Committee (4th Day) (Continued)
97: Clause 9, page 11, line 31, at end insert—
“( ) Notwithstanding subsection (1), for each of the tax years ending with 5 April 2017, 5 April 2018, 5 April 2019 and 5 April 2020, the amount of each of the relevant sums claimable by persons regularly and substantially engaged in caring is to increase in line with inflation.”
My Lords, once more we are looking at the problems faced by carers. This amendment would ensure that the full benefits of people on very low incomes who are regularly and substantially engaged in caring rise in line with inflation. As we have heard, Clause 9 proposes that the rates of certain working-age benefits will be frozen for four years at their 2015-16 rate, while Clause 10 makes equivalent provision for certain tax credit elements. The freeze excludes carer’s allowance, attendance allowance and certain disability benefits, but despite their exclusion, we should remember that many carers receive other means-tested benefits as a significant or major part of their benefits package, and as a result will not be protected from the real-terms cut. For example, research shows that half of carers claiming carer’s allowance also receive income support because they are on a very low income. The Government have announced that the carer addition top-up to income support would rise with inflation, but this does not mean that carers are protected. The main chunk of these carers’ benefits will face a real-terms cut of 4.8% over the period 2016-17 and the year after as a result of the freeze. This is on top of previous below-inflation increases of 1% since April 2013.
By 2019-20, carers will be receiving nearly £190 a year less in income support alone than they would have if the whole benefit was uprated in line with CPI. For carers who receive a wide set of means-tested benefits in their households, the cumulative cut in income due to the freezing of numerous benefits will be substantial. Even protected benefits such as carer’s allowance have been the subject of recent real-terms cuts as the indexing base has changed, something with which noble Lords will be familiar. The freezing of working-age benefits such as income support will place further financial pressure on carers, many of whom are already suffering significant financial hardship.
Evidence collected from more than 4,500 carers in the Carers UK State of Caring Survey this year suggests that almost half of carers—48%— are struggling to make ends meet, as we heard earlier from the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. Of carers who responded to the survey, 45% said that financial worries are affecting their health, and of those struggling to make ends meet, 41% are actually cutting back on essentials like food and heating. Some 26% are borrowing from family and friends, and 38% are using up their savings to get by, which suggests that the squeeze on carers’ finances is not sustainable in the long term. As one carer said, “I am already on the edge. How can I be expected to get by with less?” We have to take on board the fact that increasing financial hardship is pushing some carers to breaking point—they may feel unable to continue caring and be forced to seek paid work and relinquish entirely their caring role. It is clear that this makes no moral sense. As my noble friend Lady Hollis would say, it is not decent. Given that carers are saving the nation £132 billion a year, this not only makes no moral sense; it makes no economic sense either. I should have thought the Government would really understand this. I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendments 98 and 99, in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, to whom I am once again grateful for his support.
Amendment 98 would delete child benefit from the list of benefits covered by the four-year freeze. Amendment 99 applies to child benefit the triple lock that currently governs the uprating of retirement pensions, a policy promoted by CPAG—again, I declare my interest as honorary president—and End Child Poverty.
Far from a triple lock, child benefit has been the victim of a triple whammy since 2010. It was first frozen for three years and then uprated by only 1%, and now it is to be subject to a four-year freeze. The upshot is that, according to CPAG’s calculations, it will have lost 28% of its value between 2010 and 2020. In other words, it will be worth less than between a quarter and a third of what it was when Labour left office. A graph prepared for me by Professor Jonathan Bradshaw shows how the gain in value under the previous Labour Government has already been nearly wiped out. It also shows how child benefit represented a much higher percentage of average earnings in the early 1980s under another Conservative Government. However, it was then subject to similar treatment to now, until it was rescued by Sir John Major, who understood why child benefit is important and why its value should be protected. Sadly, his successors do not appear to share his understanding.
I tabled these amendments to encourage a debate about the role of child benefit. I quite accept that it is rather ambitious to argue for the extension of the triple lock to child benefit in the current context, but there is a parallel with pensions. One of the justifications for its application to pensions, and for excluding pensions from the freeze, is that pensioners are among those least able to increase their incomes through work. Leaving aside how true this still is of younger pensioners such as myself, it is in some ways even truer of children. I know the response will be that their parents can increase their income through paid work, but as the judges in the benefit cap case made clear, children’s rights cannot be sacrificed for any failing on the part of their parents.
Moreover, one of the reasons why the family allowance—the mother of child benefit—was introduced in the first place was that wages cannot and should not take account of the number of mouths a wage earner has to feed. In the jargon, child benefit enables horizontal redistribution from those without children, such as myself, to those with, and recognition that we all benefit from children being brought up as healthy, thriving citizens. It may be a bit of a cliché but children do represent our future. Of course, as most people do have children, for the majority it in any case represents redistribution over their own life course.
Child benefit thus has an important function in supplementing wages without the drawbacks associated with means testing. In particular, it cannot be accused of subsidising low-paying employers and it does not create poverty traps. CPAG’s annual research into the cost of a child carried out by my colleague at Loughborough University, Professor Donald Hirsch, shows how the benefit represents core income, not an extra for families, so perhaps it is not surprising that, despite what the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, said in our first sitting about its unpopularity, a recent poll of 1,000 parents for End Child Poverty found that only one in 10 parents thinks that child benefit and child tax credit should not keep up with inflation. As many as two-thirds thought they should be increased in line with the cost of living or more, with virtually no difference between income groups. As I said, most people are parents at some point in their lives, and many grandparents will share these concerns about decent benefits for their grandchildren.
Moreover, because it is paid to the so-called “hard-working families” beloved of politicians, child benefit can act as a work incentive. It therefore makes no sense to freeze it when one of the primary objectives of the freeze, according to the impact assessment, is to increase work incentives, and it makes every sense to uprate it in line with average earnings. There is also a strong case for uprating it in line with personal tax allowances.
Those of us who have been in the game for a long time, such as my noble friend Lord Kirkwood, will remember that child benefit replaced child tax allowances as well as family allowances. At the time, there was a cross-party consensus that they should therefore be treated as akin to personal tax allowances when it comes to uprating policy. Unfortunately, that consensus soon broke down, but it does not invalidate the argument. For a Government who purport to care about child poverty and making work pay, it makes no sense to sink huge amounts of public money into raising tax allowances while freezing child benefit. Apart from anything else, the latter reaches parents in work earning below the tax threshold who gain nothing from further increases in personal tax allowances. Also, low-income parents earning above the tax threshold lose most of any gains from an increase in the personal tax allowances through cuts in means-tested benefits—a drawback that will increase under universal credit.
A constant thread running through our deliberations these last few days and weeks—however long it has been—has been how, despite government protestations, the best interests of the child have not been a primary consideration, as required by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I fear that this Bill will be used as evidence against the UK when its record is interrogated by the UN committee next year. If at the very least the Government were prepared to remove child benefit from the four-year freeze, it would represent a degree of mitigation.
My Lords, I will not detain the Committee long as I made clear the Opposition’s approach to the uprating of benefits on the last group of amendments.
Amendment 97 would allow benefits claimed by carers to be increased in line with inflation. My noble friend Lady Pitkeathley once again outlined very powerfully the problems faced by carers. I commend her brilliant, long and persistent attempts to put these things before the public and Ministers.
As the Committee heard in previous debates, there must be a real danger that the state will start to penny-pinch its way into driving carers out of caring, leaving those for whom they care to be the responsibility of the state. Throughout this Bill there seems to be little attempt to try to assess the costs to the public purse that might accrue to other parts of government, national or local, as a result of savings in the social security budget. My noble friend Lady Lister, in moving her amendment, advocated a triple lock for child benefit. I very much appreciated the history lesson for those of us who remember going back to where that is. The CPAG warned us that during the last Parliament child benefit lost 13% of its value against CPI, and 16% against RPI. Of course, that is far from the only cut affecting children. The levels of benefits and tax credits for children have faced repeated real-terms cuts.
I am using this amendment to ask the Government to do something very specific that they keep refusing to do—namely, to provide a cumulative impact assessment of the effect on particular categories of people of the changes that they are making. Whenever we ask them to do this, they put up two defences. The first is that it is all a bit complicated because everybody’s circumstances are different, so they cannot be expected to produce a single cumulative assessment. Well, somehow the Treasury and the IFS have managed for years to assess the impacts of measures on categories of people, if necessary by modelling them in relation to different household sizes and compositions. We would be happy to get that.
The Government’s second argument is that you cannot just consider benefits, you have to consider all the other wonderful things the Government are doing, such as the national minimum wage and tax allowances. That is fine. Include those in the models as well and we can all see who will be better off and who will not as a result of the combination of all these effects. A variation on that defence is that it is too hard because of the dynamic effects of the Government’s wonderful welfare reforms. Translated, that means either the Government reckon that universal credit will make people better off or that they are going to make them so desperate that they will have to work because they will have no other choices. In neither case have the Government produced enough evidence, let alone hard evidence, that can be included in modelling and put in the impact assessment, because the evidence is not there—so they just say that it is all a bit hard.
I have tried repeatedly to get the Government to do this, as have other noble Lords, and we are getting nowhere at all. But there comes a stage where if the Government keep bringing forward legislation which repeatedly attacks the same people, and do not do this, there is a significant democratic deficit. It is hard to know how this House can begin to understand the implications of what is being done when the Government simply refuse to give us the evidence to do it. So I urge the Government to take advantage of this debate to agree at last to address the gaping hole in the evidence and commission some cumulative impact assessments.
My friend, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, cannot be here this evening. Therefore, I will speak largely on his behalf about Amendment 101, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord MacKenzie.
In the run-up to the general election, the Prime Minister was quick to stress that,
“the most disabled should always be protected”.
He was, of course, quite right to do so. We might be operating in a time of limited resources but that does not negate our moral duty to ensure that the most severely disabled people in our society are protected from financial hardship. Those whom we cannot reasonably expect to support themselves financially should not be expected to shoulder the burden of austerity. They already face enough burdens of their own.
For example, motor neurone disease is a condition that progresses so rapidly and so violently that there is little time for contingency planning. Jobs are lost and circumstances change so quickly that those suffering from the disease are often forced into debt. In practice, this means ensuring that the most severely disabled people in the UK—those in the ESA support group—are protected from cuts such as those in the Bill. This, of course, is exactly what the Government promised to do in their manifesto in promising to exempt disability benefits from the freeze to working-age benefits.
