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24 Jun 2002 : Column 712

Single Room Rule

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heppell.]

9.56 pm

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): Many people outside the House find it difficult to understand how we can find half an hour to discuss the toe clippings of activities in this House and not debate the real issues that our constituents face. Nevertheless, I am grateful to have an extra three minutes or so to discuss the case of my constituents, the Rev. and Mrs. John and Stella Celia. I am grateful to the Minister for being present to respond to the debate. I look forward to hearing his response. My constituents' case highlights something that is common in the experience of many disabled people in the United Kingdom and serves as a salient example of why a particular regulation needs to be changed, and perhaps of why many benefit regulations need to be reviewed in the light of the progress that we have made towards disability equality and against disability discrimination in the past few years.

The Rev. John Celia suffered a brain stem stroke some four years ago. Before then, he was a very well-known personality. He gave advice to the previous Conservative Government on the issue of cults. His charity, a Christian charity, was heavily involved in rescuing people from cults and fighting the indoctrination of extreme religious cults. He therefore gave hugely to the civic and religious life of this country. Indeed, on the day when he suffered his stroke, his ill fortune was announced on national television, such was his status at the time. His wife, Stella, has given him sterling support and has herself worked in the community for many years. For 20 years, both of them have worked and dedicated their lives to their charity and the work in which they have engaged.

Their work continues. Despite his disability, John Celia is now a volunteer in the local day centre in Aberystwyth, and Stella, Mrs. Celia, has just become a trained magistrate. I welcome her to the JPs' bench in Ceredigion, where I am sure she will make an enormous contribution with her experience.

So these two people have contributed greatly to society over many years. I say that to the Minister not to distinguish between some sort of deserving and undeserving disabled person in respect of the regulations, but to underline the deep dissatisfaction that some people feel when, after giving many years of service, they find that the regulations and Government attitudes are hardening against them because of some ill fortune that they have suffered because of illness or disabilities.

Many people who may be healthy and fit now, such as ourselves, do not realise just how debilitating suffering disease or disability can be, not because of the disability itself, but because of all the obstacles that seem to appear from bureaucracy and government in the face of it.

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jim Murphy.]

Mr. Thomas: A Government who promised to restore dignity to disabled people seem to have achieved very

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little in practical terms. We must judge our society by the way in which we treat the worst off and the poorest within it, and the case of the Rev. and Mrs. Celia highlights that.

Their case turns on housing benefit entitlement. More than two years ago, they were advised by their general practitioner on medical grounds to move from their one-bedroomed house to a two-bedroomed house. The stroke that John had suffered made his medical needs intensive. His main carer is his wife, and their GP felt that it was better that they should not necessarily share a bedroom at night, so that his wife could have a decent night's sleep. John's rest is very disturbed and he does not necessarily have a good night's sleep, but it is important that his main carer, his wife, is able to do so. Thousands of married people must be in a similar position whereby one or both have become disabled and have specific medical reasons for not sharing a bed—for example, because of medical equipment.

As the Minister will know, under housing benefit regulations a rent officer can give a rent judgment only on the basis that a married couple should occupy a one-bedroomed property. There is no leeway or discretion in that. People who are married must be judged as though they occupy a one-bedroomed property. Those who have to occupy a two-bedroomed property for medical reasons or for reasons of disability have to meet the extra rent that may be payable because they will not get full housing benefit to cover it. As Mrs. Celia told me when I first met them two years ago, they would be better off divorced and living in sin, which is a bit much to expect from the Rev. and Mrs. Celia.

