Can the Minister explain what people entitled to this relief, but unable to get it yet, are supposed to do in the meantime? Will he give the House a date by which this office will be fully manned, with all the staff properly trained? Will he confirm that after this modest relief many people will still be substantially worse off, faced with higher rents as a result of the cuts that the Government have made in housing benefit?
I wrote to the hon. Gentleman and to all colleagues in the House explaining what people should do to obtain help if they needed it. The unit should be fully operational in two to three weeks' time, but applications are already being received. We had no fewer than 5,000 applications in the post today, so the message is getting across. In my letter to all hon. Members I mentioned the Freephone and post facilities. Anybody who needs urgent help can make special arrangements with Glasgow to obtain it quickly.
It is possible for people to receive emergency payments through the DHSS if they qualify later for them. What will happen to those people in future, because it is possible that some will receive emergency payments, but, when the unit is established, will then lose them?
The object of the emergency payments is to help people who might be in danger of losing their home if they are not helped immediately. For example, it should be perfectly possible for a local authority tenant to make it clear that he or she has applied for transitional protection, and for the local authority to check his or her entitlement and no doubt postpone the arrangements for the collection of rent until the help becomes available.
The Minister will know from correspondence that many of my constituents have lost up to £26 a week because of the Government's changes in April. For many of them that means acute hardship and rising debt. Will the heating charge rebate, which was payable before April, be covered by the transitional arrangements? That is not in the DHSS guidance form, and my local citizens' advice bureau says that that costs some 80-year-old pensioners up to £7 a week. Is that covered for them and people on income support?
Is my hon. Friend aware of the considerable difficulty in getting through to this office on the telephone? Several of my constituents have been unable to get through, and I have yet to meet a constituent who has got through to anyone or anything but an answering machine. Is he sure that sufficient communications equipment has been installed in the office to meet the demand?
Will the special unit urgently get in touch with Norwich city council, which appears to be slow in arranging these transitional payments for many of my constituents? After all, it received the information from the DHSS as early as 1 June, yet many people are suffering because of the slow response of the council.
We have sent out information to all local authorities so that they can advise people about their rights. When working the system of transitional protection, I hope that local authorities will show the same level of co-operation and efficiency and commitment as they showed over the transition to the new system of housing benefit, on which they were complimented.
In my constituency a 56-year-old widow's payable rent has gone up from £7 to £21 a week because of reductions in housing benefit and she has only minumum income over and above her widow's pension. Will she be helped by the transitional arrangements, or will she have to trust to luck?
I find it difficult to imagine that transitional protection would not extend to the hon. Gentleman's constituent. I have heard too many cases, which have been traded backwards and forwards across the Floor of the House, in which the facts sometimes are not exactly as stated. I am not accusing the hon. Gentleman of misleading the House in any way—I know him too well for that—but if he cares to write to me about the specific case I shall make sure that he gets an answer.
I wish to refer the Minister to last week's judgment from the appeals tribunal, which said that the Minister had acted outwith his powers by scrapping housing benefit supplement. Will he take this opportunity to correct the bold view of his Under-Secretary that the judgment applied to the four pensioners only and not to the 440,000 others in identical circumstances? Is he aware that there is no better formula for clogging up every tribunal in the land until the end of the year? Now that the Government have been caught out, will he have the grace to accept this verdict and pay to all those affected the money that he had no right to take from them in the first place?
Many of the people who were reported in the press as having lost—if the judgment were to apply across the board; I do not accept for one moment that it does —would, in any case, through other parts of the benefit system, be assured of losing absolutely nothing.
The chairman of the tribunal said that in reaching that conclusion he was not declaring a result, but starting a process in train and that it would be for the chief adjudication officer to decide in due course whether to appeal against the decision. I am certain that that officer will want to study the considered judgment and the written findings of the tribunal. We took careful advice and the regulations were, of course, considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments before they were laid.