Rent Officers (Housing Benefit Functions) (Amendment) Order 2001

[back to previous text]

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I do not want to interrupt the fascinating case that the hon. Gentleman is making, but does he agree that to replace one term of art, locality, with another, vicinity, might be seen as

Column Number: 7

a manoeuvre that will simply invite further litigation on precisely that matter? Tenants already in a vulnerable position might not find that position adequately clarified until the law on the new order now being discussed has been clarified by the courts.

Mr. Stunell: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. One reads such stories, and of course dismisses them. However, people with big purses quite deliberately let such cases run and recycle with a view to exhausting the pockets of the people with small purses. I am sure that the Minister will want to give us a strong assurance that that is not the case, but he will have a difficult point to make when the time comes. If he can honestly say that there was a blank piece of paper on the Monday after the Court of Appeal hearing, and that the order was somehow got to the printers by the Friday and made on the Sunday, I will be very impressed. I know that my colleagues and I will then think of a number of other examples where we would like to see similar dispatch in Government business.

It looks as if the aim of the rent officer's resistance to the court was to drive away the challenge and exhaust the resources of the tenants who were appealing. If that is the case, I think it despicable.

We come to the statutory instrument, published, as I said, on a Sunday. I have not taken the time to check with the Library whether publication on a Sunday is usual, but I would imagine not. What a statutory instrument it is. It is very obscure, and was sneakily introduced with a complete lack of consultation. Its wording, as the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said in his intervention, appears deliberately designed to muddle and confuse.

I must tell the Minister that the solicitors concerned were not content when they saw the statutory instrument, and referred it to counsel. I have some comments from counsel on the statutory instrument, and it is important that the Committee be aware of them. The first is about the order's obscurity and the fact that it will be very difficult for a rent officer to interpret without guidance. It says:

    ''It is very likely that the statutory instrument has been explained to members of the Rent Officer Service in an internal memorandum or circular. No copy of that document has been made available to me or to my Instructing Solicitors. No press release accompanied its making.''

I ask the Minister whether there has been an internal memorandum, and if so, whether he is prepared to publish it and put it in the Library. It will be interesting to see what instructions rent officers have received about the meaning of the statutory instrument.

As I said, the statutory instrument was introduced without any consultation. Counsel's opinion is that there is nothing unlawful in that per se, but it seems unfair, especially when the order's impact will be directly to affect the benefit received by hundreds of welfare benefit claimants. We are here faced with a statutory instrument that even leading counsel finds difficult to interpret, which was introduced in very

Column Number: 8

short order and which, so far as we can see, the House cannot vote on and defeat.

The immediate effect of the change is the introduction of additional complexity into schedule 1 of the housing benefit regulations. Counsel comments that the single word ''locality'' is to be replaced in some paragraphs by two further formulations: ''vicinity'' and ''neighbourhood''. Where ''locality'' continues in use, it is defined as embracing a potentially huge area.

As a careful reader of the statutory instrument will see, in determining a local reference rent, the rent officer will be able to take into account one or more localities, but the number is not established. A muddle exists about terms such as ''locality'', ''vicinity'' and ''neighbourhood''. Will the Minister explain the differences between those terms? I shall read his account with care and pass it on to counsel to see whether it resolves the difficulties.

The definitions do not even make sense. The word ''vicinity'' was used in the original draft of the Housing Act 1996 but was taken out by the then Conservative Government because they accepted that it did not mean anything. They substituted the word ''locality''. Five years later, we are going to substitute the word ''vicinity'' for ''locality'', despite the previous Government's decision. The change will encourage housing benefit recipients to move from a more expensive area to a cheaper one. The definitions raise questions about the drafters' understanding of the conditions of people claiming housing benefit. Vicinities are defined in relation to ''recreation'' and ''personal banking'': many housing benefit recipients have no personal banking facilities.

We are considering an obscure, muddled statutory instrument that has been sneaked in. It undermines the principle of equity and economically cleanses private tenants from my constituency and many others: it promotes social exclusion and ghettoisation. In Greater Manchester, it will be possible to rent in the private sector in only a few areas. Those areas will be less desirable ones with lower property prices: places where social exclusion abounds. If the Minister wants to drive street after street of those on low or no income in rented accommodation out of areas such as mine, that would cut against the Government's policy in other areas.

I have received a letter from Shelter, which states:

    ''We believe that the Order will result in many claimants facing increased housing benefit shortfalls, debts and arrears, and will undermine the Government's efforts to tackle social exclusion. Shelter therefore hopes that the Government will withdraw Statutory Instrument 3561.''

