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Under-occupancy Charge

Volume 617: debated on Monday 14 November 2016

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to make a statement on the Supreme Court’s ruling of 9 November on the under-occupancy charge.

The removal of the spare room subsidy was introduced in April 2013 to all working-age claimants in the social rented sector as part of this Government’s plan to create a welfare system that is fair for those who use it and those who pay for it. Under the previous system, the taxpayer had to subsidise benefit claimants to live in houses that were larger than they needed, despite the fact that people renting in the private sector were receiving housing benefit on the basis of the number of people in their household rather than the number of bedrooms that they had, which has been the case since 1996. Since we introduced the policy, it has saved over £1.5 billion, and the number of households affected by it is going down.

We, of course, operate a number of exemptions to the policy, and they include: all pensioners; households with a dependent child receiving the middle or higher rate care component of disability living allowance; households in which an overnight carer is allowed for the claimant or partner; households in which the claimant or partner is a foster carer; and households with an adult child who is in the armed forces and deployed on operations. In addition, we provide local authorities with funding to provide discretionary housing payments to claimants whom they evaluate as needing additional support with housing costs.

Turning to last week’s Supreme Court judgment, it was welcome that the Court found in our favour in five of the seven cases. These cases related to a panic room, a claimant with mental health issues and those requiring an extra room to house medical equipment, as well as cases involving shared care and adapted properties. The Court also agreed with our view that discretionary housing payments are generally an appropriate and lawful way to provide assistance to those who need extra help. In the two cases in which the Court did not find in our favour, we will take steps to ensure that we comply with the judgment. In most cases, local authorities are best placed to understand the needs of their residents, which is why we will have provided them with more than £1 billion to offer that support by the end of this Parliament. This ensures that people in difficult situations and those who are vulnerable do not lose out.

The Supreme Court’s judgment on Wednesday clearly stated that the bedroom tax is discriminatory, as Labour Members have repeatedly highlighted. The Court upheld the claim of Jacqueline Carmichael, who is disabled and cannot share a room with her husband, Jayson; as well as that of Paul and Susan Rutherford, who care for their severely disabled grandson, Warren. I pay tribute to them, as well as to the other families, for their courage, tenacity and determination in pursuing these cases.

The ruling states that housing benefit regulations allowing claimants to have an additional bedroom when children cannot share a bedroom because of a disability should be extended to adults. Likewise, adults who need an extra room for an overnight carer have been exempt from the bedroom tax, but children such as Warren have not. Those anomalies, the judges ruled, were “manifestly without reason”.

The Department’s spokesperson indicated that the Government accept the Supreme Court’s ruling. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether his Department also unequivocally does so? Will he tell the House how much taxpayers’ money has been spent on legal fees in the attempt to defend the Government’s bedroom tax policy? How many families does the Department calculate have been affected by the Government’s unlawful imposition of the bedroom tax on disabled people and their carers? When and how will the Government inform the families affected by the judgment? How quickly will the Government comply with the Supreme Court’s judgment and revoke the bedroom tax for those families? Will such a revocation be backdated and, if so, to when? Will the Government now formally apologise for the pain and suffering inflicted on disabled people and families caring for a disabled child? Finally, will the Government undertake to look again at their policy on safe rooms for victims of domestic violence, which affects a relatively small number of incredibly vulnerable women who live their lives in fear and are being punished by the Government for heeding security advice and being safe in their homes?

I am happy to repeat what I said in my statement. We of course accept the Court’s view and, to answer some of the hon. Lady’s subsequent questions, we will take the appropriate action as soon as we practicably can. She said that the removal of the spare room subsidy was unlawful, but it patently is not, because the Supreme Court found in the Government’s favour in five of the seven cases before it. It is interesting that those involved in every one of those cases—all seven—were receiving discretionary housing payments, which are the best way to ensure that those who are affected can be helped if they need it.

Discretionary housing payments are up fivefold since 2011-12 and the Government are committed to a further £870 million over the next five years—[Interruption.] I am surprised that the hon. Lady complains about the payments, because her local authority received the best part of half a million pounds for discretionary housing payments this year, which makes it clear that people in her area find them useful. She might also be interested to know that 63% of those who are affected and unemployed have decided to look for work, which shows one of the policy’s effects.

