In relation to what my noble friend Lady Rumbold said—

Baroness Browning: I am alive and well.

Lord Greaves: My noble friend Lady Browning, I am sorry. The noble Baroness is being mixed up with everybody today. I have been mixing them up for many years. I am coming to the view that perhaps we should close down this Grand Committee and go home, but we shall struggle on.

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On the points that my noble friend Lady Browning made about local councillors, I believe that they will be able to make a good fist of this, but the problem is, as the amendment says, they will be making it on the basis of different criteria and views in different places. The question is whether that is a legitimate argument in favour of localism so well put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Deben, or whether it is a step too far.

The noble Lord attacked the postcode lottery, and I, too, cringe when I hear that phrase. It is an attack on localism and local decision-making by centralists everywhere, whether they are in the Daily Mail, the Labour Party or anywhere else. It is not a phrase that I would ever use, and it is something that I attack all the time. However, we do not want everything done at parish council level. I can imagine a situation in which the next time this country decides to go to war and invade a country such as Iraq the Army will be raised in a traditional manner by people going round and rounding people up whom they find in the fields and streets. Each parish council will be allowed to decide whether people should be rounded up from its parish, or not. That may be the way in which the Army is going with its cuts—that is the future—but I doubt it.

I am making a very important point, which the noble Lord, Lord Deben, made, that there are levels of government. I am a passionate localist and believer in subsidiarity, but I am also a federalist in the sense that there are different layers of government. The important thing is that each layer of government and democratic control should be responsible for those things appropriate to that layer. The noble Lord mentioned the European Union and Westminster, local authorities and parishes. The principle should be to push things down to the relevant levels. That is what I believe in. The argument is not whether everything should be done at parish level or even district council level—although I would be delighted with that, as long as we had the funding. The argument is what the appropriate level is to push things down to. The argument we have here is whether the council tax reduction—the council tax benefit, as it is now—should be a national benefit under which people in the country are all treated the same or whether that itself is appropriate to localism. On balance, I come to the view that it should be a national benefit decided at national level, precisely for the reasons that noble Lords have put forward. I do not think that that makes me any less of a localist.

The problem with the amendment was raised by the equally passionate speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, in moving it. She was speaking to the question of the level of the council tax reduction which will take place, whereas the amendment is about something more fundamental. The noble Lord, Lord Deben, explained the difference: it is about eligibility, not the level of the benefit. None of us have any hope of persuading the Government on the level of the benefit. I think that they are absolutely determined that it will go ahead on the basis that local authorities will make their own decisions. However, it ought to be possible to persuade them that the amendment has merit, particularly if the guidance was made on the basis not that it was government guidance of the traditional sort, which is actually an instruction which you disobey

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at your peril, but genuine guidance, where local authorities could improve the protection for disabled people—in other words, if the government’s guidance was an accepted minimum. Discussion might take place around that idea.

My second point was to go back to the 1930s. I am conscious that when I picked up the point made by the noble Baroness about the 1930s last week, Hansard thought that I had said the 1830s. Let me make it clear that I am talking about the 1930s, but the system was very much the same in the 1830s. The reason why the system of benefits was nationalised and the old localised Poor Law was abolished is that too many places were being too mean. The local position with the workhouses, and so on, was in some places unacceptable and therefore had to be raised to a standard level for everyone. The danger is that if you allow local authorities to decide on the level of benefit or, as we are now discussing, eligibility, some will behave in an appalling manner. That results in the wheel turning and rules and regulations having to be set out to prevent them doing that.

However, that was not always the case. There was at least one instance in the London Borough of Poplar in the 1920s, when it was run by a man called George Lansbury, when the local authority started to behave in a very generous manner and, in particular, started giving out relief—in other words, benefits in cash and kind that meant that people did not have to go into the workhouse but could continue to live in the community. The local authority was taken to court and to judicial review and was prevented from being too generous.

