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4.53 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) on securing such a timely debate on an extremely important issue. I think that she undersells herself when she says that she is a nerd and an anorak who is not an expert on housing benefit, as she is very knowledgeable about very complex subjects. She is also a doughty and expert campaigner on behalf of her constituents, who I am sure are very proud of her.

My hon. Friend is fortunate in her timing because, as she said, yesterday we published our response to the housing Green Paper, which proposes radical measures to achieve rapid improvement in the administration of housing benefit. As yesterday's announcement was covered in just one paragraph in one newspaper, I have to agree with her that the media do not always treat housing benefit claimants and serious problems with housing benefits as newsworthy. They certainly do not cover our struggles in trying to improve the situation.

I profoundly agree with my hon. Friend on her points on public interaction with the benefits system. Each week, £2 billion in benefits are paid out in the United Kingdom, and, each day, the Benefits Agency receives 600,000 telephone calls. Those statistics do not include the transactions handled by the 409 local authorities that currently administer housing benefit. Housing benefit reform is therefore central to implementing our modernisation of the very run-down and under-invested system that we inherited.

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We must give higher priority to providing a much better service to those who interact with the benefits system. Some of the examples that my hon. Friend cited of the service provided by Westminster city council are simply not acceptable. It is totally unacceptable that there should be a lack of toilets or endless waiting to solve a problem that is not even of one's own making.

Currently, 4.3 million people receive housing benefit, and it supports many more in their homes. Improving housing benefit delivery is vital. It is in all our interests that those who administer it do so effectively, efficiently and securely, delivering a service that--as my hon. Friend said--gives people on low incomes the help that they need for a decent home. As she also said, when provision goes wrong, it can cause profound stress and anxiety. I am personally very aware of that.

In 1997, we inherited a system that was fragmented--with 409 different local authorities administering it--over-complex and very neglected by central Government. That neglect meant that, although a handful of councils were delivering housing benefit successfully, many more were struggling, and no help was forthcoming to overcome the situation.

The problems of housing benefit administration were magnified by the unacceptable levels of fraud and error in the system. The system established by the previous Government made it possible, for example, to access housing benefit without a national insurance number or any other proof of identity. We could not allow that situation to continue. We have been working very hard to remedy such problems, and we are determined that local and central government should work together to overcome the neglect facing the housing benefit system.

Conservative Members are looking for a quick fix for the problems facing housing benefit, and they have suggested some solutions--such as removing responsibility for delivery from local authorities when there are backlogs. Although I do not know how they intend to define a backlog or make the change, they say that the change will save a quarter of a billion pounds. The proposal is, however, utterly illogical, as none of their proposals would make the system cheaper.

Some local authorities do a good job of administering housing benefit, and we want to encourage the others to raise their standards to that of the best. The best way of dealing with the current situation is to improve the standard of local authorities that have fallen behind and encountered difficulties. The challenge of modernising housing benefit would certainly not be helped by a huge and costly upheaval in infrastructure, personnel and information technology. We also do not believe that, in the foreseeable future, there is a convincing case to support removal of responsibility for housing benefit delivery from local authorities. We certainly do not want to create the type of planning blight that would occur if there were any uncertainty about the matter. The Government firmly hold that view.

The housing Green Paper has explained our reform strategy. As my hon. Friend graciously said, the Government have listened to those who have commented on our specific proposals and on other proposals such as those on backdating. Our response contains a

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wide-ranging package of measures that will both give support to the local authorities administering housing benefit and raise the standard of service to tenants.

The measures that we have announced will help us to achieve four aims: first, to bring swift improvements to the performance of struggling councils; secondly, to raise standards across the board; thirdly, to streamline housing benefit, thereby making it easier for councils to administer and--equally importantly--simpler for people to claim; and, fourthly, to lay the foundations for long-term and fundamental reform of housing benefit.

My hon. Friend might have noticed that, at the beginning of this week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security announced not only a three-year rather than one-year settlement for funding housing benefit, but an extra £24 million--which we believe will help to ease some of the current problems.

The fundamental challenge facing housing benefit is its administration and we have made that our immediate priority. We are setting up and funding an expert help team which will work with struggling local councils to help clear delays in paying housing benefit. The team will draw on experts from top performing councils, the DSS and management specialists to support authorities which have built up backlogs in paying out benefit.

The team will identify what is going wrong in a local authority and identify what action is needed. It will help local authorities to access resources for clearing up immediate problems such as backlogs, and to prevent problems from recurring by developing and then implementing local improvement plans. Because some local authorities succeed in delivering housing benefit well, that approach will allow us to target help where it is most needed. It also proves our commitment to work in partnership with local government to sort out the administration of housing benefit.

We shall establish a set of consistent national standards which we will back up by reliable and accurate information on how local authorities are actually performing. Much of that information is not available at the moment. That will allow us to develop a subsidy that links payment for administration to performance, as well as supporting the improved delivery of housing benefit and the better management of change.

The performance framework will build on the administrative improvements being brought about by best value and help local authorities to strive towards the aim of consistent national standards. We will seek to make sure that local government is accountable to its taxpayers by publishing league tables of council performance. That will not further encumber local authorities with wasteful bureaucracy, but it will build on the successes of best value and raise standards of administration across the board.

The housing Green Paper outlined the need to ensure that those without work had a decent and stable base from which to begin the search for employment. Many respondents were concerned that this was not always the case for young people. We share that concern.

