As mentioned in my last post, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has now published a report and consultation on housing benefit. The paper sets out the departments thinking on Local Housing Allowance (e.g. direct payment to landlords) and makes interesting reading.
The report starts with a bit of self congratulatory backslapping, for example reporting that the turnaround time for new benefit applications has gone down by 45 days for the worst areas, that official error has been halved, and that complaints to the Local Government Ombudsman have gone down by 75%.
As is to be expected in the current financial climate, a major element in any reform today will be reduction in expenditure. As was reported in my post yesterday, one element of this was to be the withdrawal of the right for tenants to keep up to £15 for any excess of Local Housing Allowance (LHA) over the actual rent charged. However this change is not now going to take place until 2011.
Overall the Government want to simplify the system which they say is too complex. One long term ambition is to integrate housing benefit into the rest of the benefits system, although they accept that this will take some time.
They also want to encourage people more to go into work (always assuming that there is a job for them to go to). There is already an in-work benefits scheme but take-up of this is currently low, with about half of working people who might be entitled not claiming it. A new transition into work scheme is therefore being considered.
They are also considering awarding benefit for a fixed period of time, to reduce the complexities of the current system, where all changes in income have to be reported.
They report that rent levels generally are increasing, which is costing the system. The main reason for this is scarcity of housing, and more housebuilding is needed. However they also want to re-assess the way LHA rates are set, as they consider that these are sometimes set too high. The paper gives some suggestions on how this could be done. There are also proposals to change the fairer size criteria.
One of the most interesting aspects of the paper is the proposal to use housing benefit to bringing about improvements to the condition of properties and improve their energy efficiency. For example they are considering making the payment of benefit conditional upon properties meeting specific standards.
Many landlords have complained about the rule which provides that in most cases benefit is paid direct to the tenant and not the landlord. It looks as if this could be relaxed, but be made conditional upon the property being in good condition. Perhaps it is best to quote the paper itself here:
6.9 However, some stakeholders have raised concerns about the operation of direct payment of Local Housing Allowance to customers and we know that, in some cases, safeguard procedures are not being operated well enough. This is why we are working with local authorities to improve the guidance which helps them make decisions and to improve the quality and consistency of the decisions themselves.
6.10 But we would also like to consider returning an element of choice to customers which would enable them to decide to have their benefit paid directly to the landlord. We could consider requiring landlords to improve the quality or energy efficiency of their property in exchange for receiving direct payments.
6.11 The standards could include the Energy Performance Certificate Ratings, the Housing Health and Safety Rating Systems, operating in England and Wales, or the Repairing Standard—a standard for the repair of private rented accommodation in Scotland.
This is only a brief summary of the report as it affects the private sector, and does not cover everything. If you are interested you should look at the report itself. It is some 40 pages long and can be found here.
The paper is also a consultation exercise and has at the end a list of 15 questions the department would particularly like to have feedback on. The consultation period lasts until 22 February 2010. Anyone affected by the proposals set out in the paper should be sure and get their responses sent in by that date. Even if there is a change of government, it is likely that something is going to be done, so your answers will hopefully not be wasted.
Information about where to send feedback is given at the end of the report.
If you have any strong views on the matters set out in the report, I would also be interested to hear them and please leave your comments. For example what do you think about the suggestion to make payment of benefit conditional upon property standards and energy efficiency?