Report (3rd Day)

Part of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – in the House of Lords at 8:45 pm on 12th March 2012.

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Photo of Lord Beecham Lord Beecham Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 8:45 pm, 12th March 2012

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Best, I have the benefit of having received a briefing from Shelter, which in my case was sent with a covering letter from a solicitor of a very highly reputed firm. He says:

"I can readily attest to the importance of being able to advise clients upon their welfare benefits problems within the context of housing possession proceedings. It is very often the benefits problems that have resulted in the possession proceedings being issued in the first place".

He goes on to say that it is far more cost-effective if the legal representative is able to help resolve the problems,

"whilst assisting in defending the possession proceedings themselves".

Shelter is heavily involved in dealing with cases of housing benefit and support for mortgage interest where problems arise. Sometimes there are issues of delay but frequently errors are made in adjudicating on the amount of benefit or mortgage interest support that is to be made available. As the briefing says, unless that underlying problem is resolved, there is no hope of somebody whose home is threatened with repossession ever meeting the rental or mortgage payments and clearing any arrears. Significantly, Shelter deals with thousands of cases in which tenants have not received the housing benefit to which they are entitled and who would have been evicted but for its intervention. It is a complex world and it is not surprising that mistakes occur. I am not being unnecessarily critical of those who have to deal with a very large case load of benefits. Nevertheless, there is clearly a significant number of cases where the wrong decision is made and this can lead to very significant hardship.

Apparently, ministry officials have said that the mixed-case rule will allow for matters out of scope to be brought back into scope if it was otherwise impractical to run the case. However, Shelter points out that the rule excludes the kind of help that it is particularly capable of deploying, which is the most useful sort in resolving some of these cases-that is, dealing with the housing benefits department through letters and calls to sort out an incorrectly paid claim or one which has not been paid at all. Nor, apparently, does the mixed-case rule allow for backdating or appeals. That would lead to precisely one of the elements to which the noble Lord, Lord Best, referred, which is more adjourned hearings with a waste of tribunal and court time and, ultimately, probably more possession orders.

It is worth mentioning an interesting case cited by Shelter of a client to whom it had given advice as the latter had received a notice from his local authority seeking possession. It transpired that the Shelter adviser found that the possession claim was due to rent arrears caused by the same local authority failing to assess housing benefit properly. It dealt with a revision of the housing benefit decision and got six months of backdated housing benefit. The arrears were cleared and the notice was withdrawn. However, without Shelter's assistance provided under the legal aid scheme, that simply would not have happened.

The briefing goes on to deal with a number of matters that were discussed in Committee. A series of points made by the noble Lord are rebutted in the briefing. In particular, the noble Lord indicated that while many people rely on benefits, they are primarily about financial entitlement and they have a lower importance than the liberty or safety of the person. He has used this phrase a number of times as we have debated the Bill. It is obviously true but it does not take us very far in dealing with the very difficult problems that people have to face short of losing their liberty or safety. Losing their home must be one of the more traumatic experiences that anyone has to suffer. Shelter points out that unless advisers can look at the underlying problems that cause the arrears, they will simply be unable to stop people losing their homes. It is not, therefore, simply a question of people going to someone to resolve a problem on the basis of advice. There is more to it than that.

Equally, the Minister, as an example, said that factual advice was available for Jobcentre Plus. As the noble Lord reminded us, housing benefit is likely to move towards Jobcentre Plus or, at any rate, the DWP. He referred also to the benefits inquiry line and the tribunal itself. However, Shelter points out:

"There is little or no overlap between the legal advice funded by legal aid and the sort of factual advice on entitlement offered by Jobcentre Plus".

It is not equipped to deal with the complexities that Shelter has become used to dealing with. The tribunal, which is there to adjudicate between the parties, is not there to represent or assist one party against the other.

Finally, the Minister observed:

"Legal aid will be available to help tenants engage with landlords to try and resolve the actual or threatened possession issue wherever possible, including ... delaying the possession matter until the benefit matter is resolved".-[Hansard, 18/1/12; col. 697.]

However, that assumes that landlords are willing to wait. That is not Shelter's experience. It is clear that,

"landlords will not agree to delay the possession matter unless they are assured that" the tenant,

"will be actively assisted in resolving the benefits problem".

That is an assumption that may be difficult to satisfy a private landlord about. There are sometimes, by necessity, delays and difficulties in resolving those issues, particularly without legal aid and advice being available.

The amendment is, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, said, confined to one issue. Other issues will be covered by legal aid-notably serious disrepair. Several other housing issues might have been brought forward by way of amendment, but it is clear that the Government will not accept them. I join the noble Lord in urging the Minister to look more sympathetically at this issue, given the serious consequences that can ensue and that could have an impact on other elements of public expenditure. If a family is evicted, one may find that the costs of rehousing fall on the public purse-perhaps even the costs of taking children into care and so on. That is less likely to happen when the landlord is the local authority, but it might well arise in the private sector. The economics are not therefore as straightforward as even the noble Lord would suggest. I hope that there will be a sympathetic response-if not tonight, then before and at Third Reading.