Housing Benefit and Disabled People
WATCH THE DEBATE BY CLICKING HERE
Westminster Hall 23rd January 2013
Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I welcome the Minister to her place and offer belated congratulations on her appointment. I wish to raise with her the effect of the changes to housing benefit on people in the social rented sector who are deemed to be under-occupying a property. I thank my constituents John Turner and Matthew Hancock, Karen Armitage of Stafford and Rural Homes, and my colleague Pauline Ingall for bringing this matter to my attention.
From April 2013, size criteria for new and existing working-age housing benefit claimants will be introduced; they will replicate the size criteria that apply to housing benefit claimants in the private rented sector. The Department for Work and Pensions’ impact assessment estimates that out of 660,000 claimants affected by the new rules, some 420,000 are disabled. The impact assessment offers the explanation that
“Disabled claimants are, on average, older than non-disabled claimants. One consequence of this is that disabled claimants are also less likely to live in households with children… Fewer people living in a household means that large accommodation cannot be justified under the size criteria, and Housing Benefit entitlement is reduced.”
In the debate on the Welfare Reform Bill last year, I raised the matter of disabled people sometimes needing more rooms than provided for by the rules. One family in my constituency with disabled adults and children needed separate rooms for the couple and a separate room for one of the children under the age of 10. The then Minister for disabled people, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), gave a clear answer. She said that
“if a disabled person has the need for an overnight carer, additional rooms can be allocated. Indeed, if there are disabled people in the house who require rooms, there will be clear support there for them to be able to have those rooms.”—[Official Report, 1 February 2012; Vol. 539, c. 937.]
I also raised the question of adaptations, which have sometimes had many thousands of pounds spent on them to enable a disabled person to live in the property. It does not make sense for people to move from such properties to others that will themselves require costly adaptations. I therefore welcomed the fact that of the additional £30 million per annum being added to the discretionary housing payment scheme by the Government from April this year, £25 million is intended to be used
“specifically to assist those disabled claimants who are in properties where a significant adaptation has been made to cater for their individual needs.”
I have contacted the two councils in my constituency to ask them how they intend to allocate the additional funding. Stafford borough council has been working with housing associations to identify tenants affected by the new legislation. It will be concentrating its extra funding, which I estimate to be some £75,000, on disabled people whose property has been adapted and on foster carers; the support will be for 12 months. South Staffordshire district council, which has an additional £64,000 funding, will give short-term support, one to three months, to disabled people with property adaptations. The support is short term, because the council wishes to assess the situation before it commits to the longer term.
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Both councils have been proactive in arranging mutual exchanges of properties between those who have spare rooms and those who are overcrowded—they have been doing exactly what the Government wish to encourage. However, both councils face serious shortages of one-bedroom properties for couples or singles, as much of the housing in the area has two bedrooms. That raises two questions for the Minister. First, can councils be sure that they will continue to receive at least the level of additional funding each year for discretionary housing payments that has been granted in 2013-14? Given that much of the funding will be for disabled claimants in adapted properties in which they are likely to live for many years, the need for DHPs will continue. Secondly, is the guidance for the assessment of the number of rooms required by disabled people being set out in the terms that the Minister used to me in the House last year? In addition to the case I mentioned, there are instances where disabled people live on their own or as a couple in a two-bedroom property with little or no storage space, and they tend to use the second room, which is often small, to store equipment that they need—perhaps a wheelchair or a mobility scooter. My understanding of the Minister’s comments in the House last year is that the second room should not be counted as a bedroom.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is making a compelling case. Some of the individuals affected are severely disabled and the uncertainty that he has outlined is creating great worry, and not just for them; some parents of disabled people are also concerned about the situation. Is it not imperative that an element of certainty is introduced to the system?
Jeremy Lefroy: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and I agree with him. Certainty is vital, which is why I am asking for clarification, and hopefully clarification in the terms used by the then Minister for disabled people in the House of Commons last year.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman on behalf of the whole House for pursuing this matter so consistently, and I congratulate him on having the benefit of having as a constituent John Turner, who I know is an assiduous campaigner on this matter.
Consistency across the country is also necessary. There needs to be monitoring by central Government of how the policy is being applied, because I think we will discover, as we are already discovering in some areas, inconsistency of approach by individual councils.
Jeremy Lefroy: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is right: in the two cases that I have outlined of Stafford borough council and South Staffordshire district council, we can already see some differences. Those differences have arisen not for ideological reasons, but because each council takes a slightly different approach. I am all in favour of local councils making their own decisions, but if we end up with a situation wherein some councils’ conditions for DHPs are drastically different from those of other councils, there will be serious problems. Of course, there is also the question
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of the different profile of housing stocks in different parts of the country, which has an impact on what the hon. Gentleman has said.
To continue discussing space, the size of the rooms also needs to be considered, but the rules specifically rule that out. A typical tenancy agreement may describe the bedrooms as “two plus one plus one”—in other words, one double bedroom and two single bedrooms. The single bedrooms are described as single for a reason—they are often very, very small, as I have seen for myself. Yet a family comprising, for example, a couple and two boys under 16 would be considered as under-occupying that type of property. The rules encourage that family to move to a two-bedroom property, which may itself be described as “two plus one” and where they would effectively be in breach of the tenancy. Surely, size of rooms needs to be taken into account when determining whether there is under-occupancy. I ask the Minister to reconsider the rules.
Of course, the family that I have just spoken about might not be able to find a such a property. In many areas, there is a shortage of suitable housing into which tenants can downsize, which is a serious problem, and it is probably the most significant reason why disabled people are by far the most likely to be affected by the changes to the housing benefit rules, given that, as the impact assessment stated, disabled people will tend to be in smaller households. There is nothing that disabled people, or indeed anyone else who is affected, can do about that situation. They cannot move into properties that do not exist.
Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Obviously, this is a massive issue for disabled families, but more widely there are 660,000 people on housing benefit who are likely to be affected by the changes, mostly those who are living in two or three-bedroom properties who will need to move to a one-bedroom property; they will be penalised, by an average of £728. Does he think it is fair that those people will be penalised in such a way when there is such a shortage of one-bedroom properties?
Jeremy Lefroy: It is a very difficult situation. I fully understand the Government’s need to get to grips with the housing benefit bill, and I will come on to that issue in a moment. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions considers these matters extremely carefully, and I have had personal discussions with him about them. I agree that there is a need to try to free up the larger housing stock for those people who are over-occupying properties—people who are overcrowded; I also have constituents coming to me with that problem. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is a problem of the kind he describes.
Will the Minister say whether, in allocating DHPs between councils, any allowance has been made for those areas in which there is short supply of the one-bedroom housing that is most suited to disabled people who are living on their own or as couples without the need for a carer? If no such allowance has been made, that needs to be taken into consideration, at least for while, until councils or housing associations have been able to provide such one-bedroom properties.
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Two of the reasons for introducing the rules are to encourage greater mobility within the social rented sector and to make better use of the housing sector stock. Those are important reasons at a time when families are struggling in overcrowded accommodation—a situation I am sure that all Members know of from their surgeries. The problem is in the application for existing tenants who are affected by the changes, two thirds of whom, as we have seen, are disabled. It is difficult to see the purpose in encouraging a family with, say, two girls, one of whom will be 16 in a year or two, to move away—even if they can find a smaller property—only for them to need to move back into a larger property when the under-occupancy deduction no longer applies.
If family incomes were such that an additional £12 or so a week was affordable, there would be no cause for concern, but for families in which one person is disabled, income is more than likely to be limited, and the need for a discretionary housing payment therefore grows. It is to deal with such cases that I encourage the Minister to increase the additional funding for discretionary housing payments. If £25 million is set aside to offset the reduction in housing benefit for disabled people whose homes have been adapted—that sum may in itself be insufficient—there will be little left for other difficult situations.
On another matter, a constituent visited me two weekends ago to put the case of fathers who live apart from the mother of their children but look after the children for, say, three nights a week. The bedroom they have kept for their children is considered spare, and hence subject to the reduction in housing benefit. I do not believe that a bedroom that is occupied by one’s children for almost half the week can be described as spare. The fathers therefore face a choice between paying the weekly amount while trying to live on jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance, and going into debt—those are their own words—or not having their children to stay. They all say they will do the former—go into debt—rather than not have the children to stay. I do not believe it was the original intention of the changes to force them into such a choice. We must not put obstacles in the way of fathers remaining in touch with their children. I ask the Minister to look again at the rule that does not count a bedroom used by children for two or three nights a week as part of the occupancy of the home.
The housing benefit bill rose from £11 billion in 2000-01 to £21 billion in 2010-11. Even in real terms, that is an increase of £6 billion a year. I fully appreciate the need to get a grip on this, but ultimately it is growth in the economy, improving incomes and a massive programme of building social and affordable homes, which I hope all Members will support, that will bring that bill down. In the meantime, I ask the Minister seriously to consider changing the rules as I have proposed in respect of children of parents living apart, and the minimum size of rooms that are expected to accommodate more than one child. I also ask that the Government ensure that the statement by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke when she was Minister for disabled people about there being “clear support” for disabled people to have the rooms they require is properly implemented.
At the same time, I ask the Minister to consider making an additional amount available to local councils’ DHP funds. That will give councils the opportunity to
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assist those whom the additional £12 or so a week, which they cannot avoid because of the lack of suitable properties to move into, takes over a tipping point at which their finances become unmanageable, potentially leading them toward eviction and homelessness.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Esther McVey): It is a pleasure to take part in a debate on such an important issue, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on securing it. It is also a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I believe that it is the first time that I have done so.
As we have heard, there is considerable interest among hon. Members in all parts of the House in housing benefit and how the benefits system supports disabled people, and it is important that we make time to discuss those issues in detail. Before I address some of the specific issues that have been raised, I will set out the Government’s approach to housing provision for disabled people.
As hon. Members will be aware, the Government are in the process of reforming the welfare system that will result in housing benefit for working-age people being replaced by universal credit. Current housing benefit arrangements include specific provisions for disabled people that mirror those for other means-tested benefits. They include, for example, a range of disability premiums, earnings disregards and permitted-work rules. With universal credit, we are simplifying the current arrangements to ensure that disabled people benefit from improved work incentives and a smoother transition into work.
