Report (3rd Day)

Part of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – in the House of Lords at 9:00 pm on 12th March 2012.

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Photo of Lord Best Lord Best Crossbench 9:00 pm, 12th March 2012

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, for his support. Certainly council tax benefit is going to cause some administrative headaches in the months and years ahead, and that would be part of the package covered in the amendment, as would support for mortgage interest. However, housing will be the big one, not least-I promise that I will not go into this-the under-occupation penalty that is going to be introduced, over which there will be endless wrangles, and there will be arrears for some people, leading, I fear, to possession proceedings.

I am also very grateful for the support of the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, who made the point that mistakes will undoubtedly occur. That is the way of things. Without the opportunity to make representations directly to the administrators, those mistakes will go undetected and people will lose their homes as a result.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for clarifying a number of matters and for giving me some important food for thought. He told us that where possession action is contemplated, legal aid might be available to agree, with the landlord, to an adjournment of the case. That is important. However, the amendment is trying to say that there must be the opportunity to spend legal aid funding on the representations that follow with the people administering the housing benefit.

I was glad to be clear that funding will be available to negotiate with the mortgage company where people are in arrears with their mortgage repayments. However, why would it therefore not be available for dealings with the housing benefit administrators, who may be the ones with whom the dialogue needs to be held? An expert needs to talk to the people in question. I fear that leaving people to their own devices will not work.

In terms of evidence, I have received the usual pile of representations from bodies representing other bodies but also from some front-line people. The Nottingham Law Centre sent me a letter last week saying:

"'Day in day out we represent people who are in arrears due to issues with benefits (particularly Housing Benefit)".

It says:

"What is the point of representing a client facing eviction, identifying issues with benefits (particularly Housing benefit which is extremely complex) securing an adjournment to resolve those issues but being unable to help to resolve them? It will lead to a need for further adjournments thereby clogging up the courts or it will make it harder to persuade landlords to agree to adjourning cases as there will be less likelihood of a successful result".

This is the kind of evidence that people who are trying to resolve these issues are faced with. I am afraid they are likely to be undermined without an amendment of this kind. However, at this late hour, and with the opportunity to ponder some of the Minister's helpful remarks, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 75 withdrawn.

Amendments 76 and 77 not moved.

Amendment 77A

Moved by Lord Avebury

77A: Schedule 1, page 141, line 44, leave out "subject to sub-paragraph (10)"