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19 Jan 2004 : Column 1074Wcontinued
Mr. Dhanda: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions if his Department will provide individuals claiming income support which is paid into their bank account with documentary proof of their receipt of benefit so that they can apply for discounts and reduced rates for leisure and other services. 
Mr. Pond: People receiving benefit that is paid into a bank account can use their initial award notifications as documentary proof of entitlement. Alternatively, customers can obtain evidence confirming their entitlement from the Department; for example, Jobcentre Plus provide customers with locally produced forms.
19 Jan 2004 : Column 1075W
Malcolm Wicks: There will be a comprehensive evaluation of local housing allowance Pathfinders including interviews with claimants, landlords, local authority staff and stakeholder organisations, as well as an analysis of administrative data. This is already underway.
Malcolm Wicks: We hope to implement a flat rate housing benefit system in the social sector, similar to that anticipated in the private rented sector to enable people in that sector to benefit from the choice and flexibility that the reforms can provide. We aim to extend our reforms to the social rented sector as soon as rent restructuring and increased choice have created an improved market.
Malcolm Wicks: Tenants whose rent is higher than their local housing allowance will be expected to make good the difference with their landlord. This is no different to what happens under existing rules. During the Pathfinder stage, no claimant will be worse off financially at the point of change as they will be covered by a form of transitional protection.
There will not be a hardship payment to tenants whose rent is higher than their local housing allowance. Tenants will have the choice to shop around and look for a cheaper property in such circumstances.
Malcolm Wicks: The nine Pathfinder authorities will implement the new housing allowance using one of two different approachesa "big bang", or a "phased". Under both approaches, all new claims made after the start date will go directly on to local housing allowance.
Under the "big bang" approach, all existing claims will be converted to housing allowance on the authority's start date. However, the local authority can delay the change on payments to tenants for up to six months.
Under the "phased" approach, exiting cases will be converted gradually over a 12 month period. Conversion will be triggered either by a change in the tenant's circumstances, or when a referral to the rent officer would have become due under the housing benefit system.
19 Jan 2004 : Column 1076W
|Local Authority||Start date||Approach|
|Blackpool||17 November 2003||Phased|
|Lewisham||1 December 2003||Phased|
|Coventry||12 January 2004||Phased|
|Teignbridge||12 January 2004||Phased|
|Brighton||2 February 2004||Big Bang|
|Edinburgh||9 February 2004||Big Bang|
|NE Lincolnshire||9 February 2004||Big Bang|
|Conwy||9 February 2004||Phased|
|Leeds||9 February 2004||Phased|
Malcolm Wicks: Rent Officers in each Pathfinder area will look at a range of properties and rents in that area. Excluding exceptionally high and exceptionally low rents to avoid distortion, Rent Officers will identify the lowest and highest rents for a property type, add them together and divide by two. This will give the local housing allowance for that property type in that area.
Rent Officers will review the local housing allowance levels on a monthly basis to ensure they remain accurate reflections of average rents in an area. However, an individual claimant's entitlement will only be reviewed annually or where there is a change of circumstances.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions what the estimated cost is of local housing allowance in the first full year of operation; and what the equivalent cost of housing benefit would have been using the same methodology for the calculation. [R] 
Malcolm Wicks: It is estimated that the Local Housing Allowance Pathfinders will cost an additional £20 million in their first year of full operation. Information on the forecasted equivalent cost of housing benefit is not available.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions what assessment he has made of the effect of local housing allowance on rent restructuring in the de-regulated private rental sector. [R] 
Mr. Clifton-Brown: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions how local housing allowance will be adjusted to take into account improvements that are carried out to an individual property. [R] 
Malcolm Wicks: Local housing allowance will not depend on the individual rent or the type of property occupied by a claimant. It will be based on a standard amount for similarly suitable properties in that area for the size of the claimant's household.
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Mr. Clifton-Brown: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions whether the landlord will be able to apply to have local housing allowance paid directly to him in circumstances when the tenant is likely to abscond with the allowance. [R] 
Malcolm Wicks: Landlords can make representations to receive direct payment if they believe that a tenant will not use their housing allowance to pay their rent. Landlords have the right of appeal if the authority decides to continue to make payment directly to tenants. Each of the Pathfinder authorities has held meetings with local landlords to explain how the housing allowance will work.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions what estimate he has made of (a) the change in the number of homes available to rent to those in receipt of local housing allowance and (b) the change in the number of empty homes as a result of the introduction of local housing allowance. [R] 
Malcolm Wicks: We do not expect there to be any significant change in the number of homes made available to rent to those in receipt of local housing allowance, or an increase or decrease in the number of empty homes as a result of the introduction of the local housing allowance. However, both will be monitored as part of the comprehensive evaluation of the Pathfinders.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions what arrangements are being made in each of the Pathfinder local authority areas to house tenants who have to move from the private to the public sector because of the introduction of local housing allowance. [R] 
Malcolm Wicks: The local housing allowance was launched in Blackpool on 17 November and Lewisham on 1 December 2003. Coventry and Teignbridge both introduced the housing allowance on 12 January this year. The remaining five authorities will be going live during February this year. So far there has been no evidence of tenants having to move from the private to public sector. However, we will monitor this as part of the comprehensive evaluation of local housing allowance Pathfinders, which will include interviews with claimants, landlords, local authority staff and stakeholder organisations, as well as an analysis of administrative data; the evaluation is already under way.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions what advice the Department is offering those tenants who get into financial difficulties following the introduction of local housing allowance; and what the estimated cost is of the provision of that advice. [R] 
Malcolm Wicks: Pathfinder authorities are being given an additional £540,000 towards the cost of providing financial management advice to claimants. Pathfinders are working directly or in co-operation with voluntary agencies, such as the Citizen's Advice Bureau, to provide advice on financial management. This is in addition to existing support mechanisms offered by welfare organisations, and loans and advice available from Jobcentre Plus.
19 Jan 2004 : Column 1078W
Mr. Clifton-Brown: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (1) how local housing allowance will be paid; and what arrangements will be made for those tenants who do not have a bank account; 
Malcolm Wicks: As for tenants who currently receive direct payment of housing benefit, payments of the local housing allowance will be made by cheque or a bank transfer. Pathfinder authorities will assist tenants with advice on how to obtain bank accounts.
It is entirely a matter for local authorities to decide whether to reimburse for any overdraft fee incurred as a result of late payment of local housing allowance into a bank account. Local authorities will be able to process local housing allowance claims more quickly than current housing benefit claims, and our aim will be to prevent late payments.
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