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House of Lords

Tuesday, 20 January 2009.

2.30 pm

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of London.

Housing Benefit


2.36 pm

Asked By Baroness Gardner of Parkes

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord McKenzie of Luton): My Lords, we are currently undertaking a comprehensive review of the housing benefit system jointly with HM Treasury. The review was announced at Budget 2008 and is examining the effectiveness of housing benefit, particularly in promoting work incentives, efficiency and fairness and to ensure that it represents value for money for the taxpayer. The December welfare reform White Paper, Raising Expectations and Increasing Support: Reforming Welfare for the Future, provided an update on this review and signalled our intention to launch a consultation on possible housing benefit reforms early in 2009.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Certainly, many people are very unhappy to see such high rents; the highest are in Ealing, where just under £150,000 a year is paid for one family, and in Kensington and Chelsea there is that widely publicised rent of £97,500 a year. Although people would like to see help for the homeless, many think that it is ridiculous that the properties that are provided are places that they could not dream of living in themselves, and they are struggling to pay their mortgages. Will the new scheme bring flexibility for local authorities to allow them to use this money with greater discretion and not to have to tell the landlord in advance the maximum that they can pay, which seems absurd?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the noble Baroness makes an important point about making sure that the system produces fairness between those in work, and what those families can afford, and those on benefits. Last October, the Secretary of State announced that the local housing allowance levels will be capped at the five-bedroom rate from next April, so that any new claimants in respect of properties larger than that will have a cap on their benefit. We have already identified that, in a handful of cases at the margins, the scheme provides for very high rents in some parts of London. That is what we are seeking to address.

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Baroness Thomas of Winchester: My Lords, does the Minister agree that there are too many disincentives in the housing benefit system for those who want to move from benefits into work, particularly if they want to undertake temporary work or work with fluctuating hours, which may be the only work that is available in the present climate? Does he further agree that it might be a good idea for housing benefit awards to be fixed for certain periods, to ensure that entitlement for that person, so that they are not put off taking a temporary job or one with erratic hours?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, one of the purposes of the review is to look at issues around work incentives and work disincentives. There is always a balance in these things between making sure that support is properly targeted at those people who need it and not extending that support up the income chain to increase the area over which it might operate as a disincentive.

Lord Best: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the problems of high rents and high benefits not only apply in the rather extreme cases that the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, mentioned, but more generally mean that people have work disincentives, as we have heard? Would it not be better—I hope that the Minister can assure us that the review will take this into account—to use some of the same money to acquire properties, so that housing associations, charities and arm’s-length council organisations can rent at lower rates, which would mean that the housing benefit paid was less and work incentives were much greater? For example, Westminster City Council has been buying back some of the properties sold under the right to buy and letting them at rents that are within the reach of people, rather than at rents that are so high that dependency on housing benefit and staying out of work are inevitable.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I certainly agree that it is important that councils or RSLs provide a good supply of good-quality housing. Housing benefit is paid to more than 4 million tenants, 23 per cent of whom live in the private rented sector. An increase in the supply of available accommodation, particularly through the public sector, will impact on rents and therefore on housing benefit levels.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, what is the new central London five-bedroom capped rate?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the rate is set by reference to broad rental market areas. I cannot, off the top of my head, notify my noble friend of the boundaries of those areas in London, but I will follow that up and write to him.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, the Minister mentioned fairness, first, in his primary Answer and, secondly, in answer to the supplementary question from my noble friend Lady Gardner. Can he therefore explain why a pensioner couple can get housing benefit to pay for two bedrooms but the rules of the local housing allowance insist that only one bedroom is allowable?

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Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the criteria by which the local housing allowance is paid—or, indeed, for the previous arrangements that remain for past claimants—look at the accommodation that people need. Under the local housing allowance, it is assumed that a couple would have one bedroom, as is the case for an individual, so I am not quite sure of the proposition that the noble Lord is advancing. He may have identified a difference between how the old system and the new system work.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, some years ago, housing benefit fraud in this country was estimated to be some £2 billion a year. Has the noble Lord any idea of the estimate today?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, if the noble Lord is asking about the level of housing benefit fraud, I can tell him that it has reduced significantly since the peak of 2006. I do not have the detailed figures, but I would be happy to write to him. There has been a lot of focus on reducing fraud as well as increasing the efficiency of the system by working with local authorities.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, does the Minister accept that some of the reasons for the soaring housing benefit bill are the unintended consequences of the rent restructuring programme, which has also had an effect on the disincentive to work, to which the noble Baroness referred? Also, will the review cover the issue of payment to the tenant, rather than payment to the landlord? For a lot of families, in terms of managing their budget, it is actually better to pay the landlord directly, which can also deal with fraud and arrears.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, on the last point, the change in the local housing allowance, under which payment was generally made to the tenant, was a very important development. The pathfinders that preceded the introduction of the allowance demonstrated that there was a very high take-up of that allowance. It was part of broadening financial inclusion, as was demonstrated by the take-up of bank accounts by those who availed themselves of that facility. Under the current system, people who are vulnerable can still make arrangements, or arrangements can be made for them by the local authority, for payments to be made directly to the landlord, but overwhelmingly they are made to the tenant, which I believe is a good thing.