My hon. Friend is right to point out that the cost of housing benefit has increased by about 50% in real terms over the past decade, with expenditure totalling £23 billion in 2011-12. That is simply unaffordable in the current economic climate. To begin to address it, the emergency Budget in June 2010 introduced a series of reforms to housing benefit paid to claimants in both the private and social rented sectors. Starting in April 2011, and finishing last month, we set up a series of reforms to local housing allowance, which is the basis for housing benefit awards made to people renting in the private sector. Those changes are intended to exert downward pressure on rents and introduce fairness into the system—for example, by setting caps on the benefit that is paid to ensure that the benefit system is not funding accommodation that many hard-working families could not afford.
Disabled people are not exempt from the reforms, but steps have been taken to provide some additional support to minimise potential adverse impacts on them. My hon. Friend mentioned the number of people affected by the social sector size criteria who are disabled. It is important to stress, however, that that reflects the general proportion of disabled people living in social sector housing overall. In answer to his question, I can confirm to my hon. Friend that the criteria allow for an extra room where a household has an overnight carer.
I am pleased to hear that Stafford borough council and South Staffordshire district council have been working proactively with tenants to identify, for example, where there may be scope for a mutual exchange. I have had other reports in the Department for Work and Pensions
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of such direct engagement with tenants. I must stress that many other options may be open to people, including those that they arrive at privately to deal with their own circumstances. Things that people can do—and are already doing—include moving somewhere smaller, finding the extra money required, or taking in a lodger. We are now waiving the income tax on that up to £4,250 a year. No tax would be payable on that sum. It is important to note that the private sector may have a supply of different sized properties and that people could move out of the social and into the private sector. When properties without the right number of bedrooms are not available in the social sector, they might be available in the private sector.
Anas Sarwar: Is the Minister seriously suggesting that people who are among the poorest and most vulnerable in our communities will be able to find £728, on average, from their annual income, to make up for the deficit in the housing benefit that they will get?
Esther McVey: I am not being specific about what people should or should not do. I am saying that there is an array of options, for which someone will find their best solution. The hon. Gentleman will, like me, have met people at surgeries who have said that they have come together as a family to work on the best solution for everyone. It is not a question of one person in isolation but the whole family. Many options are available. As we have said, we are living in tough financial times. What I am talking about is not something that we can take on board easily. We must just consider the fact that there are 1 million spare bedrooms in the current housing situation, but that 250,000 families live in overcrowded houses. We must ask what we can do to support those people.
Anas Sarwar: Will the Minister give way?
Esther McVey: I will proceed a bit further, and then if the hon. Gentleman wants to ask a further question he can.
There are always specific cases where the options in question may not be sensible or appropriate, and that is why we have trebled funding—a considerable amount—for discretionary housing payments, to give local authorities more flexibility to help people affected by the changes. Overall discretionary housing payment funding in 2013-14 will total £155 million. The funding has been allocated to support the bedding in of specific reforms, but we have listened to feedback from local authorities and as a result have built in flexibility that will allow authorities to allocate funding based on local needs. That flexibility includes, for example, helping disabled people who have made adaptations to their homes to remain in them, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford.
As I have said, there will be provision for those disabled people who need overnight, non-residential carers to receive additional payments for an extra bedroom. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar) pointed out that we are giving many types of support. The trebling of the discretionary benefit really does go to support the people most in need.
Anas Sarwar: On flexibility, is the Minister open to the idea of introducing a safeguard for people who cannot reasonably move to another local property because
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of the lack of availability and of sanctioning them only if they refuse a reasonable request? Is she open to that safeguard?
Esther McVey: The hon. Gentleman is speaking hypothetically. We have put in extra discretionary funds, because local councils will know exactly who those individuals are. We have put in extra money, and we have said that it is possible to move between the social and private sectors. With all the options that we have put in place, we believe that we will find solutions for all cases.
Jeremy Lefroy: I am grateful to the Minister for her answers. Will she give us some assurance that the additional discretionary funding, which we need to look at again to see whether it is adequate, will be continued through 2014-15 and 2015-16? Often the adaptations are such that it is not possible for a disabled person to move property in the next year or two. One of my constituents has adaptations worth some £30,000. It does not make any sense for them to move from their property.
Esther McVey: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I will come on to that a little bit later and explain in detail what we are doing. He will also appreciate that I cannot make spending commitments into the next Parliament. None the less, with regard to the discretionary housing payment, the Government are committed to ensuring that the reforms are well implemented. We are working closely with local authorities and the Local Government Association regarding this payment usage. As part of the review of these reforms, we are taking ongoing feedback, and I will be pleased to pass on the points raised here today and any further evidence that emerges as the reforms are rolled out. We will continue to monitor and evaluate the impact of the changes.
I should like to put it on the record that a lot of the negative impacts that people talked about last year, such as an explosion of homelessness and mass migration, have simply not emerged. We all want to ensure that there is a smooth transition and that the change is affordable. Of course we are using common sense. My hon. Friend talks about expensive modifications. We know that we have to take that into account, which is precisely why we have trebled the discretionary fund.
We have also made arguments for exempting certain categories from the social sector size criteria measure. However, we do not believe that blanket exemptions are the most effective and affordable approach to targeting resources, because they do not take into account local knowledge. We have therefore avoided exemptions where possible and favoured the discretionary housing payment, because local decision makers are best placed to make decisions based on individual circumstances.
Ian Lucas: The Minister is being generous in giving way. Can she foresee circumstances in which someone who requires an overnight carer is not allowed an extra room within the housing benefit provisions?
Esther McVey: That is precisely why we are monitoring and evaluating the scheme, and we will continue to do so for two years to see what extra support might be needed. Of course we are watching and observing what is going on. [Interruption.]I will complete my comments
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here. However, we are committed to undertaking the independent evaluation of all housing reforms. The first report on the private sector is due to be published later this year, and work on evaluating the social sector changes will be implemented in April, with initial findings being available next year.
I trust that I have answered many of the questions that have been raised today. On other specific matters, I will get back to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford. As I have already said, this is an important debate, and it is crucial that we closely monitor the situation. We are considering the most vulnerable people in society, and we have a commitment to them.
John McDonnell: I do not want the Minister to sit down thinking that there is no housing crisis out there. She referred to the predictions on housing benefit not coming true, but they have in my constituency. I have the worst housing crisis since the second world war. Nevertheless, she has mentioned monitoring, which is critical. Will she give an assurance that that monitoring will be published regularly, so that the House can receive and debate it? The points raised by the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) are critical. We must see what is happening on the ground, because a number of local authorities might want to work with Government to plan a transition over time. There will be a number of families for whom alternative private accommodation or social housing is not available and might not be available for years. An assurance that the monitoring will be published and that we will be able to debate it in the House would be helpful.
Esther McVey: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Of course, we have to monitor the situation, and I have confirmation from colleagues that the monitoring
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and evaluation will be made public. At the moment, there is much speculation about what might happen, but that is hypothetical. We do not know about that, but by monitoring closely, by introducing a discretionary fund and by working in a common-sense way with people on the ground who know best about local needs, we can get this right.
Jeremy Lefroy: I welcome the Minister’s commitment to monitoring, which is important. Will she say a few words about fathers who, unfortunately, are separated from the mothers of their children and who are not allowed to count the presence of their children in their home for up to three nights a week as part of the occupancy of that home? That is an important point. She and I, and I think all hon. Members present, feel that it is important for children to have regular access to both their parents—in this case, to their fathers.
Esther McVey: Again, my hon. Friend asks a key question. The heart of the matter is that we do not want children to suffer. Children must have what is right for them, but where a tenant has non-residential children, housing benefit may already pay for a room for the child or children in the place where they usually reside. Funding an additional room in both parents’ properties could be a double provision, but discretionary payments are the best way to address specific complex cases, which we are talking about here.
I am glad that all those points have been highlighted, and they will all be closely monitored. I thank my hon. Friend for bringing such an important debate to the House.
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Housing Benefit Entitlement
[Hugh Bayley in the Chair]
Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Bayley. I wanted to select the rules on the under-occupancy of social housing and housing benefit entitlement, which start this April, for this debate today because the Government’s proposal is divisive legislation. In fact, it is not only divisive but arbitrary, spiteful and deeply cynical. It has been devised either by those who have no understanding, knowledge or experience of social housing and do not care, or by those who have understanding, knowledge and experience of social housing and should know better.
The under-occupancy rules say all that anyone needs to know about this Government—tax cuts for the rich and a bedroom tax for the poor. The bedroom tax is being created by a mindset that believes only those who own their own homes can live in a community and those who rent with Government support, even though many of them are in work, are deemed to be a burden on that community and not entitled to, or deserving of a home and that they should be moved at the behest of others and not themselves.
What do the under-occupancy rules mean for social housing and council tenants? If a household rents from a social landlord and is in receipt of housing benefit, and it is deemed to have one spare bedroom, the property is seen to be under-occupied. The tenant’s housing benefit is reduced by 14% for one bedroom and by 25% for two bedrooms. It has been estimated that about 660,000 tenants will lose an average of £728 a year, starting from April.
Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that these proposals will also affect those who are in work? I had a constituent in my surgery a couple of Saturdays ago who had been made unemployed. He had gone out and got a part-time job in a filling station. His wife is a local carer as well, and because they live in a three-bedroom house—they have lived there for 30 years—and their family have left, they will be affected by the bedroom tax. Is that fair for striving people like that?
Phil Wilson: It is obviously not fair, but the bedroom tax is hitting people whether or not they are in work. This regulation is just plain wrong. The reality is that if a married couple have lived in a three-bedroom house for many years and had two children who have grown up and left home, the two children’s bedrooms are now deemed to be spare. The house is seen as under-occupied and the couple’s housing benefit entitlement is cut accordingly.
Julie Elliott (Sunderland Central) (Lab): The biggest social landlord in my city of Sunderland, Gentoo, has informed people who will be affected by this change, and even if those people are saying, “We’re happy to move to smaller premises,” there simply are not the smaller premises to move to. Is that fair?
