Third Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Monday 17 March 2003
[Mrs. Marion Roe in the Chair]
Draft Local Authorities (Charges for Specified Welfare Services) (England) Regulations 2003
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Tony McNulty): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Local Authorities (Charges for Specified Welfare Services) (England) Regulations 2003.
As I recently announced in a written statement to the House of Commons, the provisional amount of the Supporting People grant that English authorities will have to spend on housing-related support services in the financial year 2003–04 will be £1.4 billion. The figure is based on data submitted by authorities in December 2002 and takes account of other relevant information, including current transitional housing benefit payments and other relevant funding streams.
As hon. Members will know, the Supporting People programme will go live on 1 April and will bring together funding for housing-relating support services, such as domestic violence refuges, sheltered accommodation for older people, housing for people with learning difficulties and accommodation for homeless people and those with problems associated with alcohol misuse. The programme is, therefore, targeted on many of the most vulnerable in our society.
The services covered by the Supporting People programme will largely be funded by the grants to which I have referred, which will be made to local authorities under section 93 of the Local Government Act 2000. However, some services are currently provided as part of tenancy agreements with service providers and, in some cases, service users pay all or part of their support costs to their service provider. The regulations will allow local authorities to charge for the support costs that service users currently pay to their registered social landlords and other providers.
Before turning to the services specified in the regulations, it is worth emphasising that the charging power contained in the regulations is limited to specified welfare services known as housing-related support services, for which Supporting People grants will be paid. The aim of providing the power to charge for those services is not to provide a new source of income for local authorities—nor could the power be used in such a way, because it is limited to specified welfare services. The powers granted by the regulations should be seen in the context of the conditions and directions of the Supporting People grant and the accompanying statutory guidance.
The additional documents set out the key aims of the programme and place conditions on local
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authorities' powers to charge. As a result, anyone whose support charge is currently met, wholly or partly, by a benefit—that is, transitional housing benefit, income support or jobseeker's allowance—will receive protection from charging during the transitional period. Furthermore, we do not intend to increase the number of people who are charged, nor do we intend to increase the level of charges currently being paid. No one should be worse off.
Administering authorities should agree their own rules for deciding whether, and to what extent, people should be relieved from charges for housing-related support but, during the transitional period, authorities will be required to offer protection to existing service users and to passport those people who are receiving housing benefit to free housing-related support services. Broadly speaking, services that aim to develop a person's capacity for independent living within two years—for example, services for homeless people or those fleeing domestic violence—will not be chargeable.
I now turn briefly to the content of the regulations. As I stated earlier, the regulations allow local authorities to levy a charge for housing-related support services, where those services were funded on the qualifying date by transitional housing benefit. The effect will be to limit the charging regime to certain Supporting People services. The regulations do not allow charging to be applied to any wider circumstances.
In most cases, the qualifying date will be 31 March, the day before the start of the Supporting People programme. However, for those people who pay rent in periods of whole weeks, the qualifying date will be 6 April. For others, 31 March may fall in a rent-free period. Those people will not be legally entitled to transitional housing benefit on 31 March because no rent will be payable, so to accommodate them, the qualifying date will be the day immediately preceding the start of their rent-free period.
The services for which transitional housing benefit can be paid are set out in schedule 1B of the Housing Benefit (General) Regulations 1987, inserted in 2000. They fall into three main categories: counselling and support for various purposes, the cleaning of rooms and windows and the provision of community alarms. The counselling and support for which transitional housing benefit can be paid may have a number of objectives, but all relate to assisting the service recipient to live in his or her home. Counselling and support may, therefore, deal with issues such as maintaining the safety and security of the dwelling, including arranging for appliances to be checked when they might constitute a safety hazard. It may also cover any other matter for which the tenant needs help to comply with the terms of his or her tenancy agreement. Such terms might be concerned with nuisance, liability to pay rent, the maintenance of the interior of the property in a reasonable condition or the duration of the tenancy period.
Transitional housing benefit can also be used to meet charges for general counselling or other support that is provided either by a warden—where there is a system for calling that warden—or in accommodation
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intended for people with support needs. Service charges for the cleaning of rooms and windows can also be met through transitional housing benefit, but only when neither the claimant nor any member of his or her household is able to do the cleaning.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): The Minister has been anxious to assure us that the measure is not principally about the raising of revenue. I am sure that that is a relevant consideration. Can he tell the Committee something about the expected administration costs that will flow from the policy?
Mr. McNulty: The expected administration costs are contained in the £1.4 billion that has been announced. My officials have worked hard with every local authority that administers THB to ensure that, as well as the processes, the administration element will be in place and working effectively by 1 April. If the position is different, I am sure that someone will let me know imminently.
The regulations also provide that THB can be paid for services in respect of emergency alarms. That provision, however, can only be used where such alarms are provided in accommodation occupied by elderly, sick or disabled people. The accommodation, apart from providing an alarm, should also be particularly suitable for such people, either because it has been specifically designed or adapted or because of its size, heating system or other major features or facilities.
The charging regulations do not allow authorities to levy a charge for other costs, for which housing benefit will continue to be paid. Those are set out in detail in section 10 of the Housing Benefit (General) Regulations 1987. In most cases, those costs relate to rent, but they can include payments that are made as a consequence of using the dwelling, such as rental charges for a caravan or mobile home site or the contributions that someone living in an almshouse belonging to a housing association makes towards the costs of maintaining that association's almshouses.
The charging policy was formally consulted on in the supplementary consultation document ''Charging and Means-Testing'' issued by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions in January 2001. Further consultation was carried out at the same time as the statutory consultation on the directions and grant conditions under section 93 of the Local Government Act 2000 in November 2002. The regulations are a result of that process, and they are non-contentious: the need for them is accepted by local authorities and service providers alike.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): The Minister will be familiar with the cases of Commissioner Mesher and the north Cornwall judgment. They gave conflicting messages. To which of those judgments do the regulations respond?
Mr. McNulty: With the best will in the world, I could not say. However, I shall find out.
Mr. Bercow: It might be that the Minister does not want to dilate upon the matter now. However, I am sure that he is closely familiar with the minutiae of the two judgments as each relates to the regulations and to
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our deliberations. Can he offer us a morsel to give us a flavour of the matters to which my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) helpfully alluded?
Mr. McNulty: No, I shall not do that. If I find that the details of the judgments are remotely relevant to the regulations, I shall write to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and his colleagues. However, they should not hold their breath. Considering the record of the hon. Member for Cotswold, it will probably be an extremely short letter. Given the importance of the matter, however, I shall resist the temptation of being—characteristically or otherwise—nasty to him. He cannot provoke me after just nine minutes, although I am sure that he will subsequently try even harder.
There is absolute consensus from service providers and service recipients alike on the need for the regulations. It is imperative that the regulations are passed in the context of the Supporting People programme. As last week's debate showed, there is a broad consensus on the thrust and direction of the policy, if not about some fine details and minutiae. I commend the regulations to the Committee.