At the moment, they pay £85 per week in rent for a two-bedroomed house in the wilds of Ponterwyd outside Aberystwyth. That is not an awful lot these days for a two-bedroomed house in Ceredigion—in fact, it is a little on the cheap side. The rent recently went up by £10—previously, at £75 a week, it was very reasonable. They receive £18.50 a week as a discretionary housing payment, which used to be called the severe hardship payment. That is in recognition of the fact that they have strong needs and deserve a two-bedroomed house. The payment is controlled by the local authority, and it can stop at any time if the local authority runs out of funds for it. The couple have already received at least five payments, which is highly unusual in my experience. I once served on a local authority panel that judges such payments, and I never knew of anyone who had received five payments. They were good enough to suggest that it would not have happened had it not been for my advocacy. In fact, it is simpler than that—the local authority recognises that their case screams out for some measure of justice within housing regulations and has given them every assistance that it can, five or six times now, by providing a discretionary housing payment. However, the most recent letter received by the couple clearly states that this must be the last time that such a payment can be made.

Two letters illustrate the situation in which the Rev. and Mrs. Celia find themselves. On 11 July 2001—about a year ago—they received a letter from Ceredigion county council's finance department regarding their housing benefit. It said that the total income for benefit purposes

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was £126.15 and that the weekly eligible rent—that is, the rent upon which the housing benefit is based—was £60 a week.

This year, on 13 June, they received a similar letter, which again set out that their total income for benefit purposes was £128.30. It has increased by £2.15 in a year. However, their weekly eligible rent is £51.40. That means that the Rev. and Mrs. Celia's rent entitlement has decreased by £8.50 a week while their income has gone up by only £2.15 a week. There is no justice in that. How can there be justice in a decrease in rent entitlement for the same property in one year when income has increased only slightly? The justification is that rent has been reassessed in the area. I fail to understand how rents have decreased in a year when house prices in Ceredigion, especially in rural areas, have increased substantially.

There is a problem about the way in which housing rents are calculated and the way in which the valuation officer works. Perhaps that is wider than the scope of tonight's debate, but it is pertinent. The housing valuation officer takes the highest, lowest and middle rent in an area and calculates the average. It is not a serious study of genuine rent levels in an area. Perhaps that accounts for the perception of decline in rents. For example, one of the properties that the valuation officer used for his re-evaluation was a three-bedroomed house that was available at £42 a week. The reason for that was that the farmer was letting it to his daughter. No wonder the rent was £42 a week. Some of the property rents are crazy.

The Rev. and Mrs. Celia's income has increased by £2.15 a week but their housing benefit has decreased by £8.50 a week. They have been forced to meet the difference from their pockets. As Mr. Micawber said, the difference is between happiness and misery. The Rev. and Mrs. Celia are in an increasingly desperate position, whereby their income is considerably less than it was two or three years ago compared with their rent. It would be easy to contrast their position with that of Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, who live in Kensington palace or perhaps even the Deputy Prime Minister with his access to an RMT cheap flat. That would not be irrelevant but I do not want to make such a comparison until we treat disabled people with a modicum of respect. In particular, we should consider the housing benefit regulations and ensure that they do not discriminate against disabled people.

As the Minister knows, the relevant order is the Rent Officers (Housing Benefit Functions) Order 1997. That is simply an update of the 1987 order, and it did not change anything. The Child Poverty Action Group stated in a letter to me that the order did not reflect advances in views about the needs and rights of people with disabilities. That is true. The order appears increasingly to go against the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

The Rev. and Mrs. Celia would probably not have a case under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Section 59 states:

It is clear that actions by Ministers of the Crown are exempt from the 1995 Act. That needs review.

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A briefing that I received for the debate from the Disability Rights Commission recognises that we are considering part of a wider problem of statutory duty exemption under the Disability Discrimination Act. In 1999, the disability rights taskforce said that that should be changed. It recommended that statutory bodies should be under the same obligations as other service providers under the Disability Discrimination Act. The Government have agreed to that in principle. When will that happen? It has been suggested that we shall have a new disability Bill, which may be announced in the Queen's Speech. Will that happen? Is that how the Government intend to deal with the position of people as the Rev. and Mrs. Celia?

The Child Poverty Action Group is interested in the effect of regulations on disabled people such as the Rev. and Mrs. Celia. Indeed, it is keen that they should be a test case under the Human Rights Act 1998 to ascertain whether section 2 of the 1997 order can stand up in court.

