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24 July 2006 : Column 670

I strongly support the general principles referred to in the Green Paper and agree that we need to get tenants to take more responsibility for their own financial affairs. That said, I shall now outline a few difficulties that I can foresee with the new LHA. Much depends on what constitutes a region or an area and, although it is obvious what is meant from the pathfinder studies in the nine local authorities, it is otherwise by no means clear. There are particular problems in London in setting the level of benefit. What constitutes a decent, normal market or median rent in London, given the huge discrepancies in rent levels in different boroughs across the capital? For example, rents in Barking and Dagenham or Havering are far lower than in Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea or Hammersmith and Fulham. Even within a very small local authority area such as my own, the difference in rent levels between Fulham—around the Hurlingham club—and in Shepherd’s Bush can be huge, so it is very important that we define such areas well. I should be grateful for guidance from the Minister on this issue.

If such areas are made too big, the natural reaction may well be for people to move from expensive boroughs to cheaper ones, or from more expensive areas within a given borough to cheaper ones. Some might view that as desirable and say that it is merely tenants following market forces, but I am not so sure. If the different parts of London are to remain sustainable and solid communities, we need a range of people living in each. Pricing the poor out of the centre of London, or out of places such as Fulham, could have consequences that we need to consider carefully before going down that route.

Justine Greening: My hon. Friend is making a very good point. As recently as last Friday, I met the head teacher of my local school—the Elliot school—and one of the things that she is very passionate about is the fact that the children whom she teaches constitute a very diverse group. My hon. Friend is right to highlight the danger associated with this legislation. We need to be careful to ensure that we understand its impact.

Mr. Hands: I thank my hon. Friend. It is important to be careful both in setting the areas and in defining exactly how we are going to arrive at the median rent level. Of course, a big range will create much more potential for people moving out of expensive areas and into cheaper ones. I urge the Government—in London, at least—to make the regional considerations as small as possible and to make the areas as small as can reasonably be assessed. Indeed, the same should perhaps be done in other parts of the country.

In the Green Paper, the Government state:

That is probably a great thing—we do want tenants to start looking around and assessing the economics of particular properties—but we do not want to encourage too much mobility out of the better-off areas.

Mr. Khan: Does the hon. Gentleman think that, if tenants are thinking about the price that they have to
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pay for accommodation, it will make them more responsible and lead them away from receiving allowances and toward paying rent themselves?

Mr. Hands: I agree entirely and in principle that this is a very good reform. I am simply saying that in constituencies such as ours, exactly how we define the median rent level and the area concerned needs to be approached with care.

We should also consider the potential for arrears. Although the Green Paper highlights the expectation that tenants set up standing orders to pay rent, there is clearly no compulsion to do so. Moreover, no consideration has been given to how councils might play a part in setting up such arrangements, or to the costs that might be involved to councils in offering services in this area if people get into trouble. In creating individual responsibility, councils might need to have resources to help such people get through the transitional period. I welcome the commitment given at the start of this debate to extending throughout the country the support being made available in the pathfinder projects to help tenants in more difficult and challenging circumstances to make that transition.

I want to talk about an issue that has not really been touched on this debate—the potential for overcrowding. There is a real risk, which has not been totally borne out by the pathfinder projects, that many tenants will trade down their accommodation, move into smaller premises, take the higher level of local housing allowance, save money on the local allowance by paying less rent than they really should, pocket the difference and use it for something else. Some might say that that is fantastic and that it encourages more responsibility on behalf of that tenant, but if it leads to more overcrowding in places such as inner-city London and my constituency, that could be an unfortunate consequence. I would be grateful for the Minister’s views on what sort of protection can be put in place against people who are, in effect, moving to a much smaller property than they should be.

One of the most interesting aspects of this debate is the potential for extending the provisions to the 80 per cent. of housing benefit recipients who are in social housing. I have two practical concerns. I know that this aspect is not in the Bill, but there is the potential to introduce it. Having spoken to my council, I know that it believes that the local housing allowance would cost more to administer than current arrangements for its council tenants. It also thinks that arrears would probably increase in the social housing sector and that probably some transitional help would be needed for councils.

I would be interested to see some of the results for the nine pathfinder authorities. Regrettably, we have not yet got the final report from those authorities—I do not think that it is due till the end of the year—to enable us to assess the situation properly. There are some mixed experiences if one compares, say, Lewisham with Conwy, which I suppose is not that surprising when one considers the mix of housing stock and tenants in the two areas. Apparently, in the pathfinder areas, 56 per cent. of landlords said that the
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new local housing allowance scheme would make them less likely to let to housing benefit tenants due to fear or experience of arrears.

In answer to the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), I think that we need to start giving people responsibility for their financial futures. Undoubtedly, some tenants will struggle with an incoming payment and outgoing payment when previously the cash flow was effectively hidden from them and managed on their behalf. But surely, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition says repeatedly, we need to start trusting people and getting them less dependent on the state to do everything for them. Let us be bold and back the new local housing allowance.

