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The noble Lord said: My Lords, I suggest that since we have only four groupings of amendments to go, which will take slightly over half an hour, we continue until the end, as it seems extremely silly to have another day on Report just for a couple of groups of amendment.
Clause 30 is a sanctions clause that allows housing benefit to be withdrawn for anti-social behaviour leading to eviction. In Committee, it was clear that every Memberexcept, of course, the Ministerwas sceptical of the wisdom of doing this. A whole raft of amendments was tabled and, on a close reading of Hansard, it is apparent that the Minister, while criticising them, did practically nothing to defend the clause against the onslaught. We had hoped that our investigations about the clause would satisfy us that the opposition of all the lobby groups, even some local authorities, was misplaced. The only comfort that we received was when the Minister said in Grand Committee:
Post eviction, when support is offered and the household refuses to engage, an anti-social behaviour co-ordinator will consider whether a sanction is appropriate. This decision will be taken in discussion with relevant agencies. Exactly which agencies become involved will depend on the circumstances of the household and may include the police, social services, mental health agencies, childrens services, housing managers, education or the Family Intervention Project.[Official Report, 1/3/07; col. GC 287.]
That was not enough, so this amendment is considerably tougher than those which we tabled in Committee. I do not like the idea of intervention post-eviction one little bit; indeed, I do not like the idea of eviction per se, because the claimantit may well be a claimant family, as the list that I have just read out suggestshas to find somewhere else to live. As I said at Second Reading, and as the noble Lord, Lord Best, has just remarked, the amount of private rented housing available to people on benefit is a scarce resource. Moreover, if a claimant is evicted, word soon gets round the neighbourhood, and the only available housing is most likely to be local-authority owned. I cannot imagine many existing local-authority tenants relishing a previously evicted family coming to live next door. Support should therefore be provided before the point of eviction, which is itself a form of sanction. To deprive people
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I do not believe that these financial sanctions will be used at all. The Minister in another place implied this. We have heard local authorities which are to operate this power state that they do not want it and will not use it. While I accept that it is optional as far as they are concerned, as subsection (4)(b) makes clear, an option that will not be used is no option at all. This clause is wrong whichever way one looks at it. It is an idea that was first floated in a housing Green Paper in 2000. After serious objections, not least from the Deputy Prime Minister, it was dropped. It has no place on the statute book today. I beg to move.
Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: My Lords, the National Housing Federation, Shelter and Citizens Advice believe that these sanctions would punish the innocent family members of those evicted for anti-social behaviour and that, instead of tackling the problem at its root, the proposed policy would exacerbate social exclusion and lead to greater indebtedness and homelessness. We agree. There are plenty of effective ways to tackle anti-social behaviourwe support thembut this is not one of them. It could visit the sins of the fathers on the children. It is a typical cheap new Labour stuntnot intended to be used very much, but a good headline-grabber. Like the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, we oppose the provision.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, this clause seeks to introduce an incentive to households evicted for anti-social behaviour to take up offers of rehabilitation and support to address the causes of their problem behaviour. The intention is to introduce a sanction of housing benefit for those people who have already been evicted by an order of a court as a result of anti-social behaviour and are refusing to take up offers of help and support. Specifically, the clause will allow us to pilot the use of a sanction in around 10 local authorities, starting as soon as practicable, for two years only.
In Grand Committee, we debated the evidence that providing intensive support and supervision can achieve both positive and significant changes in a persons behaviour. Given the strong evidence that such rehabilitation works, it is justifiable that a sanction of benefit should be linked to the refusal of such help and support.
The provision of support services is now more widespread than ever, and we are continuing to invest in these services, as set out in the Respect Action Plan. I have listened carefully to the points made in this House about the need to protect the most vulnerable. Perhaps I may again list the safeguards that we have built in from the outset.
There would already have been consideration by a judge of the household circumstances and any issues concerning vulnerability before a possession order was made. The local authority would have discretion in deciding the most suitable course of action and this would be discussed with the household concerned. For example, a referral to mental health services might be more appropriate than a benefit sanction. If a sanction is applied, it can be brought to an end at any stage by the local authorityfor example, where members of the household are taking action to improve their behaviour. There will be an appeals process and a hardship regime where benefit will be reduced by 30 per cent, as opposed to a full withdrawal. As set out in the draft regulations, specific groups, such as households in which there is a child or caring responsibilities, will be able to claim the hardship rate.
