Previous SectionIndexHome Page

10.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) on initiating the debate on behalf of his constituents. I listened to his speech with great interest. I acknowledge

24 Jun 2002 : Column 717

the important contribution that the Rev. Celia and his wife have made to the national and the local community in recent years, and I am sorry about the position in which they now find themselves.

I shall stick to the main point—housing benefit—although the hon. Gentleman's speech ranged fairly widely. I should welcome an opportunity to discuss with him, on another occasion, the Government's policies on disability and a policy for carers. I think our record will stand any assessment, and I have an interest as a sponsor of the Bill that became the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995. However, I want to concentrate on the key subject of housing benefit. Let me begin by explaining our policy on the benefit in relation to private sector tenants, and explaining why we have rules such as the size criteria.

Unlike social housing, the deregulated private rented sector is not subject to any internal rent controls. It is essential that we exercise control over housing benefit expenditure, so that the needs of people receiving benefit are balanced against those of taxpayers—indeed, those of the wider community. Surely it is a fundamental principle that people receiving housing benefit should not have their rent met in full if the level exceeds the broadly average rent level for an appropriately sized property in the area where they live.

Rent officers play an important part in the administration of housing benefit in the deregulated private rented sector. In carrying out his or her functions, the rent officer will make a determination based on certain criteria. He or she may make two or more determinations on a particular decision if those criteria apply to the same property. One is the size-related rent, which is the main subject of this debate.

The size criterion works like this. If a claimant lives in a property that exceeds the defined size criteria for his household, the rent officer must determine a rent for a similar tenancy of the appropriate size for that household in the vicinity. By "vicinity" we mean the immediate surrounding area. The defined criteria provide for one bedroom per couple and one for each single person over 16. The rules also state that two children—under 16—of the same sex should share a bedroom, as should two children of different sexes under 10. Any child who does not come into those categories is allowed his or her own bedroom. We also allow the household to have up to three living rooms, depending on how many people live in it. A one, two, or three-person household can have one living room, four people can have two, and three are allowed when there are more than four people in the household. We pay some attention to household circumstances.

The rules are set out in the Rent Officers (Housing Benefit Functions) Order 1997, which covers England and Wales, and the Rent Officers (Housing Benefit Functions) (Scotland) Order 1997.

The rent officer has no discretion to alter the size criteria for any particular case—for example, where, due to health reasons, a husband and wife would find it difficult to share the same bedroom. That could, as in the case of Rev. Celia and his wife, result in a shortfall in housing benefit where the property exceeds the size criteria.

24 Jun 2002 : Column 718

In such cases—it is an important point—discretionary housing payments are available. Indeed, that was acknowledged by the hon. Gentleman. Those are free-standing payments—they are not payments of housing benefit or council tax benefit—that can be made at the discretion of the local council where the claimant has a shortfall in housing benefit or council tax benefit and requires further help with rent or council tax.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, an overall cash limit is set on the amount that local authorities may spend on discretionary housing payments in any one year, and we contribute towards that limit. For this year, we have set the national limit at some £50 million: £20 million of that is the Government contribution, leaving £30 million that authorities may spend from their own resources.

Rev. Celia is receiving discretionary housing payments, as has been acknowledged, although they do not mean that his rent is met in full. I appreciate that that tight definition of the size criteria may seem inflexible but, as I said earlier, in housing benefit—as is perhaps always the case, sadly, with public expenditure—we must balance the needs of claimants with taxpayers' interests.

It would clearly be irresponsible to have no limit on the number of rooms in any given property for which housing benefit is paid, and to do so would put claimants at an unfair advantage perhaps vis-à-vis their working peers, who might not be able to afford to live in larger properties. There is an issue of equity that we must allow for in this area of housing and social security policy.

Having said that, I have listened with concern to what the hon. Gentleman has said. We need robust rules for housing benefit, but that does not mean that we do not listen to constructive argument, or that we are inflexible, and I can see how the situation faced by Rev. Celia and his wife is a particularly difficult one.

In balancing our sensitivity and concerns about the individual with a sickness or disability, we need to recognise, perhaps with equal force, as the hon. Gentleman has done, the needs of the carer, in this case the reverend's wife. In these situations, we need the carer to have a proper night's sleep and to be looked after in all sorts of appropriate ways. Therefore, although I cannot make any promises immediately to the hon. Gentleman, I have asked my officials, with whom I discussed the matter today, to re-examine the size criteria rules to see whether, in the circumstances before the House, with which I have much sympathy, the rules can be changed to accommodate this sort of situation. We will need to exercise care to ensure that we do not open housing benefit to abuse, with perhaps a large number of people claiming that they would rather have a second bedroom, but we will review the rules nevertheless.

If change is possible, we will consult, as would be our normal practice, the Social Security Advisory Committee and the local authority associations in the normal way before laying the necessary legislation before the House.

Mr. Simon Thomas: On that point, I am very pleased to hear what the Minister is saying. I accept his point that we do not want to drive a cart and horses through the rules. We do not want people to claim snoring or some other spurious reason, but Rev. Celia is on invalidity care benefit—the long-term rate. He is on disability living allowance, higher care allowance and mobility allowance. Where high disability pensions and benefits are paid to

24 Jun 2002 : Column 719

such individuals, it is clear that they have true disability needs. Those are the cases where the Minister might find some flexibility in a new set of rules.

Malcolm Wicks: If we can make progress—I stress "if"—establishing such criteria would be important in our deliberations.

I should make it clear that Rev. Celia's property is, in our judgment—this may be a matter of controversy—relatively expensive for the locality, although I heard what the hon. Gentleman said about locality rates. The fact that Rev. Celia's benefit is restricted is in line with our policy that housing benefit should not cover in full rents that exceed the broadly average rent for an appropriately sized property in the same area. Even if the size criteria were to be modified, it is unlikely that Rev. Celia and his wife would have their full rent met, although his housing benefit entitlement would rise.

24 Jun 2002 : Column 720

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising the issue. It is when we judge social policies against the hard reality of our constituents' experience that we are sometimes able to make better policy and better public administration. I have found this to be a good opportunity to consider these matters.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman said that Rev. and Mrs. Celia had judged at one stage that should they ever live in sin—of course they never would—they might be better off. Our social security regulations, as always, understand that point. I assure the hon. Gentleman—an assurance that Rev. and Mrs. Celia will want to hear—that they would be no better off living in sin under our no-nonsense social security regulations. Whatever crises the churches face in our modern society, this is not a temptation that we are able to place before them.

Question put and agreed to.

 IndexHome Page