I say to the Government: be careful what you wish for, because the time will come, when economic growth resumes in this country, when it is easier for local authorities and other bodies to develop new schemes. Local authorities will have been given a power of general competence and at some time—who knows when?—there may be resources for local authorities to do things that central government think are outrageous because they are being too generous, not too mean. As I said, be careful what you wish for.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett: The noble Lord, Lord Deben, gave us a rousing speech, but I did not hear him address the argument made by my noble friend Lady Hollis, which is that the needs arising from vulnerabilities are not locally determined, they are the same, regardless of where a person lives. I wonder whether the noble Lord would argue that the Government were wrong to protect pensioners from above, because for some reason, pensioners are being treated as part of a national scheme whereas people below pension age, who may be just as vulnerable, are not being treated as part of a national scheme.

Lord Deben: I thought that I made it clear that the assessment of vulnerability does not necessarily have to be central . I do not happen to think that if it were local it would be any less unpleasant or pleasant than if it were done centrally. As to the comment about whether the Government are protecting this group rather than another, I was suggesting that this is at least one step in the direction in which local people can have some real control over what they want to do.

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The idea that they will all be less generous than the Government seems to be rather rude about locality and it shows that in the end people do not believe in localism because they always think that people at the top will make a better decision than people at the bottom. I just happen to think that Suffolk County Council does it much better.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett: I certainly do not want to be rude about local authorities. Some things should be locally determined, but this is not one of them. I am sure that my noble friend Lady Hollis will return to that much better than I could.

I want to raise one point that I know will cut absolutely no mustard with the noble Lord: the position of people who move between local authorities, which some government policies encourage them to do. If there is no national guidance on vulnerability, they will not know how they will be treated when they move from one authority to another. The researchers in the report that I quoted earlier by Demos and Scope, said that they were struck by an “oppressive sense of uncertainty” that many disabled people were living with which,

“clearly jeopardised their emotional wellbeing”.

Without clear guidance, that uncertainty will be aggravated.

It is not only disabled people who feel uncertainty; it is part of living in poverty. There is a sense of insecurity and uncertainty. At least national guidance would allow people to know how they would be treated when they moved from one authority to another.

Lord Shipley: Perhaps I may raise one issue that we have not pinned down yet: whether the failure to define “vulnerability” may prove to be a legal issue that could be challenged through judicial review? I would appreciate the Minister's guidance in reply as to whether the Government are really happy that the failure to define “vulnerability” may actually prove to be a difficulty.

I think that vulnerability includes the working poor. They may not immediately be regarded as a vulnerable group, but in terms of all the benefit changes in welfare reform that are being implemented, they may prove to be seriously vulnerable. The Secretary of State should issue guidance on what “vulnerable” means. I think back to several long debates in the Localism Bill about what “sustainable development” meant. It actually mattered that we reached a common understanding. Without a common understanding between different local authorities acting in the spirit of localism, which I applaud, I fear that you may end up with judicial review from organisations that believe that their council has not properly considered the definition of “vulnerability”. It would therefore be much better if the Secretary of State issued guidance. That guidance could be advisory as opposed to statutory, but there needs to be a government view about this. Otherwise, we will head for some difficulty in the months ahead.

7.15 pm

Baroness Sherlock: I would like to pick up where the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, left off because he made the point that I was going to make. I want to add just

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one thing. Irrespective of the debates about where the decisions should be located in general, the point about vulnerability is one that the Government brought into play. He said that the Government made a decision and said, in their own documentation:

“The Government has been clear that, in developing local council tax reduction schemes, vulnerable groups should be protected”.

The Government have put this issue out there, so it is not unreasonable for a local authority to say, “What do you mean by ‘vulnerable’?”. I spoke to one local authority last week that was extremely concerned that, almost irrespective of what definition it chooses, it will end up being subject to legal review because it will exclude some people, and it cannot imagine any way in which it could do that that would not have that consequence. In responding, the Minister may point out that a local authority could choose to adopt the default scheme and therefore the legal responsibility would lie with the Government, but that would work only if the authority has the resources available to be able to make good the difference. It does not apply to any other scheme or variation of it that it could take on.

I am very much with the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, who pointed out that there is a very real risk, in addition to the legal point, that the Government are raising expectations by reassuring everybody that vulnerable groups will be protected without explaining what that means. That makes it even harder for local councils to justify whatever decision they take that is short of the total quantum of vulnerability that could be defined out there.