2.45 pm

Asked By Lord Blaker

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, we are working with our international partners to encourage a resolution of the crisis. Mugabe’s regime continues to stand in

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the way of political progress. Its failed policies have devastated Zimbabwe’s economy and infrastructure. As a result, nearly 6 million people are in need of food aid and cholera has killed some thousands. Our immediate priority is to provide humanitarian assistance to alleviate the suffering of the Zimbabwean people—the innocent victims of these failed policies.

Lord Blaker: My Lords, next week there will be another meeting on Zimbabwe. Considering the damage that the crisis is doing to the region, there was a disgracefully low turnout of heads of government at their last Zimbabwe summit in November. Instead of urging Mugabe to halt violent intimidation and accept the will of the people, SADC has so far adopted the feeble line of pressing Tsvangirai to make further concessions. Should we not remind SADC that after the violent June presidential run-off its own observer mission declared that:

“The elections did not represent the will of the people of Zimbabwe”?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I think that the reason for the low SADC turnout was frustration among SADC leaders at the lack of progress. I believe that a number of leaders would entirely agree with the noble Lord’s last remark and share his frustration that there is no progress. Yesterday in Harare there was a long meeting between Morgan Tsvangirai and Robert Mugabe, but after 12 hours there was no progress because Mr Mugabe continues to refuse to make concessions.

Baroness D'Souza: My Lords, I think it is generally agreed that people in Zimbabwe are quite desperate. One effective means of getting hard currency to desperate people is via remittances. Does the Minister agree that it might be a good idea to allow Zimbabwean asylum seekers in this country to work, earn and remit?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, sadly, in this case remittances probably do not work because they are essentially confiscated in large part by the central bank and diverted to sustain the regime. However, I certainly share the noble Baroness’s concern about the condition of failed asylum seekers in the UK. Although the Home Secretary has concluded that they cannot be allowed to work for fear of breaching broader precedents, they can and do receive housing and living benefits to ensure that they are not destitute.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, my noble friend will recall the NePAD and Gleneagles agreement, which in shorthand meant that developed countries provided aid and in response the African Union provided good governance, which was monitored by a peer-review mechanism. Since then, there has been the stolen election in Zimbabwe in March, the situation is deteriorating daily and the peer-review mechanism has stalled. Does the African Union recognise the damage to potential investment by its failure to act in this respect?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, perhaps I may correct my noble friend on one point. The peer-review mechanism has not stalled and in fact has contributed significantly to the improvement of governance in many countries. I recently came back from the

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inauguration of a new President in Ghana, the result of a 50:50 election where the losing side respected the result. However, that makes my noble friend’s point even truer, because the great successes of improved governance in Africa are covered up internationally by the disastrous black spot of Zimbabwe.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the SADC mediation initiative is virtually dead, apart from a last-minute twitch of the corpse next Monday, either in Botswana or South Africa? In view of that, does he think that there is any possibility that the African Union, at its summit in Addis Ababa, will pick up the suggestion made previously by the Kenyan Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, that the African Union should boycott Mugabe and supervise free, fresh and fair elections?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I think that the prospect of the African Union summit is leading to a last flurry of diplomacy. The meeting yesterday in Harare and the SADC summit have taken place in the run-up to the AU one. Last year, the AU said that, if SADC could not fix this, it would want to be part of finding a solution. There is frustration that it has not been more fully involved. I think the AU will want to take a hard look at this. South Africa must remain part of the solution, as must SADC, but the present initiative has essentially shown itself to be exhausted and defeated by the sheer stubbornness of Mr Mugabe.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, as the old policy of quiet diplomacy fails, the United States Government have in their last days blacklisted a whole range of businesses that are aiding and abetting this revolting regime. Fourteen of those companies are located and based in the United Kingdom. Have we backed up that policy? Have we taken action against those 14 companies?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I commend the United States Government for what they have done. They had been waiting to take the sanctions further from what had been the agreed line, which was one of targeting individuals who were part of the regime directly and now extends to a group of companies which are viewed, in part, as financing and sustaining the regime. The United States can act on its own; we need to act within Europe. Discussions are well under way, and although it is not appropriate to discuss individual companies in this House, I hope to bring good news to the noble Lord before long.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords—