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Phil Wilson: That is a very good point, and it is something that I will come on to later in my speech.
As I was saying, a married couple with a three-bedroom house, which they have lived in for a long time, will need to top up their rent from another source if they want to stay in the home and obviously, since the family is receiving housing benefit, any sources of additional income are extremely limited. That is something that this cynical Government are fully aware of.
Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): In my constituency, which is very young, there are a number of families who have two children of the same gender living in a three-bedroom property. Under the new rules, they would only qualify for a two-bedroom property. What would my hon. Friend’s advice be to them? Or perhaps I should ask what the Minister’s advice would be to a family who have a 15-year-old boy and a 12-year-old boy, with the 15-year-old about to turn 16 in a few months’ time, but in the meantime—from April onwards—the family will have to find that extra rent. Will that drive the family into the hands of moneylenders, or do the Government have a plan?
Phil Wilson: We should wait until the Minister responds to the debate to find out exactly what the Government propose for that situation, but I do not think that it will be very much really.
Basically, the hypothetical family who I am talking about could be forced to leave the family home, and that is exactly what it is—a family home, not just a house. They will have no space for their grandchildren, who will not be able to stay with their grandparents. For families who are forced to downsize because of the cuts in housing benefit and who are in need of a one-bedroom property, the National Housing Federation has found that, although approximately 180,000 social tenants are under-occupying two-bedroom homes, less than 85,000 one-bedroom social homes are available.
Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; he will have a few applications to intervene on him, given the interest in the debate. I completely agree with his analysis of the general impact of the proposal, but will he say something about the complete lack of any exemption? Foster carers, who are doing everything they can for society, will be hit by the proposal between placements. It is absolutely unconscionable. Surely, this cannot be the way for the Government to proceed.
Phil Wilson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I will come on to foster carers in a little while.
The lack of mobility in this sector—between two-bedroom properties and one-bedroom properties, for example—is a product not of tenants needlessly under-occupying larger homes, but of the logjam created by a national shortage of affordable homes, particularly two and one-bedroom properties.
Dame Anne Begg (Aberdeen South) (Lab): I spoke to the Glasgow Housing Association last week, which is the largest provider of social housing anywhere in the UK. It reckons that the shortfall that it will face could mean that 700 houses that it would have built each year will now not be built. So, rather than helping with the housing shortage, the proposal is making things worse.
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Phil Wilson: That is another good point. I will come on to discuss that situation, which is also affecting my own local social housing providers in County Durham.
I understand that the Department for Work and Pensions has recognised the lack of available smaller properties. In its impact assessment, it notes that there is a mismatch between household size and the availability of suitable homes in the social sector for under-occupying claimants to downsize. I will now look at how that will affect County Durham, especially my constituents in Sedgefield.
Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. In north Lincolnshire, North Lincolnshire Homes—the social housing provider—has 1,500 people who are deemed to be under-occupying properties and only 40 single-bedroom properties become available every year. People in huge distress are coming to see us about this matter, and it is very distressing.
Phil Wilson: It is very distressing, and the point that my hon. Friend raises again about the lack of one-bedroom properties will be starkly set out in the next part of my speech.
Livin, which used to be called Sedgefield Borough Homes, has about 8,500 properties, and about 1,609 of those households will be affected by the bedroom tax: 1,365 households are under-occupied by one bedroom and the remainder are under-occupied by two bedrooms. Livin only has 204 available one-bedroom properties. East Durham Homes—another housing association, which covers the communities of Wingate, Wheatley Hill, Thornley and Deaf Hill in my constituency—has said that it would take seven years for it to re-house all the tenants affected by the bedroom tax. For Livin, the period required to re-house affected tenants would be much longer. Both East Durham Homes and Livin estimate that the bedroom tax would mean that the 2,977 of their households that would be affected would have to find almost £1.8 million from elsewhere to go towards paying the rent on their existing homes, or the people in those households would have to go into arrears or move out, but there are not enough one-bedroom properties.
Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): My constituency, which is a neighbouring constituency to that of my hon. Friend, is similarly affected. There is another housing association in my constituency, Dale and Valley Homes, and there are a further 875 people affected in this way. Some of those individuals are being pushed to live on as little as £23 a week. Does he not think that that is utterly disgraceful?
Phil Wilson: At the beginning of the 21st century, it obviously is. Bishop Auckland, the constituency that my hon. Friend represents, shares some of the statistics regarding Livin, because it covers both our constituencies, and it is concerned because of the proposal that its rent arrears could double from 4% to 8% in the future. In a briefing note prepared by Livin, it said:
“Rent arrears will increase, affecting cash flow, which could mean that the loan facility made available to Livin for improvements and development of the housing stock may be required to fund administration. This could only be considered as a temporary
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position and Livin would need to readjust its spending to avoid borrowing for ongoing day to day costs.”
I said earlier that the impact of these new rules would be arbitrary on families and communities. Here are a couple of examples. The DWP’s equality impact assessment shows that 66% of claimants who will be affected by the bedroom tax are disabled. Although recipients of disability living allowance are exempt from the overall benefit cap, the DWP has chosen not to exempt them from the bedroom tax.
Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning disabled people. He may be aware that Ministers have made much of access to discretionary housing payments for disabled people. Indeed, Ministers have implied that the money has been allocated specifically to meet the needs of disabled people. But, of course, the money is temporary and limited, and the discretion of local authorities whether to pay only to disabled people cannot be fettered. Is it not totally misleading to imply that discretionary housing payments will in any way compensate for what has been lost?
Phil Wilson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will address that in my speech, which many hon. Members seem to have read. The Minister will probably say that that budget is being increased, but it is not ring-fenced.
A man came into my constituency office. He is divorced, and he cares for his children for part of the week. He receives housing benefit and lives in a two-bedroom house. The children’s mother, however, is deemed to be the main carer, so his housing benefit will be docked by 14%. He will need to move into a one-bedroom property, if he can find one. His main problem is that, if he moves into a one-bedroom house, how will he look after his children for part of the week?
Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab): Is it not extraordinary that no Conservative Members are here, other than the Parliamentary Private Secretary, to defend the policy?
A couple came to my constituency office, and they live in a specially adapted bungalow. The wife has to have morphine through the evening, so the husband has to sleep in another room. Under the proposals, they will have to move out of that specially adapted bungalow, all because some politicians want to say that they are getting tough on scroungers. That is not about fairness; it is about cheap, nasty politics.
Phil Wilson: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point with which I do not think any Opposition Member would disagree.
The gentleman who came into my constituency office is an example that exposes the modern Conservative party and, indeed, the coalition. Conservatives like to see themselves as the party of the family, but they are not the party of poor people who need support to keep their family together.
To address those issues, the Government have offered additional discretionary housing payments to help people with disabilities remain in properties adapted for their needs. As those payments are often limited to just a few months, however, they are not a viable long-term solution, because they fail to give people with disabilities the
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assurance that their housing needs are secure. Also, the payments are made from budget-limited discretionary funds. The payment budget distributed by local authorities will come under significant pressure, following major cuts to local housing allowance for private sector tenants, and local authorities might choose to prioritise those who are at risk of homelessness, rather than social tenants with disabilities.
The Fostering Network—the voice of foster carers throughout the country—successfully campaigned for a £5 million addition to the discretionary housing fund to compensate foster carers who may have their housing benefit cut from April. The network is hearing from foster carers who have received under-occupancy letters. Some housing departments either do not know about the fund or will not use the money for foster carers. The network reports that 9,000 foster families are needed to meet the foster carer shortfall in 2013. There is already a recruitment crisis, and the network is concerned that the situation will worsen as a result of housing benefit reform.
The Minister will no doubt say that the under-occupancy rules will bring the social housing sector into line with the private sector, but the new rules are retrospective and penalise people who brought up their families in a council house in which they may have lived for years—the average tenancy for social housing is some seven years. The bedroom tax penalises couples who have done the right thing and who over the years may have spent their own money on decorating and maintaining the property. The property is not theirs to keep, but they have respect for what is their home anyway.
No doubt the Minister will also say that the change is required to help to pay off the deficit, because the Government expect the bedroom tax to save £450 million to £500 million. The Government’s plans are spiteful and cynical, because the only way that the £500 million will be saved is if those who live in under-occupied properties cut their standard of living still further by trying to remain in their home, by not downsizing and by paying the additional rent. The Government are trying to get tenants to pay their own housing benefit out of money that they do not have.
Mr Kevan Jones: My hon. Friend’s constituency, like mine, is a recruitment area for the British armed forces. Is he aware of the case raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop)? A mother, whose son has joined the armed forces and is fighting in Afghanistan, will be hit by the tax because her son is not at home and she has an extra bedroom. Is that fair from a Government who say they are standing up for our armed forces?
Phil Wilson: That is not the way to treat the armed forces, especially when they are on active service in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The Government say that they are trying to save money, but that is impossible for the great majority, who will be forced to choose between their home and a basic standard of living. There is a shortage of one-bedroom properties. If people choose to move into the private sector, rents and housing benefit claims might be higher. The changes hit right across the board, including members
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of the armed forces, the disabled, the vulnerable and sick people who sometimes, but not always, need a carer.
Meg Hillier: In my constituency, private sector rents are so much higher than in the social rented sector that moving is not an option for people in such circumstances. Does my hon. Friend agree that in my constituency, and I am sure in other constituencies too, many people do not understand that the change will happen from 1 April, or from when their tenancy renews? Does he foresee a big social problem arising from the Government’s lack of ability to communicate this invidious policy?
Phil Wilson: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. As MPs, we are seeing a great increase in benefit casework. As we get closer to 1 April, the casework will get even harder.
The under-occupancy rules are the manifestation of the Government’s appalling manipulation of the welfare debate. The language is the same old narrative that we have had down the ages: to secure their own position, the Tories pit one section of the community against the other. Once, it was the deserving poor and the undeserving poor; now it is strivers versus shirkers.
