Under new guidelines to take effect next year, councils have less discretion to top up housing benefit payments for the poor. In the Commons Mr Blair demanded: "Why don't you tackle directly the excessive rents being charged by private landlords rather than making tenants the victim?"
The Prime Minister replied: "I am pleased to see you commit yourself - and I hope the whole country heard it - to rent controls. That is what you are doing. You can't shake your head."
He went on: "Presumably in the private sector it would mean no more available lettings. Presumably in the public sector you would hold down rents artificially and push up the level of borrowing and tax."
Mr Blair's office later insisted that the Labour leader was not proposing rent controls and said his focus was on housing benefit fraud by private landlords.
A spokeswoman said the Government's policy of forcing up rents had resulted in a huge growth in the benefits bill.
But another reason for the growth in the cost of housing benefits was fraud by landlords. Councils were finding difficult to protect the public purse because of lack of staff.
Frank Field, Labour chairman of the Social Security select committee, said: "If the policy is to protect taxpayers, the drive against landlord fraud of housing benefit would be at the top of his agenda." The committee's investigations suggested the bill for fraud could be as much as pounds 1bn a year.Reuse content