I assure the House that this sanction is not intended to be imposed widely. The scheme will be judged a success if the sanctions are never applied because that would suggest that the households involved would have engaged with rehabilitation. We strongly believe that the welfare state should combine rights with responsibilities. The right to benefit can only come with the responsibility to behave with respect for others. I believe that this proposal strikes the right balance.
We have given assurances about the degree of parliamentary scrutiny which would be necessary for a national rollout under this clause. However, we accept that these assurances have not been enough to allay the concerns expressed in this House and in the other place. We will therefore return to this House on Third Reading with an amendment inserting a sunset clause. This will ensure that to roll out the scheme nationally, we will have to return to both Houses with primary legislation and all the scrutiny that that entails. In the light of that, I urge that the amendment be withdrawn.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the intention is not to be able to go beyond the pilots. The pilots are for two years and we want to get those started as soon as possible. One could not go beyond that to roll out nationally without further primary legislation. That is the intention. If it is different, we will share our intent with noble Lords, perhaps before Third Reading.
Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for that. Pressure in both Houses and from outside organisations has had a great effect on Ministers. I was aware of the local authority discretion in this matter. Indeed, I referred to it earlier. All relevant considerations will be made by a judge before the ultimate sanctions are applied.
It is my contention that the pilots will be totally useless. They will not prove what the Government are seeking to achieve. Having said that, I like to think
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As I understand it, if the Ministers amendment means that, after two years, the pilots are over but the evaluation is not yet complete and they do not show that there have been any financial sanctions, it will be necessary for the Government to come back with primary legislation, should they want to introduce this on a national rollout. If I have got that right, I accept what the Minister has said word for word. I am grateful to him for going as far as he has. I will certainly take up the offer of discussing the final form of this sunset clause with him before that amendment is tabled. However, for the moment, I beg leave to withdraw this amendment.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, in Committee we had a wide-ranging and reasonably productive debate about housing benefit being paid directly to the landlord, as happens in many cases. We established that housing authorities are expected to investigate whether a claimant can indeed handle their finances if a particular case is brought to their attention. That is clearly a step in the right direction, but it does not go far enough.
The obvious person to identify whether a claimant can manage their housing benefit sufficiently well to avoid falling into arrears is the landlord. However, it is likely that the landlord will not even know that his tenant is in receipt of housing benefit and so will not know that informing the local housing authority might be helpful. How do the Government intend the notification procedure to work without increasing landlord awareness of both the possibility of intervention and who among their tenants is a benefit recipient, the latter being a significant infringement of privacy and therefore impractical?
The amendment would make it the responsibility of the housing authority to make sure that recipients are indeed capable of handling their finances. If they do not, we run the risk of letting vulnerable claimants sink into arrears and face eviction, which is not the best way of introducing them to financial independence, which is the whole object of the exercise and on which we on these Benches agree with the Government. The question then is how best to pursue that policy, given the shortage of available private sector housing for people on housing benefit. I hope that the Government will consider the amendment seriously. The housing authority is the obvious body to monitor the benefits that it pays out. Non-governmental organisations have an important role to play in supporting recipients and highlighting problems, but the responsibility for that should not be placed at their door. We really need to know where we are going and what the result will be. I beg to move.
Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss the amendment further this evening. Clause 36 provides powers for prescribing the manner in which housing benefit is paid to all types of tenants. We require that power to allow us to specify the payment method for certain categories of social housing. Before I respond to the amendment, I will clarify for the House once again what the Governments intentions are in the social sector. It is a priority for the Government to build financial inclusion and to encourage individuals, where possible, to take responsibility for their own affairs. One way of achieving that would be to enable customers in the social sector to take responsibility for paying their own rent. However, we realise that this may be difficult for some customers. So, as we have publicly committed, we will proceed cautiously with any reform of the social sector, ensuring that proper safeguards and support mechanisms are in place.