I hope that the hon. Lady will address the basic issue of fairness. Without these measures, neighbouring households could be treated differently, which many people would regard as unfair.

On the hon. Lady’s point about those receiving disability benefits, all seven cases involved people receiving discretionary housing payments. Four of the five people involved in the cases won by the Government have a disability, so the policy is clearly not unlawful. Her basic analysis is wrong. The Government are spending £50 billion a year on disability benefit, which shows that we want a practical system that cares for people with a disability. This court case does not alter that at all.

I remind the Secretary of State that the real anger is not from Opposition Members, but from the 241,000 families in overcrowded accommodation who are desperate to access family homes. It is those families, not Opposition Members, to whom the Secretary of State should be listening.

My hon. Friend, who knows a huge amount about this subject, is absolutely right. The Government are indeed taking steps to try to alleviate housing problems, but he is quite right about the indignation among Opposition Members.

Last week’s Supreme Court ruling is a damning indictment of the Government’s willingness to make disabled people and their families bear the brunt of austerity cuts. The ruling follows hard on the heels of a report by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was also published in recent days. Among other conclusions, the report notes that the Government’s measures

“have caused financial hardship to persons with disabilities resulting in...arrears, debts, evictions and cuts to essentials”.

I am sorry that it is necessary to remind the Secretary of State today that, according to the Government’s own impact assessment, around two thirds of the households affected by the bedroom tax include a disabled adult. In Scotland, the proportion is a massive 80%, and I am proud that the Scottish Government have taken action to protect all affected families. Will the Government recognise that the bedroom tax has failed in its objectives and continues to harm disabled people? Will they finally call time on this destructive, discriminatory experiment?

I do not agree with the hon. Lady about that, and nor does the Supreme Court. As I said, it had seven cases before it, and five of them were found in favour of the Government, so she is wrong to say that the policy has been in any way found unlawful. She will have seen my response to the UN report, which I thought was out of date. It took completely the wrong approach by measuring the effectiveness of a policy towards disabled people purely according to the amount of benefit spend, because this is about the amount of practical help that people can get. The fact that 300,000 more disabled people have gone into work in recent years shows the success of the Government’s policies in helping disabled people. I hope that Opposition Members will also welcome the recent Green Paper, which will provide more practical help for disabled people.

No, there will not. I am happy to reassure my right hon. Friend that the fair and rational allocation of housing is not only sensible but fair housing policy because, as I have said, it is clearly sensible that people in the social rented sector and those in the private sector should be treated as equally as possible in terms of benefits.

In 2014, I had the privilege of meeting Paul and Sue Rutherford and their grandson, Warren. That meeting left a profound impact on me. They are heroes in our community, and they should be treated as such by the Government, rather than being penalised with policies such as the bedroom tax. When they were first charged the bedroom tax, they applied for a discretionary housing payment but were not granted it—they got it only on appeal—so the idea that discretionary housing payments are helping all the families is just wrong. After the Court verdict, Paul Rutherford said that he was happy but “exhausted”. He should never have had to go through what he went through. May I ask the Minister how many more families have been illegally charged the bedroom tax, and when will they stop being charged it?

I appreciate that the hon. Lady has campaigned very effectively with the Rutherford family for a long time. As she said, they received discretionary housing payments, and such payments are the main tool that we are using to make sure that people are given appropriate help. Obviously we are still looking at the number of people who may be affected as a result of this case, but I can only repeat that we will take steps to make sure that we comply with the Court judgment.

Does the Secretary of State find it strange, as I do, that Labour Members are protesting, given that in 2008 they introduced exactly the same changes in the private rented sector? [Interruption.] Does he agree that there should be equality for tenants receiving housing benefit, be they in social housing or the private rented sector?

I do agree with my hon. Friend about that. The fact that Opposition Members tried to shout her down rather than listening to her question suggests that she has hit the mark.

This Secretary of State is no improvement on his predecessor. Is he aware that there is one advantage of the bedroom tax: it is a constant reminder of a Tory vendetta against social tenants, particularly those on low incomes? He should be thoroughly ashamed of himself for coming out with the same Tory line as his predecessor. This illustrates that the Tory Government have not changed at all as a result of a new Prime Minister.