I will make one final point, triggered by something that the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, said. One of the difficult areas in policy and one of the reasons why some decisions should be made centrally is that some kinds of vulnerability are not seen on a sufficiently large scale in an individual area for local councils to be expected reasonably to understand them and make prescriptions about them. It is analogous, perhaps, to health policy where, in commissioning, there will still be certain kinds of rare conditions that are dealt with centrally. Sometimes there are good policy reasons, even if one is being localist, to have guidance coming from the centre so that people can reasonably be expected to understand vulnerabilities that they may not encounter every day. Can the Minister perhaps address that as well?

Lord Smith of Leigh: My Lords, I have found this debate and the ones previously on Amendments 76 and 76A fascinating. I need to remind noble Lords that I am still leader of Wigan Council. Therefore, for me, this is not a theoretical debate. I will have to determine a scheme within my authority, with colleagues, that will decide who is eligible, who is not eligible, which group will be regarded as vulnerable and which group will not be regarded as vulnerable. It will not be easy. I was going to say that it is not a zero-sum game, but I remind noble Lords that it is not even a minus 10% game; it is a minus 20% game if we exclude pensioners. So we are lucky in that sense.

I find myself agreeing with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Deben, said about localism. I recognise

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what he said and I agree with it. Where I would differ from him and what we need to recognise is that local authorities come at this with very different needs in terms of the number of people who are receiving council tax benefits, as has been said earlier, and the potential changes, as I mentioned earlier. I already know from being in this meeting that I have 100 more people who will be regarded as needing council tax benefits as a result of their factory closing this afternoon. So these things are changing all the time, and we need to recognise that.

I have had some interesting solutions to my dilemma from various quarters today, such as applying reserves. The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, is absolutely right. My treasurer is already coming to me to say, “You are going to lose probably £500,000 on your council tax collection because these people are not going to be able to afford to pay the cost, so you have to think about that”. We have talked about the problems of increasing demands on council tax benefits as it becomes a local thing, and I think that the noble Lord is right that we will do it much better than it is done at the moment, so that probably will encourage more people who do not claim at the moment to start to claim.

Earlier in this Bill we talked about the problems of business rates and the fact that they will have some risk element, so we will have to put that in. We talked about the flexibility of council tax, which is a very interesting phrase. Perhaps the Minister could let me know whether he means by “flexibility of council tax” that he is going to allow me to put the council tax up and is not going to require me to hold a referendum. I cannot believe that anyone sensible is going to say that they are going to have a referendum to put council tax benefits up: “Please vote for it and you will pay more council tax”. We would never win that, so it is not going to work.

We have heard that we should make further cuts. In my authority I am planning £66 million of cuts over four years. The Government thankfully gave me some warning and we have them in place. If I now have to make more cuts to accommodate all this—probably between £2.5 million and £3 million-worth—where are they going to come from? What have I got to do that I am not already looking at? I need to remind noble Lords that it is the vulnerable groups who rely most on councils’ services. If I cut services to vulnerable groups, they suffer. I can put up daily charges or raise the qualification for receiving social care. All these things affect vulnerable groups and there is no easy solution.

The difficulty for me is this. Presumably all the people we give council tax benefit to are regarded as vulnerable people, otherwise we should not be giving them that benefit. If we start to define vulnerability—here I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, said, as well as the comments of other noble Lords about the needs of different groups in communities—the danger is that we will define who are the deserving and the non-deserving poor. In the future, there will be people who get council tax benefit support and those who either get less or nothing.

A lot of vulnerable groups have strong lobbying sectors, but the ones who do not get that kind of support are the working poor. I remind the Committee

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that we are talking about a marginalised and alienated group in our society made up of people who do not vote very much at the moment. But they could be tempted to vote by extremists who say, “We will listen to you”. It is happening in certain communities. People are listening to those who are giving them false promises. We know that Respect, which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, the BNP or whatever group it is will offer things that they cannot deliver. The result of this Bill and the way we will have to design the council tax support scheme will drive more and more people to the political extremes. Are we doing a good job here?

Lord Best: My Lords, I am provoked to give a short preview of the amendments tabled in my name that are to follow—but not tonight. However, I thought I might briefly whet appetites because they relate so closely to what we are talking about. I see that noble Lords are all agog.

