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Under-occupancy Penalty

Volume 605: debated on Thursday 28 January 2016

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions if he will make a statement on the Court of Appeal ruling that the bedroom tax has caused discrimination, contrary to article 14 of the European convention on human rights.

We know there are people who need extra support. That is why we are providing local authorities with discretionary housing payment funding. Local authorities are best placed to assess people’s needs in their area and identify where extra support is needed.

We have increased the amount of discretionary housing payment available. On top of the £560 million since 2011, we are providing an extra £870 million over the next five years. The people involved in these cases are receiving discretionary housing payments. That is precisely why we have discretionary housing payments, and shows that these are working.

We welcome the fact that the High Court and the Court of Appeal both ruled that the public sector equality duty had been met in respect to women. Furthermore, we have won a Court of Appeal ruling where the court ruled in our favour on the policy of the spare room subsidy. In that judgment, the court found that the discretionary housing payments were an appropriate means of support for those who are vulnerable. So this is a complex area and in terms of these two latest cases, it is a very narrow ruling.

On these cases, the High Court found in our favour and we fundamentally disagree with yesterday’s Court of Appeal ruling on the ECHR. This is not a case of people losing money, for in these cases they are in receipt of discretionary housing payments. This is about whether it is possible to define such exemptions or whether direct housing payments through local authorities give the right flexibility to help a wide range of those in need. The Court of Appeal itself has already granted us permission to appeal, and we will be appealing to the Supreme Court.

May I start by saying that I am flabbergasted by that response and I am flabbergasted that the Secretary of State, to whom I asked the question, is once more ducking his responsibilities?

We knew the bedroom tax was cruel, but we now know it is illegal, and this decisive ruling from the Court of Appeal should mark the end of this pernicious policy. The ruling could not be any clearer: the bedroom tax is unlawful and discriminatory.

The Court of Appeal considered two cases against the Secretary of State, who once again is not prepared to defend his policy: one from a victim of rape who had had a panic room installed by the police; and one from the Rutherford family, whom I know personally, and to whom I pay tribute here today both for the care they provide for their severely disabled grandson, Warren, and for the bravery they have shown in taking on the Secretary of State.

In both instances, the court ruled that the bedroom tax had caused “discrimination”. It found, moreover, that the

“admitted discrimination…has not been justified by the Secretary of State”.

So the question for the Minister—in place of the missing Secretary of State—is what does this ruling mean for the 450,000 families currently affected by the bedroom tax? If the Government are appealing to the Supreme Court, as, extraordinarily, it seems they are, can the Minister tell us on what specific grounds they are appealing? Crucially, as a matter of urgency, will the Government immediately exempt the two groups that have found to have been discriminated against from paying the bedroom tax: victims of domestic violence and the families of severely disabled children?

Can the Minister confirm there are 280 victims of domestic abuse who have had a panic room installed under the sanctuary scheme and who are affected by this policy? Can he further confirm that exempting victims of domestic abuse would only cost the Government £200,000 a year? By comparison, can he tell us how many hundreds of thousands of pounds he has already spent on legal fees defending this vile policy, and how much more he is prepared to defend? Does he have a blank cheque to defend this to the end?

Can the Minister also tell us how many families with severely disabled children are currently paying the bedroom tax? Will he inform the House what proportion of domestic violence victims and families with disabled children are in receipt of discretionary housing payments? This ruling was on two specific grounds, but will the Minister confirm that the bedroom tax is failing in every regard? He talks of discretionary housing payments, but his own Government’s report, which was dumped before Christmas, admitted that 75% of victims did not receive DHP, that three quarters of those hit by the bedroom tax were cutting back on food, that only 5% had been able to move and that 80% regularly ran out of money.

Politics is about choices, and the choice that faced the Secretary of State today was very clear. He could have come to the House and admitted that this was a rotten policy that was punishing poor people across the country, and he could have scrapped it. Instead, he is sitting on the Front Bench before going back to Caxton House to consult his lawyers in order to defend this policy against the victims of domestic violence and the parents of disabled children. We know the choice he took.