My hon. Friend has lobbied us all about the effects of the single room rent. We are therefore broadening the definition of the single room rent to achieve three aims: first, to help provide young people with stable and reasonable accommodation so that they can concentrate their efforts on finding work; secondly, to ensure that the

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rent that housing benefit pays better reflects the type of shared accommodation available in the private sector; and thirdly, to encourage landlords to rent to young adults. We do not, however, agree that the single room rent should be abolished completely. It would be unfair if unemployed young adults could afford better accommodation than their working peers.

At present, the multiple and lengthy paper claim forms which are often duplicated between the different organisations involved both delay housing benefit delivery and cause frustration for the tenants. We will develop a more streamlined approach that cuts down on bureaucracy, giving an improved service delivery to the client as well as securing the system against fraud and error. Streamlining the housing benefit claims process will allow local authorities to devote more time and resources to improving delivery and customer service through reducing bureaucratic burdens.

It is not only the initial claims process that needs simplifying. We want to make sure that housing benefit does not act as a disincentive to returning to work. We plan to ease the transition into work by removing the need to make a new claim for housing benefit on starting work: we will explore with local authorities whether starting work could be treated as a change of circumstances, allowing a speedier payment to be made. That proposal is backed up by a measure to speed up getting housing benefit paid if a job ends after only a short period.

It is not only those of working age who can benefit from simplification. We also intend to prevent pensioners from having to make fresh claims every year and instead institute a simpler review process. We will work with local authorities to develop the detail and discuss the timing of the introduction of these improvements.

Currently, local authorities operate four different schemes to restrict the housing benefit payable to tenants in the private rented sector. The rules have become too complex to administer properly and for clients to understand. We are therefore looking at ways to achieve simplification in this area as well, so as to reduce the administrative burden on local authorities.

The new measures that I have outlined build upon an already considerable agenda for improving administration and tackling fraud. Since 1997, we have been working with local authorities to ensure that we deliver a more efficient and less complex service.

We established the housing benefit improvement programme this year to help local authorities improve their administration. We seek to deliver rapid improvements to the administration of housing benefit and work with local authorities to ensure that this happens, for instance, through setting up the integrated inquiry service, which is a super remote access terminal or RAT. For the first time, remote access terminals--RATs--have allowed local authorities to have an electronic window into Benefits Agency systems to check information. They have been very successful and well used. We want to strengthen the electronic links for information gathering and sharing between the two agencies.

We have established remote access terminals in 404 of the 409 local authorities, providing them with online access to the details of income support and jobseekers'

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allowance claims. The integrated inquiry service will allow information to be sent back and forth and more of the DSS systems to be accessible.

We have listened to the problems that local authorities say they face in implementing the verification framework. Already we have introduced greater flexibility. In addition, from 2002 we are splitting the framework into separate parts to allow local authorities to implement it incrementally.

The benefit fraud inspectorate continues to evaluate the performance of individual local authorities, helping them to tackle weaknesses in their benefit services. Nearly 80 reports have been published so far; by next October we will have carried out inspections of around 120 councils which between them account for some 60 per cent. of housing benefit expenditure.

My hon. Friend's local authority, Westminster, was inspected by the BFI earlier this year and the report was published in October 2000. We are currently awaiting the council's response to the report prior to any further action on our part. The report noted several praiseworthy areas, such as Westminster's strong counter-fraud stance and its willingness to improve. However, it also highlighted a large number of weaknesses which will need to be rectified in order to deliver efficient services to benefit recipients. My hon. Friend highlighted a few more in her speech tonight.

First, the benefit fraud inspectorate noted that the management arrangements for delivering benefits in counter-fraud work are too complex and this leads to inefficiencies. Secondly, the contracts with ACIT and Capita need to be more firmly monitored and controlled to incorporate key areas of work such as overpayment recovery and the outcomes of fraud investigations. More needs to be done to clear the backlog of overpayment determinations and speed up the instigation of recovery action. Thirdly, the report stated that claim procedures needed to be improved, for example, by improving the claim form and bringing verification standards up to those of the verification framework. Westminster currently uses its own version of the verification framework which does not meet DSS minimum standards.

There is a need to strike the right balance between building on reforms already made and introducing more change. We have not ruled out making further improvements, but the proposals that I have outlined deliberately focus on areas that we consider could contribute most to easing the administrative burden, promoting work and improving services to claimants. There is never any shortage of ideas for improving housing benefit, but there is a shortage of capacity in local authorities to manage change. That is why we want to focus on quality, not quantity, and work with local authorities to improve the system and its delivery.

I take the points my hon. Friend made about fixed-term periods and the verification framework and we are acting on them. She also mentioned the shortage of money and we have announced some modest increases. We certainly take the point about the number of regulatory changes and are looking at more consistent ways of introducing them.

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I would point out, however, that the changes in the single room rent, which my hon. Friend warmly welcomed, require changes in regulations that need to go through the administrative process.

Let there be no mistake: we are determined to improve the administration of housing benefit, working in partnership with local authorities that have the primary

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legal duty to administer it. I agree with my hon. Friend that the difficulties currently faced by some tenants and landlords are unacceptable. We have set out our programme of reform and the measures that we have put in place to help local authorities deal with it, and I hope that we will see a rapid improvement.

Question put and agreed to.

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