These amendments are about more localism. They are about removing some of the inhibitions on councils deciding precisely how they want to raise the funds that will pay the £400 million the Treasury is waiting for. They are about whether pensioners are included or not included as a vulnerable group being decided locally. This is the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Deben. In my full and unamended speech I will say that there are many grounds on which pensioners might already be treated slightly more favourably than some of the other vulnerable groups. I will contend that in respect of the groups that are considered to be vulnerable, local authorities should have greater discretion, and suggest that local authorities should also have greater flexibility in how they raise council tax, not only in respect of the current discounts for empty and second homes, but in respect of single person discounts. I will explain that if local authorities were allowed to vary the single person discount, currently fixed at 25% and set centrally by diktat from Whitehall, some might choose to reduce that discount across the board to 20%, meaning that all those who currently receive it would have to pay another 46 pence a week. It is not a vast sum, but it would raise more than the £400 million across the piece and make it unnecessary for us to define vulnerable groups and get ourselves into all kinds of tangles in reducing support for the very poorest in our communities. In advance of moving those amendments and in the context of this debate, I thought that noble Lords might like to hear the preview.

Lord Beecham: My Lords, we have had a longer and more entertaining debate than many of us thought we would have. We had the Browning versions, two of them, and we have had an interesting conflict between Norfolk and Suffolk. I hesitate to arbitrate between those two counties. In relation to the remarks by the noble Lord, Lord Deben, from time to time, I have been tempted to form a society for the preservation of the postcode lottery. In some areas of policy, it is absolutely the right line to take. We have had too much regimentation and prescription nationally about what should and should not be done.

However, we are not talking about policies here but about the people’s basic right to a minimum income. To take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Deben, to its logical conclusion, we would have differential

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benefits across the piece. We would have different benefits for disabled people, pensions, child benefit and whatever up and down the country, determined locally. The noble Lord shakes his head, but where is the difference? The difference that he advances is that council tax is raised locally, but that is an irrelevance to the person looking at his disposable income that he has to deploy in support of his family. Where the localism part should come in—not the faux localism of the Poor Law—is that you would have a national basic minimum entitlement which, if the local authority thought it right, you could increase and enhance benefits. That would seem to be a reasonable application of localism because everybody is guaranteed a national minimum and locally the community may decide to augment it but, in our view, it should not be in a position to reduce it.

One of my noble friends, or perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, referred to Localising Support for Council Tax Vulnerable People. Paragraph 3.4, about equality information and engagement, states in connection with child poverty that:

“authorities will be required to take into account their local child poverty needs assessment”.

That is fine.

“Local authorities should be able to design localised council tax reduction schemes in a way that best suits local circumstances, tailored to what child poverty looks like”—

looks like—

“in the local area”.

I will tell you what child poverty looks like in any area. It is the undernourished child going to school, perhaps dependent on free school meals. These days, he may have to go to a breakfast club to get a breakfast. According to a recent survey, 50% of teachers are going into schools with food that they can distribute to the children. Child poverty is children going badly clothed, living in fuel poverty so the house is cold, and perhaps with dysfunctional families, although that is, of course, not simply a financial matter. This can occur anywhere. These children can be found in the city that the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and I have represented and led and in the city that the noble Lord, Lord Smith, still leads. They can be found in villages in Suffolk, I guess, and in Norfolk, and in Kensington and Chelsea for that matter. They can be found anywhere. As my noble friend said, it is not locality that determines the character of poverty. It may possibly exacerbate a basic condition of poverty, but locality is not the determining condition, and it should not be locality that determines the basic support given to children in poverty or, indeed, to any other vulnerable group. To say that this is somehow an issue of localism is to pervert the proper definition of localism. The noble Lord has advanced a weak argument—from the best of motives because, in policy generally, he has a strong point. But in this area it is entirely misconceived.

Lord Deben: Let us take child poverty of the kind that the noble Lord described which is certainly true in some of our villages in Suffolk. It is up to the local authority to decide whether it is going to spend its resources making sure that those children all have a hot meal and all have breakfast rather than by having

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a special element in the council tax arrangements to deal with that. If the noble Lord feels that there is not enough elbow room for local authorities, I wish he would listen to his noble friend’s comments, because it seems to me that we should be pushing for many more opportunities for local people to have the resources to do the things that matter. How you deal with poverty in very distant rural areas is very different from the way in which you deal with it in Limehouse.