The new regulations have been introduced, as the original rent officer's ruling was, with no transitional arrangements, no notification and no protection for those in existing tenancies. They have been introduced with no consultation: a point made forcefully to me by the Chartered Institute of Housing, and a concern raised by the Local Government Association.

Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East): The hon. Gentleman makes a good case, but he has not given the Committee his definition of ''locality'' or

Column Number: 9

''vicinity''. How does he think that they ought to be defined?

Mr. Stunell: I have some views, and I would be content to rest on some of the words in the Court of Appeal judgment. I could show the hon. Lady with a map and a felt-tip pen what I thought were the areas in the part of Stockport that is in my constituency. It is interesting to note that the rent officers have no difficulty with that. They are not arguing that they cannot identify the localities, but are simply saying that they want to find a way of reducing the amount of housing benefit that they pay. They fully accept my point that one cannot rent somewhere in Marple in my constituency at those levels. It is not intrinsically complex to define an area with a different price structure from another area: it does not require significant political decisions. The Court of Appeal certainly thought that.

My questions to the Minister hinge on the word ''locality''. What is the intention behind, and the meaning of, the word in the statutory instrument? What distinction does he draw between a locality, a vicinity and a neighbourhood? Cases are still coming to light. Will his definition of ''locality'' help the widow in Romiley in my constituency? She reported at my weekend surgery that her previous local reference rent of £80 a week for her accommodation had been reduced to £69 a week, which is a drop of £11 a week and £44 a month. She has been paying that from her pension since it was first imposed, and she told me that she had heard that the Court of Appeal had granted the appeal–although she was not one of the four cases, she was awaiting the outcome of those cases. I told her that that was true, but whether she would be able to carry on living in her accommodation in Romiley depended on what the Minister said on Monday. If she cannot continue to live there, she will move to the centre of Greater Manchester and leave her friends, connections and support network.

Will the Minister say what advice, recommendation or rules have been given to rent officers about the application of localities, and will he place them in the Library? The regulations state that rent officers can take into account one or more localities. Will the Minister say how many more? Does he mean that two, four, 10, 100 or 1,000 localities can be lumped together? The same question was asked of the rent officer's counsel in the Court of Appeal, who put forward an argument, which the judgment considered to be lame, that Stockport could be a locality, but that Greater Manchester could not. The Court of Appeal said that Stockport was not a locality.

Mr. Boswell: Further to the point that I made earlier, the order does not even make it clear whether the localities would have to be contiguous. Under the order, it might be possible to select a locality from an inappropriate location in a different borough and introduce that.

Mr. Stunell: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Would the Minister rule out selecting two localities that did not have connecting boundaries? The situation does not look good. The hon. Members for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) represent constituencies adjacent to mine in

Column Number: 10

the north-east of Cheshire. Their rent officer covers Cheshire and the Wirral, not Greater Manchester. Therefore, a different rent officer from a different local authority deals with them, although it appears that the Cheshire rent officer follows the prescription of the Greater Manchester rent officer. The two hon. Gentlemen tell me that some of their constituents have been hit by the same issue over the past three or four months. I do not want the Minister to say that it would be to the detriment of tenants in lower-price property elsewhere in Stockport if that continued. The Court of Appeal dealt with that argument and, with regard to the case being put forward by tenants, the judge said:

    ''In theory this creates an advantage for tenants in poorer areas and a handicap for tenants in pleasanter areas; but in practice the benefits payable to the former will be capped, where appropriate, under one or more of the preceding paragraphs of the schedule, while the latter . . . may escape capping under those paragraphs.''

When one considers the overall housing benefit regulations, and the exceptionally high rents cap and the significantly high rents cap–two slightly and confusingly different things–there is not a problem for tenants in poorer areas. In Stockport, the local reference rent allowed in the cheaper property zone went down as well as the allowable reference rent in my area.

The order has pernicious and outrageous consequences, not just in theory but in practice. I recently met a couple and their son, who is in year 6 of a local primary school–a good one–and they have found themselves several hundred pounds in arrears as a result of the decision. They have run out of the option of receiving support from the council or elsewhere and now face being torn from their roots, taking their son out of the local primary school and moving to inner Manchester. I urge the Minister to reconsider and withdraw the order. If he is not prepared to do so, I urge the Committee to decline to agree to it.

5.6 pm

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 14 January 2002