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Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am not sure that the Government are in total control of the climatic conditions that cause flooding. There have been inappropriate developments in some areas; indeed, a lack of precautions in some areas both on agricultural and on developed land have aggravated flooding problems. The Government have indicated that they intend to direct major new resources and efforts to restricting the effect of flooding where such measures can be effectively implemented. However, there will inevitably be areas that will continue to be subject to flooding when severe flooding occurs.

Earl Russell: My Lords, further to the Minister's reply to his noble friend Lady Mallalieu, can he confirm that those businesses to which the Government are prepared to extend help include rural post offices and sub-post offices? Will the noble Lord also confirm that to make such help effective it is necessary to give thought to the interleaving of the requirements of the service with the requirements of European competition law? To that intent, will the noble Lord direct members of the Government to pay attention to the extremely helpful opinion offered to Commission 6 of the Committee of the Regions on 30th June 2000, which distinguishes between help for

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a service and help to any particular competitive business? Does the noble Lord consider that this is a line upon which sensible progress is possible?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I regret to say that I have not seen the opinion to which the noble Earl refers. I recognise that some European initiatives have been directed towards protecting services in remote and rural areas. It is possible that that opinion would be helpful in that respect. Nevertheless the Government have already made a major commitment to the rural post office network through supporting the Post Office's own priorities and through granting rate relief to post offices. We are putting pressure on the Post Office and the banks to ensure that rural post offices are in a position to provide a wide range of services to people in rural and less accessible urban areas and thereby slow down and, if possible, end the decline in rural post offices.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, is not a clear message on what is or is not open the best help for rural areas at the moment? Apparently in Leicestershire restrictions have been lifted and yet a farm at Hinckley had a confirmed outbreak as recently as 30th March and there were two earlier outbreaks. Therefore, the county council is unsure as to what it can and cannot allow to be opened. In last Friday's Leicester Mercury there were calls for restrictions to be lifted in the whole of the county. At the moment the picture is still confused. As the Minister will know, I have spoken on behalf of rural post offices on many occasions in this House. However, they are still closing at the rate of two a week and the universal banking system is not in place. Can the Minister give us better news on that matter too?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, constructive discussions are taking place with the Post Office and the banks but it will take time to put a system in place. However, the Government are committed to providing a universal banking service.

As I understand it, restrictions have been lifted in one area of Leicestershire but not in the area to which I believe the noble Baroness referred. The Government try to make clear where restrictions have been lifted. It is for MAFF to decide whether to lift them entirely nationally. The opening of footpaths or other access points is very much a matter for local decision in line with local veterinary and MAFF advice. The opening of rights of way in different counties is decided at that level and therefore varies. I was gratified to note that over Easter in many parts of the country a significant number of rights of way were open to tourists.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, does my noble friend accept that while the agricultural economy has been seriously affected, the tourism and recreational holiday businesses, which are important in many areas, would hardly have thrived over the past eight weeks, given the nature of the English weather?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, as I said earlier, the Government regrettably have not yet achieved control

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over the English weather. We can mitigate its effects in certain circumstances, but we did not do very well over Easter in that regard.

Lord Tanlaw: My Lords, is the noble Lord satisfied that rural post offices and rural businesses that are trying to diversify have adequate access to broad band data transmission?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the Government have indicated their commitment to extend broad band access to all areas, including rural areas. Concerns about how the planning arrangements are operated area by area are being addressed.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned that banking facilities in post offices will be available. When will they be available?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I missed the first part of that question.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, when will banking facilities in post offices be available?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, banking facilities are already available in post offices; it is a matter of extending the range of those services. That matter requires detailed and complex agreements with the banks and is under discussion.

Housing Benefit: Landlords and Tenants

3.4 p.m.

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have any plans to reduce the proportion of landlords who are unwilling to accept tenants on housing benefit.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, perhaps as many as half of landlords prefer not to let to tenants on housing benefit. One of the reasons for that has been the delays in payment. As your Lordships will know from responses to previous Questions in your Lordships' House, we are working in partnership with local authorities to make the payment of housing benefit more efficient.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. She will be aware that all the research, including the Government's own, indicates that the imposition of the single room rent on people under 25 is one reason why many landlords have ceased to accept people on housing benefit. I direct her attention to a reply given by her honourable friend Angela Eagle in another place on 2nd April which indicated the prospect of some relaxation in the single room rent.

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Will she explain to the House what that relaxation is? I welcome it with a warmth proportionate to the answer which I am about to receive.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I expect warm and robust thanks from the noble Earl, to whom I am grateful for raising this matter. At the moment the single room rent applies only to young people who are in a self-contained unit; effectively, a bedsit. Therefore, young people in a shared house, for example, have no contribution through housing benefit to the cost of the shared living room or the shared bathroom. The proposed extension which will come into effect in July will allow the cost of the accommodation in which most young people live--that is, a shared flat--to be met by housing benefit. Some 65,000 young people should benefit, at a total cost of about 25 million. I hope that the noble Earl will welcome that with enthusiasm.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is not just the delay in payment that is causing difficulty, but also the fact that landlords, particularly small landlords, are uncertain whether they will get the payment? Will her department consider introducing a scheme rather like that introduced by building societies under which one is given an indication of the mortgage one can obtain and one then looks for a property? Would it help if people were certified as eligible for a certain level of housing benefit before they approached a landlord?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, that is a helpful suggestion. We have explored the possibility of accommodation having a predetermined rent level. That would enable anyone seeking that accommodation to know what he or she would be likely to pay in rent and what the appropriate housing benefit might be.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, in its report on housing benefit last year, the Social Security Advisory Committee invited the Minister's department to provide a detailed analysis of the impact of the main models for a reformed system for private tenants. Has that analysis been undertaken and, if so, what were the main findings?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the basic problem is that housing benefit has to follow the reform of the restructuring of housing rents. Either you have to control rents or you have to control housing benefit. If you do not do one or the other, landlords will increase rents accordingly and the taxpayer will be left to pick up the bill. The Government made it clear in their housing Green Paper that housing benefit reform in the long term must follow the restructuring of rents, which could take seven to 10 years. But in the short term we are picking up the sort of issues addressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner; that is, the speed, effectiveness and verification of housing benefit payments.

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