7.30 pm

Lord Beecham: With respect, a decent basic family income is needed. That is the starting point. I entirely agree with him about the other things. Matters for local concern include how much should be put into the school meals service, what price should be charged for school meals, and how you promote the take-up of these benefits. That is a strong function of local government, particularly as the Government, as I said in a previous debate in Committee, declined to say, in answer to a parliamentary Question of mine, that they would make efforts to increase the take-up of benefits. The £1.8 billion of unclaimed council tax benefit—much of it, by the way, due to owner-occupying pensioners—is a matter that local councils could and should be promoting.

In my authority, I helped to initiate the welfare rights service in 1974, when I was chairman of the social services committee. Under administrations of different political colours, it has been a very successful authority in promoting take-up of one kind or another. However, that is not the same thing as having a sound basic income. Of course, some authorities have been looking at options. I have here 13 pages of options about local council tax support and one of them is to remove child benefit income disregards. At the moment, that is a national provision. That is one option that they are considering and no doubt they will be consulting, along with the other 40 or 50 recommendations, in the short time that they have before they have to implement them, as we heard earlier. The effect of that on 2,025 families would potentially be an average difference per week of £3.09. That is not a lot to anyone in this room but for people who are living on the margins, that £3 a week is quite significant. That is something that, under the dispensation of the noble Lord, Deben, that particular council has on the table, although I am not saying that it will choose that. I do not think that this is at all acceptable.

We are debating this matter in the Moses Room. We have Moses and the “Judgment of Daniel”. It occurred to me that the judgment of another of my co-religionists might have been relevant in these debates, the judgment of Solomon, as that is what we are looking at. We are looking at utterly impossible decisions about how you carve up—not in this case a child—child benefit or many of these other benefits. That is not acceptable in a modern society.

To return to the remarks made earlier this afternoon by the noble Lord, Lord Deben, there is certainly a balance between local and central. The Government are offloading responsibilities to localities in a way that is absolutely irrelevant to the needs of the people who most need that basic entitlement which, thank God,

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has been extended to them since we got rid of the Poor Law and that kind of local decision-making which was in the hands of a minority of people which so damaged the lives of generations of our citizens.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I refer to the comments just made by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, and by one or two other Members of the Committee about the present situation. The noble Lord has defined people in poverty and children in poverty and what is happening now under a national scheme. It is not a scheme that is operated by local authorities but one that is operated nationally. I am sure that the noble Lord will have known of many people who have looked for disability allowance and carers’ allowance, who have not been granted them. Do not start by thinking that the current scheme is brilliant because it is not. There are certainly disparities across the country where there are different needs. There may be different needs in cities or in rural areas for children in poverty and children in need. It is for local authorities to decide where those vulnerable people are. There will be more disabled people and pensioners in one local authority than there will be in another. Would it not be right for that local authority to have the right to make the decisions on what is required and make a scheme according to what it knows and who lives in the area? We have had a long dissertation today on vulnerability but it actually turned out to be yet another go at the scheme itself.

The fact of the matter is that the council benefit scheme was removed entirely from universal credit and there is therefore not the slightest point in trying to equate the two and include the scheme again. We are dealing with a situation where localism and local authorities are going to deal with council tax benefit, otherwise there would not be any such benefit—or else there would have to be some form of top slicing to enable the money to be raised. Let us get real about this. Let us be absolutely clear what we are talking about. We are talking about putting the scheme locally because we believe—I accept that the Opposition does not—that local authorities can be trusted to develop schemes that are relevant to people in their areas.

The noble Baroness and one or two others talked about the dividing line between what happens regarding those schemes in Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, Rotherham and Preston. Local authorities are already administering schemes. They make decisions daily on criteria regarding who is eligible for one scheme or another. They do that in relation to children, old people, health and public health. They are making decisions all the time. Why say that they cannot make decisions on this? Of course they can and they consider what schemes they should put together.

