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Under-Occupancy Penalty (Birkenhead)

Volume 560: debated on Tuesday 26 March 2013

Mr Benton, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, on not only a personal but a regional level, as I will explain. I am grateful to the Speaker for giving me the opportunity to debate this issue, which unfairly affects my constituency, yours and others in the north-west.

I have been in the House for more than three decades, and I have witnessed many so-called welfare reform measures, but I have never witnessed a measure as grossly unfair as this one. As the Minister well knows, under-occupancy is a supply-side issue, yet we are trying to control the demand side to make people on low incomes fit into the regimented holes into which the Government would like them to fit.

I know the Government have a fig leaf to parade around to cover their nakedness, and no doubt we will hear about it. They will say that there is a huge number of people in social housing properties who have too many bedrooms and a shortage of social housing. If only those damn people would move from their under-occupied properties to ones that fit, a major problem would be solved. We all know that it will not be, for reasons that I hope to explain.

I feel so strongly about what the Government are doing to my constituents and similarly placed constituents around the country that I call on both social housing and housing association landlords to defy the measures, not by not operating them, but by doing what landlords did after the nine years’ war, when a Government similarly stretched for money imposed a window tax. In many instances—we see it in older properties in our constituencies—landlords bricked up windows. I hope that landlords will brick up the doors to spare bedrooms and, where appropriate, knock down the walls, so that the properties can safely fit the tenants. I have never before asked for direct action. I do so now because I feel that the measures are grossly unfair. In more than three decades, I have never debated such a vicious cut. Even if most people wished to do what the Government want them to do, they would be unable to do it.

The background to the case is that the Government claim that there are 1 million spare bedrooms throughout the country, and that the subsidy for those spare bedrooms costs £500 million. If only they could get people to move around to fit into the accommodation that the Government would like them to have, £500 million in public expenditure would be saved. The means of doing so are as follows. From April this year, those who have one so-called spare bedroom will lose 14% of their housing benefit, and those who have two spare rooms will lose 25% of their housing benefit.

This is the last opportunity for the House to debate this wretched measure before it comes into effect in our constituencies. We know that about one third of social tenants will be affected, and that their average loss of benefit will be £14 a week. We know that 40,000 will lose their entitlement entirely, and, as I said, a higher percentage of tenants in the north-west will be affected than in London and the south-east.

In this debate, I will rely on figures supplied by Riverside, one of the larger housing associations offering accommodation to my constituents. Some 25% of its tenants will be affected by this vicious little measure, and 20% of tenants of Wirral Partnership Homes will be affected. Let us look at the facts that Riverside dug out. In the three years between 2008 and 2011, in one part of my constituency, Tranmere and Rock Ferry, 500 new tenancy allocations were made. Of those households, 302 needed one bedroom, yet only 126 one- bedroom flats were available. Even if those tenants wanted accommodation that fitted their needs as defined by the Government, they would not be able to meet the policy. Riverside sensibly asked those who would be affected by this vicious little measure what they intended to do to try to balance the books. Some 32% said that they would try to move to smaller properties, 11% said that they would ask people in their household to help them pay the rent, 16% said that they would ask people outside their household, 17% said that they would try to earn extra money, 9% said that they would take a lodger, and 42% said that they would probably fail to pay the rent.

I want to dwell on two aspects. One is the 17% who said that they would try to earn more money. One of the Merseyside police’s worries about the measure is that there has been a significant increase in the number of people being encouraged to use spare bedrooms to grow pot. One consequence of this Government action will be to enable those gangs who try to enrol vulnerable constituents to make extra money in that way. That will be a real first for the Government. They should be proud, shouldn’t they?

Let us then look at the 42% who will fail to pay their rent. They will face eviction due to significant reductions in their income. Of course, they will try for a time to cut down on other necessities, such as fuel. I can switch on the heating, but unlike me, many of my constituents do not switch it on during the day. They will now spend even less time with their heating on. Others will eat a far less healthy diet.

When push comes to shove, what will those with children do? They might let their rent fall into arrears, which the Government do not seem to realise is a far better option than not paying other bills, because other bills attract penal rates of interest if they are not paid, and as yet—although no doubt there will be a measure to help them—local authorities and housing associations cannot enforce this wretched little measure by charging interest on debts that accrue.

My plea to housing associations is not to evict. As a result, their revenue will be affected. All the housing associations in Birkenhead have gone down the route of going to the banks to pledge their future revenue against loans. Once the revenue is not forthcoming, what will the banks do? I would prefer the housing associations to go bankrupt rather than bankrupt my constituents. One of the not-so-hidden consequences of this vicious little measure is that housing associations will risk going bankrupt. What will the Government do then? They will not be able to allow them to remain bankrupt. I hope that a plan B that is slightly more effective than the plan B for the economy is on the stocks.