I recognise that Her Majesty’s Government have opted to exempt the ESA support group component from the freeze, but that component forms less than a third of the total provision made to the support group through ESA. The basic rate of ESA has not been exempted, meaning that those in the ESA support group, just like those in ESA WRAG and on JSA, will lose more than £250 a year in real terms by 2020.
The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord MacKenzie, is an attempt to rectify this situation with regard to those in the support group. I realise that it is not a simple amendment. The Government cannot exempt certain groups from the freeze to the basic rate, for then it would cease to be a basic rate. The amendment therefore seeks to compensate the freeze through an uprating of the ESA support group component. Should the Government desire a simpler method, a commitment to uprate the ESA support group component by around 3% plus CPI would negate most of the effect of the basic rate freeze, while preserving the integrity of the basic rate.
The amendment would simply protect the most vulnerable—those who will never be able to go back to work—from the impact of the benefits freeze. If the Government want to be taken seriously when they claim to be protecting the most vulnerable disabled people in our society from financial hardship, support for this amendment, or one like it, should be a bare minimum. I hope that the Minister will give the matter serious consideration.
My Lords, I have already set out why we believe the freeze of benefits is necessary so I will move directly to the amendments.
Amendment 101, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord MacKenzie, seeks to place into legislation a requirement for the support group component of employment and support allowance to be uprated by an additional amount above the amount it would otherwise be uprated by. This additional amount would be equal to the difference between the current main rate of employment and support allowance and that rate if it were uprated by inflation.
I understand the motivation behind the amendment, and the comments of the right reverend Prelate, but I will explain why we have included the personal allowance rate in the freeze. Personal allowance rates are aligned across all income-related benefits, including ESA, and are designed to provide a basic standard of living to those who are not in work but at a level that does not disincentivise moving into work. Those in the support group also already receive an additional amount, the support group component, which we have specifically exempted from the freeze. This additional amount is in recognition of the fact that this group of people is further from the labour market. In addition, many of those in the ESA support group who are being targeted with this amendment will be in receipt of disability living allowance or personal independence payment, which we have also exempted from the freeze. Again, these benefits are specifically aimed at contributing to the additional costs of disability, and will continue to increase in line with inflation. While I agree with the right reverend Prelate that we absolutely must provide suitable protections for disabled people, we do not support this amendment because the clause already sets out appropriate exemptions.
Amendment 97, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, seeks to exempt carers from the freeze by ensuring that any of the relevant sums of working-age benefits are increased in line with inflation if they are claimed by persons who are regularly and substantially engaged in caring. As my noble friend and I have said, we share in and completely agree with the noble Baroness’s words about the great and vital contribution made by carers. That is why we have exempted carer’s allowance from the freeze, as well as carer’s premiums within other working-age benefits. We have ensured that carers are central to the Government’s reform to care and support, with strong rights for carers in the Care Act 2014. Since 2010, the rate of carer’s allowance has increased from £53.90 to £62.10 and we have further increased the earnings threshold for carers by 8%, to £110 a week net of certain expenses.
Amendments 98 and 99, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, would remove the uprating freeze for child benefit which the Bill seeks to introduce. Further, Amendment 99 would instead place child benefit under a triple lock, meaning that it would rise by whichever was highest: the rise in prices or earnings, or 2.5% each year. This would go beyond existing legislation and create an unfunded spending commitment. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, mentioned the CPAG research on the loss of value in child benefit. However, its methodology assumes that child benefit is uprated by RPI, which is obviously now an updated measure. Indeed, since 2008 child benefit has risen by more than 10%.
There is a parallel between Amendment 99 and the triple lock that the Government have in place for pensioners. In 2008, the basic state pension was at its lowest level relative to average earnings since the 1970s. The triple lock has turned this around and it is now one of the highest levels relative to average earnings in two decades. We believe it is right to continue to protect pensioners, who are often on fixed incomes and have paid into the system throughout their working lives. However, as I have said, it is important to make savings on welfare, including on child benefit. The freeze makes a contribution to forecast savings, given the annual spend on this benefit, so I am afraid that we cannot support these amendments.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, asked about a cumulative impact assessment. We have already provided detail on the impacts of the various measures and the Treasury published an extensive analysis alongside the Budget. A cumulative analysis for the Bill alone would take the measures out of the context of the wider Budget package, where analysis has shown that a typical family working full-time on the national living wage will be better off by the end of the Parliament.
I believe that we have ensured that we have in place protections for the most vulnerable, balanced against the need to make welfare savings. I once again thank noble Lords for bringing forward these amendments but we do not believe that they are necessary and I urge noble Lords to withdraw or not press them.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate. As my noble friend on the Front Bench reminded the House, I have a long history in bringing carers’ issues before Parliament. In the course of that long history, I have learned that however little progress you seem to be making you have to keep going. I will keep going, as we all will, but I ask again that the Government think before Report about the effects of these policies—unintended consequences, perhaps, on the most vulnerable in our society. If, for example, we make carers so impoverished and oppressed that they give up caring, where is the gain in that for either society or the individuals? I am struck, as I have been so many times during the course of the Bill, by the parallel universes that we appear to be inhabiting. People from all around the House say that this is what is going to happen to vulnerable people and that here is the reality of the situation, as we hear it; and the Government say, “It’s all fine and we’ve done this to ensure that it is”. I am depressed but I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 97 withdrawn.
Amendments 98 to 101 not moved.
Clause 9 agreed.
Clause 10: Freeze of certain tax credit amounts for four tax years
Amendment 102 not moved.
Amendment 103 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.
Clause 10 agreed.
Schedule 1 agreed.
Clause 16: Loans for mortgage interest etc
103A: Clause 16, page 15, line 7, at end insert “including outlining the number of weeks a person must wait after the need arises in order to apply for a loan under subsection (1), which must be no longer than 13 weeks”
My Lords, I rise to move Amendment 103A and to speak to Amendment 104AZA, which are in my name and that of my noble friend Lord McKenzie of Luton. In doing so, I remind the Committee of my declared interest as a senior independent director of the Financial Ombudsman Service, in case it proves relevant to the later debate. I will speak at slightly greater length than I have recently because there are some quite complex issues involved and I need answers to questions. I hope the Committee will bear with me.
At present, owner-occupiers receiving income-related benefits may claim additional help towards their mortgage interest payments in the form of support for mortgage interest, or SMI. The payments are normally made direct to the lender and are intended to ensure that someone who is struggling to pay their mortgage does not end up having their home repossessed, causing misery to them and leading, most likely, to their claiming larger amounts in housing benefits to rent an alternative home. This Bill will end the SMI scheme and empower the Government to create a loan scheme as an alternative, with the loan secured by a charge against the property. I understand that the intention is to have the scheme administered by the DWP, with the recovery run by a third-party organisation which will be able to charge fees to claimants to cover the cost of administering the loan scheme.
In the impact assessment, the Government argue:
“Without the policy change there is an incentive for households to allow the taxpayer to take the burden of their mortgage without taking steps to repay it themselves”.
The only way to get this benefit is for your income and savings to be so low that you qualify for a means-tested benefit such as income support, jobseeker’s allowance, ESA or pension credit. The idea that people poor enough to qualify for those benefits could pay off their mortgage but are choosing to allow the taxpayer to do it instead seems unlikely. At present, claimants have to wait 13 weeks from first claiming a qualifying benefit before they can apply for SMI. That waiting period is to be extended to 39 weeks, and Amendment 103A seeks to restore the 13-week waiting period. The Minister will doubtless say that it had previously been 39 weeks, under the last Labour Government, but in 2009 the then Government brought it down to 13 weeks as a result of the economic situation.
Peers may have seen the helpful briefing from the Money Advice Trust, StepChange, the Building Societies Association and the Council of Mortgage Lenders, all of which strongly support this amendment to retain the 13-week period. As they put it:
“Lenders and advice agencies alike know from experience that early intervention is the key to resolving financial difficulty”.
They say that the Bill’s extension of the waiting period to 39 weeks risks making it “significantly more difficult” to resolve mortgage problems. The change would mean that claimants would be well over six months in arrears with their mortgage by the time SMI kicks in. As those organisations point out, two separate pieces of research, commissioned for DWP and DCLG, show the 13-week period has been effective in holding down arrears and repossessions—which, after all, is of course the point of the scheme.
In its evidence on the Bill in another place, the Council of Mortgage Lenders said:
“If the waiting time is extended, as planned, we believe that it will result in more cases of repossession … Extending the waiting time will only cause additional consumer detriment”.
It points out that interest rates have been so low for so long that probably 2 million borrowers have never experienced a rate rise. It is our view that the market is far from stable and that this is a very bad time to increase the waiting period, especially at the same time as abolishing the grant scheme and moving to a loan option.
Amendment 104AZA seeks to retain the SMI grant scheme for claimants who are in receipt of pension credit—in other words, our poorest pensioners. This is what I like to call the reverse Salisbury/Addison amendment: we are helping the governing party to fulfil a manifesto commitment which seems temporarily to have slipped its mind. The Conservative manifesto explicitly said that a Tory Government would protect pensioner benefits. Yet almost half of those getting SMI are of pension age and a disproportionately high number of claimants are pensioners. In fact, the impact assessment says that,
“SMI claimants are considerably more likely to be over pension age than mortgage payers in general”.
In its briefing, Age UK notes, “Older people will be very reluctant to agree to an increasing debt on their property. So even if they have equity in the property, they will not consider the loan. Instead, people may restrict essential spending, putting themselves at risk”. This cannot be viewed as a way of dealing with a temporary problem in the case of pensioners. We must assume that people of pension age will not be going back into work, so their finances are unlikely to improve—indeed, quite the reverse. If so, the only effect of this policy is essentially to mount a raid on what is usually the only asset of poor pensioners. It is also their safety net in case they need to release equity for care or other emergencies. People who have paid into the welfare state all their life so that it could protect them in bad times and in old age will now be told that their home is not there for them.
I have a number of questions for the Minister. On access to the loan scheme, can he assure us that anyone in receipt of a qualifying benefit will be entitled to a loan, whether or not they could have expected in future to have enough equity in their home to act as security for the debt? Secondly, where will this charge come in the order of priority if other debts are secured against the property? I imagine that the noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor, will deal with this point when speaking to Amendment 104, but there must be a concern that if this were to outrank claims by other lenders, especially for local authority care costs, that could have significant consequences for the ability of older people to access essential services. A similar question exists in relation to older people who may wish to use equity release to fund house repairs or care costs as the NHS and local authority funding continue to be squeezed.