This legislation is unbecoming of a civilised society: it is born of ignorance and raised by prejudice. What is deserving of a civilised society is a new house-building programme, decent jobs, a growing economy and one nation in which we truly are all in it together. The legislation is wrong and should be repealed at the earliest opportunity.
Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): I intend to start the wind-ups at 3.40 pm, which gives us 53 minutes or so. Eleven Members are on my list as seeking to speak, so I will impose a time limit of five minutes to begin with. I warn Members that that might leave some of them at the end with slightly less than five minutes, and if there are interventions even less still.
Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing this important debate.
This policy, more than any other, except perhaps direct payment, will have a major impact on local housing associations and social housing providers. Wigan and Leigh Housing manages 22,600 properties, and 68% of our tenants are on housing benefit. Of those properties, 4,571 are under-occupied and in receipt of housing benefit. Nearly £3 million in housing benefit payments will be lost to that social housing provider, and our shortfall is in one-bedroom and two-bedroom accommodation. For example, our one-bedroom stock is 5,591. In 2011-12, 852 properties were void, and demand for those properties was 2,089 people. We simply cannot re-house people in one-bedroom properties.
If, as predicted by the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research study, 32% wish to downsize and move to the private sector, that will not offer any savings. In fact, more will be paid for a two-bedroom property in the private sector in Wigan than is paid for a three-bedroom property in the social sector. We have an oversupply of three-bedroom properties. The cumulative
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effect of the council tax changes will be some £3.50 a week for exactly the same group of people. The study estimates that 26% of tenants will not be able to pay the under-occupancy charge. If 42%, as estimated by the study, do not pay, the ultimate sanction will be eviction.
Has the Minister tested the courts’ view of a tenant who has requested a move, for whom no property is available and who cannot pay? What will be the courts’ opinion? If such people are evicted, based on an average eviction cost of £6,852 per person, my local social housing provider will lose £13.1 million. That £13.1 million will not be spent on building houses, repaying debt or improving stock for tenants. Wigan has done some modelling and made some assumptions about what will happen if the under-occupancy tax goes through as planned, and the change will cost the Department for Work and Pensions £229,000 per annum and, as I said, the authority a possible £30 million in eviction costs. There is no saving for the Department—it is not a policy aimed to save money.
Moreover, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield mentioned, the reassurances about the discretionary housing payments will certainly not meet people’s shortfall. The total budget for Wigan is £456,000, which will assist with only 15% of the charge. If the amendment proposed by Lord Best was agreed—a penalty only for under-occupation by two bedrooms or more—the situation in Wigan would be mitigated somewhat and the DWP savings would be delivered. In Wigan, if one bedroom could be under-occupied, the savings to the DWP would be £371,000 and the scheme would reduce the number of tenants affected to about 1,000, potential bad debt to £249,000 and eviction costs to close to £3 million. That is not a great policy, and it would pass central savings to the local budget, but it would be more manageable in areas such as Wigan.
What modelling has been made for areas such as Wigan of that amendment and the increased savings for the DWP? Has all the modelling been London-centric? Will the Minister consider looking at Wigan and other areas in the north and north-west, where there is a shortage of smaller housing, to mitigate at least the effect on communities and tenants?
The under-occupation tax is trying to solve a problem that simply does not exist in my area and other such areas. In doing so, it is creating massive problems for individuals, social landlords and communities.
Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): I am losing my voice, as you can probably tell, Mr Bayley, but I was so upset and incensed by the proposals that I am doing my best to speak on behalf of the 4,000 Wigan households that will be affected from April. Collectively, those households will have to find nearly £55,000 a week in extra rent. I am clear that the vast majority will not be able to manage, so they will have to downsize. As we have just heard, however, we have a problem: we do not have one and two-bedroom properties available. The demand for them already far outstrips demand for other properties; for example, 62 households are waiting for four-bedroom homes and 2,000 for one-bedroom flats.
Put simply, downsizing is not an option, so tenants will be forced into the private sector, where rents are between £20 and £40 a month higher. If only half of
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tenants make that move and claim the local housing allowance, the Department for Work and Pensions will not save a single penny, but those families will have had their lives disrupted, leaving the homes that they have grown up in and with children forced to move schools and childhoods destroyed.
I have little doubt that Ministers are aware of such implications of the policy. Last year, I wrote to the then Minister to ask whether a constituent would be expected to move in April—his mother had recently died from cancer, leaving him under-occupying, and he is now suffering from terminal cancer himself. The Minister did not give me a commitment that my constituent, a man with only up to two years to live, would not have to move. The policy, to use the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson), is one of the most spiteful and callous that I have ever seen enacted by a Government.
In Wigan, it is not clear whether people will be able to find homes in the private sector, because larger properties make up 75% of the stock. It will take 33 years, at current building rates, for private and social housing collectively to meet needs. The situation is unclear, but if those people simply cannot afford to live in their properties, they may well have grounds for being re-housed as unintentionally homeless. Can the Minister tell me where he expects a housing authority such as mine, without access to smaller properties, to put those people? How on earth can creating this unnecessary, callous revolving door of homelessness, destroying people’s lives in the process, possibly be a moral policy to pursue?
Finally, I want to make a specific point about foster children, to which my hon. Friend alluded. It is absolutely scandalous and a damning indictment of the Government’s lack of commitment to the most vulnerable children that, apparently, no thought at all was given to foster children when the policy was devised. Foster children simply do not count—they are invisible—for the purposes of the policy and the purposes of a spare room. The money that has since been made available through a discretionary fund, as my hon. Friend said, is not widely known about among foster carers or local authorities. Furthermore, that pot amounts to only £100 per child, which is woefully inadequate for the foster children already in the system, let alone for the many more whom the Minister’s colleagues in the Department for Education are rightly seeking to place.
We have a huge shortage of foster carers in this country, and the situation for children waiting in the care system must be urgently rectified. Where is the thought given to those children, or the commitment from their Government? Why did the Government overlook those children in the first place? Why do those children simply not count? Why has so little money been made available? Despite concerns expressed by the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), why has the policy not been reversed? Why was the money for such children not ring-fenced? It might not even be used to help their situation. Can the Minister, if he will not reverse such appalling regulations, at least commit to amending them, so that they do not make the situation worse for some of the most disadvantaged children in this country?
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Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Bayley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing the debate, which gives Members the opportunity to highlight the abject failure and inherent contradictions that lie at the heart of the Government’s housing benefit reforms. Lord Freud, in response to hon. Members’ letters, suggests that the reforms are aimed at encouraging mobility within the social rented sector, at strengthening work incentives and at making better use of social housing. My response is clear: it doesn’t, it won’t and it can’t.
I will highlight, through constituents’ cases, how the policy is nothing more than a crude and naked attempt to place an ever greater burden on some of the most vulnerable people in our communities by slashing budgets. I get the sense that, as an abstract idea, reducing the welfare bill by cutting housing benefit to all the supposed scroungers living in houses far bigger than they need is a policy that will press all the Government’s public relations buttons. The problem is that we are not talking about abstractions; we are talking about families, people’s homes and perhaps forcing people to choose between food, heating and paying the rent.
I have 103 families affected, and I wish to race through three examples. One such constituent is accepted by the council as unintentionally homeless. She has a five-year-old child, is pregnant and is in receipt of jobseeker’s allowance. She could be a perfect example of the type of person whom the Government are seeking to characterise, stigmatise and castigate. Yet, when the local authority comes back to her, it is with an offer of a four-bedroom property, so her housing benefit will be reduced by 25%. That constituent and her young family will go from being homeless to facing extra financial burdens. In the long term, that means increasing her debt, so she faces possible eviction by the very people who gave her the house, because she cannot pay the 25% contribution required as a result of being given a property that was too big in the first place.
West Lancashire borough council, as the housing body, is, by its allocation policy, complicit in the inappropriate letting of properties. That allocation policy perpetuates the exact problem that the Government claim that they intend to solve by reforming housing benefit. If I were being kind, I could suggest that the case highlights the fact that social landlords and councils do not have the range of housing stock to meet the challenges that the Government are setting. People are making short-term decisions to put a roof over their heads and neglecting the long-term consequences of under-occupancy. Why is my constituent left to face the consequences of a decision that will be forced on her?
My second example is that of a disabled man living in a two-bedroom property—it was a three-bedroom property, but it was adapted. His daughter is in the armed forces, so he technically has two bedrooms empty. If he moves to a smaller flat—there are none available, by the way—the council will have to pay for adaptations to be made to the new flat, while removing the adaptations from the original flat to make it available for re-letting.
Another case involves a constituent who is separated. He has his children to stay on alternate weekends and midweek. The Government say they defend families
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and put them at the core of what they do, but this policy does not show that at all. The February 2012 impact assessment says:
“savings in Housing Benefit expenditure will only be realised in full if social tenants do not seek to move from the homes they are under-occupying”.
Rather than wanting people to move, the Government would prefer them, ideally, to stay where they are and pay the increased costs, even if they do not have the money.
This policy is absolutely unfair, and that has been shown by the contributions made so far. The Government are abjectly failing to offer people the range of accommodation or the jobs that would enable them to alter their situations. I do not call it fair when the Government place greater burdens on the most vulnerable.
Simon Danczuk (Rochdale) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) for securing this important debate on a critical issue. I want to talk about two families who came to see me in Rochdale, but they are just two of the many who have come to see me. I also want to speak briefly about the impact on community cohesion and the role of housing providers.
Mr Berry and his family came to see me relatively recently. After a serious accident 17 years ago, Mr Berry and his wife had no choice but to take the council home offered to them. Since then, they have brought up their two children—a boy and a girl—in the three-bedroom property. They have made modifications, and they have made the house into their home. They are very much part of the local community. However, the Government’s bedroom tax means that they will have to move out of their house. After 17 years, the family are being pulled out of the community in which they have lived for so long. That leads me to the first point I want to make.
Families who have lived for decades on council estates in places such as Rochdale are being forced to move. Homes are being taken away from people, and they will be filled by Asian or Afro-Caribbean families, because that is the nature of the demographics in places such as Rochdale. That will have a direct impact on community cohesion, and that impact should not be underestimated. It will create tensions, and there is the potential for conflict. The Government’s impact assessment on this policy took no account whatever of community cohesion. It is as though the policy has not been thought through.