Let us suppose that the tenants could move. The housing stock is not available, but suppose they could. We know from those who have managed to find alternative accommodation that it actually costs more. For example, one-bedroom places in Birkenhead average £71 a week, but in the private sector they are £88 a week. If every wonderful tenant in Birkenhead affected by this vicious little measure did what the Government wanted, the savings would not be made and the housing bill would go up, defeating the measure; the Department for Work and Pensions, which wants people to move around to free up accommodation, would have to have a serious conversation with the Treasury about why the idea has failed to deliver the £500 million cut.

Housing associations should follow the example of the landlords who took action after the nine years’ war to ensure that they and their tenants did not pay an unfair tax. If tenants request such action, the doors to spare bedrooms should be blocked up, as the windows were, and their walls should be knocked through to make one larger room, where it is possible and safe to do so; that would apply only where no downsizing options were available. It would not solve the problem of a grossly unfair tax, but it would mitigate some of the worst results by freeing tenants from this poll tax.

The Government are of course unlikely to achieve the £500 million cut in housing benefit demanded by the Treasury, but their cover is blown anyway: for the reasons I set out, even if all the tenants could move to smaller accommodation, the Government would make no savings in public expenditure at all. Indeed, as suitable accommodation in the private sector is more expensive, the housing benefit bill will rise.

Why am I for the first time advocating direct action? I do so because this tax is so grossly unfair, and it is being levied on some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Wicked actions require a different response from us parliamentarians.

Good afternoon, Mr Benton. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) on securing a debate that is of considerable importance to his constituents. I entirely accept that the effect of this nationwide policy is different in different areas, and that a higher proportion of working-age households are affected in the north-west than in some other parts of the country.

While the Minister is washing his hands, can he tell us how many of his constituents will be affected?

I am representing the Government rather than discussing my constituents, but clearly far fewer of mine are affected than the right hon. Gentleman’s, which is no great surprise to anyone.

The right hon. Gentleman’s speech was made in a vacuum, without mention of the fiscal context or how we treat other tenants. He used various lurid adjectives to describe the policy, as though it was some uniquely unfair concept that where benefits are paying someone’s rent, the level of benefits should have regard to the size of the household. He suggested that this is some unprecedented, evil thing, the like of which he has never come across in 30 years in Parliament—except that he was a Minister in my Department and, intermittently, a supporter of the previous Government, who introduced the local housing alliance. As I am sure he knows, with that allowance we say to private sector tenants on housing benefit that, broadly speaking, the rents we pay will reflect household size: generally, if not universally, someone can have private rent up to, now, the 30th percentile of rents for a household of the size it is. For some years, therefore, we have said to 1 million LHA private sector tenants, “We won’t pay benefit for an extra bedroom. If you want one, that’s fine, but you pay for it.”

If that policy is fair and appropriate for private sector tenants, why is it squalid, evil and unprecedented for social tenants? Surely consistency and fairness—a word the right hon. Gentleman used—mean that we should treat people the same way, whether they are private sector or social tenants. One might argue, indeed, that social tenants generally have the advantage of a subsidised rent, which private sector tenants do not have, and we treat private sector tenants unfairly in the sense that we do not give them an extra bedroom.

The Minister knows perfectly well that the local housing allowance level we set was above the average amount for those in social housing, so there is still a real difference in the rent levels for what someone can command in the private sector compared with the public sector.

The right hon. Gentleman reinforces my point: people in the private sector were having to pay higher rents than those in the social sector, and they could not have a spare bedroom.

People in the social rented sector still benefit from subsidised rents and, potentially, spare bedrooms. The figure used by the right hon. Gentleman was of more than 800,000 spare bedrooms in households where the rent is paid for by housing benefits.

To give a sense of scale, we are asking a household with one spare bedroom to contribute £2 a day on average for having the spare bedroom. I do not belittle the financial pressures that many households are under, because it would be entirely wrong of me to do so, but we know from experience of the private rented sector that some households will decide that, notwithstanding the financial pressures on them, £2 a day for the advantage of that extra bedroom is a price that they will pay. There will also be many other responses. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned taking in lodgers, and some housing associations and local authorities have given their tenants advice on how to do that. It is good use of a spare room, because it provides accommodation to someone, such as a young single person perhaps, as well as extra income to the household, and deals with the problem.

There will be some movement in the social rented sector. In the right hon. Gentleman’s area, 20 housing associations and local authorities have come together to form Propertypool Plus, doing exactly what they should be doing, which is pooling their stock and giving a much greater chance of having something to suit a particular family than an individual housing association would have. If we facilitate someone moving from under-occupied accommodation into a house that fits, someone else who is living in overcrowded accommodation can also move to a house that fits, which seems to be an entirely good thing, although the latter person’s voice was silent in the speech of the right hon. Gentleman.

