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If there were ever a time to change the backdating rules for these vital benefits, now is not the moment. It will affect the most vulnerable in our society when unemployment is rising rapidly and debt problems are mounting. There is no evidence of joined-up government thinking about the impact that this change of policy will have more widely. We on these Benches urge the Government to think again about these regulations, even at this late stage, and to revoke them as soon as possible. I beg to move.

Moved to resolve, That this House deplores the way that the Social Security (Miscellaneous Amendments) (No. 4) Regulations 2008, laid before the House on 15 September, cut the backdating period for pension credit, housing benefit and council tax benefit in most cases from 12 months to three months, and were:

(a) presented with inadequate evidence to support the policy; and

(b) laid during the Summer Recess to come into force on the day Parliament returned, thus not allowing Parliament to consider them before they came into effect; and

calls on Her Majesty’s Government to revoke the regulations because they are likely to increase the number of evictions, and cause particular hardship to older pensioners and those with mental health impairments (SI 2008/2424). 28th Report from the Merits Committee.—(Baroness Thomas of Winchester.)

Lord Best: My Lords, in the briefing that I received from Shelter, these words came off the page for me:

“It is no exaggeration to say that these changes will inevitably cause homelessness in a number of cases”.

That certainly got my attention. I am extremely familiar with the problems of housing benefit administration, which can hold things up almost interminably. I am glad to say that the administration of housing benefit has improved a good deal in the past three or four years. Further simplification is a thoroughly good idea.

I was surprised, therefore, to learn that it is still possible that people might need to have their backdating go all the way back 12 months. I asked Shelter and Citizens Advice, which has also carried out good work, through Liz Phelps’s good offices. I received a couple of examples to show how the delays can lead to severe problems. I shall relate a successful story. Shelter stated:

“In late 2007 a housing aid centre case worker had a client in Hackney, a single man with significant mental health issues. He had a large gap in his HB (housing benefit) claim as a result of a failing on the part his support worker”—

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you cannot always blame the support worker, as these matters are extremely complicated, but it was the support worker’s fault that the necessary forms had not been completed. The case study continued:

“The housing association landlord”—

I am afraid that housing associations evict people when they are in arrears; that is how it goes—

I give small praise to the landlord for holding on as long as he did. In the end, that was justified, because he got his money.

In the second case, Shelter had been liaising with the Norfolk Offender Accommodation Forum, which has carried out work in this field looking at remand prisoners, who are entitled to housing benefit for initially up to 52 weeks. Shelter states:

“The chaotic organisation within the prison system may mean that claimants on remand are not able to complete a HB form until after the 3 month period. Resources are further strained in the prison system by the need for a new claim to be made even if the person was claiming HB before being sent to prison. This also has an impact on any partners involved who are also required to make a fresh claim due to a change in circumstances. Even when individuals are finally able to gain access to an advisor, they may be moved to another prison and end up back at the beginning of the process”.

One can see how arrears can accumulate: claimants are not receiving the benefit to which they are entitled because they have not filled in all the necessary forms. If one thing is guaranteed to get someone, after leaving prison, reoffending and back into prison, it is that they do not have a home to go to. They do not have accommodation and there is an impact on their family, if they have one. There are still, and still likely to be, cases where the full 12-month backdating is essential if homelessness is to be prevented in relation to housing benefit. I hope that the Government will look at this again.

7.45 pm

Baroness Greengross: My Lords, the noble Baroness has raised an important issue. I am saddened by the Government’s decision to reduce the time that people have to backdate their claims for pension credit, housing benefit and council tax benefit from 12 months to three months. I am particularly worried about the situation of pensioners in this respect. It is disturbing for two reasons.

First, the Government recently changed their policy on pensions to allow women to buy back more years than was previously the case, recognising that many women’s lives, with years spent caring for children or other relatives, meant that they did not have an opportunity to accumulate an adequate pension entitlement without that move. That was a sensitive and humanitarian decision affecting many people who would otherwise have had to manage for years on too little to have an acceptable standard of living.

Secondly, I am saddened because we are in a period when people on low incomes are among those most at risk of being hit by the economic slowdown. Many elderly people have been able to carry out urgent

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repairs or adaptations to their homes resulting from needs that have often been exacerbated by the fact that they have not received entitlements when they were due. Many have paid off debts with these backdated payments and we know the worry that debt leads to for most older people in this country.