In conclusion, we need to support this scheme, but we need to look at perhaps three or four areas where there are concerns. I would like the Minister to address them in his summing up. The first is the potential for mobility, both within an area of inner London and out of inner London into outer London. Secondly, there is the potential for the overcrowding of tenants to save money. Thirdly, there is the potential for greater arrears. Finally, there is the potential for greater administration costs, especially if the two schemes are going to be run in tandem, which I think is what the proposal states. Effectively there will be a lot of historic existing tenants on the existing housing benefit system, plus a large group on the new local housing allowance. I hope that the Minister will address those points.

We should welcome the new local housing allowance. We need to move ahead with caution. The current system is too susceptible to fraud, too complex and destroys individual aspiration. It is time for something better, but we still need a little caution.

7.52 pm

Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton) (Lab): I thank Ministers and officials for the intensive consultation that has taken place over recent weeks. As a member of a number of all-party groups and the chairman of the all-party group on lupus, as well as the all-party autism group, I know how much effort has been put into discussing the proposed reforms with MPs and patient groups. There is widespread support for the proposals in the Bill, which bring a real opportunity to change the way in which we look at disability and work. Although pathways to work has begun to change the culture of the system, employers need to be encouraged to retain and accommodate staff who may become ill or suffer an injury. The system needs to enable people to play as active a part in work as possible. Individuals need to have faith that the process is working for them.

I agree with the charity Rethink when it refers to people needing

I believe that the new system will be judged on its ability to focus on individuals’ needs. In order to do that, there will need to be increased training for Jobcentre Plus staff and for doctors carrying out capabilities assessments. Although I recognise that, as now, people will be assessed according to how the illness or disability affects them, rather than which condition they have, there is a need for those who interview or examine individuals to have some
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knowledge of different conditions. They will need to recognise that those who have a learning disability or who are autistic do not need rehabilitation, but, as others have said, may need long-term support in employment or when there are changes in that employment.

Employees at Jobcentre Plus and personal advisers will need to recognise that many people, especially those with a mental health problem, may have their condition worsened if they are placed under too much pressure. Advisers will need to know that long-term conditions, some of which, such as lupus, are not well known, will vary between individuals. Indeed, conditions such as lupus do not just affect individuals differently; those who have the condition may feel quite well one day and be confined to their home the next. Some people with lupus have depression, or they may have memory or cognitive problems because of the cerebral involvement of their illness. Those who are assessing and working with those individuals will need to be aware of the varying nature of such conditions. The issue of training is not covered in the Bill and I would be grateful for reassurance that there will be such training in specific impairments, such as autistic spectrum disorders.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): My hon. Friend is talking about the range of different effects that illnesses can have on different people, particularly people with lupus. Does she agree that, as part of the assessment, there is some importance in interviewing not only the person with the illness, but the carers of that person, who are often better able to describe what is going with that individual?

Mrs. Dean: I certainly agree. Indeed, sometimes the person with a particular condition underestimates the problems that they have with it, so having a partner or a carer with them can be of great help.

Understanding of autism is still lacking among professionals. If the employment and support allowance is to work for people with an autistic spectrum disorder, more training for personal advisers, jobcentre staff and health professionals is essential. A tiered system of training could be developed to ensure that all personal advisers had a basic level of knowledge and could call on people at a regional level for more in-depth knowledge. Any organisations that are in receipt of contracts to work with individuals should also have adequate understanding of the needs of people with different impairments.

As the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) said earlier, about 260,000 of the estimated 330,000 people of working age in the UK with an autistic spectrum disorder are thought to be of average or above average intelligence and yet only 6 per cent. of all people with an autistic spectrum disorder are in full-time paid employment. We need to do better. However, unlike some of the disabilities, once a suitable job is found for someone with an autistic spectrum disorder, it is essential that continuing support is available while that person is in work. Because of difficulties in social interaction and communication, working environments can present many problems. Regular meetings or access to someone to call on can prevent the breakdown of a job and the sense of failure that may follow that.

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That support to individuals in employment is best delivered by specialist agencies that have a deep level of understanding, as well as a commitment to ongoing support. For those with an autistic spectrum disorder, the National Autistic Society’s prospects service has a proven success record of achieving lasting employment. Several patients’ organisations have expressed their concern that contracts are tending to be awarded to larger, less specialised providers who may not be able to provide effective support for individuals with particular needs.

It will be necessary to monitor closely the categories of those who are found employment and who receive support in that employment. In that respect, there is concern about outcome-based contracts, if that outcome relates to numbers rather than the detailed analysis of those who have received help and are continuing to receive ongoing support. There is a great deal that the voluntary sector can offer in the provision of services. I was particularly interested to hear of the Citizens Advice suggestion that it and other organisations could be involved in the delivery of certain services, such as providing independent financial advice to people who are considering a return to work or advice to employers who need to know about the new benefit structure and their rights and responsibilities to employees with mental or physical health problems. Such use of the voluntary sector would also bring reassurance to those with an illness or disability.