To be absolutely clear, this is about whether it is possible to find such exemptions or whether direct housing payments through local authorities give the right flexibility to help a wide range of those in need, and we will be appealing this to the Supreme Court. If we try to set strict categories, people—especially those with unique circumstances and issues—could fall just below an artificial line, meaning that they would miss out. Is it realistic to expect that here in London we could set such an exhaustive list? Direct housing payments, for which we are providing £870 million over the next five years, give flexibility that allows us to work with organisations such as the police, social services and medical professionals to provide a co-ordinated level of support underwritten by the public sector equality duty.

It is right to say that politicians face choices. When the local housing allowance was introduced into the private sector under the last Labour Government, no additional support was provided to those in the private sector who faced exactly the same challenges as those we are discussing here. Why have things changed so much now? We keep making references to taxes. What about the 1.7 million people on the social housing waiting list? What about the 241,000 people in overcrowded accommodation? The Opposition have scant regard for them, but they are the people we are speaking for, and it is right to provide flexibility and a co-ordinated approach. This is the right thing to do.

Does the Minister agree that this is an issue of fairness, and that it is about giving help to people who are stuck in overcrowded accommodation and waiting on social housing lists?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. In our casework, we all talk to families who are on housing waiting lists. There are 1.7 people on waiting lists across England and 241,000 people living in overcrowded accommodation. It is absolutely right that we are trying to match the right accommodation to people’s individual needs.

I cannot believe that we have just heard someone from the Tory Back Benches saying that this is about fairness, because that is exactly what this is about. Is it not a disgrace, given that this is the policy of the Secretary of State, that he should be sitting there whispering into the ear of his Minister? He is quite clearly out of his depth on this, as he is on so many other things. The decision in the courts follows a series of embarrassments for the Secretary of State, and there is also the matter of a United Nations investigation into the UK Government’s welfare policies. The SNP Scottish Government have committed £90 million to mitigating the effects of the bedroom tax in Scotland to stop, among other things, the threat of eviction being imposed on many through this Dickensian Tory policy. We will end the bedroom tax when we have the powers to do so. If the Secretary of State will not heed the warnings of the SNP, will he at least listen to the rulings of some of the highest courts, scrap this unfair and discriminatory tax and think again about the pursuance of these most damaging cuts to vital support for some of the most disadvantaged in society? Parliament in London did not stop this disastrous policy. Thank heavens the courts are intervening. It is little wonder that the Tories are so unpopular in Scotland. They have returned to being the nasty party that they were under Thatcher. This time under Cameron, Osborne and—

In conclusion, I echo the words of the Court of Appeal. This policy is discriminatory and unlawful. Will he commit to scrapping this draconian policy?

In fairness, I am the Minister who responds on housing issues in Parliament. In terms of fairness, we all talk to families on the housing waiting list. Try explaining to them why we should not make more of the accommodation available to them. We have already provided greater flexibility in Scotland through devolution to do what you wish to do with discretionary housing payments.

Clearly, we shall all wait for the Supreme Court judgment that will be delivered in due course, but two points must be clear today. Does the Minister agree that the incredible indignation expressed by the shadow Minister is blown apart by the fact that the family in question are receiving exactly the same amount of benefits as they were before the introduction of the spare bedroom subsidy? The Opposition’s opportunism is shown clearly by the fact that they took away the spare room subsidy from the much larger number of people in the private rented sector.

That is right. The people in these cases are in receipt of payment, which shows that discretionary housing payments work. It shows that, through flexibility, a co-ordinated approach is possible with the police, social services, medical professionals and other agencies.

Will the Minister wake up? This is a miserable, vindictive little policy and one that, with the ability of housing associations to sell off homes, ducks the real question, which is that we are not building appropriate housing for the people in this country. This is a diversion; get on with the real job.

That is why our £8 billion programme will deliver a further 400,000 affordable housing starts during this Parliament—a stark contrast to the loss of 400,000 homes under the last Labour Government.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) that the question of fairness is vital. So many in north Northumberland struggle to find a home. The key question is balance. We have a real issue with smaller communities. If families are to stay within their community, we cannot find a match. Will my hon. Friend the Minister consider ways to help the local authority find new systems for matching families to the right homes?

I thank my hon. Friend for that. That is why it is so important that we are increasing housing starts. Landlords are already changing the way in which they bring new housing stock on, which is welcome news.