The Government’s rather rigid position of insisting on savings being made elsewhere in the benefits system before consideration can be given to this would mean that other low-income people would need to lose benefits to help those who needed access to these funds. We know that many old people will not seek help until things are really bad and that, without backdating, they will face real hardship. As it is, the take-up rate of benefits among pensioners is abysmally low at a time of high inflation and rocketing prices of essentials such as gas and electricity. As we face a difficult winter, it is hard to understand why the Government cannot rethink, as the noble Baroness said, even at this late stage, a decision that will hurt some of the most vulnerable people among our population.

Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, I have grave reservations about these regulations and believe that it is entirely right for the House to ask the Government to think again about them. The regulations have provoked strong opposition from those involved in the sector. The evidence base for saying that they will achieve their objective is weak. No impact assessment has been conducted. The DWP has not even consulted on them. In default of the department’s doing so, the Social Security Advisory Committee carried out a consultation, which, although it lasted only a month, attracted an unprecedented number of responses. As a result, in an unusually critical report, the committee argued that the changes would cause hardship to the most vulnerable in society. To cap it all, as we have been told, the Committee on the Merits of Statutory Instruments expressed its disappointment with the way in which the DWP presented its proposals and with the fact that an evidently controversial measure was laid during the Recess and came into effect on the day that the House returned. In other words, the measure has effectively been slid through while everyone was looking the other way.

I welcome government initiatives to simplify the benefits system and to improve the administration of benefits, when such reforms work to the advantage of people claiming benefit or, at any rate, do not actively work against them. One would imagine that reducing the number of burdens placed on disadvantaged individuals and overworked staff could only be a good thing. However, this attempt at simplification, which reduces the capacity for individuals to secure backdated pension credit, housing benefit and council tax benefit, appears to benefit only the administration and seems actually to work to the detriment of those experiencing difficulties with making benefit claims. That cannot be a good thing.

Evidence-based policy making should lie at the heart of government reforms, yet with these regulations the Government appear intent on ignoring both expert advice from the Social Security Advisory Committee and the unprecedented number of representations from

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organisations and individuals who have expressed concern about the impact of the regulations on vulnerable groups, as well as the Government’s own targets to reduce poverty. For older people, removing the ability to claim back 12 months’ pension credit, if they are eligible and choose to do so, conflicts directly with the aim of reducing pensioner poverty. Figures in the Social Security Advisory Committee’s report indicate that in 2006-07 40 per cent of new claims were backdated for more than three months and 25 per cent of the total—some 70,000 claims in all—were backdated for 12 months. Although that is only a small proportion of the total, it is still a significant number.

The Government state that people claiming means-tested benefits should claim as soon as they become, or think that they may be, entitled to benefit, rather than wait to claim, but that rather misses the point that many people find out that they can claim only some way down the line. With more than 20 per cent of eligible older people still not claiming their entitlement to pension credit, one would have hoped that highlighting the possibility of an increased income through claiming pension credit, along with the possibility of 12 months’ arrears where applicable, would serve to promote take-up and significantly improve this situation. It is clear that many older people delay in making claims for pension credit for a variety of legitimate reasons, whether it is from a lack of knowledge, a lack of confidence or a simple lack of information. In these circumstances, removing their ability to request backdating is simply a recipe for increased pensioner poverty.

The DWP’s own data demonstrate that the reduction in backdating will particularly affect older pensioners—those who are 75 and older—and the Merits Committee refers to anecdotal evidence that suggests that those with certain disabilities, such as mental health impairments or communication difficulties, are more likely to have benefited from the longer backdating period. The Merits Committee states that the objective of the instrument is unclear. It goes on:

“We are not clear how this fits with the Department’s overarching aim of working to end poverty in all forms”.

Moreover, the committee questions the fitness for purpose of the regulations, even in pursuing the department’s own narrower departmental interests. It says:

“We note that, although paragraph 8.2 of the EM”—

the Explanatory Memorandum—

With the housing benefit regulations, I can at least welcome the Government’s change of heart in allowing six months’ backdating as against their original intention to reduce this to three. However, this is stated to be only a temporary measure before a further reduction is imposed, so this must remain a real concern. The Social Security Advisory Committee argues that housing benefit is unlike other social security benefits in that a significant number of applicants claim it only after they have become badly in arrears with their rent and are threatened with eviction. In difficult economic conditions, such as we are currently experiencing,

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introducing measures that many respondents to the Social Security Advisory Committee consultation predict will increase homelessness cannot possibly be justified.