Thirdly, if the loan exceeds the equity, could that mean that when the property is sold, the claimant is left with literally nothing? Could an estate find that there was not enough left to pay for the funeral of the deceased? Did the Government consider, for example, having a cushion left untouched, in the way that you are allowed to have some savings when you apply for housing benefit or pension credit? Fourthly, if the loss of SMI means that someone will no longer be entitled to pension credit, will they then lose access to passported benefits, such as cold weather payments or help with health costs or access to funeral payments from the social fund?
Fifthly, and most importantly, people will need high-quality advice to help them work out whether it is in their best interests to effectively mortgage their property, with charges being added on to the debt and interest accruing, potentially for decades. It might be better in some cases to find another source of cash if they have access to one. It may or may not be the best thing for a claimant to hang on for help for 39 weeks if they may never be able to manage it, so people will need high-quality advice.
I understand that the advice will not be regulated because it is government advice, but I have some very specific questions. First, will the advice to the claimant be free? Will it be tailored, personalised advice from qualified advisers—in other words, not just generalised guidance but specific advice on whether that person in those circumstances should consider taking this out? Thirdly, during the debate in another place, the Minister said that DWP would administer and provide loans but that the advice and recovery would be provided by a third party. Is that still the case? If so, will the advice providers be independent of the body operating the loan scheme and those charged with recovering the debt? In other words, can we be assured that there will be no conflict of interest? Is there any redress for customers in the case of bad advice causing them detriment? Will a face-to-face option be available, at least for vulnerable clients?
The reason I have gone into this in such detail is that effectively all the Bill does is to abolish the grant scheme and empower the Government to create a loan scheme, but there is no detail. The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee expressed concern at the fact that the draft regulations for the SMI loan scheme are not available to the House, given that the plan is that the scheme be set up by negative resolution.
The Government’s argument in the memorandum was that the negative procedure is appropriate because the primary clause will have been fully debated as part of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, including debate on the contents of the regulations which will be made under this power. But regulations are there none. That is why I particularly want answers to these questions, despite the lateness of the hour.
Finally, have the Government been persuaded by the DPRRC and will they agree, as it recommends, that all regulations under the clause will be subject to the affirmative procedure? If so, will the Minister bring forward a government amendment to this effect at Report? I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall speak to my Amendment 104, which is fairly self-explanatory. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, who is not in his place, for adding his name to it. It relates to loans for mortgage interest.
As we have heard, from April 2018, proposals set out in Clause 16 will mean that owner occupiers in receipt of income support will receive the offer of a loan secured on their property to help them to meet their mortgage interest payments, rather than a benefit, should they need it, to stay in their home. If there is insufficient equity to repay all the loan and interest, any remaining debt will be written off.
Age UK is right to say that we need to understand more about the people who will be affected and their likely response to the new proposals. For example, will it be possible to place a charge on all types of property, including leasehold property, those in shared ownership and sheltered housing? How will the system work if people have other loans secured on the property or have already taken out an equity release plan?
The Government have already said that they will make regulations about advice to claimants before claimants take a loan. That is welcome, but can the Minister clarify who will provide the advice and who will pay for it? Will it be free to claimants, and will it be independent and impartial, with no conflicts of interest—as the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, mentioned? How will the Government ensure that they do not create perverse incentives for the provider? Will the Minister also confirm that the financial advice given to claimants will be independent of the lender?
However, the purpose of Amendment 104 is to determine at what point any outstanding loan or mortgage interest, as proposed in the Bill, is paid off. I understand that the loan will be repaid when the property is eventually sold, rather than having to be paid off when the person receiving the loan gets back into work. However, there may be a series of other debts to be paid on the house when it is sold, the most obvious being the mortgage. It is therefore important to understand in what order creditors line up—i.e., who gets paid first, second, third, et cetera—and where the new mortgage interest loans sit in that queue.
My amendment focuses specifically on where it sits in relation to any outstanding payments for social care that may need to be paid. Under the Care Act—although not yet brought into force—a person can defer payment of their social care bills to the local authority during their lifetime, with the balance being paid off through their estate after their death, i.e., primarily through the sale of their home. My amendment seeks to clarify whether loans for mortgage interest or the deferred payments are paid back first. We on these Benches strongly believe that it should be the deferred payments, as this is money for the local authority which is vital to funding future social care needs. Will that be the case?
The Government also need to show that they are committed to helping people to meet the costs of social care by not delaying the implementation of the Care Act, a Lib Dem achievement in government. My amendment states:
“The regulations must provide that where—
(a) repayment of the loan is to be made based on the proceeds of sale of the person’s home, and
(b) the person has an outstanding deferred payment agreement under section 34 of the Care Act 2014 (deferred payment agreements and loans),
the repayment of the loan may not be settled until any amounts payable to the local authority under the deferred payment agreement have been settled”.
Otherwise, of course, the money just ends up with the Treasury, with no recourse for local authorities to recoup any moneys due to them for other people who might need help and support with social care costs in the future.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 104A. I very much support the intentions of this Bill, but, of course, there are inevitably special cases that would be adversely affected by a change of this magnitude. The Government have been very clear in their intentions for this change, and I commend them for that. What I seek to amend, however, is not the principle of the clause, but its application. More specifically, I seek to amend this clause so that those who are in receipt of disability living allowance, or carer’s allowance and income support, are exempt from this change so that they can continue to receive support for mortgage interest as a benefit, not as a loan.
This clause was initially brought to my attention by a friend who attends my church. This man purchased a house in 2006 and was financially stable and secure. However, two years into his mortgage, he was diagnosed with a detached retina, which rendered him blind. As a consequence, he has had to cease working. He has been entitled to support for mortgage interest, due to being in receipt of disability living allowance, and carer’s allowance, as his wife is now his carer. With the help of SMI, his mortgage would have reached completion in 2030. At this point, he planned to downsize, using the extra equity to pay off other loans accrued since he was diagnosed as blind to equip his house as a result of his disability. However, the implications of the proposed change from interest support to a loan mean that 12 years’ worth of interest and a small capital contribution will need to be repaid. If interest rates stay as they are for the whole period, my friend, on top of his mortgage, will have to pay the Government back £63,000, the sum contributed by SMI as a loan, and £15,000 for the 5% interest on the interest owed each year. As I said earlier, I am in support of the clause in principle, but strongly urge the Government to reassess and reconsider applying the changes to those who are on disability living allowance.
My friend will be for ever incapable of working, and so would never be able to repay the loan. It is not right that such a burden should be placed on him and others like him—he is not unique—who receive disability living allowance. This change could potentially result in my friend losing his house and being forced to move into government housing, which would ultimately cost the taxpayer much more. Have the Government fully assessed the long-term implications of this? Surely, a successful policy is not one that saves money in one area, only for more to be spent elsewhere.
In conclusion, I repeat that I support the aims of Clause 16, but feel that it is entirely inappropriate for those on disability allowance to be treated in the same way as those on jobseeker’s allowance. The assumption is that those on jobseeker’s allowance will eventually get a job and be able to pay their mortgage in full themselves and also to pay back the loan. Those on disability allowance, however, might never be able to pay it back if they are for ever prevented from working. On these grounds, I urge the Government to reconsider the wording of Clause 16 and allow those on disability allowance or carer’s allowance to be exempt from the changes.
My Lords, I listened to most of the debate this evening and have heard the arguments on most of the amendments. Without any discourtesy to those who have proposed these amendments, it seems to me that the case for these are less compelling than the case for some of the amendments that were discussed earlier. There is one fundamental reason for this: what this clause does is basically to convert what is at the moment a grant into a loan. Of itself, it does not affect the quantum of support from taxpayer to recipient: it simply converts the terms. Therefore, to my mind, this is a much less painful way of reducing public expenditure than some of the other measures of the Bill that directly affect the quantum of support from taxpayer to beneficiary. Perhaps it is for that reason that the Opposition’s reasoned amendment to the Bill in the other place said:
“That this House, whilst affirming its belief that … a benefits cap and loans for mortgage interest support are necessary changes to the welfare system”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/07/15; col. 1264.],
specifically excluding this bit of the Bill from their general reservations. Any measure that reduces the quantum of saving from this particular clause just puts more pressure on some of the other measures in the Bill which directly affect the support that a beneficiary might get.
Turning to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, in a sense she gave the case away by conceding that 39 weeks was the period for which people had to wait for roughly 10 years under the last Labour Government. If 39 weeks was appropriate when there was not the pressure that we have on public expenditure today, then it is certainly appropriate when we are trying to make necessary savings.
On Amendment 104, the noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor, had a good point. Can the Minister clarify what would happen in the case where the person had an outstanding deferred payment under this clause but then went into care and incurred a debt to the local authority? The Government would have registered their interest, as it were, before the local authority, so when the property was disposed of would they have precedence over the local authority? I hope he can clarify that.
Finally, I understand the reason for seeking to exempt those in receipt of pension credit but if one thinks it through one sees that the beneficiaries will be those who benefit from the estate of the pensioner when he or she dies. The pensioner will not be directly affected. If one must make difficult decisions and decisions that are fair to the taxpayer, it seems that in this particular case the interests of the taxpayer should take precedence over those beneficiaries of the estate of the pensioner when he or she dies.
My Lords, I will just ask a few questions slightly wider than the amendments tabled. The Minister will know that we have coming towards us a Housing and Planning Bill that will extend extensively the right to buy, treat starter homes as part of affordable housing and seek to both extend owner-occupation and push it further down the income scale to people who, at the moment, are not able to access it in terms of both deposit and repayments. The result of that will almost certainly be greater risk of default and problems in maintaining mortgage payments, a more precarious relationship to the world of work, and periods therefore where these people do not have reliable income.
The questions are very simple. Has the Minister talked to his colleagues in the DCLG about this? Is he aware that the demand for this sort of support will almost certainly increase substantially in years to come? What assumptions is he making about the implications of that money which must be made available, perhaps for long-term loans, to sustain people such as those who are fairly marginal to the owner-occupied market coming into it—possibly with the best of reasons, but none the less they will struggle to sustain their repayments? How much connection is there between this policy of the DWP and the work being pushed by the Minister’s colleague Greg Clark in the other place through the DCLG?