Have the Government effectively abandoned the principle of a benefits system that properly assesses people according to their needs and circumstances and pays them a benefit while those circumstances last? The answer to everything seems to be discretionary housing payments. They are discretionary, they are paid on a case-by-case basis, 75% of people paying the bedroom tax do not get them and they are time-limited. Does the Minister recognise the enormous uncertainty that that creates, and the hardship for people in very real housing need?

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I have a huge amount of respect for his knowledge of local authorities. Like him, I have served on a local authority and I trust their ability to work with other agencies, which I have already mentioned. Hon. Members should remember that this is underwritten by the public sector equality duty, which ensures that all issues are considered.

Can my hon. Friend set out the exceptions to the spare room subsidy and the help that is available to people?

Well, we have pensioners, those with disabled children who cannot share a room, foster carers, and those serving in the armed forces who are currently on deployment. Discretionary housing payments allow flexibility to take into account individual circumstances and adopt a co-ordinated approach. If we tried to come up with an exhaustive list, there would always be people who fell just below the line, and they would miss out on any support. That is unacceptable.

Unpaid family carers are not included in the list. From what I have seen, the Rutherfords look like wonderful carers for their grandson. Why should such people live in fear of losing their home—an adapted bungalow in this case? Sixty thousand carers are hit by the bedroom tax. It has always been illogical to hit people who save the state billions. Can the Minister not see that the Secretary of State should abandon this shabby little policy and recognise that carers should not be hit by this unfair charge?

Everyone in the House recognises the valuable role that carers play in society. There is an opportunity to provide discretionary housing payments when that is appropriate, but where was the hon. Lady when such a system was introduced in the private sector? Why did we not hear the argument that there should be exemptions for carers in the private sector? It is one rule then and one rule now.

Does the Minister agree that a list of strict criteria would undermine the whole point of having discretionary housing payments in the system? Does he also agree that it is interesting to hear the false anger of Labour Members, given that their party introduced this system for tenants on housing benefit in the private sector?

I thank my hon. Friend, who addresses the point that such payments allow for discretion and mean that there can be a multi-agency approach to help individuals according to their needs. People do not neatly fall into a convenient box whereby society provides support. Discretion and flexibility are needed to do the right thing.

After this embarrassment, and if the next ill-advised legal steps go against the Government, will those affected get an apology for the bedroom tax from the Government Dispatch Box?

We think that this is a good policy that helps the 1.7 million people on the waiting list. It provides for discretion and does not create artificial lines that people can just fall beneath.

If it were not out of order, would my hon. Friend agree that given that Labour Members introduced this very principle for the private sector, their outrage now is hypocritical?

Order. If it were, I would have ruled thus, and it was not, so I did not—we will leave it at that. I am always grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his advice, even if it is proffered from a sedentary position but, in this instance, it suffers from the material disadvantage of being wrong.

I just want to put a simple question asked by Mr Paul Rutherford himself: why are the Government spending taxpayers’ money on an appeal?

Now that my hon. Friend has reminded Labour Members what they did in government, will he also remind them that it is not a tax when people are being treated equally?

Gwynedd Council should be praised for adding extra money over and above the insufficient, arbitrary and tokenistic discretionary housing payments. Will the Government increase discretionary payments until we get the Supreme Court ruling?

We have committed the considerable amount of £870 million over this Parliament. At the halfway point of the year, most local authorities had not spent even 50% of that money. I hope that they will continue to examine ways to support those who are vulnerable, and I give credit to the hon. Lady’s local authority if it is taking extra steps.

Can the Government do more to encourage and enable councils to give longer discretionary housing awards, so that those claiming them will have more certainty that they can afford their rent?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We are looking to encourage that and to allow more common sense to be applied.

The Financial Conduct Authority told me this week that 40% of adults in my constituency face severe debt problems, but that is because Wythenshawe and Sale East has more than 3,000 families suffering the bedroom tax, which is the highest rate in the land. Some Nehemiah-esque debt bondage is going on here. Will the Minister visit my constituency to meet people suffering the bedroom tax, and especially women in the safe spot scheme who have suffered domestic violence but are being punished by the Government’s rulings?

I meet residents all the time because as well as being a Minister I am, like the hon. Gentleman, a constituency MP. We have trebled our funding to support victims of domestic abuse to £40 million a year, and arrears in housing have actually fallen for the past four years.