Let me turn to the second family who came to see me, just before Christmas. The husband is a paraplegic. They have lived in their property for 15 years. The council has spent £18,500 adapting it. It has three bedrooms, one of which is used to accommodate a lift. The other two bedrooms are used by each of the individuals in the home. They have been visited by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, and they have been told that they will have to pay £22 a week extra or they will have to move out. The family described that as the last straw. They have been through so much in their lives. The lady was crying in my surgery on the eve of Christmas, because of the Government’s policy.
I explained to the family the possibility of receiving temporary discretionary housing payments, but they are not enough. The Government do not seem to understand the misery that they are creating. They
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have housing providers such as RBH running around implementing their policy, which is having a devastating effect on families and communities. That leads me to my second point.
Housing providers such as RBH have an excellent track record in managing their stock. RBH has mixed communities, because it focuses on creating a balance. It takes into account people’s individual needs, and it constantly reviews under-occupancy and acts on it. The Government should leave housing providers to manage their stock; it is not for the Government to micro-manage such things.
Let me finish by making two important points. First, there is the potential for community conflict as a result of this policy. Secondly, if this is such a good Government policy, why is there not a single Conservative or Liberal Democrat Back-Bench MP here to defend it?
Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I congratulate the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on bringing such an important issue before us. It will have huge unintended and unpredictable consequences for at least 80,000 people in Scotland, some of whom are among the most economically impoverished in our community.
The problem with the way in which the Government have sought to frame the debate on changes to the occupancy rules is that it fails to acknowledge that that debate takes place against the backdrop of changing population demographics and underlying problems in the supply of affordable housing. It is also being implemented against the backdrop of a labour market in which jobseekers far outnumber vacancies, and increasing numbers of jobs are seasonal, temporary or based on zero-hours contracts. All this talk about subsidised spare bedrooms is yet another attempt to vilify people on low incomes in a vain effort to justify their having to pay the price for the financial crisis and the double-dip recession.
To debate this issue properly, we need to acknowledge that there is a fundamental mismatch between the social housing stock available and the needs of tenants and prospective tenants. Most of our social housing stock was built at a time when families were much larger and the population was less mobile. Across Scotland, about 44% of social tenants require a one-bedroom home, but only 24% of the homes available are that size. In other words, many tenants have no choice but to live in a home that is larger than they need. An estimated 69,000 tenants in Scotland cannot currently be accommodated in a suitably sized house in the social rented sector.
In Aberdeenshire—my own patch—we have a growing population and a depleted stock of public sector housing, and there is a chronic shortage of affordable property to rent. There are more than 7,000 people on the waiting list. Many of them have little prospect of being offered a house any time soon. Although Aberdeenshire has a much higher percentage of one-bedroom properties than most local authorities, it still does not meet demand. People desperate for a house will take any house offered, whether or not it is the appropriate size.
The main issue I want to talk about is the unintended consequences of the bedroom tax on individuals, social landlords and the wider economy. It is hard to predict how tenants in receipt of housing benefit will respond
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to the cuts, bearing in mind that the real-terms cut in working-age benefits will also put the finances of most of them under considerable strain. We can probably assume that some of those who can move, will move. Some might seek to absorb the cuts within their existing finances, while some might take out loans to cover the gap between their rent and their income, which is a risky short-term strategy. It is highly unlikely that housing association tenants will mitigate the impact by taking in lodgers, because many are explicitly prevented from doing so by the terms of their tenancy agreements. We have to face the fact that some tenants will fall into arrears. When we consider the bedroom tax in tandem with the move away from direct payments to landlords and other benefit cuts, we have a recipe for significant problems with rent arrears, and a possible rise in evictions in the social and private rented sectors.
Housing associations fear that financial instability and cash-flow problems could affect their credit ratings, and I echo the point made by the Chair of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg). Social landlords need to be able to borrow to invest in new properties and maintain their existing properties. If lenders start to see them as a higher risk, their borrowing costs will rise, which will inevitably put inflationary pressures on the rents of existing tenants and thwart the investment that is so badly needed.
The bedroom tax threatens to undermine the progress that has been made in Scotland over recent years in introducing new, affordable social housing to deal with rising demand. It is a mean and miserable measure that will cause real financial hardship to people on low incomes. It will drive people into rent arrears and into debts they will struggle to repay. It will also drive people from their homes and uproot them from their communities. Too many of the people affected by the measure are moving in and out of low-paid, insecure, temporary short-term work. Because of the bedroom tax, not only will they have no job security; they will lose housing stability as well. Coming hard on the heels of real-terms cuts in financial support for low-income households, the changes will exacerbate our existing economic malaise, by taking money out of the very communities that need it most. They will make it more difficult for non-governmental actors to invest in quality, affordable housing.
I urge Ministers to think again and to look at the Benches that are empty of people prepared to defend the policy. If Ministers are devoid of empathy, I encourage them to take a hard-headed look at the unintended economic impact of the bedroom tax, and to consider the unacceptable social costs.
Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on obtaining this important and well supported debate.
quite understand that at a time of housing shortage it is important, particularly in Stockport, which has more than 7,000 people on the social housing waiting list, to ensure that people have the appropriate housing and to address issues of under-occupancy. My problem with the policy is the way it is being implemented, and
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the lack of local flexibility for the families and individuals who, through no fault of their own, will be disproportionately affected. It is always a problem with blanket policy changes. No central edict can take account of people’s varying individual circumstances, and inevitably the result will be that some will be put in desperate circumstances.
I will give only one example. I have a constituent who lives in a two-bedroom flat and who receives housing benefit. He is under the care of Manchester royal infirmary renal team, and is about to start dialysis at home, while awaiting a kidney transplant. He needs the extra room for the dialysis machine and to store fluids. He told me:
“My concern is when the new rule comes into effect this year, I’ll need to downgrade to a one bedroom flat as the housing benefit won’t pay for the extra room”.
I took up his case and have been told that he is not exempt, but that if he had an overnight carer staying in his flat he would be exempt. I am sure that the Minister would agree with me that it is very disruptive for someone who has a long-term illness to move home, and possibly area. I do not think that the Government intended the policy to have such an adverse effect on seriously ill and vulnerable individuals. However, part of the problem is the lack of flexibility given to organisations such as Stockport Homes to respond in a way that gives them discretion in those very difficult cases.
Stockport has 1,500 tenants affected by the rule, who now need rehousing in one-bedroom flats; but we have a turnover of only 300 one-bedroom properties a year. Where are people expected to go? The alternative, of course, is the private rented sector, but recently there has been an increase in private rented sector repossessions in Stockport, and landlords are not keen on taking people in receipt of housing benefit. Also, we have a smaller private rented sector than elsewhere. That means that people will inevitably have to move out of the area.
Different areas have had different local housing policies. For example, under previous housing policies, families in Stockport have been offered a three-bedroom flat or house if they have a boy and a girl both over five years old. However, the new policy means that if they receive housing benefit they can have a three-bedroom flat only if they have a boy and a girl over 10, so families currently living in three-bedroom flats or houses in my constituency will be hit by the rule. Moving out will be very disruptive for children, who will have to change schools. They will lose their friends and their parents will lose family and community links. Often, those are the very families that other agencies are concerned to support in a settled environment.
It does not make sense to me that the policy of one Department can so adversely affect the policy of another. Localism, and local partnerships working together to support families, should mean that some flexibility is given to local social landlords about the implementation of the policy. That would mitigate some of the disruptive impact on families who, through no fault of their own, were rehoused under previous housing policies.
Kate Green: On the point about discretion, the local authority will be able to use the discretionary housing payment, to the extent that there is money in the pot; but does my hon. Friend agree that it will be first come,
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first served? If her constituents’ circumstances are presented late in the financial year, there will be no money to enable the discretion to be exercised.
Ann Coffey: My hon. Friend makes an important point; and the payment is meant to be temporary. It will not support someone on a long-term dialysis programme.
Finally, it is difficult for Stockport Homes to let two-bedroom flats, and that is the reason for the current under-occupancy. Now it is going to have to advertise outside the area for tenants for those properties. It is a strange social policy that results in people having to leave the area where they have family and community links to make way for people to come in, from outside, to an area where they have no such links. That is another unintended but serious consequence of the proposals. My plea to the Minister is that he will consider giving social landlords some discretion so that the worst of the consequences to vulnerable individuals and families, who we all agree should not be affected, can be mitigated.
Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab): I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing this important debate.
One of the justifications for the changes is that they will bring about a better use of currently available housing stock and that somehow penalties for under-occupancy will force tenants to leave their homes—I stress they are homes, not houses—releasing two-bedroom properties and thereby alleviating overcrowding. The theory might get off the ground if there was evidence that such exchanges were possible and practical; but the evidence is that whereas 180,000 social tenants are allegedly under-occupying, just under 68,000 single-bedroom properties became available last year. We have heard today that it would take an age to achieve what is intended. There simply are not the properties to go round. That analysis does not even begin to take into consideration new entrants to the market. The waiting lists are considerable. The policy simply does not stack up.
In Middlesbrough the policy will have an impact on 2,410 claimants. The reduction in benefits across the piece will be something short of £1.5 million. Of course in the areas of my constituency where people are already struggling, and finding things hard, the additional burden will be the final straw for some. There will be untold misery. I heard from Citizens Advice recently about my constituent David Holdsworth, who lives in a three-bedroom property with his wife and severely disabled 33-year-old daughter. He is paralysed from the waist down and has continence issues. His wife is his full-time carer and sleeps in the spare room. Because of his disability it is not practical for her to stay with him. They have been informed that the bedroom tax will affect him, because they have a spare room. He cannot afford the cut to his benefits, and the solution that has been put to them is that he and his daughter should move into a home and his wife should move into a one-bedroom property, breaking up the family.
Another example concerns a gentleman who lives in a three-bedroom property. He is the father of triplets and his three daughters live with their mother, but
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during the school term they stay with him for periods in the week. One of his daughters is autistic, and he says that she needs her own room, for reasons specific to the family. According to the bedroom tax he has two spare rooms, and his benefit will be cut by nearly £30 a week.