My Lords, I start by responding to Amendment 103A, which would keep the waiting period at 13 weeks. The background to this is well known. Claimants receiving income-related benefits may claim help towards the cost of their mortgage interest payments. Apart from those receiving state pension credit, claimants must serve a waiting period before entitlement to help with mortgage interest begins. Before 2009, the waiting period for the majority of working-age claimants was 39 weeks. In January 2009, temporary arrangements were introduced that reduced this period to 13 weeks. This was to provide additional protection to those who lost their jobs during the recession. At the same time, the maximum value of mortgage for which support is available, known as the capital limit, was doubled to £200,000. In the summer Budget, it was announced that from April 2016 the waiting period will return to the pre-recession length of 39 weeks although the capital limit of £200,000 will be maintained.
This amendment would remove the current broad powers in the Bill that allow the waiting period for support for mortgage interest to be set out in regulations, replacing them with a narrowly defined 13-week waiting period, but I suspect it is a probing amendment. We wish to retain the ability to act quickly in different circumstances, and putting this in primary legislation would prevent that.
Let me be clear about why we help owner-occupiers with mortgage interest payments. The purpose is not to secure their asset or to reduce any outstanding payments owed to lenders. The purpose is simply to mitigate the risk of repossession. The CML now says that it believes the 39-week waiting period will drive repossessions, but it is unable to quantify the number of repossessions. We will work with the CML to assess any such impacts in terms of repossessions, but we do not believe that they will be significant, particularly at the current level of house prices. There is no evidence to suggest that lenders will do anything other than exercise the same degree of forbearance that they did prior to 2009 when the 39-week waiting period was last applied, particularly as we are maintaining the higher capital limit.
Amendment 104 seeks to change the way in which SMI loans are recovered from the equity in the claimant’s home. The intention is that a charge registered by a local authority to reclaim deferred payments for social care would always take precedence over a charge registered by the DWP to recover an SMI loan. As the Bill stands, the Government can require that a loan be secured by a charge over the claimant’s property. Under provisions in the Land Registration Act 2002, charges are recovered in the order in which they are registered. If the SMI charge was registered on the property before any deferred payment arrangement, it will have prior claim to any equity when the property is sold. The legal charge will therefore be subordinate to any existing charges on the property, including the mortgage. That answers one of the questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock.
We envisage that advice would normally be given via a telephone conversation and would cover the following areas: the claimant’s financial position now and in future, their understanding of the terms of the loan, and encouragement for them to engage with any heirs they might have. The delivery of that financial advice will be outsourced to a third-party provider.
Section 34 of the Care Act 2014 obliges local authorities, in prescribed circumstances, to offer DPAs. The intention is that people should not be forced to sell their home in their lifetime to pay for their care. If there is no equity in the property—a subject raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock—the family would be able to apply for a funeral payment from the Social Fund.
I pick up on the question asked by my noble friend Lord Young. Local authorities are not required to make such an offer where there is a pre-existing charge on the property. Recipients of SMI loans by definition have a pre-existing charge—their mortgage—so in such cases there is no obligation to offer deferred payments. The registering of a charge in respect of an SMI loan does not, therefore, directly interfere with the policy intent of the Care Act.
The noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor, asked about the types of property on which it is possible to secure a loan. Charges can be secured on the claimant’s equity share in shared ownership and on leasehold properties.
I turn back to local authority provision. Local authorities are not precluded from offering DPAs where there is an existing charge so long as they are satisfied that there is adequate security. This means that they may still consider offering deferred payments if, after taking account of the outstanding mortgage, the remaining equity would be sufficient to cover an individual’s likely care costs. It is arguable that in some circumstances the existence of a charge in respect of an SMI may make authorities less inclined to agree to defer payments in such cases. However, it is important to note that deferred payments are available only where the person enters residential care. In such circumstances, payments of income-related benefits cease, including payments of SMI. As the claimant will have no means to meet their mortgage payments, it is probable that the property would have to be sold anyway. I should be clear that the position as I have just described it is not a consequence of changing SMI into a loan; it is inherent in the current system.
Amendment 104A is intended to exempt disabled claimants from the provision that introduces SMI loans and allow them to continue to receive this help in the form of a non-recoverable benefit. The purpose of providing SMI is to protect owner-occupiers from the risk of repossession and allow them to remain in their homes. In almost all cases, these payments are sent direct to lenders rather than to the claimant. When Clause 16 comes into effect, the level of support will remain the same as now—the point made by my noble friend Lord Young—and payments will continue to be sent direct to lenders. Neither lenders nor claimants will see any difference in the way the system works, so exempting any particular group would not have any impact on the level of protection they were afforded. The difference is that under the loans scheme the payments will be recoverable, but recovery will not be sought until the property is sold. So the day-to-day income of disabled people will not be affected.
SMI supports individuals in the accrual of a significant asset. Many taxpayers who are providing that support cannot afford to buy their own homes. It is only fair that this support is recouped where equity is available when the property is sold. I do not believe there is a sustainable argument that people with disabilities should be exempted from refunding some of the equity that the taxpayer helped them to accrue, while other people supported during periods of financial need should not.
The amendment is defective, in that it does not make a consequential amendment that would continue existing SMI entitlement for the group that the amendment is designed to protect—but let us leave technical issues aside.
Lastly, Amendment 104AZA would prevent the Government from changing support for mortgage interest into a loan for those on state pension credit, and allow them to continue to receive help with their mortgage interest as a benefit rather than a loan indefinitely. This would be unsustainable and unfair on the taxpayer. As I have previously said, it is not right that taxpayers, many of whom cannot afford to buy their own home, are subsidising the acquisition of a 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 them but the beneficiaries of their will.
Pensioners will have the same access to support that the current system provides, and the Government will seek to recover the debt only up to the level of available equity when the property is sold. In response to questions from the noble Baronesses, Lady Sherlock and Lady Manzoor, I say that any outstanding debt at that point will be written off. Owner-occupation involves the acquisition of a potentially valuable asset that often increases in value over time. It is right and sustainable that the taxpayer reclaims their contribution to this asset.
The amendment would also introduce a waiting period for pensioners before they could receive help with their mortgage interest payments. 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.
I cannot go into great detail on the questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, but to the extent that more support will be required for people, this is a far more sustainable way for the state to provide it than through grants. We are still considering our response to the DPRRC line on whether the procedure is negative or affirmative. With these explanations, I urge noble Lords not to press their amendments.
I have genuinely been listening to the debate. I believe the Minister did not answer one point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, which struck me as important. The Minister assured us that the financial advice would be independent and outsourced to a third party, but the noble Baroness’s question was not whether it would be outsourced but whether it would be independent of those who would provide the loans, so that independent advice would be separate from the loan giver. I am not sure that the Minister assured us that they would be separate.
Before the Minister replies, I have a few other questions; perhaps he can answer them together. I thank the right reverend Prelate for clarifying that. Indeed, I wanted to be sure that the advice was independent of the debt recovery under the provisions. I apologise if I missed any of the Minister’s answers—I tried to tick them off as I went along, and he did pretty well, so I thank him for that.
First, can the Minister clarify that anyone in receipt of a qualifying benefit will be entitled to a loan whether they have or could be expected in the future to have any equity, or certainly enough equity to cover the loan? Secondly, if somebody loses SMI and as a result loses pension credit, will they lose access to passported benefits as well?
On the question of advice, the Minister described what subjects the advice would cover but I was not quite sure of the level of personalisation. I would put money on the fact that the pensioner will say, “These are my circumstances—should I apply for this?”. Will the adviser be able to say, “I advise you to do it—yes, you should”, or “I advise that you shouldn’t”, or will the advice be much more general, like the kind of money advice we are talking about in pension schemes? Did the Minister say that it was free to the claimant? I am sorry, I may have missed that. Finally, there was the question on redress for customers in the case of bad advice.
While the Minister is reflecting on those, I will respond to a couple of points made in the debate. I thank all noble Lords who contributed. I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Young, to the debate, and thank him for what I choose to regard as the implied compliment that I had some good arguments earlier in the evening, even if I did not do so well just now. In response to the points he made, I find persuasive the research done for two different government departments that the move to 13 weeks had been effective in holding down arrears and repossessions. That was government-commissioned research. I may be wrong about that but it seemed to be one of the most compelling arguments for not going back to 39 weeks. But presumably the Minister will say that they will monitor and evaluate it, and I will be interested to hear what they say.
Both the noble Lord, Lord Young, and the Minister said that in the case of pensioners the beneficiaries are essentially not the claimants themselves but those who will benefit from their estate, but of course it is often the case that that is not strictly true. I live in Durham, and in County Durham plenty of people have houses which are, frankly, worth not very much at all by London standards, so they have very little equity in them. If this kind of debt prevents them accessing all that equity, it may mean that they will not have equity available to them which they might need to get at for care costs or other non-NHS covered support costs of different kinds. So it does potentially have an impact on the pension in their lifetime, not just on those to whom they bequeath the house.
Finally, I should have reiterated something right at the start. The Minister was kind enough to give his officials the freedom to brief us on the session, and I had a particularly helpful conversation on this area. I know it might not seem like it, since I have rewarded them by coming back with lots of questions, but in fact it has been very helpful and has meant that in this debate I have tried to focus more on how this will work than adopting a more combative style. So I appreciate that and I look forward to the answer to those questions.
Yes, I think that it is likely to be independent of the recovery. Yes—it is now. On the point about passported benefits, we are working to ensure that individuals who are no longer entitled to an income-related benefit as a result of the introduction of the SMI loans will have access to passported benefits. We are scoping out what the advice will look like and what we expect it to cost. Until we start the contracting process, I cannot prejudge whether SMI advice will be free. So that is outstanding.
I think that I have answered most of the points. If not, I will hit the typewriter—the Kremlin uses only typewriters because computers can be hacked. On the point about the number of weeks, I think that the noble Baroness will find that the level of forbearance with 39 weeks was very high and that very limited numbers of houses were repossessed by the mortgage providers, so I think that that will provide her with some reassurance.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for those answers and for the little glimpse that he has given us into the security that goes on within the DWP. I shall certainly take that home with me.
I should probably say for the record that if indeed one of our amendments would have had the effect of making pensioners wait to access help with mortgage interest payments, that certainly was not our intention. I feel that I should clarify that. However, in the light of the answers that the noble Lord has given, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 103A withdrawn.
Amendments 104 and 104A not moved.
Clause 16 agreed.
Amendment 104AZA not moved.
Clauses 17 to 19 agreed.
Clause 20: Expenses of paying sums in respect of vehicle hire etc
104AA: Clause 20, page 19, line 25, at end insert—
“( ) Any relevant provider assisting with any provision for the expenses of the Secretary of State under subsection (2)(a) shall provide an annual governance report to Parliament or the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons, detailing—
(a) the remuneration of its directors;(b) a register of interests; and(c) the transparency of its board meetings.”