I looked at the Wirral housing strategy for 2011 to 2026, and the council has realised that under-occupation is an issue. Before we invented our policy, the local authority stated:

“Research has identified that there are a number of people who are under occupying their home, regardless of tenure,”

going on to say that

“the Council will seek to help people by offering a range of services”

to help them live in more appropriate accommodation. There is therefore recognition in Wirral of a mismatch between the homes people are living in and the homes that they might need, perhaps particularly in the case of older people, although I stress that pensioners are exempt from our policy.

Creative things are being done in the right hon. Gentleman’s part of the world. For example, Wirral metropolitan borough council has obtained £2 million of Homes and Communities Agency funding to work on empty properties and plans to bring 765 empty properties back into use over a three-year period. He is right to say that supply is a crucial part of the story. We want to ensure that the supply is there for people, but that will not happen overnight. We also know that initiatives to deal with under-occupation have not really worked. Simply saying, “Would you like to move to somewhere smaller?” when there is no reason for anyone to do so, has not worked, and we have to regard the spare bedrooms in social housing in this country as a precious resource, because there is not enough housing.

The right hon. Gentleman colourfully described bricking up spare bedrooms, but I can save the landlords he is seeking to send down that track the trouble. If, for example, they want to designate a property with one bedroom occupied and a spare bedroom as a one-bedroom property, they can do so. They do not need to brick anything up or knock any walls down; they can simply designate it as a one-bedroom property. They will take the lower rent, but the tenant is not under-occupying. The reduction in the spare-room subsidy would not apply because there is not a spare room; it is the landlord who takes the financial hit in that situation. Knowsley local authority has, on occasion, followed such a policy. If landlords decide that that is the best solution, we have no problem with that. Obviously, we get the saving, because we are only paying the rent for a one-bedroom property and not a two-bedroom property, so if local authorities and other landlords can bear the financial impact, that might be a part of the mix. I do not think that many will be able to do so, but questions of bricking up rooms do not arise.

I have come across cases in which housing associations have designated a box room as a second bedroom and they have been gaily claiming the rent on a two-bedroom property. Then this measure comes in and it is quickly apparent that it is not really a bedroom; it is just a box room. Part of the answer is for landlords to be honest about the nature of their properties and say whether there really is a spare bedroom that someone could sleep in. They should then designate the property accordingly.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned fairness. I have referred to fairness between social and private tenants, but what about fairness between overcrowded households, households on the waiting list and those who are in under-occupation? In Wirral, there are 21,280 households on the waiting list for a home. Where is their voice in this debate? I may be wrong, but I do not think the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the people on the waiting list or the people who are overcrowded. Fairness is surely about them as well as the people already in occupation.

We recognise that there are some people who should not be affected by this measure. That is why, for example, we have exempted pensioners. People living in their lifetime home, who have retired and have no prospect of working again, are exempt. We have also taken the view that local authorities need money to deal with what one might loosely call hard cases. In Wirral, in the year that is coming to an end—2012-13—roughly £500,000 of discretionary housing payments were available; next year it will be not far short of £1 million. For individuals whom it would be wrong or inhumane to expect to move, money is there to make up the shortfall. Nearly £1 million in that local authority and about £150 million nationwide is a huge sum of money, provided to make sure that where the room is not really spare and where it would be inappropriate to expect someone to move out or put someone else in the room, local authorities have got the resource to respond appropriately.

It is vital that local authorities spend the money, yet we have come across cases of local authorities underspending their discretionary housing payments. Hon. Members berate the Government and say how terrible the policy is, but their local authority is sitting on cash that it has not spent to help people who have a shortfall in their housing benefit.

My understanding is that the right hon. Gentleman’s own local authority had a discretionary housing payment contribution of £464,000 for the current year, but has a carryover that takes it up to £522,000. I am happy to write to him with figures for the country. That is not a one-off example. It is surprisingly common. I have spoken to local authority leaders in the past few weeks who have said, “We are not spending the money we have got.” We and they need to make sure that the money that is specifically there for hardship is actually spent.

The carryover for Wirral is quite modest. One of the reasons for that is that the Government give an annual grant that has to be spent over 12 months, and the local authority is not sure how many will present themselves in the twelfth month.

We expect local authorities to budget, but of course this measure comes into effect on a single day, and good landlords and good local authorities have already been looking at the existing stock of people. It is by definition a stock of people that does not turn over very much, so it is pretty predictable. My plea to local authorities is to use the money that we have given them.