Given the earlier and contradictory ruling in the case of MA and others v. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, does my hon. Friend agree that no change should be considered until the Supreme Court has made a final ruling on this matter?

In Northern Ireland 66% of Housing Executive tenants and 62% of all working-age housing benefit recipients are under-occupiers. Under the Fresh Start agreement accepted by all parties in Northern Ireland last year, it has been agreed that the moneys to offset the bedroom tax for Northern Ireland will come out of the Northern Ireland block grant. Has the Minister had any discussions with the other devolved Administrations to enable them legally to make similar decisions?

As the Minister has said on several occasions, in both recent cases the appellants were in receipt of discretionary payments. Does he therefore agree that this demonstrates that the fund is working and helping those most in need?

One of the main drivers of the policy was to force people to find alternative accommodation, but the majority have stayed put despite the many difficulties they face. Does this not show that not only is the policy inhumane, cruel and discriminatory, but it is a failure?

I disagree. In August 2014 16% had registered to look to move. Remember, those 1.7 million people—247,000 families—in overcrowded accommodation need people to move in order to give them the same chance as those people had. It is the right thing to do.

Some of my most moving meetings with constituents have been with those whose circumstances are unique and who are in great need of help. Does the Minister agree that it is precisely because there is discretion in the system that the Government are able to help those people?

I thank my hon. Friend for that. It is just one example of how we are supporting people. There is a 79% increase in the disability facilities grant next year, taking funding from £220 million to £394 million, which will significantly increase the 40,000 properties per year that we are helping to adapt.

The bedroom tax is the most unpopular tax since another Tory invention, the poll tax. Given the recent judgment, surely this is an opportunity for the Government to review their position. Why will they not take that opportunity and scrap the tax once and for all?

First, I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that this is not a tax. Secondly, if it was so desperately unpopular, why are we in government?

On fairness, taxpayers will think it is fair that they subsidise social housing rent so that people living in social housing pay about 30% of market rent, in some cases. They do not think it is fair that they subsidise at 30% of market rent people having spare rooms that they do not use or do not need. If, as I suspect, the Minister is unable to give a definitive list of all the cases where people may need a spare room, surely that shows that our discretionary system is the best system and one that we must continue with.

That is exactly the point. It seems that the Opposition want to create an artificial bar which will see some people who should be getting support miss out. That is not acceptable.

It is extraordinarily cynical for the Minister to talk about housing waiting lists when the Government are forcing the sale of council houses to subsidise the sale of housing association homes. How does he explain the fact that only 5% of people who have been affected by the bedroom tax have been able to move, but more than 10 times that number are in rent arrears?

The hon. Gentleman seems to object to allowing people the opportunity to buy their own home. We are not all from gifted backgrounds and people should have an opportunity to do that. That, in turn, will raise the funds to create new housing.

The amount we spend on housing benefits rose by 50% in the last years of the Labour Government. We now spend more on housing benefit than we spend on secondary education, and that sum is equivalent to 50% of the Ministry of Defence budget, yet there is a chronic shortage of social housing. Does the Minister agree that no reasonable, competent Government would not be trying to find fair and just solutions to both those problems?

The money spent on housing benefit was £24.4 billion. Without our reforms it would have been £26 billion per year. The Opposition are calling on us to scrap the whole of the spare room subsidy policy. That would be an extra £2.5 billion in their ever-growing black hole.

Some 71,500 people in Scotland would be affected by the bedroom tax if not for the actions of the SNP Scottish Government in mitigating that. This UK Government’s policy clearly has a devastating and discriminatory impact on some of the most vulnerable people in our society, so in the week when we have seen an astonishing tax deal with Google hailed by the Chancellor, is it not time this Government stopped prioritising sweetheart tax deals and started representing the needs of the ordinary people?

No. I wonder how the Scottish National party would explain to the people on the waiting lists why efforts are not being made to create more appropriate housing.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that before this reform, 820,000 spare rooms were being paid for by the taxpayer, not only wasting taxpayers’ money, but denying so many other people a roof over their head?

The Minister says that this is complex. Does he not accept that this is about straightforward suffering by people who are already struggling with hardship and have literally nowhere else to go?