My Lords, I hope not to detain the Committee for too long in the consideration of the administration of DWP matters and other things.
I am grateful for the support of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, on this amendment, and it is to him that I acknowledge my interest in this matter. I was minding my own business at one of the famous uprating order debates, which I always attend, when the noble Lord used the occasion in an exemplary fashion. The man is a parliamentary genius at finding niches that come up only every so often, and in this case it is our old friend the Social Security Administration Act 1992. It does not come up that often but it needs to be explored a little more. I shall try to do so briefly but it is important—or at least I believe that it is.
The amendment seeks to insert a requirement for any relevant provider—for “relevant provider”, under the current circumstances noble Lords should read “Motability”—to provide governance reports to Parliament detailing certain matters. The amendment is important because the structure under which Motability provides its service is not straightforward; it is quite complicated. I am choosing my language carefully.
I make it clear at the outset that the Motability service has been absolutely invaluable to those whom it seeks to serve—namely, claimants who are eligible for the higher rate of the DLA mobility component and the enhanced rate of the personal independence payment. The leases for the cars, motorised wheelchairs, scooters and other devices that it provides are a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of our citizens.
Before I go into the questions that are on my mind, I ask the Minister in his response to perhaps take a moment to explain exactly what Clause 20 is seeking to do in terms of the mechanics of reclaiming the expenses of paying sums in respect of vehicle hire. It is a puzzle to me that we are only now getting round to this. The scheme has been in operation since 1977. I do not know how much expense is being reclaimed here, but we are using the 1992 Social Security Administration Act. Therefore, it occurs to me that if there were expenses that should have been recovered, perhaps the 1992 Act would have been the best place to put that, and not the 2015 Welfare Reform and Work Bill. I am told that it might be as much as £1 million. Is that £1 million a year? How is it being recovered? Can the Minister give us as much information as possible on how Clause 20 is designed to operate?
As I understand it, the department makes available to Motability, as a relevant provider, the details of those who have the eligibility qualifications for these two disability benefits in order that an offer may be made to them by Motability. Motability is a long-established charity run by very distinguished people and is subject to the normal rules and regulations of charities. It also has a secondary charity, although I am not quite sure what it is designed to do, called the Motability Tenth Anniversary Trust Ltd, and it has a relationship with Motability as a charity. So there are some complexities in the first line of the operation. I hope that the department understands this better than I do. I am trying to make sense of all the individual parts of the machinery that is put in place.
The charity certainly has substantial resources available to it. Otherwise, it would not be able to make the generous and important offer of transitional support schemes. It has made grants of £150 million and £25 million in the last two financial years respectively to try to take some of the pain out of the removal of eligibility at the higher rates for some of the clients who are being reviewed under the government policy of reviewing DLA and transitioning it into personal independence payments.
What I also struggle to understand is the relationship between the charity and the operations company, which is a private company that carries out the work on behalf of Motability. Page 86 of the latest annual report and accounts for 2015 records that, for the highest paid director, the aggregate emoluments in respect of qualifying services totalled £944,719. Colleagues might now begin to understand the extent to which these companies and charities have, one could say, blossomed and developed. They certainly have grown to an extent that is perhaps not widely understood. The restricted reserves of the operating company are in the region of £2 billion; the annual turnover is £3.9 billion; and the asset base is some £7 billion. So this is a very big business. It even has a rating from Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s as an A+ investment risk, and it regularly raises money on the bond market.
The worry for me is that all these individual elements have their respective regulators. The DWP obviously is able to see what it is doing in terms of the recommendations or the information that is passed to those eligible for these higher DLA benefits. The charity obviously is responsible to the Charity Commission for everything it does, and I am sure that it complies with the charity rules. Motability Operations is responsible, I guess, to the Financial Conduct Authority and various other Bank of England regulators for companies operating effectively at a City company level—almost banks. Indeed, the banks are the shareholders of the operating company, which means they get regulation from that direction.
My questions are about whether claimants are getting the full value of the assignations that they make. What are the tender processes that allow other providers to compete in this market? How does one become a shareholder in the organisation when all shares are held in the bank? Most of all—this is the real reason for asking for some responsibility in reporting to Parliament—who oversees the public interest in what is being delivered in the round? I am sorry that that is a bit technical. It is late at night and I understand that. But this is important. I hope that the Minister will explain a little. If he would like to do that in a letter to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and me, that might save some time. The chance to consider some of these issues only comes up every so often. I hope the Minister does not mind that I am detaining the House slightly on what I consider to be an important issue.
My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood. He was quite friendly towards me about raising this matter in Committee. It was the noble Lord who drew my attention to Clause 20. I had not known about it. As will become clear, it is to the Minister we owe this debate because he alerted us to these banker-sized salaries in answering a question a couple of years ago.
In the 1970s, I was in the Commons when the scheme to replace the old invalid trike was set up, so I am aware of the positive change. When I had a proper job before I was an MP, I used to work in Thames Ditton as production manager at a loudspeaker company. AC Cars Ltd, which was in Thames Ditton, built what was known as the invalid trike, the single seater. Like my noble friend I make no comment on the Motability scheme, save to say that it has given access to mobility for some 4 million people over the years. I hope that it will for years to come.
Given that we are dealing with public money, I support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood. It should go beyond the PAC and at least include the DWP Select Committee, which has never shown any interest in this, and the Charity Commission, which is useless as the regulator of charities. Implementing the amendment at least would lead to an inquiry into the finances of the scheme.
DWP is paying the Motability charity around £20 million. The charity gets about £7 million in lease levy from the vehicles used. It has an income of about £30 million. The charity, which is more than 60% dependent on government funds—this is public money but not in the way we expect public money to be raised; it is government money from the DWP paid to the charity—has two employees on more than £160,000, which is more than the Prime Minister earns, and another employee is on a six-figure salary. Last week, when the Times exposed anger about six-figure charity pay deals, it did not mention this, but it could well have looked at the Motability charity, which is supported and 60% paid for by the DWP. We are not talking about individual donors—this is a straightforward 59.6%, according to the latest accounts. That is partly responsible, in duty, for the whacking great salaries of the charity, and that is before we come to the operations arm. One of the chief executives of the charity is on more than £170,000, another is on more than £160,000 and someone else is on between £100,000 and £110,000. As I say, this is a charity that is 60% paid for by the Department for Work and Pensions.
But the main scheme, as the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, said, is operated by Motability Operations group, which is a company owned by four banks: Barclays, Lloyds, HSBC and the Royal Bank of Scotland. It operates as a contractor to and is directed and overseen by the charity. This, for me, is the crucial link to where public funds are involved. It is public money we are talking about here, but there seems to be no real accountability. The revenue of the company is around £2 billion from the operating leases and £2 billion from the resale of vehicles at the end of the three-year lease. Some 600 cars a day are placed on the second-hand car market. As I said in the debate earlier this year, I am well aware that someone in my family once had such a car. Motability Operations claims that it gets no money from the Government. It states that on page 4 of its latest accounts. But the £2 billion from the leases is in fact the DWP Motability payment to more than half a million people, and because they have agreed to assign their DWP allowance to the scheme, the money is paid directly to Motability Operations. That is what Clause 20 is all about.
I support Clause 20, by the way, and in my view it ought to be retrospective in order to claw some public money back from this company and thus enable the Government to recover their costs. There is a direct link, and this clause is the missing piece of the jigsaw. After our debate in February I went to the Public Accounts Committee, the National Audit Office and the Charity Commission, but no one wanted to know. They said, “It is not public money so it is nothing to do with us”. This clause links it all together, so it is a really useful one and I am grateful that it is in the Bill.
As my noble friend said, the chief executive of the operations company is on a package of more than £900,000. The chair is on a package of £195,000 and a handful of directors—fewer than five, I think—take £3.3 million between them. There are also loads of long-term incentives for the CEO and the directors. The whole system depends on the DWP payment, which Clause 20 makes clear; it shows the direct link. As such, the NAO and the PAC should take a look at it, and that is what the amendment is about. The Charity Commission should be interested in the governance arrangements. It could ask, for example, why the chair of the company operations remuneration committee thinks it right to stand down after two three-year terms, as set out on page 43 of the accounts, and yet the charity trustees have been serving for four decades. I repeat: four decades. When you ask the Charity Commission about it, all it ever gives you is the last time they were elected. Of course, they are all on something like three-year terms, but no one is interested.
I have to say that Alan Yentob came unstuck after serving loyally as a trustee at Kids Company for 18 years because after that length of time he could not tell the difference between management and governance. His 18 years as a trustee is less than half that of some of the Motability trustees, but the Charity Commission does not seem to bat an eyelid about it. There is a strong case for the Nolan principles of public life being applied to the third sector, which of course they are not, but I think they would cover this point. In short, we have here a service that everyone agrees is a public good. There is no argument about that. But it is based on public funds and however the risk factors are dressed up—they are minimal in comparison with the real private sector—they are being used to pay these banker-sized salaries. Of course, I accept that the second-hand car market is highly specialised, but let us face it, it is the biggest company going with 600 cars a day feeding into the market.
I was hoping to catch my noble friend before he sat down, which I thought he was about to do.
I am very grateful to my noble friend, and I think the whole House will probably be very grateful to both him and the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, for raising this fascinating matter. I have two questions to put to him. Normally speaking, a high salary is justified, where it can be justified at all, either by the high risk incurred by the person who is receiving it or by the great competitive merits of that person in showing great skill in the face of competition. Can my noble Friend tell the House, first, what risk is being run by the operations company in this case? How risky is its business? Secondly, how much competition is there for this business, or does the operations company have an effective monopoly on the motability business in this country?
I am grateful to my noble friend and I will come to that very point because it is crucial. I am not clear what the banks get out of this; I do not believe that they are doing it for nothing. The Library has not been able to explain it to me anyway.
That brings me to my final point and I will cover the points made by my noble friend. As the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, said, there is another £180 million in another charity within the Motability charity sitting there doing virtually nothing. The Motability Tenth Anniversary Trust was set up by the Motability charity. It has the same trustees, an income of £50 million a year and expenditure of £5 million. It has assets of £180 million. It has no employees or volunteers, so it cannot possibly be fulfilling the public benefit rules for charities on those figures. I checked them again on the web the other day.