Lord St John of Bletso: My Lords, can the Minister comment on reports that arms have been shipped from China into Angola and then airlifted into Zimbabwe?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I can comment. Like the noble Lord, I was surprised and disappointed when I saw those reports. We went back to their source, which was the UN experts report on the DRC, which does not actually name China, but somehow it has been added in the reporting. However, China insists that it has not been part of such arms exports

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to Zimbabwe. We shall continue to track the situation because, in our view, anyone who exports arms to Zimbabwe at this time poses a real threat to regional peace.

Prisoners: Early Release


2.53 pm

Asked By Baroness Sharples

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, there are two schemes under which prisoners may be released into the community before they have served half their sentence. The latest published figures show that 147,334 prisoners have been released under the home detention curfew scheme and 44,720 prisoners have been released under the end-of-custody licence scheme.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. How many of the released prisoners are immigrants? I understand that they receive cash to compensate for food and board, but how long is it before they are deported? Is the home detention curfew working well?

Lord Bach: My Lords, foreign nationals in prison who are due for deportation are not eligible for either scheme. If the noble Baroness means such prisoners when she uses the term “immigrant” in this context, the answer is none.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, how can the public be expected to have confidence in the criminal justice system when early release—which used to be called executive release—is no longer a measure resorted to very rarely in an emergency but seems now to be a settled practice?

Lord Bach: My Lords, my right honourable friend the Justice Secretary has said on many occasions that we will end the end-of-custody licence when headroom allows. We are working extremely hard to build new places, with the fastest ever creation of prison spaces. When Ministers judge that it is safe to do so, we will end that scheme. The other scheme, the home detention curfew scheme, plays an important role in managing prison population by reducing overcrowding and, at the same time, we believe, improves the resettlement and rehabilitation opportunities for less serious offenders.

Lord Woolf: My Lords, does the Minister agree that having a policy that will result in an increased population is hardly wise if there are these problems with the existing prison population? The practical result is that the courts are being required to shovel people into prison by the front door and then they are released by the back door.

Lord Bach: My Lords, what the noble and learned Lord says is, of course, right to the extent that overall prison capacity is high at present. There is an obligation for the courts to send to prison those who are dangerous

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and serious criminals, but we believe that tough community sentences are a proper alternative to prison in many cases.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, is there any difference in reconviction rates between prisoners released under the two schemes that we are discussing and those released in the normal way?

Lord Bach: My Lords, as I understand it, the figures for reconviction under the home detention curfew scheme are happier than those for prisoners released in the normal way.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, does the Minister accept that the early release scheme has been fairly successful, apart from occasional hiccups? In the light of that, does he have it in mind to review the parole system to ensure that more people spend sentences in the community rather than in custodial institutions?

Lord Bach: My Lords, it has been successful to the extent that it has reduced the problems with regard to the prison population. On the other hand, it is not entirely a satisfactory scheme, which is, as I said, why my right honourable friend wants to end it as soon as headroom allows. I repeat what I said to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf: where a non-custodial sentence, a tough community sentence, can be imposed, of course we want more of them, but the House must accept that there are people who really have to go to prison.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, is the Prison Officers’ Association actively involved in discussions prior to those releases?

Lord Bach: My Lords, of course the prison administration in each prison takes these matters very seriously. Before a home detention curfew can be awarded to a prisoner, there will clearly have been many discussions about whether the prisoner is appropriate, and that will include prison officers. As for the end-of-custody licence, provided that the prisoner meets the qualification—that is, that he or she is serving a sentence of more than four months and less than four years, is not imprisoned for serious violence or terrorist offences and is not on the sexual offences register—they will automatically be released up to 18 days before their sentence ends.

Lord Kingsland: My Lords, when my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew posed his question to the Minister, the Minister responded by saying that the temporary scheme would be finished “when headroom allows”. Will the Minister inform the House, as accurately as he can, what he means by the expression “when headroom allows”?

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