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Rent Arrears (Social Housing)

Volume 571: debated on Monday 25 November 2013

Tristar Homes, which serves people in my Stockton North constituency, has 1,725 tenants classed as under-occupying their current property. Two thirds of those tenants have accrued rent arrears, many for the first time, and 85% are seeing their debt grow. What is the Minister’s estimate of the total arrears nationally in the first year of the bedroom tax—in other words, the spare room subsidy—as a direct result of it and the assault on some of the poorest people in our community? How much does he believe the measure will save his Government?

My information about Tristar is that the figures the hon. Gentleman quotes are a significant reduction on earlier in the year—that is the information the Department has. On financial savings, it is far too early to say. The Department for Work and Pensions will undertake a review in the early part of next year.

In the north-east of England, 39,000 households are affected by the bedroom tax—or, as the Government would like to call it, the spare room subsidy. In Gateshead, more than 3,000 households in the local authority’s housing or the housing associations’ housing are affected. The local authority alone has accrued £152,000 of additional arrears. When will the Government realise that the policy is hurting but certainly not working?

The figures I gave in the earlier answer were for the year before the spare room subsidy withdrawal—they are the most recent comprehensive, across-England figures we have. Through the Homes and Communities Agency, the Department has surveyed all the large housing associations. They tell us that, at the moment, rent collection levels are in excess of 95% and well within their published business plans.

Will the Minister confirm that, of the £68 million of discretionary housing payments made available to councils last year, £11 million went unspent?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point on discretionary housing payments for last year. Of course, last year those payments were in place to deal with differences in the private rental sector. I wish Opposition Members would remember that the Labour Government introduced tight controls on the funding of spare bedrooms in the private rental sector. Some 43% of people in my constituency rent in the private rental sector. I do not recall much protest from Labour Members at that time.

Following on from that answer, am I right in thinking that the rules on housing benefit for those in social housing are now broadly the same as the rules on housing benefit for those in the private rented sector, and that the latter rules were introduced by the previous Government? Is there any reason why those on housing benefit in social housing should have different rules from those on housing benefit in the private rented sector?

My hon. Friend has neatly followed the logic of what I said in my previous answer. There is a logic behind the reforms that this Government have introduced. Throughout the entire 13 years that the previous Government were in office, they had tight controls on the private rental sector and tightened them further. I do not recall a single Labour Member describing that as Labour’s bedroom tax on the majority of people, certainly in city centres like mine and that of the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who rent in the private sector. The rules are now aligned.

Rehousing and eviction costs often dwarf the arrears built up as a result of the bedroom tax, so how surprised is the Minister that many councils in Wales—including my own in Carmarthenshire—refuse to operate a no-evictions policy for the most vulnerable?

As much as I would like to answer the hon. Gentleman, I am sure that he of all hon. Members—he is a Plaid Cymru Member—will understand that I cannot answer for what the Welsh Government are doing in Wales.

May I try to bring the Minister up to date and talk about this year, and give him another chance to answer the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham)? According to the National Housing Federation, more than half of all tenants affected by the bedroom tax were in rent arrears within three months. Does the Minister believe that those families went into arrears because they could not afford the rent, or because they simply were not bothered?

There could be many explanations of why people fall into arrears—they are not a new feature under this Government. Rent arrears, whether in the council or housing association sector, were a feature under the previous Labour Government too. Behind each individual case, there will be a reason why people have fallen into arrears. Perhaps people think that some Labour councils are adopting a policy of hoping this policy will go away. I think perhaps they are misleading their tenants on that basis. They should be helping their tenants to adapt to the change in circumstances.