The website AccountingWEB had some interesting points to make. It referred to the asset seemingly sitting around not doing much. The original funding for this charity within a charity was 50% from Motability Operations, the company, and 50% from the DWP. There is a direct link with this charity within a charity—50% of it was funded by the DWP to start with. Does it mean that the not-for-profit status of operations is maintained by recycling the Motability Operations profits back into the Motability Tenth Anniversary Trust in order to swell the coffers, and so avoid tax? It asked whether this incestuous arrangement is there because someone has worked out a way to get their hands on it, and in due course extract it from the trust. Again, this is a direct link—the DWP funded 50% of the charity within a charity. It funds 60% of the main charity so it is directly responsible for the salaries of the charity staff. I fully accept it is the Motability Operations company that is responsible for the real bankers’ salaries—almost £1 million for the chief exec.
I am coming to the end. The Treasury, I understand, loses around £350 million in VAT by this whole complex set-up. Operations installed a new IT system in August. It cost around £100 million but did not provide any upgrade to functionality. I am reliably informed that this required a lot of hospitality and team rebuilding—all on the cash of people with a disability.
Maybe it is time, as the notes on Clause 20 say, or envisage, to bring some competition into the market because there is no competition. Clause 20 is set up where it envisages that there might be another provider. Well, there is not. In some ways, if the DWP wanted to get its hands clean and do some real governance on this—and the Government, because they are all part of the issue—a bit of competition would not go amiss. That is where we come in. The opportunity of Clause 20 is useful for the Select Committee in the other place which, as far as I know, has not batted an eyelid. The issue has been raised very occasionally but not properly. It has never been taken seriously by the Government or the department.
I look forward to the Minister’s reply as he will remember that he started this—I do not say that in an accusatory way; I am a member of his fan club for doing so—with his reply to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, about the relevant salaries on 2 December 2013 at col. 3 of Hansard. With that reply he alerted the House to this issue. When “Noble Lords: Oh!” appears in Hansard, as it did at col. 3 on 2 December 2013, that means there was a very big reaction to the Minister’s contribution. As I say, I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I do not expect a full response tonight, but I do not expect this matter to go away, either. Millions of pounds are involved, stuck away in charities, apparently doing nothing, and people are being paid fortunes as chief executives of charities that are directly funded by the department, so there cannot be any excuse for the charities concerned. I know it will be said that this is up to the trustees, but the trustees have been there since day one. The confusion between governance and management is such that we will never have any change. Therefore, it was quite right of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, to bring this issue to the attention of the Committee.
My Lords, this amendment requires certain financial and governance arrangements to be put in place in respect of the providers of motor vehicles under Motability arrangements. As we have heard, it is attached to Clause 20, which contains a provision enabling the Secretary of State to recover the costs of administering the scheme under which mobility components of DLA and PIP are made available, on the claimants’ request, to Motability. I understand that the annual charges will be under £1 million per annum and that Motability will absorb this so that it will not be passed on to lessees, but perhaps the Minister will confirm that.
The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, and my noble friend Lord Rooker have raised concerns before over the governance issues and in particular the level of remuneration of the chief executive of the operating company. We should acknowledge that Motability has been a major force in helping disabled people to have access to suitable vehicles. Since its creation in 1977, it has supplied more than 3.5 million vehicles and currently has some 637,000 customers—a 1.8% increase on the year.
Noble Lords will be aware—my noble friend spelled this out—that there are basically two separate entities: Motability, which is a registered charity incorporated under royal charter; and Motability Operations Ltd, an entity regulated by the FCA and owned by four major banks. The latter is contracted to carry out the acquisition and leasing operations on behalf of the charity. Each of them publishes extensive annual accounts, the former in accordance with the Charities Act 2011. The latter is financed by a combination of bonds in the capital markets and bank borrowing. Obviously, the main source of income for the scheme comes from individuals who choose to spend either their higher rate mobility component of DLA or the enhanced mobility component rate of PIP.
It will be recalled that the introduction of PIP as a replacement for DLA was discussed extensively during the passage of the Welfare Reform Act 2012, with the prospect of the revised mobility thresholds meaning that some disabled people would drop out of entitlement. Can the Minster please update us on the progress of this, which is due to be completed in 2018? How many DLA recipients have been reassessed and how many have fallen out of eligibility for Motability? One-off transitional support has been introduced for those who would lose the use of their vehicle, and perhaps we can know how many have availed themselves of this. This level of support was said to be subject to review during 2015. Has this happened and what changes are proposed? Was there any consultation with the DWP involved?
It would seem that the operating group is funding the cost of this transitional support via the charity. Does this mean that the costs are ultimately being borne by the vehicle lessees—that is, the very disabled people the scheme was meant to support?
The DWP also provides funding to the charity for the Specialised Vehicles Fund, which enables disabled people to lease a drive-from-wheelchair vehicle. Is it the case that, faced with funding being frozen on an annual basis, Motability has restricted access to the fund and apparently did this without consultation? Can the Minister say whether this restriction was discussed with the department at all and whether it agrees with the approach adopted?
As my noble friend made clear, public funding is involved in these arrangements in various ways: the application of Motability components of DLA and PIP; funding for the Specialised Vehicles Fund; and taxation benefits by way of zero VAT on the lease of vehicles and their sale at the end of the lease period. On this basis, notwithstanding the published report and financial statements, noble Lords are justified in testing matters of value for money, transparency and probity, and we look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, that was a thoroughly enjoyable debate for this time of the evening. The amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, is directed at Motability, which provides vehicles at discounted rates to people whose disability or long-term health condition has a significant effect on their mobility. It is run on a day-to-day basis by Motability Operations, a limited company, and is overseen by the Motability charity.
On the specific questions about Clause 20 that were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, I can say that the Government divert benefit payments directly to Motability but the administrative costs of the diversion have been borne by the Government, who do not have the power to recoup them. Clause 20 gives the Secretary of State the power to make regulations to do so. Such a power would currently apply only to Motability but it is drafted broadly to enable the provision to apply to any organisation running a future scheme.
I can confirm to the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, that the cost is small—less than £1 million, I think—and Motability has confirmed that it will not change its pricing or the level of service it provides. Therefore, it will have no impact on its members.
The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, asked about information on directors’ remuneration and relevant interests. That is available in the annual and interim accounts of Motability Operations, in compliance with international financial reporting standards. These can be found on its website, which is where I found them on the occasion referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. Indeed, it publishes information on its board meetings in the same place.
The department meets regularly with Motability to discuss the scheme’s performance. I know that this does not overly impress the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, but as a charity, Motability is accountable to the Charity Commission. It is therefore unnecessary to require Motability to submit the annual report that is the formal subject of the amendment, because the information is there.
I will run through some of the rather surprising number of other issues. On overhead costs, Ernst & Young found that Motability was driving down its overhead costs, while satisfaction was rising. On the monopoly question, we have regular meetings and consider the value for money that Motability provides. The banks own Motability shares but they have waived all dividends and received no profit.
The Minister has moved on rather rapidly. He brushed past the quite important issue of a monopoly without going into it. What seems to arise from this situation is that we have here a government department—the Department for Work and Pensions—which has given a contract on a monopoly basis to a charity, which appears then to have given its business on a monopoly basis to a public company. One could imagine that that structure could easily be used elsewhere. It is a very attractive idea: a nice little number and a cosy arrangement for those receiving the salaries and getting the other benefits from the circulation of public money in that way. That is the basis of the concern about monopoly. Maybe the Minister would like to enlighten the House if I am wrong. It would be interesting to know whether the Government have done anything to encourage competition or to see whether any alternative providers might be interested in getting into this market.
I was able to say that the department considered value for money and had drawn up this clause to allow for other providers. That is as far as I can go at this stage. Motability is a long-established and very well-loved organisation; that is the current position.
On the second charity, the Motability-run fund is used to support the objectives of Motability and is not government-run. The remuneration of Motability Operations directors, and indeed those of the charity, is a matter to be decided by Motability.
Can we just pause there on the charity? I fully accept that Motability Operations is a company and that it is up to the directors what they pay the chief exec, given what the risk is and the competition. The charity is different. This charity is 60% grant-funded by the Minister’s department—to be accurate, it is 59.6%. Does he go back to the Prime Minister occasionally and justify it by saying, “We’re paying out 60% of the money to this charity and, by the way, we are paying the chief exec a lot more than you”? There were supposed to be some rules in Whitehall about people not being paid more than the Prime Minister. I knew that when I was at the Food Standards Agency. We had charities exposed in the Times last week for paying six-figure salaries. It is no good the Minister saying that it is down to the trustees of the charity when the department is funding 60% of that charity, which is not going out collecting money from the public with tin cans. I know that it has other donors—I am not arguing with that—but if it is 60% directly funded by grant from his department, can the Minister really justify it having three people on six-figure salaries, one of them on more than £170,000 a year, and paid for by his department? Is he happy with that?
There is a key issue about charities having to attract the best people when they are very substantial operations, which Motability is. I know, because I was involved for a period in a foundation in the charitable area, that to attract the kind of people who are commercially competent puts you into that bracket. I have said enough.
The amounts in the operations are of course much greater than in the charity. Maybe I am overinfluenced by some of my personal history on what people are paid in the commercial world, but the £100,000 to £200,000 bracket in a charitable context for what is now a substantial operation does not seem completely out. You can take two views on charities: either people should work for them for nothing and any money is wrong or you have to attract the very best people. I would think that if you are in that market, those sums are reasonable. That is the best I can do on that issue.
Would the Minister accept that there are people in the public sector who run very significant operations, but the Prime Minister and others in the Government have said it is not acceptable for them to be paid more than the prime ministerial salary? How does this differ, given that, as my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, have pointed out, 60% of the funding for this charity is provided by Her Majesty’s Government?
I should have made clear before that that is not departmental money; it is users’ money that we transfer. That is the reason that the salaries are set by Motability and not by government. Government does get itself into quite a lot of problems because there are areas of commercial endeavour where salaries, bluntly, are much higher than the Prime Minister’s salary. There is a different set of rates in the outside world. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, is not going to let this one go and I will watch him—from a distance—to see how far he gets on this.
Finally, the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked where we are. It is too early to tell the full picture. This started on a control basis only in July 2015, so I do not have a reliable figure for him. I remind noble Lords that customers who return their vehicle in good condition will get the benefit of up to £2,000-worth of support from Motability, which will in practice allow many to continue to be mobile through purchasing a used car.
Would the Minister just mind dealing with two residual points? One is about the transitional protection—how that is funded and whether it is dealt with by the charity from contributions to the operating company or otherwise. The second is that the specialised vehicle fund has been frozen for a couple of years, which has obviously had an impact in terms of the opportunity to take advantage of that in an inflationary situation. Were the Government consulted on the changed criteria that were put in place for that?