The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, produced 20 options. If I was putting together a scheme such as this, I would expect at least 50% of the options to be totally unacceptable. I would know that they were totally unacceptable and that they would never get further than the discussion stage. However, you have to look at those options and take them into account. We need to shift this discussion on to the basis of looking at what local authorities are doing and what they need to

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do. The council tax benefit scheme is already there with its criteria and all its ramifications. Local authorities know what the current scheme involves.

I simply do not accept the arguments that have been put. I very much thank my noble friend Lord Deben for one of his rare but gallant performances, and for providing some sparkling entertainment between him and the noble Baroness who moved the amendment. The whole discussion turned into an interesting event.

I have screeds of notes that I can tell you all about. Let us start with the setting of guidance on vulnerability, which the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, asked to be included in the Bill. I do not know of any guidance in a Bill, but I know that guidance can be positively directed. The guidance is out today and people can look at it to see what it involves. There is no definition of vulnerability, which needs to be dealt with at a local level. Local authorities are already working within the definitions and they know what they are. Noble Lords look sceptically at me, but if local authorities do not do that, they are not very good local authorities and it is time that someone took a decision about having them changed. Local authorities are well aware of their responsibilities and the guidance will help practitioners to understand the statutory framework in relation to vulnerable people because that is already there. We discussed that earlier when my noble friend Lord Attlee was answering from the Front Bench.

The guidance will remind local authorities of the statutory framework in which they operate and their existing responsibility in relation to people who are vulnerable. Those responsibilities are also included in the statutory duty. Local authorities will have to take account of the equality duty; that is very relevant to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, about disabled people. They have a statutory responsibility to look at that in making local schemes and to have due regard to the need to advance equality of opportunity between people who share the relevant protected characteristics. That is there and they will have to look at it.

I am sure that everybody here knows the relevant characteristics covered by the equality duty. They are age, disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, and sex and sexual orientation. The disabled fall very clearly within those criteria. The equality duty is not prescriptive about the approach a public authority should take in order to comply with its legal obligation. However, authorities do have to think consciously about the need to do the things set out in the aims of that duty. I am sure that local authorities will not want to be found wanting under those circumstances. Carers are already covered under the legislation—I think it is this legislation. They will have to be taken into consideration in the same way as part of this.

Baroness Sherlock: Under what legislation are carers to be taken into account? I am not sure what the noble Baroness is referring to.

Baroness Hanham: Oh crumbs, I will stop swinging from the lights. The council tax benefit regulations take carers into account and I am sure that local authorities would want to do that.

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Lord Greaves: I apologise to my noble friend, who is doing rather well. In what context will council tax benefit regulations apply when council tax benefit is abolished?

Baroness Hanham: I suspect that they will stay in place, but I will answer that later. I will write to my noble friend. I do not want to be wrong because I am doing very well here.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett: It seems unlikely that council tax benefit regulations will apply once council tax benefit is abolished, so rather than prolong the Minister’s agony, perhaps she will write to us as to what statutory authority will ensure that carers’ needs are taken into account as part of the vulnerability guidance.

Baroness Hanham: I do not want the noble Baroness to think that any of this has put me into agony. We will write about council tax benefit; but it is all there under the default scheme.

I was asked a number of questions—in fact, there have been a number of stirring speeches—and I have already responded to my noble friend Lady Browning: I do not think that guidance will be in the Bill, but the guidance is there now and she can see what it is.

I am sorry that I cannot remember who asked the question, but I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, about how the precepting authorities and the precepted authorities will work. There will be a requirement to consult: the billing authority will have to consult with the precepting authority to make sure that their policies are aligned. That seems to be the most sensible way of doing it and, presumably, if there is a great difficulty between one and the other, they will resolve it themselves.

7.45 pm

We all know that resources are scarce, but local authorities will need to make the very best use of those that they have and make decisions about how they raise and support them. There are a couple of things in my notes that I cannot read, which is not very helpful, but I will ensure that I will write if there is anything that I have not resolved.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, asked about the criteria for vulnerability. They are likely to be different from the ones that are there already. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, talked about how the possibility of the failure to define could lead to judicial review. If the guidance is clear, that should not be a problem.

This has been a very long debate. I have enjoyed it, but I hope that some of the following amendments will not be quite so lengthy. If I have not replied to any specific point, I will ensure that I do so subsequently.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, this is not a formality: I thank everyone who has taken part. In a way, the Committee caught alight on this, and it is good that that was on such an important issue.