The Rev. and Mrs. Celia do not have access to the funds necessary to bring a test case; nor do they necessarily want to do so. They certainly want to take forward this debate with the Minister, however, and I hope that he will respond to some of the issues that they have raised with me and with the Child Poverty Action Group.

It has been suggested that article 14 of the European convention on human rights, which outlaws a discriminating manner, or article 8, which relates to a person's home, family or private life, could be used to protect people such as the Rev. and Mrs. Celia. It is surely detrimental to a disabled person's home life to discriminate against them on the basis of their medical condition, yet that is what the present housing benefit regulations seem to do.

I have to say to the Minister as an aside, albeit an important one, that there is also a religious discrimination aspect to this matter. I understand that orthodox Jews are forbidden under Mosaic law from sharing a bed with their wives during menstruation. That is an orthodox tenet of faith that would underline a religious need for the recognition in legislation of two bedrooms for married couples. The blanket application of the rule that married people must share a bedroom must, therefore, fly in the face of the needs of disabled people, the needs of people with strong medical grounds for separate bedrooms and of the religious needs of strict orthodox Jews.

In local government terms, the Government seem to have fettered their discretion. They have painted themselves into a corner, from which they cannot respond to people's genuine needs. In local government terms, that would be ultra vires. In central Government terms, it is not, but it is open to challenge. The order that was made in 1997 states:

The use of the word "may" makes it clear that the Secretary of State has discretion as to the form of order that he might make, and it is surely a fundamental principle of public law—and particularly of the Human Rights Act 1998—that a Secretary of State must exercise such discretion in a lawful manner. I suggest that the discretion that the Secretary of State is currently exercising under the order is unlawful under the Human Rights Act and certainly discriminatory, and that it needs to be reviewed.

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The Disability Rights Commission takes a similar view. In a submission to me, it states that the Rent Officers (Housing Benefit Functions) Order 1987—and the subsequent 1997 order—constitutes indirect, unfair discrimination against the Rev. Celia. The Commission believes that stating the eligibility of a married couple to claim benefit on the basis of having a shared bedroom places the Rev. Celia, and other disabled people in similar circumstances, at a clear disadvantage if, for a reason relating to a disability, a married couple are advised to sleep in separate bedrooms. The Commission wishes to pursue this matter in the review of legislation that it is currently undertaking.

The Child Poverty Action Group, Shelter, Age Concern and Help the Aged all agree with the Rev. and Mrs. Celia's—and my—analysis of this matter, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's justification of this position. We have to remember that 50 per cent. of disabled people have an income of less than half that of the general population, so there is a double discriminatory whammy here. These people are told that they cannot have recognition of their true medical needs, or needs based on their disability under housing benefit regulations. In addition, they are penalised financially under those regulations, which places them further down the financial pecking order in society.

The central issue is this: we all know that every order, regulation and Bill that comes before the House bears an undertaking from the Minister concerned that it meets the obligations set out in the Human Rights Act 1998. That is now enshrined in our constitutional procedures. This is important; I have seen several challenges to Ministers across the Dispatch Box as to whether a Bill really meets our obligations under the Act. Ministers are called to account by saying, "Yes, it does" and by coming to the Floor of the House and justifying their position.

I want to ask the Minister whether he would sign the 1997 order now, in the light of the experience of the last few years in relation to the way in which people are discriminated against in society, and to the way in which disabled people suffer discrimination. The order might have suited the times in 1987, and we might just have got away with it in 1997, but, in post-Human Rights Act times, I can see no justification for it. I believe that it is flawed and cannot stand up to a challenge under the Human Rights Act.

I should like the Minister to respond to that. I should like him to respond to the comment by the Disability Rights Commission that the rule constitutes indirect unfair discrimination against my constituents. I should like him to respond to the recommendation of the disability taskforce that the Government's actions should be within the remit of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. I should like him to say when statutory bodies will be brought within that remit, and I should like him to explain to my constituents how he expects them to live on an ever-decreasing income while making an ever-increasing contribution to rent.

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