Report (2nd Day) (Continued)

Part of Welfare Reform and Work Bill – in the House of Lords at 9:15 pm on 27th January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions 9:15 pm, 27th January 2016

My Lords, Amendment 46E would apply the affirmative procedure to the support for mortgage interest loan regulations as recommended by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. The committee opined that these are novel provisions which are likely to have a significant impact on a large number of people. This is true, but the part which is novel is the change in this support from a benefit to a loan. In all other aspects the level of support offered and the way the system will be administered will simply replicate the existing system. The committee made its recommendation before your Lordships debated these measures in detail. I have been quite clear about how the new loan system will be implemented and that the regulations we will bring forward will replicate the existing SMI system. Using the affirmative procedure for these regulations would therefore not be a good use of parliamentary time.

I will come to the government amendments, which may actually be the real palliative here because we will have SSAC reports in this area. If they come up with something there is space within the negative procedure to bring issues before the House. The committee did not have that information about what we were planning with SSAC. I should also point out that the current SMI regulations are subject to the negative procedure.

Amendment 46F would prevent the Government from changing the benefit into a loan for those on state pension credit. It would allow regulations to be made to create a system of grants for pensioners’ mortgage interest. This would mean that pensioners would receive help with their mortgage interest as a grant rather than a loan and that that would be the case indefinitely. In this context that would be unsustainable and clearly unfair on the taxpayer. It is not right that taxpayers, many of whom of course cannot afford to buy their own home, are subsidising the acquisition of what in many cases is a very substantial asset. Pensioners will have access to the same level of support for mortgage interest payments as the current system provides and the Government will not recover the loan until the property is sold. With pension credit claimants, it is most likely that this will be on their death and therefore will impact not on them but on the beneficiaries of their will. My noble friend made the point that they may not be that pleased, but the balance is between them and the taxpayer.

I shall pick up on some of the specific points. Pension credit claimants will have access to passported benefits such as funeral payments. We would normally provide advice through a telephone conversation and the advice will focus on the circumstances of the individual concerned with regard to their options, asking whether they have alternatives available such as downsizing or help from relatives or their heirs. I think that the noble Baroness should take my last word on the issue of who would do this as I wrote in my letter. To the extent that that contradicts what I said earlier, it should be the latter. Our view is that whatever theoretical potential conflict there might be, we will make sure as we set out the arrangements that there is no conflict in the way it is done. I think that that is what I expressed in my letter, although perhaps not using that language.

Let me reassure noble Lords that the Government will seek to recover the debt only up to the level of available equity when the property is sold. Any outstanding debt will be written off. The amendment would also provide powers to introduce regulations to introduce a waiting period for pensioners before they can receive help. There is currently no waiting period for help with mortgage interest for pensioner claimants and it is not the Government’s intention to introduce one. With those explanations, I urge noble Lords not to press the amendments.

Amendments 47 to 49 and 83 provide that loans for mortgage interest regulations made under the Welfare Reform and Work Bill are submitted to SSAC, the independent statutory body that provides impartial advice on social security and related matters for consideration. With the introduction of the new loans-based scheme, help with mortgage interest will no longer be a part of benefit entitlement. However, we recognise the important role that SSAC plays in the scrutiny of regulations and have accepted the recommendation of the DPRRC to provide that regulations relating to loans for mortgage interest fall within the remit of SSAC. I have just realised that I slightly misspoke when I implied that the committee might not have both those bits of information. Perhaps I may also withdraw that point.

The amendments also ensure that certain decision-making rules in the Social Security Act 1998 apply to decisions about SMI loans in the same way as they apply to decisions about benefits. In particular, this will ensure that an appeal may be brought against a decision relating to a mortgage interest loan in the same way as an appeal may be brought against a decision relating to a benefit. This means that applicants will have the same appeal rights as under the existing provision for support with mortgage interest, ensuring fairness for applicants of the new loan provision. They will allow the department to supply information about SMI loans within the broader welfare system to persons who are concerned with the provision of welfare services. For example, it will allow the Secretary of State to share information with those providing free school meals and health benefits such as free prescriptions, so that recipients of SMI loans can access these “passported” benefits. I think that that picks up on the point made by the noble Baroness about concerns with the passporting issues.

The final amendment is a minor and technical change to the Long Title. The purpose of SMI loans is to prevent repossessions. All types of mortgages and loans are eligible for support under the new loan system. This change ensures that the Long Title accurately reflects the contents of the Bill by including a reference to “other liabilities”.