|Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill
Mr. Field: I thought that we were discussing new clauses 6 and 7, but the hon. Gentleman's amendments relate to administrative costs.
Mr. Davey: No. That is the amendment to new clause 6. For the right hon. Gentleman's benefit, I am talking about amendment (a) to new clause 7, which is at the bottom of page 1175.
Column Number: 109
The Chairman: Indeed. It was in the wrong place. New clause 7 and the amendment are grouped for debate with new clause 6.
Mr. Davey: I understand that amendment (a) to new clause 6 was not selected, so I am not talking to it.
Amendment (a) to new clause 7 would delete subsection (5). I believe that the right hon. Gentleman is now with us. As I said, many problems with the operation of housing benefit that would arise under the Bill come from administration. The House spends too little time considering administration. I know that we have plenty of other things to do, but the administration of housing benefit, more than any other benefit, is the one that causes the problems. Time after time in my twice-weekly advice sessions, I see people with administrative problems with housing benefit, yet the House does not take decisions on administration. One might question whether we would take better decisions on it, but if we examine the sort of decisions taken on administration at the moment, we would reach the conclusion that we could do a better job than the current process allows. I therefore recommend my amendment (a).
Amendment (b) would ensure that the Government would consult widely before issuing any regulations under new clause 7. I am tempted to have another consultation debate, but that really would try your patience, Mr. O'Hara, and that of other members of the Committee. Hon. Members understand the sort of people that the Secretary of State should consult. I recommend my amendment to the Minister. I know that Ministers do not like to have a statutory duty to consult before issuing regulations, as they say that they adopt best practice in any case. However, given the nature of benefit sanctions, it would be appropriate for the Secretary of State to consult those people. I hope that the Minister will take my amendments in the spirit in which they are meant.
Mr. Field: Before the Minister replies, will he help us with amendment (b). Given that new clauses 3 and 4, which we accepted, say that the declarations are the result of other proceedings brought before the courts, the actual costs of the declarations will surely be minuscule.
Malcolm Wicks: The cases will come before the courts in the normal way, so I can confirm that the extra costs will be very small indeed. We believe that a central register of court declarations kept by my Department is the fairest, most efficient and cost-effective way for the policy to work. It is in line with what already happens with our sanction for benefit fraud.
I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton. He approaches the issue with good intentions, but I have an opposing view about what would happen if the local authority kept the register. There are 408 local authorities administering housing benefit. As a London Member he knows—as I know and as my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) knows—that there is often great movement of tenants and others across Greater London. The same will be true of many other parts of the country. What would happen if the record
Column Number: 110is kept in Kingston, and the tenant then moves to Croydon, Lambeth, Enfield, Edmonton or even out of Greater London? The idea that there is somehow an easy administrative capacity to keep a check on such people across 408 local authorities is, with due respect, totally absurd.
As the Minister responsible for housing benefit—a complex area that we are trying to reform and simplify—I am concerned that we should not place additional burdens on local authorities. It is altogether more sensible, therefore, for my Department to keep the register—it is the only feasible way of keeping track of people who move between areas. Otherwise, people could avoid a sanction or receive a less severe sanction simply by moving house. In many respects, we are protecting the position of local authorities.
Questions were asked about what civil cases will be prescribed, but they are questions of substance about new clause 4, and new clause 7 is purely procedural. No regulations are introduced by it: it merely prescribes how regulations may be made under other clauses. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton must believe me when I tell him that it is a purely technical clause. As for his charge that we do not discuss housing benefit administration in the House, I invite him to come and sit in on the statutory instruments debate that is to take place on Monday, when we will discuss contracting out proposals. He will see that we regularly discuss such things in Committee. I invite him to turn up as my guest—as long as he does not participate.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead said that our colleague on the Committee, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton, was clearly an example of good behaviour following sanctions policy. I am not at all disputing your authoritative and wise judgments today, Mr. O'Hara—although it seems like more than one day—but I am bound to say that, so far there seem to have been 12 strikes and he is still not out.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
|©Parliamentary copyright 2002||Prepared 11 July 2002|