The noble Baroness, Lady Browning, was right when she said that there was an issue about precepting and billing authorities, which the Minister referred to

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at the end: the knowledge is on one side and the billing authority is constructing the discount scheme on the other. The lesson that I suggest to the Minister that we take from that is a different one: that you should certainly consult and should have time to consult. She should therefore think again about her response and that of her colleague, the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, to my noble friend’s amendment about the ability to delay, because I assure her that it just will not be possible to get the schemes in alignment and, having done that, to move them out to public consultation all within the financial cycle, ready for introduction in April. That will not work. The Minister, as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, has made our point for us in spades. I hope that as a result she will be able to review the Government's position on the amendment in due course.

I have the greatest admiration for the noble Lord, Lord Deben; on many issues we have been side by side and he was the Minister who, above all, stopped planning in local authorities being subject to the free market, a legacy bequeathed by his colleague Nicholas Ridley, a former Secretary of State for the Environment, which allowed many of us to protect our historic buildings, streets and centres. The noble Lord is in the book of the almost very good in most local authorities, and I am sure that he would want to keep that reputation intact.

No one doubts that planning is a local decision. Obviously there are inspectors and so on, but none the less it is local. However, when you have a number of elderly folk who need care and support and the local authority—rightly, in my view—makes a decision about whether it is more appropriate in its area to go for residential care or, possibly because it is a rural area, to go for extended domiciliary services, it is right and proper that one local authority should differ from another according to the geography and nature of the locality. The noble Lord and I have no differences about that; I was not in local government for 25 years to knock localism. That is why I bothered with it, as do many people in this Room today.

However, it is not a matter of centralism versus localism when you come to the individual entitlement to income. It is simply a different category. In planning, the planning authority is acting as umpire between local residents and car drivers. In residential care, it is a case of deciding how a particular type of need is best met, and many flowers may bloom. However, individual entitlement to income is a basic human right and not part of the proper territory of debate between centralism and localism. This is not about the clever people in the centre knowing best, to copy the noble Lord’s words—that really is an absurd statement—but neither do local people know best. Will the noble Lord argue equally that, because joblessness rises in a locality, unemployment benefit should be locally determined? I await his reply.

Lord Deben: Unemployment benefit does not relate to a local tax. We are talking about a local tax, and in a locality it would be sensible for a local council, for example, to say that the way to deal with child poverty in this area is to spend the money on providing the means for them to be fed because it had discovered

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that by doing it in another way the children did not get the food because the parents used it elsewhere. That is a perfectly reasonable thing for people to decide.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: We could have another argument about whether to have cash or benefits in kind, but the point about income is that it is a national entitlement. We have accepted that for unemployment benefit, I think. Even though the lack of a job may arise because of the peculiar distinctiveness of the locality, we do not then say that, as a result, that should determine the level of unemployment benefit. Equally in housing, rents and policy are determined locally. Is the noble Baroness going to argue that housing benefit should also be a local benefit as opposed to a national one? I do not think so. The main argument that he has used is that because council tax is levied locally, council tax benefit should be structured locally. That takes no account of the fact that half the country is in two-tier authorities where they have no control over what the precepting authority may levy on the billing authority, yet the billing authority takes the problem, cost and moral responsibility for the discount scheme that runs. As a former MP for an area with a rural district council in Suffolk, the noble Lord will know that as well as anyone. His argument does not run in two-tier authorities—it cannot, because the council tax is not generated by the billing authority that is constructing the discount scheme, and any toughness in the scheme to impress on people what their value for money is does not relate to that particular billing authority.

Lord Deben: They do have control over it—they have an election. If they do not like what the county council has done they can vote against it. If the noble Baroness is really saying that the only system that people can understand is a single-tier system, she is making a mistake that is very much wider than this. Many people know which do what, and, if they do not like what one of them does, they vote against them in the local election, as we all know.

