New clause 6 - Administration

Part of Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:00 pm on 11 July 2002.

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Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions 5:00, 11 July 2002

The cases will come before the courts in the normal way, so I can confirm that the extra costs will be very small indeed. We believe that a central register of court declarations kept by my Department is the fairest, most efficient and cost-effective way for the policy to work. It is in line with what already happens with our sanction for benefit fraud.

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton. He approaches the issue with good intentions, but I have an opposing view about what would happen if the local authority kept the register. There are 408 local authorities administering housing benefit. As a London Member he knows—as I know and as my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) knows—that there is often great movement of tenants and others across Greater London. The same will be true of many other parts of the country. What would happen if the record

is kept in Kingston, and the tenant then moves to Croydon, Lambeth, Enfield, Edmonton or even out of Greater London? The idea that there is somehow an easy administrative capacity to keep a check on such people across 408 local authorities is, with due respect, totally absurd.

As the Minister responsible for housing benefit—a complex area that we are trying to reform and simplify—I am concerned that we should not place additional burdens on local authorities. It is altogether more sensible, therefore, for my Department to keep the register—it is the only feasible way of keeping track of people who move between areas. Otherwise, people could avoid a sanction or receive a less severe sanction simply by moving house. In many respects, we are protecting the position of local authorities.

Questions were asked about what civil cases will be prescribed, but they are questions of substance about new clause 4, and new clause 7 is purely procedural. No regulations are introduced by it: it merely prescribes how regulations may be made under other clauses. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton must believe me when I tell him that it is a purely technical clause. As for his charge that we do not discuss housing benefit administration in the House, I invite him to come and sit in on the statutory instruments debate that is to take place on Monday, when we will discuss contracting out proposals. He will see that we regularly discuss such things in Committee. I invite him to turn up as my guest—as long as he does not participate.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead said that our colleague on the Committee, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton, was clearly an example of good behaviour following sanctions policy. I am not at all disputing your authoritative and wise judgments today, Mr. O'Hara—although it seems like more than one day—but I am bound to say that, so far there seem to have been 12 strikes and he is still not out.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.