The Government say that they want to avoid complacency among people in vulnerable groups but, if complacency is suspected as being the reason for a person not making a claim, then their claim for backdated housing benefit can simply be disallowed. People need to demonstrate good cause for not having claimed earlier. Very often there will be good cause, which may be related to things such as domestic violence or other traumatic life events, mental health problems, a lack of appropriate support and so on. Until we are convinced that vulnerable groups are able to access early interventions and effective advice and support services, these regulations will have serious and long-lasting consequences detrimental to the Government’s poverty pledges and welfare-to-work strategies, which rely on people having security of tenure and the certainty of a home to enable them properly to engage with the system and improve their circumstances. I support the Motion calling on the Government to revoke these regulations.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I share the concerns expressed by my noble friends this evening and by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester. I shall be as brief as possible. I know that the Minister will be as helpful as he can be in his response. I am particularly interested in hearing how he will monitor any adverse impact of this proposal. I am concerned about vulnerable young people under the age of 25—particularly care leavers—and I am very worried about adults with dependent children. I am also concerned about adults with drug and alcohol issues.

In this prosperous country, we had 100,000 homeless families living in temporary accommodation. We were classed by UNICEF as the most unfriendly nation in the developed world for children. This Government have significantly reduced the number of families in temporary accommodation and have taken all families out of bed and breakfast accommodation. They have brought forward many proposals and legislation for children and families. They have invested significantly in, for example, teaching and they have raised the status of teachers. I pay tribute to the Government for that work, but the question in my mind is: how is the proposal before us consistent with all those good and valuable measures that the Government have taken forward? For example, as I understand it, unless a care leaver of the age of 21 is in education, he or she is no longer eligible for further support. They may well be a parent by this time and, because of their history, may be particularly susceptible to drugs or alcohol and may be struggling to reform themselves. They may suffer from relapses over several months and live a chaotic life. How will this proposal impact on that sort of young person?

I hope that the Minister can advise me how he will monitor the impact of the regulations and how he will give guidance to local authorities on monitoring these groups—that is, young people, adults with dependent children, people experiencing difficulties with alcohol and drug misuse, and those who are in employment but on low wages and who may not become aware that

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they are eligible for housing benefit until they are deeply in arrears. This matter concerns me very much. I look forward to the Minister’s reply, but I fear that I may have to support the noble Baroness if she decides to divide the House on this.

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: My Lords, I am pleased to follow the excellent speech of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. I absolutely concur with him that monitoring the fruits of these regulations is essential. If the Minister could say something about that in his response, it would assist me considerably.

The House owes a considerable debt to my noble friend Lady Thomas. She has a reputation for being absolutely at the front end of all matters relating to debt advice and citizens’ advice, and she works extremely hard. The sincerity with which she made her case was certainly impressive. I also think that the Merits Committee has done the House a signal service. That committee is establishing itself as a powerful tool in pinpointing things that should command the attention of a wider audience. It has done that in an exemplary way and I am deeply grateful to it for drawing these regulations to our attention and suggesting some questions with which to tax the Government. They all have merit and I hope that the Government can respond to some of them.

I also commend the Social Security Advisory Committee. An essential part of any ineffably complex benefits system requires experts to work out what is important. Had it not had the foresight and presence of mind to institute the consultation, the 75 or so responses, to which my noble friend rightly referred, would not have reached the public domain. That has enabled the debate this evening to be informed.

I do not think that beneficial change for one group should ever be at the expense of other low income, disadvantaged groups. When we boil all this down, that is what happens under these regulations. The costings in the additional Explanatory Memorandum will take some £155 million out of the pension credit costs for the department in fiscal 2008-09 and £105 million fiscal 2008-09 out of the working age budget for the department.

As my noble friend said in her introduction, this is absolutely the worst time to think about doing any such thing. It is true that the gestation of the regulations was more than a year ago—probably in the balmy summer of 2007 when things were different and the economic context was entirely more benign and beneficial. We are now on the brink of a Pre-Budget Statement when the Government are expected to reach deep into their pockets to help exactly the kind of people who these regulations affect by taking £155 million and £105 million respectively from the two groups involved. That is perverse. The left hand of government does not seem to know what the right hand is doing.