Lord Beecham: Does my noble friend agree that although there is a significant reduction in the amount of central government support for the benefit, it is still approximately 90% government funded? So it is going towards a council tax, but the funding is still essentially central. Unfortunately, some more of it will fall on the locality as a result of what the Government are doing, but the greater part is still centrally funded.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, that is absolutely true, even more so in two-tier authorities where 75% of the expenditure that falls on local residents is through the county council precept. The precepting authority does not have to do the same as the billing authority, which has to devise the discount scheme.

I understand the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, on the postcode lottery, because I would defend local decision-making as far as possible. The point here is that what a local authority has in terms of resources will depend

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on the accident of the demography of its particular locality. If only 30% of its population are pensioners, it will have to find a lower degree of cut on people’s working age than if 60% of its population are pensioners. That is an accident of demography. Equally, when anybody seeks help with their council tax discount, it will be determined not by their own efforts, their willingness to vote or the resources of the local authority, but by how many pensioners and other vulnerable people are ahead of them in the queue. That is not localism; it is rationing by queue, with central government having already determined that certain constraints, such as the number of pensioners, shall be imposed on the system. In that sense it is random—you need not call it a postcode lottery, but it is one. The size of cut that your locality will face is accidental, and it will not necessarily bear a resemblance to your particular need. Even though it may be identical in the neighbouring authority, it will experience a different income because the demographics will be different. That is not reasonable.

I suggest to the noble Lord and the Minister that if there were no proposition to find £500 million of cuts, there would be no such scheme about localising council tax benefit before us today. This is not localism; it is the exporting of cuts to localities by central government and then dressing it up in the fancy clothes of localisation issues, even though people’s needs have not originated by virtue of the locality and the random demography of that patch will determine who gets what. That is not localism. It is exporting cuts without any constraints, which will be experienced differentially by vulnerable people who happen to have been unlucky in the lottery of living in one authority rather than another. I regard that as deeply unfair.

As my noble friend Lord Smith said about where the cuts will fall, it is not about centralism versus localism but about the centre exporting its cuts. The noble Lord, Lord Best, may speak to his amendments on a subsequent day in Committee. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, was absolutely right. Given this distinctiveness between local authorities, there will be judicial reviews. Mencap will run them if CPAG does not, according to how they are treated. They will probably have a very good case.

The Minister said that local authorities should, in her words, develop schemes that are relevant to their authorities. That challenges the core of my argument. She assumes that vulnerability and poverty are so peculiar and distinctive to a particular local authority as to justify separate local schemes. I simply do not accept that for one moment. Whether you are autistic, have a disability, are a carer with an elderly mum or are a child in poverty, it is not generated by your locality although it may be experienced in your locality. Given that it is not distinctive to your locality, it is not relevant to your local authority. Therefore, there should be a national scheme.

I leave the Minister with two questions. Who will she exclude from the scheme? We know that pensioners are automatically covered. Unfortunately, we have not had the pleasure of seeing the guidance because it did not come out on Friday but on the very day when we are sitting. Therefore, we cannot cross-refer to it, which is shame. The Minister says that vulnerable

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people will apparently be protected. The working poor will also need to be protected, so who is not? That is 100%. Who is not protected? Who does the Minister think should see their council tax benefit cut, given that pensioners, vulnerable people and the working poor and their incentives are protected?

Secondly, if there was no £500 million cut, does the Minister think that any local authority in the land would seek to establish its own distinctive council tax scheme and to pull it out of universal credit? She knows that would not happen. I have put two questions to her. She is welcome to respond to me—to tell me what is wrong with council tax benefit, who is already covered but should be excluded and whether, if we did not need £500 million of cuts, any local authority would touch this scheme with a barge pole. I think everyone in this Room today knows the answer to all those questions. They are not answers that enforce the Minister’s argument.

Baroness Hanham: I have answered the questions that the noble Baroness has asked me today if not on previous days. I am sure we will return to them. We

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have had an extremely wide debate today, although we are not over our time. I repeat that local authorities know very well who their local people who need help and support are. That is a very localist issue. The noble Baroness may not agree with me but those are my words on the subject. She gave me the opportunity to say so.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I simply disagree. According to the knowledge of the local authority—or not as the case may be—individuals may see their entitlement to income support decreased. However, the time is late; I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 79A withdrawn.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, this may be a convenient moment to adjourn the Committee until Thursday at 2 pm.

Committee adjourned at 7.58 pm.