In the private sector, we believe that a great many customers are ready to start managing their own payments, which is why one of the key features of the local housing allowance is that, in most cases, housing benefit will be paid to the customer. However, we will not force that responsibility on to those customers who are unable to exercise it. There will be safeguards to protect those customers, so that local authorities can determine whether the housing benefit should be paid to the landlord. This amendment would enable regulations to be made that would require local authorities to put every new customer through a long and potentially complex assessment procedure. The amount of information that all customers would have to provide would greatly increase. Much of the information would have to be of a private and confidential nature. The administrative burden on local authorities would increase and could lead to slower processing times and to all customers having to wait longer for their benefit. Local authorities may also require information from a greater number of sources, thus increasing information sharing between different organisations.
I reassure the noble Lord that the amendment is not necessary. Currently, if a local authority receives notice that a customer might be vulnerable, it is obliged to investigate. The notice may be provided by the customer, the customers family, welfare organisations or healthcare professionals. The local authority will also pay housing benefit to the landlord if a customer is eight weeks in arrears or more and if that is in the customers best interest. That helps to mitigate the risk of eviction, about which the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, is so concerned, as it aligns with the point at which a landlord would be able to file for eviction of a customer on rent arrears grounds. In many cases, local authorities will act much earlier than that, so that if customers experience problems they will intervene. In addition, each local authority will have its own procedure to identify those customers who cannot manage their own payments, without having to investigate claims.
Using the evaluation of the local housing allowance pathfinders and comments from the welfare organisations working with us, we will provide comprehensive guidance to local authorities. Our experience from the pathfinders has shown that the procedures in place to identify vulnerable customers are working extremely well. I hope that noble Lords will take comfort from that. Only 4 per cent of pathfinder customers have their housing benefit paid directly to the landlord because they have fallen eight weeks into arrears. A further 12 per cent have it paid to the landlord because the local authority has identified that they might struggle to manage their financial affairs. The remaining 84 per cent of customers are receiving and successfully managing their own payments. Indeed customers in pathfinder areas were more likely to report being up to date with their rent payments than those in the control areas with which the pathfinders were compared.
I know that noble Lords are concerned about ensuring that we have a proper variation in conditions for control areas and a wide variation in locations that are used for pilots. That is an extremely important point. The processes and policies in place are working, and there is nothing to suggest that they will not do so in future. Therefore, I urge the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I notice that on this occasion the noble Baroness did not use the word overkill. I agree that the priority should be to build financial inclusion, as I said in introducing the amendment. I accept that the Government are proceeding cautiously on this. I was pleased to hearI had not heard it beforethat 86 per cent of recipients of housing benefit in the pilot areas were operating this successfully. That still leaves another 24 per cent and that is the group that I am worried about
Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, it is getting late; my maths is never up to scratch but it is even worse than usual. I am clearly concerned about the 14 per cent and the noble Baroness is right about the possibility of their eviction. I am concerned that eight weeks seems to be rather a long time. If a landlord is not paid for eight weeks, it is likely that he will have instigated proceedings for eviction by that stage. It will be interesting to see how the pilots proceed and whether the 14 per cent figure goes down. At this time of night, there is no alternative but to withdraw the amendmentalthough, even if it had been 3.30 in the afternoon, I would still have withdrawn the amendment.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, our amendments in this group are twofold. First, I would like to exclude patent data from the information that public authorities may share with each other. Secondly, I would like to ensure sufficient parliamentary scrutiny of the regulations that will govern how these data are to be shared. The aim of this clause is to allow the department to share what information it has on benefit recipients with local authorities. I hope that this will have two positive results. One is that fraud will be tackled more efficiently; after all, if a person is illegally claiming a benefit such as income support, it is possible that he is also claiming other benefits, such as housing benefit, illegally and vice versa.
The clause should also allow a claimant to receive related benefits more easily. If they have established their eligibility for one Department for Work and Pensions benefit, sharing information may well make their eligibility for other benefits, such as disability living allowance, more apparent. However, there must be limits to this information sharing. While we are very happy that the Government are improving their ability to tackle fraud and trying to improve benefit uptake, these measures must not infringe on claimants, privacy or put confidential information at risk.
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