I will have to write on that latter point. The funding for the £2,000 comes from Motability itself—the charity—as I understand it, based out of the reserves it has built up. It needs very substantial reserves because the risk in a leasing business is in the residuals, which can be very volatile, even though you are the biggest. You need very substantial reserves, but it took a view that it had some excess which it was prepared to spend in this way. I urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, the moment that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, suggested to me that this was something worth looking at, I noticed that Motability Operations had set up a review of its remuneration committee’s decisions for its executives. The annual report, which has just been published, shows that it has merely tinkered with this. There was a real hope that it would respond to some of the external interest in what it was doing, yet it has come back with some tiny amendments to the remuneration package and increased the co-salaries in the way that I explained earlier.
I think that the Minister should tell his friends at Motability that Parliament is interested in this. It is in Motability’s interests to respond to the need to be more transparent and to be more assiduous in explaining what it is doing and why it is doing it. This will not go away; I will be standing shoulder to shoulder with the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, so the sooner we can get a modus vivendi whereby Parliament shows that there is an interest in engaging, the better that would be for Motability and for everyone else. However, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 104AA withdrawn.
Clause 20 agreed.
104B: After Clause 20, insert the following new Clause—
“Power to supply relevant social security information to accommodation provider
(1) The Secretary of State, or a person providing services to the Secretary of State, shall have power to supply information relating to any relevant social security benefit to a person who provides accommodation to the claimant for the relevant benefit so long as the claimant has given written authority for the provider of the accommodation to receive such information.
(2) “Relevant social security benefit” has the same meaning as in section 121DA(7) of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 (interpretation of Part VI).”
My Lords, the three amendments in this group all relate to private landlords, who now account for 4.2 million properties for rent and more than half of all rented properties. However, as of August, less than a third of all housing benefit claimants lived in private rented accommodation. Why so few? Why is there this bottleneck deterring private landlords from taking on benefit claimants? As a landlord, I have claimants in my properties, but it is not made easy. Given the choice of a couple in work or a couple on benefits, for the landlord it is a no-brainer. Why take the risk, the hassle and the uncertainty of renting to the couple on benefits?
As the rental market tightens due to increased demand, it is important to encourage and support private landlords to house those in receipt of universal credit so that they can access accommodation, otherwise they will find themselves at the back of the queue. These amendments explore ways to do just that.
The first amendment is about giving the power to give the relevant universal credit information to the landlord. Landlords need assurances that tenants have the funds available to pay their rent. Without these, renting to them becomes a risky business. Currently, the private landlord can get no information about the amount of universal credit and when it will be paid. For those tenants in work, landlords will always ask for references from employers to establish their income to ensure that the funds are available to cover the rent. Surely it must be common sense for landlords to be able to do likewise for those in receipt of benefits. I understand that social landlords are able to gain such information, so why not private landlords? Surely what is good for the goose must be good for the gander. I acknowledge that it is quite difficult to find out how much benefit will be available before the tenant moves in, but it is not beyond the wit of man to publish a ready reckoner to help everyone see where they stand, according to each local housing area’s allowances.
Amendment 104B would insert a new clause to ensure that there is a legal power, where the tenant provides written consent, for the Department for Work and Pensions to disclose to all landlords information on the housing element of the tenant’s universal credit, including the amount, or approximate amount, and when it will get paid.
The second amendment relates to rent arrears. As benefit claimants may often move home, including to seek work, landlords need the security of knowing that tenants in receipt of benefit cannot simply stop paying their rent and leave their property. Currently, rent arrears can be recouped where a benefit claimant is still living in the house to which the arrears apply. There is, however, little or no opportunity for the landlord to recoup when such tenants move house, unless they are prepared to go through a lengthy and costly court process.
I cannot see the logic in allowing the landlord to recoup the arrears if a tenant is still in the landlord’s property, but not if the tenant has moved. I realise that there will probably be a hierarchy of deductions that can be made from future universal credit—no doubt future rents, council tax, utility bills, et cetera, would come first—but if even only a percentage of the arrears was paid each month, it would act as a disincentive to tenants to rack up the arrears in the first place and ensure that the landlord was not left high and dry once the tenant had jumped ship. Amendment 104BA would insert a new clause requiring the Secretary of State to make regulations to ensure that rent arrears follow a tenant in receipt of universal credit and that landlords affected have a clear route to reclaim lost rent in such circumstances.
The third amendment concerns making payment of the housing element of universal credit direct to the landlord, with the written consent of the tenant. It is vital that landlords have full confidence that they will be paid in full and on time if vulnerable tenants are to have access to the rented homes they need. This is especially important since the Government took away the option for tenants to ask that the housing element of universal credit be paid directly to the landlord, as was formerly allowed under housing benefit. At first, I thought that that omission was an oversight, but I now understand that the Secretary of State wants all the money to be paid to the tenants so that they learn to become responsible for managing their money—a great idea but, sadly, I do not think it is working.
A survey conducted this year by the Residential Landlords Association found that of those private sector landlords who had tenants on universal credit, 63% had tenants in arrears on their rent. Of this group of landlords, 85% had contacted the Department for Work and Pensions to have a tenants’ housing element of universal credit paid directly to them after eight weeks of arrears, as is their entitlement. More than 57% of this group said that it had taken the department more than five weeks to respond to the request, with all the consequent difficulties this caused the landlords in not getting paid.
I understand that the problem is even worse when one looks at social housing. A survey carried out by the National Federation of ALMOs and ARCH—the Association of Retained Council Housing—found that nearly 90% of council house tenants in receipt of universal credit are in arrears. I had to look that up again: I could not believe it, but apparently it is so.
I declare an interest as a former chair of both a local housing committee and a housing association. Given that universal credit is paid at the end of the month and this might not be coterminous with housing associations or social housing, what does the noble Lord regard as an arrears? Is he talking about more than eight weeks’ failure to pay the rent, because five to six weeks might simply be the failure to co-ordinate payments, given the move, unfortunately, to monthly payments?
I think that I caught the noble Baroness’s question. I do not think it is after eight weeks: I think it is in arrears—that is, they have not paid the monthly rent on time and they have not paid the next month’s rent on time, et cetera. I hope that that answers the noble Baroness’s question.
I meant that the arrears might simply be a technical cash-flow issue, and not a legitimate arrear, because if, for example, the rent is due before the payment of universal credit, there will be a period when there will be arrears. The noble Earl will understand my point, but the arrears that matter are the arrears that become irrecoverable, which usually, in my experience, means eight weeks.
Yes, I imagine that it is before the eight weeks as well. As I said, I found the figure of 90% to be quite extraordinary, so I do not believe that it is working in the social housing sector either. All this could have been avoided if the rent had been paid direct to the landlord.
In addition, in October 2012, a survey of more than 1,000 landlords carried out by the Residential Landlords Association and the Scottish Association of Landlords found that more than 91% of landlords were less likely to rent to tenants on benefit as a result of the decision not to automatically make the payment of the benefits direct to the landlord. Not making the payment direct to the landlord is not helping the landlords and not helping the tenants; indeed, all the evidence backed by Shelter, Crisis and the Money Advice Trust has been that paying it direct to the landlord was popular with tenants. They were assured that their rent was covered before they decided how else to spend their money.
I believe that in Northern Ireland the benefit is to be paid direct to the landlords, as, too, in Scotland. Therefore, why not in England? Amendment 104BB would give tenants the free choice to have the housing element of their universal credit paid direct to their landlord. I hope my noble friend will look favourably on these three amendments, and give landlords, tenants and, indeed, me an early Christmas present. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support Amendment 104B in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, to which I have added my name. This would empower local authorities and the DWP to give landlords details of entitlement to housing benefit—in future to the housing element in universal credit—where a prospective tenant gives written consent for this information to be imparted. In parallel to efforts to come down heavily on so-called rogue landlords, the Government should try wherever possible to be supportive of good landlords, of which there are, thank goodness, plenty of examples. The nation needs a strong, responsible private rented sector. Legislation should surely be supportive of those willing to invest in decent rented housing, perhaps particularly in rural areas, where some large landowners often act in a similar way to a local housing association.
However, we know that many landlords are nervous of offering a tenancy to those on low incomes who could have difficulty paying the rent, particularly now that welfare reforms have diminished benefit support for these households. Landlords who want to do the right thing, who charge reasonable rents and who are keen to help those in their local communities should not be deterred; they can be reassured that prospective tenants have an entitlement to universal credit and can afford to take on a tenancy, so long as those responsible for administering benefits are willing to explain the position. If officials administering benefit do not feel able to discuss an individual case—even where, as in the amendment, the individual gave written consent for this—I commend the idea that they be required to share enough information with each landlord to enable them to make an informed decision.
Perhaps I could also stand in for my noble friend Lady Meacher and add support to Amendment 104BB, which is also in the names of the two noble Earls, Lord Listowel and Lord Cathcart. This also addresses a new barrier to private landlords accepting low-income tenants. It calls for the facility for payment of the housing element in universal credit to be made direct to landlords where the tenant requests it. I know the Minister was able to give some reassurance on this score to councils and housing associations by ruling that direct payments should be made easy where a tenant is eight weeks or more in arrears, and also by allowing direct payment of rent from day one for the most vulnerable tenants. However, a lot of private landlords will simply not let to anyone on benefits—that is, in receipt of the housing element of universal credit—if there is the prospect of an eight-week loss of rent before a tenant’s request for direct payment can be activated. For the private rented sector, direct payments seem sensible from the perspective of tenants as well as all those who want to encourage private landlords to be helpful and supportive to those in receipt of benefits. I support these amendments.
My Lords, I will speak briefly to my Amendment 104BB. I am grateful to the noble Earl and my noble friend Lady Meacher for adding their names to it, reflecting our earlier debates about the great concerns around increasing homelessness. Clearly these amendments are important because we wish to encourage landlords to take low-income tenants to address that homelessness. I declare my interests as noted in the register as a landlord.
I will not go into the details of this amendment because the noble Earl did that already. My concern is that paying HB directly to claimants may compound the homelessness issue we discussed earlier and contribute to a reduction in social housebuilding. Many of those receiving housing benefits may already be in debt, feel tempted to use their rent to pay off such debts and consequently become homeless. It may be that the eight-week limit that has been discussed will protect them from that. Social landlords are concerned that direct payment to tenants of HB may lead to tenants accruing arrears. Pursuing arrears is a costly business. Social landlords already face reduced incomes thanks to the reduced rents that this Bill introduces. Consequently, they may have less money to build more homes and we may see an impact on the building of social housing. I have two questions for the Minister on the effect of the move to direct payments of HB to claimants. What level of cost to social landlords does the Minister anticipate arising from that move to direct payments? What impact on homelessness, if any, does the Minister anticipate?