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman asked a question, but his idea of a vendetta against tenants in social housing is completely bizarre, given that under the previous Labour Government, whom he supported, the number of social rented homes fell by 420,000 while waiting lists increased. In addition, more than twice as much council housing has been built since 2010 than was built in the previous 13 years, so this Government and the predecessor coalition are proving a much better friend of those tenants than the previous Labour Government[Interruption.]

Order. Mr Opperman, you are a cerebral figure in the House. You now occupy high office as a Government Whip. Chuntering from a sedentary position and gesticulating—even under provocation—is not quite the statesmanlike posture that we have come to expect from a man of your exalted status. I call Mr James Cartlidge.

I am reassured to hear my right hon. Friend say that the number of claimants for this subsidy is actually falling and that part of that is due to the fact that people are moving into work from benefits. There are always difficult cases in the welfare system—cases that fall outside the normal rules—but the big picture is that worklessness, which is the biggest cause of poverty, is at an all-time low, and that the spare room subsidy has played a part in delivering that.

I agree that the subsidy has played a small role. It is also consistent with the rest of our welfare policy, which is about making sure that, as work is the best route out of poverty, as few people as possible face worklessness and that they are helped better than ever before. We have helped more people to get into work and progress in work. [Interruption.] I am afraid that the Opposition do not understand any of that.

The hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) is also a proud product of the University of Buckingham in my own constituency, which is another consideration to boot.

The bedroom tax has always hit disabled people especially hard. More than any other single measure, it has driven the increase in food bank use and in penury that we are seeing in communities up and down the country. Surely it is now time, finally, to abandon this hated measure.

I just do not agree with the underlying analysis of the right hon. Gentleman. I know that he has considerable expertise in this area, but the fact is that, across the social rented sector as a whole, approximately two thirds of claimants are disabled. It was initially estimated that under two-thirds of those potentially affected by this measure could be considered disabled. That fact shows that there is no disproportionate impact of the type he claimed.

Will my right hon. Friend make sure that local authorities are clearly marking and marketing discretionary housing payments to constituents, particularly disabled constituents? In my surgeries, I have had to explain this process to people who are worried about this matter. Local councils can do better.

My hon. Friend is right that some local authorities are not taking up their full allocation of central Government funding for discretionary housing payments. On top of that, they are allowed, if necessary, to increase by two and a half times the amount given by central Government. Considerable sums are available under discretionary housing payments, and I join her in urging local authorities to use them.

The Secretary of State has just talked about getting people back into work. The pay-to-stay scheme will probably mean a hike in rent for tenants of £87 a month. Is it really fair for the Government to be talking about making work pay when they are attacking people who are striving to get back into work through schemes such as pay to stay?

I do not think that the scheme has the effect that the hon. Lady fears. I can stand here and recite figures to her if she likes, but it is patently the case that more people are in work than before. We have more women in work than ever before in our history and unemployment is at its lowest level for more than 10 years. Our welfare policy has had a huge success in getting people into work. If we accept that work is the best route out of poverty, then that is the best measure that any Government can take to alleviate poverty in the long term.

I declare my interest as a member of Kettering borough Council. Can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State confirm to the House that disability spending will be higher in each year of this Parliament than was the case in 2010?

I can, and my hon. Friend makes his point using his particular expertise in dealing with these cases not just as a Member of this House, but as a local councillor as well. I mentioned the figure for disability spending earlier, and it is indeed rising.

It is not only councils, housing organisations and charities that have made it clear that the people who are now exempted through the court case should have been exempt all along; the Secretary of State also realises that he failed to listen to the will of this House when it passed the Affordable Homes Bill. Will he now listen and ensure that when people cannot find homes because there are no suitable homes to move to they are also not penalised?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman and I think that this Government have a good record on affordable housing—we certainly have a considerably better record than the previous Labour Government. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has announced more money that will be used in part for affordable housing to ensure that we deal with what is absolutely a genuine issue.

May I invite the Secretary of State to come to Liverpool and see the impact that the bedroom tax has had, particularly on some of the poorest communities, including those in my constituency? His remarks today will ring hollow to some of the poorest families in my constituency. May I urge him to think again about the whole policy and suggest that the best way to implement the Court ruling is to repeal the bedroom tax?

I am always delighted to visit Liverpool, but I can only repeat that the Court ruling in five of the seven cases was in favour of the Government. I cannot sensibly draw the conclusions that the hon. Gentleman draws from the judgments.