Some weeks ago my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield and I called at the door of a lady in Pallister park in my constituency, who was living in what had been her family home. She and her husband and daughter had lived there 38 years. Her husband had passed away, and her daughter had moved on to life with a husband and family. My constituent has been told, after 38 years, that she has a spare room and must leave. In reality, that resource—that home—is used. She is a grandma and takes the two children so her daughter can go out to work. Now she is being told she must leave the house. No one-bedroom properties are available to her, so her only option is to go miles away, and disrupt that family unit totally and utterly. That is a consequence of this terrible measure.
Anxiety is an issue. Not everyone knows what is coming, but many people are getting used to the idea and are knocking on the doors of constituency offices, and going to their citizens advice bureau. The terror and worry of thinking that they will lose their home is something that hon. Members who should be in the empty seats on the Government Benches do not begin to understand.
Niall Cooper, national co-ordinator for Church Action on Poverty said:
“There is a real danger that people will be pushed into the hands of loan sharks by the housing benefit cuts…For some this will push them over the edge”.
We know where they are going with the annual percentage rates that they may face—into spiralling debt with homelessness on the horizon. This dreadful provision should be revoked immediately, and people should come to their senses before it is too late.
Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) for this debate. We could be here for much longer, as is increasingly the case with our debates on these so-called reforms. I hope that when the Minister replies, he will not waste time pretending that the aim of the measure is to re-allocate social housing. There are other ways of doing that, and building more houses is one of the more important ones. However, the measure does not do that. If every local authority successfully reshuffled people in houses, almost certainly the same proportion would be on housing benefit, so there would be no saving. The Government have the saving in their budget, so it is not about that and they should not bother to pretend that it is.
A constituent who is in her 50s lives in a two-bedroom housing association house near the city centre, and has been there for six years. She has received a letter suggesting that she could take in a lodger. Her second bedroom is very much a single bedroom and very small. I do not know whether most people who support the measure ever go into the sort of houses that are being built. The kitchen is off the living room, which is fine for a family, but how does that work with a lodger who may be a
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stranger? Not only would she be sharing a bathroom, perhaps with a younger person whom she had never previously met, she would be sharing a kitchen off the living room. That is not even semi-practical, and my constituent was outraged at the prospect, but £50 from her benefit is very steep.
Many local authorities will do their best to help people, as will housing associations. They will look at the allocation policy to see whether they can make things easier, although they will merely be moving the deck chairs on the Titanic. They may manage to move some people, but the majority of homeless applicants are single people who will have to be housed in one-bedroom houses if they need housing benefit. Local authorities will be juggling one group of people with another. Even if some tenants in two-bedroom houses are moved into one-bedroom houses, homeless people who are waiting for one-bedroom houses but cannot be moved into those two-bedroom houses will wait even longer.
This week, I looked at what was available not just in my constituency, but throughout my city. Some 36 one-bedroom properties are advertised. The council and all the housing associations, bar two very small ones, advertise together. Ten of those properties are sheltered housing, and people who are not eligible cannot be housed in those houses, so that is 10 out of the way already. Another 11 properties are ground-floor flats, which are mostly allocated to people with what is called gold priority—top medical priority—for housing, because they are on the ground floor and if a ramp is necessary it can be put in.
Some people with gold priority may also be affected by the bedroom tax, which might be convenient, but the chances are that they will not. If we give those ground-floor flats to able-bodied people who do not need them, people who are waiting to get out of a third or fourth-floor flat for medical reasons will become angry. People frequently bend my ear about that if they think it is happening. People who must be moved because of the bedroom tax cannot be prioritised.
That leaves 15 houses available for let this week. A one-bedroom third-floor flat has attracted 110 online bids—that is not the total because paper bids can also be made—since last Friday. A one-bedroom first-floor flat in the city centre attracted 303 bids. Even a one-bedroom flat in a multi-storey building has attracted 35 bids. Those are active bidders, not people on a waiting list that might be described as not real. Those people are probably not yet affected by the bedroom tax, but the houses are simply not available. The real reason for the spiralling housing benefit bill is not under-occupancy of social housing; it is the huge expansion of the private rented sector and its high rents. That is what the Government should be addressing to bring down the housing benefit bill.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): This is the third debate I have attended on this issue in the past two days, which gives an indication of its seriousness. The Minister replied to one of those debates yesterday so he should be increasingly aware of the concern about it. I shall focus on the occupancy provisions as they affect disabled people, because we have heard much from other hon. Members about other issues.
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I shall refer to two cases, having been approached by parents of adults with disabilities who will be profoundly and specifically affected by the changes. One, Mrs Rosemary Burslem, asked me to specify the particulars of her son’s case. She is in her 60s and has an adult child, David, who has severe disabilities. He has autism and needs overnight sleep-in staff, as well as one-to-one staff support during the day and two-to-one support when he goes out in the community.
In the view of David’s mother, who has looked after him for many years, it would be inappropriate for him to share a house with anyone with a learning disability because his behaviour is very challenging. He regularly takes food out of the fridge, as well as cutlery and crockery to bedrooms for no apparent reason. He flushes the toilet regularly, and switches electrical items on and off. His behaviour is regularly obsessional, which makes it virtually impossible for him to share accommodation with anyone. David has what Mrs Burslem describes as mega-tantrums. She says they are like the tantrums of the terrible twos, but 30 times worse because he is in his 30s. He is angry, frustrated and feels unwell, and is unable to work or live easily with other people. He then acts for no apparent reason, and all that makes it extremely difficult for him to live with anyone else.
The difficulty with the proposals is that they do not recognise or take account of such circumstances. I know that there are discretionary housing payments, but the reality is that that family is coping now with the uncertainty arising from the proposal.
The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Steve Webb): Without full details of the case it is difficult to discuss it, but the hon. Gentleman said that the lady is in her 60s. Will he clarify whether she is above or below state pension age?
Ian Lucas: She does not live with David, so I am not sure whether that is relevant.
The problem is that the proposal is causing uncertainty to the family now, and there is no certainty about whether discretionary housing payments will be for an extended period or affect them permanently. I will forward full details of the case to the Minister. I do not expect a specific answer now.
I have been contacted about another case of adult parents who share a house with an individual who suffers from spina bifida and hydrocephalus. An additional room in their house is used for the storage of oxygen and other disability aids, and a separate room is used as a living room by the individual concerned, who has specific and profound additional needs. Under these proposals, none of the particular circumstances for those individuals is taken into account, and they are some of the people who we all think—and I am sure the Minister thinks—should have our support, but they have no guarantee that they will continue to receive it. The fact is that this set of proposals is creating enormous worry for people who have huge burdens in caring for people whom they care profoundly about. They have contributed enormously to society by helping to look after those people for very many years, and we are letting them down badly.
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I implore the Minister to look at the particular applications of the rules in those cases to ensure that those people can be looked after. When they came to me and said, “Look into these matters”, I could not believe for one moment that the system would not include discretion to cover individual cases such as those. The proposals are ill-conceived and are causing enormous distress up and down the country. The Government, and I am sure the Minister, did not intend to create such situations. He needs to look at the proposals again.
I heard the Minister’s response yesterday, and in it, he referred to the deficit, but the reality is that the Government, at the same time as they are letting those people down, have chosen to give a tax cut to the richest people in the country. That is the type of political choice that we all have to make, and the reality is that the Minister has supported that choice. He needs to get his act together to change his approach and support the people who need support, and not the people who have most.
Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): All Members have been very disciplined in their speeches, so we are almost on time. It seems to me that in a debate of this kind it would be a shame, and wrong, to cut the time for the two remaining Back Benchers, so they will each have five minutes, and the Front Benchers therefore will have nine minutes each.
Gemma Doyle (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Bayley, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing the debate.
Like other hon. Members, over the past few months, I have been contacted by many of my constituents who simply do not know what to do about the policy’s implications. There is not a smaller house for them to move into, and they are not going to be able to afford their rent.
One of my constituents lives in a three-bedroom house, which he needs, as he looks after his children at weekends—similar to some other examples we have heard—but his housing benefit will be cut. If he has to move to a one-bedroom house, does it mean that it is right that his children only get to see him if they all sleep in the living room at weekends? Where should they do their homework? Would he even get access to see his children if he does not have somewhere for them to sleep, if the courts were involved in making a decision?
I have also been contacted by a couple who foster up to six children at a time, and again, they are not exempt from the cut. Is the Government’s policy honestly to cut housing benefit for foster parents, which means that they have to downsize and that they cannot foster children any more? What on earth are the Minister’s plans for the children who will then not be able to be placed with foster parents? Another constituent has sent me his monthly expenditure breakdown. The only thing he has left to cut is his contents insurance, and even then, that will not make up the difference.
What about tenants whose house has been specially adapted for them? Councils do not have the money to adapt another tranche of houses for all the people who have an extra bedroom. Some councils are considering knocking down a whole block of flats—from two-bedroom
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flats into one-bedroom flats—to try and deal with this. The Minister is nodding his head. Does he honestly think that that is what councils should be spending their money on? Okay, he does. We have that on record. I am a bit shocked about that.
I also want to raise the impact of the bedroom tax on serving members of the armed forces and their families, as alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). A prisoner can be away from home for up to 52 weeks and not have their housing benefit docked, but if someone is a serving member of the armed forces, their housing benefit will be docked if they are away for 13 weeks or more. It is astonishing that Ministers are giving prisoners more flexibility to claim those benefits than serving personnel. They are choosing prisoners over patriots. Some 96,000 members of the regular forces do not live in service accommodation, and I want to know how many of them will be affected. The Minister seems to be indicating that they will not be affected. Perhaps he can explain how that is, because we are aware of examples where they will be. Service families and personnel could be hit for doing their duty for their country.
