suggested that things will be a little easier. Sources close to the Secretary of State have said that the Government intend to save 25 per cent. of the benefits budget. The implication of that is straightforward: people currently on benefit--legitimately, not through fraud--will lose. The Secretary of State has suggested that, for some people, the medical evidence for granting disability living allowance is not immediately obvious. Will Ministers second-guess medical opinion? Will the Minister tell us who will lose?

16 Nov 1998 : Column 601

Mr. Timms: That question contained a number of disconnected points. There is no truth in the hon. Gentleman's allegation about a 25 per cent. saving. It is important that the Department and claimants are confident that they are receiving the correct amount of benefit. The previous Government introduced the BIP programme, which was designed to move people from high to lower rates of benefit. That was wrong and unfair. We will introduce arrangements that are fair and apply to all levels of disability living allowance, so that we can be certain that people are receiving the amount of benefit to which they are entitled. That is right for them, for the Department, for the Government and for society. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will apologise on behalf of the Conservative party for the BIP scheme that he supported, and that he will support the new arrangements that we will put in place.

Next Section

IndexHome Page