Not at all, because these people have been given the money that shows that discretionary housing payment works.

When the Labour party introduced the spare room subsidy for the private sector, there was no discretionary housing payment to go with it. Have we made an assessment of whether we could extend discretionary housing payment to the spare room subsidy introduced by Labour?

Why was no additional support provided to vulnerable people when Labour introduced it for the private sector? That was not fair.

Order. The hon. Gentleman says that he has lost his voice, which saddens me. The least that we owe the hon. Gentleman is a degree of quietude so that we might detect what he has to say.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. On a point of fact, will the Minister and his officials by the end of today be able to supply me and all other Welsh MPs with a list of how many people who are in households where there are victims of domestic violence or disabled children will be affected if this decision is upheld? On a point of common decency, if he and his Ministers are unable to issue an apology today, if the decision is upheld, will he then apologise?

I am not sure whether we can get all that information by the end of today, but I am happy to see how quickly we can get as much of it as possible to the hon. Gentleman.

Irrespective of the fact that the Minister is ignoring the court ruling, why is the cost of housing benefit expected to go above £25 billion next year?

We are not ignoring the ruling; we are appealing it. We are doing that because we feel that discretionary housing payment is the correct way to do it. Reforms take time to come in, as I said earlier. Housing benefit cost £24.4 billion this year. Had we not brought in reforms, every single one of which was opposed by the Labour party, it would have cost £26 billion this year.

Given yesterday’s landmark ruling, given the report by the UN’s special rapporteur on housing, which said that the bedroom tax damaged the lives of vulnerable citizens, and given that there is scarce housing to meet those particular needs, will the Minister indicate today, in a compassionate way, that the Government will abandon the bedroom tax?

When the Government consulted on the bedroom tax in the run-up to the introduction of the Welfare Reform Act 2012, how many disability and carers’ organisations and others warned the Department categorically of the discriminatory nature of the measure, and why was their advice ignored at such substantial cost to the taxpayer?

Let me first say to the Minister that the SNP is building record numbers of council houses in Scotland. In contrast, since the new right to buy was introduced in 2013, there have been 33,000 house sales in England and Wales and fewer than 3,000 new starts, so he cannot dare say that new house building will solve the problem. The High Court ruling stated quite clearly that, because DHP cannot be guaranteed, this policy is discriminatory. While we are against the bedroom tax altogether, is it not time the Government thought again? They cannot hide behind the fact that they cannot give an exhaustive list; they can and must think again.

With all due respect, I have met families who are on those waiting lists and want to see those properties become available.

In Fareham we have over 1,000 people on the housing waiting lists, including young families with children. Will the Minister provide a breakdown per constituency of how many people are on housing waiting lists, so that we can better understand the extent of this problem?

I thank my hon. Friend. I hope she will excuse me if I cannot provide that breakdown instantly for every constituency. We are making efforts, through our combined package of £20 billion-worth of measures, to increase housing supply and help to get those people out of those overcrowded properties and off those waiting lists into appropriate accommodation.

It is not cruel to provide support to the most vulnerable in society. It is also sensible, as there would be a £2.5 billion extra cost if Labour were to abandon this policy.

Does the Minister agree that not only is the discretionary housing payment the right way to address this issue, but the fact that so many local authorities are not spending their full allocation is evidence that the Government are fully resourcing this matter?

I thank my hon. Friend. Not only is £870 million proving to be the right amount of money for local authorities, but awareness continues to increase year on year.

It is simply astonishing that the Government are still not listening and not facing up to the reality of the flaws in this policy, in the same way as they blocked the Affordable Homes Bill, the private Member’s Bill in the name of the former MP for St Ives. Instead of wasting yet more public money on a court case, can they not dust off that Bill and make the changes that clearly need to be made to this policy?

We are determined to protect the most vulnerable in society. As we have shown, these people were getting the funding that they should have got and were entitled to.

We have now had over half an hour of non-answers from this hapless Minister, when actually we wanted his boss, the Secretary of State, to come to the Dispatch Box to defend this disgusting and pernicious policy. Will he now answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) —how much public money are this Government wasting to defend the indefensible?

That level of anger pretty much matches that of some of the families I met waiting on the waiting list to whom the hon. Gentleman wishes to turn a blind eye.