Reservists will be affected too. They do not live in forces accommodation, so surely an even higher percentage of them will be hit. The Government are trying to increase recruitment to the reserve, so how do they think the prospect of having a housing benefit cut will affect those plans? They must publish the impact of the bedroom tax and set out very clearly who will be affected. It is the least they can do to clear the matter up for our forces. Either Ministers do not realise that serving personnel and their families will be affected, or they think that it is right that prisoners should have an exemption, while those protecting our country do not.
I want to read out a couple of lines from an e-mail that I received from a constituent about the impact that the policy will have on him:
“I am 40 years old, receiving incapacity Benefit, and live alone in a 2-bedroom flat. I struggle to make ends meet as it is at the moment, and literally keep track of every penny I spend. I do not drink, or smoke, or go on holidays, or socialise—my existence…consists of hiding from the world in a cold flat (I cannot afford to use the central heating) and reading. I cannot even visit my parents because I cannot afford £4 bus fare.
Come next April, I will no longer be able to afford to live. I do not enjoy my life, but have struggled to retain it. These changes are likely to be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, and I am sure I am not the only person considering this.
I would like to know, in your opinion, what I can realistically do next year to survive.”
I have replied to my constituent, but I could not tell him how he can survive when the impact of this policy is felt, so I wonder whether the Minister could tell my constituent what he can do.
Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing this most important debate. I, for one, am not surprised to see the Government Benches empty, because people cannot defend the indefensible.
I want to speak on behalf of the 2,400 tenants of Bolton at Home and more than 4,500 tenants of Wigan and Leigh Housing who will face unaffordable bills because
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the Government have decided that the poor should pay the price of the wrongs of the rich. The policy demonstrates an absolute lack of understanding of the nature of social housing and communities.
The majority of social housing in the north-west is three-bedroom, and families with two children have rightly been allocated three-bedroom houses so that each child can have their own room, and also, because that is the available housing stock. Please remember that many of those families have one or both parents in work, in low-paid jobs. Housing benefit is an in-work benefit.
What is going to happen now to constituents with a boy and a girl? They are currently nicely housed in a three-bedroom house. Is it the Minister’s expectation that they would move into a two-bedroom house until one of the children reaches the age of 10, when they would have to move into a three-bedroom house? What happens when one of the children moves out? Are they then expected to move back into a two-bedroom house, and then into a one-bedroom house when both the children move out? That is even if all the housing stock is available. Just imagine the monetary costs—how could people on low wages or benefits afford new carpets and curtains each time they have to move house, or does the Minister expect them to have bare floorboards and newspaper at the windows? What about the children’s schooling? Will they have to keep moving schools, or will the family have to find additional money for transport to school? Fundamentally, what about the community? Social housing is not only somewhere that you sleep; it is where you live and become part of a community—a community that will be fractured by this ridiculous, ignorant policy. The policy will also have a perverse effect. Already in Bolton, groups of three young men are applying for three-bedroom family houses, so that they can each claim shared-room rate.
Hon. Members have talked about many other aspects of this policy, so I will finish by talking about Isobel, who came to see me about her situation—I have changed her name. Isobel lives in a three-bedroom house. She has a daughter who has just moved out, into a fairly insecure relationship, and she has a 17-year old son with Down’s syndrome. Isobel is a full-time carer and she herself understandably suffers from stress and depression. Isobel’s son—I shall call him Carl—is severely affected by Down’s syndrome. He has what I can best describe as autism-like symptoms. He cannot cope with change to his routine or environment. He needs everything to be in its place and everything to be done in the same way at the same time every day. Indeed, while Isobel was visiting me in the surgery, she received two phone calls to come home as quickly as possible because Carl was becoming extremely agitated by her absence.
Isobel has told me that Carl could not cope with a move. Moreover, Isobel gets support from her community. Neighbours understand Carl’s behaviour and support her both physically and morally. What is she supposed to do? She cannot work; she cannot move. What is the Minister’s answer to that question? I hope he will not say that she could get a discretionary housing payment. Bolton at Home does not yet know how much it will get, but it has already worked out that it will not have enough money to support everyone in need.
The Government do not seem to understand that social housing is a positive choice for low-paid workers, for carers and for a number of others. It is not something
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that is transient. It is the home in which someone wants to live their life and to bring up their children until they move into their bungalow or sheltered housing. Surely the Minister cannot continue with this mean, ignorant and, frankly, incompetent policy.
Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): We have made up a minute, so the Front Benchers now have nine and a half minutes each.
Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): I not only congratulate but thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) for calling this debate. The number of my hon. Friends who have taken part and the brilliant, passionate and well informed speeches that they have made show how important this issue is for so many of their constituents.
We agree with the Government in wanting less overcrowded and less under-occupied social housing. We want to see sensible, practical welfare reform. We also agree that the housing benefit bill needs to be reduced. The problem with the Government’s plan is that it is unlikely to ease housing supply or to save money. In fact, it could end up costing more. It could also mean, as so many of my hon. Friends have said, that disabled people, war widows, foster carers and the families of members of the armed forces all lose out. As we have heard, some could even be made homeless.
However, despite all the criticisms, defeats in the House of Lords and warnings from housing associations, local authorities and experts at charities such as Shelter and Crisis and organisations such as the National Housing Federation, Ministers are determined to press ahead. As a result, in a few months, about 660,000 tenants will be charged up to £20 a week for bedrooms that Ministers say they should not have or they will be forced to move. Ministers claim that living in a council flat with a spare bedroom is
“a luxury the country can no longer afford”.
I will set aside the nauseating spectacle of a millionaire Minister telling poor people that they are living in luxury and will instead consider whether the policy will work. It is supposed to make under-occupiers move into smaller accommodation, but the Government’s own impact assessment makes it clear that all the savings that it is estimated the policy could make are based on the assumption that no one will actually move at all. Instead, all the savings come from reductions in people’s benefits. This policy is literally based on making some of the poorest people in Britain poorer, and it is being implemented, as we have heard, at precisely the moment when millionaires and the super-rich are getting a tax cut.
Let us consider a practical example. Someone with terminal cancer who is receiving employment and support allowance and is in the support group, which is for people who are not expected to work again, has a spare bedroom in a two-bedroom council house because their child moved out recently. They would be happy to move into a smaller home, but the council does not have one available. According to the National Housing Federation,
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although 180,000 social tenants in England are under-occupying two-bedroom homes, only 68,000 one-bedroom social homes became available for letting in 2009-10.
Usually, there simply will not be a one-bedroom social home for the cancer patient to move into, and more one-bedroom homes will not become available as a result of the policy because, after all, it is not possible to under-occupy a one-bedroom flat. Therefore, they would lose £14 a week, on average, which they would need to make up to their landlord from their benefit income. That is £60 a month straight out of the pocket of someone with terminal cancer. How are they supposed to cope with that loss of income? The Government suggest that they work to make up the difference, or take in a lodger. For people with terminal cancer or the most genuinely disabled people, work is often not much of an option, and it certainly should not be forced on them. Taking in a lodger simply is not an option for many vulnerable households either.
Therefore, one of three things could happen, not just to the family I am talking about, but to hundreds of thousands of others, too. First, they could lose income and be pushed into poverty. Secondly, they could move out to a smaller home in the private sector, but that means higher rent and higher housing benefit bills, and a policy that is supposed to be saving money will end up costing much more. Thirdly, they could end up in rent arrears, be evicted and even end up homeless.
Let us be honest: homelessness is a real possibility. Even the office of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government—a man not known as a bleeding-heart liberal—warned that the Government’s housing benefit reforms could make 40,000 people homeless and that the policy could cost more than it saves. The Government claim that discretionary housing payments will help to make up the shortfall between housing benefit and rent, but both the National Audit Office and the Child Poverty Action Group find that the funding available is likely to be woefully inadequate.
I would therefore like to ask the Minister a few questions—first, about the cost of this policy. We have heard already that the policy will make savings only if it does not work, and it is set to push people into private rented accommodation, making supporting them all the more expensive. Will he tell us why the Government have estimated the costs of the policy on the basis that no one moves, but loses benefit instead? Will he tell us what estimates they have made of the number of people likely to move into expensive private rented accommodation? Given the serious concerns about the cost of the policy, can he give us an assurance that under-occupancy deductions will not be increased if the Government do not make the expected savings?
The Government seem to have casually accepted that as many as 40,000 people could be made homeless by the policy. What does the Minister say to the housing association that has told us that it expects to have to evict one third of its tenants? How many children does the Minister think will have to move school as a result of the policy? Have the Government put any measures in place to ensure that local authorities can cope with the increase in the number of homeless people? What estimate has been made of the cost of supporting homeless people and getting them back into housing?
I would also like to ask some questions about the people who will be forced to rely on discretionary housing payments after the changes. The Government
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have indicated that they expect disabled people with adapted housing and foster carers to apply for the funding. Why should they face the prospect of being moved out of adapted homes on the basis of whether their local authority has enough money left in the DHP pot? Surely, that is a monumental waste when significant time and money has already been invested in their homes. Discretionary housing payments are short term, and new applications must be made every few months, so how are disabled people and foster carers supposed to plan their lives when they cannot be sure that they will be able to afford their house in a few months’ time? Local authorities desperately need to know how much funding they will have, to plan their responses to the changes, so why did the Minister tell the House at the end of October that the Government still have no idea how much money will be allocated to local authorities for the next two years?
It has also emerged that not just disabled people and carers might be forced to rely on short-term discretionary housing payments, but soldiers. The Daily Telegraph recently reported, as we heard earlier, that the families of service personnel will face deductions if they keep a room for a family member away on duty. Why should brave men and women serving their country in the armed forces have no room to come home to, because under-occupancy deductions have caused their family to move? What assessment have the Government made of whether the policy contravenes section C.4 of the armed forces covenant, which states:
“Members of the Armed Forces Community should have the same access to social housing and other housing schemes as any other citizen, and not be disadvantaged in that respect by the requirement for mobility whilst in Service.”
Can the Minister tell us what discussions he has had with the Ministry of Defence on this issue?