The timing of the regulations is puzzling, except to say that the department has been trying to do this for a long time—probably more than 10 years. As well as the budgetary savings, which are perverse for the reasons I have explained, one of the real reasons behind the Government being forced to introduce the regulations is the administrative burden facing the department in

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the current comprehensive spending round. The pressure in Jobcentre Plus, the introduction of ESA, Welfare to Work, and all those changes with a much reduced staff complement is probably one of the drivers for this. I hope not because that would be completely unjustifiable. I have no evidence for that suspicion but I suspect that it is behind the provenance of these changes.

My noble friend made powerful reference to the Government’s directives. Public Service Agreements 16 and 17 are two principal policy drivers for the current 2008-11 Comprehensive Spending Review period. The first, is entitled, PSA Delivery Agreement 16: Increase the proportion of socially excluded adults in settled accommodation and employment, education or training. The changes that the regulations introduce for the working-age population will do precisely the reverse. The second document refers to PSA Delivery Agreement 17: Tackle poverty and promote greater independence and wellbeing in later life, which is precisely what the regulations will not do. The Government are facing in the wrong direction even measured by their own policy objectives. Your Lordships’ House needs to weigh that in the balance when deciding whether the regulations should be revoked.

I concur with the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, who criticised the fact that there had been no independent evaluation of some of the changes. Some administrative changes are welcome in terms of the ease with which people can make applications via call centres and the integration of the work of the department and local authorities. They are welcome but there is no way of knowing that just because that has happened, they will mitigate the effect of the savings that the Government are making in the regulations. Any self-respecting Government should have had some sort of evaluation so that people could make a judgment on the regulations. The noble Lord, Lord Low, rightly said that this is a critical SSAC report. It is measured in everything that it does because it has a positive relationship with the department, and rightly so.

In relation to the Government’s claim that this is a simplification measure, the SSAC report states on page 31 that that is “entirely unconvincing”, which is a damning verdict. The SSAC does not reach such conclusions lightly. I have been reading SSAC reports since I was a boy—goodness help me—and this is one of the most critical that I have ever come across. The Government’s addendum to the Explanatory Memorandum rubs salt in the wound. It retrospectively adduces the increased uprating of 4.2 per cent for pension credit and a one-off additional winter fuel payment as part of this package. We were not told that this was part of the package when we got the 4.2 per cent uprating, which admittedly is over the legal limit that the Government are obliged to introduce. But we were not told at the time that some of this would be clawed back 12 months later as part of a package of simplification measures. If that is the kind of thing we will experience in future, we should be warned that Budget changes might be clawed back as part of a retrospective package some months later.

I have another question coming from where I do. The Scottish local authority relationship with the department is not as straightforward as in England

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and Wales. I am not sure about Northern Ireland but I suspect that there may be some difficulties with the direct line of guidance and authority that runs from central government in Whitehall to local authorities. Some of the mitigating factors that the Government are founding on require more sensitive guidance and directions being sent to and implemented by local authorities. I have no confidence because I do not know whether that will be given effect to north of the border. Your Lordships’ House should bear that in mind.

I am very concerned about the regulations. Of course simplification is a worthwhile goal. I do not believe that any of these simplification measures were ever considered as an outcome of the benefit simplification unit. We have a group of professionals in the department whose task is to come up with simplification schemes. I would bet a monkey to a mousetrap that these regulations were never anywhere near the benefit simplification unit, which gives the game away about whether this is a simplification or a cuts measure.

The good cause rules are a very effective way of targeting resources. They are not easily overcome. Indeed, many good cause claims have to go to appeal before they are allowed. Good cause as part of a backdating regime is a perfectly sensible way to proceed. A simplification with a standardised approach across the whole benefits system could be a default back-claiming of three months and would allow people to go back the full 12 months on the basis of establishing good cause. That would be a bit more expensive but it is not easy if one is the claimant. As it applies the good cause test, it guarantees that it would target the money that we are careful about spending, and rightly so.

Having said that, I welcome the temporary reprieve. The working age reprieve for another 12 months is sensible, but only because it gives us extra time. We must use that time to get the evaluation that noble Lords have called for. There is no way other than getting qualitative, quantitative or both types of research in order to drill into what that means. I do not believe that the Government will come back in a year’s time, because it will be shown that these changes are so retrogressive that they will not bother, but they will quietly shelve this proposal to complete the regulations in the next 12 months. We need to get research between now and then to try to pin down what the consequences will be.

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