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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, the noble Lord has fairly described the objectives of his amendment. It may be helpful if I explain why we do not believe that it would be wise to put such an amendment into the Bill. Housing benefits are awarded for a fixed period called "a benefit period". The length of a benefit period is at the discretion of a local authority and it is up to a maximum of 60 weeks; in other words, just over a year. After that the local authority must invite a repeat claim.

In that way there is a formal statutory mechanism for ensuring that benefit is paid accurately and that it reflects the applicant's circumstances and any changes which have occurred in the previous year. The requirement to make a fresh claim for housing benefit applies to all claimants, not only to pensioners, and it ensures that local authorities are administering the scheme correctly by paying the correct amount of benefit and therefore preventing both overpayment and underpayment building up.

We have in the past consulted the local authority associations and asked them to provide evidence for improving administrative efficiency through adopting easements similar to what is suggested in the noble Lord's amendment. The evidence they provided was inconclusive. There was evidence of overpayments and some local authorities prefer to set even shorter benefit periods than the maximum of 60 weeks.

In addition, we remain unconvinced that any administrative easement following a move to continuous awards would justify the costs involved in identifying the cases affected. Such a move might result in overpayments, for which there would be subsidy implications for the local authority. Claimants could suffer because the complete absence of a review of their entitlement might result in underpayments for which they would not be fully reimbursed as there is actually a 52-week limit for paying arrears. If there were an underpayment and there was no need to review the claim at any given period, somebody could be underpaid

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for quite a considerable time and all they could get by way of arrears would be up to 52 weeks. Of course if there were overpayments they could be asked to refund the money and I think that could be particularly difficult over time. Therefore, far from making pensioners' lives easier, a move to indefinite benefit periods could result in actually causing some distress to at least a number of individuals in this group.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, pointed out that we do simplify procedures for pensioners in other regards, and I want to say to him that there is no need for the renewal claim form to be an onerous one. The practice varies from local authority to local authority, but they may at their discretion use a shortened form for repeat claims in order to avoid the need for claimants to repeat all the same details. I did write to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, a noble friend of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, following her withdrawal of a similar amendment during the Committee stage. I advised her that my officials would be having further discussions with local authority associations about this issue.

I further explained--and I do so again now--that any easement of the rules should, in our view, be permissive rather than a requirement. If we were to ease the rules, we should give a permission to do so rather than making it a requirement, so that local authorities can make their own decisions about granting longer benefit periods. If we come to that conclusion at some stage in the future we can change these rules by secondary legislation. We do not need primary legislation to do so, because the rules governing the length of benefit periods are decided in secondary legislation.

I can give the noble Lord these assurances. The first is that, if at some time in the future the Government decided that the rules could be changed, the powers to do so are there in secondary legislation and therefore primary powers are not necessary. Secondly, in our view, it would be right, if one were to go down that road, to give local authorities permission rather than to make it a requirement. I hope that, with those assurances, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I think the Minister has said no, but he has said it in a helpful and positive way. In the light of the assurances that he has given, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 119 [Introductory tenancies]:

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 167A:

Page 81, line 11, after ("force,") insert ("except where subsection (2A) applies,").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move this amendment standing in my name and, with it, I should like to talk briefly to Amendment No. 168B. We have now moved on to the question of introductory tenancies and this amendment is concerned with tenant management organisations--a term used to describe tenant management co-operatives or estate management boards. The amendment seeks to say that where TMOs exist they are likely to have a view on whether they

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wish to operate an introductory tenancy regime. This amendment proposes that, where the authority proposes to operate an introductory tenancy scheme, it should consult tenant management organisations where they exist. If, having consulted them, they are of the view that the TMO and the tenants managed by the TMO do not wish to operate an introductory tenancy scheme, then the amendment will give the local authority discretion to exclude the particular estate managed by the TMO from the scheme. In that sense, the issue is rather simple and I think that the point is a fairly obvious one. I am just considering whether there are any further aspects of this which are worth mentioning at this stage.

The reason that it is proposed that local authorities should have discretion as to whether or not to exclude an estate is that some tenant management organisations will take on all aspects of tenancy management, including the decision whether to seek possession against tenants for non-payment of rent or other breaches of the tenancy conditions delegated to them under the management agreement. Others operate differently and do not have as many powers.