As I said, there is no dispute about wanting to tackle overcrowding and under-occupancy or the need to get the housing benefit bill under control, but as Labour Members have shown, the current plans are unlikely to ease housing supply or to save money and could end up costing more. Worse still, they will put people in debt and risk making them homeless. Labour’s alternative where under-occupiers would face deductions if they had been offered a smaller property and refused it would have worked and would have saved money. The fundamental truth is that the best way to get the benefits bill down is not to attack the families of disabled people, soldiers or poor tenants, but to get everyone back to work. That is what Labour’s jobs guarantee would do. Britain needs reform that is tough, fair and, most of all, works.
The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Steve Webb): I congratulate the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing the debate. This is indeed an important issue. This is the second debate on it this week to which I have responded. It is good to have the opportunity to put on record the response to a number of the issues that have been raised and to deal with the myths that are growing up around service personnel, but it is worth briefly setting this debate in context. Most of my remarks will be about the specific matter in hand, but it is almost being implied that the Government woke up one morning and thought,
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“Wouldn’t it be great if we could take some housing benefit off people?” It is important to understand why this is being done.
In the final year of the last Labour Government, every time the Government raised £3, they spent £4. The word “morality” has been used extensively in this debate. Borrowing money that we expect our children to pay back is not a progressive thing to do. Parents who go out and blow money on their credit card and say to the kids, “When you grow up, you can pay it off” would be regarded as irresponsible. That is what we have to deal with now. Whichever party had taken control in 2010—
Steve Webb: No, I will not give way. Both parties set out deficit reduction plans, which involved spending cuts worth tens of billions of pounds. Public spending consists fundamentally of public sector pay and social security and tax credits—those are the two big areas. Both sides agree that public sector pay has to be held back, but benefits and tax credits also have to be part of the mix. Within the benefits budget, where could we have looked? Where is the low-hanging fruit? Where are the easy things to cut? Of course there is precious little of that. Housing benefit is a large part of the benefits budget and it has been rising fast, so is there an area in the housing benefit budget—
Steve Webb: No, I will not give way. Is there an area in the housing benefit budget where we can save money and tackle some of our housing problems?
Steve Webb: I have said that I am not giving way. This is an area of the housing benefit budget where we can better manage the housing stock. Let me give a specific example. It has been said in this debate that for housing benefit not to cover a spare room is immoral; that is the tenor of what has been said. When Labour introduced the local housing allowance, private sector tenants did not get housing benefit for a spare bedroom. Where is the morality in saying to private tenants that they cannot have a spare room, when social tenants, who are paying a subsidised rent, can? They could be living next door to each other, and we are favouring the social tenant over the private tenant. Why should housing benefit not cover spare rooms for private tenants when it does for social tenants? It is simply not fair.
The second unfairness that we have to tackle is overcrowding. A quarter of a million households in England are overcrowded, and they have had no voice in this debate. They are trying to get family homes, and homes that they need. They are living in overcrowded accommodation—
Lisa Nandy: Build some houses.
Steve Webb: I should like to point out that the shortage of affordable social housing did not start in 2010. Somebody had 13 years to sort that out, and it needs to be tackled now.
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Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): Order. May I ask Members not to make remarks from a sedentary position? The Minister has quite a lot of points to respond to, and he has made it clear that he does not want to give way.
Steve Webb: Thank you, Mr Bayley. The second unfairness that we must tackle is the needs of people who live in overcrowded accommodation. A quarter of a million of them need to have a voice in this debate, because all too often they do not, and we must tackle that.
People have rightly said that these are family homes. They are not just houses; people have lived their lives in them. I accept that, which is why we have exempted people over state pension credit age. Essentially, someone who is a pensioner is not affected by these changes; we are talking about people of working age.
How will people respond to the change? There are a range of responses. It has been mentioned that housing benefit is an in-work benefit in some cases. Nationally, the average loss from this policy is £14 a week. For someone who is in work on a minimum wage, that is the equivalent of about two and half hours of additional work; it is not quite that because of tapers and so on, but we are talking about a few hours of extra work as one option—
Lisa Nandy: Where is the work?
Steve Webb: Again, the hon. Lady is talking from a sedentary position. She cannot control herself. On the day that we have published yet another set of figures showing another fall in unemployment and record growth in employment, she asks, “Where is the work?” The myth that there are no jobs available when we have more people in employment than ever before needs to be countered.
For some people, taking a job or working extra hours is an important part of the solution. It has been mentioned that taking in a lodger or a sub-tenant is not an option for some people, but for many it will be. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) said that that might be an issue. In general, housing associations and social landlords should allow orderly sub-tenancies—a person cannot just take someone in and tell the landlord after the event. There has to be a strong reason to refuse such an option. The presumption is that it can be done, so it is part of the mix.
I had a constituent who was a single person living in a three-bedroom social housing accommodation. She had a letter about under-occupation, so she phoned me up. She said that she had a brother and sister-in-law who could live with her. That is a better use of the housing stock; it meets their housing need and covers the shortfall. Such improved use of the housing stock benefits us all.
I want to address discretionary housing payments, which were raised by the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) in her thoughtful contribution. The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) also mentioned discretion. We are being asked to do contradictory things here. Where people have identified groups such as foster carers or people with major disability adaptations to their property, rather than central Government defining exactly what that means in every case, we have allocated
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the money that we think is needed to deal with the problem and given it to local authorities to respond on a case-by-case basis.
We think that such local discretion is right, but we have been asked to give local discretion, except in every such case also to have an absolute right to make a discretionary housing payment or to exempt people. That is the tension. There are all sorts of individuals whom we might think should be exempt. Trying to sit down and write a regulation or a statutory instrument to define exactly who all those people are does not work, which is why we have allocated discretionary housing payments—this year of £60 million and next year of £155 million—to local authorities. Let me take as an example Durham’s local authority. Last year, it had £177,000 of DHPs. Next year, it will be £880,000 of DHPs to respond to the sorts of people whom hon. Members have mentioned.
I want to respond to the issue about service personnel. I assume that the things that have been said are based on ignorance, rather than on an intent to mislead. Let us take the example of a married serviceman or woman. If one goes away, it does not matter, because there is still a one-bedroom need, so married service personnel are not an issue. Service personnel who live in service accommodation are also not an issue, because they are not social tenants on housing benefit.
We are talking here about service personnel who live in social rented accommodation with their parents and who are on housing benefit, so we are getting to narrower and narrower groups. If a member of the armed forces who is on a wage is living at home with his mum and dad, the benefit system says, “Ah, there is somebody in the house on a wage.” We expect that person to pay up to £70 a week towards the rent—it is called a non-dependant reduction. When the serviceman or woman goes to the front line, and if they are away for a long period, we no longer treat them as a non-dependant in the household, so we no longer deduct £70 from the housing benefit. When a young person goes away to fight for a long period, the parents’ housing benefit will in general go up. That is not the story that the Labour party has been putting out today.
We have been asked about foster carers. We think that the discretionary housing money that we have made available will assist around 5,000 foster carers. Let us bear in mind, though, that this is not all foster carers. I am talking about foster carers who might be in social rented accommodation, on housing benefit and in need of a spare bedroom, so a subset of all fosterers. Of course the fostering organisations would prefer a total exemption; I accept that. Failing that, their estimate is that these are about the right numbers of people, and we have had meetings and discussions with the fostering organisations.
The important issue of children was raised. The majority of people who are affected by this measure do not have dependent children. We are generally talking about older people. None the less, the position of families with children is important. It was suggested that two teenagers of the same gender should not be expected to share a bedroom. I do not follow that argument. I shared a bedroom with my brother until we were 18, and I do not think that it did us any harm. At a time when we have a great shortage of affordable accommodation, I cannot see what the problem is with older teenagers of the same gender sharing a bedroom.
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An important question has been asked about whether DHPs are temporary or permanent. In the past, DHPs were a temporary fix. If someone had a short-term problem, they needed a bit of DHP to bail them out and then they moved or did something about it. Under the new system, DHPs can be for the long term, because some situations will not change. If someone lives in a house that has been substantially adapted, that will not change. Local authorities are getting revised guidance and will have to think about DHPs differently, because some people need longer-term certainty, as has been properly said.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan said that we had a size mismatch, and indeed we do. When a council is doing something about it—building houses to match the housing need—the hon. Lady asks how I can possibly think that that is a good thing.
Dr Whiteford: Will the Minister give way?
Steve Webb: I have just 60 seconds to go. When councils build houses of the right size to match housing need, they should be applauded and not condemned.
The hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) said that we need to manage over-occupation and under-occupation. We have had decades to do something about that, but nothing has happened. Some housing associations have welcomed the opportunity to look at the housing allocations to make better use of the precious resource of social housing. I fully accept that there will be disruption as a result of this measure, which is why we have a two-year programme looking at all this work, evaluating the impact and publishing the research. If we need to make changes to the system as we go because there are perhaps groups or impacts that we have not thought of, we will be in a position to do that. The matter will be thoroughly researched, and we will publish the results. At a time when we need to save money, being fairer to people in the social sector and the private sector and tackling overcrowding as well as under-occupation is a fair way to reduce the spending deficit that we were handed by the Opposition.
Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): I congratulate all Members—Back Benchers and Front Benchers—on sticking to the time limits, so everyone was able to get in.
23 Jan 2013 : Column 132WH
3 thoughts on “Transcript: Bedroom Tax Debate Westminster Hall Wednesday 23rd January 2013”
Hi, JJ thanks for putting this on the site but can you also highlight an earlier debate, I think the day before, on underoccupancy in Wales. Steve Webb attended as the government poster boy for the bedroom tax but he said something very interesting. For the first time there was an acknowledgement that there are mechanisms in place to change the policy if necessary, This arose in response to a query about discretionary houisng payments but he went on to say; “We have a fairly flexible lever if we get early signs that there are problems in particular areas”. He then went on to suggest people check they are getting their full benefit entitlement as DLA (his example) could top up household income. Of course DLA is meant to be disregarded as far as HB is concerned but no surprises that the gov don’t understand the benefits system that they’re hell bent on destroying. But my first point is that there may be signs that, if pushed hard enough, they know they will have to modify or repeal this disastrous policy and a bit of hard campaigning could well pay off.
David Cameron’s own ministers know this bedroom tax is a cruelty too far now.