Housing Benefit

Oral Answers to Questions — Social Security – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd July 1989.

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen , Nottingham North 12:00 am, 3rd July 1989

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what steps he is taking to ensure that delays at social security offices do not lead to housing benefit claims being held up with consequent accumulation of unanticipated rent arrears; and if he will make a statement.

Photo of Sir Peter Lloyd Sir Peter Lloyd , Fareham

I am not aware of delays in social security offices that may affect the award of housing benefit. Turnround times for income support claims for the month of April 1989, the latest available figure, averaged 4·7 days while those for changes in circumstances averaged 1·3 days. These figures compare with 8·1 and 4·8 respectively for April 1988. This significant improvement reflects the success of the Government's reform of social security and the hard work and commitment of the staff of local social security offices.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen , Nottingham North

I am staggered that the Minister has no evidence of delays. I shall certainly try to help him with evidence from Nottingham, North and no doubt some of my hon. Friends will send him information about their constituencies. Has he read the National Audit Office report on the implementation of the charges in housing benefit which was published recently? Has he also read in the report the evidence that was given by a senior officer in his Department? Is the Minister aware that his Department and his boss are criticised in the report for delays, for not bringing forward the programme early enough, for not allowing local authorities to develop their software arid for not allowing local authorities enough time to put their staff into place? I ask the Minister to read the report. It affects constituents. Some of my constituents lost almost £1,000 through a build-up of arrears that were totally unknown to them. They had never been in debt before. The report was signed by members of his Department, and they agreed the wording. Will he either sack them or implement the recommendations of the National Audit Office report?

Photo of Sir Peter Lloyd Sir Peter Lloyd , Fareham

The hon. Gentleman is talking about something that is quite different from his question. I know of no delays in local offices that are holding up the payment of housing benefit. There have been complaints about the delay in transitional payments, but when they are examined one finds that in most cases the hold-up is due to information not having been received from local authorities.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell , Gedling

As the supplementary question referred to delays in local social security offices, and as the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) and I share at least one such office, would it not be fair to the staff who work in that office to make it plain to the House that normally they deal with every single claim that comes into the office within five days, and with most of them within 48 hours?

Photo of Sir Peter Lloyd Sir Peter Lloyd , Fareham

I believe that the performance of the local offices in Nottingham is very good indeed. I took it that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) was implicitly criticising them in asking his question. If he has any particular examples that he wishes to bring to my attention, I shall be happy to investigate them.

Photo of John Reid John Reid , Motherwell North

May I recommend that the Minister reads the National Audit Office report? Like my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), I am a member of the Public Accounts Committee. I have read that report, and I can assure my hon. Friend that his summary is far more accurate than the Minister's response —which was based on a 30-second conversation with his boss, the Secretary of State, who is sitting beside him. Transitional units are merely compounding the problem that they were set up to alleviate due to the long delays in assessment and because when assessment produced a rebate the money was not forwarded to the local authorities in time, so tenants who had never been in arrears in their lives received an assurance from the transitional unit that they would get rebates but the money never arrived, producing a commensurate build-up of arrears. Will the Minister do something about that?

Photo of Sir Peter Lloyd Sir Peter Lloyd , Fareham

The transitional payments are operating extremely well, although there were some hiccups, but the main question was not about transitional payments. Like the hon. Member for Nottingham, North, the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) has not referred to cases in his local offices or cases known to him in which payment of housing benefit has been held up due to a lack of information passing from the local office to the local authority.