My local authority, Cyngor Gwynedd, has used discretionary housing payments year on year, helping about 1,000 of the 1,400 people affected by this charge, many of them disabled, and effectively protecting this Government from the consequences of their own folly. Will the Minister accept that these wasteful churning bail-outs cannot continue indefinitely?

As I have said, the use of discretionary housing payments by local authorities is proving successful. Inevitably, some local authorities are using them differently from others but, as the Court confirmed, they are a sensible and practical way to proceed to ensure that those who need help will get it.

Will the Secretary of State confirm how much it would cost to exempt victims of domestic abuse from the bedroom tax, and how does that compare to how much money the Government have spent defending the bedroom tax in court?

I do not think that that first figure is available. If it is, I will certainly write to the hon. Lady with it. She will be aware that one of the seven cases specifically related to that issue and the Court found in favour of the Government. Obviously, the Government are very proud of our record on domestic violence and domestic abuse, and there have been many initiatives taken. It is certainly an area that I keep under constant review.

When the Prime Minister said on the steps of Downing Street:

“I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle. The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours”,

did that apply to everybody who is struggling except those struggling with the bedroom tax?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has absorbed the words of the Prime Minister on the steps of Downing Street, which were indeed memorable and correct. All Government policies are related to achieving what she set out to achieve.

I cannot stress too highly the pain that has been caused to families in my constituency living with a family member who is disabled. Many of them have got into debt to pay the bedroom tax. When can those families expect to get back the money that the Government have taken from them illegally?

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady heard me when I said that all the cases—those that the Government won and those that they lost at the Court last week—were in receipt of discretionary housing payments. It is not a question of the money—they were getting money—but of the structure of the policy, which is what the Court has challenged. The discretionary housing payments have been paid to those people.

In trying to present the Supreme Court judgment as a 5-2 result, could the Secretary of State take more care not to imply that the Court found that discretionary housing payments were necessarily the best or only way of helping those in extra need? In taking steps to comply with the two judgments, will not the Secretary of State take the opportunity to have a wider and more fundamental recast of this controversial policy?

I can only present the facts, which are that there were seven cases, five of which were won by the Government and two by other people, but I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about the wider policy. We look at all our policies all the time to ensure that they are delivering what they set out to achieve.

In what can only be described as coalition fervour, my Liberal Democrat predecessor voted for the bedroom tax eight times, despite a severe local impact. Based on the court decision, how many of the 4,238 people hit by the bedroom tax in Southwark should not have been affected?

I do not have figures at that level of detail. I hope that Southwark Council has been assiduous in using discretionary housing payments to make sure that people have not lost out financially, because those DHPs are available.

Instead of standing here saying that he welcomes the fact that five judges found that a woman with a panic room should be subject to a bedroom tax, should not the Minister go away and review his entire policy? Instead of attacking the people on the demand side, the Government need to look at the supply side of housing. The Government should end the right to buy, where a quarter of houses end up on the buy-to-let market, further pushing up the housing benefit bill, and they should target the right areas.

No, I do not think I should stand at the Dispatch Box and challenge the Supreme Court. The hon. Gentleman is right: the supply side is as important as the demand side. That is why this Government are spending huge amounts of money to help the housing market generally, and the affordable housing market specifically. I wish that previous Governments had done the same.

Can the Minister tell us how much the Government have spent on legal fees defending one of the most hated policies, the bedroom tax?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her place. The Department has spent approximately £206,000 in legal costs in respect of the Supreme Court proceedings.

My constituents Ann and Kevin Gresham, who live in a two-bedroom flat, are unable to share a room owing to Ann’s various disabilities. They successfully fought the bedroom tax in court but this caused them significant heartache and stress. When will this Government finally stop punishing the disabled, admit that the cruel bedroom tax just is not working, and axe it?

As I said in response to previous hon. Members, I do not agree that the overall policy is not working, and we have no plans to change it.

My constituency has the highest number of bedroom tax cases in the country, with more than 3,000 families affected. I want to raise the case of Mr Tony Gunning in my constituency. He needs regular kidney dialysis and he does not get a discretionary payment because he lives in Tory Trafford. If he had lived in Labour Manchester in my constituency, he would have got the discretionary payment. He has been hit twice by the Conservative party.

I have said that I hope local authorities will claim the discretionary housing payments that are available to them, and I say that to all local authorities.