The latest available comprehensive figures on rent arrears owed to local authorities, taken from the subsidy claim forms, show that at 1 April 1986 accumulated arrears in England totalled over £211 million, or over 5·7 per cent. of the total rent collectable. A list of arrears owing to individual local authorities was placed in the Library on 10 December 1986.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her first appearance at the Dispatch Box. Does she agree that the collection of rent arrears owes nothing to local party politics, but everything to efficiency and management? Does she agree that the failure to make these collections is a scandalous misuse of valuable resources?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Arrears of this size place a totally unnecessary burden on ratepayers and on the vast majority of careful and responsible tenants who pay their rents on time. Councils which let arrears build up are certainly not helping the people whom they allow to get into debt. They are certainly wasting millions of pounds that could be spent on repairs and upkeep for the benefit of all their tenants.
Does the Minister not agree that very often arrears arise in families with extremely low incomes and that this is the cause of some of the arrears? Does she also agree that it is better to allow those arrears to accumulate than to dispossess families of their houses and put them on the street?
I do not accept that high rent levels lead to arrears because tenants cannot afford to pay. Local authorities have discretion to set rents to reflect the location, size and amenities of their dwellings, although it is true that we continually seek to persuade local authorities to make rents high enough to ensure that sufficient funds are available for repair and maintenance. The housing benefit system exists to help tenants who are in real need.
Can my hon. Friend confirm that two of the worst offenders are Southwark and Lambeth councils? Will she tell us whether she has considered using any form of attachment of earnings system or recommending such systems to councils to enable them to retrieve some of these massive arrears that councils have run up?
My hon. Friend is quite right. The two local authorities that he mentioned are two of the worst offenders. Of course, we cannot do the local authorities' jobs for them. They are the landlords and it is their duty to collect their rents. We are more than ready to help any local housing authority that wants seriously to improve the quality of its housing management. I remind the House of our priority estates project and estate action programmes, which together will work on almost 300 of the worst estates in Britain. A specific objective of those will be to get better management, including, of course, the reduction of rent arrears.
Will the Minister tell the House to what extent the changes and cuts in housing benefit have influenced the total rent arrears? Is she aware of the massive repossession of houses by building societies, particularly since the cuts in supplementary benefit paid to people to help with their mortgage interest repayments?
From 1 April that will be aggravated by the changes recently announced by her colleague. Will she now defend Britain's tenants and householders?
There is no evidence to support the view that delays or difficulties in the housing benefit system can account for the extraordinary differences that exist between the performances of apparently similar councils in collecting rents. For example, in April 1986 Walsall reported rent arrears of over 12·5 per cent. of its total roll. At the same point Wigan had kept the arrears down to 2 per cent. The Audit Commission agrees that the only possible explanation is different levels of management competence.
Can my hon. Friend tell the House what proportion of council house tenants now receive housing benefit? Is it true to say that with housing benefit at its present level there is no earthly reason why any council house tenant should get into arrears with his rent?