Rather than attempt to specify in the amendment the precise degree of delegation of management functions beyond which the TMO should have the right to decide that it should be exempt from the introductory tenancy scheme, this proposal would leave local authorities with a discretion on the assumption that an authority would be more likely to accede to the TMO's request where the TMO was substantially responsible for managing anti-social behaviour and enforcing tenancy conditions. That is the nub of the argument. TMOs have a range of differing responsibilities and for some one particular approach would be more appropriate than for others. The point of the amendment is to allow that element of discretion.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I shall follow the example of my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish and say no helpfully. We are quite comfortable with the idea of consultation. During Committee stage in another place my right honourable friend the Housing Minister explained that under Section 105 of the Housing Act 1985 local authorities are already required to consult their tenants on matters of housing management and, in particular, changes in practice and policy. He confirmed that a decision to have an introductory tenancy regime would fall into that category. This consultation would cover all the tenants of a local authority, including those whose properties are managed by a TMO.

We are not at all happy with the idea that a TMO should be able to exempt itself or should be exempted from the system. We have maintained consistently that introductory tenancies must apply to all new tenants and that there can be no cherry-picking. The reason underlying that is that we believe that exemptions would encourage discrimination and lead to the stigmatising of introductory tenants. We are not prepared to countenance that.

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It may be that, in putting forward these amendments, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is suggesting that the tenants involved in a TMO are unlikely to be the kind of tenants who need an introductory tenancy to keep them on the straight and narrow. That may well be true, but such tenants have nothing to fear from an introductory tenancy. We are not prepared to have a system in which introductory tenants are singled out as people who are somehow less worthy than others. If the authority needs the scheme, it should apply to everybody. For that reason, we are not content with the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and I hope he will feel able to withdraw it.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I heard what the Minister said. I am disappointed because I do not think that he recognises fully the difference between the responsibilities and the functions of one TMO compared with another. They cover a very wide range of responsibilities. Putting them all in the same position demonstrates a lack of sensitivity to their differing roles and functions. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 168:

Page 81, line 13, leave out ("have been") and insert ("be").

The noble Lord said: my Lords, in moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 169, 170, 178 and 182. Clause 119 enables a local authority or housing action trust to elect to run an introductory tenancy scheme. Clause 120 provides that the trial period for an introductory tenancy shall be 12 months. Clause 129 deals with assignments of introductory tenancies and Schedule 13 contains consequential amendments. The minor amendments in this group are all designed to clarify and tidy up the existing provisions and prevent the potential for abuse. They have no new implications for the policy on introductory tenancies.

At present, an introductory tenant who leaves his dwelling and who returns at a later stage would become a secure tenant by default, even though he had not completed the trial period. That is because the test of whether someone is an introductory tenant is established at the start of the tenancy. Amendments Nos. 168, 169 and 170 will close this potential loophole. They provide that the test of whether a tenant is an introductory tenant can be assessed at any time during the tenancy, rather than only at the start of the tenancy. The result will be that, should an introductory tenant leave the dwelling and return, he will not become a secure tenant.

Amendment No. 178 prevents an introductory tenant from leaving his home and assigning it to someone else with the result that the incoming tenant becomes a secure tenant. That could occur because, under Clause 120 as it stands, when an introductory tenancy has ended the tenant will still hold a tenancy at will. So he will not be bound by the provision in Clause 129 which prohibits the assignment of introductory tenancies. The incoming tenant would not be an introductory tenant because he succeeds to the tenancy at will held by the outgoing tenant. Further, if the

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incoming tenant occupies the dwelling as his only or principal home, he may well obtain a secure tenancy by default. Amendment No. 178 aims to prevent this potential for abuse by preventing assignment where the introductory tenant is not occupying the dwelling.

Finally, Amendment No. 182 is consequential on these amendments. It amends Schedule 16 to the Housing Act 1985 (the schedule that lists tenancies which are not secure) so as to ensure that if an introductory tenant--or, in the case of a joint tenancy, every tenant--ceases to live in the dwelling as his only or principal home he will not become a secure tenant.

I should point out to the House that these were serious unintended consequences of the wording as originally in the Bill. I am delighted that the diligence of parliamentary draftsmen has highlighted them. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

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