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Under-occupancy Penalty

Volume 573: debated on Monday 13 January 2014

16. What assessment he has made of the effect of the under-occupancy penalty on household incomes. (901909)

The average weekly reduction in housing benefit resulting from this measure is £14.50. However, two thirds of those affected experience weekly reductions of less than that, and the average weekly loss for those who have moved off benefit as a result of this policy is £8.

When I visited the Scunthorpe food bank recently, the excellent volunteers there reported a significant increase in the numbers of people using the food bank. When I asked them why that was, they chorused in unison: “The bedroom tax.” When are this Government going to do a proper evaluation of the damage the bedroom tax is doing to hard-working families?

I, too, praise the local community, the voluntary groups, the Trussell Trust and the Churches that are helping people through the food banks, but I do not agree that we can draw an analogy between what is happening there and our attempt to get fairness through changes to the spare room subsidy. What about those people who are in overcrowded homes? What about those people who are on a waiting list? How do we support everybody in this way? Labour shirked dealing with this problem, and it is a very difficult issue to get right. Labour shirked it but we are dealing with it.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is financially unsustainable for the housing benefit bill to continue rising at the level that it has historically without the type of fundamental reform to housing benefit that this Government are introducing?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. There are many dimensions to this, because it is not just about a housing benefit bill that doubled under Labour’s watch; it is also about the lack of houses that were built, fairness in the system, getting housing right and building right for the future.

This might be all right if there were smaller properties for people to go to, but there are not. It might be all right if £14.50 was a tiny sum, which it may be to the hon. Lady or to any of us in the Chamber, but it is not to the carers who do an invaluable job, not only on behalf of the person they care for, but for the whole of society. So how can it possibly be right that 60,000 carers are paying, on average, as the Minister has just admitted, an extra £14.50 a week? Are this Government dim-witted, short-sighted or just plain cruel?

I am afraid none of those are true. I see that the hon. Gentleman gathered much information together, but let us see what happens; as I said, we have got to get this right. We have to get the housing right. We have got to have more smaller buildings. He wrote to me as he did not understand about conversions and I had to lay it out clearly in the letter; the National Housing Federation agreed with me. Despite not knowing the facts, he did produce a press release for the papers. We are getting conversions right, sorting out the problem and helping as many people as possible.

Live-in carers are provided for as part of the assessment of household need. An additional room for non-resident overnight carers is allowed in certain circumstances. Discretionary housing payment funding has been increased to £180 million for 2013-14 to help support vulnerable claimants to adjust to the reforms.

Many children grow up with separated parents, but I think we would all agree that joint parenting is in the best interests of the child. One of my constituents is a devoted father whose small son lives with him 50% of the time, but he now has to lose his son’s bedroom because the benefits system will accept only one parent as the “main carer”. Will the Minister re-examine that rule and consider an exemption?

The hon. Lady is right to bring this matter to the House, and such situations are always difficult, but the room would be allocated to whoever was the main carer of the child. In this instance, that is the mother and that is who we would be looking to. We would not be supporting two sets of rooms in two separate houses, as we are trying to get this housing policy right.

May I bring the Minister back to the issue of unpaid family carers of sick and disabled people? She recently admitted in a response to my question that 50,000 or 60,000 of those carers were affected by the bedroom tax. More than 1 million of those carers have given up work to care, and they have nowhere to go to find the money. She has talked about live-in carers, but it is not about that. Will she answer about the 50,000 or 60,000 carers? Will she admit that it was a mistake not to exempt them from the bedroom tax?

What we did is not name absolutely everybody who could have part of the discretionary housing payment. We have allowed discretion for those people who might need it the most, hence it is called “discretionary”, hence it has been trebled and hence we are supporting these people. Obviously, if somebody on housing benefit, or their partner, needs an overnight carer on a regular basis, they would have their spare room subsidy; they would be exempt from this.