The Government accept the housing benefit review team's recommendation that powers to prevent abuse of the housing benefit scheme should be strengthened. Our Green Paper proposes in particular that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services should have a reserve power to limit the level of rent eligible for housing benefit.
Is the Secretary of State aware that there are slum landlords in Glasgow and elsewhere who are letting out appalling properties at scandalously high rents to those on supplementary benefit? These rents are paid by district councils as agents for the Department of Health and Social Security. As the Government have abandoned their proposals to abolish the Rents Acts — their abolition would make the abuses even greater—what justification can there be for denying Scottish local authorities a power which is available to English local authorities to initiate the fair rent procedure? The implementation of that procedure in Scotland would allow authorities to get at bad landlords and would save money for the public purse. Why cannot that action be taken?
I appreciate the problem that the right hon. Gentleman has raised. He will know that local authorities are already empowered under the housing benefit regulations to reduce benefits where they judge accommodation to be unnecessarily large or the rent to be unreasonably high when compared with other accommodation that is available in the area. I am advised that the powers that are available to English local authorities are comparatively rarely used. We are keeping the matter under close review and if it is necessary to take action we shall have to consult COSLA before embarking on the introduction of legislation.
I find the Secretary of State's reply entirely unsatisfactory. When the Government are planning to cut housing benefit for the needy, how can the right hon. Gentleman permit the greedy to be able to abuse the present housing benefit system? The Opposition would assist in the passage of minor amending legislation to ensure that tenants are protected and that landlords are not allowed to abuse the system. Surely the right hon. Gentleman agrees that it is essential for local authorities in Scotland to have the right which English local authorities already have to apply for the rent officer to register a rent.
I can only assume that the hon. Gentleman did not hear my reply to the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Millan). There are two ways in which this wrong can be put right. First, a local authority can use its existing powers, as I have described, to limit the amount of benefit that is given where it considers that that is necessary. Secondly, tenants and their advisers have plenty of powers to demand the registration of a rent. They can demand the presence of the rent officer at any time that they wish to do so. They should be encouraged to use that right whenever they wish.