We have given local authorities discretionary money, initially with two groups in mind. The first is people whose houses have been substantially adapted for disability. We accept that if there is a spare bedroom in a house that has been completely redone to reflect wheelchair access or whatever, it is not cost-effective, sensible or humane to say, “You’ve got to move,” and then either the public purse has to pay for another property to be done up or the people have to live somewhere inappropriate. We estimate that, nationwide, roughly £25 million of the potential saving from the measure would be related to properties of that sort. Our initial plan was to try to define that centrally in regulations: what is a substantially adapted property? We then took the view that it is better left to local discretion, so we made the money available locally.

We did the same for foster families who have a spare room because they are between foster children. Most people would accept that foster parents need to have a spare room. Initially, we thought that we would support that through £5 million of discretionary payments, but the message we got back was that foster families wanted to have a right to a room and not to be reliant on a discretionary payment from the council. We have now passed regulations, which will come into force next month, that give foster families the right to a spare bedroom, subject to certain constraints. We have also recently made it clear that where, for example, a child with a disability or health condition cannot sleep in the same bedroom as a sibling, the family can go to the local authority, which, having satisfied itself that it is a valid claim, can allocate an extra bedroom.

I stress that the measure is not a crude one-size-fits-all cut. We have to save money. The right hon. Gentleman knows that we have to save money and that housing benefit is one of the biggest working age benefits that we have. He knows that two thirds of the housing benefit bill is for social tenants and that we have already cut back on the housing benefit bill for private tenants. In the context of needing to save money on social tenants’ housing benefit bill, not paying for spare bedrooms seems to be a place where we can find savings, subject to the crucial proviso that we protect the most vulnerable.

We have protected the most vulnerable through discretionary housing payments. Of course, although local authorities can use such payments for substantially adapted properties, the clue is in the title: they are “discretionary” payments. Local authorities have the payments for this purpose and for other changes. They have core discretionary housing payments that they had anyway, before any of the measures came in. Local authorities have that pot of money, which is of course not limitless and does not cover everybody, but at least it gives them the flexibility to respond to people as they come to them. The crucial thing for anybody listening to our proceedings who is concerned about the impact of the measure is that if people genuinely need the additional room, and if the options that some would take up, such as swapping, taking in a lodger or working extra hours, are not options for them, they should approach the local authority.

The right hon. Gentleman said that if people move into the private sector, it will cost money, but that is a very static way of looking at things. When somebody moves out of the social sector and into the private sector, a social sector property will be freed up that someone perhaps paying a high rent in the private sector will move into. It is not self-evident that in cases where someone moves from the social sector to the private sector, it costs money overall. Yes, we are trying to save money, and half a billion pounds will be saved by the measure, but let me set that in context: in the final year of the previous Labour Government, we were trying to fill a hole not of half a billion pounds, but of £150 billion a year. The right hon. Gentleman objects to the measure, but it illustrates the scale of the task we have been faced with. Even a measure such as this, which has been controversial and difficult, saves only half a billion pounds, and we have had to take many more such decisions to deal with the fiscal deficit.

Good things are going on in local authority areas such as that of the right hon. Gentleman. I welcome the fact that housing associations and councils are pooling their stock to enable people to exchange. My local housing association and others have had what they call “speed-dating” events—I am not being flippant; that is what they call them. They try to bring together people from among their tenants, some of whom have a spare room and some of whom are desperate for a family home. I think of a constituent of mine who contacted me after receiving a letter about this. She said, “I am living on my own in a three-bedroom house. What are my options? Actually, could my brother and sister-in-law move in?” I said, “Absolutely. Talk to the landlord.” That was an ideal outcome: it meant that the housing stock was better used and someone else had suitable housing.

To summarise, the way in which people respond to the measure will be individual and varied. Some will be able to exchange with someone else. Some will stay where they are, regarding £2 a day, on average, as worth paying for that spare bedroom. Some will fill the spare bedroom with a lodger. As the right hon. Gentleman colourfully suggests, some landlords will redesignate properties, so that in effect there is not a spare bedroom, and the landlord will take the cost. Some people will go to the local authority, and we have put money into the pockets of local authorities such as his—nearly £1 million in the Wirral—so that the most vulnerable people can go to their local authority and make their case and be heard.

Again, I urge the local authorities to spend the money that they have been given to help people, because we have sought to protect the most vulnerable. We have sought to protect families with disabled children, fosterers, and people with service personnel living at home. We have given local authorities the ability to respond on a case-by-case basis. None of these decisions is easy, but they are necessary decisions that we have sought to mitigate where possible. We are trying to bring about a beneficial effect: to make better use of scarce social housing stock and to create fairness between private and social tenants, which, I have to say, in the past, we have not had.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.