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Discretionary Housing Payments

Volume 573: debated on Monday 13 January 2014

Figures published in December show that in the first half of the financial year 2013-14 the average committed spend by local authorities was 40% of their allocated budget. Against those who had said that they were overspending, in fact it turns out that the vast majority are not.

Will the Secretary of State explain the particular circumstances for people who have been on housing benefit constantly since 1996 in relation to discretionary housing payments?

Yes, this is a narrow but complicated area dating back to 1996 with the introduction of local reference rent rules. They were intended to offer transitional protection at that time for existing claimants, but they were not in any way time limited. There was another opportunity, in 2008, to change the regulations when the previous Government brought in local housing allowance. They were not adjusted then. This protection had been dormant for 17 years and not used. This is a complex area that we are now resolving, but I have to say that in three different Governments it has missed the attention of Ministers.

Some would have had us believe that the discretionary housing payment will run out very quickly and that people will be forced out of London to live elsewhere. Will the Secretary of State confirm that there was an underspend in discretionary housing payments of nearly £11 million, and that the claims of social cleansing from the Opposition were complete rubbish?

Yes, I can. The reality, as my hon. Friend says, is that last year about £11 million in underspends was returned to the Department. It is interesting to note the claims made by some in this House. The hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) said that the money in her area was fast running out. It turns out that, at the six-month cut, only 28% of discretionary housing payment has actually been used. In Nottingham South, only 33% has been used. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) said that too much had been spent in Birmingham, Erdington, but only 47% has been used. Discretionary housing payments are there to be used to help those in the most difficult circumstances. Councils should get on and use them.

My right hon. Friend may not be aware that Suffolk Coastal has used 60% of its budget after nine months and Waveney has used half its budget. Does he agree that that shows that discretionary budgets are working and that it is wrong to try to make political capital out of potentially very difficult human circumstances?

It does. The reality is that about 71% have spent less than half of their discretionary budgets by the half-way cut of the year, and politicians should always be careful about using individual cases and making political capital out of what are often human tragedies.

The Secretary of State should be careful about throwing around accusations of incompetence in local authorities. I was going to ask a different question, but I want to put it on record, and reassure the Secretary of State, that Manchester city council will be spending all its discretionary housing payments and has recently applied for more. Will he accept that application for more funding?

The answer I gave previously was based on what the hon. Lady actually said previously, which was:

“The money is fast running out, if it has not already run out”.—[Official Report, 12 November 2013; Vol. 570, c. 838.]

At the six-month cut, Manchester city council had spent 28% of the discretionary payments. I suspect that, in reality, the hon. Lady was about to ask me about that, but realised that she could not because she had got it wrong.

What a lot of waffle in response to that planted question from the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin). The bulletin that the Secretary of State issued last week is a clear admission that he has been hitting thousands of people illegally with the bedroom tax since April. Is he aware of the latest survey from the Northern Housing Consortium, which says that nearly half of all front-line housing workers have dealt with someone who has threatened to commit suicide, largely because of the Government’s welfare changes? Will he apologise this afternoon to those people for the concern and chaos that he is causing?

I said it all right, and I say it again: the Department is, and I am, absolutely sorry that anybody may have been caught up in this who should not have been. However, what we were left by the last Government was this: 1,000 pages of complex housing benefit regulations. Under universal credit, they will be reduced to 300 pages and we will simplify them. The reality is that this is a problem of the massive complexity of housing benefit that the last Government left us, with a housing benefit bill that has been rising and that doubled in 10 years on the right hon. Gentleman’s watch.

Discretionary housing payments simply will not plug the gap for disadvantaged tenants in Scotland. Given that last week the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities published clear evidence showing that the policy is costing more to implement than it saves, will the Secretary of State finally accept that it has been a disaster and abandon it?

What I never hear about from the other side of the House, including from the hon. Lady, is what was left to us, which is 250,000 people living in overcrowded accommodation. Nobody on the Opposition Benches ever speaks for them or for the 1 million people they left on waiting lists who cannot get into homes while the taxpayer subsidises people to live in homes that they do not fully occupy. I simply put it back to the hon. Lady: I wonder when she or Opposition Front Benchers will ever speak for those they left in terrible conditions in overcrowded accommodation.

24. As always when I talk about my wonderful South Derbyshire district council, I declare an interest: its leader is my husband. Does my right hon. Friend agree that good councils are spending the appropriate amount of money on this issue and that councils need to look at the systems they have to look after the most vulnerable people in our society? (901917)

That is exactly the point. I am sure that the leader of South Derbyshire district council is doing almost as good a job as my hon. Friend did previously, although I leave her to sort that out with him later. The key thing is that discretionary housing payments are there to help the most vulnerable. Councils should use them. We have allocated an extra pot for those that think they might run over, so there is extra money to bid for, and we are happy to entertain those bids.