One area of concern that has been raised by several organisations, and this evening, is that much of the detail of the legislation has been left to regulations. May we have a reassurance that sufficient time will be allowed for consultation on that detail? The effectiveness and responsiveness of the new system will depend on the detailed application of the legislation.

Another point of concern is the extension of the use of sanctions from attendance at interview to involvement in work-related activity, especially since it is suggested that that work-related activity could be changed by a personal adviser at any time. Sanctions should be applied only by qualified staff who understand the medical conditions or disability of the individual who might lose some financial benefit, rather than private or voluntary sector providers. If necessary, reference should be made to a person with greater knowledge of the condition, such as a hospital consultant.

Care will need to be taken before applying sanctions in all cases. It will be necessary to consider the impact of a person’s disability on his or her ability to comply. For example, there must be consideration of whether people with a learning disability can understand what is required of them and whether they receive sufficient support to enable them to comply with the requirement.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s earlier reassurance about those with mental illnesses, but Rethink has concerns about clause 17, whereby people could be disqualified from receiving ESA if their capability of work was reduced through their own misconduct, their failure to take medical advice without good cause, or their failure to observe the prescribed rules of behaviour. Patients with mental health problems might cease medication because of side effects. They could
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present with unusual behaviour, or might not attend for interview because of their condition.

People with autism might appear to be not engaging with the process because they have difficulty with social interaction. The difficulty that people with an ASD have with social communication can affect verbal and non-verbal communication, so facial expressions and tones of voice might cause misunderstanding. Along with difficulties with social imagination, which includes planning ahead and the flexibility of thought, those problems make it difficult to acquire and maintain a job. It is important that great care is taken when applying sanctions to those with chronic, long-term conditions that might fluctuate, such as lupus.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways of helping people to get work-ready and to overcome the stigma that many experience when trying to get jobs from employers, especially if they have mental health problems, is for them to do voluntary work? Does she share my concern that the Department for Work and Pensions recently ruled that people doing voluntary work could no longer receive payments for lunch, or free lunches, while doing such work without that affecting their benefits, which is hardly in accordance with the social inclusion agenda?

Mrs. Dean: I agree entirely. It might be that some people with long-term conditions who would find it difficult to retain employment would be better advised to undertake voluntary activity when their illness allows, rather than feeling pressured to enter paid employment in which they might be destined to fail, which would have a consequential negative effect on their well-being. Although we want all people to have the opportunity to work, we must accept that the loss of benefit, however little that benefit is, in some ways, can cause some people great concern and make their condition worse. Voluntary work can be a real bonus to many people.

We must make sure that the Bill is seen as a positive effort to change the lives of people with illness and disability and to ensure that everyone can reach their full potential. Sanctions should be a last resort that are kept only for those who try to abuse the system. The success of ESA will be in the detail. We will need to ensure that staff are properly trained and that the focus is on the individual who needs advice and support to find and keep a job.

8.3 pm

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate, which has been extremely thoughtful and well considered. We have heard from a lot of people who are experts in the field, although I do not pretend to be one of those. I was certainly impressed with the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning), who certainly has great specialist knowledge. She and the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) made very good contributions to the debate.

I would first like to talk about the antisocial behaviour aspect of the Bill. All of us have met
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constituents in our surgeries with antisocial neighbours on their estates. We thus write letters to the chief executive of the local council and feel frustrated not only for ourselves, but on behalf of our constituents. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) did us all a great service with his private Member’s Bill on withdrawing benefit from those who displayed antisocial behaviour. I was initially pleased with the measures in the Bill, but the more I consider them, the more I think that they are rather disappointing.

The withdrawal of housing benefit is to be a threat after eviction, but I do not think that the power will be used very often. We heard from the Secretary of State earlier that the Government will be sensitive to situations involving children. The power will be used in very few cases. There would be merit in allowing local authorities to use housing benefit as a lever before they reach the point of eviction, largely because that might present the opportunity to modify people’s behaviour before they lose their home and their families become homeless.

The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) made a good point about schemes that local authorities can run to provide rehabilitation and to change people’s behaviour. It would be far better to have several sanctions that local authorities could use to improve people’s behaviour, rather than the measure in the Bill, which can be used only after an eviction. As we know, an eviction is always an extreme case. I cannot foresee that the sanction would be used in very many cases. I do not understand the logic of the measure, so I hope that my Front-Bench colleagues will examine it in Committee.

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): Given that such people would have already been evicted once, does the hon. Gentleman agree that a more effective sanction would be a probationary tenancy, which would allow a local authority to remove an offending person immediately without going through the rigmarole of removing benefits?

Mr. Syms: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. My central point about the antisocial behaviour measure is that although it sounds tough, it will not be used very often. If the powers were a little more sweeping, chief executives of local authorities and housing departments would be in a much better position to tackle the problem. The way in which neighbours are dealt with is one of the biggest problems that many of our constituents face.

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