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Housing Benefit

Volume 580: debated on Wednesday 7 May 2014

2. What discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues on the effects of housing benefit changes in Scotland. (903824)

9. What discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues on the effects of housing benefit changes in Scotland. (903831)

I have had regular discussions with ministerial colleagues about the effect of housing benefit changes in Scotland, and in particular about the application of discretionary housing payments to those affected by the removal of the spare-room subsidy. Those discussions led to the announcement on Friday 2 May that the setting of the limit for such payments could become the responsibility of the Scottish Government.

In February the Scottish Parliament voted in favour of full mitigation of the bedroom tax, but much of that money has not yet reached tenants. Given that there has been a discussion about the discretionary cap, does the Minister agree that the Scottish Government could have acted earlier, and, given that an announcement has now been made, will he do everything in his power to ensure that there is co-operation between Westminster and the Scottish Government so that the money reaches the people who need it?

I entirely agree with the hon. Lady. The Scottish Government already had powers that they could have used to take other steps for the purpose of the mitigation that they said was necessary, but they chose not to do so. The Scottish Parliament forced additional funds to be provided, and we will not stand in the way of the spending of those funds. I shall be meeting the Deputy First Minister of Scotland tomorrow morning, and I shall convey the hon. Lady’s comments to her.

Does the Minister agree with the far-reaching proposals of Scottish Labour’s devolution commission, including the proposal for the devolution of housing benefit? Does he agree that that would be a progressive, logical and practical step that would enhance devolution and the ability to meet Scottish housing needs?

I think that the proposal to devolve the setting of the cap for discretionary housing payments is a positive step, and I welcome the fact that the Labour party has presented proposals. At the end of May, the Scottish Conservative party will present its proposals following the outcome of the work of our own devolution commission.

An important part of dealing with housing benefit is ensuring that there is enough affordable housing. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the lack of suitable affordable housing in Scotland is the result and the responsibility of successive Scottish Governments?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. She will be aware that since 2010 the Scottish Government have had an additional £1.3 billion in funding that they could have used to provide affordable housing in Scotland. We used to hear constantly in the Chamber about the number of shovel-ready projects in Scotland, but we have not seen much shovelling.

The bedroom tax has been a costly fiasco in Scotland. It should never have happened, but I am glad that the Government have at long last agreed to allow the Scottish Government to mitigate its worst impacts. However, the Secretary of State recently boasted that we have a “fantastic” benefits system. Does the Minister think that he was talking about the bedroom tax, or is he also living in a parallel universe?

I certainly do not live in the universe that the SNP inhabits. It has not given us a single detail of how a welfare system would operate in Scotland. Indeed, in the 670 pages of the Scottish Government’s White Paper, there is just one reference to the establishment of such a system. The SNP set up a commission, but we have heard nothing from it, so I am afraid that I shall take no lessons from the hon. Lady.

Does the Minister accept that, now that the Scottish Government have been given the powers for which they asked in relation to discretionary housing payments, there is no reason why they should not first cancel all the bedroom tax for this year, and then write off all the debts that were incurred last year? In order to ensure that no moral hazard is involved, should they not do as the Scottish Affairs Committee has asked, and refund the money that Scottish people paid last year in bedroom tax?

I understand that a statement is to be made about the matter in the Scottish Parliament today, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues will raise those very points with the Scottish Government.