My Lords, Amendments 104BB in the names of the two noble Earls, Lord Listowel and Lord Cathcart, and the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, would address the question of direct payment. Direct payment was the subject of considerable discussion during the passage of what became the Welfare Reform Act 2012, together with deliberations on the frequency of payments and split payments, not to mention jam-jar accounts.
My noble friend Lady Hollis asked about the research mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, from the National Federation of ALMOs and ARCH. It did indeed show that 89% of universal credit claimants were in arrears and that 34% of them were eight weeks in arrears, so they were in receipt of an APA. That is a significant proportion, so there clearly is an issue that they have picked up on about the extent of arrears—hence the question of direct payments.
We know that the Government’s starting point is that in the overwhelming majority of cases they want and expect universal credit to be paid as a single monthly payment in arrears to the claimant. But they have set down criteria for considering alternative payment arrangements in limited circumstances for the payment of the housing element of universal credit, invariably the first in order of priority. The guidance states that when arrears reach one month’s rent the DWP will review the situation, following notification by the claimant or the landlord, and when they hit two months or eight weeks, either the landlord or the claimant can request an APA. There is no automatic right to one because the Government are still clinging to the concept that managing benefits should mirror the choices in managing money that they say those in work have to make.
However, if an APA is in prospect, this would normally start with personal budget support followed by a managed payment to the landlord. The guidance sets out the tier 1 and tier 2 factors which will be considered for an APA. But having theoretical opportunities to have direct payments is one thing; what matters is how the rules are being applied in practice, so perhaps the Minister can help us here. We know that through to 3 December 2015, there have been 287,310 universal credit awards. Will the Minister tell us how many of them had a housing element included and how many have had an alternative payment arrangement? How many requests for direct payment to a landlord have been made by either landlord or claimant and, of those, how many were approved and how many rejected? I accept that the Minister may need to write to me on these points, but it would help us understand the scale of the problem and whether the research that has been identified is in fact representative of the situation for universal credit claimants more broadly.
Amendment 104BA in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, seeks arrangements whereby payment of arrears in respect of a former property can be made by direct payment of a current universal credit claim. This has obvious difficulties because maintaining the current home should be the priority. There must be a risk that adopting that suggestion could lead to a round of evictions for rent arrears as arrears build up in a current tenancy in order to satisfy the arrears on a previous tenancy. There could be further complications because a universal credit award may not cover identical households for the current tenancy and the previous tenancy, so it is not clear how it might be apportioned.
Amendment 104B in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, and the noble Lord, Lord Best, seeks a power for the Secretary of State or somebody else to supply information relating to any relevant social security benefit to a landlord, depending on the written authority of the tenant. Noble Lords will be aware of regulations enabling the limited supply of social security information to social landlords, which is governed by the Data Protection Act. I understand the potential benefit to landlords of this, but it raises issues of a different magnitude given the sheer number of private landlords, let alone the capacity issue, so I will be interested to know how the Minister thinks that that might be approached.
There may be an issue here with regard to arrears and universal credit, and if the Minister is not minded to accept this amendment, he needs to come back to the House to suggest how the Government are going to go about dealing with this. I look forward to hearing his reply.
These amendments relate to a number of housing issues, and I will deal with them in the order in which they are listed.
Amendment 104B would enable the Secretary of State to pass information relating to a claimant’s social security benefits to their landlord as long as the claimant had given written consent. As the noble Earl and the noble Lord have stated, knowing that a tenant has claimed a social security benefit will allow a landlord to take early action to ensure that the tenant does not get into rent arrears and jeopardise their tenancy.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, said, the Secretary of State already has power to supply some limited information to a social-sector landlord when one of its tenants claims universal credit. This information is shared for the specific purpose of enabling the landlord to determine whether that tenant needs advice, assistance or support in relation to their financial affairs.
The Government recognise that the need for this support might arise because, under universal credit, claimants are now responsible, in many cases for the first time, for handling a monthly budget. Claimants must also use their benefit to pay rent directly to their landlords, something that social tenants were not typically required to do under the housing benefit regime.
However, we do not recognise the need for the same level of support in relation to claimants living in the private rented sector. This is because such claimants will typically already have been responsible for paying their own rent under the housing benefit regime, so will struggle less with the changes introduced by universal credit. In any case, if these claimants require support in relation to managing their finances, it is unlikely to come from their private landlords. We therefore see no need to put additional information-sharing provisions in place.
One of the key aims of our welfare reform programme is to ensure that claimants accept more responsibility for their actions and take greater control over their lives. We expect claimants to manage their relationship with their landlord rather than passing this responsibility on to the state. Accepting this amendment would run counter to that principle. It would require that the claimant gave their consent prior to any information being released. If a claimant is willing to make such disclosures, they are perfectly at liberty to do so themselves and to share information with their landlord directly. I see no reason why the Government need to be involved in the process.
On the point from the noble Lord, Lord Best, that the Government should support good landlords, universal credit is essentially blind to the merits of individual landlords. The Government therefore do not need to make a decision on whether a landlord is good, bad or indifferent.
Amendment 104BA would require that deductions were made from a claimant’s ongoing universal credit to meet rent arrears owed to a previous landlord. I understand my noble friend’s reasoning in proposing this amendment. One of the key aims of universal credit is to achieve a better balance between a claimant’s rights and responsibilities. Walking away from arrears of rent in circumstances where the taxpayer has given you the means to meet those outgoings is abdicating responsibility, not accepting it. However, the underlying principle here is that we will make deductions from a claimant’s benefit where this is necessary to protect their welfare. That is why such arrangements apply only where necessary, to avoid the risk of the claimant being evicted from their current accommodation. Even then, this is not something that we do lightly. Benefit payments, while providing an adequate level of support, are not overly generous. Any reduction in support risks causing hardship. I am afraid that I cannot accept an argument that the needs of a former landlord outweigh the needs of the claimant in such circumstances.
The proposal also has the potential to be extremely burdensome. The provision would apply only with respect to arrears that accrued during periods where the claimant received the housing costs element. This part of any arrears would need to be disaggregated from other arrears owed, which would be particularly problematic where the tenant and landlord disagreed.
If I may step gently into the research quoted by my noble friend, particularly regarding the figure of 90%, I was delighted at the rare sight of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, championing the Government on this.
Half of those arrears were accrued in the first four-week period. We discovered in the direct payment project that there is genuinely an issue about moving people over in the first three months, and we are spending an enormous amount of energy and effort on pinpointing that. Indeed, we are doing a lot of work now with social landlords to get the problem under control.
I should point out that this proposition would be of greatest value to private landlords, as the social sector is much less volatile. It is not unrealistic to suppose that commercial landlords, like any other small business people, should make a certain amount of provision for bad debt. Rent payments can be made direct to landlords once arrears reach the equivalent of two months, which limits the degree of their exposure.
Amendment 104BB would allow universal credit claimants to request that the Secretary of State pay their housing costs element to their landlord. The Secretary of State already has powers to pay all or some of a claimant’s universal credit entitlement to a third party where it would be in the claimant’s or their family’s interests. In practice, these powers are used to protect vulnerable claimants or claimants in rent arrears by paying the universal credit housing costs element direct to the landlord. However, as I have already said, the default position is for universal credit to be paid as a single monthly sum direct to the claimant; that is designed to mirror what would happen if the claimant was in full-time employment, when they would be responsible for managing their own funds and paying their own rent. The direct payment project showed that after 18 months the rent payment rate was 99%, which was comparable to now. Where there are problems, the department can manage payments and look to use the arrears option.
The amendment would also go further than the current arrangements for housing benefit, whereby the majority of private sector tenants are paid their housing benefit direct. To allow claimants to opt out of managing their own budgets while receiving universal credit would be a step backwards for them and a step away from claimants being job-ready.
I will need to answer the questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, in writing, so I will cover those later.
Finally, my noble friend asked a question about Scotland. The Scotland Bill grants powers to Ministers to decide how to make payments but this is not a straightforward thing to do, because universal credit covers people who are in work and out of work and presumably you would not want to make payments to in-work people because perhaps the payments do not cover their rental elements. Therefore, it is a much more complicated issue than people realise when they do not understand completely how universal credit works.
The Government believe that work is the best route out of poverty and that universal credit should help, not hinder, claimants on their journey into employment so that they do not fluctuate in and out of work or go up and down the taper. Paying universal credit as a single monthly payment will ensure that claimants are best prepared for the transition to work and for staying in work. I hope that, on the basis of the explanations and reasons I have provided, my noble friend will withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, can the Minister help us? It would be very useful to have this information before we come to Report. The evaluation of the bedroom tax—obviously the Minister will be familiar with it— has just come out in the last three days or so. It shows that over 55% of tenants affected by the bedroom tax were in arrears in autumn 2014, although of course many of them had already been in arrears. Does the Minister have any figures to try to separate out the effect of the bedroom tax on the arrears issue from the move to universal credit and its payment methods? What information does the department have, and is it collecting any? It will be quite hard now, because problems in paying your rent are beginning to layer on top of each other. We will need to disentangle these, if not for this Bill then for the Bill to come.
I will not resist the temptation of pointing out that there is no such thing as a bedroom tax; it is the removal of the spare room subsidy, and I will be answering a Question on that tomorrow. Interestingly, the direct payments project provided a lot of insight into this issue. It started off with direct payments and then people started taking on the removal of the spare room subsidy as well. I will try to find the precise figures for the noble Baroness, as I am speaking slightly from memory. We found that the people who had learned how to go through the direct payment process were able to handle the removal of the spare room subsidy more efficiently than others. I will aim to get the noble Baroness chapter and verse on that.
My Lords, I am disappointed by my noble friend’s response to these three amendments. He seems to have said no to all three of them and I find that very disappointing. I do not think he has said anything this evening that has given any encouragement to private landlords to take on people who are on universal credit. In fact, he has probably reinforced the idea that one should not take on people who are on benefits, but that is not what my amendments are trying to do; they are intended to get people on benefits to go into private rented accommodation. I do not think that my noble friend has helped at all this evening, but I will read what he has said more carefully tomorrow or over the holiday period. At this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 104B withdrawn.
Amendments 104BA and 104BB not moved.
House adjourned at 11.12 pm.